The Grief and Intimacy of my Dear Brother’s death

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on August 19, 2018.

My brother John died on June 15 2018. This month he would have been 61. He was as tall as I, but weighed a muscular and lean 230 pounds. I thought that he looked good at 250. He was incredibly strong and athletic. He led a healthy lifestyle. It just seemed obvious to me that I would die before he did. The fact it didn’t happen that way changes something fundamental about my life. There’s the obvious hole – grief and sadness – and another way to address my grief through a connection with John, for now. It seems to me that John and I have been in contact since his death, in fact it seems obvious, though I realize it’s not obvious for any of you. Therefore, you are obviously free to believe or silently discount anything that I say, though I hope you realize that I would not speak so openly if I did not believe it was important. Continue reading

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Omen of the Four Vultures

7/2015: I leave my driveway in rural Wisconsin around noon, taking my dog on a walk.  I get to the edge of my property where I had re-planted a white pine that was going to die. The tree is now thriving. I pause there and look back at my house. I see four low flying turkey vultures flying in tight formation, gliding over my home about 150 feet or so away. This is quite an unusual sight, and it immediately occurs to me that it could be an omen. Because I feel it could be a death omen, I decide it is not an omen unless the birds fly directly over me. This seems highly unlikely as it appears they are going to circle back. But in the very moment I make the decision of what is or is not an omen, the birds turn as if on cue and fly straight toward me, still in tight formation – like four fighter jets. This feels numinous, and I’m more than surprised. I watch them for a moment, realizing that this is an omen. Still thinking it could be a death omen, I decide I’m not going to just stand there and wait for judgment. They’re closing fast as I turn and begin to walk away from them. Perhaps a second or two later, I see a shadow, and easily calculate that the birds must be directly overhead. I decide to confront the omen and look for them in the sky. They are nowhere to be seen. I glance in all directions and they simply are gone. I am dumbfounded. Continue reading

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Transitions, Impermanence, and Five Invitations 

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on October 15, 2017.

There is a story of a Sufi master who was known for his open heart and mind. He died in the fullness of time and found himself at the gates of heaven.  An angel challenged him, saying, “Go no further O mortal, until you have proven that you are worthy to enter this paradise.”  The Sufi master countered, “just a minute, first, can you prove this is really heaven and not the wishful fantasy of my disordered mind undergoing death?”   Before the angel could reply, a voice from inside the gate shouted, “let him in, he’s one of us.”

This story works on more than one level.   It doesn’t have to be about dying and going to heaven. The story can suggest being open to life and challenging our perceptions at the same time.  Any good story or myth can work at many levels.

For example, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide to helping the recently deceased navigate through the confusion of death into their new birth. But that’s not all.  It’s also a ceremonial way to grieve. And it’s intended to instruct anyone who gets stuck in the Bardo. The Bardo is a sticky place where outdated or maladaptive patterns delay transition. Continue reading

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Note: Following is a transcript from a presentation I gave for St. Croix Falls Unitarians on August 6 2017.

I want to begin by stating that I am not an expert on the topic of Islamophobia.  But what does seem clear to me is that there is a history in this country to distrust outsiders and fear the worst. For example, in 1915 a second group of Ku Klux Klan was founded and flourished nationwide in the 1920s, particularly in urban areas of the Midwest and West. Rooted in local Protestant communities, it opposed Catholics and Jews and used intimidation tactics modeled on the southern Klan. One could fill a book with examples.  Tribalism and fear are problems inherent to the human condition.

To be sure, Islamic extremists do represent a threat.  From September 12 2001 through December 31 2016 Islamic extremist attacks led to 119 deaths in the United States.  Forty-nine of those deaths came from the June 2016 Orlando nightclub attack.  During that same period “far-right extremist” attacks led to either 106 or 158 deaths, depending on how they defined far-right extremists.

We need to be vigilant as a society toward all forms of extremism.  People watching the news need to be aware that a violent extremist group only represents that group, and not a larger group such as all conservatives or all Islamists.  What seems unfortunate is that the American public seems more agitated by Islamic extremists than by far-right extremists. Islamophobia generalizes the extremist threat to include anyone who appears that they could have originated at some point in time from the Middle East.

The Huffington Post tracked Islamophobia in the United States throughout 2016. Having tracked hate for a year, they found that people who disparaged Muslim Americans are mostly reading from the same script. Here’s what they learned, summarized as the 6 Rules of Islamophobia In America – in other words, patterns of belief among those people who hate, scapegoat, or profile Muslim Americans.

Rule 1: Muslims are not American.
Muslims just can’t be from here, the thinking goes ? even though Muslims fight in our military and die in our wars, and even though a United States without Muslims has never existed.

 Rule 2: All Muslims are terrorists.

Rule 3: Pork is to Muslims as a crucifix is to vampires.
Like Judaism, Islam generally prohibits its followers from eating pork. While these pork-based acts of hate are undoubtedly meant as insults, the perpetrators may believe that pork could magically harm Muslims. For example, Trump in 2016, told an apocryphal story of how a United States general killed Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.

Rule 4: All brown people are potentially Muslim, and are therefore potentially terrorists.
For example, Singhs wear turbans and are Sikh, not Muslim. Christian immigrants from Lebanon are not Muslim.

 Rule 5: Islam is not a religion, it’s a violent ideology.  Here’s the misperception: Islam “is an ideology posing as a religion. Islam is intolerant and deceitful, and its adherents are ordered to overthrow our way of life and to replace it with ‘Sharia’ law.’  People in less metropolitan areas seem more likely to believe this.  For example, a This American Life documentary focused on the reaction of citizens in St. Cloud Minnesota to Somalian refugees, which included a fear of Somalians imposing Sharia law.  Trump isn’t to blame here, he just happened to be expressing a very real attitude already existing in many rural or less metropolitan areas of our country. In St. Cloud, and elsewhere, the fear is unfounded.

Rule 6: There’s a secret Muslim plot to take over and/or destroy the United States and/or Western civilization from within.

The idea of a “civilization jihad” is a thoroughly debunked conspiracy theory. But it’s also a popular one that has contributed to this country’s dim view of Muslims. According to a UK research company, many Americans think 17 out of every 100 people in the United States are Muslim — that would be over 50 million Muslims in America. There are only about 3 million.

If we’re going to help protect our Muslim neighbors, coworkers, friends and family, these are six “rules” that need to be challenged.

There seems to be a tendency for some Americans to generalize Islam from what they here about Islam in extremist countries.  In the fall of 2014 CNN invited Christian and Muslim scholar Reza Aslan for his response to the view that Islam is a violent and repressive religion. I understand that current events in the Middle East continue to shape governments and cultures. For example, the government in Turkey is more repressive today than in 2014.  But the call to stop generalizing prejudice is still relevant. I’ve pulled two statements and a question from that interview, focusing on Aslan’s response.

Responding to the statement that circumcision for women is a Muslim problem:

Aslan states: the argument about the female genital mutilation being an Islamic problem is a perfect example of [misunderstanding]. It’s not an Islamic problem. It’s a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90% female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75% female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.

Responding to the statement that it is not a free and open society for women in Muslim countries.

Aslan states: Well, not in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.

It certainly is in Indonesia and Malaysia. It certainly is in Bangladesh. It certainly is in Turkey. I mean, again, the problem is that you’re talking about a religion of 1.5 billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, well, in Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive and so therefore that is somehow representative of Islam.

It’s representative of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is one of the most, if not the most, extremist Muslim country in the world. In a month Saudi Arabia, our closest ally, has beheaded 19 people. Nobody seems to care about that because Saudi Arabia sort of preserves our national interests.

When asked: does Islam promote violence?

Aslan responds: Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful. And that depends on their politics, [their economy], their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves.

Stop saying things like “Muslim countries”, as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same.   [To generalize] what is happening in the most extreme forms of these repressive countries, these autocratic countries, as representative of what’s happening in every other Muslim country, is, frankly — and I use this word seriously — stupid. So let’s stop doing that. End quote.

The request to “stop  doing that” seems unlikely to be effective when directed at the general public.

Negin Farsad uses social justice comedy to clear up misconceptions about Islam. She’s better at it than I am.  So I’m going to let her speak for herself in this 8 minute TED video.


Research suggests that strongly held beliefs are highly resistant to change. Challenging rigid beliefs can actually make them stronger.  It’s called the rebound effect. Our persuasive energy is better spent with folks whose opinions are undecided or less rigid.

If a friend reveals their negative bias in conversation, it should be all right for you to disagree. There’s no need for argument or difficult discussions. Set a tone for allowing disagreement.  Disagreement means that we don’t need to have the same opinion about everything, and that we don’t need to try and change the other person.

But how do we react if we personally witness hatred? To be alert and awake to the moment is a good start.  We are not passive bystanders to the mean-spirited treatment of minorities – including women.  When we pause and become more awake, we are more likely to respond appropriately.

How we respond will be an individual choice, and must fit your predilection, your personal resources, and the potential resources or variables of a situation.

In a public setting with uninvolved bystanders and harassment that has not escalated into violence, it might be helpful to engage the victim in small talk or ask them, “How are you doing right now?”   Try to build a safe space.  Engage in eye contact with potential allies. If it seems feasible, guide the victim out of range of hateful comments.

On the podcast Invisibilia, there was an account of a dinner party that was interrupted by a burglar, and one of the guests asked the burglar if they would like a glass of wine.  The burglar accepted, and the situation de-escalated.

Eckhart Tolle and Fred Rogers employed gentle, quiet, but intense presence in difficult situations, and we’ve heard the stories of elderly women vocally backing down angry youth.

There is no one answer, but we do live in the age of video cell phones and an ability to call 911 when violence seems imminent. Please don’t put yourself in harm’s way based on this presentation alone. The subject is worthy of inquiry, introspection, rehearsal of choices, and the vigils of mindfulness.

Thank you for your kind attention.



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On Love and Loving

Note: The following is a transcript from a talk I gave to the St. Croix Unitarians on March 19, 2017.

I’m going to open with a poem by Mary Oliver, which is about the love she shares with her dog.

Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

Now, this is uncomplicated love – sweet and simple.

Human relationships are more complicated. The following joke, which debuted in 2004, may provide illustration.
A Minneapolis couple planned a spontaneous getaway in order to thaw out from winter. They booked a hotel in southern Florida. Because of hectic schedules, it became difficult to coordinate their travel. So, the husband left Minneapolis and flew to Florida on Thursday, with the wife flying down the following day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an e-mail to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her e-mail address, and without realizing his error, sent the e-mail.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister who died of a heart attack. The widow decided to check her e-mail since she was expecting messages from friends and relatives. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen, which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject: I’ve Arrived

I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send e-mails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.

PS. Sure is freaking hot down here.

Whether or not you believe that our love extends into an afterlife, I’m going to suggest that our moments of shine are everlasting, making a mythic imprint on the Timeless. The following quote is from a poem by Jack Gilbert.

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Humans do have a negativity bias, and sometimes we focus more on our failures than on our success. Our negativity bias may extend to experiences of love, when love is measured as a thing or commodity that we can win or lose.

Traditional Christianity tried to carve relationships into stone. The Judeo-Christian Bible commands: “Honor your father and mother.” The punishment for breaking this commandment was death. Traditional marriage vows state that each partner will “love and cherish, from this day forward, till death us do part.” Those pairings of love and death reminded me of Woody Allen’s film Love and Death. In the film, love is confusing and death is haunting. Here’s a quote: And so I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Actually, make that “I run through the valley of the shadow of death” – in order to get OUT of the valley of the shadow of death more quickly, you see. I’m not sure that running through the valley of death avoids the human condition of impermanence. And I feel we could make love and loving a lot less confusing if the ideal of love transcended biology and personal desire.

Of all the forms of love, romantic love dominates our storytelling. With romantic love, there is often a desire to change the lover into an idea of who the lover should be – an idealized or projected version of the other person.

The Ancient Greeks had a view of love that was essentially based around education and the notion of cultivating excellence in the other. Love is a benevolent process whereby two people try to teach each other how to become the best versions of themselves, committed to increasing the admirable characteristics in each other. That’s what love meant to the aspiring Greek. They celebrated four types of love. Eros, or romantic love, was seen as a little scary, because it can burn out with intensity and leave suffering in its wake. The other types of love were seen as more stabilizing: philia, or friendship; storge, or familial love; and agape, or selfless love.

Romantic love can be a wonderful thing, but to my mind romantic love needs to serve true love. Love is not just a romantic high. Love is a transpersonal quality that is everlasting. True love is enduring, even when circumstances change.

I mentioned earlier that loving pets is uncomplicated, though that’s not entirely true. For example, pets need toilet training and personal care that our adult friends don’t require of us. But the human condition has the habit of making things complicated.
Rita Rudner writes,
“My grandmother was a very tough woman. She buried three husbands. Two of them were just napping.” You might argue that her grandmother was just trying to make things less complicated.

It’s possible to foster a more uncomplicated love without burying someone for taking a nap. This uncomplicated love might be called the essence of love. We can cultivate essential love, or true love, by making it a priority in our lives. Love is sacred. We’re hard-wired for bonding. Our job is to bring skillful means into our relationships – acting selflessly to remove projections and unrealistic expectations. With healthy boundaries we can encourage the best versions of each other, while avoiding the drama of shadows and inflammatory pathways. To love is to will the good of another.

The Buddhist ideal of practice is the cultivation of the four aspects of true love: love (or loving-kindness), compassion, joy, and equanimity (which is also peaceful presence or sharing freedom). We cultivate the qualities of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity in ourselves, holding the space of love so that we can share that love with others.

It can be useful to have friends and partners to encourage your practice, and then share the love in widening circles. When cultivating your love, spend time with like-minded fellows. Rumi says: When you go to the garden, do you look at thorns or flowers? Spend more time with roses and jasmine.

Jeff Brown states: “You don’t measure love in time. You measure love in transformation. The heart doesn’t wear a watch – it’s timeless. What the heart cares about is resonance. Resonance that opens it, resonance that enlivens it, resonance that calls it home. And when it finds it, the transformation begins…

Loving awareness isn’t keeping score. We nurture our kinship though a desire to share the sacred aspects of love whenever we can. Some days we will feel more loving than on others, and some circumstances will lend themselves to loving easier than will others. The practice suggests keeping an eye on the potentials of love. Gently ask yourself the question: Today, is there a way to be more kind or loving?
Now, the poet Rumi is all in. He says:
Gamble everything for love.
Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.
You set out to find sacred Love,
but then you keep stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses.

“Mean-spirited roadhouses” refers to all the entrapments that foster confusion, mindless distraction, negative projection, and commercial love. People who enter those establishments aren’t looking for the essence of love. Perhaps they’re hoping to hide from the pain of their travels. What brings us into essential love is a desire to cultivate and share our good nature. And then, with a lightness of touch, encourage that others do the same – their own expression of their good nature. We’re attending to the sacred in each other – Namaste. Can we create a space for love? Can we create a space for loving presence within us? Can we see the goodness of life and share that love with others?

At some point in my life my mother and I became really close – like best friends. But for some reason I couldn’t say, “I love you.” I found the phrase unnecessarily complicated, imbued with cultural expectations, associations, and obligations. But I did show her that I loved her on an ongoing basis, until the day when I decided enough time had gone by, and I told her the words she wanted to hear, words that she could take with joy to her grave. It does seem like an impending death loosens our speech. Why do we wait to express these essential messages? Why is it that the word “love” is sometimes overused in storytelling and underused in daily life?

Love is a powerful word, and seems to carry more weight than friendship, goodwill, and kindness. Love may be a guiding principal and source of renewal, so there ought to be more ways to say I love you without worry of cultural baggage or concern that we are pledging an unfailing flow of ongoing, perfected love. Love is an elevated word, but does not require perfection.

Love is a virtue that we cultivate, so that if we nurture the quality of love within ourselves, then we have that same love to share with others. Sharing love becomes a verb – loving. When Mary Oliver says: My work is loving the world, there is a sense of engagement. In Buddhism, we act with loving-kindness, or project loving-kindness – a practice that we engage and renew. We might say: I treat myself and others with loving-kindness. The words are pointing to Love itself, and loving the pathways of our life.

So I inquire, how do we say I love you? Perhaps it’s like a Zen koan, a riddle we can contemplate without needing to find an answer to articulate. The proof is in the state of our heart/mind, and in the ways that we interact with the flow of our experience. The proof is in our loving. Our words and deeds reflect our inner experience. If we cultivate love, something in our behavior will reflect love. Love is worthy of contemplation, and our words benefit from renewal.

The poet Hafiz says:
Admit something: people you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying, with that sweet moon language,
What every other eye in this world is dying to hear?

To my mind, Love is a quality that’s always shining. Our job is to become aware of the Loving itself, to open up to loving presence.

Here’s one of my little poems:
Remind me, again, that Love is always shining.
Life awakens in the love zone –
breathing with the light that breathes with trees.
Can we allow ourselves the pleasure –
embracing an ageless desire, and channeling radiance.

The Indian master Poonja put it this way…he says, “Love is always loving you.”
You’re always a part of the ocean. Love is always loving us and yet, because of limiting beliefs and a contraction into a smaller self, we don’t experience that. In a way, the path is to relax back into a way of recognizing that love is always loving us. That phrase expresses an aspect of transpersonal Harmony, the shared attraction to the better angels of our nature.

Engaged love is the practice of cultivating and sharing our love with ourselves, others, and in right action.
Engaged love doesn’t depend on getting recognition for sincerity. The practice is its own reward. Thich Nhat Hanh has a mantra of engaged love that can be applied to ourselves, others, and in right action: “Dear friend, I am here for you.” You can use your own words, fit them to the situation. What’s more important than the words is to be fully present, to bring your awareness of love to the situation. If you’re really present, it can work wonders. Dear friend, I am here for you.

But we are not always in close proximity when a dear friend suffers. We aren’t in contact with our friends all the time. But we can hold the space of our love. We can have an intention to project our love at a distance, and to intend a loving presence for the moments that we are together. In Buddhism, this is called the practice of loving-kindness – to bring someone to mind in the space of awareness and project love, kindness, and goodwill. The practice can use words. The practice can be wordless and filled with feeling. In any case, words depend on feeling to come alive. You might say to yourself: Dear friend, may you feel the love that I hold for us in this space. Or, more simply: May you feel love and kindness.

Now, perhaps we can take a short contemplative moment, a minute meditation, to rest in loving-kindness and share that engaged love with a person or persons of our choosing. First, engage the field of love within. Give yourself a hug. Then, bring to mind the person or situation onto which you can focus your love, with or without words. If you use words, You might say to yourself: Dear friend, may you feel the love that I hold for us in this space.

At the sound of bell, eyes open or closed, give yourself a hug; connect with the heart’s will. Then share that love with another being: may you feel the love that I hold for us. Of course, if you’d like, you can choose to use this time to simply relax.

Bell: Begin, if you’d like, by embracing love within yourself. You are clearly worth it.
Then, share the love you’ve found with another being: may you feel the love that I hold for us.
If you’d like, expand this feeling of love to the people sitting around you, and then to the community present here and now in these rooms together. End Bell

I’d like to end with a quote from The Messenger by Mary Oliver:

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,

Which is mostly rejoicing, since all ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes, a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
over and over – My work is loving the world.

Thank you for sharing these moments together.

Note: I recited the following poem earlier in the service, and am including it here by request.

The Source of loving (by Jim Price)
The sun has set into a lake,
leaving the day with its fading bloom.
Darkness moistens my lips
and softens my gaze.
I was lost for a single fault,
sun-burnt for the lack of proper clothing.
Now, clothes seem superfluous under
the expansive dark and infinite flecks of shine.
Light is forged in the vastness of space.
We were made through the alchemy of starlight.
A star is shining from my heart.
We can stoke the radiance together,
rekindle an ancestral glow.
Wander with a purpose, oh dear heart,
to share the Source of loving.

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