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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Understanding – CREDO CLIII

When I was thirteen I was probably more serious and idealistic than I ever came to be. That summer vacation I spent in La Jolla, California, at Wisteria Cottage, which had been rented by my Grandma King. I read The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and decided to materialize my ambitions by having book labels printed with the words Give me understanding and I shall live. Now that I am approaching my 90th birthday, I realize that this quote has shaped my entire life!

From that time onward, through thick and thin, for better or worse, I have tried to understand the ultimate meaning of existence. I read and studied and the earnest, solemn search through reading, and endlessly studying, led me perhaps to meriting meeting my Teacher at the age of twenty-one. By then I had read nightly the Old and New Testament, the Koran, the Upanishads, the I Ching, and Plato, and countless other books, furiously underlining and copying into notebooks like a glutton for wisdom until the day came when to my utter dismay my Teacher told me that what I was looking for was not to be found in books!! I became a crushed autodidact in one fell swoop. I was so distressed that he consoled me by saying it would give me a good vocabulary [which it did].

What he was trying to teach me was that understanding is not just an intellectual pursuit but following the path that teaches that an unexamined life is not worth living and that wisdom is the result of experience, that experience comes from acknowledging with humility the hopelessness of the conscious intellect to encompass the All! Now, in my old age, some people project onto me that I am a Wise Woman, to which I reply truthfully that I am wise in one respect only: I am wise enough to know only one thing for sure: I know how much I don’t know!!

So, back to my original prayer: Give me understanding! So here are a few things I have learned along the way, much of which I owe to Carl Gustav Jung:

1. Our conscious mind is but a fraction of our psyche. It floats on the vast endless ocean of our personal Unconscious, which in turn floats upon the Collective Unconscious. This truth has been the foundation of Eastern teachings all along and is their gift to the Western world.

2. To understand implies so much more than mere comprehension. It implies a grasp that love and humility are called for and that for us to really live implies understanding one’s own limitations while, at the same time, having respect and compassion for all the know-it-alls who think they run the world!

3. So, I come back to the unconscious wisdom of my thirteen year-old self in choosing that saying for my book labels! It has become the prayerful quote guiding my entire life!

Give me understanding so I shall live!


Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dealing with Adversity – CREDO CLII

As so many people in the world are having extremely difficult times, any advice worth listening to seems welcome. There are two voices from the past that offer such on both a collective and an individual level, a very cogent observation. The renowned British historian Arnold Toynbee observed that it was not what happens to a civilization [country] but how it reacts that determines the outcome. A case in point, of course, was the “decline and fall of the Roman empire” which resulted from laxity and frivolity, political squabbling, contrasts between wealth and poverty, and many of the other symptoms facing our own country today. Those who are aware of history can think of many other examples, including some positive ones. Yet, many countries start out reacting positively only to fall into the power trap, such as Germany after WWI, which resulted in the Nazi regime of corrupt socialism and the Soviet version, which degenerated into tyrannical communism. Both countries started out with meaningful ideology and both ended with defeat from outer and inner forces. Then a new development cast off communism by people coming out in thousands peacefully demonstrating and protesting tyranny.

In our own country, in the late 1700s, a strange sequence was to emerge. Hindu philosophy came to Europe for the first time and was translated into German coincidentally with the American Revolution, and, as a result, some New Englanders chose to go to German universities rather than England’s Oxford or Cambridge. They learned of ahimsa, nonviolence. This inspired Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, which was read by a young Gandhi in South Africa, who went on to liberate India without firing a shot, which influenced Martin Luther King, and led eventually to the peaceful inauguration of Barack Obama. Phew! The power of ideas! This is a new way of reacting, for sure!

On the individual level, the Swiss psychologist Jung put forward the same idea, saying it’s not what happens to us but how we react to it that determines our fate. We have a choice. We even say, “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!” An extreme example would be blind and deaf Helen Keller, but so many outstanding Americans have demonstrated this way of reacting, coming out of difficult circumstances in youth – one could almost name it a national trait. Contrast this, alas, with an increasing segment of our contemporary population who are succumbing to escapism in distorted pleasure-seeking drugs, porn, and crime. The hours spent on TV and video games, to say nothing of the Internet, imply living an ersatz life. In the meantime, we are risking losing our planet, our own physical well-being, and our ability to relate to each other in a genuine way. Now adversity offers us “the kitchen table,” the rediscovering of families around it and the challenge of reacting in a real and not synthetic way. Our frenetic national extraversion hopefully may adjust to rediscovering some of the rewards of introversion and a search for simple rather than virtual reality. This implies the need for a profound change in our values, taking time “to smell the roses,” noticing the suffering and needs of others, of animals, and the environment, and offering compassionate service to them insofar as we are able. This kind of reaction, were it to spread, might even save our world.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of this simple response to adversity! It liberates us from feeling helpless victims and gives us a very real freedom of decision and action. There is a price, of course, that comes with it: conscious decisions, psychologically understood, involve “karma,” or facing the results, positive or negative. For me, personally, the answer is to pray for inner guidance. I recite Buddha’s Noble Eight-fold Path every night before I sleep. The more I reflect upon its wisdom, the greater the respect I have for its simplicity and reliance on common sense. At the risk of being repetitive, I enclose it again as a daily checklist for spiritual review. So here it is again:


The Four Noble Truths

There is suffering in this world:
All suffering comes from attachment and desire
There is a way beyond suffering
The way is the Noble Eight-fold Path:

Free from superstition and delusion

High and worthy of the intelligent; worthy of man

Kindly, open, and truthful

Peaceful, honest, and pure

Bringing hurt or danger to no living being

In self-training and self-control

The active, watchful mind

In deep meditation on the realities of life

              — Gautama Buddha , 6th Century B.C.