The Golden Path has been shortened

Every now and then, I see a message in something objectively ordinary and meaningless, but subjectively a divine message. Today, as I walked away from work to my car, I took a shortcut through a Dillard’s store. There, on what must have been at least a dozen signs, written just for me, was the message:

The Golden Path has been shortened.

Bam! It had my attention. Although I still haven’t written about it yet, Children of Dune is one of my favorite sci-fi and spi-fi (spiritual fiction) films. The theme is the “Golden Path” that the protagonist must discover to become a bodhisattva and save humanity from disintegration and self-destruction, a path that demands he undergo an unprecedented transformation.

I often call my practice “the Path.” If “the Golden Path” has been shortened for me, I believe it’s largely due to my discovery of the power of consciously loving people, rather than the usual substitutes, unconsciously unloving, or (at best) consciously acting as though I did love people. My friend Julie and some others rightly questioned why feeling is a necessary part of love… isn’t the action of love (acting for the good of another) most important?

Let me clear up one thing. The feeling of love I’m talking about isn’t the needy, “oh, you make me feel so wonderful,” or “I need you,” romantic love. It’s agape, a perception of the inherent worth of each person as person, as the image of God, no matter how tarnished that image may be. It’s a felt desire to act (or not) in such a way that benefits those you love. To the extent that this love is a feeling (what a vague word!) it’s outward, a willing motion of the heart to see things as they are. If a return feeling of bliss or “being loved” is felt, that’s just frosting on the cake.

I no longer think that actions without feeling are quite on a par with those that are. Loving actions without loving feelings are inherently conflicted. There’s something that at best dilutes, and more likely, contaminates the “love” that’s being expressed. It may be a sense of duty… “Of course I love you, you’re my (fill in the blank). Or it can be an external reference (What Would Jesus Do?), which isn’t “bad” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s an only an entry point.

Practicing “WWJD love” should naturally dissolve because, like Jesus, we are “moved by compassion” to act with love, as the Gospels describe his motivation repeatedly. When compassion becomes second nature, the motor of one’s being, one is becoming like Jesus in that regard. And one’s actions, whether or not they seem “compassionate” on the surface will be rooted in the medium as love demands.

The love that lacks feeling gives rise to all sorts of ego-boosting structures. (I didn’t want to, but I gave a coin to that beggar on the street. Hey, guess I’m loving after all!) Evil conflicts can easily be justified when felt love isn’t present. “Security,” “Freedom,” “The RIGHT thing to do” and other abstractions are easily adopted to dress up the ego’s actions. I don’t think the war on Iraq could’ve begun if our leaders felt unconditional love for all people. You don’t readily bomb people whom you feel love for.

But why this message, for me, today? It sure wasn’t because I was on the top of my game. Rather, it was a reminder. I had spent the workday feeling ill, put upon, and sometimes quite consciously unloving. I need to remember that the Golden Path has been shortened.

(Oh, and what did Dillard’s think they were telling me? To buy socks!)

Love your neighbor

Yesterday at work, I felt love for everyone around me. Friends, strangers, and even those whom I sometime don’t get along with so much. It’s a wonderful feeling.

It was partially a conscious decision—I want to love them. It was also grace.

And the only thing that was strange was how rare it is in my life, and I suspect, the lives of most others, to consciously feel love towards others unconditionally, outside of the safe circles of friends and family.

As a Christian, I remember being told that love isn’t a feeling, but willingness to help, and wanting the best for everyone. While that’s true, I think it’s more a starting point than anything else, or maybe even a cop-out.

Feeling love is possible! It’s fun! Yes, I had some moments of anger and frustration yesterday too, but they popped out of existence in seconds, like bubbles. Love your neighbor. It’s simpler than I thought.

I love you, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

Pan’s Labyrinth

An evil stepparent. a lost princess, a magic book. a dangerous maze, a series of challenges, a terrible choice, and a world of war and woe. Guillermo del Torres’ movie, El labirinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) operates at many levels and in many ways: war story, horror flick, fairy tale, coming-of-age movie. Critics are raving about it; at Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 96% “fresh” rating, the highest I think I’ve ever seen.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call Pan’s Labyrinth a masterpiece, it’s a powerful film, loaded with provocative, profound spiritual metaphors, and it isn’t easily forgotten. It may well become the most successful foreign film in the US since Life is Beautiful, and could even surpass it.

Our protagonist is Ofelia, a 12-year-old girl being taken by her mother to live in a small army post commanded by her new stepfather, a sadistic captain in Franco’s regime determined to crush the remaining opposition in the foothills of the Pyrenees. If you ask a group of people to name a brutal European dictator who came to power in the pre-War period, you’ll hear the names of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, but probably not Franco, the Fascist who escaped Allied attack and continued to brutalize his people for four decades.

Ofelia’s world could hardly be worse. Not only is she fatherless in an awful environment, but her mother cannot help her either… she’s not only enduring a difficult pregnancy complicated by another illness as well, but even worse, she’s suffering the paralyzing realization that the beast she just married is incapable of love.

The Challenge of “That Age”
In addition, Ofelia is at the brink of puberty, that precarious age balanced between the mysteries of adulthood, sexuality, and growing up on one hand, and holding on to childhood on the other hand. Given her circumstances, it’s not surprising that Ofelia chooses the comfort of her fantasies, and uses the magical presence of a huge and frightening stone labyrinth to walk straight into the world of symbol, mind, and spirit.

But it’s in fairy tales that the awesome powers of choice, life, and death become even more clear. Her labyrinth is not a refuge, but the fuel for the challenge in discovering her true identity. There Ofelia meets a frightening-looking, but apparently benevolent faun, who reveals to her that she is not really of this world, but is the reborn princess of a spiritual realm who has become lost. As in all good fairy tales, he gives her three tasks she must accomplish to realize her destiny, and a tool to help her accomplish her ordeals.

The coming-of-age aspect is key to understanding the mysteries of Pan’s Labyrinth; the need to make adult choices with no help from others is crucial. Symbolically, Ofelia’s coming of age represents the spiritual coming-of-age challenge before all of us. Can we find out who we really are? Are we of this world of circumstance, or are we spiritual creatures? Who is our true Father? Will we take the challenges necessary to find the answers?

The Magic Book
The tool the faun gives Ofelia is a magic book that describes what she must do. However, its pages remain blank unless she opens the book to read them alone. This seemed to me a marvelous metaphor for meditation… Our souls are opaque, unknown and unreadable to us, until we center into the quiet, and let Isness inform us with a wordless knowing. Not only does the book describe her tasks for her, but it also lets her know and feel the pain of others; at one time in which she consulted the book, the pages turned red to warn her that her mother was hemorrhaging at that very moment.

In the same way, meditation also enables us to sharpen our sense of connection with others to serve them with love… helping her mother through her illness becomes an additional task to the initial three.

The Power of Choice
Ofelia is warned by the chief housekeeper (Maribel Verdú, Y Tú Mamá También), whose name is Mercedes (“mercy” in Spanish) “to be wary of fauns.” Nevertheless, Ofelia continues to meet the challenges posed to her by the faun, each increasing in difficulty and danger. The final task is almost complete when she learns that it also entails shedding innocent blood. Here there’s a choice to be made: to continue to follow the voice that has been guiding her thus far, or to refuse to. The faun has become not only the voice of authority, but of trusted, beloved authority to her. It’s both friend and father figure, and can be seen as a metaphor for the common religious view of God as the Authority on high. Has Ofelia been duped? Is the faun really a devil? Or is it the Demiurge, the twisted god who creates worlds of strife and confusion and demands obedience over everything? Is she even of the spiritual world at all? Was it all just lies? Where can she turn now?

In this pivotal scene, Pan’s Labyrinth re-examines the Abraham and Isaac story the same way Pleasantville re-examined the Garden of Eden story. We’re told that Abraham was a hero of faith because of his obedience, but this movie makes us wonder if obedience was really the highest virtue on God’s list. If Abraham had said, “Hell, no!” would his faith have been less, or would he have been tuning into a faith in mercy and life, which God ended up showing him anyway?

(In God is a Verb, Rabbi David Cooper states that many rabbis consider Abraham a greater hero than Noah not for his obedience, but because he had the guts to stand up to God concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In contrast, Noah meekly enabled God to destroy the world by quietly cooperating with his ark-building.)

In the parallel “real-world” story, a doctor bravely stands up to the Captain and says that blind obedience is something only the Captain could do… that he must obey his conscience.

Choice is ultimately what defines us all. It’s the vessel through which we navigate the manifest world. We are one soul, but the one makes many different choices through our wills. And all choices have consequences: Labyrinth explores their weight brilliantly. Some people pay dearly for their choices. Others never choose wisely at all.

But choice must be informed by knowing the truth, as Ofelia endeavors to. We must tune into the deepest parts of our hearts, where the soul can be informed directly by God, and remember where we really came from, and who our real Father is. Then choice becomes the power that turns spiritual children into spiritual adults. As Jed McKenna remarks in Spiritually Incorrect Enlightenment, “often a seventy-year-old is an eleven-year-old with fifty years of experience.” We need more people that can make adult decisions for compassion, rather than childishly following the forces of authority who tell us their agenda is always for the best. “Only a little blood will be shed in this war. It’s for our own good.” Our choices must move us into living consciously for justice and mercy.

A caution
Unlike other fantasies, Pan’s Labyrinth alternates between the make-believe violence of the fantasy landscape, and the shocking violence of the real world. While this serves to further contrast Ofelia’s path of trust and the Captain’s path of fear, some scenes should have been deleted or heavily edited. The depiction of violence is extreme. Do not bring the kids. But do bring your heart and mind. They will be well fed.

My friend Darrell Grizzell has written a contrasting review.

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Language Exchange

Among other sources, I’ve been learning Spanish from a cool podcast site, called Notes in Spanish. The site’s run by a husband and wife team (British husband, Spanish wife) who met as intercambios. The intercambio (exchange) method has apparently become quite popular in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. It consists of usually two people who meet regularly to help each other learn the other’s native language, spending half the time, say, speaking in Spanish and half the time speaking in English.

It sounded like a pretty cool idea. Yet, even though I have some acquaintances who speak Spanish, none were really excited about actually spending time to help me learn. An intercambio seemed out of reach for me even for Spanish, yet alone the other languages I want to study, Esperanto and Catalan!

Then I discovered This is a site used by a half-million people helping each other as penpals and intercambios through email, text and voice chat sessions. I just signed up for a year’s membership (a whopping $24—just two dollars a month). 115 languages are studied at MyLanguageExchange, and some of the less well-known ones are very well represented: (Currently 2045 Catalan speakers are available to help English speakers, and 2311 Esperantists want to practice.)

This is really cool! hoping to start learning more with an intercambio soon.