Saturday, November 4, 2023


Four Freedoms I Value

I'm a member of an international spirituality group that meets monthly via Zoom. Recently, we discussed the possibility of what shared religious or spiritual beliefs there might be among the world's peoples. The moderator that day was hopeful, though without being specific.

I remain skeptical about what ideas and beliefs humanity might hold in common, especially considering the nearly infinite variety of religions, spiritualities and philosophies that exist, and how tightly and fervently they are often held by many people, and which often seem in direct contradiction with others that are equally tightly and fervently held. Where is common ground between polytheism, animism, monotheism and atheism for example? What could possibly be shared among those who hold these apparently disparate and even contradictory beliefs and non-beliefs? Is there indeed a perennial philosophy as Aldous Huxley envisioned if we just dig deeply enough? A kind of core mysticism that really does bind us together?

Still, I wonder if a world-wide survey could even get most people to agree to what would seem to be common-place facts, such as positing that “We are humans living on planet Earth.” Surely there would be those who, for whatever reason or reasons, would disagree.

So I've taken an opposite approach, to enumerate core values that I hold to be foundational just for my own life, and they surround the idea of freedom:

1. Freedom to nurture (my self, others, the earth and its creatures).

2. Freedom to be (whatever and whoever I am, even if, and especially if, that changes over time).

3.Freedom to become (the best and most I can be, as a flowering plant needs rich soil, nutrients, water, appropriate light and dark, and a supportive climate).

4. Freedom to connect (with others, the planet, and the ever-creating spirit which, to me, actually is the planet).

These freedoms require us to respect the same freedoms in others in order for them to exist at all. Either all of us have them, or none. There's no fudging on this. And these freedoms also exist for the planet and its creatures because we are as much a part of the planet as it is part of us. These freedoms recognize and, indeed, even demand an interconnected world. We exist in proximity to everything else.

I take these four freedoms as a basic birthright for us all. They can certainly be abrogated, but not given, as no person, society or government can bestow rights that are inherent in be simply being alive.

The issue then is to find or create a society, a government, where these four freedoms can be recognized. A lot of it, of course, has to do with a hands-off approach of a government toward its citizens, standing back and letting them grow and associate as they will. Where is such a state to be found today?

Certainly it exists in many intentional communities, which typically separate as much as possible from the larger society around them. But the broader society has a way of impinging on us whether we want it to or not. The question is whether societies enhance, restrict, or even acknowledge these freedoms in some form or other. Too often, even in America, we see governmental force used to restrict personal freedom, and the lack of a right to privacy in the Constitution is crippling to the very idea of privacy.

Encouraging governments and societies at large not to restrict these freedoms but to recognize and enhance them is a lengthy process that will require one-to-one interaction to persuade and inform. And changing governments with no interest in recognizing these freedoms in a peaceful and non-violent way is challenging, but not impossible. Force plays no role in such change if these freedoms are truly understood.

They are ideals to work towards in a broader context, while remaining daily guideposts in my own behavior which, quite frankly, I don't always attain.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023


Power and the Spirit at the Hermitage

Delivered at the April, 2023 conference on the uses and abuses of power sponsored by Harvard Divinity School

Here at the Hermitage, a Harmonist community in central Pennsylvania, our bottom line is that the earth is incarnated spirit, that we are created by the spirit; sustained and maintained by the spirit at every moment; and, at the end of our apparently individual lives, we return to the spirit to be taken apart and recycled again and again through countless eons of time as the spirit unfolds. We are the stuff of stars and dinosaurs.

A line from the Judeo-Christian tradition says “This is the day the Lord has made.” As Harmonists, we have a different take: this is the day the spirit is making. Note the present tense and the active gerund form of the verb, the ongoing being and becoming of the spirit, creating an underlying unity and wholeness of existence.

However, our birds here at the Hermitage are having none of that. As I was feeding lettuce to the chickens this morning, a hen grabbed a large chunk and ran protectively away with it, and I could just hear her thinking, “Mine! All mine!” And then there was the goose who, despite standing in a veritable sea of cracked corn, nonetheless thought “Mine! All mine!” as another goose approached to eat and the first goose went wild, lowered its head, extended its long neck and chased the encroaching bird around the barn yard, hissing and honking. Meanwhile, the smart geese came up and ate their fill.

And don't think this is just for birds. Recently as I was driving to Harrisburg and getting on the on-ramp for the freeway, I noticed an impatient vehicle behind my old, slow van edging out and getting ready to pass me and anger immediately overwhelmed me and I thought, “My space! All mine!” and swerved out in front of it to head it off, which was dangerous, stupid, and which I immediately regretted, and spent the rest of the day being a most repentent and courteous driver, letting people on and off and graciously sharing the freeway, and there was a lot to share. We weren't running out of freeway.

So I don't know if I was being more birdlike, or if the birds were being more human, or if all of us were just similar living organisms, all caught up in Aristotle's world, where A is A, B is B, and C is C, and where the underlying unity and wholeness of life is sliced and diced into apparently discrete and separate bits and pieces, and you and I are among those bits and pieces.

This is what I call the illusion of the egg. Think of a nest of eggs, and inside every one is a growing chick thinking, “Mine! All mine!” Its entire world is contained inside the opaque shell, with no idea that there is anything beyond it. And yet this illusion has a purpose; it helps us realize that we, as apparently independent organisms, need to survive; we need food, water, shelter, and it empowers us to meet those needs so we can survive; it activates us.

Of course, taken to an extreme, we develop pecking orders, a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, where not only is what's mine is mine, but what's yours is mine as well, especially in a world without consequences. That is how hierarchies develop, pyramids of power, with broad bases but typically only one person at the top, traditionally a white straight guy. We live surrounded by hierarchies; hierarchies of politics, finance, business, media. And that sucking sound you hear is power going from the broad base up to the top. But those at the top – whether pharaohs, czars, presidents or CEO's – don't always attain their power unethically. We give politicians our votes; we send money to Amazon; and we expect things in return through some kind of transaction.

It's easy to say this is the way of the world, but what if something happens? What if we peck through the shell and sunlight comes streaming in and we stand up and see our brothers and sisters coming out of their shells and we realize we are actually part of something much bigger than we thought? This gives us a new context, a new perspective, and our understanding of the world and ourselves is forever changed.

Let's say you're a penguin and you're swimming in the ocean and you come across an iceberg, and you see the tip sticking up out of the water and you think, “That's me.” But then you take a deep dive and you go under water and you see this vast mass and you just gasp, “Oh, my word.” And you realize this vast mass is also you, that you are part of it, and the little part sticking out of the water is connected and part of this big thing under the water. Let's see how that new perspective affects our understanding of who we are and the world we inhabit.

Let's start with me as being connected with the spirit. How can I understand what that means? How can I understand the implications for nurturing the spirit? For serving the spirit? It starts with listening; listening with intent, active listening. It demands concentration but it's also a learned skill. By listening to the spirit, we understand how it works through us.

Now, let's go up the chain of increasing social complexity to our significant other or others, if we have one. We need to bring that listening skill with us. I have been, rightly, accused many times of acting unilaterally, of doing what I want to do. I like to think that happens much less frequently now than it did, but it still happens. And why? Because it's easy. It's easy to make decisions for others and to act as though their opinions don't count. And the way to change this is by asking them, “What do you think?” Just “What do you think?” Because the question admits our limits, that we know what we think but not what the other one thinks. And at that point we can start the process of collaboration, of cooperation, of consensus.

Now, let's go up to the level of an intentional community, where we need to ask the same question of 10, 20, 30, or more people. It can be done. It's hard, but it's a process and gets easier with practice. And if some person says, “Do what I say because the spirit speaks through me,” you can rightly counter that the spirit speaks through you as well, and everyone can say that, and pretty soon we're in Quaker meeting.

Next, at the village or town level, the New England town meeting is a good example of how small communities can still work directly together. But it gets harder with a city, a county, a state, a nation, or many nations. Still, I like to think that with modern technology and social media, that we can have a more direct, participatory democracy instead of a representational democracy. I'm not sure how that would work, but we can at least start asking the questions. This starts to flatten the political hierarchy.

Business and financial hierarchies can also be flattened. I'm thinking of the distance between the lowest paid and the highest paid in a company. I understand in Japan that it's common to find a difference of the power of 10 between the lowest paid worker and the highest paid management position; whereas in this country it can be 100 times or more. Increasing worker participation in management decisions, and on boards of directors, are other ways to flatten the hierarchy.

I would love to live in a world where we had a National Happiness Index similar to what Bhutan has developed. Maybe we could call it a National Index of Well-Being. I would love to hear on the daily news that, while the stock market has gone down so many points, that the National Well-Being Index has gone up because there are more children in subsidized day care, and so many single mothers have found skilled work, etc.

In our daily lives here at the Hermitage, we have found four behaviors that help keep us on track, that allow us to recognize the divinity in ourselves, in those around us, in all living things, and in the planet itself: kindness, patience, humility, respect. And those four words are the complete lyrics, repeated over and over, of one of our hymns: kindness, patience, humility, respect. These help provide context and perspective, along with meditation, yoga, and other practices.

I wish I could say I achieve balance, harmony, and unity using these behaviors 100 percent of the time. But actually I try for 90, even 95 percent. But that last five percent isn't pretty, like how I acted on the freeway. I realize there are times I will just lose it, when I am overwhelmed by anger and some really violent emotions. These typically happen when I'm stressed, fatigued, or simply haven't eaten for a long time. But I've also learned I can't just berate myself for being imperfect. That kind of flagellation creates its own circular system that is very difficult to escape. I've found that forgiveness is key to breaking that cycle of self-loathing. Recognizing that I am, as Nietzsche said, human, all too human, with feet of clay and head in the clouds.

Fortunately I don't have to be perfect as the arc of the unfolding of the spirit is long and spans many lifetimes. I will do the best I can to help move it along, and forgive myself those moments when I fail.

As Harmonists, our emblem is a blossoming flower; which to us is the earth itself. Flowers need to be nurtured. They will try and grow wherever they are planted or where their seed is cast, even among rocks. Poor soil, no soil, can stunt and even kill them. In fertile soil, with sunlight and water, they can grow close to achieving their full potential.

We look upon humans as being the gardeners of the planet, as being the planet's consciousness and conscience. As her consciousness, we aware of who and what we are; while being her conscience directs us to the ethical choices needed to make the garden grow and bloom. And the power we need to do such holy work comes directly from the spirit. We have the power to nurture, to serve, and to heal the planet, and what wonderful holy work that is. We have the power, in the words of one of my favorite Star Trek characters, to make it so.

Hymn No. 57

You and I are brought into being,

we are one.

So to bring vision and healing,

we are one.

The earth sees itself through us;

transforming in harmony.

We are one.

We are one.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023


Doubt was one of the defining words of the 20th century, and remains a defining word today. With roots in the 19th century and even earlier, the idea of doubt, not just doubting one's self but, indeed, the very nature of existence itself.

Part of that comes from the idea of impermanence, of the frightening feeling that it is impossible to gain footing in quicksand. Impermanence is a major characteristic of Buddhist teaching: "Great Faith and Great Doubt are two ends of a spiritual walking stick. We grip one end with the grasp given to us by our Great Determination. We poke into the underbrush in the dark on our spiritual journey. This act is real spiritual practice—gripping the Faith end and poking ahead with the Doubt end of the stick. If we have no Faith, we have no Doubt. If we have no Determination, we never pick up the stick in the first place."

Sensei Sevan Ross, director of the Chicago Zen Center.

And in Hinduism as well:  “Having doubts is a hallmark of an active, questioning mind. Even though teachers may clarify doubts, other perplexities are bound to arise when a student engages with a problem deeply. Unfortunately, modern society does not necessarily provide a space for a doubting mind to come to terms with itself.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

In the European and Middle Eastern traditions, doubt is not always seen as sinful.

From the Jewish tradition:

Normally, we think of religious doubt as an obstacle to faith. From another perspective, it can be seen as a seed for deeper faith, a stimulus for religious growth.

R. Gil Student

From the Christian perspective:

So why do so many Christians seem afraid of doubt? Perhaps they’re afraid of where the questions will lead. Christians have fallen into the trap of thinking that faith is blind, that doubt is the enemy of belief, or that doubters will inevitably lose their faith.

Philip Long

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”

Khalil Gibran.

And, finally, from one of my own human gods, Heraclitus, who seemed to know everything before anyone else had even thought of the questions.

“He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected, for it is trackless and unexplored.”

For me, that is the very nature of doubt. It is doubt that takes us to new places and expands who we are by putting us in touch with our potential, like the tree that lays dormant in a seed.

In the late 19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries, doubt became the very basis for one of the great schools of philosophy – existentialism – with Nietzsche, Kafka, and Camus as three of its guiding lights.

Friedrich Nietzsche

On doubt as sin: “Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature — is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.
Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality

"Belief in the truth commences with the doubting of all those 'truths'we once believed."

“Truth will have no gods before it . . . The belief in truth begins with the doubt of all truths in which one has previously believed.”

Delphi Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche

“Not doubt, certainty is what drives one insane.”

“On the Genealogy of Morals”

Franz Kafka

“My doubts stand in a circle around every word, I see them before I see the word, but what then! I do not see the word at all, I invent it.”

“I am a memory come alive: autobiographical writings”

Albert Camus

Doubts are the innermost corner of our souls. One must not talk about his doubts, whatever they may be.”

“Absurdism, like methodical doubt, has wiped the slate clean. It leaves us in a blind alley. But, like methodical doubt, it can, by returning upon itself, open up a new field of investigation, and in the process of reasoning then pursues the same course. I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation and I must at least believe in my protest.”

“The absurd is a shadow cast over everything we do and even if we try to live life as if it has meaning as if there are reasons for doing things the absurd will linger in the back of our minds as a nagging doubt that perhaps there is no point.”

Notebooks, 1942-1951

One of the great experiences of my life was sitting at the CafĂ© de Flore on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris, knowing we where Camus, Sartre and de Beauvoir had sat in the late '40s and 50's, smoking their (to me) foul-smelling Gauloise cigarettes, with James Baldwin perhaps joining them. We had an unexpectedly existentialist moment when three young American women sat nearby (we were at outside tables) and, shortly, demanded to know, in English, why they could not get wi-fi reception. The waiter was very patient. They ordered nothing but water, left no tip, and left. I had my own doubts at that point. Fortunately the cheese omelets were fabulous.

At the end of his life, in the last story of his last book, Exile and the Kingdom, Camus has a person helping to literally shoulder another's burden, in what seems to me a positive answer to doubt.

Coming to terms with doubt has also confronted many artists. Here are a few striking moments of doubt in art.

1. Fellini, at the end of La Strada, when the protagonist ends up desperately and hopelessly clutching handfuls of sand after he causes the inadvertent death of his innocent beloved.

2. Munch's The Scream, which is actually more about despair, but doubt can be a way station en route to despair.

3. Samuel Beckett, the Irish existentialist par excellence, from Waiting for Godot: Estragon: “You’re sure it was this evening?”

Vladimir: “What?”

Estragon: “That we were told to wait.”

Vladimir: “He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think.”,

Fabulous casting with Zero Mostel and Burgress Meredith; broadcast in 1961 on television.

Start near the end at 1:35, with “I can't go on!” Of course, they go on.

4. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen, Symphony No. 6, the last movement.

Start at Minute 23.

Nielson was attuned to what seemed nothing less than the unraveling of centuries of harmonic development in the 1920s and 1930s, when it seemed that total chaos was imminent. In this late work, he makes fun of what is happening and realizes that laughter can be, indeed, the best medicine, especially when one has no idea where things are going.

5. The American existentialist par excellence is filmmaker Woody Allen who, unlike his existentialist idol and Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman who returned to the Lutheran faith of his father late in life, has remained true to the nature of doubt and the basic questions of existence even to his most recent movie, “Rifkin's Festival,” where, after half a century of making movies, he's still asking the meaning of life.

Perhaps Allen's most existential movie was “Starlight Express,” shot in black and white, in which he portrays a famous filmmaker, Sandy Bates, who attends a retrospective in his honor and meets a high school classmate who demands to know why Bates made it to the top while he didn't. And Bates assures him it was just chance, the roll of the dice, which the man doesn't want to believe.

At the end, Bates wonders if the creation of art is one answer to life's most pressing questions. Sometimes just asking the question might be enough.