Friday, January 16, 2015

Review and Commentary on "We Will be Landing Shortly", by Mike Hamel

This book was a good and easy read. Not easy in the sense of its topic matter being 'light and fluffy', but easy in the sense of it being broken down into easily managed chapters, each being somewhere between 3-5 pages long.

What I also enjoyed was that - although there is an overarching theme - each chapter felt like Mike Hamel's mental meanderings; his thoughts, musings, and experiences of life. Ultimately, his wisdom.

"In the end I would be content if what was said of Solomon... could be said of me:
"Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people... The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. (Ecclesiastes 12:9-10)", pg 143

I believe - at least to this humble reader - he accomplished this goal.

As for the subject matter itself, it is anything but light or fluffy.
Mike Hamel approaches difficult, challenging, and potentially faith-breaking issues humbly, openly, honestly, and unassumingly. There is no agenda to sell. There is no argument to win, nor position to defend.
A man after my own heart, he is simply seeking out answers, and possibly even to learn to ask the correct questions!

He ponders upon horrifically difficult and unpleasant issues such as our own interpretations of God's handiwork, and an All Powerful and Loving God that will fail in His attempts at universal salvation, or a God who is self-serving and vindictive enough to need eternal conscious torment.

He ponders fundamentalists and the fundamentalist mindset.
He believes theology reveals more about its authors then its subject.
He struggles with whether we each have a specific and detailed purpose.
What Christianity would look like and function without a Heaven of the Afterlife (an issue I've referred to as Christian Spiritual Hedonism), and questions why the God of the Old Testament and New Testament don't look alike. (Yet another issue I've struggled with and come to terms with) - again, what if these stories tell us more about the people writing them rather than God himself - progressive revelation - and why evangelicals are so challenged by this answer.

He is bothered by the genocide of Canaan (and correctly labels it as such) and the unspoken implication of Abraham so dedicately willing to murder his son, Isaac, for God's approval.

He identifies the strength and value, as well as the limitations of metaphor and anthropomorphism in Scripture.
These are only some of the topics questioned and pondered about.

I think - for the majority - there are only two responses or reactions to the brutally difficult issues and challenges brought to light in this book.

To some, they choose to remain comfortable in their denial; refusing to accept these numerous inconsistencies and contradictions even exist.

To many others, they feel they must abandon their faith altogether, resorting to Agnosticism or Atheism.

But woven throughout this book is a 'way', a method, a worldview - if I were to be so bold - that refuses either of these extremes.

Cleverly woven throughout this book, his wisdom paints a picture - not of what we should or should not believe, but about a good, healthy, and reliable methodology we might employ on this journey.

Understanding that metaphors are culture-centric and flexible.
"Only the minting of new metaphors can keep theology from being reduced to archaeology" pg. 160
Understanding and accepting that imagination and make-believe are two different things.
"God is the ultimate imaginary friend. This doesn't mean he is unreal, only that we have to use our imaginations to picture him since he is immaterial". pg. 188
There are also a few great lessons regarding better understanding our own beliefs - regardless of what they are.
"Are [star] constellations real?" Stars are real; constellations are simply the names we assign to patterns of celestial luminaries. Constellations have "implied" not "intrinsic" reality. They are not native to the universe but exist only in the human mind. However, when enough people see the same shapes in the night sky, the constellations enter the collective consciousness and become as established as the stars themselves."The same thing happens in the firmament of divine revelations. Individual verses are linked in connect-the-dot fashion to form doctrines, which are then coerced into systematic theologies. A way of seeing truth becomes the truth itself." pg. 161

"Arranging information into comprehensible form is what the human mind does. The essence of intelligence is to discern patterns and to extrapolate their effects upon us. The error comes in assuming our mental picture is the truth rather than a metaphor for what lies beyond our reach" pg 162

"Remember doing connect-the-dots pictures as a kid? Think of facts as the dots, faith as the lines drawn to connect them and the completed image as a worldview.
What happens when human knowledge explodes and new facts come to light?  You can ignore them because they don't fit into your current picture or you can expand your paradigm accordingly. You don't necessarily have to give up your core to increase your circumference.
Of course if you're convinced all truth is square you will reject the facts that are beyond your boxs regardless of whether they're real or not. But what is real? "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away". pg 194-195
I think there is a simple yet profound wisdom here. Not just for biblical interpretation and not just for Christians, but for all people.
We all have a Belief-System we follow and adhere to (Regardless whether you can name or label it).
Atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Scientists. Our choices, our beliefs are the lines that connect-the-dots. The dots might be facts, but the lines we choose to connect them with are not necessarily, and we would do wise to remember that.

Many practicing Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Christian Fundamentalists might balk at Mike Hamel and relegate him into the inconsequential realms of the fallen faith or a spiritual seeker.
So who does this book speak to?

He answers this question early on in his book by saying:
"Some of my experiences and observations may help you with your journey. On the other hand, my queries and quibbling have been known to trip people up, so be careful. My aim isn't to confuse but to face confusion and grapple with things that don't make sense... 
""In the act of tearing something apart, you lose its meaning". But deconstruction life can also lead to a clearer perspective of it. The slippery slope of questioning assumptions and dogmas doesn't only run downwards.
"To a cautious hiker, the thrill of getting close to the cliff may not seem worth the peril. To a compulsive climber like me, the challenge is irresistible" pg. 2
I believe our society is in a spiritual flux, a segue of sorts; in the middle of a transition. With the numbers in traditional institutional religions dropping; with the decline of institutional religion, you can't believe what the pessimists say.

Yes, it may mean the death of religion (is that really such a bad thing?), but I believe there is a rise in non-institutional spirituality; not a shift towards Scientism/Atheism. A move away from what ultimately must be man-made religiosity, and towards the more all-encompassing and compassionate solace of spirituality.

By its very nature it is difficult to define and clearly categorize, but it is alive and well. I think it is to these  people - and to those who are transitioning away from the more ridged institutional religions - that this book reaches out and speaks to.

I think "We Will be Landing Shortly" inadvertently sends a message:
"You are not alone".

He is a voice for a large number of people (and growing larger). He does not struggle and questions alone. He has a great amount of company "out there", in what many institutional religions might call a 'spiritual wilderness'.

Mike Hamel has rekindled my faith in faith, and my belief in a God without boundaries!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Meditation and Clear Mind of Jung-Joong-Dong

Seiza, in Japanese, literally means "proper sitting".

To sit seiza-style, one must first be kneeling on the floor, folding their legs underneath their thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels. The ankles are turned outwards as the tops of the feet are lowered so that, in a slight "V" shape, the tops of the feet are flat on the floor and big toes sometimes are overlapped, and the buttocks are finally lowered all the way down.

Stepping into and out of seiza is mindfully performed.

A seiza-bench allows one to sit in the seiza position but slightly elevated so as not to have your weight rest upon your lower legs or calfs.

Many seiza benches will be on a slight incline. This allows your hips to rotate forward allowing abdomen to be more "open" to allow for better and fuller breathing.

Often a pillow can be used beneath your knees.

Sit with your back straight, preferably with no back support to lean against. Your spine is straight like a young bamboo shoot reaching towards the blue sky, and your arms fall from the shoulders like leaves heavy with rain.

You can imagine a string or chain connected to the crown of your head and your spine hanging straight down from you head as well.

Do not slouch for it affects and inhibits your breathing.

If comfortable, cup one hand and lay it in the palm of your other hand so that the ends of your thumbs meet. In Japanese this is called mokuto, or reflection; looking inwards.

In the mokuto position the hands embrace the unseen vase. This vase represents your body; the vase's emptiness represents the emptiness of mushin.

If your hands cannot sit in this position comfortably, open palms, face-up on the knees is preferable. 

~ ~ ~

Mushin in Japanese means "no mind". In Chinese it is We Xin.

When you do something, you have to concentrate to do it the first time, and maybe even the fourth or tenth time, but eventually you can perform the activity without thought; the same way you would dial a telephone number you've used hundreds of times. The ultimate goal is not to have to concentrate to be able to perform the task with "no mind". This is how the mind is cleared and readied for Clear Mind. This is mushin.
The difference between mushin and mindlessness is that in mindlessness the mind is active and wandering - it is not clear, quiet, and still.

The unseen vase (and thus your body and mind) is empty but full of potential, like the central hub of a wheel and emptiness of a vase, as Lao Tzu speaks of in the Tao Teh Ching, verse 11.

~ ~ ~

The tip of your tongue is lightly pressed against the front roof of your mouth This will avoid drooling.

Once sitting you should stay still. Do not indulge small irritants or itches. you can use small itches to practice and remind yourself of impermanence. All things pass. All states change.

You will remember that you have forgotten the last itch. You only remember it now because of the itch you currently suffer. Do not itch it. Do not move. Remain sitting and calm, knowing it not only will pass, but it is no inconsequential that it will pass from you memory.

~ ~ ~

Breath through you nose and exhale through you nose. Remember to inhale and breath with your belly, like a baby, not through your chest.

Focus on your breath. This will be your anchor. There are numerous ways to do this. You will have to find what's easiest and most comfortable for yourself.

When I inhale (remember, breath like a baby) I pay attention to the dry air passing through my nostrils. you can say it to yourself: "Dry".

When I exhale, I pay attention to the warm moist air sensation in my nostrils and say "moist".

Your breathing becomes a pattern. Dry - moist - dry - moist.

If your mind begins to wander you can return to your breath; dry - moist - dry - moist.

When, over time, you become comfortable with this anchor, you may use it to become increasingly more aware of the instantaneous and perpetual nature of the Now. The Now is eternal yet fleeting.

When breathing there are not only two steps - dry (inhale) and moist (exhale). There is an instantaneous moment when you've stopped inhaling yet haven't begun to exhale yet. This is the Peak.

There is also an instant when you've emptied your lungs but haven't began to inhale yet. (Don't confuse this with holding your breath). This is the Valley.

As much as I'd like to tell you to say in you mind,
Dry Peak, Moist Valley, you really shouldn't.

Although it is true that the Peak falls between the Dry and the Moist, and that the Valley separates the Moist from the Dry, if you say them, their instant moment has already pasted. At best saying "peak" and "valley" are only an echo of the memory.
So too is the nature of the Perpetual Now.

Dry - (peak) - Moist - (valley)
This becomes your wandering mind's anchor.

~ ~ ~

The eventual 'goal' is to 'achieve' Clear Mind (the first fruits).
It should not be strived for. This should not be the mental focus of your practice. Discipline is needed but it is simply the discipline of your practice.
There will be no teacher to remind you. There will be no disciplinarian or authority figure to punish or reward you. There should be no punishment or reward, just as there shouldn't be a goal strived for. Just the discipline of your continued practice.

Slowly, in time, Clear Mind will manifest. Although there is no formula and each individual experience will be different, it could be expected to begin in short lucid moments. Often not while meditating.

In time, these occurrences may become more frequent or may be longer lived; stretching into hours or possibly days.

(Although I do believe we all have the potential to 'achieve' a state of being perpetually lucid - always in Clear Mind - I'm not sure how easily this is achieved).

Once this state becomes more and more within our grasps, we reap their benefits.

~ ~ ~

Most believe that in order to make a decision we need to pass through three steps. We need to contemplate (think about or process) the issue or problem at hand. Then we make a decision one way or the other. And finally we put that decision into action.

This is incorrect. This is inherently flawed right from the start. To contemplate successfully requires Clear Mind. Without Clear Mind we cannot truly contemplate.

The first step in this procedure is meditation. We do not meditate on the issue or problem at hand. We simply already have the practice of meditation in place; hopefully having lucid moment of Clear Mind and during these isolated moments, only then do we begin practicing contemplate.

At this point it should become clear what course of action (or inaction) we need. The final step becomes appropriate resolution.

Now, it's fine to say these things and hope to achieve them, but in practical day-to-day life we must make numerous decisions all the time. We will often not have the luxury to wait for Clear Mind.
I am not advocating indecision or procrastination. But we must be aware that our decision-making ability is compromised and inherently flawed without Clear Mind.
We must still make decisions - big or small - but with intent and hope.

This is why I meditate. This is what I believe Jung-Joong-Dong of Jungshin Sooyang is and this is why I practice it.

~ ~ ~

What I find more interesting and encouraging is that Jung-Joong-Dong of Jungshin Sooyang finds its origins in the Martial Arts of Traditional Taekwon-do, as taught by General Choi.

However, to 'practice' Jung-Joong-Dong of Jungshin Sooyang one does not need to practice the Martial Art itself. It is simply a way of life; a way of viewing the world. It is the lens in which we choose to see through.
With this in mind, the symbolism of the colours of the Taekwon-do belts still maintain their values and symbolism.

The mokuto position of the hands and significance of the unseen vase is an emptying and readiness to move forward; a willingness to learn and grow; and abandonment of the ego. (White)

Sitting on the ground, we rest our knees and feet upon the fertile earth (Yellow), with your back straight - yet flexible like a young bamboo shoot (Green) we reach up for the blue sky (Blue).

The eventual and lucid moments of Clear Mind are the first fruits (Red), and eventually and finally, a fullness, a fearlessness (Solace) and immunity to darkness (Black).