In last night’s dream I was a therapist to a young man who after three months called to tell me he wanted to see a different psychiatrist. I referred him to the woman psychiatrist whose office was next to mine. The guy came in for his last appointment with me and to my surprise wanted the new therapist to come in with him. In her presence he told me how he felt I was not helping him and she demonstrated how she would work in her turn with him. She touched and hugged him, even tickled him until he unbent and they made connection with each other. I was both humiliated and appalled at what I considered unprofessional conduct in a therapist. Therapists are supposed to be objective and nonjudgmental with whatever the patient brings to the session.
The psychiatrist then proceeded to deal with the patient’s concerns. He had told me he was sexually and emotionally abused by a man with whom he became infatuated. I had treated the story as metaphor for what I thought was a deeper conflict. She confronted the issue with him. He wept and raged as they spoke about the circumstances and events I had sidestepped because I thought the issue was personal and not something to be dealt with in therapy. Of all people I had overlooked what he needed to have me deal with because I was keeping what I thought was objectivity, my professional distance.
I don’t know where the dream came from. It was very vivid and disturbing. Normally I could see events or memories from the previous day or even from just before I went to sleep that the subconscious would elaborate upon to create the images and/or the plot content of my dreams. This dream seemed to come from nowhere. The issue was not anywhere close to anything I’d been recently thinking about.
Recently my friend, Frank, quoted the guru of Thakor, my yoga teacher, who wrote that to follow the spiritual path one would necessarily hold on to “no exceptions.” To reap the benefit of any religious path is to reject any other path. This is what is meant by conviction and demonstrated in the one-minded pursuit of the path’s goals through practice and daily life.
The Dalai Lama whom many spiritual seekers in the West admire and hold up as exemplar of a religious leader in a pluralistic world is untiring in advising people to stay within their own religious traditions. There is no need, the Buddhist leader says, to switch to another religion. Often it’s just the old saw of coveting the grass across the fence as being greener. One can reap spiritual virtue wherever one is.
Thomas Merton who until his accidental death in Thailand where he was participating in an interfaith conference was also much admired as a similar exemplar of a genuine spiritual seeker who must nonetheless toe the orthodox line. He too counseled admirers to stay within their own religious traditions. Like the Dalai Lama, Merton urged people to use what they learn from other religious traditions to find new depth in the practice of their own tradition. Some students of Merton believe that if the Cistercian monk had lived longer he would have broken from the Roman Catholic fold into frank practice of Eastern mysticism that he’d been studying and writing about for decades. In fact Merton was first attracted to Hinduism before he visited Our Lady of Gethsemani that he eventually decided to join. After he took his perpetual vows,Merton’s abbot encouraged him to continue writing but set the limits so Merton would abide by the cenobitic Cistercian tradition instead of going off into the more Asiatic tradition of Antony and the early eremites of the Christian tradition.
I wonder what Thomas Merton would say today about religious practice in our more inter-connected (what social philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, in 1962 called “global village) world. I think of Merton as belonging to an older world. He died in 1968—when globalization was just starting to manifest with rapid air travel, international book exchanges and interfaith conferences in the wake of Rome’s epoch-breaking Second Vatican Council between 1962-1965. Even the Dalai Lama with his brave new initiative for pluralistic religion following in the same path as Merton may himself belong to another epoch. I truly feel we are in a new era where traditions are being examined with tools we didn’t have just a decade ago and where we are called upon to act with a different appreciation of morality and right action.
All this, for me, just makes choices that much more difficult if one was sensitized to global as well as personal levels of choice and action. Of course we all have our loves and hates, what appeals to us because of our breeding, training and circle of communicating friends and what repels us. When we try to act with presence of mind instead of simply reacting as we most often do, we can be paralyzed into inactivity at the enormity of each task. Being more informed makes moral choices difficult.
I’ve been studying the West-East conflict for years, being myself a product of both, having my origins in the East and maturing in the West. I remember how appalled I was when at a gathering of psychiatrists one psychiatrist, Nizar, justified Palestinian terrorist attacks. I had invited them to my apartment for a presentation I had developed for the Spiritual Life Center at St. Luke’s Methodist Church. Rumi, the Persian 13th Sufi mystic born in what is now Afghanistan, preached universality of practice and belief that through the centuries was considered heretical by orthodox imams. Nizar is an orthodox Muslim. (I subsequently shot a video of him talking about his practice and belief, about the Quran and its place in Islam.) He saw the attacks in light of the socio-political and historical environment of the Middle East that he knew as a native-born Syrian. Since then I’ve grown to appreciate his point of view even as I still abhor violent demonstrations for change. Unfortunately I see how peaceful attempts are often slow and even ineffective and sometimes these are not even available to certain populations.
I am sure my opinions will change with time, more experience, and more study. I don’t see an end to the struggle to understand. Long after I am gone some people will continue to struggle with seeing the “big picture” while most people will go like cattle to the slaughter, with little curiosity in gaining a wider perspective, in obtaining a more universal view. Maybe such a view does indeed belong only to supernatural entities, to God, because human beings can only attempt it but are by nature incapable of omniscience and limitless love.
Maybe all we can attempt is compassion, feeling for what is not “me” or “mine,” going beyond what we love to what we don’t understand. This is heroic enough to achieve even for one moment and we’re not heroes every moment in time.
All of us are more often selfish and insensitive than we are angelic or divine. It is so much easier to vent anger or irritation when others don’t act as we think they should. Maybe we need our own acts of violence to force us into humility, which is another form of compassion, when we feel our own imperfection that we can co-exist with it and with other’s imperfections. Maybe compassion begins with compassion for our own iniquities, that to my mind lies at the heart of Christianity, a tradition that reminds us of our brokenness and the possibility for redemption by linking our wagon to the Star. Thus linked we might with the Jew, Saul from Tarsus (near Mersin in modern-day Turkey), cease to dwell in our own selves; we achieve that universality born of deliberately, carefully breaking ourselves into oblivion, into nothingness!
Hui-neng, the Sixth Zen Patriarch in the 7th to 8th century of the Common Era, taught, “The way is not difficult. Simply cling to no preferences.”