In reflecting on my spiritual work here, I try to honor my unique perspective in relating my experience to others. In considering how to relate recent events, I keep on coming back to St. Perpetua, the early Christian martyr who surrendered her newborn and was mauled by lions in the forum before impaling herself on a sword held by the centurion sent to administer the coup de grace. Before her martyrdom, she was granted a vision of a field filled with bronze ladders. Men and women climbing those ladders towards heaven were dragged down by a serpent below.
After writing Love Works back in 2005, I visited a number of spiritual book stores, looking for venues to talk about the work. One of the stores had opened recently, and I was the sole attendee at an event held by a spiritualist. She took a good look at me, and shared that I had a four inch gap in the flow of prana between my hips and rib cage. When she asked if she should fix it, I said “that’s the business of a woman that I haven’t met yet.” I considered that it was a useful characteristic, in that it kept people from using sex to get into my heart and mind.
Of course, it has its negative impacts as well. I have trouble grounding myself psychologically, a weakness that has been exploited over the years by domineering intimates both in my personal and professional lives.
Having become conscious of the problem, I did try to manage it. My first attempt was to close the loop by routing the healing energy arising in my heart upwards through the crown chakra and then down into the earth before closing the loop up into my root chakra.
I first gleaned the sense that the gap was not entirely self-induced at the Buddhist Geeks’ Retreat in Rosemead in 2009. The kick-off speaker on Friday night spoke on the characteristics of the avatar that would usher in the era of peace foretold by all the world’s great religious. He cited compassion, all-embracing meditative focus, and out-of-the-box thinking. Hoping that I had finally encountered someone that might appreciate my experience, I went up after the talk to offer my insights. Upon receiving my assurance that the time was close, he looked up at the outside of my head and affirmed “I can see that it must be so” before turning his back to address a question.
On Sunday morning, having found their event to have been somewhat co-opted by my presence, from among that senior teachers an attractive little pixie stood forward to denounce me, saying that “my energy was completely out of control.” I won’t recount the rest of the conversation, because what was significant was my strong intuition that she was interested in managing my purpose. In the middle of her harangue, she leaned forward with desire in her eyes and wrapped her arms around a band of energy that cocooned my lower torso, a band centered on the gap seen by the spiritualist.
Something was pinching off the flow.
I first confronted this presence back in 2014 when – during a Dance of Liberation Workshop led by Parashakti at LA Ecstatic Dance – I tunneled down into my reptilian brain. In the vision that followed, I walked through the spiritual dislocation of the dinosaurs that culminated with a vision of their avatar sitting in the seats of military and political power in the modern era, feasting on the constructive energy generated by human compassion.
That survey of the human condition was not directly related to my personal infestation. The connection was only made recently, after Peter at Peace Place Massage had worked on me one Saturday night. Where Asia, my regular therapist, has a distinctly feminine healing touch, Peter just stirred things up. I went home that night and laid with my arms stretched across the bed and my heart open to the sky. Seized by a strong intuition, I found myself rubbing my hands down along my ribs, wriggling them under the spiritual bands around my waist, and sending energy along my fingers into the tissues of my abdomen.
Since that experience three months ago, I’ve been fighting tension and pain in my waist. Stretching and yoga helped, but I felt as though I was just chasing the problem from place to place. To a colleague at work, I actually used the words “things are really moving around.” I was focused on the pain and tightness, but the words expressed an important intuition.
We’ve suffered a lot of dislocation at work, and my supervisor has come under intense scrutiny as engineer after engineer disappears on short notice. He adopts an unusual posture in conversation with others, feet spread wide on the floor. I have a strong sense of energy flowing up into his pelvic floor. We continue to have our arguments, and as we discuss the consequences of decisions made in the past on the survival of the company, I find it hard to avoid bringing up ancient history. My association with him seems to drive me into remembered experiences of weakness in his presence.
In the midst of these two struggles, I was listening to praise music one night, a series of songs from WOW Worship that encouraged the faithful to surrender their hearts to God. A vision came upon me, a masculine presence that focused my attention to my pelvic floor with the words “You need to find my throne.” In response to that, I began poking at the base of the hip bone with my fingertips, until a point begin to glow.
This event was followed by a series of visualizations in yoga, visualizations centering myself around my pelvic floor, and building power around the point that I had discovered. This came to a head last night. I had a unsettling series of experience yesterday, either of co-workers claiming initiative on projects that I had instigated, or attempting to make me responsible for bringing closure to projects that I had heretofore been pointedly excluded from. I have been struggling to sleep at night due to the pain in my abdomen, and I was knocked off-balance psychologically.
Yoga was a struggle. Throughout the opening standing series, I felt weak, off-balance and beset by negative psychic energies. As we entered the balancing poses, I sharpened my focus to identify specific personalities, and tried to ground myself in my root chakra. Reversing the flow of energy leaking into them, I began to build power in the postures, with a new-found focus on the pelvic floor. Finally, in balancing stick pose, I arrayed them around me, one at my fingertips, one at my toes, and one on either side of my hip. They attempted to wriggle away, shifting and substituting others, but I just kept on pulling them back, using them as anchors for the pose.
The rest of the practice was a breeze.
But the spiritual and psychological shift was more significant. All of the personalities that I engaged are domineering. I have previously identified one in particular as “the tip of the spear” for the whole pattern of control that we struggle with as a society. As we wrestled spiritually, I had a strong image of him sitting on a throne, a throne nestled in my hips. Pushing him aside, I focused on the throne itself, and discovered a kaleidoscope of personalities shifting on it, until finally I broke through and discovered the dragon that rules them all.
Upon waking up to the reality that self-serving does not bring joy, the seeker after comfort tends to a superficial sampling of religious wisdom. The sophisticated teacher needs to avoid becoming involved in blame-shifting for the seeker’s miserable state. In the traditions of Abraham, that begins with a vow of submission, formulated in Christianity as “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” In Islam, it is stated as the Shahada:
There is no god but God alone; he has no partner with him; Muhammad is his prophet.
The dissatisfied acolyte is then made responsible for his own condition, in that all wisdom is found in direct relation with the godhead.
Lacking a divine center for its practice, Buddhism takes a different approach, epitomized by the Zen koan. A koan is a cryptic one-liner that organizes an inward meditative journey. The most notorious is:
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
The obvious answer is “nothing,” but that certainly doesn’t point the way to wisdom. The student still needs to grasp that the “hand” being referred to is themselves, and that in seeking after spiritual glory, they earn no lauds.
The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22 shows Jesus ministering to the problematical seeker. The poor fellow grasps at eternal life as a guarantee that joy can be secured. Calling Jesus “Master,” he then asks what good he must perform to earn that grace.
Presciently, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus had pre-empted the Christian vow of submission:
Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father.
Consistent with this warning, Jesus immediately deflects the proffered authority:
Why do you ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good.
No man needing anything but faith to draw upon the strength and wisdom of the Father.
But the teaching does not end with the Zen master’s edict to seek inwardly. Jesus lists the six commandments of human relation: edicts against murder, adultery, theft, and lying; and encouragements to honor our parents and love our neighbors. The latter build intimacy with those closest to us; the former prevent those bonds from sundering. Through this practice, Jesus suggests that his protégé will “enter into life.” In avoiding the drama of struggle, adherence to the commandments allows to blossom those quiet moments in which we gain the subtle and sublime assurance of security in our knowledge of the compassion that embraces us.
We are no longer a hand trying to clap alone.
But the seeker is not just young; he suffers another handicap, one known in Islam as Allah’s greatest test of character. He is rich. Thus, while meaning well, others see him as a potential source of material security. They seek a bond with his money, not his heart. And so Jesus offers him this final advice: give your wealth to the poor and follow!
The young man departs saddened. We can only guess at the cause: was he responsible for managing money that ensured the well-being of the community, wealth that he could not trust others to manage responsibly? Was he simply unable to imagine survival without the perks of wealth: the daily bath, the satisfying meals? Or did he arrogantly perceive his wealth as a sign of divine approval, and so Jesus’ pronouncement as proof that hope had been invested with just another false prophet?
Whichever it may have been, we as readers should recognize the advice not as some generic one-size-fits-all formulation, but a direct response to the needs of this troubled young man. It is the mark of the greatness of his compassion that Jesus does this again and again throughout his ministry: offering just the words that the listener needs to hear to bring solace and healing, even to the point on the cross of:
Father: forgive them. They know not what they do. [Luke 23:34]
Jesus was not concerned with self-preservation – he was devoted to his ministry to the lost. Thus, while his teaching encapsulates the wisdom of the Zen and Christian teacher, it then surpasses it. None can doubt that he does the best that he can for them, although they might not be able to respond fully. Yes, it is this I believe that gives the young man sadness: his realization that salvation was offered him, and he was unable to grasp it. It foreshadows Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane:
The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak. [Matt. 26:41]
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. [NIV Matt. 26:38]
My son Greg can become exasperated with me. As a young adult, he is concerned naturally with social acceptance, and seeks for answers to the problems of his generation in the conventional wisdom brought forth from the past. When he has had enough of my contrary pronouncements, he retorts:
You speak with a great deal of assurance, Dad!
Yes, who am I, to assert that I know better than all these others?
For me, the situation is far more ambiguous. My assurance is necessary to those that I attempt to comfort. To those seeking hope, how else can one speak? They need to believe that you believe in the choices that you are offering them.
But to believe that you represent the truth is far different than believing in one’s own authority.
To those familiar with the Yu Gi Oh cartoon series, I can offer a meaningful image. In the cartoon, the young hero finds himself in conflict with evil, and struggles to the limit of his abilities to overcome it. In the lurch, a larger self – ancient, powerful and wise beyond any human reckoning – comes to the fore.
Thus, to my intimates, I speak of myself variously as a “test particle” or “bait” or “a point of contact” or “a beneficiary of a privileged perspective.” So I’ll be dreaming about a troubled baptist, and suddenly I’ll see the scene as though looking over my shoulder and another presence asks “Is that you, John?” I’ll be driving to the aquatic center and have a cardinal from 400 miles away land on me with shame and grief regarding the priestly pedophilia scandal. I’ll wake up at midnight to a pope announcing “I am your father, and I am going to die and leave all this power to you.” I’ll be listening to the opening lyrics of He Reigns, allowing my mind to wander over the continents, and a Muslim leader shows up to say “Here’s another billion people for you to manage.”
To those that don’t understand the challenges of loving, this might seem all very exciting. Having carried the heavy burden of being blamed for things done in my name, to me it’s far more ambiguous.
There are two great challenges to loving, which is to grant strength to the loved one. The first is when the recipient does not adhere to the constraints of loving. Loving them is thus to empower them to hurt others. In consequence, unconditional love moves through our lives like the tide, peaking higher when we honor its constraints, and ebbing when we violate them. The mechanism of this operation is for love to love all things so that it feels the wrongs we commit, and transfers its ministry to those we have wounded. In seeking to serve ourselves, we are indeed our own worst enemies.
The second challenge is far more painful. It is to find the beloved surrendering themselves to us, becoming merely extensions of our personality rather than beautiful manifestations of infinite possibility. A loving personality is surrounded by grateful recipients of love’s strength, and that gratitude amplifies their influence. Unless such a lover is tender, it can overwhelm the weaker links that bind together the beloved, scattering its elements to the spiritual wind.
It is for these reasons that Jesus proclaimed himself as a servant, and testified as to his humble heart.
As if this wasn’t difficult enough, this little pseudo pod of Christ is wrapped up in hostility. The important work to be done is in “binding” and “loosening” things in the spiritual realm, and my interactions with them are at best tenuous. Thus I dream of the great flocks of birds I knew in my childhood, and finding, upon walking out to the deck, that a ravenous dragon is arising from the spot in the ground from which the birds arise. At an Easter service, I cupped my hands around the sun and spread its influence, only to encounter in the asteroids an echo of the ancient cry of grief “No! Don’t kill him!” I receive a visit by an emissary of the two-dimensional race represented as the eye in the pyramid, asking for assistance to travel across the Milky Way, and am warned six months later that the gift of energy caused the output of the sun to drop by ten percent. Or wake, much as I was waken by the pope, to find myself in the midst of a perfectly spherical personality, only to be guided across a great void to a tiny speck, the “most precious place” in its realm, the “only place where life is found”, and to be told “I want to help, but even the smallest mistake would be disastrous. I need people to guide me.”
When I was introduced to the modern interpretations of Revelation, I was told that the first beast, numbered 666, was man. Man, the creation of the sixth day, believing in his own power and being humbled by failure. But not only man was created on the sixth day: in the morning came the livestock. So the correct category is mammalia. This is also the fourth, greatest beast of Daniel’s dream. It is the intelligence of man in service to the destructive Darwinian instincts of our evolutionary predecessors.
The enemy of the beast is the man with the flashing sword of truth coming from his mouth. The birds are his allies. In Daniel’s dream, he is granted dominion over the power of the “Ancient of Days.”
As when he first came, I recognize that Christ – the human perfected by unconditional love – can only become those things that he is allowed to be by those he serves. While he proclaimed his authority in the earlier era, in this era it will be to each of us to proclaim the authority of love in our lives – and thus to receive him as lord in our hearts. He is not our ruler, he is our example. And he is very, very, very close.
Take comfort. Take heart. None are forgotten, even those held captive by those that take refuge in the darkness. There is no hiding from the glory of the light that he brings.
I had not set foot in church in almost twenty years when I began looking for a community to provide a moral foundation for my sons. I was pointed at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, and found myself caught up almost immediately in their vision to establish commonality among all the world’s religions.
I was among them for only a few short weeks when disaster befell us on 9/11/2001. The minister was visibly shaken during her sermon that week, and one critic bemoaned the poor judgment she had shown in reaching out to an Islamic Center in the San Fernando Valley.
These two factors – the hope of uniting people of good will and the terrible cost of failing to do so – prompted me to start visiting the religious communities of the Conejo Valley.
The Catholic Church was not the first Christian congregation that I visited during this exploration. In fact, the evolving pedophilia scandal dampened my expectations that I would obtain any value in cultivating the priesthood. However, recognizing the strength of the Catholic community, I eventually concluded that I needed to experience the faith of the people in the pews.
The site was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s in Oak Park. The church has an unusual layout. The side entries funnel into an alcove before a pool of holy water. The crowd around the pool distracted me. I was feeling some anxiety, recalling my childhood impressions of the angry God. I turned toward the altar, and was astonished by the cross, set off to one side and dominating the space with a larger-than-life figure of Jesus suspended in front of crossed branches. Rather than anger, a deep enduring grief and sorrow beset me. Confronted with this image and personality of human suffering, my right hand went immediately to my heart, and without thinking, I held it out to him and thought “Use this for healing.”
Thus began a relationship that is so palpable and near to me that I never partake of the elements. That was meant for remembrance, and I am absolutely convicted that the time for remembrance is past.
There are several contexts in which that nearness manifests most powerfully. Early on, the passing of the elements itself would cause me to be overcome by sorrow. Tears would roll uncontrollably down my cheeks, and eventually I realized that the sobbing I heard around me was not unrelated to my emotion – a realization confirmed in part by the irritation expressed by celebrants. When Revelation Song was popular in non-denominational congregations, with the opening words I would almost collapse in grief, my entire frame shaking, and the people around me would huddle together in small groups.
I also experienced a particularly deep relationship with the crucifix at the Los Angeles Cathedral. Flanked by roughly shaped limbs and supported by the bruised torso, the peace-filled face embodies perfectly the savior’s surrender and victory. After my first Christmas midnight celebration, I waited patiently to address the cross, looked up into that visage, and – gesturing to the broken body – admonished “It’s time to clean all this up.” Later, I would stretch up onto tip-toes, pressing my hands against the sternum, trying to push strength back through the centuries to sustain him in his suffering.
And then there are the children’s choirs. They sing with perfect and innocent faith, free of the regrets felt by adults. At St. Paschal Baylon’s in Thousand Oaks, when they led the congregation in the Agnes Dei I felt the weight of heaven pressing down on me from above, an experience that persisted in other settings until I decided to push back.
Along with these emotional experiences came visions that I find very difficult to avoid reconciling against the verses of Revelation. I will summarize some of those in the final post in this series. I will conclude today with the culmination of my immersion in Christ.
When my father was working in the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he and my mother liked to spend time in the mountains that in the last half of the twentieth century came to be known as “Sangre de Christo.” I was conceived there, and born in Los Alamos. For my forty-ninth birthday, I decided to take a trip out to Taos to connect with those roots. It was a remarkable experience in many ways, but the most important insight came as I drove down into the LA basin from the high desert. A palpable feeling of hostility mounted against me. I wasn’t wanted.
The next day, Monday, I was driving out to work from Agoura Hills to Camarillo, and could not shake his presence. The urgency and strain of his struggle on the cross came closer and closer. I was in tears as I descended the steep and winding Camarillo grade in freely flowing traffic, wracked by grief and trying to project that I was endangered. But he refused to let me go. He knew that he was dying, and refused to die until the work was done. We wrestled, back and forth, and finally the image of that first encounter in St. Max’s came to me, and our equanimity was restored as he pronounced:
Our heart is beating still.
When I met Trey (a fabricated name) at contemplative prayer, I shared that I had written two books on apologetics. He skipped past my contributions, asking whether I had read his favorite writer on the topic. I simply shrugged and countered:
My perspective is grounded in unusual experiences.
Most popular Christian writing focuses on the theology of redemption or the experience of healing. I cannot claim to have been threatened seriously with destruction by sin – either in my own weakness or as prey to others. I was raised in a white, upper-middle-class community by a brilliant father and a mother committed to saintly service. The household had its issues, but they were issues that reflected the opportunity to negotiate choices, not the pressures of fear and want.
When my mother and I were discussing the psychological challenges facing her grandchildren, I observed:
We were a household of children raised by strong and caring parents. We spent our formative years struggling for influence over one another. It was only very recently that I realized how powerful my will had become, and so to appreciate how hard others had to work to maintain their autonomy.
The characteristic attitude of my childhood was an awed gratitude for the past. The most representative memory is standing with one foot on the sidewalk below the school, staring at the seam between the asphalt and concrete, and realizing that many people had invested their energies in manifesting this magical conduit that guided cars, people and water, each in their proper places. But my gratitude also kept me in reading my history books long after my siblings had gone out to play.
We were a Catholic family until I graduated from elementary school. I attended St. John Fisher in first grade, the strongest memory of which is kneeling for communion near the angry cross, and wondering why people worshipped that kind of God. I was consoled by the Catholic Children’s Bible, which I read in second grade. I found the Old Testament to be suspiciously like the Celtic and Norse myths that my elder sister brought home from the library, but the New Testament was an attractive promise of healing for the world. My father, unfortunately, could not reconcile the science of the day with Christian theology, and his critical analysis of faith eventually tore the entire family away from the Church – with the notable exception of my younger sister.
Faith was replaced by secular ethics. The foundation was gained in Church: our parish was a liberal Vatican Two congregation with an active lay membership. My parents were active in Democratic politics and the Civil Rights movement. Cub Scouts also provided a grounding in service to others, with weekly paper and bottle drives organized in collaboration with the Boy Scouts.
Unfortunately, it was clear that my peers were intimidated by me. I was aware that my intelligence separated me from others, and it was a tool that I applied forcefully to understanding of the world. Paradoxically, it was also the engine, powered by my father’s skepticism, that kept me from recognizing the silent voices calling out to me in my childhood. The closest encounter was on my first Jamboree. The other boys went off to make friends, but I found myself wandering on the paths above the campground, drenched in the peacefulness of the trees and brush, until a scout in my patrol ran up to warn that I needed to follow the buddy system, and dragged me back to camp.
With mature perceptions, today I recognize how my elders used my calming dispassion. For myself, I was far too busy trying to figure out how the world worked to think much about the impact I had on my peers. I studied physics in college because it was the most fundamental of the sciences, but in the rich social and political environment of UC Berkeley, I could not avoid the understanding that morality and politics determined the ends to which power was turned. I absorbed the popular ethics of the day, reading F. Scott Peck and Rollo May, supplemented by Foreign Affairs and the Christian Science Monitor.
There were a few signs of the impact my devotion had on those that managed to get close to me. After discussion section one afternoon, I followed the professor and my friend Peter up the hill toward the Campanile, thinking about how wonderful it was to have people like them in my life. They had moved ahead twenty feet, talking seriously. I was moved by a great joy. They stopped, looked at each other, and turned bemused smiles to me.
I’ve started attending a contemplative prayer gathering. The process starts with twenty minutes of silent meditation on any devotional word that comes to mind. Then we read a passage from the Bible three times, allowing time between each recitation for it to settle, until a single word or phrase stands out from the text. After sharing our personal reflections, we close with reflections from the greater church on the passage, allowing us to project our personal focus against the longer backdrop of Christian experience.
This week’s passage was Matthew 5:13-16, the famous “You are the salt of the earth.” Most of the reflections celebrated both the salt and the light. But before the incongruous image of the city on the hill, I heard a contrast in Jesus’s assertion:
But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
This was the condition of the people – their kings and priests had sundered their bond with God, and the Romans arrived to trample them underfoot.
I held my tongue, though, as the gathering celebrated the qualities of salt, only after the meeting had ended calling the facilitator over to engage her in discussion. When I suggested that Jesus was offering a metaphor on the condition of his people, I felt truth cementing our connection. She did not repel it, as so many do when confronted with a contradiction of received wisdom, but bowed her head and said “Yes, that is how it was.”
So I continued, as I have never been allowed before, observing that Jesus was proclaiming that they were no longer salt, because he was making them a light to the world. He, the lamp lighter, would not hide their light, but send them forth to inspire faith in God. And she simply continued to nod, saying “Yes, yes. Brian, you have a gift.”
We talked further, affirming each other. The things she said were so terribly confounding. I have decided to move out to Port Hueneme, seeking to find simple people with open hearts who don’t ask “What’s the price?” when they are offered a gift. It is a form of withdrawal from the world, which has given me some deep wounds recently. But I woke up this morning, and realized that nobody in my life had ever said what she said to me, an affirmation that sums up to this:
Brian, people need you. They might not realize it; they may even act frightened of you. But keep on doing what you are doing. They need to hear what you have to say.