Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations (1/1/17).

I had a dream a few days ago, one of those rare wholly unambiguous dreams. It was a flying dream, but that’s not the relevant feature, just a plot device.

Greece MigrantsI was returning home to an upper floor of a six-story apartment building. Flying over the roof, I saw that the whole surface was filled with sleeping refugees. As I came down toward the building entrance I saw that all the yard and parking lot space was also crowded with refugee families.

As I entered, several men asked me what I was going to do to help their families and neighbors. I made no excuses, but I acknowledged that, even if I sold everything and liquidated my bank accounts, I could only feed some of the many people for a few days. Then we would all remain together in the same destitution.

The dream ended inconclusively.

Vineline

Knowing is overwhelming. Every day, more stories of slaughter and flight from slaughter. Every day, more encounters with street people, immigrants, and other hurting, marginalized neighbors. And every day, more evidence of siege mentality1 on the part of a public and political world on guard against the call of empathy.

My dream is not about this larger reaction against empathy but about my own. All beings avoid pain, and the most subversive version of this the attempt to avoid the pain of feeling the pain of others. We rush for “solutions” that will mask that empathetic pain—whether or not our actions really “help.” My dream challenges me to sit with my own pain of witnessing pain.Vine

This morning in my stream-of-consciousness journal I received the following opening:

“Forgiveness,” by Carlos Latuff [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia CommonsYou don’t have to know what to do next. In fact, you can’t. Trying to discern it is work that gets in the way of seeing it. Pay attention to the need, not the solution. Pay attention to how you feel about knowing of the need. Really settle into it.

What you are doing is exploring those inward defenses which stand in the way of your truly engaging with the person in need. So long as you avoid direct experience of your own conflicting feelings, those feelings are barriers to being truly open to the other person.

Compassion means feeling passion with another. Feelings come first.

And so it is.

Blessèd be,
Michael


Notes & Image Sources

1Siege Mentality,” by Daniel Bar-Tal, Beyond Intractability [Copyright © 2003-2016, The Beyond Intractability Project, The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado].

One…interesting social-political-psychological phenomenon [is the shared misperception] of being under siege, i.e., feeling as if the rest of the world has highly negative intentions towards one’s own society or that one’s own society is surrounded by a hostile world…. “Negative intentions” refer to the desire and motivation of the world to inflict harm or to hurt the society, so that they imply a threat to the society’s well being.

Image of migrants on the northern Greek border from “As Europe struggles for a unified approach to the refugee crisis, tens of thousands of people remain stranded in Greece,” on AccessWDUN (3/7/2016).

Migrants wait by the border gate between Greece and Macedonia at the northern Greek border station of Idomeni, Monday, March 7, 2016. Greek police officials say Macedonian authorities have imposed further restrictions on refugees trying to cross the border, saying only those from cities they consider to be at war can enter as up to 14,000 people are trapped in Idomeni, while another 6,000-7,000 are being housed in refugee camps around the region. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Forgiveness,” by Carlos Latuff [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons.

You don’t know what will happen if you go down that road.  That’s why you should go there.

Why do what you have already done?

The world never changes, and it is never the same.  Each step opens a new door to the same old life.  Infinite variations on the same thing.

Bill Murray as Phil Connors in Groundhog Day

Remember Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day?  Only weatherman Phil Connors knows that each day is a new day.

What we tend to miss is that each day is also different for each person Phil interacts with—because Phil makes different choices each day.

In fact, each day every other person makes different choices as well in response to Phil.  Only none of them has memory of the previous days.  They are still asleep.

Wake up!


Notes on Groundhog Day

Roger Ebert summarizes the premise of the story:

[After the annual Punxsutawney Phil appearance, all Phil Connors] wants to do is get out of town. He begins to. He doesn’t quite make it. What with one thing and another, he wakes up the next morning in the same bed, with the radio playing the same song, and it gradually becomes clear to him that he is reliving precisely the same day. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, in his case, doesn’t creep in at its petty pace from day to day, but gets stuck like a broken record.

After the third or fourth day, the enormity of his predicament is forced upon him. He is free to change what he says and does from one Feb. 2 to the next, but it will always be Feb. 2 for everyone else in the world, and he will always start from the same place. They will repeat themselves unless he changes the script, but tomorrow they will have forgotten their new lines and be back to the first draft of Feb. 2.

Waiting for Quaker meeting
with a fence of white jasmine
behind me
and the
sun
a bit too warm

I hear from across
another wooden fence
opposite
the shout of the
morning-sobered plumber
stumbling from his
trailer:

“Alright! The first lily
has bloomed!
Fuckin’ yes!”

"Easter yellow," by Mike Shell (2012)

Save

Nothing new.

Except perhaps that the the circumstances are more extreme than they have been since I lost my counseling career.

There is this.

The fixed idea that we have about ourselves as solid and separate from each other is painfully limiting. (35)

Bodhichitta is our heart—our wounded, softened heart…. The more you look, the more you find just a feeling of tenderness tinged with some kind of sadness. This sadness is not about somebody mistreating us. This is inherent sadness, unconditioned sadness. (39-40)

In cultivating loving-kindness, we train first to be honest, loving and compassionate toward ourselves…. [our] loving-kindness is unconditional… Without loving-kindness for ourselves it is difficult, if not impossible, to genuinely feel it for others. (41)

The Pocket Pema Chödrön, (2008)

"Dynamic angles," by Mike Shell (2014)

Or this.

To any caregiver, my advice is to pay attention to yourself and to any sense of being irritable, tired, or sad…. [It] is important not to bypass your experience by rejecting or ignoring these feelings or talking yourself out of them….

If you look directly at your experience, free of judgment, your pain will fully emerge into the light of the open attention you offer yourself. Feel that sense of yourself, allowing your experience…. Just be with it….

The being of yourself knows fully how to do this. As you be, you non-conceptually host this pain identity, this pain speech, and pain imagination. Aware of being, your experience will self-liberate, releasing or exhausting. The openness of your being is the source of all positive qualities. (22)

— Tenzin Wangyal Rinpche, in “Ask the Teachers,”
BuddhaDharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Spring 2016

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

Originally published on Quaker Universalist Conversations on on 10/19/2015.

Friend Jim Wilson has a helpful comment on the QuakerQuaker republishing of my post, “Seeing beyond Identities”:

Mike, I wonder if your statement, “identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers”, makes sense. It sounds to me like postmodernist sloganeering.

For example, if I am hungry I want to distinguish, that is to say, ‘identify’, a pizza and distinguish it from a rock. Are you saying the boundary between a pizza and a rock is a figment of human conceptualization? That doesn’t make sense to me. A pizza belongs in the concept ‘food’, a rock belongs in the concept ‘non-food’. What is the problem?

In a similar way, I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.

Thanks again, Jim. I see I still need to say more clearly what I am addressing here.

“Identities are figments of human conceptualization, not real boundary markers” is not meant to be postmodernist sloganeering. If anything, it is premodern Buddhist psychology, confirmed in many ways by modern neurobiology of consciousness research.

Certainly human beings need to be able to “identify” distinctions between different objects (pizza :: rock), different concepts (food :: non-food) and spiritual traditions (Universalist Quakerism :: creedal Christianity). Our use of language depends upon distinguishing and naming categories as helpfully as we can.

I therefore agree with your statement: “I don’t see a problem in identifying different spiritualities. Not all spiritual traditions are the same and it serves a useful purpose to clarify how they differ and where their views overlap.”

Vine
In “Seeing beyond Identities” I am using the term “identity” in a somewhat different sense.

If I say “I am a convinced Friend,” that may “identify” something of my history in the first sense. However, “convinced Friend” is not an “identity.”

We are so accustomed to the language which says “I am a Christian,” “I am an American,” “I am a gay man.” Our common habit is to take this as affirming an “identity” between an individual human being and all people in the named category. Obviously, though, no two “Christians” or “Americans” or “gay men” are the same. What we are actually doing when we use those labels is ascribing to ourselves certain very loosely defined characteristics.

The problem is that to assert “gay man” as an “identity” would be to reduce all the vast, complex, constantly changing realities of my 65 plus years of life to a few culturally “identifiable” markers. What “I am a gay man” actually says is “I belong to the widely diverse category of men, each of them unique, who are willing to publicly affirm the homosexual aspects of their lives.”

“Christ of the Desert,” by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM In “Seeing beyond Identities” I wrote: “I usually avoid calling myself a Christian out of respect for those who experience Christianity as a creedal religion with an orthodox theological belief system.”

I am trying to affirm “identity” as a matter of belonging, not as a matter of definition.

I belong to a boundless community of human beings, a community which transcends time and space—and belief systems—all of whom recognize and turn to Jesus as the center of a circle without circumference.

However, most people associate the term “Christian” with a specific, doctrinal set of beliefs—as well as with a horrendous history of violent abuse of power. I cannot say “I am a Christian” if that misleads people into thinking I subscribe to those doctrines. I would rather not say “I am a Christian” if to do so means others cannot see me past their personal anger and resentment and fear regarding “Christian” abuses of power.

Likewise, I do not say “I am a Universalist,” because I do not want to mislead either people who claim that label as naming a belief system or those who reject that belief system and, hence, those who claim the label.

I am not dodging the issue.

I want us to see beyond identities if we are using them as boundaries between those who belong to the wholeness of humanity and those who don’t.

Blessings,
Mike


Image SourceChrist of the Desert,” an icon by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM.

Stephen Jay Gould

Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or even often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature...but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent for conceptual transition. (264)

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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