There is a story of a young Navaho woman who came to visit a friend in New York City. The friend was delighted and escorted the woman around the bustling, noisy, polluted and vibrant city. As they were passing down Fifth Avenue in one of Manhattan’s concrete canyons with the sound of people and traffic all but deafening, the Navaho woman suddenly stopped. “I hear a cricket,” she said. Her friend gave her a queer look. “There are no crickets here in Manhattan I'm afraid.” But the woman went to the gutter and picked up the little cricket. “That's amazing,” said her friend. “Not really,” she replied, “it's all in what you listen for.” Then the woman tossed a coin in the air, letting it fall, clinking on the footpath. People stopped, heads turned.
‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.’
God is all round us. We live within God. Yet oddly, like with the cricket, we are often not aware of God. We don't listen for the right thing. We don't hear, we don't see.
We are like Brazilian amphibian fish whose eyes have two lenses, one for seeing under the water and one for seeing above the water. But most of us, most of the time, have cataracts on our second lens. We commonly do not perceive the world of Spirit.
The Bible uses several metaphors to talk about our not being aware of the sacred realm of God. One such metaphor is 'hard hearts'. 'Heart' in the biblical tradition is an image for the self at its deepest level. For the ancient Hebrews the heart was not simply associated with feelings of love or courage. It was also associated with intellect, volition, and even perception.
What matters is the condition of the heart. One can have a 'hard heart' or a 'soft heart'. A 'hard heart' is also a heart that is 'closed' or 'shut', a 'fat heart' encrusted in a thick layer, a heart that is 'proud' and puffed up. Or one can have a 'soft heart', a 'tender heart', or a 'heart made of flesh'.
A hard heart is associated with sensory malfunction and intellectual incomprehension. A fat heart shuts the eyes, stops the ears, and darkens the mind. A proud heart goes with arrogance, with greed and strife. A hard heart does not know the sacred and has no sense of awe. With hard hearts, we have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, and minds but do not understand.
The reason we do not hear God, but hear the tinkle of a coin instead, is because our heart is clogged. Like arteriosclerosis there has been a hardening of our arteries and we need to attend to it for the sake of our spiritual health. As any cardiologist will say we need to attend to both diet and exercise.
A sustainable spiritual diet does not mean shutting oneself in a monastery, eating locusts and wild honey, and staying there. We simply need the discipline of eating less of some foods and more of others. In Philippians 4:8 Paul writes “whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable… think about these things.” He's talking about filling up on good spiritual food and trying to stay off junk.
It is not hard to find examples of junk ‘food’. If all the news one hears is the xenophobic trivia from Fox, or what Fox-minded friends serve up on Facebook, then it is no wonder that one begins to see hospitality to strangers as unpatriotic, compassion as naivety, and loving neighbours as foolish.
Spiritual junk food includes all the messages and symbols that tell us that more is better, size matters, looks are everything, misfortune is deserved, forgiveness is for sissies, and aging sucks. Staying off such junk will mean being very selective about what television you watch, what magazines and books you read, and what conversations you want to be part of and what you contribute to them.
Healthy food on the other hand, to expand on St Paul, includes feeling the wind in your hair and revelling in it; walking without a cell phone; taking your shoes off on the beach; reading out loud to friends, children, or the elderly; singing in the shower [or anywhere for that matter]; reading something at least once a day that makes you feel good about yourself and about others, and reading something at least every other day that challenges your perceptions to date; finding a few minutes to listen to your breathing; writing a letter telling someone that you appreciate them; smiling more often; thanking more frequently; laughing… These things will nurture and sustain your spirit.
This is diet. Exercise however is harder work. Exercise involves understanding the messages we have had instilled into us that give rise to our emotions, language and actions; and freeing ourselves from the control of such messaging.
If we take a look at the way we function we will find that inside our heads there is a whole programme, a set of demands about how the world should be and how we should be.
This programme or messaging was written and revised by our culture, family, and past experiences. Now, wherever we go, that programme is active and insistent that its demands be met. If they are met we are allowed to be happy and peaceful. If they are not met, even though it's nobody's fault, the programme generates negative emotions that cause us to suffer.
When other people, for instance, don't live up to our programming’s expectations it torments us with frustration or anger. Or when things are not under our control or the future is uncertain, our programming insists that we experience anxiety and worry. Then we expend a lot of energy coping with these negative emotions.
Generally people cope by expending more energy trying to rearrange the world around them so that the demands of their programming will be met. But at any moment some trifle (a delayed meeting, an answer phone that doesn't work, an off-hand comment… anything) is going to be out of conformity with their programming and it will insist they become upset again.
Life then is lived constantly at the mercy of things and people, trying desperately to make them conform to our programming’s demands, so that we can enjoy a temporary respite from negative emotions.
It doesn't have to be this way. We are not going to be able to change our programming all that quickly, or perhaps ever. But if we spend time seeing it for what it is it will cease to have the same power over us. This is spiritual exercise. Seeing is something the eyes do, but also the mind, intuition, and heart. Seeing, in this sense, is spiritual.
Fr. Anthony De Mello suggests, trying to imagine we are in a situation that we find unpleasant and that we would ordinarily avoid. Now observe how our programming instinctively becomes active insisting that we avoid this situation or try to change it. If you stay on, he says, and refuse to change the situation, observe how our programming insists that we experience irritation or anxiety or some other negative emotion. Now keep looking at this unpleasant situation until we realize that it isn't what is causing the negative emotions. Rather it is our programming that is insisting that we react negatively.
We will see this better, De Mello says, if we realize that someone with a different programming when faced with this same situation would react quite calmly, even happily. Don't stop, he says, till we’ve grasped this truth: the only reason why we too are not reacting calmly and happily is our programming that is stubbornly insisting that reality be reshaped to conform to its ideal.
Once we have understood this truth and stopped the messaging that is generating negative emotions we may take any action we deem fit. We may avoid the situation; or we may try to change it; or we may insist on our rights or the rights of others being respected. But only after we have got rid of your emotional upsets, for then our actions will spring from peace and love, not from the neurotic desire to appease our programming or to get rid of the emotions it generates.[i]
Real oppression comes not from people who make life difficult for us but from the messaging that destroys our peace of mind the moment outside circumstances fail to conform to its demands. It is from the oppression of our programming that we need to be liberated.
This is spiritual exercise. And like all exercise it needs to become habitual. This will get our spiritual hearts pumping. Slowly and surely we will find our hearts becoming tender, receptive, and able to perceive the ‘ocean’ called God that you are swimming in more fully. Then we will notice the little things and not be blinded by the big things, we will hear the songs of grace and not be deafened by the traffic of self-centredness.
[i]I am indebted to Anthony De Mello The Way To Love p.13ff for his metaphor and thoughts on programming.