Staying Present

There is an ancient enlightenment teaching from the East regarding the importance of concentrating the mind in the present moment as opposed to the past or the future. In this pose, inner peace is found as opposed to the turmoil of worry or remorse. Acceptance of the present moment is a key to liberation from suffering. Developing the skill of resting the mind in the stillness of the present is counseled for spiritual practice.

Enlightenment teachers today have developed these insights into spirituality into a totalizing, absolutistic teaching which is supposed to be self-sufficient for virtually every need and situation. If you suffer, it’s because you’re not experiencing the Be Here Now or Power of Now or something like that. It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of avoiding unnecessary inner conflict and being aware of the present moment, but I am certain that these teachings are too good to be true.

Consider the fact that only a small fraction of the human population – far less than 1 percent – is seemingly capable of sustaining a permanent focus on the present moment such that they do not need to pay attention to the past or future. It is wise to question if it is possible at all for anyone, though I imagine that if gurus are able to have followers take care of the “mundane” details of life for themselves, or if they can live self-sufficiently in a cave somewhere, then it is conceivable that they could rest in the present moment constantly. And they could also make themselves virtually irrelevant to the goings on of “mundane” humanity.

The Power of Now and other teachings which concentrate on the importance of “staying present” ought to be regarded as spiritual technologies, not absolutistic worldviews as they are sometimes presented or held to be. As a technology, I believe these teaching has the ability to generate positive spiritual growth and create more fulfilling and well-balanced lives if it is put into use. It also helps in the attainment of enlightenment, I think, though it is difficult to support this claim without a longer discussion.

So I would urge a practice of remaining awake and aware during the present moment as a matter of good spiritual hygiene, for all the reasons that have been pointed out by the proponents of the Here and Now technology. What needs to be avoided is the oversimplification of the spiritual life by making this teaching the totality of one’s spiritual practice. For all but a very few, that would be a serious mistake.

Letter from a reader of Soulfully Gay

A letter from John D.:

Hi Joe,
I just finished Soulfully Gay. I liked it a lot. I picked it up in a bookstore and ended up buying it when I saw the introduction by Ken Wilber. I’m gay, raised catholic, and am currently on a Ken Wilber jag. (Right now I’ve got five Ken Wilber books piled on my bedstand, and I’ve got another one on order.)

Four years ago I decided to return to the catholic church after 35 years away (I’m 58). Over the years I had seriously checked out other religious traditions (I was and am particularly attracted to taoism). However, when push came to shove it seemed natural for me to approach Spirit through the tradition I was raised in rather than trying to work through another tradition in which I would always be in some sense a foreigner.

For me, a major factor in all this is that I live in the SF Bay Area and am able to attend Most Holy Redeemer in the Castro. I’m sure that you’ve heard of MHR so I won’t bother describing it. I didn’t so much make a rational decision to return to the church as much as I just started attending MHR and one day realized “Well, I’m home.”

I actually got into Ken Wilber by way of Centering Prayer. One of Father Keating’s books gave a favorable mention to Wilber. I was initially a little dubious but I’m increasingly impressed. I have some remaining reservations (mainly around elitism) but Wilber’s framework seems really useful for anyone with a serious spiritual practice.

After reading Soulfully Gay and checking out your website I’m curious about why you haven’t sought out a parish like MHR or a group like Dignity. Any thoughts?

In the Spirit,
John D.

Dear John,
For your question, as you know I wrote extensively in Soulfully Gay about my relationship to institutional Christianity over the period of 2003 to 2004. Like you, it seems I’ve concluded that it’s more practical for me to embrace and deepen my appreciation for the tradition of my upbringing rather than look exclusively to non-Western traditions.

However, I define the tradition I was raised in as Christian, not just specifically Roman Catholic. Therefore, I’ve not confined my search for a home parish just to Roman Catholic circles. Indeed, given the sorry leadership in the Roman Catholic branch these days, I’m afraid I would just be too embarrassed to return to the RC Church in good conscience.

Any church I join will be flawed and have its own issues. But I really want a church I can feel proud of and welcomed by. I don’t think the RC is an option for me.

In any event, I expect to be officially welcomed into the Episcopal Church later this year. it’s just taken me this long to go through the process of figuring out the right direction and institutional approach to religion that suits me.

I respect that others can make different decisions with regard to the Roman Churh than mine, but I would find it impossible to respect myself and still actively support an institution in such dire need for reform and so adamantly opposed to reform. I’ll always feel a kinship with the Roman Church in my heart, but fond memories are not enough to justify a church membership that I would find beyond the pale of my conscience.

Why not join the Episcopal Church?

Not that you (or anyone) asked. But the question arose after an exchange with Terry Mattingly on GetReligion. Mattingly said he has asked Andrew Sullivan why he remains Catholic instead of joining the Episcopal Church. And he said he would ask Anne Rice why she converted to Roman Catholicism instead of the Episcopalian denomination. (Both have stated positions on issues such as women’s ordination and gay rights that are opposed to the magisterium.)

As I’ve stated previously, I’m an ex-Catholic and current nondenominational Christian who describes my spirituality as “catholic in the truest sense of the word: universally open to truth wherever it is found.” So it’s quite natural that I feel drawn to the Episcopal Church. I’ve said so before, and have begun explorations into possibly joining the Anglican communion.

But here are a few reservations, off the top of my head, and in no particular order:

  • Will I have a felt sense of not being “at home” there? Is it too conservative? Is it too rigid, cold, stuffy, and upper class? Is it the right focus for me, right now? My main impulse now is towards integration and spiritual practice, not listening to sermons designed to help Volvo-driving heterosexuals feel more well adjusted in their upper middle class American lifestyles. That’s what I’m afraid I’ll find as I explore the Episcopal Church… and if I do, I’m walking. It’s definitely not for me. On Sunday mornings there are also dharma meditation groups that I can join, and I’d be much better off with the Buddhists.
  • Is it simply too Christian for my tastes? I’m not even certain that I want to call myself Christian anymore, but that’s a long story. I’m beginning to think the only people who really deserve to be called Christian are those who are selflessly following Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and other hard teachings. You know, his hard teachings like sell all you have, give it to the poor, that sort of thing. Everyone else, I almost want to use “so-called,” “self-described,” or sneer marks when describing their religion. As in… Of course, Pat Robertson is a “Christian.” or… Pope Benedict, self-described Christian, says something evil again today. My religious ethos is still definitely inspired by Christ and the whole of Christian tradition, but it’s also influenced by other and conflicting impulses… various sorts of paganism, Native American religion, Buddhism, Taoism, astrology, Hindu philosophers… Do I want to join a church where I feel as if I have to hide the full diversity of my beliefs or be judged a freak or heretic?
  • Should I be directing my energy instead to creating a spiritual community that I can embrace more whole heartedly? In many ways, I’ve moved on from the institutional Christian Church, even as my yearning for a more structured, organized, and institutional religious framework remains. There are some rumblings in the integral movement that are suggestive of a new religious experience. Is there the beginnings here of a new communion of seekers who have found a common approach to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that allows them to bring all that they are into community in ways both traditional and new? In my opinion, it’s too early to say. My best guess is that integral thinking’s greatest impact will be on interreligious dialogue, and reforming existing world traditions–the “great conveyor belts” of consciousness, as Ken Wilber has described them. But there may also be something more unexpected: not only a new religious sensibility, but a new religion. Just a thought.