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  • What Really Matters?

    • Posted on Jun 21, 2015
    This morning's (Sunday 6-21) Courier column--about what really matters.   Not 
    an easy subject, given the shock we've suffered this week--and I'm in Charleston (my second home city) right now, struggling with the unvarnished reality of race hatred that led to the cold-blooded murders of nine Charlestonians in their church.    

    Still, the idea that there's a larger reality that really matters is what's helping people get through that hatred and move toward healing.   

    Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, wrote Gershwin.  It’s true, at least 
    when summer vacations roll around and beaches and mountains loom.   
    Time for a change of scene, for easy relaxing and pondering.  

     Ponder what, you ask?   

    What really matters, that’s what.  It’s the best all-around question to ponder during those days without deadlines and pressures. 

     Everyone will answer it differently.  

     Winning matters hugely for some, meaning being first and best at everything.  The competitors, we might call them.  

     Others spend serious time finding and nurturing a soul-mate, a love of their life, and that’s what matters most to them.  They’re romantics, bless their moonstricken hearts.   

     Fame, for others, so that everyone notices them, seeks them out, makes them the center of attention.   “Look at me!” their lives seem to say, and cameras beckon to them like moths to flame.  They’re narcissists, and they’re everywhere these days. 

     Wealth, for still others, so that they never have to deny themselves a new Luxemobile, a granite-countered house, a fast boat, a perfect vacation.  They’re high-enders who seek big bucks.  

     For still others, friendships, near and far, supportive and intimate. They spend hours cultivating friendships, lunching, writing, catching up on social media.

     They delight in lending a hand or shoulder to those they’ve gotten to know, love to be
    counted upon for favors, and seek to maintain old friendships.  They’re our friends, and thank heavens for them. 

     We all belong to some of these groups, and derive satisfaction from the undeniable benefits that each provides. 

     So, is that all?  Once you’re winning, famous, rich, soul-mated, and surrounded by friends, have you found everything that matters?  Does your happiness at that point know no bounds? 

     Alas, no. We all know such seemingly fulfilled people who still rely on therapists and happy pills to calm their frayed nerves.  They’re still seeking something that really matters.   

     And what might that be?    

     Dylan’s 1979 song “You gotta Serve Somebody” points toward it:  
    "You may be an ambassador to England or France
    You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
    You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
    You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
    You're gonna have to serve somebody,
    It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
    But you're gonna have to serve somebody."

     As Trish, the character who tries to commit suicide in that great film “Educating Rita” laments, “I’m not enough.”   

     If you live for furthering yourself and meeting your needs only, you’re headed for disappointment and suffering.   Truth be told, none of us are the complete center of anything.  Our egos don’t really matter. 

     Realizing this amounts to growing up, and the sooner the better.  

     This is not easy, especially with our little digital screens tempting us to believe that we are the center of everything. 

     Granted, a strong, confident self does help you succeed. But that’s not what really matters.   

     Religious folks get at what really matters through worship, faith in some supernatural power, and prayer.  

     Non-religious folks do it through wonder, curiosity, contemplation, and seeking enlightenment through in-depth awareness.  

     I’m among the non-religious, and have found what really matters is a spiritual path that’s stimulating, endlessly challenging, and ultimately satisfying. 

     If you like pondering what really matters this summer, and you’re leaning toward the non-religious, let me suggest two books I’ve found helpful:  Tara Brach’s 2005 “Radical Acceptance” and her more recent “True Refuge.”  She’s a clinical psychologist and an American Buddhist teacher who has been pondering what matters for 35 years.   

     If you’re curious and open to new approaches, these books make perfect summer reading. 

     I can’t imagine a summer without spending daily time seeking and pondering.  
    That’s what really matters. 

    Posted in
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  • On Suffering: An Exchange with Lynn Nielsen on Buddhism and Christianity

    • Posted on Jun 15, 2015
    My old friend and colleague Lynn Nielsen, who died of multiple myeloma in late April, took lunch with me every month or so for a good decade.  He was a Christian, a serious one.   I'm closer to Buddhism, and certainly far removed from his beliefs. 

    Nevertheless, we remained good friends, and spent many a happy hour over lunch pondering all sorts of issues from politics to religion--and never once getting upset about anything.  That's what made our friendship so special; it was based on mutual respect and appreciation.  

    On January 17, Saturday, we lunched as usual at Famous Dave's, drank our requisite two glasses of wine, and talked about the idea of suffering.  I put forth the idea that Buddhism dealt with human suffering in more depth and detail than Christianity--showing its followers how to live in a world that contains so much suffering, on so many levels.  I asserted that Christianity was less effective in helping its adherents deal with suffering.   

    Lynn didn't agree, but didn't say all that much until the next week, when he wrote a reply, to which I replied, and he replied again.  

    I just reread our triple exchange and thought I'd share it here, along with the last photo I took of him before he died.   

    FROM LYNN:  JAN 20 2015


    Good thought-provoking discussion last Saturday regarding suffering within the context of Christianity and Buddhism.  You asked for some kind of summary regarding my view of this question--what place does suffering hold in Judeo/Christian theology and practice.  

    As I thought more about this I came up with a series of familiar events or stories from the Bible (both OT and NT) that illustrate how suffering is central to the message of the Bible:

    • Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden for disobedience--Genesis 1-3
    • The world was destroyed while Noah and his family survived--Genesis
    • Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac only to have the Angel of the Lord intervene at the last minute--Genesis 12
    • Joseph was kidnapped and taken for dead only to become a Christ figure saving his family and friends from famine--Genesis 40-50
    • The Hebrews were held as slaves in Egypt for 400 years--Exodus 
    • The narrative of Job is entirely about why good people suffer--The book of Job
    • The Psalms are filled with pleas for deliverance from suffering
    • Central to the the Prophetic books are the two captivities (Assyrian and Persian) that destroyed much of the Jewish culture and traditions
    o Jesus came to suffer and die for the sins of the world.
    o Christians are called to suffer (though few of us really do very often).
    o Being a Christian is counter-cultural and thereby invites some suffering depending on the environment.  Identifying as a Christian in Iran clearly invites more suffering than identifying as a Christian in Nashville TN.  
    o Jesus was crucified for supporting counter-cultural concepts and beliefs.
    o Even after his death and resurrection, his followers were subject to the worst kind of persecution and social rejection.    
    None of this level of Biblical suffering should be confused with the kind of "suffering" that has lately become popular among right-wing, Fox-news-watchers.  For example, Duck Dynasty members do not get a pass because they reject homosexuals.  Christian business owners who refuse to serve homosexual clients and other marginalized populations do not receive the blessing of God even though many profit from these negative attitudes.  After all, bashing "fags" in America can be loads of fun.     

    Just my perspective,

    My reply on 1-25-15

    Hi--thanks for your reflection on suffering--have been pondering it off and on lately.  Thought I'd offer a few thoughts, just random and immediate.  

    The myths that Christianity sets forth are designed, from my perspective, to allay suffering, and work for its adherents pretty well. It offers the premises that suffering comes from a fall, and that God (who seems to think like a petty tyrant in the OT) in his anger at mankind's disobeying Him, cast mankind from paradise.  

    In that casting out, we suffered abandonment and must constantly seek to find ways back to God.  For Jews, this is an ongoing challenge and 
    problem, since there is no other answer than the seeking. 

    For Christians, who following the teachings of that greatest of all Jews, there's another answer:  Believe in Christ and all suffering is relieved--no need to do much more than that--and the joy lies in living forever in paradise with Him.    Not a bad deal.  

    That's the story, anyway, and if you can buy it, life's sufferings get considerably smaller.   It's called Faith, of course, aligned with Grace. 

    Now, for those of us who can't buy the story--just too obviously mythical in the sense of "false," there are other paths to relieving and understanding 
    suffering. I have found Buddhism is helpful especially in its emphasis on mindfulness and awareness--deep awareness of our true nature, which comes 
    during meditation, especially after long practice.  

    It involves recognition of our common "Buddha nature,' that we are all part of the same whole, that we all seek larger awareness of our loving nature, and suffering comes from our attachment to, well, everything.  Attachments are nothing more than illusions of permanance, and our need for permanence pervades our lives.

    Of course nothing is permanent--everything is in a constant state of flux, 
    and there's nothing to be done but live in the present, aware of the constant shifting going on everywhere at all times.  Underneath all that, of course, is our own awareness, the clarity that comes from realizing that our awareness does remain, recognizing that our thought-streams, while real to us, are not really true--merely illusions that we can choose to follow or not.  As Gandhi put it:  

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    That rings true to me—


    Lynn’s reply: 1-27-15  

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the response to my response.  I don't see Christianity and Buddhism to be competitors for the religious mind of modern thinkers to the extent you might.  The entire mystical wing of the Catholic Church for example, is built on very parallel premises.  As far back as Hildegarde of Bingen (and before) Christian mystics supported the concepts put forward by Ghandhi:

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    This is expressed somewhat in Romans 5:1-5 where Paul writes:
    Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

    Concerning the issue of "stories" from the Bible, most modern Biblical scholars readily accept the concept that stories carry multiple  purposes and often the question of "myth or not-myth" simply gets in the way of the message the story is designed to tell.  Deciding what is drawn from historical fact and what is simply mythological will in the end be an individual belief.  But simply because a particular part of a story reflects the "paranormal" does not mean it is categorically and "obviously mythological."  

    I have had almost no experience with paranormal phenomena but the little I have had strongly suggests there is indeed a "something other" that is beyond and bigger than me. 

    --Lynn Nielsen, Easter Sunday, 2015; two weeks before he died.   

    Go comment!
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