Reality Check Two

“I refuse to be intimidated by reality. What is reality anyway? Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.”

From “The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe,” written by Jane Wagner and performed by Lily Tomlin

In the book “Sacred Contracts,” author Caroline Myss describes the archetype of the Saboteur as the Guardian of Choice. The challenge of making a good choice is governed entirely by the clarity of our perception. If our perception is sabotaged by projection, prejudice, pride, fear, anger, distortion, insufficient information or insufficient reflection, the likelihood of making a wise and clear choice is severely diminished, hence: sabotaged.

I spent much of last Friday at the Norris Cancer Hospital at the University of Southern California. I had fasted from 8:30 AM in the morning in preparation for both a PET-Scan and a CT-Scan which were scheduled for 2:30 PM.

When I was ushered into her office, the lab technician and I recognized each other. She said, “I remember you.” Then, as she poked a needle in my arm in preparation for an IV line, she said, “We have to stop meeting like this.” I loved her for that.

As Joan Crawford once famously said, “This is not my first rodeo,” and yesterday was not my first scan. I’ve been getting them annually for several years.

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Joy As An Act of Resistance

This morning (11/6/17) when I turned on the news, Gayle King was interviewing Texas Governor Greg Abbott on CBS This Morning about the mass-shooting in Sutherland Springs TX the previous day. Ms. King said to the governor:

Ms. King

“Governor, we’re hearing stories that eight members of one family lost their lives on that Sunday morning going to church.  So now we’re at a place where you get shot at a concert, at a school, at a movie theatre, and now, in church. Do you now think we have to think this is the new normal in this country for the citizens who live here?”

Governor Abbott

“We need to understand one thing here: killing in this country is illegal.  And we’ve seen challenges in all different kinds of ways, as you know. Just last week we saw a person use a truck to mow down people in a bike lane. As you know we’ve seen bombings at concerts, in London, as well as knife stabbings.”

Ms. King (interrupts)

“But right now we’re just focusing on the guns.”

Governor Abbott

“That’s what you are focusing on.

It’s important that we understand two things: we have evil that occurs in this world whether it be a terrorist who uses a truck or whether it be a terrorist who uses bombs and knives . . . We have evil and, hence, the greatest response to evil is what I encountered in Sutherland Springs Texas last night. And that is the key focus is victims’ families that I got to hug and hold and pray with. They wanted one thing: they wanted a stronger connection to God; they wanted to be able to pray as we shared a candlelight vigil. And it’s important that we go back to the fundamentals of our faith-based nation . . .”

Ms. King (interrupts again)

“Praying and hugs are good, we all agree. But what can we do to keep these weapons out of the hands of people that you were saying yourself are evil? What can we do about that?”

Governor Abbot

“I’m going to use the words of the citizens of Sutherland Springs themselves, and that is, they want to work together for love to overcome evil, and you do that by working with God.”

Ms. King tried repeatedly, and in vain, to get Governor Abbott to address gun violence.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-church-shooting-governor-greg-abbott-on-gunman-devin-kelley/

Governor Abbott’s performance reminded me, as things often do these days, of M. Scott Peck’s disturbing and essential book, The People of the Lie. The gist of the book as I recall it is: the worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves to maintain the ego’s false image of itself so we don’t have to change.

Prior to turning on the news this morning, I had begun this week’s essay this way:

“It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that all things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.”

From the preface of Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion

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Your Job Is Joy

“Gladness of heart is the very life of a person, and the joyfulness of a man prolongeth his days.”
Ecclesiasticus 30:22

In the early 1990s I was introduced to “plant medicine” by friends of mine who had spent time with shamans in the jungles of Peru and had invited them to bring their rituals and ceremonies to the California desert.  I don’t know why I felt called to attend but I did—in large part because I trusted the integrity and wisdom of the people who were hosting the event. I went on to participate in about a half dozen ceremonies over a period of eight years.

The name “Ayahuasca” means “Vine of the Soul” in Quechua, the language of the indigenous peoples in the area of the Andes that was once home to the Inca Empire. It is a brew concocted of the vine and a few other plants native to that area. The mixture creates a psychoactive substance that, when ingested, induces a spiritual experience.

There are those, I know, who are skeptical of the validity of a spiritual experience that involves any use of substances. The use of such substances is an integral part of the spiritual life of many indigenous peoples. My own experience affirms the authentic power of these sacred substances.

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Lench Archuleta: Wind Spirit Teaching

It was not easy to explain to my business partner and to my clients my decision to spend two weeks in the Arizona desert with a Yaqui shaman at the height the television casting season—the busiest time of year. Regardless of the consequences to my career, I felt I had to make this journey. Since my cancer diagnosis a year earlier, my discernment process had switched from an “I can’t afford to” attitude to an “I can’t afford not to” reality.

A limited knowledge of Carlos Castaneda’s books had led me to expect a Yaqui Shaman to be mysterious, intimidating and unapproachable. Lench Archuleta, when I met him in February of 1999, was none of these things. He was a welcoming, down-to-earth, middle-aged man living with his second wife, Patty, and their infant son, Eli, in a modest two bedroom house on the edge of the Arizona desert.

Lench had served in the Vietnam War as a “tunnel rat.” He was assigned to search the underground tunnels that the Vietnamese soldiers built and to make sure they were abandoned and not mined or booby-trapped. Lench survived for a tour and a half because of, as he characterizes it, his intimate relationship with the earth and living things which he learned as a child from his father and grandfather.

Lench told me this story the first evening:

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Coyote Medicine

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live one’s life in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”  -Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard

Shortly after I was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 1997, I was introduced to Lewis Mehl-Madrona’s work by my therapist, Jim Fain, who had recently heard Lewis speak at the annual Creativity and Madness Conference in Santa Fe, NM. Jim suggested that I get a copy of Lewis’s book, Coyote Medicine, that it might be helpful in discerning the most appropriate response to the cancer diagnosis.

I was inspired and reassured by the book, especially by Lewis’s insistence that healing necessitates the integration of spiritual practice, complementary medicine, and allopathic medicine. He also stressed the importance of story in the work of healing. One of the first pieces of intuitive guidance I had received after my diagnosis was that “if I could keep my story interesting, God would let me live.”

I made arrangements to spend the first week in January, 1998, a quiet time at work, at the Center for Complementary Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh where Lewis was Medical Director.

I arrived in Pittsburgh in the midst of a blizzard and below freezing temperatures. The storm had delayed Lewis’ return but he had given his staff instructions for an immersive week-long nine-to-five healing intensive which included a physical, acupuncture, meditation classes, shiatsu massage, sessions with a nutritionist,  sessions with a psychiatrist who practiced hypnotherapy, and with a woman who practiced energy medicine and was a psychotherapist.

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Holy Curiosity

In the almost ten months since I have begun posting weekly blogs, I’ve become aware that if there is a unifying theme to them—I say “if”—I believe it is freedom. I’ve been reflecting on what experiences in my lifetime have inspired my impulse to freedom. I track its inception back to my four year liberal arts education at Regis College (now University) in Denver and to two teachers, in particular. These two teachers, more than any others, encouraged—even insisted—that their students think outside the box.

The invaluable Merriam Webster dictionary app on my iPhone defines liberal arts as: The studies (as language, philosophy, history, literature, abstract science) in a college or university intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills.

The old joke about a liberal arts diploma was that it and a nickel would buy you a cup of coffee.

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I’m Being Called To Be What???

In February of 1979 I became acutely aware of the fact that I see things differently, that not everyone— maybe not anyone—sees the way I see. I don’t remember when I began to see the sacred in secular symbols. It always seemed normal to me and it didn’t occur to me for a very long time that not everyone saw things this way.

This way of seeing likely developed in high school and college where the Jesuits taught us “to seek the presence of God in all things,” a core spiritual practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.

I don’t remember committing to this practice consciously. Then in 1979 I attended the Advocate Experience, an intensive coming out workshop for LGBT community. A friend of mine recently referred to the encounter I had there as a “Baptism of Fire.”

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Do You Want To Risk Sending Your Parents To Hell For All Eternity?

Throughout my life I have been blessed with extraordinary teachers beginning in fourth grade with Sister Jane Mary, who, to my mother’s dismay, insisted all of her students have library cards and use them. Every other Friday afternoon the good Sister marched her class to the corner of the school playground where the blue bookmobile was parked. I loved checking out new books. The problem is that I almost always forgot to return the old ones. Overdue notices with two cents a day fines turned up regularly in the mailbox. My mother would mutter under her breath when she opened mail from the Denver Public Library and berate the good sister (never to her face) about how irresponsible it was to trust a nine-year-old with library card. “This is your last warning,” she would warn me, “from now on the fines are coming out of your allowance. If I get any more overdue notices, I’m tearing up your library card.” She never did.

I still have and regularly use my library card.

From the beginning it has been a gateway to freedom and the exploration of new and previously unimagined worlds and ideas. Reading, attending movies and being taken by my parents to see live touring companies of Broadway shows like Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific (before I was in my teens) all contributed to the creation of an inner world far more exotic (and as a child and adolescent far more fulfilling) than my outer one.

My father introduced me to adult literature when he recommended Herman Wouk’s World War Two novel The Caine Mutiny while I was still in grade school. I devoured it. Wouk’s next book, Marjorie Morningstar, was published my freshman year in high school. I was eager to read it although I had no idea what it was about. My mother, who did know what it was about, insisted I get permission from one of the Jesuit priests who taught at the high school. I took the book to Father Lander, the school librarian and told him my mother insisted I get permission before I read it.

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What is Mine To Do?

 

Franciscan friar, Father Richard Rohr is among the most challenging of contemporary spiritual teachers and a long-time favorite of mine. I have at least a dozen of his books on my bookshelves and a drawer filled with his recordings. His CD series, Great Themes of Paul, transformed every bias I had held about St. Paul and, seeing Paul from Richard’s perspective, have come to love and revere him.

For a while I was a Rohr groupie and showed up at every lecture, class or conference he gave in Southern California and I attended several weekend conferences that the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) presented in Albuquerque.

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Both Angels Do The Will of God

In early August of 2000, I arrived in Paris to visit my friends Terry and his mother, Alice.

I wasn’t a stranger to Paris. I’d first visited the city in 1961 with sixteen fellow college students as part of a whirlwind tour of 10 countries in three weeks with 16 other students.  It was classic “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.” Our guide/chaperone, Father Maginnis, S. J., was an opera-loving, epicurean Jesuit priest who was plagued with food poisoning seemingly every time he ate at a high-rated Michelin restaurant, while those of us who ate street food did just fine. Ill or not, Father Maginnis was determined to fill us with respect and awe for the culture of Europe even if killed him and it almost did.

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The Most Beautiful Funeral I’ve Ever Seen

My friend, Joseph Kramer is a visionary and one of the most courageous people I know. Joseph studied for several years to be a Jesuit priest. Then he had his “aha” experience.

One of Joseph’s Jesuit housemates at the Jesuit Theologate in Berkeley, CA took massage training at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur, CA.. Upon his return, he offered to practice what he’d learned on his Jesuit housemates, including Joseph, who at the time was a scholar who lived largely in his head. During the course of the massage, Joseph, in my telling, experienced, for the first time, full incarnation, full embodiment—body, mind and soul perfectly aligned. (Joseph doesn’t dispute this.)

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Mystery School: An Overview

In 1997, as word of my cancer diagnosis spread, the phrases, meant to be encouraging, that I heard most frequently were “You’ve got to fight this” or “you can beat the ‘Big C’”. (Thank you, John Wayne.) The problem is that I did not have then nor do I now have now more than trace amounts of warrior energy. But I tried. I tried really strict eating regimens, even macrobiotic (although not for long), and came to the conclusion that if this is how I was going to eat for the rest of my life, I wasn’t sure how long I wanted to live.

I spared myself the suffering that comes with the question “Why me?” I’d gone through a different version of the question during the worst years of the AIDs epidemic when I found myself asking, “Why not me?” The best answer I could come up with is that God would never give me a disease that has an unexplained weight loss. I kept that conclusion a secret until I let it slip at a dinner with a couple of HIV-infected friends and they howled with laughter at the gallows humor.

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The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

In the entry hall of my home, in a place of honor, is a lovely, framed, hand-tinted photograph of my paternal great-aunt, Jeanetta (Jean) Hermione Shea. I found it rolled up and bound with a rubber band in the bottom drawer of her dresser when I flew to San Francisco to settle her affairs and clear out her apartment after her death at the age of 99 on Thursday May 28, 1997, the day before my 56th birthday. Written on the back of the rolled-up photograph, lightly, in pencil, were the words, “high school graduation.”  The portrait blesses my home.

Jean died while I was on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco to visit her, which I had been doing every other week for months since she had been moved from her apartment to a hospice. We had said our goodbyes—several times, in fact. At the end of each visit, I would remind her that I loved her and knew that she loved me and that I would return to visit again in a couple of weeks. I also told her that if she felt like leaving before I returned, that was okay, too.

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Communion through a candy bar!

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet Act I, Scene 5

One of the rich rewards of my work as a spiritual director is the discovery of how many of my directees have an on-going, rich and intimate connection with the communion of saints and the communion of ancestors.

Over the years of doing this work, I’ve lost all doubt about the truth of these events and experiences of communion these directees share with me.

I’ve wanted to write about Communion for a while and then today happened.

I was at Staples picking up office supplies and as I waited in the check-out line which is filled with displays of chips and candy, I saw a Toblerone bar and instantly I was filled with the presence of the late Phillip Blake, S. J. who, in June of 1982, guided me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Communion through a candy bar!

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God Is In The Details

“God is in the details”. -St. Teresa of Avila

At the three way intersection of Vineland, Lankersheim and Camarillo, a five minute walk from my condo in North Hollywood, I noticed that a Chakra Balancing Studio has just opened one door down from the Halal Meat Store. Its neighbors to the south are the Odyssey Video Store (one of the few remaining video rental stores in Los Angeles) and the brand new Black Bottom Southern Café. To the north are Forever Young Pilates, the Fringe No Ho Hair Studio and the Idle Hour Bar and Restaurant which is situated in a two-story wine barrel, that was once home to La Cana, a flamenco bar operated for many years by a neighborhood legend, the reclusive dancer Dolores Fernandez, who lived on the second floor of the barrel.

Between the Halal Meat Store and the Chakra Balancing Studio is a building covered entirely by a weird and wonderful mural. If you look very closely you can find a hidden door painted to blend perfectly with the mural. (I’ve never seen anyone going in or coming out of the door so I’ve never had the opportunity to ask, “What’s going on in there?” I really want to know.

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