Engaged love in Troubled Times

Note: the following is a transcript for a Unitarian web group share. Please forgive imperfections: an old mic and hoarse voice (I have a lung/throat situation). The first MP3 recording is the entire transcript.  The second MP3 recording is just the meditation, which is about 4 minutes long.

We are living in unusual times – a social species made to isolate for the good of the whole. I have seen fearful reactions to this situation. We all have. It’s a fact that both fear and goodwill are socially contagious. But because we have a negativity bias, fear travels faster and further than happiness and loveI believe that fact can motivate us to become more engaged with our whole selves, the better angels of our nature, so that that what flows from our being into the collective consciousness has the flavor of love and caring.

At this time, part of our difficulty is the not-knowing where this is going, or a willingness by some folks to react to the worst possible scenarios. There has been both misinformation and misunderstanding. We’re human. The following is a joke about misunderstanding:

A new monk comes to a monastery, and his job was to be a scribe, to copy the church laws and canons by hand. This new monk realized that they were copying from copies, that they weren’t copying from original manuscripts. So he went to the head Abbot and said: “You know, if someone made even a small error, then that error would be continued through time.” The abbot thought he had a really good point, so he agreed to go down into the vault to go through the original documents. The abbot is gone for many many hours, and the new monk gets worried and goes down into the vault to check to see if everything is all right. He finds the abbot gently thumping his forehead with his hand and crying. The monk says, “Abbot, abbot, what’s wrong.” And the abbot struggles to get a hold of himself so that he can speak, then says: “The word is celebrate!” 

We’re in a position of becoming social celibates, when what the human heart needs is to celebrate. Perhaps we can do both.

Social patterns influence our perception. But I’d suggest that at the core of misperception is a lack of mindfulness – an inability to perceive our moment to moment experience and accept or transform that experience moving forward.

Engaged love could be defined as an aspect of mindfulness – the embodiment of loving-kindness and the experience of personal regard for ourselves and others in our moment to moment experience. Engaged love could also be defined through our attitudes and actions – how we engage with our world.

Here’s a brief example from my personal life:
When I was 19 I realized that my family had scars of dysfunction, and that I was going to need to develop a completely independent identity. I developed equanimity – allowing my family to be who they were and expecting the same in return.
My personal transformation was a catalyst. Without trying to change anyone, I was engaging them with compassion and mindfulness.

Results were almost immediate, though it took about 4 years for my family to find full harmony. There were basic circumstances that contributed to that transformation. There were no major obstacles such as addiction. And at the heart of it was the fact that my mother was hungry for growth and was unconsciously searching for a catalyst – which turned out to be me. Or rather, it turned out to be mindfulness, mutual respect, compassion, and engaged love. Without realizing it, I was also engaging the original Christian word for love: agape.

Agape is the Greek word that is translated in modern Bibles as the New Testament word for love. The Greeks had four words for love. The word agape means charity or charitable regard, benevolence, or goodwill – more emphasis on attitude and action than on emotion. Thomas Aquinas defined agape as benevolent intent — “to will the good of another”. There may be a sense of personal commitment working through divine action. With its regard for others, agape is fairly close to friendliness and compassion.

Agape is well described by the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the biblical account, a Jewish man is traveling on the road and is robbed and seriously wounded by thieves. He is left to die. First a Jewish priest, and later an assistant priest, separately ignore the dying man. Finally, a Samaritan stops to help, taking care of him until he recovered. What makes this story remarkable is that citizens of high status passed by without lifting a finger of assistance. But a hated enemy, a Samaritan, stopped to help.

It’s a nice parable, expressing values in a concrete circumstance. In complex or ambiguous circumstance – identifying the root cause of a problem and the skillful action required to remedy that problem is not always clear.

Andrew Harvey, a modern mystic and social activist, deals with complexity by expressing love as both feeling and action. He is aware of the complexities, and believes that engaged love should inform all of our efforts. He has worked hard on the problem of global climate change, but has concluded that a major disruption or crises is inevitable for the humans species. He is well informed, but does not despair. He states: “Action is an antidote to despair. But when outcomes are uncertain, it becomes even more important that the work be done in the spirit of love.” He continues: “When love becomes the premise, everything is about relationship – with ourselves, friends, animals, and the Earth – you can act in ways that can be healing even if they don’t solve the problem.”

Mother Teresa states: “Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. The good you do today, people may forget or undo tomorrow; Do good anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and the Sacred. It was never between you and them anyway.”

That resonates with 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Jelalud-din Rumi, who suggests that we “Gamble everything for love,” because, “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.” In this view we are seeking Unity – our ethics and behavior guided by the divine. To be sure, Rumi’s passion for transpersonal love is not the same thing as agape. Rumi’s love is filled with longing, grief, insight, transformation, and grace. In our modern context, we can draw on a variety of sources to further our understanding of engaged love.

Buddhism suggests that we engage the world with skillful means, which means that we apply insight and compassion.  Sometimes, skillful means can be an acquired skilllike fixing things.  Skillful means can also be an acquired artlike deep listening or the presence of noble silence. Or, we can engage with the knowing itself and utter a turning phrase – discovering transformation in the moment.

People in various degrees of depression have told me that when others have tried to give them advice, perhaps intended as skillful means, it almost always made things worse. Activist and educator Parker Palmer was in conversation with Krista Tippet, the public radio host of On Being. He told her about his experience of deep depression. He states: “Well-meaning people gave advice, things like: ‘It’s a beautiful day outside. Get outside, feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.’ It just made things worse.”

Then he states: “There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder.” Palmer continues: “From time to time he would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything.” Palmer concluded: “This attending with presence is what made a huge difference.”

I’ll admit, it’s not always easy to know how to engage with skillful means. I recall when my father was disabled and was having difficulty finding work he could do. Our family was in economic peril. My parents engaged our minister to come to the house for pastoral counseling. Really, there probably wasn’t much to say. When my father got a job, the minister apparently suggested the company might not offer security (which turned out to be true, but angered my mother). I recall him kneeling and praying for them out loud. Then he stopped coming. I asked my mother why, and she said that he wasn’t helping. I asked what would be helpful. She didn’t know. I imagine she was looking for a miracle, or at least the charismatic prayers that might give confidence that a miracle was possible. Clearly, she felt our minister was not up to the task. He apparently was unable to provide comfort or insight. What do you say to someone who is headed toward survival mode?

Eckhart Tolle suggests that suffering can be a motivation to deepen our connection with the Now. In the Now, it’s possible to feel both pain and peace at the same time. Nearly all meditation teachers agree. And anyone who is filled with love, compassion, or awake awareness will be better company than those ruled by impulse and fear. The strength of our clarity and love can be like a lighthouse beaming light into darkness. But we need to pay attention, intentionally, to be a bright messenger in the world.

I’m going to (freely) quote from the Bible (Luke chapter 6):
“Everyone who listens to my words and puts them into practice is like a person building a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on the rock. The storms came, the waters
rose, the wind burst against that house. But it did not collapse, because it had been built solidly on rock. But the person who listens to my words and does not put them into practice is shortsighted: like one who built a house on sand, without a foundation. When the storms came the waters rose and the wind burst against that house and it collapsed. The house was completely ruined!”

This is the parable of building our house on a the rock vs. on sand. We are the ones building the house through the living of our lives. The house is our psyche, our heart-mind. Jesus would have said that by going deep, beyond our everyday interface with consensus reality, we can find the kingdom of heaven that is within each of us – a deeper or higher dimension of consciousness. But we need to do more than listen to words, we need to engage a practice that cultivates (builds) engaged love, compassion, and insight through the deeper dimension of being. Right now, consensus reality is buzzing with fear. But the heart of Being does not experience fear in the same consuming way that surface reality distorts perception and can lead to ignorant action. Practice a little, and you’ll find a little peace. Practice a lot, and you’ll find a lot of peace. At least, we can find our own way and not to be drawn into negative currents.

Whenever we feel distressed, there is another way of looking at the world – to see life in its essence. The essence of Life does not divide us. The essence of Life is connection, interbeing, unity. Love is an aspect of unity.

We can become grounded in a transpersonal state of being. Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as he prefers, suggests that we become grounded, solid, like a mountain. I feel that being grounded like a boulder would be good enough.

The love of community is also grounding. Thay has a mantra of engaged love that can be applied to ourselves and to others: “Dear friend, I am here for you.” You can use your own words. What’s more important than the words is to be fully present, authentic, to bring your awareness to the situation and to your friend. If you’re really present, it can work wonders.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of engaged and loving presence, you, too, can respond with a degree of mindfulness: Dear friend, I know you are there, and I am grateful. Now, this may sound very formal, or even awkward. What is most important is that we bring engaged love to the moment. The words are a pointer – a reminder and guide.

Thay had a daily practice with five pebbles, each pebble representing someone with whom he resonated love. He chose different people on different days. This can be done in a formal practice or spontaneously during the day. With or without a pebble, the process is the same. It’s a little meditation to embody love. We can also share love with someone on the telephone.

So, whether we want to embody love as good practice, or to find sanctuary in difficult times, the method is the same. We quiet our minds to the extent possible and focus on the love that we know someone feels for us – a parent, partner, sibling, or close friend – as a way of centering in loving-kindness. Love can come from whatever source that resonates within: from a pet, from the spirit of Love, from someone no longer living such as a grandparent, hero, or saint. Love can come from Mother Nature, a guardian angel, the Buddha or Jesus. Or, if you’d like, love can come from deep within yourself. What’s important is to engage or renew the field of love. In whatever way we embody love within ourselves, that love will strengthen the moment. And what we practice with ourselves transfers into our daily lives. Take a moment to identify and allow a source of unconditional love to emerge in your consciousness.

Now, I’m going to offer you the opportunity to get a little taste of this practice with a short meditation in which we can embody and share love as an intention of goodwill.

To begin, make yourself comfortable. You can close your eyes if you’d like, or leave them open. Become aware of your breath and your body…bring your mind home, to this present moment. Allow this to be a special time. There is no place you need to be, no problems to solve. Bring an inner focus to a being who loves you unconditionally. Hold the essence of love that you know is freely given. Feel it deeply – with all your heart. Allow that feeling to grow, to awaken or strengthen the field of love within and around you.

Now, pick someone to whom you can project that engaged love. Bring them into a circle of unconditional love, and wish them goodwill.

Give yourself a moment of being with true love. Perhaps an intuitive seed of love will inform your actions at some future time.

Now, if you’d like, you can open your eyes. As I continue this talk, the love you found may linger. It is always present as an aspect of being.

This practice has intrinsic value, like a practice of gratitude. Your mind will be refreshed by the presence you bring to the experience and by the associative presence of the person or being you experience with your love. Internalizing love and sharing love are both good practice. And, perhaps, this practice also operates as a prayer – a general prayer for spreading loving-kindness, joy, and happiness.

I have always felt that the act of sharing my perceptions, of granting relevance and putting an energetic signature into the world, is a sacred act – putting my whole self into right action. We can all do that, with whole-self intention, in the patterns we make in the world. We can intentionally engage the world with love. Begin to think about the ways we can do this in the context of social distancing, and focus on the next right thing.

Thank you for listening. May we be blessed with love.

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2 Responses to Engaged love in Troubled Times

  1. Charlie Mayo says:

    Greetings Jim,
    I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your talk and meditation today. I was happy to hear Jesus in your talk. He was personally my entrance into developing a deeper spiritual life years ago. I often don’t broadcast this because of the religious misuse of Jesus has given him a “bad reputation” among so many people I otherwise feel a kinship with. I guess I grew up without religion for the most part so when I became spiritually receptive I think I saw with fresh eyes and heard with fresh ears. When I quiet my heart I can still feel the love of Jesus even though I no longer accept the clouding dogma of religious Christianity that was presented to me after I first became spiritually aware in young adulthood.
    It was good to hear your voice. I plan to listen again, especially to the meditation.
    Thanks again, I trust you’re well.
    Be well, Charlie.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks Charlie,
      When I was studying eastern religions, at some point it occurred to me that I was getting the good stuff, not the everyday culture bound stuff. That’s when I realized Jesus said some really amazing stuff. I have now used the word stuff three, make that four times.

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