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What is Interfaith or Multi-faith Practice Like? Maybe it’s like this….

interfaith welcome2Forests are great diverse communities, many different kinds of trees and vegetation, birds, insects, squirrels, moles, streams, deer, all sorts of critters chipping in to make the forest healthy and whole. Forests are a totem for multi-faith practice.

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I lived in a forest hermitage for eight months in Northern Wisconsin at the Christine Center, a Franciscan retreat center in an oak forest. My cabin’s name was Love, and that it was. In the winter cold at night I worked out a deal with the mice. They stayed in the attic. The squirrels stayed in the east facing walls. The chipmunks borrowed under it. The deer bedded down up the path a little way. We were a community. The owl’s last call before dawn woke me for predawn prayer. Everyone had their gifts to bring, especially the trees. They are great teachers and companions. I love this quote from Doing It Another Way: The Basic Text, a book I wrote about Franciscan spirituality a while back. So I am quoting myself about what I called the “condition of being.”

THE CONDITION OF BEING

The Giving

The teachings of our brother and sister trees instruct us on our true condition of being. Trees rise up by rooting deeply in solid ground. They shelter and feed the nesting ones. They shade the weary; protect the frail from mighty winds; nourish the soil with their leaves, hold it safe from rushing waters or erosion, and provide needed oxygen for other creatures. In the rain forest one tree can harbor a whole species of insects. A tree does only two things, branch to light, root to water. Yet, out of its essence everything is accomplished.

The Receiving

What tree can grow without soil and minerals? Or continue to live without light and water? Or send forth its seeds without the aid of wind and bird, squirrel and insect? What tree can hide itself from the cycles of growth and diminishment? Trees in their death provide shelter, heat, light, and fire.

The Condition of Being

Trees appear solitary and individual, rising to the sky, standing unto themselves, yet their lives reflect unspeakable union, cooperation, an interrelationship of being, a co-arising with their companions in the world. In the fourth order we recognize this true condition of being, and the healing properties of right relationship. We are dancers in the wind, servants and upholders of life who are ourselves upheld by our fellow creatures. Trees remind us that those who live in their true spacious nature uplift, uphold and love their companions on the way.

This blog is about that very quote. In a world that appears so divided there is an underlying unity, a great beauty. That is what the interfaith/multi-faith adventure is all about. A celebration of the One who moves within and among, celebrated by the many diverse spiritual traditions, appearing distinct and unto themselves, yet holding a wealth of common core values – like compassion. Yes, compassion. That is a good beginning. A good way to welcome you to this blog.

Meditation

Sit quietly with your breath, breathing deeply a few times and then allowing the breath to take its own natural rhythm. The goal of this meditation is simple – to experience community – com (with) unity. Take the inner sword of discernment and cut through the veils of the illusion of separation into the core reality of our unity. In your imagination allow the images of your present community, including family, friends, co-workers, members of your own faith, and those you know of other faiths to come before your inner eye. Allow the images of those you love and those who irritate and annoy you. those who shelter you and the ones you shelter. With each image and on the breath, allow the inner truth to arise, saying, “Thou.” Breathe the truth of it until you feel the connection, but don’t force. Know that if you cannot come to “thou” with a particular person there is simply inner work to be done on your part. Let the meditation continue until it subsides on its own allowing you to come into silence.

Blessing

May they gather around the lamp of guidance. May every portionless one receive a share. May the deprived become the confidants of Thy mysteries.[i]                   ~Abdu’l-Bahå

Contemplations

Tugging at a Single Thing

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.     ~ John Muir

Losing Fear

Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.   ~Isa Upanishad

Compassion

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another. ~ Thomas Merton

Understand Well

We should understand well that all things are the work of the Great Spirit. We should know that He is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and all the four legged animals, and the winged peoples….All these holy peoples and holy things are now hearing what I say! O Wakan-Tanka, I shall offer up my body and soul that my people may live!…We know that we are related and are one with all things of the heavens and the earth. We all wish to live and increase in a holy manner.[2]           ~ Black Elk

Buddhist Blessing

Just as the soft rains fill the streams,
pour into the rivers and join together in the oceans,
so may the power of every moment of your goodness
flow forth to awaken and heal all beings,
Those here now, those gone before, those yet to come.

[i] Bahá’í Prayers. National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States. Wilmette, IL1991.

[2] Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks, New Edition (Paperback) Bison Books; 3rd edition, Lincoln, NE 2004.

Communication and Worldview

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The Problem

An Inupiak elder from Alaska shared with me about a communication problem he was having. He had been selected to go to a series of interviews conducted by the federal government regarding traditional indigenous healing practices. He was about to fly out to Seattle for another meeting and was not looking forward to it. In previous meetings when he shared it was obvious by their questions that the people doing the interviews did not comprehend what he was saying, although they could repeat the words back to him. This elder was fluent in English and tried his best by giving several examples to communicate with the interviewers in a manner they could understand. He concluded that the English language did not have words to adequately name and express experiences and observations that an indigenous person would take as obvious. “How can I express these things so they can understand? What do I need to do? What happened to white people that they don’t see these things?” He was frustrated.

The worldviews of the people in this situation were so distinct that they were making communication very difficult. Interviewers with a mix of late 20th century western post-modern and modern worldviews were asking questions of a man whose worldview was a mix of primarily pre-modern indigenous and a lessor influencing western modern worldview.  Their lenses of perception were uniquely different.

Towards a Solution

In communications theory there is a saying, “The map is not the territory.” The Map is our internal mental world – our worldview. The Territory is the greater world. Each of us, (as well as different cultural groups) have our own perception of reality – our own mental map.

Slide1Our map is our perception from our internal system – our worldview. given to us by our culture, religion, family and personal experiences.  It helps us to see and understand, but it may also blind us to other ways of seeing. We interpret according to our perceptions, and we respond according to our perception of our world. That perception is NOT the world.

My friend and his colleagues were left in the untenable situation a the image below shows.

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There had to be a way to break through to some kind of a solution. Communications Theory offers this map below of actual communication. The overlapping section where the two maps meet must be found, and then expanded upon.

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My elder friend came to a useful resolution of his dilemma. He went to his meeting. He shared his stories of indigenous healing, but he added at the end, this caveat.  You understand the words I am saying, but I do not feel you understand the meaning because of the questions you ask and the way you see things. I am uncomfortable with this. To his surprise they indicated that he was right and they too were uncomfortable with the situation because they felt they were missing what he was saying. Something shifted. The problem was named, and the overlapping area of understanding was found. They were all uncomfortable with this situation and did not know what to do about it.

They began to brainstorm a plan. Whenever any of them felt he was in uncomfortable territory he was to immediately say it. They would then go over that area again. They began to develop the felt sense of miscommunication as well as the felt sense of communication. The problem itself remained and had to be worked through over and over. However the communication regarding everyone’s discomfort, and the effort to communicate in new ways established an enlarging area of map overlap. They found a third space. My friend felt more satisfied with this situation. He was a realist. The worldviews were very different. They would not suddenly change – not his nor theirs. However, there was now a possibility that they would be able to more successfully, acknowledging blind spots, to work together in a manner that was more satisfying to  each of them.

Cultural and faith systems promote specific worldviews that are inculcated within us from early childhood. Becoming aware of  our own worldview is helpful. It will not prevent certain levels of misunderstanding, but it may decrease the feelings of anger,  anxiety or frustration as we encounter a clash of perceptions, and promote levels of cooperation. Our map of the territory will now include and understanding of the function of worldviews, the functional container they provide, and the bias they create,

Religiological reflection assists us in understanding the depth and breadth of our worldview. It lessens reactive feelings, and provides a doorway to that third space where actual communication may happen.

 

Perception and Projection

 

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I incorporate in my presentations teaching stories from the different religious traditions. They have the ability to bypass the figuring mind and get to the heart of things. This is one of my favorite stories I use to illustrate projection, something that can block our perceptions about what is really happening in any given circumstance. In our world today there are many projections on other people and religions. It causes a lot of problems.

The Gift

Mullah Nasrudin’s wife became suspicious of his ecstatic ways and constant laughter. Lately his eyes were soft, he seemed lost in some recollection like a man in love thinking of his beloved. Having decided that the source of this joy needed to be found out, she followed him, spying on him in the marketplace.

It was just as she suspected. As he was walking a woman approached him and he greeted her with a wide smile. She could not see the woman’s face but she saw the woman give him a gift that he readily accepted. She returned home angry and hurt, feeling a certainty that her husband was having an affair.

The Mullah, himself, strolling the market was surprised by a woman who gave him a gift wrapped in a cloth, as she thanked the merciful and compassionate One for sending the Mullah to the world as a supreme teacher. He received the gift, and pondered as he made his way home how God could manifest teachings even in him.

Wondering what she had given he stopped by the side of the road and opened the package. In it was a mirror, but the Mullah had never seen a mirror before. Seeing his own reflection so clearly he saw an old man and assumed the gift was a picture of the woman’s father or grandfather. He brought the gift home and put it away.

His grieving wife saw this, and when he was out she went to his hiding place to see this secret lover’s gift he had put away. She found the picture. Looking in the mirror her worst suspicions were confirmed. “It’s true. He is cheating on me, and to make it even worse, she is such an old hag.”

Perceptions

We can only guess at the interior source of the Mullah’s wife’s jealousy and the thought processes that led her on – perhaps it has some history in her own life, or her own insecurity or feelings of unlovability, or her hesitance to ask the Mullah about his ecstatic ways and clarify her concerns. We don’t know, but we can laugh at this tale because many of us have experienced intense inner emotions, fears and thoughts that had no basis in outer reality. These perceptual distortions are internal blocks to accurate emotional perception and understanding in the here and now where we are actually living.

Projection

Projection is the act of clothing someone with attributes that are our own unconscious attributes or emotions. Like a movie projector sends an image out to the screen to be seen, we project out unconscious elements of the ourself upon another. These elements may be attractive or unattractive. Although the other may have a hook to hang the projection on, our projection is not the other; it is a cognitive/emotional dressing of the other in clothes we have made. The other becomes a mirror of ourselves. It is an opportunity for self reflections and awareness.

That other must have a hook to hang our projection on. A hook can be very small or large. It’s something that has enough of a resemblance to the projected material and makes the act of projection possible. A man can be reading the Bible on the subway. The woman across the way begins an internal process of identifying him as a Christian. Her inner narrative continues, “He’s probably one of those evangelicals who try to convert everyone,” when actually he is an atheist student studying ancient architectural design of public spaces, and is looking at the description of the temple. The Bible is the hook for the woman’s  projection.

There is energy in a projection, a passion of opinion or emotion that can be felt by the person projecting and can often be felt or observed by others. A pretty student and a teacher are talking and laughing with each other. The teacher was her older brother’s best friend and they we sharing stories from the past. One person notices it and thinks this teacher has a great rapport with his students. Another person just walks by. A third person who likes this teacher believes they are flirting and begins an inner narrative about the possibility of an affair, violations of ethical boundaries, etc., flirtatious women trying to get good grades. She shares this story with someone, “No student ever talks that way with a teacher. Look how she is dressed. When women dress like that they always have an ulterior motive.” Her tone is intense, her manner somewhat aggressive. She speaks as if she were a mind reader (mind reading is a form of thought distortion), as she implies slanderous things. There is an energy to the projection, hidden emotions and thoughts generate each other, and generate behavior.

A public example of projection occurred in Texas in 2016 when an armed group protested outside a mosque. Interviews revealed that the protestors were there because Muslims were “terrorists”, “violent”, and “threatening the American way of life.”  These generalized thoughts are the cognitive generators that charge the emotions. Generalization, a cognitive distortion, in thought or in language is a key factor in projection, even personal projections.  When we hear overt or implied generalized language coming out of our mouths or in our writing, or when we hear it coming from someone else we are in the territory of projection.  That language has sweeping and broad statements containing the logical fallacy of all or nothing, and often is accompanied by these words below.

Generalization – Projection

Cognitive Reframe – closer to truth

Always, never, ever, all, no one, everyone, they, them, those people, general groupings.

“Muslims are always violent.”

Sometimes it’s this – Sometimes it’s that.

Example Reframe: Some Muslims are violent. Other Muslims are not violent.

Always, never, ever, all, no one

“They always…”  “They never…”

Both/and vs. Either/or.

Reframe: Sometimes they are this way – Sometimes they are that way.

When we take overgeneralized language and reframe to a more logical and truthful statement we change the cognitive generator of emotion, and change the emotion that is experienced from it.

Below is a picture of two people at that event: a protestor and a woman going to prayer at the mosque. Which of them is in this photo is expressing terroristic, violent, and threatening behavior? What’s the hook in this projection?

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The man in this picture has an opportunity to withdraw his projection and examine those characteristics he is accusing others of, or to look at the primary emotion within him. Perhaps it is fear or a tendency toward violence. Only he knows. It’s an opportunity to learn and transform what is within us. If the projection is not withdrawn, it functions merely as a defense mechanism.

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In another instance of armed protestors outside a mosque in Arizona, the head of the Islamic center invited the protestors to come in. One of the protestors wearing a shirt covered with profanities demeaning Islam, accepted his offer.  After visiting the mosque his viewpoint changed, “I promise, the next time you see me, I won’t be wearing this shirt. I won’t wear it again.” During the interpersonal interactions in the mosque he withdrew his projections through contact with real people. Muslims were no longer generalized in a group. He told Fox 10, “Out of respect for the Islamic people, knowing what I know now, …… When I took a second to actually sit down and listen to them, and actually enter their mosque, and go in and watch some of their prayers, it is a beautiful thing, and they answered some of the questions that I had.”8  If the projection is withdrawn it can lead to personal and collective transformation.

A classic example of withdrawing a projection is found in the stories of the Christian Desert Fathers.

Some old men went to Abba Poemen and asked,
“If we see brothers sleeping during the common prayer, should we wake them?”
Abba Poemen answered,
“If I see my brother sleeping, I put his head on my knees
and let him rest.”
Then one old man spoke up,
“And how do you explain yourself before God?”
Abba Poemen replied,
“I say to God: You have said, ‘First take the beam out of your own eye and then you will be able to remove the splinter from the eye of your brother.’ “7

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Interfaith Leadership in the 21st Century

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I recently listened to the video below, a speech given by Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core. In it he addresses the practical necessity of local and regional interfaith action, and the role of higher education in assisting local communities.  I really encourage you to watch this and to leave your comments and insights below.