And the Greatest of These is Love.



This post is an excerpt from my book, Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West.
 To purchase, click here.


The Power of Love.

On the spiritual path, we will fall short many times. It is easy to become impatient, frustrated, and overwhelmed. That is why love is so important.
Love sees life in everything. It recognizes the life that abides within every creature. This recognition begets respect. Love is patient, kind, and endures all things, as anyone who has attended a wedding knows. Our knowledge, plans, and strategies will reach their wit’s end, but love never tires.
One day, while watching my favorite television show, “The Office,” I heard those famous words of St. Paul’s yet again but this time with new ears because I was holding my newborn son. As I looked at him and heard, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love,” I understood. For the first time, I understood.
In that moment, I knew: I knew that I could read every book in the world and make plans from now until the end of time, but my knowledge would be exhausted and my plans would fall short. No strategy and no amount of preparation could ever get me to the finish line. The only thing that remained was love.
Only my love for him can bear the hardships and difficulties that our relationship will bring to the surface. Only my love for him can overcome my impatience and arrogance. Only my love for him can guide him without trying to bend him to my will. Only love is humble enough to teach him how to think without teaching him what to think. For only the eye of love sees him as his own person and only love is selfless enough to grant him the space he needs to grow into that person. Love is the only voice within me honest enough to admit that he does not belong to me.  
Truthfully, it is not “my” love and it is not “for him.” Love is the defining characteristic of the Kingdom. I do not create love. I receive it. Love is a gift.

And as children of God, we resemble God. Love is our birthmark. When freedom from self is realized, the likeness of God is reflected in our actions. The cataracts of fear and expectation are removed and we can see the world as-it-is. When we recover the freedom to see people as they are, we see the life that dwells and sings within them, and love is our natural response.

Love is wild. It has no manners.

It comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable. Love often defies logic. It would have us embrace our enemies and be uncomfortably honest with our friends. This cannot be taught. Love does not come with a manual. It is the spontaneous expression of our True Nature.

Unconditional Love

As I said before, love is complete freedom—the freedom of God to love friend and foe as our Self. Love is complete and total freedom because it is selfless. Selfless awareness is wide open, agapic awareness. This is the all-embracing quality of Undifferentiated Awareness that recognizes and embraces everything that is real and true, regardless of whether it is comfortable or not.
Self-centeredness is the worst kind of prison. It keeps us chained and shackled to our fears and illusions, reserved to making decisions that serve our own narrow-minded agenda. Love doesn’t see the world or the people in it through the knowledge of good and bad. Love does not see what we stand to lose or gain. It sees things-as-they-are. And when you see things-as-they-are, you see the spark of divinity that lives within all things.

Gratitude

In the embrace of unconditional love, it feels like we are loved into Being. This awareness brings about a phase change. It transmutes the energy of unconditional love into gratitude. Dominion is not control, but responsibility. Gratitude accepts this responsibility. When you are grateful for something, you “tend to it.” When God told Adam to tend to the Garden, he meant love it—love the body, your fellow man, and the earth.
Gratitude is an action, not an idea. It is the act of caring for that which we are grateful. Gratitude doesn’t hang out in the oceanic presence of unconditional love. It reaches out to the world from the deep space of love. It invests, not only in the maintenance of our Self, but through likeness recognizes and welcomes the True Self in others. Likeness is a quality of Basic Sanity. It looks beyond race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and social status to find its kind in others. In this way, likeness gives rise to kindness, which is the foundation of relationship. Having established relationship, love goes through yet another conversion.

Creative Love

At this stagegratitude and kindness give way to the creative power of love. The principle of Eros or erotic love isn’t limited to “sexual desire.” It refers to the creativity of love. Therefore, sexual union is both an example of Eros and a most useful symbol for its creative nature. We are born out of love and therefore born to love. Love is the Alpha and Omega.
Eros is the desire to make love. It is the creative force that seeks to express love through relationship, art, poetry, music, prayers of devotion, and songs of worshipful silence. Eros articulates love. In fact, creative love is art—it is the aspect of love that lends shape to the unformed inspiration of our inner life. Eros is love Incarnate.
While creative love is the principle that underlies the great works of art, it is not limited to painting, music, or theater any more than it is to the bedroom. In fact, creative love is most active in our daily life. It is the aspect of love that expands the field of practice. It brings our spiritual practice out of our home and into our day.

Love in Daily Life

The Upanishads say, “And then He realized that he was this creation, as it had poured forth from Himself. In this way, He became this creation. Therefore, he who realizes this becomes, in this creation, a creator.” To become a creator is to bring the divine image to fruition. Having discovered an untapped inner wealth, we are no longer dominated by our poverty mentality. We are full. We seek to give back, to create.
Eros transforms our life into an art form. It is the art of living. When we consent to the power of love, it shapes our life in the same way Michelangelo chiseled his sculpture of David from raw stone. This happens in relationship. We cannot wall ourselves off from the world and call it spirituality. Without relationship our practice is incomplete. Commitment connects the responsibilities and obligations of our daily life to the indwelling reality of our True Self.
Committed relationships are difficult because they demand that we give of our Self. This is hard because the false-self is selfish. It wants to avoid discomfort and clings to immediate gratification. Creative love matures us by reminding us that we cannot hope to grow into our True Self without something demanding our false-self in return.

The resurrection of our True Life is proportionate to the death of our inauthentic life.

The false-self is incapable of accepting this truth. It is bound to itself. Love is free to accept this maxim. This is the power of love to endure all things: marriage, divorce, success, failure, friendship, rivalries, heartache, and death. The freedom of love enables us to adapt to life’s changing circumstances. From the point of view of creative love, there are no problems, only opportunities. If the problem can be solved, it is not a problem, just something for you to work with; if it can’t be solved, it is not a problem, just something to accept and move on. Creative love sees everything as workable.

Without struggle there is no growth which is why Shantideva writes, “All enemies are helpers in my spiritual work and therefore they should be a joy to me.” Where there is an enemy, a shortcoming, or an obstacle, creative love sees a gateway. When we are angry, afraid, jealous, depressed, or obsessed, love knows there is an underdeveloped aspect of our Self struggling to be born into the world. Love seeks to cultivate it. It loves our devils into the present moment; it does not reject them. We may be intellectually sympathetic to this idea, but only the power of love recognizes this on a practical level.
What we call spiritual principles live within us as potentialities embedded within the structure of Being, but just as the capacity to walk is a potentiality that has to be exercised by toddlers, these potentialities have to be actualized through the struggle of daily life. In this way, God is born into the world.
Spirituality is about accepting our obstacles as the path, not avoiding them. Only love is capable of seeing the relationships and tasks that present us with difficulty as the plots of land that we must cultivate. In short, what we call obstacles, love calls the path, and all paths intersect.
If we look closely, we will see an intricate web of interdependence emerging. It may appear that we are attracted to this person or that job for one reason or the other, but if we look closer—beyond the veil of the false-self—we will see that the power of love has brought us into this relationship. “Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come to being,” writes Teilhard de Chardin, the brilliant Catholic theologian.
It is as if the universe is working as a midwife, assisting in the birth of our Self. But love is never a one-sided situation. The forces of love are at work in the other person as well. The universe is using us to assist in their birth. There is something deep in the other that yearns to be realized, and it has identified a relationship with us as part of its path. We are there to aid in their birth, just as they are there to aid in ours.
While love may bring us together, it does not chain us to one another. It binds us to the truth in our hearts. So in love, there is solitude. “For the pillars of the temple stand apart,” writes Kahlil Gibran, “and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Selfish love—which is no love at all—sees the other as an object to be exploited or a hostage to be taken; authentic love recognizes the symbiotic structure of the relationship. A healthy relationship moves back and forth between solitude and communion. It sees both interdependence and independence.

* This is article is excerpted from Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West by    Benjamin RiggsTo purchase, click here.


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Eros recognizes disappointment as part of our path. It doesn’t see tribulation as something to be avoided. The Dalai Lama once said that we cannot view a beggar as an obstacle, if we hope to grow in generosity. This axiom can be applied to all other virtues as well. Patience is an indispensable spiritual principle, but when given the opportunity to grow in patience, many of us reject it. We rail against the person trying our nerves. We label those who try our patience as “assholes,” but without an obstruction or an “adversary” there is no growth. Creative love knows that we cannot grow in patience without an asshole in our lives and binds our actions to this principle.

Are We Entering an Age of Political Violence?



We Might Be Heading Down a Dangerous Path


The shooting in Alexandria, Virginia targeting the Republican Congressional Baseball Team is a horrific event on its face. Violence is always unwelcome. Being helplessly caught in the cross-hairs of an active shooter with no cover or defense has to be a terrifying situation. I empathize with every person present and their families, and hope for a full recovery of the victims, including staffers, police officers, and Rep. Steve Scalise, the majority whip from my home state, Louisiana.

This shooting is compounded by the fact that it appears to be an act of political violence. Just before opening fire the shooter, James Hodgkinsin, asked whether this was the Republican congressional team or the Democrats. We are fortunate to live in a country where violence seldom meets politics. Politics and violence come into contact so infrequently that many Americans take it for granted. Incidents like this remind us how fortunate we are to live in a country where the body politic is divorced from violence. There can be no freedom when politics are coerced by violence.

Obviously, the perpetrator, who has since deceased, was deranged. No one in their right mind would take to shooing at unarmed, defenseless people. But in an effort to both curb shooting violence and ensure that our politics remain devoid of violence we must ask ourselves what we can do to deter such acts in the future. Note I said "deter," not eliminate. I understand no measure is full-proof, but active measures can be taken to reduce the likelihood of mass shootings and acts of political violence.

The shooting this morning just outside the Capital is a perfect example of why Kathy Griffin's photo shoot holding the decapitated head of Donald Trump was unacceptable. I am not laying this shooting at her feet. I do not believe she intended any malice. I think she is a comedian who blurred the line between sensationalism and basic decency in an effort to garner attention and to make a buck and a political point.

Perhaps the line she crossed is somewhat elusive, and maybe even more so for a comedian. For example, the Der Spiegel cover depicting Trump holding the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable political commentary because it insinuates "acts of violence" against the principles upon which our government restspolitical malpractice, if you will. It is symbolic. The Kathy Griffin photo shoot lacks symbolism. It fails to point past its obvious meaning. Griffin's photo shoot, even if it was not her intent, suggests that violence is an appropriate form of recourse against Trump. It indicates that Trump is so bad, so unacceptable that his death is warranted, even welcomedonce again, even if was a tasteless attempt to be shockingly funny. Therefore, the universal and immediate disapproval with which her actions were met and the subsequent consequences were appropriate and absolutely necessary in order to maintain certain levels of decency in public discourse.

The threat of political violence can never be tolerated in a free society. Political violence uses fear to manipulate the civic process. This is the definition of terrorism. Freedom and political violence cannot occupy the same space. One cancels out the other. We must guard the body politic against the threat of violence. To do that we must guard our thoughts and words against violent innuendo.

American government is a two-party system. It has been since its inception. The two party system dates back to the vicious rivalry between Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party and Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. In order for a two party system to work, each side has to view the other as the "loyal opposition."  The idea of loyal opposition means that each side recognizes the other as loyal to the democratic principles upon which our government is established, while dissenting to the policies advocated by the opposing side. When the notion of loyal opposition breaks down, political violence ensues, which if left unchecked, may lead to civil war (See 1861 to 1865).

I, for example, disagree with 95% of the policies advocated by the present day Republican Party. However, they represent a constituency that is also enfranchised by the United States Constitution. They are accountable to that constituency. We win these political disagreements at the ballot box. And in a democratic state we win at the ballot box by advancing our arguments in public debate, organizing, and protesting. We must win the war of ideas. As demonstrated by Martin Luther King, this is possible under the most dire of circumstances without prostituting decency or resorting to violent innuendo.

The opposing party is a political adversary and not a physical enemy. They are co-participants in the American experience. Even now, in the most politically charged times of my life, the opposing party is not an enemy of the State. There are accusations circulating through the press and floating around the public arena that the President of the United States or perhaps some of his campaign aides colluded with Russia to meddle with an American election. I am a vociferous Trump critic and remain open to the idea that he or members of his campaign may have colluded with Russia. I also believe public discussion and debate about this, as well as tax reform, healthcare, and foreign policy is a civic duty. Even still, threats of violence against him or his supporters is unacceptable. A Special Prosecutor has been named to answer those questions regarding Russia. We must allow that investigation to administer justice and resist temptations to allow our standards of decency to slip. And even though Trump has himself called for violence at rallies, we can not overcome such callousness by going tit-for-tat, but only by rising above it.

Casual quips on social media about assassination or political violence are not acceptable. It is true that the overwhelming majority of people can issue and receive such tasteless comments without any thought of acting. However, there are those perverse minds that are ratcheted up by violent rhetoric. They see it as an invitation to act or as the normalization of something they have been contemplating, thereby a tacit endorsement of violence. Obviously, no one means it as such. It is careless. Kathy Griffin did not intend for her photo shoot to be taken that way, but it is essential that we reject such images and language because their are those that will take it that way. And since only an unbalanced mind would resort to political violence, we have to consider how such minds interpret our words and actions .              

The other side of the Alexandria shooting is all too familiar. It is another mass shooting. It is another example of a deranged person with easy access to high powered weapons firing into a crowd of defenseless people. America knows all to well the drill that ensues following a mass shooting. Whether it be on a baseball field, in a movie theater, or at a school, prayers poor in. I am not opposed to prayer. But prayer is empty unless it is supplemented by action. Prayer without action divorces spirituality from the world of responsibility, and in the case of gun violence, for reasons of political expediency. 

We can pray to be free of stress or anger, for example. However, there will be no increase of peace, serenity, love, or compassion, unless we are willing to identify and address the causes and conditions that give rise to stress and anger in our daily life. Similarly, we can pray for those affected by the shooting today. And they may even find some consolation in the fact that millions of people are praying for them. But unless we are willing to identify the causes and conditions that gave rise to the events of this morning and arouse the political will to address them, there will continue to be an epidemic of gun violence, as our recent history demonstrates. It is a relapsing cycle of gun violence, prayers, and fatuous debate with no end in sight unless we are willing to make common sense reforms.

Jesus Wasn't Polite Company

Well-intentioned followers of Jesus too often assume he was a warm, fuzzy guy. 


In him they see someone preoccupied with keeping the peace, not making waves. And there can be no doubt that Jesus was a peacemaker. He was non-violent to the core. But non-violent is not the same as non-confrontational.

Non-violence is an inherently confrontational practice. We need not look as far back as the Gospels to confirm this fact. Both King and Gandhi used confrontation to effectively dramatize injustice. Similarly, confrontation was a preferred tactic of Jesus. 

Jesus was undoubtedly a kind, compassionate, and loving man. But Jesus's message was subversive. His behavior, tactics, and rhetoric call to question the simple-minded ideas many of us cling to about love and compassion. The fire-brand that turned over the money-lender's table is tough to square with the overly sentimental image of Jesus many of us hold dear.

Jesus was not an "agree to disagree" kind of guy. When the Pharisees asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" Jesus did not say, "To each their own. Now go in peace my brother." He instead called them "hypocrites" and said,
"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!"

Ouch. That is the sting of brutal honesty. 


“Our ideas of God tell us more about ourselves than about Him,” said Thomas Merton. I suppose the same is true about Jesus. The always affable and courteous image of Jesus that occupies the altar of our mind conforms more to our fears and expectations, than the picture painted by the Gospels. It appears to be an image cast in the shadow of our fear of confrontation. We don't want Jesus to be confrontational because we are afraid of following him into the conflict.

Conflict can be scary business. 


Jesus never declined an invitation to a good debate, even when tensions were high. "They took up stones to stone him." Stop and think about that: "They took up stones to stone him." If there is ever a time to keep your mouth shut, it is when they take up stones to to stone you. Yet, Jesus offers perhaps his wittiest response of all to this stone-toting audience: "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods?' (82nd Psalm) Now if those to whom the word of God came were called 'gods'—and the scripture cannot be in error—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, 'I am God’s Son?' If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." He said that to people who were about to stone him!

I am not saying that Jesus was unnecessarily combative or the First Century equivalent of an internet troll, but I am saying that when ideas and practices deviated from the truth as he saw it, Jesus turned into that friction, rather than away from it. He was not concerned with "keeping the peace," so to speak. He said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Obviously, he is not referring to physical violence. He is talking about the sword of wisdom which cuts through those ideas, beliefs, traditions, and institutions that prevent us from realizing what he called "The Kingdom of Heaven."

Challenging someone's "beliefs" is often thought to be impolite. Social customs that place our religious ideas above dispute are built in memetic devices that aid those ideas in their struggle to endure. On the spiritual path, such etiquette is counter-productive. It compartmentalizes our beliefs, segregating them from the reality of our daily life, which is the environment they must learn to operate within. In fact, unless they learn to operate within that environment they cannot be considered proper beliefs.

Kant describes three degrees of conviction: opinion, faith, and knowledge. In brief, opinion is both subjectively and objectively insufficient; faith or proper beliefs are subjectively sufficient but objectively lacking; and knowledge is both subjectively and objectively sufficient. Sufficient to what? Establish truth. What is the minimum threshold of truth? According to the pragmatic theory of truth as fleshed out by William James—which is the most suited for our purposes—it is utility. When an idea inspires action and the corresponding result of that action proves to be useful, then that idea ceases to be a mere opinion and becomes a proper belief, though it lacks the persuasiveness or efficacy needed to be universally accepted as knowledge. This is the ladder our ideas must climb to become beliefs, the ascent of which requires study, debate, self-examination, and spiritual practice.  

Social taboos against openly critiquing religious or spiritual ideas do nothing more than guard those ideas against the pressure truth applies to them, which is what forces them to adapt or mature into proper beliefs. As a result, our ideas about spirituality fail to ripen into a practical and effective spirituality. They remain adolescent, under-developed, ill-suited for life in an adult world, which is why Jesus ignores this custom. He embodies the sentiment expressed by Paul when he wrote"When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways."

Politics is another sphere of intellectual life that is often quarantined. We are afraid of the tension soaked conversation that ensues when politics, religion, or the ever combustible combination of the two surfaces. People tend to identify with the the ideas that collectively define their religious and political orientations and therefore feel internal friction—stress, fear, anger—when those ideas are challenged by competing points of view. Therefore, those conversations typically surface only in the "safe space" of like-minded people. And breach of this unspoken protocol is thought to be bad manners, as the old saying goes, "In polite company, it’s not proper to talk about religion or politics."

Jesus is not polite company! 


He is extremely critical of other's beliefs. In fact, the word "hypocrite" appears approximately twenty times in the Gospels. I am not suggesting we run around calling people hypocrites, but I am suggesting that open and honest debate is healthy, even necessary, for spiritual growth and a thriving democracy. We should be respectfully critical of other's beliefs, as well as our own. And by critical I do not mean rude, but "crit·i·cal: an analysis of the merits and faults of a given idea, proposal, or practice."

Beliefs are the ideas that orient us toward the world in which we live. They are those ideas upon which we act. When beliefs or traditions prevent ourselves or others from orienting their entire Being toward the reality of our daily life, they should be challenged. If there is a manner of living that is more fulfilling, then that life should be lived and any beliefs that prevent us from actualizing that life should be challenged. Avoiding this confrontation is a form of spiritual bypassing. When our ideas are challenged, it is an invitation to grow: an invitation to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.

I am not suggesting that walking the spiritual path requires us to become contrarians. I am simply saying that debate and discussion are an essential part of a balanced and healthy spiritual diet. And furthermore, they are part of the path outlined by the example of Jesus.

We have to be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations. Discomfort is the texture of kenosis, which is the active ingredient in spiritual growth. We have to be willing to question not only our beliefs and traditions, but the beliefs and traditions of others—not out of spite, but as an expression of love and fidelity to the truth. This is part of Jesus's yoke, his jnana yoga, if you will.      

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