Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Trying to Wrap My Brain Around Humility

I recently read a blog post (dated March 13, 2012) by Abbot Tryphon of All-Merciful Saviour Orthodox Christian Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington. In this post, Abbot Tryphon talked about self-esteem, and how, in our culture, this term has really just become another word for self-importance. It also appears to have become the antithesis of humility.

I agree with Abbot Tryphon that there are times when self-esteem becomes confused with self-importance and pride. But I think that this is indicative of our culture's complete inability to comprehend the spiritual dimensions of concepts like humility and pride. It's tough to make the distinction when people simply don't think beyond immediate satisfaction, when people think that "feel good about yourself" just means "feel good right now". 

The problem with that is that feeling good about oneself - that is, feeling like we've done the right thing, like we can look ourselves in the mirror without loathing, without hiding - can take time. It takes dedication, courage, strength and sacrifice. It takes hard decisions, and difficult paths. I think it also takes spiritual grounding. True self-esteem is not the easy way out, and I think that's where we miss the boat, as a culture. 

The easy way out is to see self-esteem as being wrapped up in our image to others, which is really pride. So let's call it that. Our culture teaches us pride, not true self-esteem. And it does this by marketing products that will make us pretty/handsome and ageless, chemicals to make us smell good (i.e., not like a human, but rather like a flower or a spice mill or a chemical dump), drugs that will make us slim by 3:00 tomorrow, and endless amounts of stuff that will make us the envy of all those around us who don't have all that incredible, unnecessary stuff. 

Then, when we inevitably age and our bodies change and we smell like a human first thing in the morning, this image gets shattered and we want to repair everything, make it like new again. But that's okay. Just turn on all those electronic things and you'll get bombarded with more advertisements for products that will keep you from feeling like you're actually living. And if you act now, we'll throw in this other thing that will break in  3 days at no extra cost.

Part of the cycle is that the generations that follow us are learning these lessons, and they're learning that you are only okay if, between the ages of 14 and 40, you perpetually look like you're 20 years old. They learn that they are only okay if they are always winning, and do not know defeat. They learn that they are only okay if they are doing everything right. I think that our culture knows this on an unconscious level, so we try to promote self-esteem by ensuring that no one ever loses, no one ever knows painful defeat, and no one ever really has to struggle to win. It's the easy way out, and it just doesn't last.

Now, in some circles, people are actually talking about self-esteem in the sense of being able to wake up in the morning and still feel good about yourself, despite smelling like a human and having bedhead and being shaped differently than the model who looks like she hasn't yet hit puberty (or, for men, shaped differently than, say, Hercules). Some people are still touting self-esteem, though, by encouraging the purchase of stuff - the right yoga mat, the right exercise video, the right meditation CD, the right book to read. "This is the one! This is the one thing you've been missing that will give you self-esteem! BUY IT!!!"


And of course, if you're not getting all that you want and more, it means that you are not doing it right. It means that you aren't enlightened enough; it means that you haven't grasped the magic formula and said the right thing so that *poof* it will appear before you, as if summoned from beyond.

But wait, that's still more pride, isn't it? I have the right yoga mat, so I'm awesome. I bought that CD and I'm so much more enlightened now. I got the stuff, and the stuff makes me better than I was. So why are people still sad?

What people do miss is humility. We've been taught that humility is self-loathing, and that it will ruin us, and cause us to be abused. In our grab for power, recognition, and love, we cannot possibly risk losing it by appearing humble, by self-deprecation and loathing. Right?

If humility is not self-loathing, then what is it?

The day after seeing Abbot Tryphon's post, I also saw this video.

This, I thought, this holds one of the keys to understanding humility. At least, I think it might. I think one of the keys to grasping this elusive idea is to understand our place in the Universe. And to realize that we are all connected.

The Buddhists use a Sanskrit term - PratÄ«tyasamutpāda - that means, in a literal sense, Dependent Co-origination. That's a really amazingly fancy way of saying interconnectness. We are all connected to one another.

Similarly, in the Orthodox Church, we cultivate humility by remembering that we are all connected to each other. Within the Church, we are connected by being in communion with one another. But even in the larger scheme of things, we are all connected by our humanity, and its need for Grace.

Who among us has not desired forgiveness from those we love? Who among us has not fallen short of expectations? Who among us has not fallen into despair, or soared in joyous abandon? Who among us has not felt the most basic emotions - fear, longing, rage, joy, and of course, love? We are bound by our common experiences of being human as we are by blood and erect bipedal locomotion.

And so I am connected to the homeless man, to the wealthy CEO, to the beautiful girl who fears she is ugly, to the man who resents his brother for being smart and funny, to all those who are struggling with fear, longing, rage, joy and love because I, too, struggle with these. I have made mistakes, and fallen short of Grace. I have run away from God and from the love He offered me in so many forms. How is it possible to try to be superior when I know that I have experienced all of this? Pride is the belief that we are separate from everyone else, and that we should be held above others because we are different from them. Humility (which comes from the term humilis (Latin) and is related to another Latin term, humus, which means "earth") is the recognition that every breathing, hoping, running, praying, playing, imagining, trembling, dancing, singing, innovating, crying, prostrating, laughing human is made of the same stardust as everyone else.

And not only that, but we are also connected to those stars out there. We are connected to the Universe in its entirety, to all of Creation, as we exchange atomic material with them each day.

I cannot say if this makes me feel small or big. It's neither. And it's both. Humility isn't about feeling superior or inferior. It's about knowing my place in the scheme of things. It's about understanding that someone else's crazy behavior is no more crazy than the environment that created it. It's about looking at ourselves and seeing not only the divine image of God, but also seeing the image of the lowliest among us.

What the Church has taught me is that the result of our humility, the natural outcome of realizing our interconnectedness, is Love. We can't truly love without it. And we cannot be in the presence of Divine Love without humility, without realizing that it extends out to all of us. Grace touches each of us, just as we are each made of the dust of distant stars. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Depth of Tradition

Any member of my family will tell you that I am not one to follow the crowd. I've always got to do something to challenge the status quo. Sometimes I'm subtle about it, but not always. Sometimes I'm a little over the top, like the time I showed up to a Christmas Eve service at my parents' evangelical Protestant church dressed in a beautiful silk sari (an Indian garment). This was the bridesmaid's outfit from a friend's wedding (she was an America Hindu), and I wore it on this occasion complete with silver headdress. My poor parents. They acted like they were happy to have me there anyway.

There's just something about me that wants to wake people up. It's so easy to be complacent in this world, which makes us miss out on so much (and I fully recognize that I am not exempt from this). People make decisions without too much thought, or they do things because they should, not because they're called to. Also, being a sociologist, I want to look at cultural expectations and see what happens when we defy these expectations, or step outside of them.

Sunday ended the second week of Great Lent. 

In so many ways, Lent challenges us to break with societal norms, to defy the expectations of our culture. We are expected to enter this debt economy, to pursue wealth (or at least the acquisition of stuff), to work ourselves to death. We are expected to find pleasure where we can, to win all our battles, and to get what we want as fast as we can.

It's so easy to be swept away in that tide. 

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian is a wonderful reminder of how we should defy cultural norms during this time. It is also a reminder of the rewards of this defiance.

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages.

During this prayer, we make three prostrations, one after each line, embodying the humility that allows us to challenge how we walk through the world.

As I reflect on this simple prayer, I realize it isn't so simple. The depth of its challenge is immense. Our challenges are laid out before us, and we prostrate in an effort to humble ourselves, to receive help to meet them.

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

Emotional laziness and apathy (sloth), hopelessness (despair), a desire for control, an unwillingness to relent or to yield to another (lust of power), and our ever-present influx of sensory distraction (idle talk) surround us in our daily lives. Every one of them inhibits spiritual growth and communion with God, and every one of us has to deal with them.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

These are the gifts that I seek. I want to cherish my own body, sharing it only with the person who will commit himself to me fully. I want to stop fighting for power, and to recognize that I am just a small speck of dust in this universe, and while I carry the spark of God's divine image, I have to try to conduct myself in a way that lives up to that. I want to calmly face stillness and solitude, to rest in that place, so that I can hear God when He talks to me.

And I want to love.

As I mentioned last week, I do love - so deeply it threatens to overwhelm me at times - but I have a hard time receiving it. I know I put my guard up, and I can't imagine how that must hurt others sometimes. I want to knock those walls down. I've been working on it, but it's harder than I thought it would be. Fear is a tough habit to break. Sometimes those prostrations feel like my head banging against a brick wall.

Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages.

This is real psychological gold, because it addresses projection. We are so accustomed to projecting our worst onto other people, where we can revile it in relative safety. Being able to see our own transgressions, and by seeing them, truly see their consequences and origins, can help us to have compassion for others. If I have hurt others because I was lashing out in my own pain, then how much pain have those who have hurt me experienced? Do I have the courage to face my own projections? And do I have the courage to forgive?

As I prostrate after each of those lines, as I have every day for the last two weeks, I try to let the mystery of the prayer take over, not to overthink, but to simply let the power of word and movement work its magic in my soul. I can feel it happening; little by little, I can feel this simple prayer open me up in ways I no longer thought possible.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Orthodoxy and the Spiritual Journey

We're one week into Great Lent.

I have been Orthodox for nearly five years now, and this is only the second Great Lent in which I've been fully involved in the life of a parish. And it is the first Great Lent I've experienced in which I've participated in the entire liturgical year prior to its beginning.

Why did it take me so long?

I started asking that question after Forgiveness Vespers. This incredible service is held on Cheesefare Sunday, the day before Great Lent begins. During this service, each person in church that evening asks forgiveness of every other person in church. Individually. Out loud.

Imagine walking up to around 100 people, and before each of them, you touch the fingertips of your right hand to your forehead, and then bring your hand down, palm up, until those fingertips touch the floor. While you're doing this, you say to that person, "Please forgive me." As you do this, the person from whom you seek forgiveness performs the same action, and asks you to forgive them. Acceptable responses are "I forgive you" or "Christ forgives all" or "God forgives all". There is no need to hash out the details of the transgressions. We are doing what the Lord's Prayer demands of us: "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." To feel the grace of forgiveness, we must extend that grace ourselves.

Acknowledging each person in the church that way, seeing their faces and saying to them that you recognize that you may have injured or slighted them, knowingly or unknowingly, is humbling.

Last year, I arrived too late to participate in Forgiveness Vespers. It was my first time visiting St. Paul's, and I got the time wrong. It might have been better that way. Witnessing this intense and beautiful ceremony with complete strangers would have been overwhelming to me.

So this was only the second time I'd participated in Forgiveness Vespers; I first participated in it just before my very first Lent. Why did I wait so long to do this again?

On Tuesday, I attended the Great Compline and Canon of Repentance by St Andrew of Crete. It is a hauntingly beautiful service, divided up into four shorter services during the first week of Lent (shortened, it was still 90 minutes long). During that service, we all made full prostrations while singing, "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me" over 50 times. And I'd come in late.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Among Orthodoxy's many mysteries is the way our faith is embodied in these kinds of services. We do not just sing of repentance, of the wastefulness of our lives, of our shame at pursuing material wealth when our brothers and sisters suffer. We sing of these things and then prostrate ourselves.

Not all of you are Orthodox, so let me go over this. A full prostration is where the worshipper, from a standing position, kneels on the floor, and then bends at the waist, resting his or her hands on the ground and then touching his or her forehead to the floor. Then, the worshipper stands back upright, completing the prostration.

You may have seen Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus do it. Most people don't associate this gesture with Christianity. Yet, Orthodox Christians have been doing it for a couple thousand years now.

In yoga, the position halfway through the prostration (forehead on floor) is a pose known as The Child. And that is truly how we should be before the Creator of all, before the most Loving Parent we could ever have, right? Humbled and deeply respectful, full of trust and wonder. In the same vein, the prostration is also a position most children adopt in the womb; in utero, we are all tucked into a ball, just like this, preparing to be born.

So we did this over 50 times. I started getting choked up sometime after 35, as I stood up and saw Fr James on his knees, reverently gazing upward. When he spoke next, his voice was rough the way it might be if he was trying to control his own emotion, and I almost burst into tears. I was glad I didn't have to speak out loud. I wouldn't have made it.

It was around this time that some things began to dislodge. I could feel it happening. I've long known that one of the benefits of dancing is that as the body gets moving, the things we store up in the body also get moving. Emotions and memories that we've suppressed or forgotten begin to awaken and come to the surface. Within any Orthodox service, all the senses are engaged: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Adding movement to this brings worship and ritual into our bodies; there are prostrations, half-prostrations, crossing oneself, hugging, and the veneration of icons, which involves a reverent kiss on the icon. Within this sacred context, the movements seem perfect to accompany reflections on repentance and humility, and in fact mirror such reflections.

The next night (Wednesday) was the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, which means that the blessing of the Eucharist has happened the Sunday before. During Sunday Divine Liturgy, we don't normally prostrate because it's just too crowded. But during a Divine Liturgy that happens on another day, we usually have a little more space for this. As the Eucharist is blessed, we prostrate, remaining on the ground until the blessing is finished. During the Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified Gifts, however, we prostrate during what would normally be the Great Entrance. Instead of the Little Litany, the procession with the Holy Gifts around the inside of the church (the Nave) occurs in silence.

It's actually awe-inspiring. I lay on the floor, knees tucked underneath my body, arms encircling my head, and I began to feel different, as if a breeze had wafted down from Heaven, barely touching us, and inviting us in. My brain shut down, and my heart opened.

It felt like years before I stood up again. Wordless joy filled me... but also a sense that I'd been avoiding something, and the dreaded certainty that I was about to discover what that was.

All week I'd been feeling the urge to talk to a friend about Forgiveness Vespers. Although she is not Orthodox, nor even Christian, she has been extremely supportive of my journey with the Church. I simply wanted to share this with her, because I thought she'd appreciate the beauty of the ceremony. On Friday, she sent me a text message, communicating her sense of peace in her new home, a cabin in the woods, not unlike the one I live in. In the text, she asked me to forgive her for something.

In my response, I asked her forgiveness as well. I asked her to forgive me for leaving Santa Barbara. I admitted my own self-centeredness in that decision, and my inability to realize how much love surrounded me there.

It just came out. I hadn't thought about it until my fingers were typing it into my phone. But I knew that my departure from Santa Barbara really wounded Sunny. She'd told me as much. When she first told me that, I felt ... defensive. I wanted to defend my decision. I hadn't ever apologized. It was way past due.

It was also way past time for me to examine that decision. Evidently, at an until-recently-unconscious level, it had bothered me, causing my initial defensive reaction. I didn't want to have made a mistake in my decision to move to the Bay Area. I wanted to make it right in my mind.

So not only was I confronted with this giant three year mistake - a mistake that had its graces, mind you, in the form of good friends who kept me sane - but also with the arrogance that kept me from even recognizing it, from outright refusing to recognize the error. To top it off, I then had to realize that something in me had run away from all the love that surrounded me in Santa Barbara.

I've mentioned it before. I had a thriving dance community in Santa Barbara, an amazing parish, and loving friends. I was happy. Why would I leave that?

Because as happy as I was, I was also scared of that kind of love. More specifically, I think I was afraid I'd lose it somehow, that the love would run out, or that these people would discover something about me - I don't know what - that would make this suddenly end. I don't know why, but I felt somehow...unworthy.

So I ended it first. Pre-emptive strike.

I used to always ask myself how people could be afraid of love and happiness, and yet there I was, so terrified that I moved 350 miles away.

Now, for the first time since Santa Barbara, I have a parish with which I'm deeply involved. I love my job, and I'm also doing volunteer work in my parish that I've always dreamed about - working with youth in a spiritual context. I have great housemates and get to live in a cabin in the woods. I live 5 minutes away from what has become my second family, who also are members of this parish. I have a thriving gaming community, which is about the only thing I didn't have in Santa Barbara.

There are times when it isn't quite that idyllic - like when I don't have classes to teach for a month and a half - but really, it's pretty amazing.

As I looked over all the faces today during Divine Liturgy, I realized my challenge. My Lenten challenge is to have the courage to remain here, to let myself take root and grow in the love of these people, and in the love of God, who brought me back to peace and happiness in spite of myself.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

And this is after only one week of Lent. Five more weeks to go.