Saturday, March 2, 2002

Rocks in a Field - Two

Many people like myself are intrigued by rocks. They are our most enduring natural substances and come in such a variety of forms, colors and compositions. I had quite a collection as a child and as an adult, with a passion for amateur geology, I've had to make some tough decisions about how much of my rock collection I could haul with me on frequent moves. Rocks have often served as metaphors for many aspects of the spiritual journey, lending themselves to a huge variety of interpretations and circumstances.

Once when my mother and I were visiting one of her friends, I was fascinated by a small bowl full of colored marble chips sitting on her friend's coffee table. The beautiful jewel-tone rocks were more than a small child could resist and when no one was looking, I slipped one of the chips into my pocket. If only I had asked for a chip, I'm sure that the lady would gladly have given me several, but as it was, I agonized for weeks over the immorality of my theft and even years later, the incidence haunted my conscience.

There is a story about the Israelites having escaped from slavery under the Egyptian Pharaoh only to find themselves lost in a desert without water. (Exodus 17:1-7) Naturally, they complained to God about their plight which suddenly was more important than the hundreds of years of slavery they had just escaped from. After all, what good is freedom if you die of thirst? The story was told as an example of the lack of faith. I could have had the rock if only I had had the faith to ask for it. They could have had their water. The story also is an example of God's compassion on people who are weak and needy. God told their leader, Moses, to strike a rock with his rod and get the water they needed. The hardships we endure often are self-inflicted because we lack the faith to ask for what we need, become overly focused on what we lack, or lack the courage to admit our need. Rocks can either be building blocks, or stumbling stones.

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, the Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, discusses a method for obtaining insight into dealing with problems by stopping, calming, resting and healing. When we feel we want something, or need something very badly, it can be such an overwhelming experience that we can allow ourselves to be carried away by our emotions. We may find ourselves grabbing or grasping inappropriately or even blaming God or others because we don't get what we want. Pretending to ourselves that we don't have a problem is just as big a mistake.

Stopping in our tracks, so to speak, gives us a chance to say ourselves, "I am being carried away by this need or emotion which is so strong I am being tempted to act in a way I may regret later." Or I may be so excited over the prospect of having something I want very badly, I'm tempted to rush full speed ahead and take it and ignore the consequences. It is helpful to know that our emotions are the result of a very strong chemical activity in our brain that is not the product of rational thinking. When we are feeling very strongly about anything, good or bad, this is a traffic sign telling us we may need to either pause or put on the brakes. When we express our need to God, this is called confession.

The spiritual journey actually begins with confession. I am not whole in myself. I am full of needs, emotions, anxieties, wants that I don't seem to be able to fix or satisfy. The prayer of a child may begin in thanksgiving; the prayer of an adult so often begins with confession. We are totally safe in confession because we can be assured that the One hearing understands totally, whatever it is we are confessing. There is no thing good or bad as far as God is concerned. We are finite creatures: God is infinite; all merciful, all compassionate.

"I am impartial to all creatures.
and no one is hateful or dear to me;
but those devoted to me are in me,
and I am within them."
(Bhadavad-Gita 9:29)

As long as we are charging headlong after what we want, we aren't paying attention to anything else around us, and especially to whatever wise counsel may be at hand. Prayer is first and foremost relinquishing our needs into God's lap, so to speak. This is the function of meditation; to give our bodies time to clear the toxic effects of our emotionally charged chemistry so we can return to equilibrium in the Tao. Equilibrium is when we give up being in charge of ourselves; where we recognize, accept, embrace who we truly are. It is where we understand how completely we are recognized, accepted and embraced by God as we truly are. No pretenses needed.

Once we can stop pretending to ourselves, and to others or God for that matter, then we can step back and refocus; look deeply into ourselves and discover things we may have missed. What made us so hungry, angry, fearful, needy, thirsty? We aren't looking for solutions. We leave that to God/Tao. Gaining insight into how and why we feel the way we do is major progress on the pathway to enlightenment.

One of my favorite hymns as a child was an old southern favorite, "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms". The fourth step, resting or leaning, recalls to me a time when as a child I had suffered a huge loss. I broke down in tears and my grandmother, "Mamacita", took me into her arms and held me and rocked me while she said over and over again, "Pobrecita, pobrecita.," (poor little thing, poor little thing). That's how I have pictured God; holding me, rocking me, like my grandmother. Thich Nhat Hanh says to imagine yourself like a little pebble that has fallen into a pond and sinks down, slowly, slowly to the bottom and just lies there quietly, resting, allowing the world to pass by.

We begin to discover a glimpse into the Great Mystery.

"Suffering produces endurance,
and endurance produces character,
and character produces hope,
and hope does not disappoint us,
because God's love has been poured into our hearts . . ."
(Romans 5:3-5)