The cosmic dance: being for and of the world as delusion

Being for the world as delusion, for love of the world: the dance as God

I wrote this essay while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (DB’s) ethics of Christian imperative of participating in the world, in the context of the my personal tantric view of the “outside” world as we perceive and act in it as a projection of our minds, delusion, ignorance, etc.

Since I totally get that perspective, why am I participating so deeply in the world, and if I am going to continue interacting with it, how can I do it better and more successfully?

Perceiving and reacting to “the outside world” as reality rather than seeing it as delusion and projection doesn’t mean that freedom from the world somehow mitigates the effects of the delusion. Our delusion persists whether we work in the world or not — the question is how much damage we do when we engage without awareness, or withdraw into a state of narcissistic awareness, another delusion.

There seem to be degrees of delusion, hierarchies, though! According to DB, to Kuan Yin certainly, the suffering of the world entails action and engagement. But how do we engage ethically with delusion? That has to be a contradiction in terms!

Just as people, usually out of ignorance, built worlds from negative, destructive delusions, people can also, from a place of awareness and intentionality, reprogram our common, perceived reality, to more closely resemble the Kingdom. First we have to reprogram ourselves, though: download the divine software so to speak.

The strong challenge is always the temptation to identify ourselves with our perception of the world as it appears in our thoughts and desires. When we do that, we miss the connection with inherent, non-dual reality, that is the source of compassion.

The pathology of consumer, market driven society is that it tempts us to disassociate from that non-dual reality. Or has it always been so? Dogen said, “how could you waste your time delighting in sparks from a flint stone?” And that was back in the 13th Century!

Neo-liberal corporate/consumer culture intentionally and relentlessly urges people to delight in the sparks, to identify with our desires. I am my desires. I burn with them.

We may perceive there is less space to make a choice to identify or not. But we still do have that choice and that space, we just have to practice awareness of our thoughts and desires…especially the very charged ones like passion and aversion.

Jesus did give the world a model of resistance to false identification, and a free choice to love God in ordinary people, in everyone, from the leper to the centurion.. And Buddha gave us the method of training the mind, the noble eightfold path.

I need both, because J’s method of Kenosis, love, metanoia, love, is a tough feedback loop for those who live in their heads! Getting into it is easier said than done, and most people in today’s world at least need to suffer a lot before they can surrender like that.

Then it is hard to see it as voluntary self-giving except by some extraordinary souls like Simone Weil, Etty Hillesum, and DB of course, just to name some recent examples, although of course the community of saints is crowded with them.

DB, like Ignatius, was convinced that God is in the world, even making the strong existential claim that God is the world. DB’s ethics was that the Christian, the church, should be fully engaged in the world in order to live the Gospel and Jesus did.

This comes back to indifference though — but indifference to ends, not to process and means. Process can be deeply passionate, can lead to martyrdom, etc. Can we be deeply passionate about the process, but not attached to the ends?

The attachment to ends contaminates the free development of the process. I’m not sure why that is, except perhaps that it diverts attention from the present moment, which is the source of all knowledge.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t have an idea or a vision of what the ends should be or might look like. Jesus was very clear about the Kingdom of God being a “free for all,” with a welcoming, open door policy.

But the process is the path. Our attitude to our neighbour is the path. The ends are the means, as L said. It’s not about either “justifying” the other.

This is what the Tibetan/Indian iconography means by The Dance of Shiva/Shakti, the cosmic dance is a pretty universal symbol of non-duality. We participate in the dance passionately, erotically, with abandon — self-abandon, Kenosis, knowing that the participation in the dance of the World is The Kingdom.

That is the only way I can live and work — engaging with the delusion. Doing otherwise creates to much suffering, which unfortunately I am all too aware of, having received a visitation from Kuan Yin herself when I was nineteen. Kuan Yin’s thousand eyes and arms are always identifying and reaching out to offer what is needed to alleviate suffering.

If that is not activity for love of the world, I don’t know what is. We can envision that activity as our delusion just as we can join Jesus in envisioning the Kingdom, and thereby construct the sort of world God had in mind when S/he first created us.

A visit to Sneha Care Home for Children Living With HIV/AIDS in Bangalore — Run by the Order of the Ministers of the Sick

Whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.   Mark 10:13-16

Today’s reading on the little children came to life for me today when I visited the Sneha Care Home and Shining Star School in Bangalore, India, a residential home and school for HIV positive kids. My friend Dr. Shoba Nair, a palliative care physician at St. John’s Hospital, which provides volunteer services to the adjacent home for HIV positive adults as well as the orphanage and school, brought me to Sneha and showed me around, introducing me to patients and staff alike.  Sneha is run by Camillian priests and sisters, whose Order of the Ministers of the Sick, was founded by St. Camillus de Lellis in 1591. The Order, which works in 38 countries, is committed to quality and comprehensive health of the society with a preferential option for the poor sick.  We came at lunchtime and saw more than 100 cheerful children sitting down to large plates of food in a mess hall. Most of the children have lost their parents or parent and have been rejected by their relatives or communities. 

Although within the environs of the crazily chaotic traffic of Bangalore, or Bengaluru, as it is now known, the atmosphere of the Camillan campus is serene, spacious, scented with plumeria, and full of kids.  A vision of the Kingdom indeed! Abundant mango and papaya trees, fuchsia bougainvillea, and multitudes of chattering tropical birds make it an oasis of joy.  

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Father Vince, who had children hanging all over him when we met him in the dining hall met us later in the office (see photo) and told the (unfortunately typical) story of one child whose relatives had decided to kill her after her parents had died of AIDS.  They locked her in a room for nine days without food or water until one of the Camillan sisters found out about her and brought her to Sneha.  Vince says that the home provides the kids with nutritious food, without which they can’t survive, medications – most are on ARTs – education and vocational training, and counseling for trauma.  The greatest gift the home provides them with of course is love…the meaning of “Sneha” in Karnataka, the local language.

For a short video on the program see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYxUhn4qtOU

And for the website http://www.snehacarehome.org

Faith and harm reduction. What defiles and defines us.

cypriot jesus

Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them,

“Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” Mark 7:14-23

People who use drugs that are illegal are not “defiled” by the substances, although they might be harming their health, since the drugs enter their physical system but not their “heart” – and end up back in the sewer. The ones who are defiled are the people whose hearts generate “evil thoughts” – particularly the arrogance and folly that condemn the most vulnerable to a life of stigma, shame, unemployment, prison, or worse because of their drug use.   They are the politicians and elites who continue to support policies that benefit powerful constituencies while hurting the weakest, easiest targets.

So what is the best approach to those evils that come from within? I’m afraid – since I must do it – that the best approach starts by being aware of the “evil thoughts” in myself, watching them as they arise and motivate me.  I certainly have my share of thoughts that are full of judgment, arrogance, and folly.  I am no stranger to licentiousness, unchastity, adultery, greed, envy, blasphemy or deceit, much as it embarrasses me to write those words.  I too am defiled from within.  So how I can I judge the ones who make policies that cause harm?  My spiritual practice teaches me to pray for those who persecute me (Matthew 5: 43) and to bless those who persecute; bless and do not curse (Romans 12:14).

My humanist friends will no doubt gag at such a sentiment and practice (as do I initially), but then people of faith are “fools for Christ” and tend to do things upside down from the perspective of the secular worldview.  Praying for those who persecute us and being aware of our own defilements in no way prevents us from working for justice, though.  We can bless and not curse while still taking whatever steps need to be taken in public life to ensure that people who choose – or are no longer able to choose – to put certain substances in their bodies that are designated illegal are not treated as though they were defiled, stigmatized, punished, and executed.   We can still ensure, by taking practical steps, that people are treated with friendliness, dignity, and compassion, rather than contempt.  I’m on the right track if what comes from my heart doesn’t defile me, or anyone else when I do my work, which is always a challenge as someone who has been brought up, and professionally trained to be a critic.

Drug Policy, Faith and Vulnerability: Salt and Light

A meditation on drug policy and the Word: security, vulnerability, and light. 

Katherine Irene Pettus, PhD 

If you remove from your midst / oppression… then light shall rise for you in the darkness, / and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

 Isaiah 58:7-10

I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

I. Corinthians 2:1-5

Much of the talk about “drug policy” in local, national, and international circles I move in focuses on the concept of “security” and indeed, much of drug policy is now “securitized” – meaning that politicians connect the threat of “drugs” with threats to national security, combating it with increased law enforcement funding and intelligence services.  The rationale is that drugs not only threaten individual and public health, but that trafficking and money laundering destabilize good governance, sustainable development, human rights, etc.

There is no doubt that many individuals, families, and communities experience the very negative and often tragic effects of illegal drug use and trafficking. My family is only one of the millions suffering the effects of prohibition and mass incarceration.  The question, though, is whether it is “drugs” themselves – the plants and pharmaceutical preparations that cause narcotic effects, that are the problem, or the fact that they are illegal and therefore unregulated. By definition, their illegality puts the drug economy in the hands of criminals and international criminal networks. People who use drugs, whether for pleasure, because they are “dependent,” or are “addicted” must then also participate in criminal networks, often at the cost of their health and their lives.

What on earth, or in heaven’s name, you might be wondering, might this have to do with faith, or with religion, or even today’s readings?  A lot.  The oppression Isaiah names, which must be removed, is the illegality and stigma that accompanies drug use.  That oppression brands people who use drugs as outsiders, as separate, or unholy, and is reminiscent of the illegality, ostracism, and repulsion that branded the lepers and “demoniacs” Jesus healed from his compassion.  Purity laws, whether Talmudic, Christian, or secular (in the form of drug prohibition) by definition separate people considered ‘unclean’ from the body of Christ and the Kingdom.  Jesus very intentionally turned those laws upside down when he touched the ‘impure’: bleeding women and sex workers, paraplegics, schizophrenics, the dying, and even the dead.  It seems self evident that, as Isaiah said, and Jesus demonstrated, removing oppression from our midst brings light.

Paul’s disarming admission of weakness, which he (counter) intuitively understands as Power, combines two apparent opposites that generate the paradoxical resource of vulnerability. This universal, incredibly uncomfortable, aspect of the human condition, makes us shriek as infants, and use substances or activities (alcohol, coffee, tobacco, sex, shopping, or narcotics] as young people and adults. Paul’s letter puts us on notice that our search for the (individual or collective) security that temporarily offsets our vulnerability is futile. As one who oppressed the vulnerable himself – Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? –would have rung in his ears through his dying moments, Paul learned at a molecular level on the road to Damascus that the current of Power only flows through the fabric of utter defenselessness.

Jesus tells the disciples that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, a light that must not be hidden. Apparently speaking in riddles, he asks what salt can be seasoned with once it loses its taste.  His/our vulnerability is our saltiness: even our tears are salty, and the moment we try to armor ourselves against the “weakness, fear, and much trembling” Paul describes, by scapegoating and sacrificing others, we lose our savor and dim our inherent and collective radiance.   Societies that support rather than punish vulnerable people who use drugs are more resilient and have better public heeclipsealth outcomes than those that try to stamp them out in the futile effort to create a “drug free society”.

The apparent power of the state (us) to criminalize drug use only empowers traffickers, police, and prison guards. Admitting and sharing our individual and collective defenselessness in the face of our very human desire to alter our consciousness, paradoxically returns to us the power to remove oppression, casting a very different light on the “drug problem” and allowing us to begin resolving it together, in the parliament of the Kingdom that admits of no outsiders.

Katherine Pettus, PhD is an independent scholar and consultant who represents the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care as an NGO at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna.  She is also a convert to the Roman Catholic faith and a member of the English community of Sacred Heart church in Budapest.