Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Spirituality

LOOKING FOR THE ORIGINS OF A MEDITATIVE PRACTICE

One of my ongoing questions about Quaker practice is just how early Friends came to discover – or rediscover – a form of meditative practice while so far removed from Asian spiritual traditions.

Early Quaker worship, let’s be certain, was often quite different from the silence-based hour many contemporary Friends claim. Women and children, especially, often released emotional torrents in the gathered assembly – and a decade or two later, in response and en route to something more respectable, many hours of worship were filled by a rec0gnized minister filling most of the time with his own message. (Or, possibly, her.) As Douglas Gwyn remarks in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience: “These ministers then proceeded to speak almost the length of the meeting …” Even the controversial Elias Hicks, in the early 1800s, could be counted on to deliver vocal ministry lasting 20 to 30 minutes, a detail that would shock many today who insist, as many of the Hicksites would, that a vocal message be brief and pithy.

And so I was startled to hear Douglas Gwyn note another possibility for our traditional silence or open worship:

On another level, it is also intriguing to speculate whether the Quaker movement represented a resurgence of the old Celtic Christian tradition in the North. Celtic Christian emphases upon the indwelling of Christ, the inclusion of all creation in God’s redemptive work, the spiritual authority of women, and the cross as real personal triumph through suffering – all these themes found conspicuous expression in the Quaker movement. Although they were filtered through the thought-forms of Reformation, they still constituted a strong counterpoint to the dominant Puritan message. … in the backwater of the English Reformation, this very old, isolated stream of Western Christianity would have continued as an undercurrent in the faith of country folk. … As he [George Fox] moved westward into Westmorland, Cumberland, and northern Lancashire, where the movement exploded in 1652, he entered the largest area of vestigial Celtic tradition in England.

Hints of the dimensions of the earlier Celtic Christianity can be found in Thomas Cahill’s epic 1995 How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, where he follows a strand of Christianity that was suppressed after the historic confrontations with Roman authorities in the late 600s on the English holy island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Quite simply, Roman Catholicism might have taken a much different direction than it has.

Did Celtic Christianity include meditative practices like those we find in yoga or Zen Buddhism? We can only speculate.

Still, as Gwyn remarks of the early Quaker movement nearly a millennium after the Lindisfarne controversies, it was while traveling through Cumberland that John

Burnyeat observes that they still did not know “true striving,” which is “out of self,” “standing still out of our own thoughts, willings, and runnings.” But other Quaker ministers came through the area and guided them “in what to wait, and how to stand still.” Evidently, there was some degree of technique to early Quaker spirituality, or at least some kind of guidance that helped refocus spiritual energies from ego-centered striving to true surrender. Slowly, “a hope began to appear in us, and we met together often, and waited to see the Salvation of God.”

That degree of technique may still be needed for many who come to Friends meetings, not knowing how to center into the silence, especially in today’s media-saturated overload.

Were these Quaker ministers thus reviving something that was already in the peoples’ bones? It makes for some interesting speculation.  The fact is that in today’s society, many of us need some help learning to sit still and enter a holy silence.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down. Feel free to take a look.

PSALM OF PSALMS

1

the tension
of the harp
and bow-string

in the poet-king’s hand

taking flight
in the air

*   *   *

how many Psalms
expressed the same anguish
and trial

in the glorious regime

*   *   *

how brief the interludes
between exile

2

the Psalms are poems
or the Psalms are prayers

as if I could define either

*   *   *

prayer is not what I speak
but what my Deeper Self would utter
despite me

*   *   *

raise my shield, O Lord,
regardless of the outcome, and lift me

there’s nothing easy about love

3

New Zion

originally, Bible stories were chanted
rather than read and dissected in the rabbinical twist

hardened into bronze

even in daily devotion

in this quest of salvation
facing Jerusalem
tiring of the routine exile

where’s my power in this place?
my heart, ever so uneasy

*   *   *

patriots say Peace but mean Victory:
which is hardly the same outcome
or means

festering and darkening
drumbeats summoned
into crowds cheering
uniforms
or invoking the Holy One
the Prince of Peace
to their cause

*   *   *

even communion tokens
from Colonial-era steeplehouses
witness the contrast to our free-Gospel ministry

with their families, subscribing to box seats
squirming in this theater of pipes

so who exchanged coins
for their purity?

truly, how do you pay
with the psalter?

holy, holy, holy

in a constant delving for treasures
where others see nothing of value

from whom all blessings flow
over each stretch of turmoil

*   *   *

how many strands of history
and sojourn
converge on me
as I’m walking in prayer
and softly humming
a funeral hymn for comfort

some October night
shivery petals shall upend
a row of headstones, too

called to the cause of justice

4

counterpoint originates
in the descant over the cantus firmus

or maybe drumming
or the sound of feet dancing

or even droning under the chant

in the conflicted lines
of desire and pain

in the hideous bleeding wrists
and ankles

*   *   *

O Holy One
contrary to the ancient discipline
I country dance
and sing harmony

to once again crack the thick shell
I build around me

“in the gift of life is also the gift of time”

time, as a signature
for music
for the dance

O Holy One
bless the Singers’ Table
with its poets and musicians

free in the present
free in unity with the Holy Spirit
free in the disciplines we embrace

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set, click here.

THE MOODIEST FEATURE

Initially, I regard the mountain as another slumber-induced fantasy. Its climax appears pristine, boundless, haughty, mesmerizing, even eerie. Over time I behold its hideousness and terror as well. Such beauty may suddenly turn fatal. Timberlands netted with trails and campsites, plus unfettered wildlife, extend from its ivory helix. These opportunities are my primary rationale for migrating to this corner of the nation. But these woodlands border desert, and none of my maps alert me to the consequences. Not even Georgia O’Keeffe’s brilliant renderings of New Mexico, artwork I long admired, hint at its harsh thirst. Rather, the paintings emerge as another kind of dream to be savored, confined to a gallery or oversized pages. Besides, my definition of desert would have required camels, or at least organ barrel cactus, neither of them found in the cheat grass and sagebrush foothills surrounding my new home and workplace.

A glacier-glad mountain resembles a foaming waterfall. It is, after all, an endlessly frozen cataract. Below it, in late spring or early summer, breastworks are laced with plummeting streams racing toward September irrigation in desert to the east. On the clearest days, Rainier’s ice sparkles; its beacon flashes sixty miles to the orchard where we dwelled. At sunset the inactive volcano’s shadow is a finger reaching toward the rising full moon. It points as well to places we’ve abandoned.

The predominant mountain is also the moodiest feature of the vista. Everything’s arrayed in reference to this pillar. To observe it over time is akin to regarding one’s beloved. Neither the zenith nor one’s honey is as immovable as one presumes. They are not the divinity. They’re more accurately repeated dreams, where some episodes fade out over the years while others intensify. Sleep visions of the soul, having one foot in the dreamer’s past and the other in the present, dance on water. Sometimes they drown. Even a mountain.

You should see the way Kokopelli makes it dance before sunrise.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

READING THE BIBLE AS COMEDY 

There are so many seminal stories that always leave room for fresh discovery and interpretation, if we escape the constraints of conventional explanations. I examine three timelessly provocative Biblical tales in my volume Eden Embraced, where my focus is on the Garden of Eden, followed by short reflections on Noah and the Great Flood and the enigmatic suffering of Job. Put simply, many of the Bible stories taught to children are much grittier and more troubling than we’d like to admit, and the radical dimensions we usually gloss over can challenge our usual assumptions about anything of a religious or spiritual or even political or economic nature. Nothing status quo remains sacred, much less safe.

While scanning a bookshelf the other day, one title jumped out at me – JOB: A Comedy of Justice – and I did a double take. Of course the Biblical drama could be taken as a comedy, especially in a contemporary context where almost nothing is considered sacred. Imagine flipping the usual definitions by blaming God for the bad things that happen, rather than holding him up to an impossibly spotless standard. (I’ll keep the male pronoun for now – the woman gets blamed enough.) Not just God, either, but throw in his golfing partner, Satan, for good measure.

Look at the text, and you can see it’s almost already in scripted format. Or screenplay, if you wish. It’s mostly dialogue, how convenient!

So how would you cast God and Satan, how would you block their opening scene?

For many, since the mere thought of putting the Holy One in a visual image can be sacrilegious, would you consider adapting some amazing stagecraft instead? A play of lights or talking smoke vapors or puppets or masked Tibetan or Tlingit dancers? Even a Greek chorus at the back of the auditorium while dancers move on the stage? As I was thinking, this script demands theatrical treatment. Something 3-D or better.

The concept of comedy – rather than our usual all-too-serious emphases – strikes me as brilliant. Why not try it with the Garden of Eden or the Great Flood as well or any of a range of other Biblical tales. Admittedly, not all will work, but as for others? Well, our local temple did adapt Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific to the Book of Esther for their Purim observance one year. I hear it was a hoot.

By the way, when I reached for the book, I discovered it was a novel by Robert A. Heinlen, and any use of Job and his self-righteous friends seems to be absent or deeply buried. And, yes, I do recall that Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 play J.B. is reputed to have been inspired by Job, but the piece deflects the direct link by casting the leads as Zuss/Zeus and Nichols. Its plot, I would note, glibly veers away from the deeper soulful dimensions of the original.

In the meantime, take a look at my Job essay in Eden Embraced and weigh in with your perspectives. Do you think comedy would enhance its understanding?

SEASONS OF THE ASHRAM

MY RESIDENCY IN a yoga ashram introduced its own sequence of seasons. I address these in my novel, Ashram, where different individuals embody different stages in the progression from soul-cleansing to community awareness and service to spiritual illumination. While I limit the plot to the activities of a single day, there’s no way to escape the histories that led each participate to this place or to the conflicts and achievements they’ve already shared in their adventures on the yoga farm.

The ashram allowed a kind of spiritual season I no longer see on American landscape – a place for youths, especially, to undergo intense reorientation and ego-stripping. More traditional monastic settings often point the practitioner in a different direction, something more resembling a career path.

In retrospect, the institution itself was evolving through its own series of seasons. Originating as a kind of laissez-faire hostel and spa before moving into a more rigorous retreat center and monastery and then into a Hindu temple and children’s camp, each season manifested itself quite differently from the others, held together by Swami’s autocratic vision, strengths, and weaknesses.

In season, too, many of my doubts and concerns also bore fruit. When I was ordered to return to the community and refused, only to be ostracized, I was being faithful to a larger Spirit. A different set of seasons was unfolding.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

SUMMONS AND SORROW

On scattered reservations, a few elders rise before dawn each day and summon the sun to return. Don’t scoff. When I, too, get up in the dark and meditate, I feel my own self-confidence rising. Watch the world awaken. Light a wood fire, something I sit beside and watch for hours, its flames more imaginative than television. Bask in the radiant warmth.

Kokopelli, night owl that he is, still slumbers.

My wife, in another room, rolls toward the wall and finally rises to join me.

There’s a science, and then there’s an art. In the pyre, paper first chars, then shrinks, and finally explodes. Only then do flames engulf it. “Consider the bomb a ream would create,” I grin at her.

“Now who would you want to bomb, Buzzard?”

But I also know how difficult igniting that ream would be, and how difficult to keep it burning. Watch carefully and misconceptions turn to ash.

In the continuing drought of that fall and winter, I explore national forest well into February. Areas that should be buried in a half-dozen feet of snow are instead bare. Atop one mountain, I look over a cliff. “I think it’s dolomite.” Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the identification isn’t earth-shaking important, but learning the names of places and their minerals, fauna, and flora adds dimensions to a place. Improves your chances of survival, too, if put to the test. For now, I scramble on the scree and realize that white painted stones at the cliff’s edge marked out a heliport. Far below my feet, a table of forest spreads into basins that are invisible from my vantage, and other places I’ve already been. I trace Forest Service roads, such as they are — 1707 from Raganunda to the top or 601 down to Willy Dick’s. “Keep elk gate closed,” the sign reads when I came out, passing a few back country ranches to the highway’s rush and debris. Far above all that, I sing out: “God bless a bloody rib cage above gray fuzz. Perhaps we’ll have rain in the morning! We shouldn’t be kicking this dust.”

In a zero-degree fog, the sun rises as white as the moon.

“Let our liquid flow again despite this desiccation!” I cry in my dreams. “Why is it so difficult to recall the thoughts rainstorms instilled?”

“You put too much value on sorrow,” Kokopelli tells me. Even in my sleep, that old guide’s still at work.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

WITHIN AN ONGOING DYNAMIC OF FAITH

Over the years, my own spiritual practice has undergone many changes. In the essays and notes of my Seasons of the Spirit collection, I touch on struggles that led me to reject the mainstream Protestant teachings of my childhood as well as my leap into the monastic life on a yoga farm before I chanced into the Society of Friends, or Quakers, where I’ve remained for more than four decades.

I arrived as an ABC Quaker – “anything but Christ” – but many sections in this collection arise in a subsequent, evolving evangelical encounter and language, especially as my community of faith moved into the more historically active strands of Quakers in Ohio Yearly Meeting and then into Mennonite and Brethren extensions.

That tone and scope of thought moderate as I grow older, living and working an hour north of Boston.

A crucial influence through much of this volume reflects seasons of relationship – intimate companionship, family, and friends, as well as the workplace. Cycles, too, like those of progressing from childhood and parenthood into retirement or release.

Even in a tradition like the one I’ve embraced, seemingly free from an annual liturgical calendar or its outward emblems, cyclical changes mirroring those of the seasons do appear. Since much of this time has been spent within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I’ll give one example from Salem Quarterly Meeting in Ohio, where the session each Fifth Month (that is, May) meant rhubarb in the applesauce. See it as sacrificial and special, a kind of unwritten liturgical calendar waiting to be observed through repetition.

In speaking of this awareness and growth as Seasons of the Spirit, we may also consider their interplay with the Seasons of the Flesh – and ultimately, their unity, contrary to Descartes and conventional teaching. From my perspective, perhaps with a Buddhist twist, we can proclaim an alternative:

I breathe, therefore, I am.

Spirit, after all, is the very core of the word inspiration —and at its heart of meaning. I’ll also focus on Spirit as the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of Christ — in contrast to other spirits, such as jealousy, anger, envy, and so on. Translate this as you wish.

Seasons of the Spirit

Seasons of the Spirit

Whatever the pathway, there are times of struggle, doubt, and distrust. Times of whirlwind passion and excitement. Times of discovery. Times of drought or deep winter, relying on what’s brought out of storage. Times of renewal and recharge.

This has manifested as periods where I’ve been able to dedicate significant time to meditation, solitude, travel in ministry, prayer, Bible study, research into history and theology, organizational service, teaching, correspondence, or writing, as well as to regular disciplines such as fasting or physical spiritual exercise (the hatha yoga sessions or even wilderness hiking). Emphatically, however, one would predominate while others would likely be absent or greatly diminished. In addition, they would be strongly impacted by the events of my daily life itself – whether I was single, married, divorced, or “in relationship,” my hours and nature of employment, my friendships and faith community, my driving patterns through the week.

The result of all of this would be a crazy-quilt tapestry or a ricochet trajectory if it weren’t for a spiraling within it. That is, over the years, various periods and interests begin to overlap one another, creating a kind of harmony or accumulated depth. My asparagus bed in New Hampshire has roots in my experience of asparagus along irrigation canal banks in Far West desert three decades earlier. A dog sitting through Quaker meeting here is a reminder of dogs sitting through predawn meditation sessions in the Pocono Mountains, or of the cats aligned on the scaffolding outside the windows, as if they, too, were deep in concentrated worship. I read a particular Psalm and see the passage taking twists I hadn’t perceived earlier.

In my own life, my childhood was filled with natural science, hiking, and camping, each with its mystical visions and moments. Adolescence led into politics, classical music, opera, and writing complicated by unrequited sexual yearning. Without romantic companionship, a Lone Ranger journey. Rejection of existing creed while ensconced in youth church office was followed by flight into atheism and hippie excess landing, inexplicably, in a yoga ashram with its hatha exercises and sustained meditation. From there, into liberal Quaker practice, where the ashram lessons were applied in circles of deepening prayer life. By steps, I moved toward Christocentric and Plain speech, and an especially faith fervent language. Among the traditional Wilburite Friends as well as Mennonites, especially, I came to wrestle within Scripture while simultaneously undergoing repeated Dark Night journeys and questioning. Turning to emotional therapy, I wondered if anyone could come along with me through all of this – my career moves, spiritual shifts, and geographic relocations. By now, too, I was no longer meditating to get high, or transcend, but rather to center down to what the early Quakers emphasized as the Seed. Here, too, with all of the Quaker committee work, I was engaged in a religion that combines mystical experience with social witness and activism. In a nutshell, then.

Each swirl also stirs up something from before. What failed in earlier marriage or relationships reappears. What has been left unfinished is not left entirely behind. What has been shredded remains to be woven. I’ve heard this opera in its entirety a hundred times. Have I ever heard this note before?

I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast and back before heading on to the Pacific Northwest in what seemed an epiphany but instead shattered amid volcanic eruption and devastation. I left the wilderness for another kind of wilderness, back across the Rust Belt of the Midwest and then on to the East Coast. The pendulum, as they say. Here, I now see life as both linear and circular – that is, spiraling. The spirit requires flesh, or is it that the flesh requires spirit? Seasons include times that are full or overflowing, and times that are barren or dry. I now welcome the questioning that is not hostile is both essential and healthy.

My first spring in the orchard, I expected all of the trees to blossom simultaneously. They don’t. The apricots and cherry petals give way to plums, pears, and peaches. The apple blooms arrive last, when others are already gone.

Experiencing a new place through a full year or repeated years provides a much different understanding than a tourist gets – even one who spends several months there. Relocating requires a year-and-a-half to gain familiarity with the new surroundings – to get beyond the obvious, to establish friendships, to be oriented with the elements one finds essential or special. A favorite restaurant, a woodland pathway or place to swim, a boutique or gallery.

There are seasons for a person of faith, from winter to spring elation and then into fullness, dryness, struggle, or disillusionment. To harvest, perchance. Marriage? Family? Children? Extended into joy, compassion, humility, appreciation – one begins observing and naming.

The turning point in my own journey came when I accepted a new name – Jnana – while living in the ashram. The rest of the developments followed.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

LOOKING IN THE MIRROR OF BIAS

Those of us on the liberal side of the social and political spectrum like to think of ourselves as open-minded, which means the times we exhibit flashes of bigotry can be especially painful.

First off, we’re blind to it. Not us, right? But we do.

And sometimes we do it to each other.

An example comes in the gold cross a young woman decided to wear. She’s nothing along the lines of a Fundamentalist or even a committed believer, but she liked her grandmother’s jewelry and this particular piece. Difficult, though, was her experience of the reactions from her fellow college students and faculty, starting with their physical motion a step backward. Literally.

There were words that would not dare be said to Jews or Muslims or ethnic groups of any stripe – and assumptions that simply did not fit. In fact, there’s a presumption of right-wing positions accompanying an ignorance of the social-justice dimensions of other Christian communities and their actions. And there’s nothing of the nuanced theology that moves beyond the cartoonish criticisms we often hear.

For the record, Quaker tradition long frowned on any jewelry whatsoever as superfluous and vain. But I’m not wearing the distinctive Plain clothing of Quaker history, either. Now how would they react to that?

HONEYCOMB RADIANCE

Faithful as a dog, a refrain keeps recurring in my head: “I lift my eyes to the hills, where cometh my strength,” hills that encircle. This Biblical-sticking phrase, a misquotation of a mistranslation, as it turns out, nevertheless clears the static from my thoughts. As I drive home from the office just after dark, I concede this is not a topography man masters: he can destroy it, mutilate it, build highways upon it, bomb it, graze it, irrigate it, but not master it, not like Kansas where a man can stand in his cornfields, stand above everything except trees he plants for shade, a windscreen, and firewood. This forlorn wasteland has its own ways: a multitude of mammal life, insect, and rattlesnake, as well as sagebrush (though tumbleweed’s an import, a weed rolling through downtown).

Measureless, desolate starkness is a wild bride; human strategies of survival remain a layer of dust.

It’s not just the desert that holds treachery. Rainier, “Old Rainy,” could blow anytime, shooting lava on hundred-mile-an-hour air cushions into Tacoma and Seattle. A heavy spring rain could also slam snow, ice, and mud into those cities and their suburbs, sweeping away highways, houses, forests, and rivers — as St. Helens demonstrates when it explodes a few years hence. The most previous example was in ’47 with Kautz Glacier. Twenty-six volcano heads in the Cascade Range all manifest dangerous potential; the last time Rainier blew, five thousand years ago, Alberta, Canada, was ashed; smoking was still reported in the nineteenth century; this giant honeycomb radiates heat under all that ice, emits sulfur fumes on top, remains so fragile a good explosion could level it all. Just examine the Native-American legends and you’ll find reports of such explosions elaborated by witnesses.

Still, there are days when the mountains are camouflaged — days when you can step out on the clouds, if you desire, the way Kokopelli does.

Already, my maps no longer point only north-south/east-west, but up/down and past/future as well.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

LACKING

outwardly, my ways were simple
even austere or ascetic

my modest apparel
considered drab or seedy

still I was becoming

wary of self-negation
that denies the sweet
Bread of Life

*   *   *

when John from Tri-State Megabucks phoned the office
to report the latest week’s winning number, he asked
in an attempt to be friendly, if I had my ticket in hand

so I replied, “no, it’s against my religion” and then
sensed a stupefaction on his end of the line
there might be another position on this business

O Holy One
keep me tender in reaching across differences
where a holier-than-thou attitude accomplishes
nothing more than standing in faith

*   *   *

if there weren’t so much insufficiency all around

the homeless, unemployed, imprisoned,
impoverished, illiterate

quickly overwhelm
apart from family and spiritual community

within my neighborhood
how little I alone can do
against needs deeper
than those seen

where any sense of great inadequacy provokes
a hardening wall

while judging myself harshly
reminded
to my own consternation
of how I’m lacking

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set, click here.