Loving one’s self.

Several months ago, I attended a church service in which the senior pastor decided to tackle the issue of “health care in America”. He spoke thoughtfully about how the bulk of Jesus’ ministry involved healing sick people, and instructing his followers to care for the vulnerable members of society. During this part of his sermon, I felt that kind of uneasy feeling then that I really like – the kind of feeling that reminds me how far my own head can get lodged up my own ass, and then empowers me to think about practical ways I could be caring for my community.

Towards the end of the sermon, however, the pastor tried to drive home his point by reminding his audience that when asked which was the “greatest commandment”, Jesus answered,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”, and then immediately went on to say,”The second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these”. (Mark 12:30-31).

My immediate reaction to this sermon’s meant-to-be-powerful conclusion was to wonder whether or not church-going folks are any good at loving themselves, and whether or not the church does a good-enough job of teaching people how to love themselves. Because, I thought, without a basic capacity to love oneself, part 2 of the ‘greatest commandment’ doesn’t carry much weight or power.

Since then, I have checked in with several handfuls of my church-going friends and asked them if they feel like the church is good at teaching people how to love themselves.

I’ll let you guess what their answers may have been.

And here’s the thing: it’s a pretty big deal if the church and church-goers are missing the mark re: the ‘loving oneself’ target. Reading the gospels, I find a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that A) Jesus loved himself – i.e. received God’s love – without reservation and B) that he extended this same whole-hearted love to every person he met. In fact, this was a big part of what made him so controversial during his time on earth. The religious leaders of his time did not appreciate the unbounded enormity of his love for himself or for others.

Somehow (and grievously), while I was growing up in church, I got the impression that I was supposed to first accept how fundamentally bad I was – you know, that whole original sin drama – before I could authentically and earnestly beseech Jesus to lobotomize those bad parts of myself, and finally become more pleasing to him.

Well, it’s pretty near-to-impossible to love yourself if you you’ve been taught – explicitly or implicitly – that you are basically evil. It’s equally near-to-impossible to love others when you assume that, like you, they are also basically evil. And because of this unfortunate assumption about human nature, you are then psychologically primed to start searching for people who appear to have “conquered” their evil impulses, in order to reassure yourself that it can be done.

Public Service Announcement number 1: no one conquers “evil” (please click that link); we simply have an opportunity to become more and more psychologically and spiritually honest, which allows us to make wiser, and healthier choices.

Let me briefly explain why it is 100% impossible to love others well if we don’t first love ourselves well. I will use myself as an example:

When I am critical and intolerant towards myself, I am critical and intolerant towards others. If I notice some unacceptable aspect of myself – those shadowy, hard to admit parts of my psychology – parading around in someone else’s skin, my first defensive instinct is often to judge that person harshly, or perhaps to reject them entirely. Somehow allowing myself to feel curiosity or compassion towards them becomes threatening to me, as if I’ll have to admit my own similar shortcomings if I get too close to other peoples’.

Does that make sense? Maybe it’s a bit ‘Psychology 101’ for some of you, but I find that for a lot of people this is a fairly complex idea. So let me make it even more simple:

THINGS WE DON’T WANT TO ADMIT ABOUT OURSELVES OTHER PEOPLE ACTING OUT THOSE SAME THINGS = PSYCHOLOGICAL CRISIS.

Here’s some good examples:

  • A closeted gay person expressing homophobic ideas or actions.
  • Someone that cares a great deal more than they’d like to admit about wealth and material things, who then condemns wealthy people for how they choose to spend their money.
  • Deeply felt inferiority feelings parading around as machismo, or bullying.
  • Systemically disempowered women being critical of “successful” women.
  • Someone with partisan political sentiments (who cannot admit this blind-spot to themselves) dismissing another person’s political ideas as partisan.
  • A compulsive over-eater who frowns upon compulsive [anything else].
  • Someone who feels insecure about their romantic relationship (or lack thereof) being critical of other people’s romances.
  • Christian extremists’ hatred for Islamic extremists.
  • An arrogant person noticing someone else’s arrogance and pointing that out disdainfully (I’m real guilty of this one sometimes, ugh).

Do you get the picture? It’s impossible to be compassionate with others if we cannot first be sincerely compassionate with ourselves.

And, why do I think it’s the church’s responsibility to teach this to it’s parishioners? Because Jesus did it.

He embraced all types of culturally repugnant people, and offered them intimate counsel and friendship. Some of the religious leaders of his time found his associations very troubling, and asked his disciples why he would choose to “eat with such scum?” (Matthew 9:11). Jesus answered them by asking them to “go and learn the meaning of this scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'” (Matthew 9:13).

I believe we have to “show mercy” both inwardly and outwardly simultaneously for mercy to be genuine. And I’m pretty sure Jesus said almost exactly this in his own cryptic, ancient semitc way:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.

Love each other in the same way I have loved you.”

– (John 15:9, 12)

In a sense, I believe he’s saying “my ability to receive (accept, or believe in) love is directly correlated to my ability to give love. Now, follow my lead: open yourselves up to the divine love that’s always available to you, and then give it away in exactly the same limitless way you have received it”.

To boil it down further: if we can’t embrace the darkest, hardest aspects of our humanity, then we sure as sh*t can’t embrace other peoples’ dark parts either. And from what I can tell, the whole entire ministry of Jesus was about embracing others, especially those willing to stand humbly in own their humanity.

So, Church leaders: if you don’t know how to teach this kind of love, and especially if you don’t know how to genuinely receive this kind of love for yourself, you need to hire people that do. We can’t fall asleep at the wheel when it comes to loving ourselves, or we can’t love others well. And if we can’t love others well, we can’t be the church.

 

I AM

Fact: when Jesus spoke to the crowds of people that gathered to listen to him, he the spoke in an ancient Semetic language called Aramaic. Another fact: the English language version of Jesus’ teachings that we have access to today were not translated from Aramaic, but instead translated from Greek after first being filtered through Greek philosophy and greek language.

Consequently, much of the modern English canonical gospels are a representation – and sometimes a downright manipulation – of the teachings of Jesus that best supported the Greek culture and worldview at the time.

That’s a hard one to swallow if you have been living your life according to every single Greek-to-English word of your NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, or even AMP version of the Bible. Nevertheless, it’s important – and I think that every serious Christian, and every serious spiritual seeker should be well-informed about this.

Because here’s the thing: if you attempt to throw that translation process into reverse, and get as close as you can to the original meaning of the original words that Jesus spoke, you wind up getting confronted with some pretty significant challenges to the fundamental ideology of a lot of modern, western Christian thinking.

For example,

“In Aramaic, the word that is later translated as ‘I am’ is really ‘I-I.’ Aramaic doesn’t have a ‘being’ verb. You can’t actually say ‘I am’ in ancient Aramaic, nor can you do it in ancient Hebrew, as far as that goes. So really what Jesus is saying is, ‘I-I.’ [In other words:] The connection of the small self, which in Aramaic is called ‘nafsha’, is the self that is growing, evolving, learning through life. And the connection between that and the greater self, or what would be called the ‘only I’, ‘the only being’, ‘Alaha’, or ‘the One’, or ‘God’.”

– Neil Douglas Klotz, from his interview on Insights At The Edge via Sounds True.

I cannot tell you how many times some well-intentioned Christian person has reminded me that Jesus once said “I am the way, the truth, and the light”, as a way to justify their idea that belief in the person of Jesus is the only legitimate path to heaven.

It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to spoil anyone’s worldview in a painful way, but is of great significance to me that the word(s) “I am” would not have been linguistically available to Jesus in the language in which he was teaching at the time. Furthermore, if what he actually said was something closer to the Aramaic word for “I-I”, this piece of Jesus’ message – and it’s theological implication – becomes quite transformed.

Curiously, in many other religious, psychological, and philosophical disciplines the idea of a relationship between a “small self” and a “greater Self” – as indicated by this Aramaic word “I-I” – is a common theme. This is more common in far Eastern spiritualities, where concepts of “Buddha nature“, “Atman and Brahman“, and “Tao” invite it’s practitioners to seek spiritual enlightenment by liberating oneself from a “small-self only” orientation towards oneself and the world, and uncover a connection to the [choose your favorite word for the divine, i.e. God, Source, the One, Only-I, etc.] within.

Western psychology also has a way of conceptualizing this phenomena. The notion of the “small self” would probably be best described as “ego”. Ego, in psychological terms, is understood as the part of ourselves we experience as limited by time and space, and contained within a physical form. Ego, or small self, is something I’m confident we can all identify with; it’s the part of ourselves that worries about whether people like us, if we will be able to pay the rent, whether we will be happy, or what might make us happier.

Additionally, there are transpersonal psychological theories that discuss the idea of a “greater Self”, and often point to this concept as a fundamental part of psycho-spiritual health. In Jungian psychology for example, there is this notion that self-realization is available only through the development of an ego-Self (as in, greater Self) axis, or the ability to get your ego and the divine part of your consciousness talking to each other on the regular.

So, here’s what the phrase “I-I” means to me: “The way, the truth, and the light” is accessible to everyone. There is no dogma that can dictate this path, and there is no governing body to decide how it must be done. There is just you-YOU. You, the vulnerable human being subject to all the vicissitudes of your daily experiences. And YOU, the you that’s got a direct line to God.

Perhaps Jesus was saying, “Look, if you can get these two aspects of yourself – the human and the divine – communing with one another”, well … that is the way, that is the truth, and that is the light of human existence.

 

The Religious Right

“Jesus never asked anyone to form a church, ordain priests, develop elaborate rituals and institutional cultures, and splinter into denominations. His two great requests were that we “love one another as I have loved you” and that we share bread and wine together as an open channel of that interabiding love.”

― Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

I left the church in 2005 because of an absolutely irreconcilable conflict between the moral code I found in the pages of gospel, and the values I saw being paraded out by the institutional church in America. (Not everyone; not every church, but still far too many).

Ten years later, I am trying to go back to church, and hoping to find people who take the actual example of Jesus seriously by loving one another well. Period. No other agenda.

A lot of my Christian friends talk with me about their feelings of grief over the way the loudest, most extreme “spokespersons” for their faith behave. I feel the same way, which inspires me to sympathize deeply with the sincere practitioners of Islam who must simultaneously watch their faith become so grossly misrepresented by groups of terror-inciting extremists.

So, why does it always happen this way?

It seems to me that the MINUTE the religious institution gets in bed with any branch of the government, we might as well brace ourselves for deep spiritual loss.

The history of the church in this country is complex, and I have no interest in romanticizing it. But there was a time when the church was brand new – just Jesus and his crew – and it was exceedingly good. Compassion and humility were the moral cornerstones of that community, and a belief that “Heaven” could be realized when we are able make peace with ourselves and each other in the *present* moment.

TELL ME, PLEASE: how did we get so far away from that?

The following video is offensive in many ways. I wish it weren’t. I wish it were less satire, and more documentary film. I wish the woman delivering the message could communicate the information in it without having to make fun of some of the people featured in the clip. Samantha Bee may be one of the funniest people on late night TV right now, and I really appreciate a lot of her work. But I also appreciate that her humor is often mean & biting. (I guess we just can’t all be Ellen, the good-person saint of comedy).

Nevertheless, Bee is able to use comedy to expose something fairly underrepresented in the more mainstream media, and grossly underrepresented in church, and I think it’s worth sharing in spite of it’s tone.

You can watch the video by clicking this link: The Religious Right.

I believe that this is why the church has such a negative image in America. This is why people with moral sensibilities about how to treat others who are different than themselves, and how to treat the planet we all inhabit together wind up leaving and loathing the church.

It’s a big deal. We have to confront it. I’m doing my part. Sam Bee did hers, I guess, too.

The Mother of God

I began writing this entry on Mother’s Day eve, but it’s took me a couple of days to edit the many theological tangents I found myself coughing up along the way. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m slowly (painfully so) writing a book, and sometimes I struggle to tease out all the information swirling around in my mind into these short, digestible bits.

But, here goes…

In honor of Mother’s Day, I want to talk about Jesus’ mom. Mary, The “Virgin”.

According to Marilyn Frye,

“The word ‘virgin’ did not originally mean a woman whose vagina was untouched by any penis, but a free woman, one not betrothed, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person. In any version of patriarchy, there are no Virgins in this sense.”

The story about Jesus’ conception, which we find in the canonical gospels, seems to suggest that Mary was a sexual virgin, and I am not interested in disputing that necessarily. However, I do want to encourage a serious consideration of how the alternative definition of the word might enliven this story in a way that opens it up to a more modern spiritual audience.

According to the gospel of Luke, this is how things went down:

26 God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee. 27 The angel went to a virgin promised in marriage to a descendant of David named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary.28 When the angel entered her home, he greeted her and said, “You are favored by the Lord! The Lord is with you.”29 She was startled by what the angel said and tried to figure out what this greeting meant.

30 The angel told her,

“Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.
31 You will become pregnant, give birth to a son,
and name him Jesus.
32 He will be a great man
and will be called the Son of the Most High.
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his ancestor David.
33 Your son will be king of Jacob’s people forever,
and his kingdom will never end.”
34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this be? I’m a virgin.”

35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God….

38 Mary answered, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.”

Again, I’m not here to dispute nor dissect Mary’s sexual virginity, and to my modern eye it seems like the story is pretty clear about it. I have my own opinions about whether to read ancient sacred texts as symbolic or literal accounts, which can be boiled down to “both, and”, but that’s a personal choice I won’t attempt to make for anyone else. What I will try to persuade you to consider, however, is how Mary also fits Marilyn Frye’s description of a virgin as a “free woman… not possessed by any man”.

If you understand the deeply patriarchal religious and social systems Mary lived within, this story is already remarkable simply because an angel of God visits a woman with no man present to mediate this interaction. Furthermore, Mary conducts herself during this encounter in a way that would suggest she is an impressively self-possessed woman, as she responds to this incredible encounter with her own spiritual convictions.

This is no small act of courage either. Because of Mary’s historical and cultural circumstances, it was entirely possible – even likely – that the men (& women) in her life would have rejected and criminalized her as soon as it became clear that she was pregnant. By saying “yes” to this divine responsibility of mothering the Son of God, she was willing to risk becoming a social pariah, endure estrangement from her family and community, and potentially incur criminal charges.

The woman that can look a messenger of God in the face and say “let it be” to this kind of fate is a woman possessed by nothing other than the Spirit that allows her to see and hear God in the first place. She’s a virgin – as Marilyn Frye defines it – because she transcends every version of patriarchy.

I don’t know about you, but the picture that was painted for me about Jesus’ mother was quite different than this one I’m presenting here now. Somewhere in my upbringing, I inherited a kind of cultural conditioning about women that caused me to understand Mary as an embodiment of meek, quiet, unquestioning servitude. Frankly, as far as I was concerned, she seemed a little bit like a victim of all these male players in her story – i.e. God chooses this fate for her, Gabriel “announces” it to her, Joseph waivers about whether or not to quietly end their engagement, and then Jesus happens to her.No irreverence intended, but Lord knows if I was Jesus’ mother I would be living on a steady drip of Xanax for all of my days.

But, Mary. Well, I have a feeling she did much more than just “endure” her fate. There is this account in the gospel of John, for example:

1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Here you have the mother of God, carrying around her sincere faith in her own son, and gently nudging him along towards his path… as mother’s do. “You can do it, darling”, is something I know every loving mother has felt and said to their child thousands of times. Mothers often believe in their children’s potential long before they themselves do, and this account of Mary’s faithful encouragement of her child really strikes a deep chord with me.

On the surface this may sound awfully presumptuous, but I look to Mary’s example when I think about how I want to mother my own daughter.  If Mary spent all of her days as a mother believing what the angel of God told her about her son, I imagine she would have had three things in her mind at all times:

  1. The human child – because babies’ human qualities force us to pay the most immediate attention; keeping them healthy and alive is an all consuming job for many years.
  2. The divine child – surely she would be looking for the divine qualities she believed her son possessed from the moment she felt him stir in her womb. She would have held this knowledge about him in her heart, and both nurtured and honored the things that emerged from him in accordance with her knowledge.
  3. How on earth these two aspects of her son could co-exist in human form, and how she might need to be involved in helping him to reconcile this.

As a practicing psychotherapist, I find it impossible to believe that Mary wouldn’t have had a significant impact on Jesus’ concept of himself. Even though he was God incarnate, he was also human, and every human being I have ever met has talked to me about the impact their mothers have had on their relationship with themselves. I don’t think God does things without understanding the consequences, and I believe that it must have been extremely important for Jesus’ mother (and maybe his father too) to know their son’s identity, and help to nurture him accordingly.

If this is true, then Jesus would have been raised by a woman who looked at him with a recognition of both his divinity and his humanity every time her gaze met his. Can you imagine being raised under that kind of gaze? I once heard the Dalai Lama speak about his own mother, and how her love for the human he was, as well as her reverence for spiritual being he was becoming influenced his development more than anything else. Apparently, having parents – chiefly, a mother, who believes in you is powerful stuff.

And so who did Mary’s son become in light of this kind of affirmation from his Mother?

Well… Jesus.

Now, here’s where I may have to get super tangental about the person of Jesus for several paragraphs, but it’s worth the quick dive into those waters – so hang with me here.

Jesus, believing in both his humanity and his divinity, reportedly experienced a deep intimacy with God, and also demonstrated a courageous kind of love for his fellow human beings. His entire ministry was a demonstration of this love – love for God above the superfluous rules and regulations the religious authorities were fond of imposing, and love for people beyond the conventional stereotypes and judgments of his time. He didn’t preach from a pulpit, but got down in the dirt and grime of messy human life, and offered people practical help (food, safety, community, physical healings), and preached the most hopeful messages about the character and nature of God. (i.e. “God is like a loving father, God is like a good shepherd, God is like a generous land owner, etc”).

To his disciples, his message was even more wildly hopeful.

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes [like] me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…” — John 14:12

His populous message of individual empowerment and social interest made many of the powerful and influential people in his culture so angry with him too. The “powers-that-be” of his particular time and place felt so undermined by his ministry, that they were often described as being enraged to a actual murderous level, and eventually condemned him as a heretic.

“Who gives you this authority?!” they would shout. Jesus’ answer every time: “God”.

“I and the Father are One [in essence and nature].” – – John 10:30

I think it’s important to understand that this wasn’t an unconsciously arrogant response on his part either; he knew he was on borrowed time by giving this answer, and expected to be killed for his boldness and spoke plainly about this to his disciples:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” – – Mark 8:31

Jesus seemed to be crystal clear that his inevitable death and resurrection was a necessary condition for his “students” to finally understand this critical bit about their own identity too:

“Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”. – John 14: 18-20

Although this is a bit cryptic and maybe poorly translated, I believe that Jesus was continually inviting his disciples to understand their shared communion with God. I also think that they needed this big death and resurrection event to shake up their schematic understanding of God. It’s important to understand that before Jesus’ life and ministry, the Hebrew people believed that no one could experience the direct presence of God except for the highest, holiest priest, and only on the highest, holiest day in the highest, holiest of circumstances in the highest, holiest part of the temple.

Jesus’ whole life was a big confrontation of this assumption, and he offered a direct invitation to anyone – prostitutes, thieves, murderers, women (insert eye roll from me) – that chose to, could experience God (the Holy Spirit) “living in their own hearts”. Now, I think that phrase gets over-used, and therefore a little watered down, but no one alive during the time of Jesus’ life would have missed the meaning, nor misunderstood the huge theological shift he was determined – and destined – to initiate on that corner of the earth.

Okay, my tangent about the person and ministry of Jesus is complete.. for now.

Back to Mary and Jesus’ relationship. To summarize:

  1. She believed he was fully human and fully divine.
  2. He believed this too.
  3. He proclaimed – with the authority of one who is fully human and fully divine – that all human beings could also claim this divine inheritance.

Now let me be clear, I don’t think I’m raising the next Messiah, but I do think that the symbolic and/or historical figures of both Mary and Jesus teach us that we have an obligation to respond to both the divinity and the humanity that co-exist within our children – and ourselves too – and then ultimately learn how to nurture a relationship between these two aspects of our being.

… And I simply assume it’s going to be easier for my daughter to make this connection within herself if I help her believe in it.Looking at the example set by Mary, it would appear that one of the best ways for me to help my daughter believe in her own inner spiritual capacity, would be by believing in it for her first.

Of course, it will look and feel much different than it did for Mary because whether she is symbolic or real, she was working with the kind of ‘absolutes’ that both symbolism and literalism make possible. I don’t work in absolutes because I am not a symbol, and I am not the literal vessel for a singular divine being either. Nonetheless, when I think about Mary, I can’t help but be reflective about what it would feel like to be raised by a mother who tries to nurture a connection to both your humanity and your divinity.

So…

Happy Mother’s Day to the most remarkable lady in the game. Mary, you are my symbolic model for how to stand alongside the development of a creature that belongs partly to me and partly to God.

Namaste,

Whitney

 

 

Eternal Life

During my first go-round with Christianity,

everything was mediated through this narrow window:

“This is good, that is bad”.

Two wings of a conjoined umbrella under which to sort everything

Including one’s self.

Excruciating.

Soon my body was bad

My mind followed suit.

Eventually I discovered that my heart too was “deceitful above all things”.

 

But then something unexpected happened.

I cracked.

Some force much more powerful than my body, mind, and heart rebelled ferociously inside me.

It screamed with rage and indignation, and demanded of me that I set it free.

How to Pray

A group of people once asked Jesus how to pray, and he answered with poetry.

Poetry, which presumably got translated many times over since then, and may or may not be accurately represented by the current versions we have available to us today. You can find many rendering’s of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ through a simple google search, ranging in tone from the feudalistic language of King James’ Version:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.

Amen.

To a more mystical, middle-eastern Aramaic translation:

O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration.

Soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us where your Presence can abide.

Fill us with your creativity so that we may be empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.

Let each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with our desire.

Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share what each being needs to grow and flourish.

Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us, as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.

Do not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from our true purpose, but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.

For you are the ground and the fruitful vision, the birth, power and fulfillment, as all is gathered and made whole once again.

Amen.

But my question is this: how do you train yourself to sit in the ground of your own heart-swell, and let yourself be swept up into union with the divine source of life and love Itself?