Friday, November 20, 2009

The challenge of grace and gratitude

English: A butterfly perching on a leaf at a b...
English: A butterfly perching on a leaf at a butterfly garden in St. Martin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What do you think of when you hear things like "Everything is sacred" or "Each moment is only one moment expressed in infinite ways" or "Every day, every experience, is a gift, even if we don't always appreciate it or know what to make of it." (Yes, I came up with these particular examples of the sentiment myself, so smirk if you wish.)

A common reaction in Western (-influenced) societies is to be cynical. It sounds like nice pop psychology for the naive and the desperate or soft spiritualism for the well-healed. But for the savvy individual who lives in "the real world" of work, pain, and disappointment, it can come across as just so much nonsensical overly optimistic fluff.

The irony is that such thinking is precisely what such phrases and their underlying presumptions are directly challenging. That isn't "the real world" into which the cynics and the hopeless are plugged. That is the false world, the delusion. It is sustained by mutual assent. If everyone else acts as if something is true, people will tend to adapt their beliefs and behaviors to reflect this assumption as the new set point for their "is/ought" system.

This isn't strictly about religion per se. 

Many religious people are spiritually comatose. But it is hard to go against the prevailing paradigm, which tends to co-opt institutions like religion for its own ends. It may seem as if these simple little messages are meant to be easy solutions. But conflating simple or complex with ease or difficulty can be a painful mistake. 

In fact, we often prefer something that is more of a challenge, especially if we have learned things that are worthwhile require effort. The notion of that something of value is already available to us without being earned just doesn't sit well. It doesn't mesh well with our learned expectations.

Our brains put together patterns in the association regions of our cerebral cortex and connect these to larger integration circuits such as the prefrontal cortex or even larger coordinated platforms such as the limbic system. These structures correlate with cognition, memory and emotion. We find tend therefore to find comfort in familiarity and disease with uncertainty. Hence we may cling to destructive or limiting views rather than risking something worse. 

This reflects our fundamental orientation towards existence. Do we fear mystery or do we embrace it? Faith can be described in many ways, and relevant to this question we can view it as our relationship to mystery. Faith is learning to be comfortable with and even trust mystery, and in some cases to become friends with it. We don't always get along without any trials or difficulties with our friends, but in the end we give them the benefit of the doubt.

Is our awareness the source or substance of our thoughts? Part of their composition or their sole element? Is the universe a cold, mechanical place (a machine metaphor) or a warm, living place (organic metaphor)? Where do we really come from? Who are we? 

These and other questions are matters of faith. It isn't easy to accept some of the ideas in the slogans at the opening because it requires going against our expectations and risking disappointment by trusting in what we cannot fully explain from our current level of insight. We have to surrender, to open ourselves, and if you think that sounds easy, then go ahead and try it. What do you have to lose?

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