This Month's Contents: Life Teaches: a poem by Dan Garmat | Dogma, Karma, No Regrets by Charles Suhor | Magnetoresistance & the Search for Self by Art Ticknor | Quotes | Video: God Moving Over the Face of the Waters by Moby | Humor
I know someone who just announced she is pregnant — it wasn't planned, nor do I believe expected to interrupt a 20-something's life primarily concerned with having fun. "Circumstances befall us..." they do at that.... Life as teacher: stories of a life event that taught you a profound lesson was the proposed theme and the banner under which we solicited input for this issue. As for me, I told my story long ago, and if you'd care to revisit a bit of rock climbing adventure, you can do so here. As for you, well, I'll let you be the weaver of that story.
While looking at stars,
You whisper something quietly.
For decades I've heard stories about the stereotypical Catholic childhood. Usually, it was either a living hell or a time of poignant innocence. There are tales about how fierce nuns would slap the palms of your hands with rulers or sadistic brothers would make you kneel on sand with arms outstretched as punishment for forgetting your homework. Then there are the affectionate remembrances of Catholic youth, like the time you spilled Coke on your sister's First Communion dress, or how you thought that the prayer went "Hail Mary, full of grapes."
I can't deny that such terrible and quaint things happened, but I suspect that the folklore of Catholic childhood has oversimplified the experiences that many of us had on a day-to-day basis. To begin with, I'm still alive and thriving, so it's clear that Catholic childhood didn't do me in completely. I had some huge problems as a Catholic kid, but some good breaks as well.
One of them was that my parents couldn't afford to send their five kids to a Catholic school in New Orleans. Moreover, Washington Elementary School was four blocks closer to our upper Ninth Ward house than St. Cecilia’s. Nicholls High School, across the street from Washington, was miles and dollars closer that Holy Cross High, located in the Lower Ninth. But the public school experience was in many ways a secular version of parochial school rigidity — a lot of rote memorization, arbitrary rules, and stone-cold enforcement of discipline.
My good and smart and loving parents were, above all, hyper-Catholic. We didn't have to go to St. Cecilia's to get indoctrinated. Those hounds of heaven — the multitude of dogmas, rules, sins, virtues, indulgences, graces, litanies, novenas, and saints that permeated Catholic belief and practice — were the mental furniture of life in our household, mercilessly amplified by weekly Catechism classes and Sunday sermons at St. Cecilia’s. Here are some things that a kid had to worry about: The word "damn" flashed into my mind. Did I intend that, or fail to blank it out fast enough? When I got mad at Betty LeBlanc during a game of Kick the Stick, did I "hate" her enough to be committing a sin? A venial one, or a mortal one? When I brushed my teeth before Mass, did I swallow a little toothpaste so that I shouldn't go to Communion that morning? If I decided to go, would that be a sacrilege? When I confessed the number of times I had impure thoughts, did I get it right? Yes, I'm sure I did. Wait a minute. Did I really get it right?
This ruthless self-examination seems like nonsense today, but it was the cause of excruciating anguish to innumerable Catholics. The stakes could not have been higher: the fires of torment through all eternity. My earnest father was trapped in this game of Guilt Trivia, suffering from excessive moral scruples for much of his adult life. I had the same problem for years — a deep anxiety that almost anything you think or do is tinged with sin, possibly damnable sin.
Quite a bind. I sensed the genuine love in my family but at the same time was oppressed by the avalanche of sins I might be committing. Brimful with conscience and bearing a ready intelligence, I actually tried to remember, understand, and apply the categories and subcategories of sins and virtues in the Baltimore Catechism. I introspected daily on the degrees of willful consent that I gave to supposedly sinful thoughts and actions. I was a pint-sized, Catholic version of J. Alfred Prufrock. This was a terrible way to live.
I was able to break through some of the silliest mental manacles as a teenager when I figured that an occasional "damn" or "hell" was part of slang usage and not an intention of eternal perdition. Loyola University might have brought a regression to my fear-based, scruple-ridden faith, but it was just the opposite. High school had been scandalously easy. At Loyola, I finally entered a cavern of complex ideas commensurate with my taste for cerebral spelunking.
This was the 1950s. Thomas Merton's books on meditation brought spiritual understandings immeasurably beyond the strained rituals of my childhood. Neo-Scholasticism and Jacques Maritain's theories of art and culture were mind-bending. Sociology, a word I had never heard before, gave me new ways of looking at complex social institutions. I read novels and poems and plays for the first time and found them thrilling, not a chore to be done with. Gone were the days when "school" meant a forced march through shallow or distasteful assignments. I dared to admit that it was fun to study.
There was more. A small, decidedly non-fifties campus group was working with Jesuit priests Joseph Fichter and Louis Twomey as Catholic activists for racial integration, workers' rights, equitable distribution of wealth, and other causes. We were a Lay Apostolate who found allies and models in the work of Dorothy Day and the writings in Integrity magazine. The Catholic intellectual life was a whole cloth of interwoven signs, symbols, and beliefs, a spiritual project that aimed for personal sanctity and social justice. This was a wonderful way to live.
Not forever, though. Within a dozen years, and the whole Neo-Scholastic synthesis was in disarray. By the late sixties the well-sculpted system of theology and its handmaiden, Thomistic philosophy, was losing ground in Catholic universities. Young intellectuals, both clergy and laity, openly challenged the Church's rigid hierarchy, engrained sexism, prohibitions on birth control, and even Papal infallibility. They flailed the Church's tepid official responses to segregation, poverty, the Vietnam War, and human rights violations throughout the world. Defections abounded.
For me, no single event, person, or book motivated leaving the religion of my birth and nurture. I like the old pun, "My karma ran over my dogma," but my apostasy was not so dramatic. It was a gradual shift in feeling and understanding that accrued over several years. Certainly, the liberal views in publications like National Catholic Reporter were an influence. But had the righteous left-wing Catholics gone too far? Their cries for social action went hand in glove with rebellion against core doctrines. And many of those who rejected basic dogmas, prescriptions, and practices made bold to claim that they were still, indeed, Catholics. Mon Dieu, some even called themselves Marxist Catholics. I was a liberal on social issues, but the doctrinal protests seemed . . . well, Protestant. Was I leaving the Church, or was the Church leaving me?
My life experiences were as important as philosophical issues in leaving Catholicism. As early as 1960 the illiberal New Orleans hierarchy chickened out on school integration. I was teaching at my alma mater, Nicholls High School, trying to offer non-racist perspectives in the context of my English and American history classes. The clergy had earlier made some brave noises about integrating the Catholic schools first, but when push came to loss of financial support, Archbishop Rummell shamefully bypassed the chance to model Christian ethics and peaceful integration — even token integration — in the controlled environment of a Catholic school. What followed was an ugly trauma and months of near-chaos in the city with integration in two Ninth Ward public schools. I was among the teachers who risked our jobs by going to work after the state legislature ordered a shutdown of the public schools. We prevailed in the long run, but in the Easy Rider phrase, the institutional Church blew it, man.
A deep personal crisis also occurred in my family. In the early 1970s I saw my marriage plunging toward a no-fault disaster, leaving the most important commitment in my life in shreds. Clearly, it was past time to risk the hellish threats of religious doubt and reconsider bone-marrow questions of belief. The Church's teachings and practices still held intellectual power and aesthetic wonder, but the big, tidy package no longer seemed referential to the real world. In 1973 I decided it was better to wander with a beginner's mind in a disappointingly messy world than continue to live in the elegant but irrelevant structures of the Church.
I took to milling around for a while as a believer-at-large, reading various scriptures in an exploratory way. Reincarnation had always struck me as a particularly interesting heresy, so I began to work with that idea while looking further into forms of meditation. Merton's approaches had prepared me well. During my early mediations I had often moved into wordless realms where contact with God was union with God as Love, blessedly out of range of ideas of the Trinity, the five Glorious, Joyful, and Sorrowful Mysteries, apologetics, encyclicals, and a thousand Thou-Shalt-Nots. I sensed that a unity of spiritual experience might lie at the heart of many modes of meditation. After a couple of years doing Transcendental Meditation I discovered the Buddhist method of Vipassana (insight) meditation, which I've since practiced for twenty years.
As for social activism, I discovered the Unitarian Universalist Church as a fine denominational site for probing the issues that had long excited me. The activist ethics and intellectual stimulation of the Unitarian community brought me into the faith in the late seventies. Unitarianism is not prescriptive with regard to spirituality, so I wasn't hindered in cultivating Buddhist meditation practice. I now see myself as a UU Buddhist, or maybe a Buddhist UU, or maybe just a seeker who wants to live with equanimity and love.
Although my childhood was tormented by the unyielding conditioning of the Catholic Church, I've never harbored resentment or regrets. I'm thankful for the ways, however imperfect, that the Catholic Church venerated Jesus and gave me ideals of love and service that I still carry. It also gave me genuinely Christ-like people like my parents, siblings, and many colleagues and teachers.
And certainly, I still love and revere Jesus the teacher. After all, it wasn't Jesus's fault that I was born into, then bought into, then overinvested in, a rigid doctrinal expression of his teachings. Jesus was there for me nonetheless, shining through the tatters in the cloak of Catholic doctrine. I believe that the essential Jesus, not the Jesus obscured by various creeds that people have slaughtered each other to defend, speaks the true Dharma; and I believe that the essential Buddha, not the Buddhism debated by Hinayanas and Mahayanas and other schools, speaks the true Gospel. And so it is with prophets of other belief systems, and with the truth that we all speak when we live compassionately.
The mixture of the terrible and the wonderful was abundant in the Church — pretty much as it is in the rest of the world. And from a Buddhist perspective, even the terrible stuff was good. In retrospect, I believe that part of my karmic mission in this life was to break away from a dogmatic belief system. Also in the Buddhist view is a caution against ruing the past. Our true commitment must be to living with peace and compassion in the present moment. The persistence of regret, resentment, lamentation, guilt, grudges, and the like is a spiritual irritant, prodigiously wasteful. As I write this and as you read it, we are breathing present air and living present life, blessed by the past only if we’ve learned from it and are ready to let it go.
If you have any questions or comments of your own, email .
The Royal Swedish Academy of Science awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2007 to Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg for their simultaneous and independent discovery of a quantum mechanical effect in the field of magnetoresistance. What caught my attention in the award article I read was the description of magnetoresistance: a phenomenon where the electrical resistance of certain metals decreases by an unusual amount in the presence of a magnetic field. More specifically, it was the connection between a magnetic field and decreased resistance that rang a bell.
The incentive to know the self arises when our "commerce with the world" (to use a phase of Martin Seligman's1 ) isn't going too well. We start off by trying to change others when we aren't getting what we want – and when that fails, we may start toward ourself. We may try altering our appearance and, when that doesn't work, we may go after our personality – trying to learn how to project a more attractive or less irritating image in order to satisfy our desires.
Eventually life teaches us, if we're paying attention, that the world cannot provide the satisfaction we seek. In addition to not getting what we want, or to satisfactions not lasting, we are subject to all sorts of vulnerabilities – physical and emotional – including sickness, embarrassment, rejection, failure and, ultimately, death. That realization is bound to bring an experience, or a series of experiences, of hopelessness. If we're fortunate, something awakens our intuition to the recognition that there's a new possibility to explore, and it's within.
Within is an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of dimension that can only be explored inversely – by backing away from what we experience in order to get a better view. We see that personality, as the word derivation points out, describes the characteristics of a mask and tells us nothing about what's behind the mask. All our beliefs about "I am a person who…." are beliefs about a mask.
When we see past faulty beliefs in personality as what we are, we're still left with a belief in individuality, in being a separate being who's tremendously vulnerable. The journey to knowing the self, which begins with the push of dissatisfaction from not getting what we want, steps up in seriousness with the admission that the individual's vulnerabilities rest on a fear of annihilation, followed by the universal reaction of trying to find something that will make that vulnerable individual self invulnerable.
At some point along the way, as more and more of our faulty beliefs about what we are come into view, the motivation for the search changes. We see or feel that the problem is, and has been all along, that there is too much "self" – i.e., those beliefs about what we are. The search becomes what Richard Rose termed an egoless vector. We no longer see anything in it for the belief in individual I-amness, the ego-self, whose inflation is the problem not the solution, but the momentum that has built up keeps us moving in the direction of finding the answer to the "What am I?" question. Another way to describe this is to say that the movement now comes from the magnetic pull at the core of our being, which – as the voice of nostalgia has always hinted – is leading us back to our real home.
The problem in the final phase of the search for Self is that the ego-self can't detach itself from itself. The belief in individuality can't unimagine itself. The final transition to knowing the self requires a discontinuity from the type of knowing that we're familiar with – to a knowing by identity, of recognizing our "oneness with." We've unknowingly come closer and closer to the recognition of our true identity as we've seen through the illusion of our faulty self-beliefs and, in the final hour, the magnetic pull at the center of our being overcomes the remaining resistance.
(1) As quoted by Charles Barber in Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry is Medicating a Nation. "… Negative emotions contain 'messages about how our commerce with the world is going.'" Seligman is a psych professor at the U. of Pennsylvania. His books include Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.
Question: What are you?
Phase 1: "The question never occurred to me."
Phase 2: "I hear that it's relevant, but I don't see the relevance myself."
Phase 3: "Intellectually I see its importance, but it's not a burning issue."
Phase 4: "I see it's the only hope."
Phase 5: Period of hopelessness.
Phase 6: Self-realization.
Phase 7: "It's no longer an issue."
A process goes on progressively from birth to death. Some call it "wising up," but another thing to call it is "accepting defeat." It is defeat. Your fantasies die one at a time. Most people die physically before they get to the point of total rejection.
~ Jim Burns
It's nice to be nice to the nice.
[A]fter reading this month's forum I have decided to respond to the direction taken by most writers at the Forum. Most are probably well versed in Advaita, Buddhism, various other eastern religions, a few Christian. The tone has become rather tired, not only at TAT but through out the new age community. Many people are saying "we are trying too hard", you have to "be" reality, which they go on to say you already are. And this I believe is the cause of this fatigue with the search. If you are reality why don't you know it? if your individual self is an illusion how can your illusionary mind lead you to reality? There are many books written trying to explain why you don't know that you are the Reality but just don't know it. This is the source of the fatigue and desire to give it up, it's the lack of logic in the search. We keep pushing for something that makes no sense. If you have been reborn over and over again when are you ever going to get it? If you are already That, who cares? I believe it is the unconscious recognition that the eastern philosophies and new age self help are not real, not worth pursuing. There have been a few Catholic/Christian writers but there seems to be a desire to make them into something eastern, new age. I remember reading one of Mr. Rose's books where he said he knew of one other person who he felt had a real realization and this man was a Christian with a strong prayer life who had benefited from God's grace. Certainly given short shrift these days. I realize these comments will raise some hackles but I also am tired of reading the same kind of stuff, emotional, self searching, sensitive, etc. Blech! I have read Mr. Rose's poetry, it is nothing like the stuff cranked out by new age sensitives! His writing is real, not apologetic! I have great respect for Mr. Rose and have read all his work. Don't mean to rant but sometimes one must rant.
Thank you, Michael
Did you enjoy the Forum? Then buy the book! Beyond Mind, Beyond Death is available at Amazon.com.