I think of how it began for me. My first of many moments, my opening into the spiritual way. When I was a youth, I wanted to know God. Or, that God was a sham. Desperately. With all my heart. I even prayed that if God would reveal himself, herself, itself – in the next moment he, she, it could kill me. I meant it.
What I got was silence.
Silence. It can be a brick wall. It can lead to despair. And it can be something else. A birthday.
Thanks to Zen practice I began to engage silence as a spiritual discipline.
At some point I realized there was motion within the silence. And I began to probe into what that might be. I quickly saw how much hurt there was within that motion. My own at first. But soon, I noticed this hurt, this wound is perhaps a better word, one poet calls it a crack, was all too common among humans. Everywhere I looked there was this hurt, this wound. And with that noticing, doors opened.
As I grew from adolescent toward adulthood, I continued to be driven by an investigation into the hurt, and the fears and hopes I invested in that word God. I found I could locate much of this dis-ease as existing inside of me. However, I was also, as I said, increasingly aware of the hurt around me.
As a child of poverty and raised a poor people’s Baptist, I was painfully aware of the shape of the world, the rich held the power. The poor, well, the poor struggled just to make ends meet. Any horizon beyond survival was distant. I felt the teachings that justice would come after death preached from the pulpits of my childhood churches, cold comfort. I wondered whether this was simply the way things had to be. It didn’t feel a door to walk through. More like a door slammed in my face.
Then, thanks to the civil rights movement, I began to see things in different ways. First, I noticed how unjust our country was in its treatment of racial minorities, most especially those of African descent. And, most importantly, how people began to stand up for their rights. I noticed how other countries pick some other to blame for their ills, as well. A hint. This “othering” seems some terrible cancer within our human condition. But also, people standing up. People calling us to better angels. Noticing if making some group of people “other” was wrong, well, then what was right? Noticing this those closed doors began to open.
And, then the rise of women’s consciousness and a new women’s liberation movement challenged all sorts of things I had just assumed. In my childhood men were largely ne’er-do-wells, often drunks, while women were passive and long suffering. I noticed especially the fact of the ill treatment of women as simply another creation of “others.” And justification for mistreatment. This was especially challenging, as women count for slightly more than half of humans. Might. Violence. Justifications. A cascade of noticing flowed out this. And more doors opened.
Then I was confronted with the mistreatment of sexual minorities. And once again I found myself challenged, right to the core of what I thought was the way things are. This discovery in particular, opened me to look at wounds and hesitations our sexual identities are shaped within culture. How we are conditioned. And. More doors.
Then I began to see mistreatment of our planet itself, and how fragile it all is. More doors.
I found myself curious. And with this the great door to the cathedral of the wise heart was thrown open.
At base I began to notice the power and danger of all the ways we create “us” and “not us.” Or, perhaps more accurately, “me” and “not me.” It’s all tied up. And its messy. There are good things in claiming my place. In us claiming our place. It’s even essential. But there are such terrible things that follow if I hold that sense of place too tightly. Terrible things follow misunderstanding how we relate to each other. It shows a misunderstanding of who we are. Who I am. Who you are. And with that. More doors, yet.
All thrown wide. All inviting a walk through.
This is when I began to notice how all religions are false. I felt betrayed by my childhood faith. It’s most pervasive function in society was crowd control. Justice in the sweet by and bye felt a deep lie. I noticed this was true of all religions. A lot of the energy of religion might as well have been consciously designed. Because it certainly provides all the supports the status quo, to continue that litany of ills I began to notice both in my heart and in the world.
My world was small. From pretty early on I worked. There was no other option.
I was born into our American white underclass. My father suffered for the whole of his life from wounds in the Second World War. He drank heavily, and on more than one occasion landed in jail. He mostly worked as a bartender. My mother found religion a solace. When she worked outside the house it was as a maid, or a hostess in a bar where my father worked. I do want to say when my father died, she got a job as a file clerk in an insurance company, and gradually worked her way to the lower professional levels. But that was later.
My father’s recklessness often had us moving, occasionally during the day, more often under the cover of night, taking only what fit into the old car we had. But while poor, there was love in the house. Or apartment. And that mattered, a lot. However, the next most important thing for me, I believe, is how they both read, and voraciously. My mom loved mysteries, and my father science fiction. There were always books in our house. Lots of them. For me especially Science Fiction opened vistas, offered the first challenges to the world in which I lived, and allowed me to wonder beyond the constrictions of poverty and social isolation.
This was my angle on the great mystery. It brought wounds of several sorts. And it brought joys.
Also, I came of age in the 1960s, in the San Francisco Bay Area, a part of a generation of seekers. Many of these, my people, went on pilgrimages, most commonly to India and Nepal. I did not. Never occurred to me I could.
But, between my junior and senior year of High School I took a flyer and hitchhiked into Mexico with two hundred dollars I’d saved. Among the wonders, and there were many, I was most touched by the poverty, especially as I saw it in the cities. I was raised poor. We were sometimes desperately poor. But this was something way worse. I could not not see the beggars. Especially in Mexico City. There I stumbled on a tiny indigenous woman with a baby begging on the sidewalk.
I saw Mary and her babe. These words don’t convey the encounter. I saw Mary and her child. Us and not us, me and not me became very shaky.
I gave her all my money. Then I went into a nearby church and cried.
Later, I realized that where I went in the pit of my distress was to a church. All religions are false. And. What exactly that “and” might be, wasn’t clear. But, when everything failed, I made my way to some kind of sacred space. And religious community was part of it.
I had the privilege then of being able to call my parents and ask for enough money to come home. I’d never done this before. And I would only do it one more time. I knew coming up with the cash would be very hard for them. But they did, buying me an airline ticket and wiring some cash.
So much hurt. Mine. And that of this world. And in the midst of it, in the middle of it, that church as sanctuary, that sense of some holiness calling. Stars birth and die. Lives are lived. There are gates or doors and there are snares. And sometimes one thing can be both. Crowd control, yes. But, other things, as well. This noticing led me to reconsider spiritual communities.
Me, I’ve learned to value spiritual traditions, but to be suspicious of their shadows. Truthfully shadow sometimes feel too shallow a term for the horrors the institutions of religion visit upon people. Yearning for personal freedom in my explorations, but noticing how for others, too free a wandering often led to disaster. So, there are those religions. It seemed to me the intimate way was razor thin.
But there was a way.
There is a way.