I grew up in a fairly traditional religious family. We took life pretty seriously—not in the sense of being morose or pessimistic; I had a very happy and positive childhood—but more in the sense of always wanting to do your best, to try to get and give the best out of life and not just float along.
Best-selling and award-winning authors John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio surveyed 64,000 women and men in thirteen countries across a wide swath of cultural, political and economic diversity. They gathered data from Canada to Chile and Mexico to Indonesia. Everywhere they went they asked a lot of questions about life today, about what makes us happy and gives our lives meaning.*
What they discovered was quite sobering. People are talking as if they live in an age of "extended anxiety". Among many of the statements surveyed, both men and women weighed in on these:
"There is too much power in the hands of large institutions and corporations." 86% agree "My country cares about its citizens more than it used to." 76% disagree "The world is becoming more fair." 74% disagree "Life will be better for my children than it is for me." 51% disagree
And then two clinchers:
"I’m dissatisfied with the conduct of men in my country." 57% agree
"The world would be a better place if men thought more like women." 66% agree
When the authors began to unpack these responses with the interviewees, what they discovered was not the fomenting of a global gender apocalypse -- where people were dogging and downing one gender more than another -- but rather where people were hungering for expression, a "way of being," a way of living life where certain core values were central to it, where certain fundamental characteristics were front and center to the way we do business and life.
As it turns out, these core values and ways of thinking happen to be characteristically feminine attributes. Here's the way the authors describe it:
A Growing Shift in Roles and Values
"There’s a growing shift in the roles of masculine and feminine values in the twenty-first century. We live in a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent. People around the world are showing that traditionally feminine leadership and values are now more popular than the macho paradigm of the past ... Everywhere, people are frustrated by a world long dominated by codes of male thinking and behavior: Codes of control, aggression and black- and-white thinking that have contributed to many of the problems we face today, from wars and income inequality to reckless risk-taking and scandal. The most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, collaborative and nurturing. And both men and women from Medellin to Nairobi are adopting this style, which emphasizes cooperation, long-term thinking, and flexibility. Informally, and in countless ways, they are following the Athena Doctrine, named after the Greek Goddess, the warrior whose strength came from wisdom and fairness."
Why the Shift Is Happening - What's Broken and Needs to Be Fixed?
When you consider the major institutions of the world, both current and past, what values have tended to dominate? How have those institutions primarily engaged the world? Power has been in the hands of a few rather than the many. Hierarchical systems prevailed. Influence was perpetuated by decree perpetuated by status and office. Conflicts were fought by warriors where the strongest always won and the weak were dominated. The world was based upon a win-lose paradigm. Status, wealth, economic advantage, opportunity, education, religious influence, leadership -- all of these were centralized and controlled by a few, all in the name of God, of course -- and the few most often were men.
The "game" of institutional conquest had rules that were stacked in favor of the few or those who had the stomach to enter in and fight their way to the top at whatever cost. Today's politics is a classic example.
Because women have been devalued in history, many of the characteristics and attributes and ways of thinking and being that women can bring to the world have been correspondingly devalued. Businesses call them "soft skills" as opposed to hard skills.
So if you highly value things like empathy, collaboration, fairness, flexibility, win-win paradigms, compassion, unselfishness, and transformation, who wants to get into the dominant game with its warrior-like rules and mentalities? Who wants to feel like you have to "prostitute" yourself in order to play the current game? Who wants to sacrifice your fundamental core values for the bottom line of money, power, and status as the only end game? Surely there must be more to life than that?
No wonder women aren't flocking to get into politics, for example.
No wonder so many people feel disenfranchised within religious communities. Many religions refuse to allow women to fill top leadership positions, including being ordained to ministry, stating, "It's just not God's way" as if men have a corner on how God's will is suppose to be lived out.
As a result, the institutions of the world continue to play the game the way it's always been played, with a few at the top determining the rules and the outcomes and the style.
A Tsunami of Change - Different Values and Ways of Thinking and Being
But what the authors of the The Athena Doctrine are showing in their extensive research is that the game is changing.** There's a tsunami of hunger and corresponding transformation that is sweeping around the globe. It's a wave of change that insists on including experiences like delight, beauty, flow, vulnerability, authenticity, social responsibility, intuition, imagination, innovation, cooperation.
Both women and men are standing up and saying, "Enough is enough! There's another way of doing business and life that centers around a whole different set of values that can be as effective or even more effective as those of the past. After all, many of the primary institutions of the world are irreparably broken. The old ways of doing things is over. Things have to change. We want to live different values in everything we do! We want to help make the world a better, more humane, and more equitable place where there's room at the table for everyone, for the sake of each other and our future generations!"
So as Gandhi once said, It's time to "be the change you wish to see in the world."
So how does all this relate to strengths-based living? Stay tuned. More to come. We need a fuller picture.
* The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the World, John Gerzema & MichaeL D’Antonio
** If you would like to see slides of the main parts of their research, go to this link.
The Frog and the Princess Do you remember the fairy tale about the frog and the princess? A beautiful princess loses her favorite play thing, a dazzling golden globe, in a pond. A frog ends up finding it and bringing it back to her. Delighted and grateful, she promises the frog that it can come to her palace (never thinking it will take her up on the offer). The frog shows up later, much to her dismay and disgust. But feeling convicted of her need to be true to her word, she lets him enter, feeds him every day, and puts him to sleep every night in her bed. And then one morning, feeling sorry for it, she plants a gentle kiss on its head. Suddenly, the frog turns into a handsome prince ... and in true fairy tale fashion, they live happily ever after.
This simple story reveals the deep psychological connection between our attitudes toward people and their capacity for transformation. As one author says, "Only what you have not given is lacking in any situation." A counter-intuitive concept, isn't it.
As it turns out in the tale, the frog had once been a prince but had come under the evil spell of a wicked witch. She had turned him into a frog to live in a pond forever or at least until someone kissed him again. Sounds like the story of the Beauty and the Beast. An act you would least think of doing or even want to do is the act that brings transformation.
Our Typical Approach: the Blame Game
The author's statement is unusual to how we typically think. We often look at others (the people in our lives closest to us, especially) and think that the way they're choosing to behave is creating the lack in our relationship. "If she or he would just act this way or that way, we'd have a great relationship." Our focus is on wishing for something different from them. So we'll cajole, criticize, guilt, shame, or "encourage" a change in their behavior. It's the typical blame game.
But the quotation above states a counter-intuitive reality: what is lacking in any situation is what WE are not giving to it. That's not to say that the other person doesn't have responsibility for their behavior and actions in how they are contributing to either pain or joy, peace or conflict. They do have responsibility. But you and I cannot force their responsibility. And our delusion is in thinking we can "help" them change their ways. And as we often discover, unfortunately that only exacerbates the issues, certainly our own personal frustration and pain.
3 Principles for Healthy Relationships
Years ago I read Cecil Osborne's book "The Art of Understanding Your Mate" in which he points out that there are 3 primary principles in developing healthy, fulfilling relationships: 1. I cannot change other people; 2. I can only change myself; 3. But other people tend to change in response to my change.
Sounds like the fairy tale. As much as the princess shrank in disgust from housing the ugly frog, it was only when she softened her heart toward it and then ended up kissing it, that the frog was transformed back into what it had originally been created--a handsome prince. There was no amount of arguing, cajoling, guilting, shaming, forcing, criticizing she could do to change that frog. She had to change her attitude first.
So you and I have to ask ourselves the questions, "What is lacking in this relationship? What am I not giving that I can give to it from a place of authentic heart and soul?"
Loving First Is the Highest Way
Marianne Williamson, in her book "The Return to Love," states this reality: "What this signifies is the miraculous power of love to create a context in which people naturally blossom into their highest potential. Neither nagging, trying to get people to change, criticizing, or fixing can do that. The Course says we think we're going to understand people in order to figure out whether or not they're worthy of our love, but that actually, until we love them, we can never understand them. What is not loved is not understood."
In the fairy tale, the princess doesn't suddenly know the trick for transformation. She isn't aware a handsome prince is hiding inside the skin of an ugly, warty frog. She doesn't therefore simply grit her teeth and force herself to endure the gross act of kissing the ugly thing. She comes to a place where her heart softens to a frog not a prince. And she ends up kissing the frog in an act of gentle acceptance. When her heart was in a place of "pure love" her act brought transformation.
Now let's be honest: I don't think the princess ever really enjoyed having the cold, damp, warty frog sleeping in her bed or eating at the table right beside her in the royal dining room. We don't have to like the difficult characteristics of the people in our lives. And in some cases, their dysfunctions might be so dangerous for us we have to separate from them for safety's sake. We can't hold ourselves responsible for their irresponsible attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes, no amount of personal change can change the other.
But the principle is true: what is not loved is not understood; and accurately understanding the other is the foundation for compassion, empathy, and respect which all combine to reinforce a space of love which is the only environment in which genuine transformation can take place. Without that love and understanding, we hold ourselves separate from people and wait for them to earn our love or we resort to trying to force their change through whatever devious or not so subtle ways we can think up.
Accessing the Divine Miracle
So Marianne continues: "But people deserve our love because of what God created them to be. As long as we're waiting for them to be anything better, we will constantly be disappointed. But when we choose to join with them, through approval and unconditional love, the miracle kicks in for both parties. This is the primary key, the ultimate miracle, in relationships." (p-129-130)
Our attitude toward people powerfully impacts their capacity for transformation. The rub is that they have the ultimate choice (the whole freedom thing) for what they want to do with it. And painfully, sometimes they choose not to respond in kind to our love. But if transformation is going to happen, it will happen through our choice to love first.
But Frogs Are Disgusting!
The whole thought of kissing a frog is pretty disgusting. I grew up in the rice paddies of Japan spearing frogs for entertainment, not kissing them (I'm ashamed to admit ... I'm still not sure where that behavior came from ... the tendency toward violence of little boys is scary). We were told that if you even handled frogs you would get their worts. The whole point is that we were instilled with the attitude that you simply stay away from or certainly don't get close to, much less handle frogs.
No wonder this fairy tale points to such a counter-intuitive experience that we don't have much proclivity toward. We carry this "hold at arm's distance" philosophy into our human relationships. Relating to The Other (those who are different from us, who don't act or believe like us) is extremely difficult. So we tend to insist on the other "changing" first - we want them to change to become more like us in order for us to accept them and love them and embrace them.
We see this paradigm manifested in attitudes toward people of other religions and belief systems, sexual orientations, political parties, racial profiles, and yes, even in our closest relationships in marriage, romance, and friendships. No wonder our world is in such a mess!
Following the Divine Way
I'm reminded of the divine example for how this works. The disciple always considered closest to Jesus writes about it this way:
"10This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a way to show His divine love in the midst of our waywardness. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us." 1 John 4
The divine way is "kissing the frog" when it's still a frog. Notice the radical, countercultural dimension of this approach: it's when we love each other in this way that the fullest expression of God is experienced in both the giver and the receiver. It is the only way that the full expression of divine love is grown in us which results in transformation. God knows that. So God acts first. And the frog turns back into the prince. That's the divine miracle we receive and we pass on.
I know I can be such a frog at times! I'm painfully aware of many of my warts--I am awakening to more and more. Thank God my wife keeps kissing me! My princehood is awakening. The miracle continues ... and it empowers a desire for me to do the same with others. Imagine a whole world where love keeps awakening everyone to their true royalty! Now that's a world I want to live in.
In my last post, I introduced the concept about rivers being viewed by spiritual and religious traditions as metaphors and symbols for the spiritual life. I described the basic journey of the river, beginning in the mountains and ultimately emptying into the sea. Rivers and Spiritual Growth
So what does the river’s journey tell us about spiritual growth? Let me suggest four secrets.
First, The Source of life is Sacred, which makes all of life Sacred. The flow of life is Sacred. There is a holy purpose to our lives, to our journey. Everything we have done and do has a Sacred dimension to it.
That’s why for so many spiritual traditions the process of spirituality is awakening, paying attention to life as Sacred, learning how to encounter and embrace the Divine in every experience of life. St. Augustine once wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Life is about connecting, reconnecting with—acknowledging, honoring—our Sacred Source.
Second, All individuals are from the same Source, which makes everyone Sacred. A River is a combining of individual streams into one flow. So if the Source is Sacred, then every individual is Sacred, too. Which means that healthy spirituality is about recognizing the Sacredness of every person we encounter.
That’s what giving the Blessing is all about—remember we’ve talked about that spiritual practice before? Giving the Blessing to another is acknowledging the divine goodness in that person, no matter who he or she is, and calling it out of that person by affirming it and honoring it. That’s what the Hindu greeting “Namaste” means—“The divine goodness in me honors and greets the divine goodness in you.”
Spirituality cannot be healthy and grow without this significant recognition and embrace. That’s why healthy spirituality must involve an outward focus, not just an inward one. We have the divine joy of looking at others and calling out, honoring their Sacredness. Life is about helping others embrace their own divine goodness. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone looked at others in this light, instead of constantly judging or criticizing or labeling or condemning.
That’s why the Bible ends with the beautiful picture of one God, one City, one River that nourishes one People—everyone being vitalized and revitalized by the same Source forever!
Third, Spirituality is not a straight line, it has twists and turns. It’s amazing how often we label the twists and turns of our lives as bad, harmful, negative, detours, even “not God’s will.” Right?
The reality is that no river runs straight. Every river has twists and turns. And here’s what really impresses me: according to the experts, “The twists and turns are Nature's way of keeping Her life-giving Waters healthy: they create the eddies that aerate the Water which is so vital to the nourishment and preservation of all the people, animals and vegetation which rely on the River for sustenance.”
The very things that we think damage us and therefore should be avoided at all costs in fact can keep us healthy—they aerate our lives—bring more oxygen into our system which actually revitalizes us.
What would it be like to approach what you consider to be a “twist and turn” in your life and ask yourself, “How can this experience aerate—that is, bring more life into—my spirituality? What can I learn about myself through this? How will I allow this to expand my life rather than diminish it?”
It’s interesting when it comes to rivers—there are those enthusiasts, like kayakers and rafters, who live for the mad and bellowing, raging rapids. I took a trip years ago, a rafting trip, right through the famed Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Wow, I gotta tell you—I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself anywhere close to a hard-core rafter—but that trip was high adrenaline and amazingly enlivening, to put it mildly. We went through one chute, our guide manning the rudder or back end of our raft, all of us paddling for our lives, and slammed head on into a huge boulder. One of the guys in the raft got thrown out. I about had a heart attack! But we finally got through and ultimately to quieter water. The guy who had been spit out of the dragon’s mouth beat us to the finish line, fortunately unhurt but emerging from the water shaking from head to toe.
There are people who love that stuff and go for class 6 whitewater rapids all the time! The twists and turns and rapids have a way of focusing you pretty quickly. You emerge on an adrenaline high from sheer gratitude that you made it! Colors look a lot deeper.
I read this statement recently from Gregg Levoy’s book Callings. He’s quoting philosopher and psychotherapist Karlfried Graf Durkheim. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible arise within us. In this lies the dignity of daring. We must have the courage to face life, to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.” (p. 258)
Every myth or legend has a hero or heroine who ends up facing some kind of a dragon or monster that represents what they deeply fear. They have to face it and fight it before they can fulfill their destiny. The fight is always brutal and fierce. They don’t know if they’ll come out victorious but they fight on. We wouldn’t watch movies or read books if the stories didn’t have these twists and plots, right?
The author is referring to the importance of facing our fears and risks associated with following our purpose in life. When you are able to face your fear, which often involves a fear of failing or, as the philosopher put it, the feeling like you’re going to be “annihilated"--the fear of losing yourself and being forgotten--you allow the courage inside you to emerge. You find out that you are in fact bold. You can face life and encounter what you didn’t think you had it in you to survive. That’s not only focusing, it’s empowering! Not only does facing this fear cause you to not lose yourself, you actually end up finding your true self.
Levoy says that “Fear is a signal that you’re close to something vital and that your calling is worthy of you.” (p. 257)
The twists and turns and rapids of life produce fear which informs us of what’s truly important to us. And they give us opportunity to do something about what’s important to us—to act on what is vital to us.
Healthy spirituality is about being willing to embrace every stage of and section of our Life River—to learn more deeply about ourselves and the nature of life from the quiet times, from the broad, open expanses like lakes, as well as from the twists and turns and swirling eddies. Spirituality involves all of those sections and times and stages. Just like with rivers, life without all these diverse experiences keep our spirituality from stagnating (as opposed to the river ending in a pond with no outlet). Our health demands all this diversity for growth.
And four, Spirituality is learning the art of effective change management. Have you ever stood on a bridge over a river and looked down at the flowing water? It’s almost mesmerizing, isn’t it. Has a kind of hypnotic effect. One thing you can’t help but notice is that you never see the same water twice. That’s where we get the euphemism from: “It’s all water under the bridge.” In other words, everything changes so let it go.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, the 5th century BC Greek philosopher, famous for his doctrine of change being central to the Universe, wrote: "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you."
Change is inherent in life and spirituality. Healthy spirituality is about learning how to steward change effectively. It involves two vital choices. One, letting the old go. And two, embracing the new. Just like we do when we watch a river—we see water go, and we see new water come. We really don’t have any control over that flow. We simply accept what it is and choose our response to it.
This is why many of the effective spiritual practitioners tell their adherents to do their spiritual practices by the river—so they can observe this flow and learn the art of acceptance. Like we have to do with our thoughts during meditation—we observe them and then let them go, without paying undue attention by focusing on them and obsessing on them. Letting them go peacefully and respectfully. It’s all water under the bridge; nothing you can do about it; let it go.
Isn't this what the Serenity Prayer is all about? Those in recovery have learned to repeat this prayer regularly, sometimes even hourly and even minute by minute to stay focused: "God grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and WISDOM to know the difference.”
So to build a healthy, vital, growing spirituality, we learn to ask ourselves some very important questions:
- What do I learn about myself through my responses to the different ups and downs of my life?
- What are the stories I tell myself about loss and grief and pain that end up shaping my responses to them?
- What does my fear tell me about what in that situation is important to me?
- How can I allow these “whitewater rapids” to produce greater spiritual health in me, to aerate my life?
I would invite you to spend some alone time, reflecting on these questions. Perhaps even journal your responses. It helps to bring thoughtful intentionality to your spiritual path.
I love the story in the Hebrew Bible of Namaan, the commander of the Syrian army. Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, both fighting to exterminate the threat of the other. Both fighting to prove their God is the stronger god. Life in those days is all about the battle of the Gods.
Namaan ends up getting leprosy, a horrible skin disease with no cure. He’s horrified and ashamed and fearful. The little servant girl in his home is and Israelite girl who sees his condition and tells her mistress that Namaan should go see her prophet Elisha who could heal him.
So he swallows his pride and ends up going. The Hebrew prophet tells him to go to the Jordan River and wash himself seven times and he would be healed. Namaan is infuriated! “What?? Who does this Jew think he is, asking me to go to the Jew’s sacred river, a dirty river at that, when we have our own more beautiful, more sacred rivers than theirs!!! “I don’t care if he is a holy man! Forget this business! I’m going home!”
But his officers reason with him, saying, “Come on, sir, how hard can it be to do this simple thing? If the prophet had asked you do a great thing, you’d have happily done it. You should go to the Jordan River!”
So Namaan again swallows his pride and goes. He stands there watching the dirty water flow by. He’s angry inside. His ego is strong. He says, “This is not the water I want! But it’s what I have. Here I am. So I will step into the flow of this river, trusting in the Sacred Invitation, this Sacred moment right here, right now, and immerse myself in it, and then I’ll leave.”
“So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God has instructed him. And his flesh became as healthy as a young child’s, and he was healed!” (2 Kings 5:14)
The very thing that Namaan was repulsed by, the very thing that represented something he didn’t want any part of, something he thought would humiliate him, that which seemed the most humbling thing for him to do, was the instrument of healing and transformation for him. The Sacred River of life.
The River of Spirituality is about laying down our egos, embracing that which often we cannot understand or have a difficulty accepting, and with courage choosing to step into Its flow and immerse ourselves in that Water. Who knows what kind of healing and transformation might result? Acknowledge the Sacredness of life, honor the Sacred in all others, accept the twists and turns as tools for growth, and choose to step into the flow of Now with peace, courage, wisdom, and hope.
What do you think?
Have you ever watched the Disney animated movie "Pocahontas"? It's a delightful recounting of the famous historical legend involving Captain John Smith and the native Americans who helped him establish one of the first English settlements in America. In the movie, Pocahontas, the chief's daughter, sings a song titled "Just Around the Riverbend." It's a profound picture of the challenge surrounding change and choices we face in life, using the river as a powerful symbol. Here's the clip. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89U_vyP3To0]
Most spiritual traditions see the river as a metaphor for spirituality. For example, the Judaeo-Christian scriptures (in Genesis) begin earth history in a Garden as the first product of God’s creative work. In the middle of the Garden is a river, flowing between two trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The river flows from the Garden, watering it, and then as it leaves the Garden it divides into four branches that flow into the four points of the compass—a symbol of the river as a source of life and vitality for the whole world.
These same scriptures (in Revelation) end in a City—the City of God—at the heart of which is God’s throne. Flowing from that throne is a river whose water is the water of life, pure, clear as crystal. The river courses down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grows a tree of life, each bearing 12 crops of fruit, a fresh crop every month. And the leaves of those trees are used as medicine to heal the nations. There’s no splitting or dividing of the river this time because all of the world is now encompassed by the City of God, with the residents along the banks of this river enjoying constant access to its life-giving energy.
So in Scripture, these Rivers are powerful symbols of the divine life, the energy and power of God to nourish all of life. And in-between these beginning and ending stories, every time rivers are mentioned, there is always spiritual significance. Rivers have great meaning for spirituality, growth, health and vitality.
THE JOURNEY OF THE RIVER
So as we think about the spiritual metaphor of rivers, let’s first notice the complete journey of a river. It begins as a spring of water high up in the mountains. In all kinds of mythologies, legends, and religious stories mountains symbolize the higher realms of consciousness. They are the home of Gods and Wisdom, between the realms of Heaven and Earth.
For example, in the Bible, there ‘s a Hebrew poem (Psalm 121) which begins, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; does my help come from there? My help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth.” The poet, echoing the religious traditions of his contemporary cultures, recognizes the sacred nature of the mountaintop, the home of the gods. But unlike his religious competitors, he sees his God, Yahweh, ruling the mountaintops—Yahweh, Creator of heaven and earth.
The highest mountain in the Holy Land is Mt. Hermon, about 9200 ft. All of the region’s religions viewed Mt. Hermon as a sacred mountain. Because of its height it captures a great deal of precipitation in a very dry area of the world. Mount Hermon has seasonal winter and spring snow falls which cover all three of its peaks for most of the year. Melt water from the snow-covered western and southern slopes seeps into the rock channels and pores, feeding springs at the base of the mountain, which form streams and rivers. These merge to become the Jordan River, in which many sacred activities took place.
Mount Hermon is most likely the site of the Transfiguration, where Jesus, according to the New Testament, took three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a high mountain for prayer during which he became radiantly white with divine glory and was spoken to by God and conversed with Moses and Elijah who had appeared beside him.
So mountaintops have been seen as sacred places, the home of the gods. And rivers find their source in those places. This high mountain spring of water is water which has been filtered and cleansed by way of a multi-year (and perhaps, multi-century) journey through the womb of Mother Earth. When this water finally emerges from Mother Earth it is Sacred, Pure and Life-Giving (as the many spiritual traditions believe).
After leaving its mountain spring, these waters join with other waters from other mountain springs to eventually form a river. A river does not flow in a straight line, it has many twists and turns. There are periods when the river experiences turbulent, chaotic and disturbing times (rapids); there are periods when it experiences twists, turns and pauses; and then there are periods when the river flows peacefully, smoothly and calmly; there are sections where the river expands into lakes with an inlet and an outlet and then passes on. Significantly enough, the twists and turns are Nature's way of keeping her life-giving waters healthy: they create the eddies that aerate the water which is so vital to the nourishment and preservation of all the people, animals and vegetation which rely on the river for sustenance.
Think of all the diverse kinds of eco-systems that flourish along the miles and miles of River banks: water fowl, birds, fish, animals, trees, plants, flowers, human beings in cities and villages. Almost every life form imaginable. And with the ebb and flow of the river goes the ebb and flow of these lives.
Once the river has completed all of the twists and turns of its long journey it finally empties into the sea. The point at which the river enters the sea is called it's delta. The delta is a triangular area which forms at the mouth of the river. The word delta is derived from a Greek symbol, also in the shape of a triangle, which means "Change.” Upon passing through its delta the river "changes.” Its individuality comes to an end as it merges with all of the other rivers which have also ended their long journeys, to become part of the one great sea.
With such a rich and diverse path, is it any wonder that the river has become a deep metaphor for the spiritual life. In my next post, I'll suggest four secrets the river whispers to us about what it means to experience a healthy spirituality. Stay tuned.
We all read about it in the news last Monday. Many of us saw the video. Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, 31, a Guatemalan immigrant who went to New York City in order to help his family back home, made his living as a day laborer, and when the economy crumbled, so did his job prospects. He wound up homeless, first living in shelters and then finally on the streets. A grainy surveillance video trained on a street in Jamaica, Queens, on April 18 captured the final moments of Mr. Tale-Yax’s life: A couple argues, Mr. Tale-Yax comes to the woman’s aid, the man stabs him in the stomach and runs away.
The video has made headlines across the globe, not just for its brutality, but for the indifference it seems to convey. It shows Mr. Tale-Yax lying face down for more than an hour on a sidewalk on 144th Street, near 88th Road, his life slipping away on the pavement as dozens of people walk past him. Over an hour later, the paramedics arrive to find him lying in a pool of his blood. They pronounce him dead at the scene.
I would be curious to interview the 2 dozen or more people who walked past Hugo as he lay there on the street Monday evening. What did they notice? Anything unusual or just another New York City scene? If they did notice, what did they feel or think as they saw him? Did they immediately assume he was simply another drunk passed out on the street corner? Or they did see him as one of "those" illegal immigrants who shouldn't be here and doesn't deserve the City's help? Did they simply not know he was in any trouble? Did they perhaps naturally or even unconsciously ascribe the whole scene to a normal urban landscape - it's just the way it is here in the City? Did they notice something wrong but assume someone else would call it in to 911? Were they busily on their way to an appointment so they couldn't take the time to stop? Were they afraid to get involved (after all, here in the City even good samaritans get hurt - this story is a good example of that danger)?
Why would over 24 people walk by a hurt and dying man without even stopping? Makes you wonder, doesn't it. What might you have done?
His brother Roland refused to watch the video when he was first told a tape existed, but found he could not avoid it on the local news. He was in shock, he said, that nobody helped his brother.
"Any animal that is hurt on the street, the city or anybody walking by goes to rescue it. But in this case, he saved this woman's life, and where was the conscience of the people around him?" Rolando Tale-Yax said. "They have to realize that it could be a member of their family who is the next victim. … I just hope it doesn't happen again."
Perhaps this sad and tragic story provides some insight as to significant steps you and I can take to act more compassionately as a general life style.
One, change indifference. Contrary to popular opinion that indifference is simply at the core of who we are as humans - it's evidence of our fallen nature - original sin - so we'll sometimes say, "Oh well, it's just the way we are - we're wired for indifference" - recent research shows otherwise.
In reality, there is actually a biological basis for compassion. There is a specific part of our brain that is wired for a compassion response. Experiments with both mothers with their babies and people presented with images of victims of suffering showed similar neurological reactions. The region of the brain associated with positive emotions literally lit up. "This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn't simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains," writes Dacher Keltner, PhD , a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.
The good news is that an attitude of indifference can therefore be radically changed. It's not in fact who we are as humans. We don't have to shrug our shoulders in a spirit of resignation. We can do something about it.
Two, practice compassion. Recent neuroscience studies suggest that positive emotions are less heritable—that is, less determined by our DNA—than the negative emotions. Other studies indicate that the brain structures involved in positive emotions like compassion are more "plastic"—subject to changes brought about by environmental input. So, as Dr. Keltner observes, "we might think about compassion as a biologically based skill or virtue, but not one that we either have or don't have. Instead, it's a trait that we can develop in an appropriate context."
This is why all of the major religious traditions in the world see compassion as a spiritual practice. And each tradition has developed ways to practice this trait. And here again, the latest neurobiological research shows that our bodies have a built in system to facilitate this practice.
For example, helping others triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response. In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others. This suggests compassion may be self-perpetuating: being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate. So the more we practice acts of kindness and compassion to others, the more we are rewarded for it and the easier the skill becomes. Transformational spirituality is a practice, a discipline, a developing of ourselves into who we were designed to become.
Three, develop mindfulness. As Mr. Tale-Yax's tragic story indicates, people are often so caught up in their own lives (for whatever reasons) that they don't notice or pay attention. I've seen this in myself at times: I'm walking along the city streets often caught up in my own internal world of thoughts, planning, projections, inner conversations, trying to get some place in a hurry, that I really am missing most of what's around me. If someone would suddenly stop me and quiz me about what I had seen in the last 10 minutes, I would stutter and stammer somewhat incoherently (except about the details of my inner conversations).
One of the key spiritual practices that so many traditions suggest is mindfulness - the ability to step into the present moment - to be truly aware and conscious right now. This, too, is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Try walking somewhere and paying attention to what's around you - what do you hear, see, smell, feel? Try more meditation at home - spend time sitting and becoming more aware of your self, your heart, your body. Widen that attention to what's around you. Really notice.
Four, use empathy. Hugo's brother Roland made the painful observation that if people would simply recognize that the suffering person could be a member of their own family, they would probably respond differently - be more proactive with their compassion. He's describing the use of empathy. The power of empathy is the choice to put ourselves in other people's shoes, to enter their space for a moment, in order to try to understand what they're going through. It's often begins by asking ourselves the simple question, How would I feel - what would I want - if I were in that situation right now? But then it always goes beyond to the next question, What is that person feeling or really wanting or needing? Though our personal responses might differ from that suffering person's, research indicates that the choice to enter into empathy actually helps to motivate altruistic behavior.
Four tangible and siumple ways to overcoming indifference and stepping into compassion. I'm not completely sure how I would have responded last Monday evening had I been walking along the sidewalk where Huge Alfredo Tale-Yux lay dying. I would hope I would've at least stopped to see if he was alright. I really hope I would've also gone beyond that simple step and gotten whatever help I could for him to save his life. Imagine living in a world where people practiced compassion so often that they became really adept at it - a world where indifference was an anomaly rather than the rule. It's time to unleash the powerful biology of our lives and let our true wiring go wild. For the Hugo Alfredo's of the world.