The Identity of Mullah Nasser-E-Din and the Jar

 Once upon a time many of the souls in Afghanistan enjoyed the peace and joy of village life. Mullah Nasser-E-Din was a well known wise man throughout the villages, and is the central character in many tales of wisdom throughout Afghanistan, Israel and Turkey.

It is said that one day Mullah Nasser-E-Din went to the public baths. As he strolled through the bath, he thought to himself that it indeed would be lovely to dip into the waters and take off a few layers of sand and dirt. So, in he went and he washed himself from head to toe. As he emerged all clean and refreshed, he noticed that all the bathers were lying on the floor having a bit of a mid-day nap, rending the ceiling and the sky with their snores. He said to himself: “How good it would be to fall into a sweet sleep!” But he thought, what could he do so as not to be exchanged for a neighbor? What if someone stole his identity while he was sleeping. (Here we have a fabulous example of the prescience of Mullah Nasser-E-Din – he knew to worry about identity theft even then!) He took a jar, put his identity into it and fastened it to his waist, and fell asleep.

In the meantime one of the sleepers woke up and saw the jar fastened to Nasser-E-Din’s waist. He coveted the jar, took it, and fastened it to his own waist. After a short time, Nasser-E-Din arose and saw that the jar was not there. He looked around, and lo! There it was, fastened to the waist of someone else. He woke him up and said, “My friend, if I am I, where it the jar? But if you are me, who am I?”

 

When I first found this folk tale from Afghanistan in Josepha Sherman’s book of World Folklore, , I was completely taken with it. Then I reread it and didn’t get it at all. Then I read it again and thought about all of the ‘things’ that I have that I just wouldn’t really be me without (books came to mind first) and so then I think I got it again. Of course we don’t put our identities in a jar, but oh, do we ever tie them up in other things – possessions, relationships, work … and this little story was a nice reminder for me to just let it go, let it go, let it go …

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Efficacy, equanimity and bay gulls

If you ever find yourself feeling a bit bored with life, throw some clean underwear in a bag, grab your ATM card, get in the car and drive to Cape Cod. That is one of the places in the world where you have to work the hardest to find boredom; particularly in the summer you must work very hard to be bored. Alternatively it is very easy to tumble across lots and lots of engaging, entertaining, and even educational things to do.

A little bit ago, we took a boat trip with the Audubon Society to Monomoy Island. It was a fabulous opportunity to see some birds and to see some of the grey seals that have begun to take over Cape Cod. While the boat was making its way to Monomoy, the naturalist on board was giving us an introduction to the more common birds that we were likely to see. She started off by telling us that there is no such thing as a seagull. Rather there are different species of gulls, in fact, there are fifty different species of gulls around the world. She told us that eleven different species of gulls have been sighted around Cape Cod, but five species are the most common. Three of the very most common species are “white-headed” gulls: the Herring Gull (Larus argenttatus), the Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), and the Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis). The other two common species are “hooded” gulls: the Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla) and and Bonaparte’s Gull (Larus philadelphia). She told us that the white headed gulls are the ones we are most likely to see when we are out on the beach and around the Cape in general. At the moment when she said that, I was overcome with … well, I don’t know quite what possessed me, but I raised my hand, and said “excuse me,” before I realized what I was doing. As the naturalist looked in my direction, I asked, “Well, if the sea gulls fly over the sea, what flies over the bay?”

The naturalist looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, and started to say “I just explained that sea gull is a euphemism for a variety of species of gulls. And really all of the species can fly over both the sea and the …” When again, I was possessed by a force that compelled me to cut her off one more time as I uttered, “If sea gulls fly over the sea I thought that over the bay, it would be bay gulls.” And of course I said this as I was eating a bagel.

At that very moment, six very serious birders set down their 24 inch spotting scopes, rushed over and threw me off the boat!

As I flew through the air, I remembered the words of Daniel Berrigan, “These many beautiful days cannot be lived again. But they are compounded in my own flesh and spirit, and I take them in full measure toward whatever lives ahead.”

And I burst out laughing as I righted myself and walked to the shore.

 

Laughter is indeed the best medicine. Sometimes you just have to find the humor wherever you can find it. Most times it can only help to take your self very lightly. It is said that angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly. I can’t help but think that our work for justice and rights would be more efficacious and equanimous if we could but remember to take ourselves more lightly. So, go have a bagel, have a laugh and enjoy your work.

Rumi’s Seven Advices

One of my favorite poet/sages is the Sufi scholar I know as Rumi (1207-1273). His full name is Mevlânâ Celâleddin Mehed Rumi. Recently I came across a bit of writing by him knows as the ‘Seven Advices’ and I thought I would share it with you all here:

  1.  In generosity and helping others: be like the river
  2. In compassion and grace: be like the sun.
  3. In concealing others’ faults: be like the night.
  4. In anger and fury: be like the dead.
  5. In modesty and humility: be like the soil.
  6. In tolerance: be like the ocean.
  7. Either appear as you are, or: be as you appear.

Rumi wrote in the thirteenth century, and yet, these bits of advise are well taken today. Imagine a world where generosity and help flowed as freely and as powerfully as a river. Imagine a world where compassion and graciousness shone in all of our lives as brilliantly as the sun on a perfect summer day. Imagine a world where we were eager to hide others faults the way the darkness of a cloudy, starless night hides just about everything. Imagine a world where we put no energy or life into our anger or frustrations. Imagine a world where our modesty and humility were as rich and fertile as the soil of a river delta. Imagine a world where we were all as tolerant and accepting as the ocean is deep. Imagine a world were appearances were not deceiving, but what you saw was what you got, where authenticity reigned.

Imagine!

You may say I’m a dreamer.

But love and joy increase.

I hope someday you’ll join in,

and the world will be in peace.

On Finding Joy

 As a young social worker, I was taught about schizophrenogenic mothers, mothers who were responsible for their children’s schizophrenia. In the day it was the norm to hold mothers accountable (actually to blame them) for all of the mental dis-ease that befell their children and families. Perhaps it is in that spirit that I share this apocryphal story about everyone’s and no one’s in particular mother. . .

There indeed was a mother who was known throughout the neighborhood for her quest for perfection. She spent her life bemoaning the circumstances of her life. Nothing was ever quite good enough, nothing satisfied her.

Life went on in the village. Days came, and days went. People got up, went to work. They laughed, they cried. They did all the things that people do in the days of their lives.

One grace filled summer day the sun burst through the fog that had risen from the ground after the nights storm had ended. A rainbow hovered over the mountains, and the sun spread sparkling light over the gardens and fields in a blaze of glorious color and light. It was one of those moments that took your breath away and left you inspired with the beauty and grandeur of your town and our world. It was an “ahh moment” if there ever was one.

Surely even that mother would see the beauty and joy of life in this!

Father Poplowski called out to the mother, “my daughter is this not a most glorious day?”

And the mother replied, “Well it may be Father, but will it last?”

 
Well, of course not. Nothing lasts forever. The sweetness, the joy is in the moment – perhaps made even sweeter in the knowledge of its evanescent ephemeral nature. Nothing lasts forever, Nothing ever could. And, yet somewhere in our youth or childhood, we must have found something good. And so, let us re-claim the lost innocence of youth and childhood. Let us learn and remember to take our joy, our happiness, our hope were we can find them, where we can create them.

 

In Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, Joan Chittister reminds us of the sunflower – that beautiful plant which even in shadow turns its head towards the sun. Chittister christens the sunflower the patron saint of those in despair. She offers us this guidance from the people of New Zealond: Turn your face to the sun, and the shadows always fall behind you.

 

Today, this day, let us all make the effort. Let us enjoy beauty where it finds us, let us embody the sunflower and each turn our face to the sun!

To be understood or not to be. . .

Nele Morton is without a doubt one of my most favoritest authors. Her book, “The Journey is Home” is powerful, insightful, and rife with quarks of wisdom that have nested in my heart and nettled and nurtured me over the years. One story in the book is about a group of women in an early consciousness raising group. Some of the women in the group had been abused by their husbands or boyfriends. Many of those women had never admitted or examined their experiences of abuse. But in the safety of the group they began to relay and relate to their own stories. The group asked, “tell us what it was like for you?” One by one, each woman told her story. She told it in her own way, for as long as she choose to speak. And the group listened to each one. The group listened and heard each one. In the words of one of the women, “you heard me to life.” You heard me to life. The power of truly listening and hearing. Morton invites us to re-imagine the opening lines of the book of John: God so loved the world that s/he heard it into being.

That story has written itself across my heart. When I was teaching social work, I would relate the story to my students to impress upon them the importance of listening and fully hearing the experiences and needs of their clients, of listening with their hearts, brains and hands.

Then today I came upon this story in Paul Brian Campbell’s blog People for Others. Campbell says that he found the story inRichard Cole’s book Catholic by Choice: Why I Embraced the Faith, Joined the Church, and Embarked on the Adventure of a Lifetime.

Let me tell you a story about Eddie. We met in a recovery program years ago. and he would tell this story about himself. Once when he was trying to stop drinking. he found himself in a psychiatric hospital. He was broke. He’d lost his job. His wife had left him. He was at the end of his last rope.

Every morning he would talk to a psychiatrist. After several sessions the doctor said, “Eddie, you’re all over the map. You need to focus. I want you to go off by yourself and think about this question: What are the three things you need in order to live? The three things you absolutely have to have to keep living.”

Eddie said okay, and he went off to think. A few days later, he came back with his answer.

“First of all,” Eddie said, “I need to breathe.” (He was taking the question seriously. He had no choice at that point.) “Second, I need to drink water. I know I can go without food for weeks. I’ve done it. But I need water all the time.”

“Last,” he said, “I need to be understood. If nobody understands me, I think I’ll die.”

 

So, think for a minute about the importance of listening carefully and truly hearing each other, it can be a powerfully healing and transformative act. We all need to be understood. Infants need to be touched and cuddled in order to stay alive and grow. Without adequate touching and cuddling, infants literally die of a dis-ease called failure to thrive. I suspect children and adults need to be heard and understood in a similarly powerful way.

And, then, think if you will for another minute, what are the three things you need in order to live? It would be wonderful if you would share them with us here in the comments section?

Thanks! Be well!!

Getting to the Other Shore

Spring is coming to New Jersey and to the good sisters of the Cloister of Mother Magdalene. Well, at least the promise of spring seems to be on the horizon. The snow, the snow that perpetually blanketed the ground from December until April, has melted. The crocuses and snow drops are beginning to grace the landscape, and robins are once again dancing in the grass as they search out worms, berries and larvae. Life is re-emerging once again. Good is alive, hope is afoot. And so too is Sister Visentia afoot. She has been feeling a bit cramped in the cloister these long months, and the rolling hills of Hunterdon now beckon her to exploration.

So on a lovely spring day in early May, Sister Visentia set out for a bit of a walk and she found herself along the banks of the south branch of the Raritan River. Now, it’s true the Raritan is not a thundering water course. It is not so wide as to be un-fordable, but after the winter snow melt and the heavy spring rains, it can be formidable. As she strolled along the river, lost in the details of flora and fauna, the smells of spring, the softness of the earth covered in composing leaves, Sister Visentia looked up newly aware that she was unaware of quite where she was. To the right and the left, she saw no way across the river as it roiled past her. As she stared at the Raritan, it became an insurmountable obstacle in front of her. She could not fathom how she was going to get across it. Good Sister Visentia was just about to give up on the idea of fording the river, when she saw someone walking on the other side of the river. Sister Visentia called out to her, “hello there, can you tell me please how to get to the other side of the river?”

The stranger looked up, smiled, and said, “My daughter, you are already on the other shore.”

Sister Visentia heard this and started to smile, then she began to laugh, and soon the two strangers were laughing together so hard that they were weeping and their sides were aching.

As their laughter subsided, the stranger began to chant, “Gate (gah-tay) gate para gate parasamgate bodhi swaha!”

Sister Visentia looked across the water to the stranger, who began to laugh again, and said, “it is a Buddhist chant from the Heart Sutra, which can be translated ‘Gone, gone, gone to the Other Shore, attained the Other Shore having never left.’ Good Sister, you have gone out in search of spring and have stumbled upon enlightenment. Please accept my invitation to pause for a few moments and re-collect yourself. Now is a lovely moment to pause and ponder. Take care to wonder at the world through which you wander!”

At that moment Visentia realized that there was nowhere else to go but inside herself. There she would find comfort, insight, and the wealth of wisdom hard earned and gently nurtured. Visentia gave thanks for this moment of equanimity, for the time she had taken to wander the occasional detour and side road, for the time she had wasted on the roses in her life.

And as she sighed deeply, the stranger waved to her once more and said, “if you meet the Buddha on the road . . .” and the stranger disappeared, and Visentia laughed once more. Indeed, she had always already crossed to the other shore.

Two lions and a flock of sheep

Two lions walk into a bar . . . no, that is not this story.

Two lions are playing golf when a flock of sheep walk across the golf course grazing . . . no that is not this story either.

Once in another time and place which is sometime and some place, there was a lion who was wandering across the lands when she came upon a flock of sheep meandering and grazing in a small pasture. As the lion looked over the heard, sizing them up to decide which of them would be supper for herself and her cubs she noticed that there was another lion about. But this other lion was lazing in the middle of the sheep.

This other lion grew up with the sheep since it had been a small cub. It would bleat like the sheep and run about in the pasture like the sheep. Our lion went right for this strange aberration of a lion, and when the sheepish lion stood before the feral lion his entire body and being began to tremble and shake. He had never seen such a magnificent and ferocious creature. The feral lion asked the sheepish lion, “what are you doing here in the middle of these sheep?” The sheepish lion was perplexed and replied, “I am a sheep.” “No, you are not! You are a lion. Come with me.” And the feral lion lead the sheepish lion to a pool, where the two lions stood shoulder to shoulder next to each other. “Look” commanded the feral lion. When the sheepish lion saw his reflection in the water he let out a thunderous roar, and in that moment he was transformed. And he was never the same again.

 

This is another Anthony deMello story. deMello tells the story as an example of awakening to awareness, and how sometimes that awakening is an all of a sudden ‘ah ha!’ kind of experience. And there are moments like that. Transformative moments that shake us, or somehow touch us at the core of our being, kind of like someone finally turned the lights on – I was blind (or thought I was) and now I see. And, I suspect working for social justice and human rights can be a lot like that too in some ways. When you are working for human rights – building protections for people so that things that should never be done to them (like torture, kidnapping, murder, false imprisonment, etc) are never done to them; so that the things that should be accessible to everyone are accessible to them (like food, clothing, safety and security, etc); and so that groups can be groups in their own particular way as long as they respect other groups rights – well, when you focus on those big things, it can get overwhelming. And then, there are these ‘ah ha’ moments when you realize that “yes, we need to think globally, but we must act locally.” And on a local level it is all in the details. And finding and respecting the core of our basic human nature is a pretty important detail. Today, for me, its kindness.

Kindness? Please! Just how important is kindness? As I thought about that, I remembered a story about Hillel, who took a bet that he could not summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel smiled and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others. All else is commentary.” Sounds like a description of kindness to me. And then there was Jesus who summarized all of the law by saying, “Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself.” That sounds like kindness too! And then the Buddha who taught, “hate can never dispel hate, only love can dispel hate.” That sounds like pretty powerful kindness to me.

So, today, this day, let’s all look at ourselves in a pool of clear fresh water and see the kind beings that we inherently are. And let’s go share that kindness with each other. Let’s lead each other to seeing ourselves and each other in the water of kindness, and maybe even pause and lap it up together.

Experiencing Justice with The Lady and the Tramp

The most basic principle of social work practice is to have a clear goal. After all (maybe before all!) if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?!? So, what is justice like? How does it look, feel, smell, sound, taste? What is human dignity like?

Well, on some level we all have a visceral, personal answer to that. Most of us can identify a moment or two in our lives when things just felt right. When all was right with the world, when we did something good for someone else, or maybe when someone did something for us. Now, I’m not talking about winning the lottery grand, but just those moments when things were nice and you found yourself hoping life could go on forever like that. So, go ahead, conjure up one of those moments and bask in it! Recollect how you were feeling, the smells associated with it, the taste it left in your mouth, the sounds around you, the setting and scenery. Bask in all of it for a few moments. Niceness, it is lovely. And that is how I would like everyone to experience fairness and dignity.

And then there is this guy Anthony deMello who offers us this story about a homeless man in London. The man, let’s call him Nigel, has been walking the streets of London all day. He is exhausted, and as night comes on, he finds himself on the bank of the River Thames. It has been a particularly difficult day for Nigel, panhandling has not gone well, he was continually rousted by the constabulary so that he was not even able to secure a bit of bread for himself. He is looking forward to a night’s sleep and a fresh start to the day tomorrow, hoping at least it won’t be raining. Just as he is settling in and about to fall asleep the lights of a car sweep over him, and a chauffeur driven Bentley pulls up near him. A very attractive woman steps out of the car and asks, “Sir, are you intending to spend the night here?” Nigel says, “yes.” And the woman, let’s call her Sofia, replies, “I will not conscience that. You will come with me to my home where you will have a decent meal and spend a comfortable night.” And Sofia insists that Nigel join her in the car, and they ride through London to her mansion. When they arrive at the mansion, Carson ushers them into the mansion. Sofia says, “Carson, please take Nigel to the servants quarters and help him settle in. Be sure that he is treated well and that he has everything he needs to be comfortable this evening.” After a time Sofia goes by to check on Nigel. She sees a bit of light from under his door, and so she knocks on it. Nigel invites her into the room, and Sofia asks, “Is everything alright, Nigel? Did you have a good meal?” Nigel responds, “My lady, I’ve never had a better meal in my life.” “Then are you warm enough?” “Yes, my Lady, the bed is comfortable and warm and lovely.” “Then maybe you need some company to help you to relax and sleep.” And as Nigel moves over just a bit to make some room for Sofia, he falls into the Thames.

Now, when I read DeMello’s version of this story I burst out laughing. I did not see that coming, not at all. But it makes sense. Harboring illusions will not get us justice or respect for dignity. Dreaming may help us to envision a better future, but putting our shoulders to the wheel is what will lay the foundation today for a better tomorrow. So, wake up, drink the coffee, and do some work! We are not required to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it!!

And then, because it’s me, I started to think a bit more about the story. And I started to wonder, what if the genders were reversed. What if Nigel were Nancy? What if Sofia were Samuel? How would the fantasy play out? I suppose if it were a gothic romance version Nancy would still be dreaming of her hero Samuel coming to save her. But would even she be dreaming of him crawling into her bed? What if Nancy were a feminist, how would her fantasy play out? If you were homeless, what would make you want to scrunch over in bed? If it were me, I would be dreaming of a warm bed, a decent light, and a good book. But then that’s me.

Ah, and the point of the story was, after all, to wake up, drink the coffee and do the work!

Surrounded by water and dying of thirst

You know the values clarification game where you are asked to imagine yourself on a raft with 6 or 8 other people? Typically the scenario gives you a brief character sketch for each of the other people, and you are then pushed to decide who you would throw out of the raft in order to save the lives of those who remain. The rationale usually involves something like a lack of clean drinking water or a shortage of food, and of course there is no knowing when or if any of you will be rescued. Well, this raft story is not that one.

 In his book ‘Awareness’ Anthony deMello tells the story of a group of people who are marooned on a raft off the coast of Brazil. Here’s my version:

 One sunny afternoon in Brazil Marta, Enrico and a small group of their friends set out for a lovely afternoon on the waters of the Amazon, dallying away the day. Somehow, they lost their paddle and so could no longer control the direction of the raft. The waters of the river carried them out to the ocean, and there they were, trapped and unprepared. What had been a lazy, lovely day now became a life and death situation. They had no food or water with them. The current was carrying them farther and farther out into the ocean. They knew they were immanently going to die if they did not get some help. And in the heat of sun, they were suffering the effects of dehydration. And they were surrounded by water they dare not drink. The one think that they knew for sure was that to drink the salt water of the ocean.  They knew that drinking ocean water would only make them thirstier. They had all grown up hearing about tourists who drank ocean water and came away with headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. No ocean water was no help for their dehydration, that they knew. Surrounded by water and they were dying of thirst.

 But, here is what they did not know: the rush of Amazon River water that carried them out into the ocean still surrounded them. The Amazon flows out into the ocean with such ferocity, that it carries a stream of fresh water out into the ocean. There are estimates that up to 100 miles from the mouth of the Amazon in the Atlantic Ocean you can dip out some fresh water. But the paddlers knew what they knew and they were not about to take the risk of even tasting the water around them.

 All too often we are like Marta, Enrico and their friends. We know what we know, and we are not about to be disabused of our knowledge by taking the risk of being open to new perspectives or alternative.  Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me! Ah, yes, but we can be brainwashed by the blinders that platitude imposes. 

 All too often our vision, our dreams are limited by the blinders of fear and mistrust.  April fool’s day is approaching. And this year, I propose that we should all take a risk and be fools for love! Let us move out into the world with hearts open to the joy and freedom of love. For one day (then maybe more), let’s take a risk and approach each other with the foolish freedom of heart that young puppies carry when they meet someone new! Imagine the sweetness and joy of a world where love and justice flowed with the power of the Amazon? Where love and justice were carried for miles into the ocean of fear? Let’s all try it for a day and see what happens?