The Spiritual Family Endures

Together, we are light and life
Together, we are mightier than death

There is hidden within each of us a wellspring of wisdom born from experience. Sometimes we forget, however, that most of our history is hidden from us, as it occurred before there was anything that we, today, can recognize as written human communication. However, according to some paleobiologists and astrobiologists, it is quite possible that within our genome there are records of those ultimate origins and celestial events that made our planet and our species what they are today. But you and I are like infants, still at the beginning of those lessons that will one day lead us to wisdom.

What we do know is that from the very beginning our kind came to be within the context of family. That is our universal experience: family and death. Surely our extinct ancestors — like Nalendi, Australopithecus, Habilis, and many others that we do not even know of — understood something of family and mortality. It is our lot, as “intelligent” beings to understand that when any life arises in this world it is also destined to one day pass away from this world. The knowledge of this truth would seem to be universal for all intelligent, biological beings and so we might suppose that if, in fact, there are other beings like us elsewhere in the Universe, they understand, in some way, both family and impermanence.

Human history is marked by numberless futile attempts to deny the reality of death, mortality, and impermanence. But denial isn’t the full story. There is also family, from which every love first arises.

There have always been among us those who find meaning and purpose to their own lives by ensuring the continuation of family, protecting the vulnerable and innocent, even unto the shedding of their own blood. Even unto the shedding of the blood of other creatures, when necessary. For these warriors, the sadness of facing one’s own death prematurely and the unbearable burden of causing other creatures to know pain and death exist simultaneously with the joy and hope of knowing that the family will endure.

Though it seems impossible, some few our kind experience a love of life and family so intense and complete that they are willing to take upon themselves all the suffering, sadness, and death that will ever exist so that all other beings might be free from suffering and sadness. But such a thing is surely impossible. And yet that boundless spirit endures even today and  may yet come to dwell within you and me — as unlikely as it seems. If only we were brave enough to recognize who and what we really are, but of course we do not yet know because our story is not finished.

From the inspiration to alleviate the suffering all beings, from the desire to love perfectly all beings throughout the Universe, every spiritual community arises. And so long as our kind endures, there will be spiritual communities, like branches stretching out in every direction from the steadfast trunk of a great tree.

How noble the Tree
How wondrous the branches
How deep the roots
How beautiful the blossoms
Whether dead or alive
It has power to save the world

When a family of blood and flesh becomes a spiritual family, the entire Universe becomes one home. And within that one home there is room for every member of the one true spiritual family. There is space for countless generations. There is place for the righteous and the wicked alike.

That’s what love is — endless and excluding no one, not even the unlovable. And when one among us finds the power to know so great a love, all of us will find that power.

Each one of us is a hero, if only we could befriend ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are. Then, we could be friends to all beings and see them as friends. Then, we would recognize even in a little boy or a unwanted dog the mightiest of heroes.

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~BT Waldbillig
June 3, 2017

Honoring a Tree

The other day as a friend and I were walking Dante through the neighborhood, we paused in the corner of a nearby park to marvel at the trees. One tree in particular, low with wide-stretching branches and abundant shade, has stayed in my mind. I didn’t tell my friend, but I had to stop myself from climbing up into this particular tree to rest for a moment on the longest and sturdiest branch.

When I think on the Exodus encounter between Moses and God on Mount Horeb, I imagine the burning bush to be something like the tree in the park that Dante, my friend, and I couldn’t ignore. My friend spontaneously embraced the tree as if she were greeting a long lost family member. (I guess this means I have a friend who is, literally, a tree hugger!)

Just before passing by the tree we had been talking about difficulties in life but in that moment when she gently drew the tree to her breast as if it were an infant or a grandparent, thoughts of sadness, suffering, failings, and discontentment vanished from my mind and I couldn’t help but smile. Only a smile could express what I experienced in that moment thanks to my friend — words and thoughts were of no use to me or the tree.

For his part, Dante marked the tree as if he, too, were honoring it. No one will remember that I stood for a moment in awe before the Horeb-like tree, but the dogs, the squirrels, the birds, and the insects will know that Dante was there. I would have it no other way, truth be told, since it was a mongrel dog who gave me a reason to continue my journey when I wanted to give up on myself. He taught me that the true place of favor is wherever we find ourselves in the present moment, that the auspicious moment is always now. Hic et nunc — here and now — is all we have and all we need. Dogs understand this better than you and I do.

The trees, the insects, and the birds were here before our kind stood up tall to begin our journey and they will likely be around long after our kind has disappeared. How amazing that, for a brief moment, we walk among them accompanied by friends and dogs,  beings who love us always, who protect us in moments of trial, who teach us best with a smile or a nuzzle. The world would be a better place if each of us were more like the friend and the dog — strong and faithful, never abandoning those we love, united like a family that endures suffering and survives death.

Had I journeyed through the park yesterday without a friend and a dog, I might never have stopped before that one particular tree to behold something of the mystery that great spiritual teachers like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus discovered long before I came into this world. What they experienced directly and personally, I experienced only faintly and at a distance, as if in a dream.

One day no one will remember that you and I passed through this world, but human beings will always remember the world’s great spiritual teachers and heroic spiritual friends. When, at last, we travel to distant corners of the Universe, we will carry the memory of our teachers and friends with us.

~BT Waldbillig
May 22, 2017

By Means of a Mongrel Dog

Throughout human history, some few of our kind have claimed to encounter beings from beyond what is commonly understood as our world. Some of these men and women believe that strange beings come to them in their dreams and they call them visitors, angels, gods, messengers, demons, spirits, or even friends. Ancient cave art bears witness to this, as do many ancient spiritual texts, some of which are still read today and even regarded with honor by hundreds of millions of people around world.

I myself have no personal experience in such matters, but I am left to wonder. In their dreams and visions, humans always regard the visitor with awe or fear or reverence or astonishment or bewilderment. In some future time, when we communicate with or even encounter other beings like us from some distant part of the Universe, it’s likely that we will know the same feelings our ancestors felt when they reported their visions and dreams. But is it possible that such beings — if they are real and not merely dreams — might also regard us with awe or fear or astonishment or reverence or bewilderment? Might they feel small, just as we feel small before the vastness of the Universe? Would they marvel at the mystery of life manifested strangely and wondrously in alien beings, just as we would?

I think on my dog, Dante. He and I are made of the same stuff and inhabit the same world, yet at times he seems to me almost like a god. Without a word he communicates the wisdom of love more surely and powerfully than any human I’ve ever known. And when life itself seems useless, he leads me back to the joy of a world that’s full of meaning and purpose. When the mind is stuck in the past or lost in the future, Dante calls me home to the only home any of us has — the present moment. The mystery of life in the Universe is revealed to me every day not by great men or noble deeds or eloquent words — but by means of a mongrel dog.

If a creature so common and lowly as a dog has such power, imagine what you and I can bring to pass in the Universe!

Should we encounter, some day in some far off future, intelligent beings like us from a distant place in the Universe, imagine what good and wondrous things we might accomplish together — as friends and perhaps even as family.

~BT Waldbillig
April 13, 2017

Across the Universe

Life, as we experience it, arises within a community and continues by means of a community. This community is family. To family, there can be nothing more important than life.

The purpose of family is to foster conditions that favor, protect, and propagate life. Members of a family are bound to one another by the life they receive, share, and pass on.

The arising of life is not inevitable, nor is the indefinite continuation of life. Both require great energy, care, and attention.

Any creature that comes into being in this world will eventually pass out of being from this world. This truth inspires urgent attention to life as we experience it in the present moment.

So far as we understand it, biological life is not, of itself, eternal or immortal; hence biological beings are bound together by their mortality. From the understanding of mortality arise both the basest and most noble qualities of human beings.

Beings from some distant place in the Universe, to my estimation, might likewise understand themselves as sharing our condition.

Human beings, grasping the inevitability of their own mortality, transform sadness, despair, and suffering by many different means: religion, spiritual endeavors, music, art, magic, dance, storytelling, the search for wisdom, love, etc.

The sybil, the prophet, the priest, and the astrophysicist all use the means at hand to endow their experience of the world with meaning, purpose, beauty, majesty, and hope.

Even today, when human beings leave this world and its atmosphere by technological means, they describe their experience in terms not unfamiliar to ancient shamans or medieval mystics.

Hope is the virtue of a community that values life and knows how precarious it truly is.

A mother would rather suffer harm herself than see her child harmed; a father willingly and without hesitation places himself in harm’s way in order to protect his children.

Children honor those who gave them life by valuing their own lives, by passing on the gift of life they receive, and by imitating the good and noble example of those who gave them life.

Members of a family do what they are able to do in the manner they judge best, each member possessing something valuable and useful in the family’s mission.

Should we encounter beings from some distant place in the Universe, it is entirely likely that they, too, will understand something of what we call family.

Somewhere I wrote about family born of blood and family born of spirit. Just as we embrace others and call them family even when we do not share blood with them, so might we embrace beings from elsewhere in the Universe.

In this way, a spiritual family arises and grows, expanding as in an ever-widening circle and binding together those who once were strangers.

~BT Waldbillig
March 15, 2017

United by Bonds of Love

It seems to me that the spiritual impulse, as I call it, arises in human beings, and presumably in beings similar to us, as a response to the experience of life’s precariousness, difficulty, injustice, suffering, and brevity. The life without meaning or purpose is, to misuse Hobbes’ famous phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. The burden of a meaningless existence is simply too much for creatures with minds like ours. In that sense, the mind is as much a hindrance as a help.

Some of our most primitive ancestors found solace in the bonds of love, kindness, affection, family, and friendship. These realities — and they are real — might not make life less arduous and temporary but for most of us they give reason to at least try and make life better, they give us reason to go on with life even in our worst moments.

Committing oneself to love, kindness, affection, family, and friendship is, to my estimation, a sort of universal spiritual path. From this commitment religion arises as the inspired response of particular men and women in the particular circumstances of time and place.

Long before human beings had words and concepts for what we call religion, we were already engaged in a spiritual endeavor to bring light into the darkness of life.

Love, then, becomes meaning and purpose. Love shouldn’t have the power it has, but there is nothing more powerful than love. If there are other beings like us in the universe, I’m quite sure they experience this also. Should we meet such beings, it won’t be mathematics or science or technology or desire for power that binds us together. It will be love.

~BT Waldbillig
March 12, 2017

Understanding Religion

Religion is a near-universal aspect of human experience. One cannot properly understand history, society, law, culture, or politics without familiarity with religion.

I’m not sure how common or uncommon it is, but I was lucky enough to have a comparative religions course at my high school back in Chariton, Iowa. I also took Latin in high school — once a decidedly uncommon option in US public schools, though luckily a new generation of students and teachers is reclaiming this bit of their cultural patrimony. World Religions was a thoroughly worthwhile and surprisingly useful class. Then there was Modern American Religious Movements at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls — another course that gave me insight into how people who are different from me think and live.

You may disagree with Daniel Dennett’s thesis (for video, click here) that religion is a merely natural — as opposed to supernatural, praeternatural, or divine — phenomenon, but in the secular, polycultural context of our society that’s the readiest common ground for believer and nonbeliever alike. Our current political climate shows that many people are content to be bubble-dwellers, people with no interest in understanding the world beyond their own noses. The same is true for much of mainstream American religion. The development of honest and compassionate understanding of others is beneficial for an individual as well as for society generally. Familiarity with the phenomenon of religion and with the world’s various religious and spiritual traditions is essential to that understanding.

~BT Waldbillig
February 1, 2017

From Afar and From Within

On the Arising and Return of the Spiritual Impulse
The religions, spiritual traditions, and transformative social movements of our world begin with historical events that unfold in the lives of actual human beings.

Inspired men and women understand their experience in uncommon and extraordinary ways that remain mysterious to most of us.

They inspire their brothers and sisters to live life with previously unimaginable purpose, meaning, beauty, kindness, joy, mercy, compassion, and love; this is no insignificant reality.

We who experience life at a distance from the events that transformed those greatest of human beings have no choice but to use the words, images, and ideas the arise from own understanding and experience of the world.

We do this in our attempt to make sense of our own lives while communicating something that is at heart difficult to communicate or even beyond human words altogether.

The custodians of religions, spiritual paths, and transformative social movements often get lost in their endeavor and lose sight of the actual, original source of inspiration.

They create systems, institutions, schools of thought, spiritual rules, canons of sacred writings, etc. as useful tools, though at times even the most useful of human tools can become burdensome hindrances.

Mystics, spiritual weirdos, heroes, Titans, prophets, gurus, enlightened beings, saints, and the like create their own paths and often leave the rest of us behind.

Perhaps we, in our day, will find new, concrete ways of understanding those ancient sources of inspiration and make them useful to the challenges of this present moment.

We needn’t jettison that which came before this present moment, but we do ourselves no good service if we make the past our graven idol.

On Spiritual Family
A spiritual family is entirely capable of accomplishing even the most impossible of tasks.

Normal human modes of judgment — around good and evil, the sacred and the impure, the one and the many, the self and the other — will, at unforeseen times of extreme crisis, both serve us and hinder us.

A spiritual family, to the mind of the ancient ones, embraces both the mighty and weak, the noble and ignoble, the just and the unjust, the worthy and the unworthy.

Every member of a spiritual family is dedicated to the true purpose from which the family arose.

On the Tree
In ancient times, a grove of trees was considered sacred not because each and every tree was holy, but because of the presence of a single noble Tree; such is the power of a worthy tree.

It is said that the many ordinary, common, and profane trees serve to hide, protect, and honor the one Tree whose life and presence make sacred the entire grove.

Let us, then, love the Tree as it manifests itself through leaves, shoots, seeds, roots, branches, bark, sap, shade, might, beauty, immovability, agility, life-giving power, wisdom, and self-sacrifice.

The Tree ascends to the highest heavens and descends to the darkest pits, embracing the sky above, the Earth we wander, and also the underworld.

The Tree is our sign of enduring hope, for every time it is destroyed and annihilated, it is again reborn, living, and life-giving, just like the mythic Phoenix or like the Awakened One.

When our ancestral family fell from the heights and safety  of a tree, it carried trees to the cave, and later built weapons, tools, homes, and great ships from trees; so long as our family exists in some form, the Tree will live and give life.

~BT Waldbillig
January 13, 2017