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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.

About a month ago I made a mistake. It happened sometime between my early morning preparation for waiting worship and the rise of Meeting.

The concept of the transpersonal is one which I have thought I understood intellectually for decades, going back to my naïve fascination with mystical paths in the 1970s, and maturing through years of contemplation and study.

That First Day, though, the concept became viscerally alive as I read a selection in The Essential Ken Wilber: An Introductory Reader (9-11). Wilber quotes Emerson’s assertion, “The soul knows no persons,” and explains that transpersonal means “personal plus,” a transcending of the personal which enfolds it into a larger whole.

Then Wilber asks:

But what could an actual “transpersonal” experience really mean? It’s not nearly as mysterious as it sounds…. You yourself can, right now, be aware of your objective self, you can observe your individual ego or person, you are aware of yourself generally.

But who, then, is doing the observing?

Here is a reply from Emerson:

The soul in man is not an organ,…not a function,…not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect and the will…. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.

Something about this flipping of the familiar Quaker metaphor gave me an opening. Conventionally, we modern Quakers say that individuals have a “light within.” Emerson says, instead, that the light is the reality, and that we individuals are simply something through which it shines upon the world.

An opening is an experience of suddenly recognizing what one already knew but had not seen so clearly before. That was what happened for me before waiting worship on that First Day. I therefore went to Meeting eager to sit in this new awareness with my fellow Friends.

Mistake.

Granted, I centered down sooner and deeper than is usual for me, and the whole of the hour was profound. No sense of needing to speak, just an expectation that the others were sharing what I “knew.” Until rise of Meeting…when I realized that the room was full of visitors whom I had never met before, and that I didn’t know if any of the others around me “knew” what I “knew.”

I haven’t felt so profoundly alienated from those around me in a long time. It took me several days to recognize that it was expectation which summoned up that feeling. Nothing about the other people in Meeting that First Day brought it forth. Just expectation.

So….

A month later, sitting in waiting worship yesterday. With my eyes literally open, so that I could recognize and greet each person who joined the circle.

Then the hour of deep silence, eyes now closed, sending my attention person by person around the circle, noticing however much or little I knew of each individual—without analysis or judgment. Nurturing a deep sense of no expectation.

At the rise of Meeting, for whatever reason, Friends immediately began exchanging their theories and anxieties about gluten and sugar and diet and genetically altered crops and the pervasiveness of processed foods and the impacts on physical and mental health…and…and….

I often feel distressed if worship, for me a deeply contemplative experience, leaps right into mundane, socio-economic discussion. My usual disappointment with such follow-ups to worship is that I long for something more “spiritual” in the way of public sharing.

Yet something different happened yesterday. I just listened. I did not feel that false need. I just listened.
Light play #2, by Miron Abramovici

And then, almost by surprise, the conversation shifted from anxious “me too” focus on material concerns. One Friend began to tell of her work in India, helping women and children whose men have met agricultural and financial failure to find new, simple economic grounding in the world.

The Meeting’s attention centered down. All that preliminary voicing of intellectual and emotional concerns dissolved into a sort of harmony of appreciation that our Friend and her colleagues were doing something real, with real people, in the real world.

The light, which often gets shrouded by our abstract concerns, shone through us onto people we don’t even know in a place most of us have never been.

For a while we were more than individuals. We were in unity.

A light shines through us upon things and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.

And so it is,
Blessèd be.

Michael

In the comments to the latest post on the Quaker Universalist Fellowship blog, I posted my current approximation of a 60-second answer to “What do Quakers believe?:

Friends WorshipQuakerism is not so much a set of beliefs as a form of spiritual practice.

We sit silently, putting aside our personal or social or political or religious concerns, and wait.

Perhaps we notice a greater unity which lies beneath these partial truths. Perhaps we share this greater awareness out loud.

More often we simply do our best to live from that awareness in the world at large.

This is an update of my (very obtuse) words on the About page.

George MacDonald, from the HogsHead.orgThis past year, I’ve been using C.S. Lewis’ anthology of selections from the writings of George MacDonald as my morning devotion. Mom gave me a copy of this book years ago, and this is probably the third time I’ve read through it. Here is a link that tells about MacDonald and his influence on Lewis.

Yesterday it happened that I read selection 305:

Difficulties

It often seems to those in earnest about the right as if all things conspired to prevent their progress.

This, of course, is but an appearance, arising in part from this, that the pilgrim must be headed back from the side-paths into which he is constantly wandering.

There is a core thing I am learning (the hard way) about living on God’s path:

Pay attention, both outwardly and inwardly,
acknowledge when, in either realm,
I observe something which seems not as it ought to be,
and then center down
and wait for clearness
about what is the next thing to do.
Not the whole solution,
just the next thing.

It is a scary approach to life. It feels as if it runs counter to our biologically hard-wired instincts of self-protection.

In fact, though, it is a way to freedom.

What human consciousness adds to our inbred animal wisdom is the ability to imagine and plan—yet it also adds, on the dark side, the ability to worry and despair.

Animals just do the next thing. God has created them to do the best next thing instinctively.

God has created us the same way as well. Our added gift of consciousness enables us to avoid anticipated dangers and to redirect our paths toward promise. Yet consciousness also distracts us from what God would show us, were we attending.

Human animals are no different than other animals in one sense: we can only put one foot on the path at a time.

My sense is that MacDonald is writing about how, very frequently, we get distracted onto these side-paths and need to stop, center down, remember that God is present with us, and wait until we once again see the light we were following and take another step in that direction.

The New Testament Greek word which is usually translated as “sin” is ἁμαρτία (hamartía). Is is more accurately translated as “missing the mark,” as one does in archery when one’s aim is distracted.

Ever since I learned this in early 1970s, I have made that substitution in my own thinking. Rather than obsess over “sin” as a moral failure, I challenge myself to note as soon as possible—sometimes just with chagrin, and sometimes with shame, repentance and amends-making—whenever I have “missed the mark,” either through inattention and distraction, or through willfully looking toward the wrong target.

Timucuan path, by Mike Shell
Difficulties call my attention to my missing of the mark.

They don’t necessarily show me how to aim correctly. Resuming MacDonald’s metaphor, they don’t necessarily show me the easiest way back to the path.

Yet if it becomes my habit to stop, center down, remember that God is present, and wait, it usually happens that I notice God’s light shining on the next step.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael

How silently,
how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts
to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meeks souls will
receive him still
the dear Christ enters in.

—Phillips Brooks, 1868

A couple summers ago, I wrote “On waiting and squirming” about “periods during which I have difficulty finding God’s reassuring silence in the midst of my own emotional noise.” A pivotal passage described an opening which came to me in waiting worship:

An image comes of kayaking on a turbulent river, overly intent upon keeping my balance. If I don’t manage this, I’ll fall over and drown in the river.

But—the thought comes—God is the river.

Maybe we don’t get hold of self-discipline as a way of receiving grace. Maybe self-discipline is a gift of grace.

Not seeking silence, but surrendering because we are unable to become silent.

This morning around 2:30 am, I awoke in the dark to the sound of the night’s heavy rain, still dripping and splashing around our bedroom…and to the inner sound of Sarah McLachlan‘s poignant rendition of “O little town of Bethlehem” singing in memory.

The word “longing” came to mind. Not longing in the distressed and painful way I was experiencing it two summers hence, but simple longing for what one knows can be, should be.

I recognized a maturing of notes and themes which have been singing through my reading and meditation for years, catching my attention as I gradually sweep way the noise of my decades-long argument with “Christianity.”

Imagine the gentleness of simply sitting with someone with whom you need to exchange no proofs of love—or, as was the case when I awoke this morning, lying cuddled in sleep with the partner with the whom you have shared such love for decades.

In all the billions of lives, many cannot imagine this. Many have never experienced it. Many have had it torn from them—by the natural losses of life or by the unnatural cruelties of other people.

Yet the human heart has that possibility woven through its fibers. All life does. Whether we have experienced it or not, our bodies remember it.

In moments of awakening such as this morning’s, we simply listen to our hearts, to whatever song may sing there.

Every true religion has its images for this healing stillness. For me, when I have swept away the noise of my argument, the images are those which Jesus shared with his companions. Not images of “how to get that stillness.” Just images of the stillness itself.

In moments like that into which I awoke this morning, I know that this is all I am waiting for.

And so it is.

Blesséd Be,
Michael

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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