Saturday, September 28, 2013

The star fish will always be with you.


The title might throw you off, but the topic is about charity, compassion, and religious outreach.

OK, so here's how we get from A to Z.

I was thinking recently about how some religious organizations and groups plan and organize their efforts to connect or engage with the community. The fact is that I tend to be either uninterested or skeptical about such efforts, so I wondered why that should be so and what advice I would offer. Not that my opinion should carry more weight than anyone else's, but to see if I could come up with something other than a complaint.

To be clear, I wasn't thinking of any particular effort, like a bake sale or raffle, just the general idea. And one of the things that occurred to me is the way that people sometimes have a tendency to treat other people as objects to validate their view of the world or as means to an end. In short then, interaction in such situations isn't about the individual as a person, a whole person, but some value attached to that person from the perspective of another party.

To stick with the religious example, from an institutional point of view, it may seem desirable to have more members. There are many reasons for this, but that desire there and we know it. From the perspective of validating one's worldview, there may also be a desire for people to join or convert to your religion or a specific form of that religion. These things may be rationalized as being "good for" the individuals converting and becoming members, yet the tell is in how people are being treated.

For example, how concerned is the institution or organization interested in the overall well-being of the individual versus their loyalty or commitment of the individual to the institution and its rules and requirements? How much pressure is there to conform to the institution's view of the world and its emphasis on how to live regardless of the effect this has on the individual's mental or emotional heath Or social development and fulfillment. Regardless of the individual's doubts, objections, or concerns?

This is a more extreme example, but subtler forms also exist for many institutions, social movements, and self-conscious social categories. My thoughts lead me to consider what effect these subtler forms of objectification/reduction of individuals have and what a different approach might look like.

This caused my thinking to take a bit of a "spiritual" turn.

The banality of not quite evil

Getting back to the original example of religious organizations and their various forms of outreach and engagement, let's turn out attention to marketing and branding.

Basically, if you are trying to motivate people to adopt something, you have to try to sell it somehow. If you treat affiliation or membership with a religious institution, or some claimed benefit of said affiliation, as a product, your concern will be with how to advertise your product, how to market it to target groups, and how to distinguish your brand.

In societies such as the United States, advertising, marketing, and branding are in the air people breath. Everything is a product that belongs to some individual or group. Every choice is about a cost-benefit analysis and who stands to profit from how you spend your time, how you perceive your identity, and so on. Even if you are oblivious to it, the forces seeking status through power and wealth are tracking and targeting you everyday. This process has been accelerating for decades.

Part of the campaign to gain trust, win influence, and control the strongly encouraged consumer impulse has been to make the intrusions and manipulations practically invisible or just a normal part of the social background. Emphasize style over substance, obscuring the fine print. Who you are, what you stand for, how you live -- presented as consumer options.

The same is true of religious institutions. The decline in Christian affiliation and institutional membership in the US, for example, has been met with the same kind of thinking. Choose Denomination X, the choice of a new generation. Choose Denomination Y, the real and authentic tradition. Choose Denomination Z, and be part of our exclusive membership.

This also happens on the local congregational level. Many congregations struggle to have an adequate membership --they are too old, too poor, too few -- to maintain a baseline of activity according to their established routine. While members may feel that they have something to offer, such as accepting or exploring the truth claims of their religious tradition, they also have good reason to be concerned about simply increasing the number of people contributing in some way to their activities (including financial support).

And if they say, "We need more members", or perhaps some demographic, "We need more young people", "We need more minorities", this line of thinking makes those people a target group to be marketed to. This isn't to say it isn't appropriate to ask, "Why don't we draw more (young, diverse) people?", but again, the temptation to go into marketing mode remains strong with such deliberations.

If we add in the skepticism, cynicism, and credulity of the absurd to those increasingly raised and continually bathed in a consumer culture, along with familiarity with tired church tropes and ploys to get people in the door or associate the congregation with some sponsored function or donation, there will naturally arise in the minds of those hearing about some church function or outreach the suspicion that they really just want to advertise themselves or make you feel some obligation to listen to a pitch about their faith.

When you see congregations adding cafes and snack shops to their buildings and trying to incorporate multimedia light and music shows, such suspicions are further raised. That isn't to say such things must be viewed skeptically or that they can have no value. Such actions needn't only be seen as ways to draw larger crowds, but when it is combined with programs for driving up tallies in "soul winning" campaigns the move toward cynicism regarding the congregation's motives becomes irresistible.

Cultivating presence and awareness (of presence)

At this point, I started thinking about alternatives. Now, I've kind of fleshed out my thinking a bit since it's always longer in speech and text than the idea in your head, so bear with me.

I started thinking about presence. Being really present wherever you are, including be present to others. And being aware, especially aware of the presence of others.

The first image that came to mind was the current Dalai Lama, along with the accounts of being in his presence. How the atmosphere around him changes, how easy and simple and peaceful things start to seem, and how there is a sense of tremendous energy and even power, but that it's not grasping or controlling, but rather humble and open.

You can always wonder how exaggerated these kinds of accounts are, and whether the Dalai Lama himself would be embarrassed or pleasantly dismissive of such claims. You can also suggest that the effect was generated by the expectations of the people giving such reports. But this was the example that first came to mind, and I've heard other examples of powerful presences as well, and not always so benign. Hitler was rumored to have an extraordinary effect on those in his proximity as well.

So whether you think this is a spiritual presence, an extension of consciousness not currently understood, or an extension of the social presence of the individual (as humans always perceive a social dimension to everything they encounter), let's take the idea seriously.

I came up with the notion that people are always developing such a presence, every minute of every day, by what they think, say, and do. By what they focus on. By what they feel. By how the react. By whether they are really paying attention or on automatic pilot. There are many degrees on the spectrum of that last one.

So if that's true, if you are mostly running on habit, if you are heavily floating in distraction, and if you are largely concerned with your own personal desires and how the things you encounter affect you getting the things (material possessions, feelings and sensations, self image, etc) that you want, then that is the presence you will develop. Kind of fake, shallow presence that is largely turned inward but which suddenly become grasping and manipulative toward things which get your attention.

And we could look at being shy, self-doubting, fearful, and the personal presence this cultivates. Or being more awake, more actively engaged, more genuinely concerned about the welfare of others. Or whatever combination we like.

But there is also our ability to really be able to gauge or read someone's presence. It requires experience, which means paying attention to others, as actual whole people, and not just seeing them as collections of things you do or don't want from them. I suspect most of us are better versed in the latter way of seeing people, even though we may not recognize it or want to admit it.

If we can't really see people, then they may be able to successfully mask their presence, who they have cultivated themselves to be. Maybe that's why some folks get gut feelings or "vibes" about people. Their subconscious, at least, is picking up some kind of signal even if they aren't practiced in detecting and understanding such insights.

This then lead to thinking again about seeing people as means to an end, even if you think that the means or the end will be good for them. It occurred to me that the issues of presence and awareness are tied into whether we see and treat others as whole persons, not just as sources of validation, labor, wealth, pleasure, and so on (or as sources of the opposite of such things). To really, truly see them as fully complex and genuine individuals.

This view seemed to me to be at odds with the manipulations of advertising, marketing, and branding. This isn't to suggest those things are inherently bad or destructive, but when that's how we learn to see others on a regular basis, as collections of things we want/don't want, like/don't like, need/don't need, etc, that is really problematic. Especially for major religions and spiritual traditions that affirm the value and dignity of each person.

So then I begin thinking that maybe this is something else that kind of bugs me about how some religious institutions and local congregations conceptualize and carry out some of there forms of outreach and community engagement.

To continue to use the Christian example, although I could certainly use others, it made me think of the imperative of Jesus to love God by loving others. The Christian tradition, following its Jewish roots, teaches its followers to see Christ (hence God) in others. Various acts of mercy and charity and the attitudes that inspire them are emphasized.

In a way, though, they can be reduced to cultivating a real presence, within yourself and towards others. An intentional presence grounded in learning to appreciate others, to see them and therefore treat them as someone you cherish. Assuming that you cherish yourself, then loving others as yourself works, but if you don't, it doesn't work. Of course, self-cherishing from a grasping or needy place can become very bad from a religious perspective, a very ego-centric myopia in which everything is about you, and how wonderful or terrible you are.

But still, if you can't find something in yourself, you can't find it in others, so if you do really cherish another, you can't totally despise yourself. And cherish here doesn't mean being possessive or controlling. Again, it's the kind of presence where you can just sit have your heart swell in the presence of the one cherished. You don't want to monopolize the person, or try to force them to be what you want or need them to be. You might be tempted, but you know that would be like plucking and pressing a flower. It would just leave you with a faded memory rather than a living, growing thing.

Now, if we wrap this back into everything else discussed above, then we can think of community outreach and engagement in a different way. If you really admire, are deeply moved by, or feel strongly comforted yet free to be yourself in someone else's presence, it is likely you will want to be in their presence or to emulate them. Perhaps you will wonder how they came to have such presence, insight, and so on. If you really felt like you were being engaged in someone's presence, without grasping or manipulation, how much different that would feel than when you aren't really or fully seen, only appreciated for what labels or values have been attached to your social identity.

Whatever a religion and its adherents and institutions want to convey to others, it seems like the more aware, present, and generously humble person can do more to share it. And, it seems, that such a compassionate presence is at the core of what they are supposed to be sharing anyway, offering a kind of energy and reassurance that can have strong restorative and rejuvenating effects on those who encounter it.

Imagine meeting someone who wasn't trying to get something from you, either explicitly or implicitly, whose most immediate expectations of you are centered on your inherent value just as you are rather than what you might be able to give them in return. I would be much more likely to give such a person and what they had to say the benefit of the doubt. This is what I think of when I heard people use the expression attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words." 

Selfish charity

This may sound idealistic so far, but it was part of my train of thought (along with subsequent elaborations, clarifications, and musings).

It may also sound like it doesn't have anything to say about topics like social justice. And there is a large debate over whether social justice should be a main focus of religion alongside of personal transformation/awakening/salvation or whether social justice is an expression of such transformation.

If you have been cultivating awareness and a presence that cherishes others, it is natural to assume that this will lead to actions born of such sincere caring. Whether those actions are considered social justice in  terms of trying to fix longstanding structural problems in society such as unfair discrimination, poverty, and so on is not certain.

The emphasis may instead be more immediate, on those the person sees and interacts with on a regular basis, especially those who society and tradition as well as personal history suggest one is most responsible for -- family, close friends, etc.

And really, to have genuine sustained efforts even at larger issues of social justice, it matters if one is motivated by such close personal contact rather than generic abstractions.

This raises the issue of the scope and focus of religious institutions and movements. There is a tendency to have a goal of eliminating something undesirable, such as various causes or indications of suffering. Poverty is an already named example.

It can be hard, though, to keep working when it seems like you are bailing out a leaking boat with a spoon.  And this can lead to a conflict between wanting to mostly or completely eliminate a problem and wanting to do it rather quickly. I am not sure how much of this is a matter of contemporary culture in some societies, especially in the West.

But if you can't fix it, then what's the point of chipping away at the edges of a problem?

So my thinking then went something like this: Being really present and aware, cultivating a truly expanded and compassionate focus and presence, is hard. Cherishing others in a non-selfish way, really appreciating them as actual whole persons, is extraordinarily hard. I mean, think about it. Really try to picture how you would be able to feel that way about a stranger, a mild acquaintance, or someone you can't stand.

So that is hard. Both being present and having an expanded presence rooted in equanimity and compassion. And working to alleviate the causes and effects of sources of suffering when it seems like both are endless. That's also very hard.

And as I was thinking, I got the sense that the two things, compassionate presence and minimizing the sourcing of suffering and their effects are related. But that's really just doubling the difficulty, at least, if they are linked. Joining together two things that are already hard on their own.

So it's easier just to wear a ribbon, post a meme on social media, give a donation to a religious organization or charity, volunteer so many hours helping others, and doing various other good deeds without really working on what kind of presence we are cultivating. It goes back to an economic transaction. And so in the face of the cynicism and despair of problems that never seem to end, you can earn enough credit to feel OK about yourself.

This doesn't apply to everyone, but if you are still largely self-concerned and worried about your social image and your moral capital, then it kind of makes sense that a lot of the charitable acts aren't really done for others at all. They are done for you.

And religions tend to teach that there are no "treasures in heaven", "virtue", or "merit" for actions with such motives.

It matters to this one

This then lead (much faster of course, since it was a cascade of mental energy that didn't need to form complete words and concepts every step of the way) to thoughts about a couple of parables [1].

One is the story of a girl on a beach after a storm. The waves have stranded hundreds of star fish on the beach, and as she walks along the beach, she picks them up one at a time and throws them back into the ocean. A man is watching her, and eventually he asks why she is bothering. There is no way she can save them all. Why does it matter?

This gets back to that question of why we try to oppose the causes of suffering or to alleviate the suffering itself if they seem endless. If you've heard this parable, you know the girl's answer. She picks up a star fish, holds it out to the man, and says, "It matters to this one."

OK, well, the other story comes from the Christian Gospels. There is a line about the fact that the poor will always be with you. Now in context, the issue is why a woman "wasted" something of value on Jesus rather than selling the item and giving the money to the poor. The answer Jesus gives seems by some interpretations to be rather self-important: "The poor will always be with you, but I won't always be around."

I don't claim that the meaning that came to me as I was thinking is traditional or orthodox, so take it as you will. Given the lines along which I was thinking, it occurred to me that this is related to the kind of thinking present in our star fish parable. And both are related to cultivating compassionate presence, starting with those nearest to us. There is the abstract notion of "the poor", at which we can throw money and time to make ourselves look or feel better, and then there are the people right in front of us who we are failing to appreciate and cherish. (Of course, "the poor" in this account can represent any individual or group who is suffering or in need.)

It's like the stories about people who are great philanthropists in terms of donations and giving speeches but who have selfish and intolerant presences, who like humanity in the abstract but  have problems with real, individual, face-to-face people.

And of course, the person who is complaining about a lack of charity in these stories is Judas Iscariot.

Anyway, so Mary Magdalene then is "wasting" this precious gift honoring and cherishing Jesus. Now, in what I think is the smaller minded view, she does this because Jesus is super-special and way more important than the poor, being the anointed of God, the Messiah and all. But that makes no sense in the larger context of any of the Gospels. My view is better. Right?

So yeah, you can run away from the big, scary, too hard to deal with ocean of suffering and its causes, you can just make things like poverty an abstraction and make yourself feel better by charitable transactions, scolding others to hide your own lack of real charity or your sense of helplessness and inadequacy, like Judas. Or like Mary, you can start developing that compassionate presence and cherishing with those closest to you. [2]

To keep our imagery consistent, you can think of it like sheep. Who are your sheep? Who are you to cherish and look after? If you only have the presence to care for and feed one or two sheep, better to do that and do it well than try to manage a large flock with impatience or indifference. And in learning to truly tend a few, you may learn to extend that presence. You are better able to understand other shepherds and their sheep further away. And even to accept the care of those who see you as their own charge.

Moreover, you may inspire others. Remember that reflection above on inspiring others with your presence? Maybe you inspire others to take care of their sheep too.

You know, I think the star fish parable also has problems. This occurred to me as well. The normal telling leaves out the proper ending.

Because after the girl explains herself, the man who had been watching her picks up a star fish and throws it back in the ocean. And then another. And then another. And other people walking along the beach see them, and some of them begin to throw star fish back into the water as well. [3]

The "poor" will always be with you.

The starfish will always be with you.

Will you truly be with them?


1. Some will object to the second example being called a parable, but go with it.

2. No, this doesn't describe me at all.

3. To switch traditions for a moment, this can be helpful for Buddhists wrestling with how to understand the Bodhisattva vow to deliver all sentient beings from suffering, which, even after innumerable lifetimes, would seem to be a futile effort. The essay as whole also may suggest something about Buddhist spiritual cultivation and what some call "engaged" Buddhism.

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