Monday, January 31, 2011

Rumi & the Arts of Mystical Islam

'Oh Soul

you worry too much.

You have seen your own strength.

You have seen your own beauty.

You have seen your golden wings.

Of anything less'

why do you worry?

You are in truth

the soul, of the soul, of the soul.

This is love: to fly toward a secret sky- to cause a

hundred veils to fall each moment

First to let go of life.

Finally, to take a step without feet~~



Some commentary on I was a hidden treasure,

and I desired to be known.

Tear down this house.

A hundred thousand new houses can be built

from the transparent yellow carnelian

buried beneath it, and the only way to get to that

is to do the work of demolition,

and then the digging beneath the foundation.

With that value in hand all the new construction

will be done without effort. And anyway, sooner or later,

the house will fall on its own.

The jewel treasure will be uncovered,

but it will not be yours then.

The buried wealth is your pay

for doing the demolition,

the pick and shovel work.

If you wait and just let it happen,

you will bite your hand and say,

I did not do as I knew I should have.

Coleman Barks, who translated a huge amount of Rumi’s poetry, said: “Rumi is a way for Americans to love Islam.”

But Rumi, whose 800th birthday was celebrated widely in 2007, was a Sufi practitioner, and the founder of the Mevlani order of whirling dervishes, whose ecstatic dances were, and still are their meditation, their devotion, an integral part of their religious practice.

Sufis are not part of Islam’s mainstream. They have been executed in Iran.

Sufis are the mystics of Islam. As mystics, they are those who seek the inner light, inner knowledge, and self-enlightenment. In some ways Sufis are to Islam what Transcendentalism is to Unitarianism. If so, Rumi is the Henry David Thoreau.

What is the buried treasure?

It is you, it is what we call the soul, but to reach this soul, you must first demolish. Demolish what? The ego, the artificial and created exterior that is the house. All of that must be torn down.

How? Through honesty with one self. Very hard.

This is consistent with many spiritual practices as well as with psychotherapy. The emptying out, the sloughing off, and the elimination of the many defenses and walls we have constructed precedes the deeper quest for the true self within.

The soul.

The Sufi dervish wears a hat that symbolizes his gravestone. His white skirt and tunic are his shroud. It is said that he dies before his actual death.



Since you have left, death draws us in.

A fish quivers on rough sand until its soul leaves.

For those of us still living, the grave

feels like an escape-hole back to the ocean.

This is no small thing, the pulling of a part

back into the whole. Muhammad used to weep

for his native land. To children who do not know

where they are from, Istanbul and Yemen

are similar. They want their nurses.

When I close my mouth, this poetry stops,

but a frog deep in the presence

cannot keep his mouth closed.

He breathes and the sound comes.

A mystic cannot hide his breathing light-burst.

I reach this point, and the pen breaks,

as Sinai once split open

for the generosity it was given.

A frog “Deep in the presence” cannot keep his mouth closed. The passion of the mystic is the immersion in the presence and in the present. In Islam, there are 1001 names of God. The poetry of Rumi is filled with just this sort of passion and near-ecstasy and there is little difference between the images and words dedicated to the beloved human and to the beloved Infinite, the One, Allah.

What if this is what we long for?

What if this ecstatic union is what we are missing?

How can we know?

Practice, almost any legitimate contemplative practice will bring one closer to this passion, this burning flame of devotion. But it requires dedication, persistence.

“Stay here at the flame’s core,” Rumi says.

~~Let the beauty you love be what you do.

There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.~~

But we, humans, are like the humans Rumi spoke of and to over 800 years ago:


There is a basket of fresh bread on your head,

yet you go door to door asking for crusts.

Knock on the inner door. No other.

Sloshing knee-deep in clear streamwater,

you keep wanting a drink from other people's waterbags.

Water is everywhere around you,

but you see only barriers that keep you from water.

A horse is moving beneath the rider's thighs,

yet still he asks, Where is my horse?

Right there, under you. Yes, this is a horse,

but where's the horse? Can't you see? Yes,

I can see, but whoever saw such a horse?

Mad with thirst, he cannot drink from the stream

running so close by his face.

He is like a pearl on the deep bottom

wondering, inside the shell, Where is the ocean?

His mental questionings form the barrier.

His physical eyesight bandages his knowing.

Self-consciousness plugs his ears.

Stay bewildered in God and only that.

It is, Rumi seems to say, our own thinking that is the barrier. The images and preconceptions we have cherished are keeping us from what is literally at hand. Indeed it is true: everything we wish for, peace of mind, equanimity, deep love and compassion, self-esteem, joy, gratitude, all are within us.

Bewildered is a great Rumi-word. It is like being, in the wilderness. Bewildered. It is like the beginner’s mind of Buddhism. Stay bewildered.

~~Today, like every other day, we wake up empty, and scared.

Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.

Take down a musical instrument and start to play.~~

Monday, January 24, 2011

Celtic Art, Imbolc & YoUU

PART I: The essence of ancient Celtic art

I am not a Neopagan. Not even close! I am not the least bit attracted to rituals and other pagan-y things. HEY. I'm from NJ, yo. But I can see why some people love it and enjoy it very much. And in my introverted, intellectual way, I actually do have a pagan corner in my soul. So here is my way of honoring a few Pagan traditions!

Let's start with Ireland. Because it is an island, the traditions, art work, and mythology left-over from pre-Christian times are more intact than in other places.

I learned that much of what we think of as "Celtic" actually came much later in Irish history. The earliest Celtic designs appear to have included spirals, simple knots that had no terminus, and what would evolve into the Celtic "cross"

Looks like Sarah Palin might have been in Ireland thousands of years ago:

One does not need to be a PhD or anthropologist to see the ways in which these ancient designs represent parts of the human condition that seems to be universal: the wheel of life; the changing seasons; the turning year, the spirals of time, fortune, and feeling, the notion of eternity and the interweaving of things. Even thousands of years ago, "art" was the way people communicated the ineffable: the things they could not or should not say.

This is a page from the famous BOOK of KELLS, probably the national treasure of Ireland. In its laborious production, I see devotion and discipline. I also discern the way that Christianity appropriated the cultures it was trying to convert in order to make the "sale." Many of the scrolls, patterns, and designs we associated with the Pagan Celts were incorporated into these manuscripts.

Book of Kells c. 800 CE

PART II: Newgrange & the essentials of life

This mound of dirt was mostly undisturbed for thousands of years. It was on a farm owned by a monastery. In the 1800s, a farmer started ordering laborers to dig out the stones, and one of the most intact megaliths in Europe was discovered. Newgrange is a fascinating example of the dreams and beliefs of people of this region five thousand years ago, almost 3,000 years BCE.

Newgrange after renovation. One of the members of the congregation who was there today said she went to Newgrange and that the feeling she had was intensely eerie. I am sure that one could intuit the powerful energies associated with this place by actually being there.

This is the entrance stone.

On the day closest to the winter solstice, the sun enters the window for just a few moments.

The upper opening is the solstice window.

This past Solstice, December 21, 2010.

Construction of the window. Nine Xs are carved into the stone above. Why? We can only guess.

How the sun enters the chamber.

This is the entrance to the passageway before it was renovated.

The carvings on the entrance stone. About 5,000 years old.

To me, it is more important to honor the integrity of this art than to "figure out" what it meant, or to overlay some contemporary practice upon virtually unknowable past.

What is the essence of this design?

What does it suggest to me, today?

PART III: Imbolc and returning to the essential.

IMBOLC is a Pagan festival that was transmogrified into St. Brigid's Day and finally became "Groundhog Day" in the New World. St. Brigid, believed to have been a pagan goddess before she was adapted into a Catholic saint, is associated with regeneration, the return of the sun, fertility, dairy, lambs, & her special day, February 1st, the day half way between the  Winter Solstice & Spring Equinox*

It's a special day for our family, because my oldest son Casey & youngest, Seth, were BOTH born on February 1st, 23 years apart.

Casey & Seth, 2009.

I  plan to start observing this festival!

It's a good day to clean things out and make way for the new. Here are a few possibilities, beyond your typical spring cleaning:

1. Clean up your computer
2. Cross things off your lists
3. Eliminate people who cause you stress and make you feel bad about yourself from your immediate circle.
4. Clear up misunderstandings.
5. Empty your mind of clutter (meditate)
6. Clean up your diet and your intestinal system!
7. Get rid of one bad habit.
8. Banish aches and pains by moving as much as you are able.
9. Let go of some old resentment.
10. Have at least one space that is 100% clutter free.

I'm sure you have more ideas. Some people don't clean things out because they hate throwing stuff away. I do, too, but not because I am a hoarder! I love order and space. I just hate wasting anything, and I cringe at every item I think I might be sending to a landfill. YOU DO NOT NEED to fill up landfills in order to get cleared out. Here are a few awesome alternatives:

1. garage or yard sale, yours OR someone else's. UUCL MEMBERS; think May 13-14th. GOOD STUFF ONLY! Stay tuned.
2. So many charities & agencies need clothing. Investigate!
3. If you have kids, ask someone with a slightly smaller child if they would like your kid's best stuff.
4. Lots of glass & plastic of higher numbers can be recycled if you take it to a center.
5. ReStore (Habitat) take a lot of furnishings for a great cause. Good place to buy stuff, too.
6. E-bay (I have never used it but I can see why people do) or Craig's List.
7. Freecycle! Best idea ever. People are looking for the oddest things and you feel so GREAT just giving things away. I love that feeling.
8. (I am not good at this,but..) turn it into art or find someone who does!

Imbolc highlights the fact that, if we are in touch with the earth and our surroundings, we instinctively want to slough off the old at this time of year. take advantage when the feeling strikes!

Yes, I realize that I said Spring "Solstice" in my talk but I do know the difference!

Imbolc ="Ewe's Milk"

This is St. Brigid's Cross, fun & easy.
You can find better directions than I gave you, here:

Treasure each sign of the return of the sun.

Live each day with harmony, intention & hope.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Martin & Gilbert: Reflections on Leadership

Martin Luther King, Jr. in front of his childhood home, Atlanta.

Thoughts on leadership

“Let us remember that space is never empty. If it is filled with harmonious voices,  a song arises that is strong and potent. If it is filled with conflict… we don’t want to be there. .. What if we adjust our eyes to the invisible?... For such a little act of faith, space awaits, filled with possibilities.”           Margaret Wheatley
      My father would have been 102 years old on January 15th, the same birthday as Martin Luther King Jr, who would have been 82 had he lived. At least for a few years my dad had a national holiday on his birthday. It struck us as very ironic for any number of reasons; one, my dad was racist, not in the Archie Bunker way, but in the subtle elitist way most educated whites born south of the Mason-Dixon line were raised to be. Two, he worked for his entire career for the military, procuring weaponry for an arsenal, while MLK promoted non-violence and finally, not long before he was assassinated, came out against the Vietnam War. I think we shrugged it off as a big funny coincidence and gave it no further thought.
            But the two men, Martin and Gilbert, had something in common besides their shared birthday. Both were people who “led” organizations.

Marjorie & Gilbert Cain c. 1960

            My dad’s favorite way to start a disciplinary lecture was to remind us that he was the supervisor of six hundred (or maybe it was four hundred) people at Frankford Arsenal.  “I have 400 people under me…” he’d begin. And we knew what was coming. Somehow all of those people followed his commands, respected his authority, and trembled in fear at his reprimand. Ergo, so should we. My dad never hit us; in fact I don’t remember any sort of physical punishment from him, ever. And we were rapscallions! With no mother and just our housekeeper to discipline us, we were far from well-behaved, at least until my very strict stepmother came on the scene.
            I doubt my father ever did understand why his kind of leadership, what I’ll just call the authoritative style, didn’t work as well at home as it did at the office. He came up in a world where kids unquestioningly recognized the authority of parents, but had children very late in life, so he was trying to rear us in the sixties and early seventies, a very different era. 
The late fifties and early sixties were precisely the time into which Dr. King stepped, and during which he exercised a completely new (unless you count Jesus) style of leadership, one that still has echoes today, and which helped change our understanding of life in general, and what it means to be religious in particular.
How so?
It’s hard to talk about leadership without discussing change. True leaders are advocates for change. They welcome change and know it is inevitable. Those who want to control and maintain the status quo are managers, sometimes dictators, but not leaders. Leaders are people who know how to guide, inspire and communicate with their people as they walk together through change.
The new science of leadership tells us that Newtonian models no longer apply. Instead, in an interconnected, participatory, self-organizing universe what matters most is relationships. A certain amount of chaos is necessary for genuine change. Leaders remove obstacles, improve communication, and instill confidence and trust rather than manipulate, direct, make top-down decisions, or dictate. Starbucks and facebook are two highly successful examples of companies that are being run with at least some of these new models. Like entering an amusement park, it’s exciting and scary for erstwhile leaders, and for their followers.
Let’s get back to our birthday twins and isolate a few of these qualities of leadership, to enforce the point:
·        Faith/TRUST- King’s entire vision was based upon his Christian Faith augmented by the Gandhian principles of satyagraha  which in turn were inspired by the Thoreauvian notion of civil disobedience. Each is rooted in faith that good will prevail over evil, be it through humanistic leanings or theistic beliefs.

It was a faith, not only in God, but in his own destiny—and a belief that in the end, justice would win out. “No lie can live forever,” he said in quoting Thomas Carlyle. “Truth crushed to earth will rise again,” he recalled William Cullen Bryant saying. (Phillips, 301)

 As for my father, I never met a person who had less faith and almost no trust. He lived expecting the worst, imminently, finding the negatives in almost every person and situation, and was utterly and permanently disillusioned by the untimely loss of his wife and his only brother. He failed to observe his extensive vegetable gardens and landscaped lawns, where he could have found reassurance that some things do thrive, that Nature has built in regenerative systems, and that miraculous things are as likely to occur as disastrous ones.

Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science;
I believe that Nature offers abundant displays of order and clear lessons for how to achieve it… the world is inherently orderly. It continues to create systems of great scope, capacity, and diversity. And fluctuation and change are essential to the process by which order is created. (19)

·        Courage – both King and my dad were courageous but for very different causes. Martin risked his life and ultimately lost it for a cause that was colossal, much larger than his own concerns. He made a conscious decision that a sacrificial ministry was needed to advance civil rights, and he saw that he was the man to go out in front. He was actually humble in many ways. He spoke with and about the common people; he took very little money. His courage was rooted in certainty.
I have a job to do. If I were constantly worried about death, I couldn’t function. I must face the fact that, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel though, that the cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.” 1965
  My father was stoic. He white-knuckled his whole life but was beset by fear and anxiety.

Most of the organizations I experience are impressive fortresses… Fear that is everywhere must come from somewhere… Three centuries ago, the concept of entropy entered our collective consciousness… this is a universe, we feel, that can not be trusted… by sheer force of will, because we are the planet’s intelligence, we will make the world work. We will resist death. (Wheatley, 18-19)

 The courage born of faith and especially of love casts out fear. True leaders are fearless.
·        Inclusive – It’s possible to criticize King for not giving women a more important role in the movement. Still, given the times and the tradition from which he emerged, he was remarkably open in his leadership. One of the ways we picture Martin is sitting and listening, at retreats, in hotel rooms, in conference. Communicating through letters and speeches. Relationships are key. Listening is key. Toward the end of his life, King spoke out in favor of being even more inclusive, not only of white allies but of GLBT folk and of women, of non-believers and people of non-Christian faiths.

      My dad was a loner. He was an engineer. He was always right. He had many, many good qualities: he kept our five acres and our very old house immaculate and pleasant. He had a wry sense of humor that crept out at odd times. He could be spontaneous. He was responsible and honest to a fault. He was a wonderful cook and an artist. He fixed everything that was broken. If he didn’t know how, he learned how. He was a gentle spirit beneath his bluster and high expectations. He was a successful manager – of a large enterprise and of a household -- but not a leader.
The church needs true leadership now more than ever. Think of it as a human body; it has been called the body of Christ. As new medicine is holistic, so is new leadership. We can no longer think in parts. All of the systems that compose this enterprise are intricately connected, so a cancer here, a disease organism there, affects all. Likewise, healing can be as counterintuitive. Traditional Western medicine is a science; healing is an art.
Traditional authoritarian/Newtonian “leadership” is based upon outmoded science. Leadership is an art; based upon new science. What may be needed to fix the financial woes may not be begging & pleading, but vision. What might be required to get the roof done might not be endless meetings, but mentoring by long-time members.. Most of all, instead of asking what’s wrong, we ask over and over what’s right, and where are our strengths? We are learning that the human body has remarkable healing abilities that we have barely begun to understand. We are learning as a people to trust and have faith in our instincts and to listen to our bodies and their wisdom. So it shall be with our organizations as we see more examples of the new leadership take hold.

Two years ago I spoke about how I believed that President Obama exhibited many of the same qualities of leadership I am now describing in Martin Luther King, and how he represented the new appreciative leadership.  In spite of the obstacles that have been placed before him, and the heavy burden of politics in our times, I still think he has these basic gifts. They come through when he is at his best, in a crisis, sometimes when we have almost given up: Humor, non-anxious presence, collaborative style, ability to listen, rapport with the people, communication, self-differentiation, ability to be playful. Also, androgyny of spirit   as was Jesus. As was MLK.

Yes, the changes in racial justice that began with King and his movement are still underway. But so are the changes in how we lead and follow, how we are going to be with one another, and how we are going to accomplish the tasks of this century, if we are willing to learn, sometimes to lead, sometimes to follow.

* For more on King & Obama, read Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a Princeton prof. &UU:

BOOKS mentioned:
Margaret Wheatley, The New Science of Leadership, 2006.
 Donald T. Phillips, Martin Luther King, Jr. On Leadership, 1999.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Get Me Outta Here!

Snow days make me want to run away!

Especially when the kids are underfoot, I can't accomplish anything "productive," and yet it's too cold and there's not really enough snow to make playing outside fun.

If I can't be all alone with a fire in the fireplace and my Kindle, I'd like to be somewhere warm, sunny, and beautiful.

Yesterday, I came across this photograph of the entrance to Manzanita Village. It's a Buddhist-ish retreat center in the high chapparel north of San Diego, where I first met my teacher Caitriona Reed and her partner Michelle. It was here, almost 12 years ago, that I was intoduced to Buddhist meditation & thought.
I  moved east that same year, and have only been back to Manzanita Village once, but I find that my heart goes there often.

Here's the entrance to the zendo. Why do I have such vivid sensory recall of the cool walls, the sunlight, the smells and sounds of the fire in the woodstove and the incense burning? I am sure that it's because all of my senses were heightened at that time, doing sitting practice several times a day, and leaving aside all other concerns.

I read this morning that Edwidge Danticant, a Haitian-born writer, has created a children's book about the earthquake last year in which a small boy, trapped for eight days (that is the name of the book, EIGHT DAYS) imagines all of the places and things of his native land that have brought him joy and pleasure, including the farm where he spends summers, the sunshine and rain.

The zendo is an adobe structure that may have been a stop on the mail route through the deserts of SoCal. Perhaps it saw hours and days of bustle, stress, worry, sorrow and even violence in its former life. Yet under Caitriona & Michelle's loving guidance, it has been transformed into a place of peace, solace and wisdom.

To me, that is the essence of what some call the spiritual journey, but I will just call life/awake. We must go back time and again to the source, the place within us that knows peace, forgiveness, and love.

The folks at Manzanita Village built this tiny cottage for individual retreat. It's made of hay bale with a growing roof.  If you are going to Southern California, you'd be welcomed warmly. The food is fabulous and the people are genuine. I have been turned off by so many iterations of "spiritual" people who are full of themselves, striving for perfection, or looking for a quick fix. I was so blessed to find Caitriona and Manzanita Village and I can go there, at least in my imagination, any time.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

SPIRALS of Life; Spirals of Love

SPIRALS ~ Rev. Cynthia Cain

Thanks to everyone who came to church & did the spiral dance! These images and others were part of the meditation. I may have said the wrong name of the artist on the paintings.. correct artists and a few other IDs below! Also, several folks spoke to me about spirals after church with much to add: a physician said that all life begins from spirals since the male sperm travels in a spiral pattern.. another member offered that he loves spiral food, especially soft serve ice cream! Here is the original text & some of the images.


Many years ago, I gave a sermon based upon the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes called The Chambered Nautilus. I suppose you could say that poem was about spirals, as it documents the slow evolution of the nautilus toward freedom. It is a great metaphor crafted by the Unitarian-educated and Calvinist-raised Holmes for the nineteenth century early precursors of Humanism, with its refrain: “Build thee more stately mansions, oh, my soul, as the swift seasons roll…”

As the first Humanist Manifesto promised: the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.

I am not sure I could even find that old sermon, but if I could I think I would offer it very differently. Human “progress” has not all been positive.

Spirals in human development, as the chambers of the nautilus are meant to suggest, go down as well as up.

Dante's Inferno by Bottecelli

It is fascinating to me that spirals, which are one of if not the earliest form of human created “art,” having been carved as long as 50,000 years ago, are found in virtually every religion and culture. Jung felt that spirals were the most universal archetype, instinctively “known” by the human psyche.

Some believe that humans first incorporated spirals into spiritual activities when they evolved enough to have cognition of mortality; that the turning and returning of spirals represented regeneration, eternity, even rebirth. Further, spirals have been used to suggest community, celebration, and meditative states, as in the spiral dance, the labyrinth walk, and the pre-Christian arts.

Indeed it is almost exclusively the Christian tradition which carries a strong connotation of evil with spirals. (tower of Babel, snake of Eve, Dante’s Inferno)

Tower of Babel by Brueghel

Certainly, in our culture, we have integrated the idea that things and people can spiral downward as well as up. In fact we are more likely to hear of someone spiraling out of control, having a downward spiral, or spiraling toward Hell than we are to hear of the upward version!

But the angels on Jacob’s ladder, depicted as a spiral staircase by William Blake, are going up as well as down. Not everything is headed for the pits.

Why a spiral? Mathematically and geometrically, a spiral represents the way that one circular motion causes and continues a similar and larger or smaller motion. There are innumerable examples of spontaneous spiral formation in biology, astronomy and most sciences. We now know that chaos can be reordered into patterns, including spirals, with outside interference. Indeed this knowledgeis the basis of Appreciative Inquiry, aka the new science of leadership.

Spiral patterns formed by collision of particles in a bubble chamber

The spiral of silence is a phenomenon that was first suggested by a German researcher who wanted to understand the reluctance of the masses to speak out during the Holocaust. Still a new theory, it bears mentioning not because it has been irrefutably proven but because it rings true. The Spiral of Silence is the tendency of humans to refrain from speaking out about injustice and evil because they FEAR ISOLATION. I believe we have witnessed the spiral of silence in our own country many times, but perhaps never so destructively as in the past decade. So few people are telling the truth now about war, terrorism, health care, immigration, civil rights, addiction, prisons, drugs, politics, sexual identity, pollution, food, education, and even religion that those who do speak truth are usually excoriated and punished with isolation if not death. It is very hard to find anyone, even a so-called liberal, who is unafraid to speak the truth.

I believe we shall see that the spiral of silence, in which each of us is complicit if only to a small degree, helped contributed to the unchallenged rhetoric that may have spurred the murders in AZ.

There is an alternative spiral forming slowly but surely. Because of the relative anonymity of the Internet, the near-universal accessibility of information by almost everyone, and the democratic nature of the web, truth can not be hidden or confined so easily. I believe this is a part of what has been called The Great Turning, the shift in consciousness from what Joanna Macy calls the Industrial Growth Society to the Life-sustaining society.

In this ascending spiral, love will replace fear as the motivating force, and will lead to greater acts of courage, truth telling, and love.

Everything we know of is spinning.

Everything is changing.

Spirals are everywhere and we are a part of them.

African Dwelling showing fractal layout with spiral path.

We are a part of this magnificent, terrifying, and inevitable dance. How it changes and whether it will be for survival or destruction is actually dependent in part upon each one of us.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,

others by first do no harm or take no more

than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.