The Centered Life

Editor’s Note: This is second in a series in which members of The Clergy Project focus on the “joyful secular life” they lead now that they’ve left the clergy, rather than discuss the negative role religion has played in their lives. This can be difficult, given that religion has influenced so much of their lives. A Clergy Project member who has been out of the clergy for 23 years wrote the following essay years ago. It’s obviously not in direct response to the request, but I think it fits. As he put it:

“It’s more about finding peace than the joy of my secular life–though I don’t think in the final analysis the two are separate.”

This is the writer’s first contribution to the Rational Doubt blog. I hope we see many more.

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By William Pankey

This morning I had a rather fine idea while running. I was thinking about the concept of inter-relatedness, spurred on by the reading of Fritjof Capra’s Web of Life.

Web of Life book cover

The analogy of a spider’s web that links us to all other parts of the universe is striking. The simple but profound realization is that we are inseparably connected. We are part of a part of each other as John Donne has noted:

            No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, was well as if a promontory were, as well as if only a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for Thee.

While musing on the idea of inter-relatedness and connectedness the word “centered” popped into my mind. The word centered seemed appropriate and not as of yet hackneyed. But why centered? Centered on what or on whom? To be centered means not so much to be self-centered but to have a “centered self.” A self that was at peace with itself, understanding itself, accepting itself, and most of all, loving itself. From the vantage point of having a centered self, one could relate more fully, wholly, and meaningfully to other selves and the rest of the web of life.

The problem in relating meaningfully and positively to the rest of the cosmos, the earth, humanity, one’s nation, state, community, family, and self seems to me, in part, to stem from a failure to be un-centered or unbalanced. Our lives are generally not in a state of homeostasis or internal equilibrium. We’re often internally distracted, divided, and distressed. How can it be otherwise? How can a different state of affairs exist when we are out of alignment? A car with an unaligned front end will not handle or steer very well. A tire that is not balanced will not wear evenly and will deteriorate more quickly.

Obviously, there is a relationship between balance and being centered. Generally, for an item to be balanced it has to be centered. But how is one to get centered or what is to be centered? To be centered is a metaphor for being focused. The world’s great monotheistic religions stress the preeminence of God. Their focus is on God, on a being that is transcendent.

God Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail

A focusing on a being that is external to one’s self. The idea that I had, on the other hand, has nothing to do with seeking or focusing on anything external. On the contrary, the focus must be directed inwardly, the focus must be on self—first. Only by focusing or centering upon oneself can one successfully focus or center on others. There is an old Zen saying,

“Zen is like looking for spectacles that are sitting on your nose.”

In other words, we need not look or seek any farther than ourselves to be properly centered or focused. The problem is that we get the cart before the horse. We run hither and yon looking for peace of mind and happiness when all the time it is right under our noses. Literally, right between our ears!

We need to make peace with ourselves before we can have peace with others, we need to accept ourselves before we can accept others, we have to be patience with ourselves before we can be patience with others, and we must know ourselves before we can hope to know others. Hopefully, it is obvious that centering is a process—an on-going day-to-day life long process. We cannot, nor should not wait until we are fully centered to center on others. If that were the case we would never reach out for we never seem to stay centered or get nearly as centered as we should be. The first step is to realize that we need to be centered, the second step is to find a way to get centered, and the third step is to stay as centered as possible in a topsy—turvy world that we have created corporately for ourselves.

Once we have awakened to our need of being centered we must find a method of centering ourselves. I have used the word method deliberately. For the method must be our method, one that works for us. There is no use or need for dictating or insisting on this way or that way—for there is no way—other than the one that works for us. In choosing a way, I am entirely pragmatic—if it works use it! Proselytizing is not necessary because ways are like shoes—one size does not fit all. I am also using the word “ways” deliberately for there are as many ways as there are people. I have no idea how many ways there are or even what is the best. I think however, that there are certain criteria for determining the ones capable of achieving a deeper centering from those that are more obscurant or superficial. The criteria are rather simple: those ways or methods that seek that which the internal rather than which is external are preferred, in other words, those that emphasize the immanent rather than the transcendental. As mentioned previously, the way is not as important as the result. A way is a vehicle, a means of getting from one place to another. In Zen Buddhism, an analogy is made that the teachings of the Buddha are like a raft used to cross a river. Once on the other side of the bank the raft is no longer needed. We often make the mistake of confusing the raft with the destination, or the map with the territory. We continue to hold on to the vehicle and end up becoming dogmatic and making that way “sacred.”

Though the ways may differ significantly, the results should very much be the same. A deeply centered individual should be characterized by patience, tolerance, compassion, selflessness, a love for the truth, a respect for life, a strong sense of justice, a commitment to peace, non-violence, and above all—love. When a person is truly centered and at peace with himself, and further understands his inter-relatedness to the cosmos, the world, the nation, the community, and the family these virtues will be evident. How could it be otherwise?

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William PankeyBio: William Pankey serves as an academic librarian and adjunct professor of philosophy at Harper College in Palatine IL. A member of The Clergy Project, he was an Assemblies of God pastor for 10 years and left the ministry 23 years ago. He is married with two grown daughters and two granddaughters. He enjoys reading, traveling, gardening, riding his motorcycle and doing science experiments with his grandchildren.

>>>Photo Credits:https://www.amazon.com/Web-Life-Scientific-Understanding-Systems/dp/0385476760; http://images.rollbamaroll.com/images/admin/sesshu1.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3928979

“Creation of the Sun and Moon face detail” by Michelangelo – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creation_of_the_Sun_and_Moon_face_detail.jpg

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Annerdr

    It seems like you’ve taken the J.O.Y. (Jesus – Others – You) of the fundagelical crowd and turn it into a healthier, more realistic Y.O. (You – Others).
    Yo, dude!

    • mason lane

      :) I like it Annerdr. Yo!

  • mason lane

    William, such a beautifully written piece. We are so pleased to have you as part of The Clergy Project and thanks for you first article on the Rational Doubt blog! Hope there will be many more.

    I especially like the quote … “Zen is like looking for spectacles that are sitting on your nose.”

  • Geoff Benson

    I enjoyed reading your post.

    I’d be interested to know what motorcycle you ride. Anybody who rides a bike is okay with me.

  • Mark Rutledge

    I have benefited from the practice of mindfulness meditation and zen reading. Thanks for this inspiring post. I recall that the earliest Christians referred to themselves as “people of the way.” Interesting how truths have resonance throughout many traditions.

  • Matthew Hullinger

    Great Article. From my own personal experience, I tried Buddhist practice but meditation was not for me. I never felt any sense other than…”I’m sitting here….not doing anything….I need to do something.” lol My own personal journey has led me to stoicism, which runs parallel in some ways to Buddhism, without the emphasis on meditation or mantras. Stoicism has led me to a more centered and happy life.

    • mason lane

      I also found the Buddhist meditation not for me. I found the most effective meditation was just to observe my thoughts as if I were watching the ocean with birds diving in and dolphins leaping out. It always leads to calm still water although at first there may be stormy waves.

      I found the koan in Zen Buddhism interesting and thought or thoughtlessness provoking. I found better ways for me for centering and mindfulness. Some of of the ideas in Buddhism I found were quite delusional, like the idea all wanting and desire etc. leads to suffering. My life reality is that almost all my wants and desires, goals in life have been very satisfying and fulfilling. I had a friend who really went off the deep end with wanting to rid himself of all desires, hence, suffering. He became quite delusional and mentally psychotic from days of silence and meditation alone in his house. I helped him see the absurdity of what he was doing and he’s fine today.

      I have and still do experience magical Zen moments of oneness with the Universe, typically in a Nature setting or a meditative state playing a very tranquil guitar piece. It also happened a lot when I was in the ocean surfing. (sure miss those days :) ) Here’s a piece I “captured” during a Zen type enlightenment, consciousness expansion, experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP4Gaam-N84

    • ElizabetB.

      I agree with you and Mason… haven’t caught on to sitting meditation. Part of my “way” is walking. I love walking near the end of the day, and all the tangles of the day sort of sort themselves out. A maple today was breathtaking. When I tried figuring out my worldview a few years ago, I called it “So how would you write about a walk?” & it started —

      “When I set out for my walk, it seems I should be communing with the Universe, The Other, the One –
      but it feels like I am just walking. Not ‘communing.’ Not thinking, brain to Brain.
      Not Wordsworth’s sense of a Presence, which has always been so appealing

      ” ‘And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
      A motion and a spirit, that impels 100
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things.’
      “[Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey: on revisiting the banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798 (lines 94-102) ]

      “Yet somehow my walk seems more significant than ‘just walking.’ …..”

      • Linda_LaScola

        I’m a walker too, Eliz – and not a meditator or yoga fan, though I tried. To each his/her own.

        Lovely words by Wordsworth. Thanks

        • ElizabetB.

          Thank you for enjoying it too!!!
          And it’s fun to know you’re a walker too. It’s like having a friend along : ) Enjoy!!!

      • alwayspuzzled

        “Yet somehow my walk seems more significant than ‘just walking’.”

        Though nothing can bring back the hour
        Of splendor in the grass or glory in the flower,
        We will grieve not, rather find
        Strength in what remains behind.

        • ElizabetB.

          Thanks so much for the lines, a’puzzled!!
          When I read this in college, I didn’t pick up on the sadness part… maybe we read only a segment…. Whatever, returning to it now, the end-of-life implications do resonate. Do you think he was saying that even though the “glory” has dimmed, still the wiser, “philosophic mind” view is better?

          “I love the brooks which down their channels fret,
          Even more than when I tripp’d lightly as they….

          “Thanks to the human heart by which we live, 205
          Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
          To me the meanest flower that blows can give
          Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

          • alwayspuzzled

            “Do you think he was saying that even though the ‘glory’ has dimmed, still the wiser, ‘philosophic mind’ view is better?”
            I do not know much about Wordsworth, but I don’t think he thought the “philosophic mind” – that is, the contemplative mind – was better.
            Foundational to Wordsworth’s poetry was the value of personal intuition, a capacity that for him could be strengthened and enlarged by intuitive engagement with one’s natural surroundings – contemplation of and in nature. For Wordsworth, intuitive engagement through the contemplation of nature produced an intense awareness of being part of a Whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
            As far as I know (which isn’t very far), he did not take much interest in the Whole itself. His interest was focused on the individual’s intuitive engagement with the Whole and the intense experience that he found in the active exercise of intuition. To some extent, his poetry records his successes and failures of intuitive engagement.

      • mason lane

        “When I set out for my walk, it seems I should be communing with the Universe, The Other, the One – but it feels like I am just walking. Not ‘communing.’ Not thinking, brain to Brain. Not Wordsworth’s sense of a Presence, which has always been so appealing”

        You’re probably a budding Zen Master and don’t know it, … yet. :) Try dropping thoughts of “The Other, the One” (a divisive thought/illusion, one that even become malignant via organized religion … you are already one with that “brain”, the Universe … walk, think or not think, just be … don’t be surprised that the moment you become aware/sense (and it is a profound life changing sensing) there’s no division, no “other”, the awareness vanishes at the speed of light … that happens, … especially until you get accustomed to sensing your “presence-oneness” “one with the Universe”, to not feeling like a seeker, not cogitating a non-existent division. Among all of Earth’s creatures, only we humans can create this non-existent separation and needlessly become lost pilgrims. No wonder people love their dogs, cats, horses etc. who try to teach them.

        • ElizabetB.

          Well, Zen master is YOU : )
          I have talked to myself along these lines for maybe a year and a half, but I’m thinking right now that “one with everything” seems not to be my “way” — hasn’t happened yet & I’m pushing octogenarianhood! : ) tho I love reading others’ descriptions of their experiences.

          I seem to be always on a quest… & apparently will until synapses quit firing : ) I don’t think of a “Brain” to be aware of — neither the scary one pictured above or the “poet of the universe” “lure” of Whitehead et al. I keep pushing at what that means… I guess that seems to be my “way” : ) And it’s a much, much happier way with people to explore with!!!!!!! So Thank You!!! Keep those ideas coming!!!!

  • ElizabetB.

    Thanks so much for this reflection… it’s very interesting that it must serve well, since you reaffirm it after so many years!

    And thank you for sending me back to “The Raft Is Not the Shore,” the dialog between Berrigan and Nhat Hanh in the 70’s. As you write, Nhat Hanh stresses that “for Buddhists to be attached to a doctrine, even a Buddhist doctrine, is to betray the Buddha…. it is not the words and the concepts that are important, but something within; the way to deal with things, to be with humans, is important.” [118-9]

    Tonight I heard Reza Aslan talk about his book “God: A Human History” with Tavis Smiley, explaining that he’s a pantheist — that what he means by “god” is the sum of all, that all of us together are an expression of the divine — we’re all connected.

    I appreciate the way you tie everything together, the inner and outer aspects of living… and how along with Capra, Aslan, and Nhat Hahn, you encourage that awesome list of characteristics. May they grow!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/eidos/ John Mark N. Reynolds

    This is most excellent and helpful, even for those of us who don’t agree with all the metaphysics!