An Experiment

"Your life is your practice." The masters all say it. My teacher says it, Socrates said it to Dan in Peaceful Warrior, Tolle teaches it in his books. St. Paul taught the principle (Whatever you do, do as for the Lord). The list goes on.

And yet for me, it’s been hard to resist a certain escapism in my spirituality. I think I might know the reasons for this, but it’s certainly related to the fact that in everything, my attention is almost always divided between a "here" and a "there." The emphasis on the present moment seems sometimes a hopeless ideal… I’ll be thinking about being in the present moment rather than just being in it right now. My mind creates a meta-reality that often feels more natural for me than simple Isness. And regarding my life as practice, I’ve got to say my life would not strike anyone as being marked by any degree of consciousness or mastery at all.

I procrastinate like crazy. I have huge avoidance issues when it comes to something I "have" to do, particularly if it’s "uninteresting." I’ve tried many times to get a handle on this… listening and reading the self-help masters, trying to be "more disciplined" (whatever that means), and so forth.  So many of their ideas have so much merit, yet my mind still ends up enticing me away from my life.  In the Zen ox pictures, that’s illustrated by the mind (the ox) leading the person.There’s always something more interesting to do than this, always somewhere other to be than right now.

This weekend, as I was catching up on a massive stack of overdue mail, I wondered: What would it be like if I found whatever I need to do fascinating? What if I really accepted that there’s no "escape" (and no need for one)? What if I were devoted to living my life well, with full devotion and attention? To some of you this may seem so obvious as to nearly be incomprehensible… how could anyone not actually take their life as their foundation for what they will do?  But for me, this is a radical experiment. I’m practicing being fascinated by what I need to do.

More later.

Mysticism and Religion

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’… But widom is proved right by her actions.

There’s an interesting discussion at Zoecarnate which seems to me a microcosm of the differences between the religious and the mystical approaches. It also shows what I think are some of the challenges that “Emergent” faces in as far as it wishes to incorporate mystical spirituality into the Church.

Mystics, in general, have an uncomfortable time of it in churches when their spiritual views become known. This is because the function of a church (or synagogue, mosque, or temple) has a goal that is fundamentally different from that which the mystic has. The goal of the religious congregation is to help a group of people come to be in a certain shared level of  the knowledge of God, and aspire for continued spiritual growth.

The goal of the mystic, however, is to know God as directly and totally as possible—to be experientially transformed into what his or her true nature actually is in essence—the image of God.

At first, it might seem like these goals reinforce each other, but in practice, they are in almost constant conflict. When the mystic begins moving beyond the religious preoccupations of sin, redemption, entry-level theology, and personal morality, he is moving away from that shared level and intending to go beyond it. This creates conflict, because the one who is seeking the common level is also strongly motivated to do so, from remembering “where he was” before he came to care about loving God, to being taught that deception runs rampant in the world, and that reliance upon the Church, Scripture, and the reinforcement of fellow believers is essential to not lose his way, and this is really is true for most on the religious path.

However, in most schools of Christianity, mysticism and religion have some common meeting points. The Catholic sacraments are meant to be mystical encounters of the soul with Christ. The “born-again” experience is the mystical renewal of the soul in Christ. The spiritual gifts (such as speaking in tongues in Charismatic and Pentecostal churches) is a mystical experience of the Spirit dwelling within.  But after being born again, or receiving the Baptism of the Spirit, or partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, the guidance largely comes down to reinforcement, i.e., “keep on doing and believing the same stuff, keep on trying to improve, and see you in heaven.”

Reinforcement easily becomes an end in itself. In the fifth century, Nestorius objected to a devotional title for Mary as “Mother of God” (Theotokos) and said that Mary should be called “Mother of Christ” instead, since God existed before all. However, for the majority in the Orthodox-Catholic church, Theotokos served as reinforcement for Jesus’ divinity, which in turn reinforced the value of his death and resurrection, and so on. And those who did not want to reinforce it (for whatever reason) were suspected of possibly being against it.

Too often, the reinforcers become enforcers, and as Jesus knew from experience, the “children in the marketplace” lash out against those on the path of the wisdom teachers. It’s as though the first-graders want to control the curricula in the university.

Contemporary Christian mystics also meet the spirit of religious reinforcement. “What? you’re not reading the Bible every day? Don’t you know that it’s the only trustworthy authority?” or,  “you didn’t affirm the blood sacrifice of Jesus in your last post. Don’t you believe that He’s the only way?”

With the best of intentions, these folks are cornering their mystical sibs with the trap of “begging the question.” The mystic who is discovering that life in God is not about “belief” cannot give simple yes or no answers if he cares both about meeting his questioners’ concerns where they are, and being true to his own conscience. Rather, it takes either: (1) lengthy explanations, which will probably be misunderstood or cut short before he can make his point, or (2) indirect answers, such as parables, analogies, and so forth, which are also usually misunderstood!

For millennia, religion has been the traditional “entry point” to the mystical (although mysticism can certainly be addressed in non-religious ways, as in the teaching of Eckhart Tolle, for instance.)  But even though mystics usually come from, and understand the religious path, non-mystics cannot understand the mystical path. So conflict is unavoidable when those on the religious path aren’t taught that there is another, interior approach. Historically, mysticism has thrived when it’s had a place of its own, removed from the “weaker brethren”, such as the convents and monasteries. But the desperate needs of today’s world force modern mystics to be in the world, the marketplace, and increasingly, even in those churches that have little history or understanding of mysticism.

May those who go to Jesus and those who go through him, live in peace together!

Dear Madeleine

Madeleine L’Engle has passed on. Although really the most appropriate thing to say would be “Congrats!”, I do find my eyes getting a bit moist thinking about it. Why? Well, that’s a long story, but I’ve got plenty of time.

Let’s wrinkle back in time to about nine years ago. I was still a new convert to Catholicism and was just beginning to really deliberately follow a Christian mystical path. A friend of mine whom I hadn’t spoken with for a long time asked me to think what was the one thing that got me onto this path. There were so many factors affecting me in the few years before that—discovering Jesus’ call for social justice, reading The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, and having had a crash-and-burn experience with some distorted beliefs. I answered that there wasn’t any one thing, but I continued to think about it for the next few days. Yeah, it was true that there wasn’t any ONE thing, but many, but there was one author who really cleared the way for me to be more receptive to everything that I would later encounter. Her name was Madeleine L’Engle.

To understand that, let’s wrinkle further back in time to around 1972 or so. There’s this fifth-grade kid—let’s call him—well, “Jon.” Jon’s considered a bright lad and shows a bit of creativity—likes to draw, loves to read—but he seems a bit one-sided; all of the books he checks out from the library are about animals, science or geography. One day, much to Jon’s chagrin, his teacher forces him to read a fiction book. He protests that he doesn’t want to, but she insists. Later, at home, he reads “It was a dark and stormy night…” and soon encounters worlds in A Wrinkle in Time which he couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise.

Over the years, many things happened to Jon, but one thing Jon doesn’t lose is his imagination. As well as becoming a born-again Christian, he becomes an avid science-fiction reader, and always has a conviction that there’s more to life than what meets the eye… He even comes across a couple of books that suggest that science and spirit aren’t entirely separate things (The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics), and later, he finds a book that truly ignites his soul, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

To his delight, this was by her, the woman who wrote A Wrinkle in Time so long ago. In it, she explained to Jon what it was like being a Christian who couldn’t accept the limitations on love that the Church so often placed, nor its frequent distrust of the imagination,   of science, and changing understandings of reality. She described a kind of faith going back centuries (she specifically mentioned the Cappadocian Fathers), a kind of faith that amazed Jon for he had never heard of it before, a kind of faith that he would later call “Christian mysticism.”

(Wrinkle forward)
No, there wasn’t one thing. And there were many, many other authors who influenced me besides this kindly gray-haired lady who seemed to breathe out books like she breathed in God, who even made titles that were poetry and initiations in contemplation: A Circle of Quiet, A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A House like a Lotus, The Young Unicorns. Yes, many others, but I wonder what my life would have been like if I had not encountered L’Engle’s soulscapes in the forms I did at the times I did. God has his ways, but I’m sure it would have been quite different. Thanks largely to Madeleine, I enjoy science-fiction and fantasy not as mere escapes, but as expressions of truth where it’s not quite the same thing as fact.


Dear Madeleine,

Congratulations on your new home. I hope you really enjoy it, and you deserve some time off. But don’t get too cozy there. C’mon back soon and give us some more. We need you.




Who’s your Daddy?

  • Luke Skywalker loses his mother moments after his birth, and, raised by Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, thinks himself an orphan.
  • Dorothy Gale (in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz) is an orphan raised by Uncle Henry and Auntie Em.
  • Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man, was an orphan raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May.
  • Harry Potter, the young wizard fated to fight Lord Voldemort, is an orphan raised by his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.
  • Ofelia, the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, is half-orphaned, and goes in search of her mystical ancestry.
  • In Stardust, the new Neil Gaiman movie, Tristan is raised by his father but never knew his mother, who lives in a magical realm.
  • Frodo Baggins, the hobbit charged with destroying the One Ring, was orphaned and adopted by a cousin named Bilbo.
  • In Night Watch, Yegor is raised with no knowledge of his father.

This theme isn’t just in contemporary fiction, but runs in Scriptures as well:

  • Moses was raised as a worldly prince, ignorant of his heritage in a covenant with God.
  • When his mother Mary chided him for worrying his father and her, Jesus replied that his true Father was God. (Lk 2:48-49)

Why is this theme so universal? For millennia, many of the greatest accounts of heros, teachers, and mystics have been associated with mysteries about their birth and origins. But as I said before, all the stories are about you.

Nothing in your circumstances can account for why you’re here. You can thank your parents for giving you a body, but what gave you you? There’s a mystery in our origins. We don’t know where we have come from. Where does consciousness come from, life come from? Material answers simply lead to the question of where does matter come from? What made the Big Bang go bang? Where do I really, really come from?

This is one of the ultimate questions, or better yet, a part of the ultimate question. A Zen koan sharpens it this way: What was your face before your parents were born?

The stories tell us that finding your origin will be a spiritual earthquake. Luke Skywalker discovered that his father was one of the most powerful warriors in the galaxy, now intent on enslaving worlds. Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch of the West. Harry Potter discovers his wizard talents and his destiny to fight the most powerful and evil dark wizard. Peter Parker dedicates himself to protecting the population of his city. Ofelia learns she is the princess of an underground paradise, hidden from humans. Tristan discovers his heritage, happiness, and eternal life. Frodo destroys the inexorably corruptive Ring. Yegor choses between the dark and light sides.

Moses emancipated a nation. Jesus forgave the sins of the world.

What will you do? It’s time to find out. Who’s your Daddy?

Mysticism and sexuality

I want to thank everyone who commented on my last post. I also want to clarify and dig deeper into part of the huge area I addressed in it. What I was really wondering when I asked “why is it so often the renunciates who are the one who elucidate sacred sexuality,” I didn’t mean simply sexuality in general, which comes with strong conditions attached to it in virtually ALL cultures, but the tantric, spiritual aspect of sexuality; sexuality as a reflection of the union of the soul with the divine. Why is it celibate Buddhist monks who are the ones who present the yab-yum with the Buddha and his consort? Why is it St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa who present us with the erotic images of the soul in passionate union with God?

There certainly are exceptions: the Sufi poets, married Indian gurus, etc. But I’ve never heard a Christian layperson say anything like, “what you are doing is expressing the passionate giving of God pouring his love into the world. You are being God for each other, the soul for each other.” However, the mystical meaning of sexuality is quite often, in East and West, presented most strongly by renunciates.

A couple of comments suggested that it was double-speak or sexual frustration on the part of the celibates. I think there’s something deeper at work. As I said before, desire is tricky… I think that some degree of spiritual growth is necessary for sex to be even be able to be seen as something essentially giving. The desire to “get” permeates sex: Get some, get laid, get off. I think it takes some degree of taming the “getting” engine of the ego, before sexuality can be seen as spiritual activity… one certainly doesn’t have to be a celibate to do so, but the monastic traditions, East and West, were created largely for that purpose. Now, things are beginning to change a bit… millions of laypeople are discovering mysticism within their faith, and sacred sexuality is beginning to be addressed. You might hear of Christian tantra sooner than you’d think.


Ah, so I got your attention! Yesterday, I wrote my first poem in Esperanto… unfortunately, I neglected to save it on my computer, and when my machine did one of its random reboots, it was lost and I haven’t been able to recover it. However, I wasn’t going to post it, anyway. It was, ahem, a very tantric sort of prayer, very personal, and let’s just say it didn’t hold anything back!

It was born of a powerful impression I had upon awakening, of the union of sexuality and spirituality. I sat in meditation, and while I just focussed on my breathing, the poem, in images and words, impressed itself upon me. It wasn’t marked by really any particularly strong feelings, despite some extremely passionate imagery. Horniness was the metaphor, not the message or the vehicle. (Well, a little bit of the vehicle, but not as much as you’d think.)

Sex is not only the ultimate physically unifying action, it’s also a powerful image of unification. That seems to be where my poem was coming from, the awareness that God/man, heaven/earth, Unmanifest/manifestation, are not separate, not-two, but one, no matter how it appears in this wonderful world of phenomena and differentiation.

Some questions… Did the poem come to me in Esperanto because the relative unfamiliarity of the words in that language gave me more freedom to receive them afresh… getting past decades of hearing them as “bad” words in English? Was my determination beforehand not to post the poem a tacit acknowledgment of a taboo? What is the taboo, and why is it there?

Sexuality and spirituality are considered so distinct, if not opposed, in Western religion, that it’s difficult to imagine them seriously being addressed at once. And Western religion is virtually devoid of images of sacred sexuality, something that I almost don’t notice, until I consider the yab-yum icon of the Buddha simultaneously in mediation and coitus, or the Hindu shivalingam portraying the meeting of God’s feminine and masculine qualities, graphically portrayed as yoni and lingam.

It’s as if in Western religion, the only icon of sacred sex is the hidden icon of man and wife behind closed doors, not to be seen as a whole by anyone but God alone. And even there, the spiritual symbolism is almost never touched upon, despite St. Paul’s teaching that we are the body of Christ, and that God desires for us to be united with him.

Yet to mystics, it occasionally breaks through here and there when allowed, most often in the form of poetry. The Song of Songs is eight chapters of ecstatic holy erotica, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard a sermon on it that didn’t bury it under ridiculous layers of symbolism.

The Spanish mystics, Sts. Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross, bring it forth in some of their mystical writings as well. The sculptor Bernini showed that he understood the relationship of Spirit and passion in his wonderful portrayal of “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” wherein a key mystical experience of hers is given an undeniably erotic, though modest, treatment.

But the Spanish mystics were talking about spiritual experiences, not sexual ones. What is the place of sex in spirituality? Why have so many mystics for thousands of years, been renunciates? Why is it so often the renunciates who are the ones who elucidate sacred sexuality?

I suspect the reason lies in the tricky nature of desire. Even love is constantly confused with the desire for receiving, and sex is even more prone to seek its own fulfillment. As there is a true love that expects nothing in return, but purely exists to give, there must be a place in sex where you exist solely to give yourself away. In that place, there is nothing that is not God.

In the past, gods demanded blood and bodies. Now, Christ has given his body and blood completely, and you are that.

There. I said it; now let me have it!


I recently got a call from an old friend whom I hadn’t heard from in ages. He and I were part of the same radical Pentecostal campus fellowship a couple of decades ago, but I got a sense that his spiritual life is stagnant. I asked him about it, and he said he was having “diminished expectations” of God. Where he used to believe strongly that God intervened on his behalf, he’s not so sure now. I could feel his disappointment and confusion through the phone.

The shift to panentheism changed things radically for me. Since I no longer believe that God is a “person” (in the sense of that word meaning a separate, distinct über-entity), I can sense the truth behind so many apparently contrary theisms:

  • monotheism, because the One is … well, all that is
  • polytheism, because God is manifest in all things and revealed in many ways.
  • pantheism, because God is in everything.
  • agnosticism, because the thinking mind can’t grasp God.
  • atheism, because the idea of an überbeing in the sky seems woefully insufficient. to account for this.

If I’m in touch—in various degrees—with all of these, what have I left behind? What is the opposite of panentheism, the idea that God is within and beyond all things? We might call it exotheism, the belief that God is outside of all things, and especially, outside of you.

The “entry-level” stage of Western religions generally teach exotheism, and exotheism is a significant part of my friend’s pain. In the exotheistic view, God and you can only meet in a relationship, and as everyone knows, relationships are tricky things, and this is especially true of a relationship with the Almighty.

It might be the fearful relationship of appeasing someone who is angry, unpredictable and all-powerful. It might be the heady relationship of knowing all that seems worth knowing as you read the texts that God has apparently commissioned. It might be the wonderful release of surrendering your ego to something greater than yourself. It might be the joy of feeling the presence of the Beloved in prayer or worship. It might start off feeling wonderful, and lead to feeling frustrated with “diminished expectations.”
But most relationships have a serious flaw… unspoken demands that the other meet one’s needs. My friend’s “diminished expectations” were really the feeling of frustration that God wasn’t living up to his part of the bargain, not meeting his needs.

That perception that God is there to do things for us is perhaps the strongest barrier to divine presence. It works for a while, but dropping the demands of our neediness is essential to experience the divine later on in the journey as the soul matures. Then matters of relationship, self, inside and outside become as irrelevant as whether or not my egoic “needs” are being met. I’m just here, and so is my appreciation and wonder.


It’s busy here, and will be for a while. Besides maintaining our current code, I’m studying Object-Oriented Programming, C#, and—oh, yeah, and when I get a chance, which isn’t often—Catalan. Just upgraded my system’s RAM today, since it had been stressed by the new demands I’ve been putting on it. I also took a look at Windows Vista running on machines in some computer stores today: Looks nice, yet I noticed that it doesn’t seem very fast, even on machines with a gig of RAM.

When I’m ready for a new machine, I’m considering a Mac.

Hofstadter and this last week

This week has been good. To explain it, I’m going to have to start with my college days. During my undergrad years in El Paso, I was in an extremely conservative congregation. My desire to know God had been subverted, as it is with so many of us, to know “about” God, or more accurately, to know the teachings of a single religious perspective about God and become ever more deeply immersed in it, distrusting everything else.

However, I discovered a wonderful book that kept my mind from being completely nailed shut: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by the mathematician Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s book was written for the layman, and was entertaining. funny, and delightful. True to the title, he referred frequently to the works of mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M.C. Escher, and Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The theme was the principle of what Hofstadter called “strange loopiness”—patterns that turn themselves inside out or strangely embed themselves within themselves, and this was years before the first popular books on chaos theory or fractals would appear.

Hofstadter explained not only what Gödel’s theorem was, but how its principle applied to the world at large. The theorem was a mathematical proof (and when something’s proven in math, it’s proven like nobody’s business) that it is impossible for any arithmetical system to be completely free of contradiction. For instance, in the set of positive integers, 5 – 7 is contradiction. To deal with it, negative numbers had to be created. (Remember when you were a kid how weird negative numbers seemed at first?) Taking it farther, in the realm of real numbers, the square root of a negative number was a contradiction. So enter the imaginaries, as if all numbers weren’t imaginary.


Hofstadter playfully, lovingly, danced open invitations to a universe of contradiction, containing itself and looping back on itself; Möbius strips and Klein pitchers, Escher’s hands drawing themselves into existence, Carroll’s Jabberwockies gyring and gimbling in the wabe of Bach’s cancrizan canons inverting and reversing themselves, Zen koans turning assumptions inside out until there’s no-thing left to know.

After reading G,E,B, I continued as a zealous Fundamentalist for quite some time (before many spiritual morphings), but one thing had changed forever, and that was that I would never be able to fall for the idea that everything could be explained by reason.

Let’s fast forward a couple of decades: On January 22, 2006, I had a glimpse of the nature of the world. Yes, it was unsettling at first, but strangely empowering as well. But it didn’t last long: The actual glimpse was just that—a second or two—and the knowing (as opposed to thinking) of the “empty holodeck” lasted only a few days.

I Am a Strange LoopLast Sunday, I found myself missing it. I prayed to be able to see it again, to have a spiritual refresher. Thursday, I saw that Dr. Hofstadter has published a new book: I Am a Strange Loop. I sat down with it a while and saw, to my delight, that he’s taken it to the next logical level: ego, consciousness, identity, and what’s beyond. Like Steve Pavlina, Hofstadter is one of those gifted with using non-mystical and even non-religious language to teach some of the most sublime realizations.

That night, I dreamt I was on a planet called Cascadia, abundant with mountains, waterfalls and snow. I stayed there a while, but eventually decided to leave, and booked passage on a spaceship. The spaceship somehow became an elevator, and then I realized that Cascadia was inside the Earth, and that all the planets were inside Earth, like nested concentric spheres.

Then I awoke. And I knew that all the worlds are within. Within me, as Thomas Traherne wrote centuries ago, “it’s less that I am in the world, than that the world is within me.”

Let’s talk about it.

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Still crazy after all these weeks

Friends, I’m sorry for my cyber-silence. There’s been a subtle shift in my life, although I’m hard-pressed to explain it. Sometimes I’ve felt very much IN the Spirit, othertimes, no. Sometimes the weird melding of the false boundaries of sacred and secular bothers me a little. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes I take “the bait”—feel dissatisfaction or disgust with the world for the incessant brainwashing that goes on, and most people’s apparent desire to have ever more of it. Two emails came my way that showed me dear friends of mine were falling for well-meaning but nefarious invitations to go beyond honoring our war dead, to further embracing the delusions that are behind all conflict, large and small. They’re always the same—only sides, words, stakes and the particular sparks that ignite it change.

Tonight, I spent a bit of time kything with a dear light… St. Teresa of Avila. (I’ve never explained kything on my blog, and I’m not going to get into it now. Basically, it means “hanging out” with someone who may not be there in an obvious way, such as physically present or on the phone. I’ve always been a bit too shy to talk much about this before.)

Anyway, we “meditated” together for a while, and I came away feeling compassion rather than dismay. We’re all children here. Jesus saw us all as sheep without a shepherd. I dropped “the bait.” (Tricky stuff, that.)

In lighter news, I’ve been watching a lot of LOST, renting the first season, which I missed. Any one want to take a guess as to my favorite character? And whose yours?