Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thoughts on Annapolis...

Found this link over at Velveteen Rabbi's blog: here.

I couldn't agree more.


Your Brain is Green

Of all the brain types, yours has the most balance.
You are able to see all sides to most problems and are a good problem solver.
You need time to work out your thoughts, but you don't get stuck in bad thinking patterns.

You tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the future, philosophy, and relationships (both personal and intellectual).

Well, as that great philosopher Kermit the Frog once said, "it ain't easy being green!" =)


My friend more cows has challenged me to think of 2008 as a year of finding Christian community.

I hope this doesn't sound utterly silly, but the idea fills me with a bit of trepidation. After having been raised Catholic, becoming excited about religion through my Catholic education in college, and then feeling a bit burned by the whole thing as I entered adulthood...I guess I'm a bit gun-shy of investing myself in a tradition, in a community once again.

Part of this experience of being "burned" comes from my work as a counselor, actually. In the past, there were aspects of Catholicism (e.g., the refusal to ordinate women, teachings on sexual morality, etc.) that I strongly disagreed with -- but it was something of an intellectual matter. When I actually started working as a counselor, I was put face to face with brave people whose lives were actually HARMED by some of these teachings (particularly some of my gay and lesbian clients). The issue was no longer one of intellectual disagreement -- it became one of whether I could support an institution whose teachings HARMED people I cared for.

Complicating matters further, the clients were not exclusively Catholic, but from a variety of Christian backgrounds.

So I am wary. And I find myself wondering what standard to use when considering these matters? Do I consider primarily the official church doctrine? The attitudes of the religious leaders? The extent to which there is a strong "opposition movement" (if the church's official doctrine still holds that homosexuality is sinful)? All of the above (and if so, which factors should weigh most heavily)?

On top of this is the matter of my natural introversion...and, well, a sense from the work I do of how pervasive unhealthiness is. I pray that this does not sound conceited, but after awhile of doing this job...

How to explain it? I think I am confronted so often by dysfunction, by the limitations of others and by my own, it is easy to forget that there is also healthiness. Perhaps that is because health tends to be quieter.

Part of me yearns to discover and trust in that health, to have the faith to invest myself in a community and see past the idiosyncrasies to the more foundational goodness. It is tempting to say that the goodness in such communities is God, but I know I need more than that. I need to feel that the community is fundamentally, albeit in ways limited and human and flawed, good -- about promoting love and charity and justice and compassion.

Hope those thoughts aren't too rambling. Thanks to you all again for your thoughts.

Monday, November 19, 2007

on spirituality and relationality

It is an interesting phenomenon that in my questioning and skepticism of traditional forms of religion, I am met through this strange medium we call "blogosphere" by such kind, probing, and honest religious minds.

All of which is simply an overly wordy preamble to that which I truly intended to say -- namely, thank you all once again for your thoughts and insights.

What intrigues me the most at this point, I think, is the relationship between spirituality and relationality. Because on one basic level, I agree that our spirituality should not separate us from the world, should not focus our energies inward. It should, if it is genuine, connect us in ways ever deeper and more profound -- to our world, to ourselves, to our loved ones, to our communities. A spirituality that fails to do so is either tainted or incomplete, it seems to me.

And yet...

People find depth, meaning, and spiritual growth all the time through various forms of retreat and isolation, it seems to me. People attend retreats, go on long walks, sit in awe of a sunrise, meditate, pray, etc. And while an experience of prayer or of God might be somewhat different in groups or by oneself -- the inescapable truth is that the experience still occurs on the level of the individual (i.e., there is no such thing as a group consciousness). Attuning oneself to God can be shaped by a community, but it remains a process that occurs within each of us as individuals.

So it would seem that the issue of spirituality and relationality is not so much one of whether the spiritual formation occurs within a group setting (although there are advantages to this, noted in my last post) -- but rather one of outcome. That is, that spirituality should enhance our sense of relationship, of interdependence, of connectedness.

So those are my thoughts on the topic for now. I'd love to hear yours, if you would honor me with them.

"If we look deeply enough...we see that our heart is the sun." Thich Nhat Hanh

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

what I miss (a critical self-reflection?)

OK, so having set out my reasoning for why I am increasingly seeing myself as "spiritual but not religious" (though I agree with natalie's concern about how the word "spiritual" has come to be misused), I think it important for me to think somewhat critically about such a choice.

For there is clearly a downside. Perhaps several of them.

One downside, it seems to me, is the loss of a sense of community, a sense of togetherness in worship. One of my favorite parts of college was attending mass with friends, holding hands together during the "Our Father" and feeling that sense of community. I miss that. And certainly a choice to be "spiritual but not religious" is, in some sense, a choice not to pursue such experiences.

Somewhat tangentially, I also worry that a choice to be "spiritual but not religious" is simply going along with my natural inclination towards introversion, even isolation to some degree. Would it not be better to challenge myself? To experience God as part of a community as well as within the depths of my own experience?

Third, there is the risk mentioned of self-deception -- and the role of community in clarifying what insights might be "from God" and which are the result a kind of narrowness of vision, of my own sinfulness, etc. Would not a community allow for a kind of feedback? A kind of challenge? A potential for growth? (Parenthetically, I was musing about how communities themselves are not perfect in this regard. Community wide beliefs can endorse sexism, racism, and bigotry in various forms.) Still...

All this is to say that, as usual, I have no easy answers to such conundrums. (Actually, I don't think that this is a situation where there is a "right" or "wrong" answer, but rather one in which our hearts might validly choose between several paths.) But I do believe in questioning, in looking at things from various perspectives.

Thanks to you all for the generosity of your time and insights in responding to my previous post.

Friday, November 09, 2007

on spirituality and religion

I recently stumbled across a blog that raised the question of what people mean when they say they are "spiritual but not religious." And the various folk who commented on the topic suggested that such an orientation is generally a negative thing -- e.g., that such individuals want some connection with God (or however they would name their higher power), but are trying trying to avoid having their faith place any demands upon them.

As someone who is increasingly starting to think of myself along those lines, I feel a need to state why it is that I do so. And how I believe that such criticisms are misguided.

At the outset, let me make it clear that I have nothing but the deepest respect for those who take religion seriously, for those who find deep meaning within their religious traditions, and strive to incorporate values from their faith into their lives. My ramblings here are meant solely as a description of my own journey, not as a comment or criticism upon anyone else's journey.

I would begin by noting that faith has its roots in experience. History, theology, and tradition would all be largely meaningless if people did not continue to have some sort of experience of God in their lives. By this I suppose I mean the experiences of awe, wonder, grandeur, love, and gratitude -- or, perhaps better, glimpses of the transcendent reality that such experiences point to. This experience, I believe, is what people speak of when they describe themselves as "spiritual." At least, it is my meaning for that term.

Religion (or, perhaps better, religious philosophy, tradition, and certain forms of theology) attempt to comprehend and systematize such experience. And there is some value, I think, in doing so. We should engage our intellect around such experiences, contemplate the meaning of them, and allow them to challenge us.

Yet I would argue that the fundamental danger of dogma (which seems to be the inevitable outcome of religious tradition) is in the easy assumption that such attempts to systematize and understand such experiences are in some way equal to the experience (or to the reality beyond experience). By so doing, we commit the egregious error of assuming that we can "know" the will of God. And surely all would acknowledge the tremendous evils that have come into the world based upon such assumptions.

For me, choosing to be "spiritual but not religious" is mostly an effort to focus myself primarily on the kind of experiences described above. I strive to grow in compassion, love, understanding, and justice. I hope to be pushed outside of my comfort zone by these experiences, to grow and develop as a human being.

Yet I strive to avoid a sense of certainty that I am "right" in any absolute sense, that my conclusions and understandings of my experience are complete or allow me to judge others. Indeed, I believe that I should never hold onto any belief so strongly that I lose the capacity for compassion towards others. Because in doing so, I would allow my belief to interfere with the more fundamental goals of spirituality -- to grow in love, compassion, peace, justice, and understanding.

My own experience is that there has been much evil from people believing what their religious tradition tells them to believe -- that homosexuality is evil, that women should be subservient to men, etc. I believe that this process can lead people to believe things that they don't want to believe, to insist that they only believe something because they must obey "God's will." In so doing, they trust that God's will is more readily known in the pages of a book than from the experience of their soul.

I also believe that Christian religious traditions grow more true to Christ when they reject or ignore such teachings in the name of adherence to core Christian principles of love, compassion, and justice.

So at least for now, I think I shall remain "spiritual but not religious." I shall choose to keep my focus on the experience itself rather than on efforts to make sense of such experiences. I trust fully neither my own judgments in this regard nor the judgments of others. I trust only that God continues to communicate with the world, that God's call of love for us challenges us to grow in love ourselves.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

on hammers and feelings

There's an old saying (I think it may have been by Maslow) that goes that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

I've been thinking about that saying on a couple of fronts lately. The first thing that reminded me of that saying is a book I'm reading on mindfulness and depression. The basic gist of the book is that depression is generated (or at least exacerbated) when our analytical mind tries to "fix" an inner, distressing feeling. Since the feeling might not have an external cause, the analytical mind might say things like "I shouldn't feel this way" or "I should be over this." This line of reasoning fails to soothe the emotion, and the continued presence of the emotion exacerbates the analytical mind's sense that something is "wrong" and has to be "solved." Thus is created the kind of rumination which often plays a key role in perpetuating depression.

The book's proposed solution is to use mindfulness, to accept the presence of a distressing emotion rather than trying to "fix" the emotion. But what it got me thinking about is how our society trains us to be so analytical, so problem/solution focused. And in so doing, we end up with a tool (and a useful one) -- but one that can lead to counter-productive approaches to some problems. Interesting.

The other area that has had me thinking about Maslow's quote has to do with discipline. Day after day in my practice, I see parents who come to me with "out of control" children, who have been using increasingly severe forms of discipline in response to their child's outbursts. And I talk to them about how discipline is great for setting clear limits and providing a motivation to improve a child's behavior. But so often that isn't the problem. The child knows what's expected, what's "right" and "wrong." And they wish they could stop getting into trouble. The problem lies in that their mind becomes rigid and inflexible -- unable to think of others' perspectives or alternative ways to get their needs met. The child's inflexibility is met by their parent's inflexibility and produces...an outburst.

So I work with them on what Ross Greene calls "Plan B" (which is just a fancy term for using collaborative problem solving). And we talk about how to make it work so that it isn't simply "giving in" or "having to have their way," but actually siding with their child and working together to solve the problem.

I'm always struck by the frequency with which parents are resistant to trying this approach. They have so much fear of "losing" in some supposed contest with their child. They seem not to realize that they are already "losing" in the only areas that matter -- in terms of outcome, trust, communication, and relationship. But, again, this way of thinking stems from the fact that they feel they only have this one tool (of discipline) with which to address the child's poor behaviors.

I'm reminded that I, too, surely have my own limitations in this regard, times when I fail to realize, recognize, or use alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. I pray that I may learn to be open to more and more such tools.