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Prayer.Bliss.Light

Like many who early in life started asking hard questions about the religion of their upbringing, I spent years and years receiving less than adequate answers. Asking questions was often viewed as an act of alienation, a sign of faithlessness, backsliding or apostasy.

At some point, I realized that the discomfort caused by my questions was related to the fact that no one really knew the answers – other than to (basically) say, “The Bible tells me so.” I would then ask, “How do you know that the Bible is true?” The answer would always, of course, circle back around to, “Because the Bible tells me so.”

Period.

Beyond questions about the existence and nature of God, the veracity of the Bible, the mystery of the Trinity and so forth… what I really wanted to know was, “Where is the direct experience of God in all this?”

Crickets.

So, I determined to leave the religion of my upbringing. I stopped going to church and watched football on Sundays instead. I got jobs, made friends, went to concerts and Dodger games, parties, bars, softball leagues, bowling leagues, bookstores, coffee shops, etc., etc., etc. – all the things that offer an illusion of individuality. I honestly thought I’d left all that church stuff behind – except when I paused to notice that a vestige of “all that” remained intact.

This vestige was, I now know, the presence of God – the common LIFE-NESS that animates and breathes into all existence, perfectly, mysteriously, miraculously.

I may have sought a direct experience of God through spiritual traditions outside that of my upbringing, but my own sense of the Absolute never changed. I may have been reading the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras  and Upanishads, but when I looked inside of myself, I found that these writings pointed to the same direct apprehension of “God” that I’d always known. Same thing with Buddhism, which purports to be a system without God. When the Buddha talked about jhana/samadhi, which is self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy, it was the same bliss, joy and ecstasy I’d always felt when the presence of God was most undeniably upon me.

Fact is, no matter how far afield I strayed from the religion of my upbringing, the more stark the realization that God is omnipresent.

Many years after leaving the fold, while putting the pieces together through a renewed pursuit of answers, it occurred to me that, if God – the presence of self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy that is a constant reminder of the Infinite – is omnipresent and has never abandoned my field of awareness – shouldn’t I stop running and open a line of communion with the LIFE-NESS of all existence? Wouldn’t this be the direct experience I’d always desired?

They call this line of communion “prayer.”

I’m not talking about the rote recitation of thanksgiving over dinner – although that’s a wonderful and healing thing to do. I’m not talking about the conditioned imperative to ask for forgiveness so that one’s transgressions may be wiped clean – although, of course, this provides a profound sense of relief, as we humans are always transgressing in this way or that, followed by a burden of guilt whether acknowledged or not.

For me, prayer is a conscious availing to That which is always nudging from within, the Great Soul that lives inside all of us and is just waiting for our attention. Prayer is a form of surrender that says, “I’ve been acting like a separate entity all this time, pretending that I can – in and of myself – find ultimate contentment and satisfaction… but now I realize that my consciousness is just a minuscule fraction of the One Consciousness, and the wisest choice is to align with That.”

When we clear away the theological inquiries, the metaphysical riddles and the myriad practices that flood the spiritual marketplace, we are – in my opinion – stranded in a loneliness that feels like checkmate. We possess all this knowledge and witnessing of sages, saints and scholars who have either found their way Home, or who seem to know the path – but what does this knowledge get us? Does it bring us any closer to God? Or does it provide yet another diversion from a direct experience of God?

At a certain point, our prayer, meditation and/or contemplation must put us into immanent union with the Ultimate – with God – and it must provide a constant remembrance of our true relationship with That. Further, it must lead us to utter surrender – even when it means years and years of struggle (Dark Night of the Soul), as our false sense of separateness is whittled to the bone.

In the end, a life of prayer leads to genuine relinquishment, where all false beliefs go to die.  Constancy in prayer, meditation and contemplation provides the intelligence, power, guidance and communion that alleviate the utter loneliness that meets me at every turn. I cannot ultimately rely on myself, nor can I rely on other flailing humans – but I can rely on the LIFE-NESS that was, is and always will be in and around me, making Itself available as the Answer to the deepest questions I could possibly ask.

All that is required is to continually die to myself, either through conscious letting-go or through kicking and screaming every step of the way.

This is my notion of prayer.

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Matt 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. (NRSV)

Many English translations say “brothers” or “brethren” instead of “students.”

While I appreciate the NRSV’s editorial policy of inclusiveness, I think “you are all brethren” better highlights the brotherly and sisterly responsibility we have toward the 7 billion siblings around us.

Matt 22:36-40 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

This is the greatest and first commandment.

And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Spirit — the loving, divine, transformative, impossible-to-adequately-describe energy that continually beckons from the moment of birth, sometimes coming through in torrents — …Spirit directly and unmistakably delivers the fruits of the Teacher’s guidance to those who surrender completely.

Unwinding the hopelessly-tangled string of our existence is usually a long-term project.  Our highest calling, then, is to become surrendered as often as possible — recognizing that some days will be better than others, and that “failure” sometimes kicks us hard.

Healing and transformation happen in an environment of surrender.

Pain and suffering happen in an atmosphere of resistance.

The way to love our neighbor is through practicing surrender.

1Thess 5:17 Pray without ceasing.

Meditate, contemplate… commune… pray… surrender, as often as possible.

Teresa of Avila

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”  Matthew 21:22 (RSV)

Since beginning this blog a couple months ago, the back of my mind has been occupied with an unasked question: What is the best-case scenario for this project of reconciliation?

As I feel my way toward some sort of synthesis between Judeo/Christian and Eastern approaches to contemplative attainment, and I extend a tentative hand out to those in the Christian world who show a level of openness and tolerance for non-orthodox points of view, I have to face the very real possibility that it’s just never going to happen — I won’t find an ideal church setting that somehow matches the vision hidden behind all these words.

This morning, for instance, I found myself browsing Google for local church websites. For the fourth or fifth time over the past couple years, I sampled sermon mp3’s, read “what we believe” statements, studied “about Pastor Bob” essays, and subscribed to both podcasts and emails. I found that most of the churches (even in Boulder) take the Bible as inerrant, believe that the Holy Spirit is a person (male, in fact), and insist that the unsaved will experience excruciating torment for all eternity. A few churches (this being Boulder) pronounced themselves safe havens for the gay-lesbian-transgender community, and I could find nothing definitive about their actual Christian beliefs — as though the Bible has long ago passed into oblivion, a vestige of an outdated humanity that has moved on to more exciting things, whatever they are.

This experience moves me closer to an insight that goes something like this:  The type of church toward which I would otherwise be drawn — that which studies the Bible above and beyond all other activities — is also intolerant and fear-based, guarding a fundamentalist/literalist company line that leaves no room for genuine dissent or even questioning (i.e., you’d better end up believing what the church believes, or you’re gone). The other type of church, which goes out of its way to ensure that everyone is safe and all viewpoints are honored, ends up adopting so many popular, New Age, Jungian-inspired elements that I may as well just hang out at the local psychic school, metaphysical bookstore or Unity Church — all of which I’ve tried (worked for several years at a metaphysical bookstore, in fact), without ultimate succor.

As for engaging a contemplative element within local church environs… forget about it! Other than the big Methodist church downtown, which at one point offered a “meditation” class that met on Tuesday or Thursday nights, there’s nary a mention of contemplative practice on any of the websites I studied. The meditation class in question was based on Joel Goldsmith’s writings, he being a past luminary within the New Thought movement of the early-to-mid 20th century. I actually love Goldsmith’s take on things… but, again, I can get that anywhere in Boulder; it’s not what I’m looking for in a local church home.

At a deeper level, I recognize that it’s not about all these churches failing to meet my hopes and expectations.  I know that they do not exist in order to conform to insights and directives arising from my own, personal journey.  Leaders and members of these churches have their own beliefs and experiences, and they’re just doing their thing.  More power to them!

If I’m honest, I never expected to find a church that advertises itself as a community of rigorous and skillful contemplatives (i.e., “urban monks”), teaching its members how to attain and sustain ecstatic union with the Divine as a method for actualizing Christ’s essential teachings.  Who could expect that, when none of the world’s other religious traditions (with the very, very rare exception) value the ecstatic core of their original teachings?

A test confronts me here.

This test asks me to trust.

Rather than grow despondent over the fact that the religion of my upbringing continues to marginalize its “natural mystics,” I am challenged to find a faith within that has already guided me to this point — and that will surely lead me to the most appropriate resolution.

From earliest childhood, in fact, this inner guidance has been operative and available, showing that all good things are not of “me,” but have poured forth from a hidden (yet all-Present) source that responds to conscious surrender.  In other words… things go best when I relinquish the stress and strain of feeling it’s all on “me,” and I present myself a willing “slave” of the hidden source.

So, I am ready to be surprised by what comes of this search, knowing that it will hit me when I least expect it.

St. John of the Cross

Here is a recurring thought, stemming from ongoing studies of the Buddha’s discourses and a background in Protestant Christianity: Is it that insane to believe that life on Earth in this 3rd dimensional reality — this bardo, to borrow from the Tibetans — is actually a Hell realm?

What if, rather than necessarily being a fiery zone of unimaginable and constant pain/anguish, Hell is actually a relegation to the Wheel of Rebirth, doomed to being born over and over and over again in this world of delusion… until, at one point or another, one finally steps off the Wheel?

Hardcore conservative Christians insist that Hell is where we go if we turn our back on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, refusing God’s Grace as offered through the blood of the Cross — and once a person is judged to have missed his or her opportunity to attain eternal life in Heaven, that person must spend eternity in unimaginable pain/anguish, separated from God forever.

Universalists and other rogue Christians, however, are able to discern in the Bible a message of universal redemption. They maintain that, according to the overall Divine Plan represented in the totality of the Bible, every human who was ever born will have ample opportunity to attain redemption (i.e., be allowed into Heaven for all eternity), no matter how awful he or she may have been while in human form. Think of Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Idi Amin — they would all have the opportunity to “come to Jesus” and achieve eternal life in Heaven.

Christians, I think, get hung up on the notion that this human life — the one I, for instance, am living at the current moment — is all we get. This is our brief moment, “fallen” as it is, to secure salvation through belief in the archetypal Sacrifice of the Son — and then we die, at which time our soul moves on to its just reward.

But… what if the Buddhists have a more accurate concept of life-after-death? What if the Christian doctrine of Hell is only partially correct, in that Hell is actually what we encounter through multiple rebirths on this plane of existence — sometimes horrific, sometimes relatively blissful, always delusional until the light of Nirvana pops on…?

What if Salvation through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is actually a Mystery-depiction of the one universal Path back into ultimate union with God?

These questions, I maintain, lead naturally to a view of the Bible that tends to restate (in an albeit roundabout way) the Buddhadhamma, or the Middle Path that Gautama Buddha described through the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

While the Buddha refused to expound on the theme of God, he never denied the existence of God. What he gave us, however, was a detailed and (I would maintain) universal set of instructions for getting off the Wheel of Rebirth — out of Hell and into Heaven, in other words — and this message was for all humans who would dedicate their lives to a rigorous and skillful practice of his instructions.

Do you think that Jesus really meant you could get into Heaven by reciting a formula? Or do you think that Jesus, through his teachings and the example of his life, showed us a certain Way to secure union with the Father? Was it really a simple question of faith and belief (i.e., Free Grace)… or did he insist on a much deeper and committed level of surrender?

I sometimes wonder if Jesus, coming 500 years after the Buddha, wasn’t recasting the Buddha’s instructions for a much, much different audience — and, like the Buddha, he insisted that the way to Heaven is attained by dying to this world so that we may be reborn into an infinitely better one.

For both, it came down to transcending the desire-saturated nature of human life on this planet, seeing through the machinations of Mara/Satan, keeping one’s eyes on the prize through constant meditation/prayer/communion.

Hmmmmm…..

As someone who has spent the last 20 years questing for “enlightenment” through mostly Eastern approaches, these past five years have seen me drawn back into an investigation of the religious tradition of my upbringing: Protestant Christianity.

The process of daily Bible reading, sermon-listening and otherwise studying myself silly… has led to a degree of confusion, somewhat expressed through the name of this blog. Which model is correct? Enlightenment or salvation? Are they (despite rabid denials on every side) one and the same? If so… how do I rectify them in my own mind and heart?

Longtime studies in various forms of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), Buddhism, Sufism, Sikhism, Christian mysticism and other esoteric teachings have led to a personal determination that ecstatic union is the key to enlightenment (i.e., the full and complete merging with God, or the extinction of the illusion of separateness, characterized by an ultimate level of ecstatic absorption and saturation which solves the riddle of human existence once and for all).

If a teacher is not speaking from a place of ecstatic attainment (samadhi/jhana), I reason that what’s being offered is a mental approach that, while possibly interesting, will probably lead to just another diversion from That into which the ecstatic mystic is persistently magnetized.

The vast majority of spiritual literature does not fit the requirement of an ecstatic approach. Instead, we get innumerable “takes” on various sacred writings, each one pretending to be the “correct” interpretation, one that will lead to… enlightenment or salvation, depending on which tradition it belongs to. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of these “experts” do not have a contemplative practice, but are instead committed to thinking their way out of their human predicament — which just leads to neurosis, since the ego-mind is not about to think itself into submission.

I believe that many in my position would throw up their hands and say something like, “Just meditate and let the dead scripture writers rest in peace.”

For whatever reason, that’s not been an option for me.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I have an inexplicable conviction that the Bible can be understood as an ultimate roadmap to ecstatic union with God, which is the Judeo-Christian concept of enlightenment.

I have not worked this out sufficiently in my head, however… thus, this blog.

I will follow my intuition in posting studies on this or that, looking for correlations between my own direct spiritual experience and what I find in the Bible, in ecstatic utterances of certain mystics, and in sacred scriptures that have provided powerful ecstatic insights during my 20 years’ journey.

My prayer is that whatever comes of this will be of some help to someone, somewhere, during this time of collective transformation.

May we support one another through whatever gifts we possess, according to the Divine purpose bestowed upon us in this life.