Continuous Gift-Giving: Faith Like a Chalice 4

Living in the present doesn't mean you don't ever plan ahead. Planning ahead and forming strategy, however, can be engaged as present-moment doing. Let goals and outcomes and plans for achieving be manifestations of compassion. It’s possible to plan for results without expecting them. Our hearts turn over to grace our labor, our sweat -- all that our hearts are and have. Grace has its own way of shaping what our hearts bequeath it.

The Satyana Institute has worked with social change leaders since 1996. They have developed Principles of Spiritual Activism -- thirteen "key learnings and guidelines" for effective spirituality that makes effective social justice work possible. Their guidelines talk about
“Transformation of motivation from anger/fear/despair to compassion/love/purpose.”
They stress:
“Non-attachment to outcome. This is difficult to put into practice, yet to the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our successes and failures -- a sure path to burnout. Hold a clear intention, and let go of the outcome -- recognizing that a larger wisdom is always operating. As Gandhi said, ‘the victory is in the doing,’ not the results. Also, remain flexible in the face of changing circumstances.”
Making plans and setting goals is an essential exercise, but don’t get attached to them. General Dwight Eisenhower – not a man on very many lists of the world’s great mystics – said:
“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. . . Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
How does one cultivate this fearless flexibility, this nonattached engagement, this nonanxious presence?

Imagine that all your actions are offerings -- gifts to the world. In the true spirit of giving, the gift doesn’t come with strings. If you expect some return for your gift, you don’t have the true spirit of giving. When you think about getting a gift for a loved one, you think about what would really be useful or beneficial for them. But if it turns out the gift itself happens to be useless for them, that’s OK. You gave it, with all your heart. That’s the important thing. Most of us understand that's the beauty, the grace, the genius of gift-giving practice. So suppose you adopted the same approach to everything? Imagine that everything you did was simply offering a gift to the world. The world might or might not find your gift helpful, might or might not be changed much by what you give. The point is to give it. Then you are liberated from results.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna tell Arjuna:
“Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform — do that, O son of KuntÄ«, as an offering to Me. In this way you will be freed from bondage to work and its auspicious and inauspicious results.”
All of this might sound really good. (I hope it does.) But as long as it’s just words, it’s primarily cognitive. Re-training your emotions, our nonlinguistic orientation toward fearlessness and radical openness, receptivity, acceptance – love – takes more than what I can tell you, takes more than what we can tell ourselves. Agreeing with statements – repeating them to yourself – might be a good start. Statements, though, are expressions of belief – and I believe faith isn’t about what you believe. Whatever you might undertake to re-train those slow-learning deep patterns of orientation toward the world, that’s called spiritual practice.

Out of the silence that words cannot touch comes love – an embracing love of all that is – a love that we try feebly to point to with the word “faith.” In spiritual practice, we visit that silence and slowly begin to make a home for ourselves there. Grounded in that home, words are . . . off center. We hear them, we speak them, but they are always a little off to the side – as our eyes rest on the center: on a quiet, shining flame.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Previous: Part 3: Openness to Whatever
Beginning: Part 1: The Center
Illustration from UU Andover. (c) 1996 Solar


This Week's Prayer

Earth and air and all the waters of our home,

Guide us in the ways of being in loving relation with you.

We have put carbon dioxide in your air, now over 397 parts per million. It will not be easy to get it back down to below 350 parts per million, the highest level safe and sustainable. We’re scared of the results if we don’t make the right changes, and we don’t trust that we know for sure which sacrifices would really be helpful.

We yearn for a loving and skillful relationship of mutual nurturance with our planet home.

As you bring the splendor of autumn to your northern lands, we humans are bringing the sounds of war all over your surface: bombs and tears, sirens and fear, guns and terror, violence and injustice of every kind. Guide us in the ways of peacemaking.

We yearn for a loving and skillful relationship of mutual nurturance with all our neighbors on our planet home.

May our ears and eyes and hearts be opened to see through the fog, and may we be agents of opening for others that we may all hear one another and move toward peace. May we find in ourselves the wisdom, the compassion to make it so, for we are distraught that so many are subject to such cruelty – and that climate change may lead to still more instability and violence.

Guide us to involvement in development of ways to police ourselves without racism or unnecessary violence.

Guide us, too, to a compassionate and skillful response to the lands hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak.

Earth and air and all the waters of our home, guide us in the ways of being in loving relation with all creation.


Openness to Whatever: Faith Like a Chalice 3

Photo by the author
The kind of faith that isn't faith IN, that does not depend on outcomes, that embraces whatever comes, is unshakeable. It has that quality of being impervious to the evidence because it’s a feeling, an awareness, an openness and receptivity that things are acceptable no matter what happens, no matter what the evidence shows.

If you think of faith as being about belief, then imperviousness to evidence is a bit of a problem. I don’t think any belief is impervious to evidence. Every belief is subject to revision. That’s a fundamental tenet of liberal religion. When Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described "the five smooth stones of liberalism," the first stone, he said, is:
"Revelation is continuous. Meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism."
No belief can be complete and exempt from criticism. Every belief is open to critique and modification.

So unshakeable faith can’t be about believing something. Instead, it’s about an attitude of openness to whatever life may throw at you. “Bring it. Bring it all,” is a faith-full affirmation, but it is not a truth claim, not a statement, true or false, not a belief, supported or undermined by evidence. It’s an attitude. It’s an orientation of radical hospitality toward whatever may come. It’s living fearlessly.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t take action to address problems. Acceptance does not mean complacency. It means you do the work that needs doing. And let go of attachment to results.

On 2014 Sep 21, I was wearing my yellow shirt and marching in the People’s Climate March. Maybe that march will turn out to be a tipping point event in a massive, global shift. Such shifts have happened in the history of humankind. Maybe it had have no effect whatsoever. Either way, I went.

Strategize carefully about how to do good. Work diligently to carry out the strategy – then let go. Put your best work out into the world, and then let the world make of it what it will.

Faith is about acting here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. It’s about what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. Keats was talking about determinate knowable meaning of a text, like a poem. The same point applies to not insisting on a determinate knowable meaning of your own actions.

Faith is about doing what you are called to do – what your most authentic, integrated Self most needs to do – not to make the world over in your image, but only to be who you are. Faith is about being courageous, joining the resistance with your heart and your breath and your love and your being, and being comfortable not knowing what will come of it. It’s about listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go.

Any other kind of faith or hope is really another name for fear. What commonly go by the names “faith” and “hope” – faith in a particular outcome or hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. It is fear of the world as it is, or the world as you are afraid it may become.

A hero of mine is A.J. Muste, a lifelong activist. Muste protested the Vietnam War outside the White House, day after day, usually alone, sometimes in the rain. One day Muste was approached a reporter. “Do you really think you’re going to change those people?” asked the reporter indicating toward the White House.

“I don’t do it to change them,” replied Muste. “I do it so they won’t change me.”

It’s not that Muste, or I, don’t want to be changed. It’s just that we want to resist the forces that would keep us from our calling, that would occlude the compassion from flowing out from us to what end we cannot see and do not control.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Next: Part 4: Continuous Gift-Giving
Previous: Part 2: Defining "Faith".
Beginning: Part 1: The Center


Defining "Faith": Faith Like a Chalice 2

1. Salzberg.

Sharon Salzberg wrote a book on faith from a nontheist perspective. While she was working on it, a neighbor asked her: “How can you possibly be writing a book on faith without focusing on God?” . . . “Isn’t that the whole point?” Actually, no. It isn't. Salzberg writes:
“Her concern spoke to the common understanding we have of faith . . . But the tendency to equate faith with doctrine, and then argue about terminology and concepts, distracts us from what faith is actually about. In my understanding, whether faith is connected to a deity or not, its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely. I want to invite a new use of the word faith, one that is not associated with a dogmatic religious interpretation or divisiveness. I want to encourage delight in the word, to help reclaim faith as fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and liberating. This is a faith that emphasizes a foundation of love and respect for ourselves. It is a faith that uncovers our connection to others, rather than designating anyone as separate and apart. Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or God, though it doesn’t deny one…it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
Salzberg also says faith is "the act of opening our hearts to the unknown."

2. Wieman

Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman noticed the human temptation to devote our lives to ego-gratifications such as “social success, financial opulence, or even scholarship or beauty or social concern.” Whatever it might be that can transform us and save us from our ego-gratifications, faith is committing ourselves to that – committing ourselves “with the fullness of our being” to anything, any process or practice, that will direct our attention and energies to something ultimately worthier.

3. Fowler

For professor James Fowler, faith is “a way of knowing, construing, and interpreting existence.” Everybody knows, construes, and interprets in some way, so everybody has some kind of faith, on that definition.

4. Existentialism

For existentialist writers, “bad faith” meant refusal to confront facts or choices. It’s a kind of self-deception about who we are and our freedom and power in the world. If that’s “bad faith,” then good faith is being authentic, present to just what is, undeluded. It’s a commitment to reality at all costs – whatever that reality may be. Good faith is being faithful to yourself and to your situation.

5. Faith and Trust

Faith is about a fundamental kind of trust – more basic than ordinary trust. With trust there is some particular outcome that you trust from some particular person or thing. I trust the bridge I walk across will hold. I trust a friend not to let me down. I trust the bank not to defraud me of my money. There’s some outcome that I trust to occur from the entrusted.

It feels good to be able to trust, to rely on someone on something that you have every reason to believe is trustworthy. It’s like, ahhhhh. That thing that I wanted – a solid bridge that won’t collapse, reliable company when I’m lonely, financial security – is going to be taken care of.

It feels really good to be able to trust in things and people for what I’ll need. I can relax, and that’s so nice. Trust is a really great thing. It’s often fragile – but it’s great when you can get it and maintain it.

Faith, though, goes beyond that kind of trust. Faith isn’t about the outcome. It isn’t about what I want or need. It isn’t about guarantees. Faith feels good that way that having trust feels good -- only: you have that great trust feeling without relying on any particular outcome. I know we often say things like “faith in X” or “faith in Y,” but that’s really trust we’re talking about. Ultimate faith isn’t in anything in particular. It’s acceptance of what is, whatever it is. The result of that acceptance is a generalized positive feeling -- like the positive feeling of trusting, only free-floating, not dependent on any agent or any outcome.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Faith Like a Chalice"
Next: Part 3: Openness to Whatever
Previous: Part 1: The Center