© 2020 Drew T. Noll

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Peace on the Inside and Infinite Reality


I have been having some trouble sleeping at night. It seems that every time I dose-off, for multiple nights in a row now, something wakes me up, whether it’s the dogs barking at a potential intruder or a random shocking thought that rolls through my subconscious mind. There is a lot going on in my life now, in terms of relationships with people that are close to me, so maybe that’s what it is. Things like my eldest son going into the army this week and my youngest son having been away at technology camp for (going on) two weeks now (I miss him a lot). Things, as well, like, having to take my eldest son to the hospital to check out some kind of stomach pain and a swollen something-or-other to be ultra-sounded and things like my mom, who lives on the other side of the planet and has been battling cancer, collapsing and going back into the hospital. This later complexity really seems to mess up my Zen; or let’s just call it, for lack of completeness to the whole eastern philosophy thing (as you may find out if you read on), my inner peace…

We read a lot about ‘inner peace’ from many varied sources around the world. Most of these sources (in the popular mentality) seem to be from the ‘East,’ but some come from our western traditions as well. I looked it up in Google, just to get a peppering of a pseudo-understanding about how to arrive at this oh-so-elusive inner peace, and found that most of what I read was, as expected, pure drivel. I mean, Google isn’t the best way to find an inner peace plan, but the short-sightedness of what I did find caused me to walk away from my search for enlightenment-by-Google feeling quite flat, two dimensional… really.

So, instead, I looked up the parsha of the week (Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1), and lo-and-behold, it was connected to my midnight disturbances. The parsha is about acquiring peace by making and preparing for war... Yeah, that sounds weird, I know, but even George Washington said something similar when planting the seed of the United States of America. He said: “If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known, that we are at all times ready for war.”

Rewind a few thousand years, back to the parsha of Pinchas, and we begin with this: "God spoke to Moses saying, 'Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for My sake and as a result I did not consume the children of Israel... Therefore I give him My covenant of peace."

Essentially, out of war came peace on a fundamental level. But, I’ll have to come back to this idea later, I guess. Let’s move forward in time, a couple hundred years or so beyond George Washington, to when I was in high school. I have a vivid memory of my dad and I having a conversation while sitting in the den, kind of a room that served as library-office-TV room. This conversation has, to a large extent, defined who I am today. We were speaking of spirituality and religion in the world and what it all seems to mean, you know, one of those deep philosophical conversations that don’t have a real answer, ...but the answer that inevitably pops out is ground shaking in its implications and impact on a person’s world view.

You see, my dad, being a hunter / fisherman / backpacker / landscape architect / city planner / and more, was an avid outdoorsman. He saw the world from a distance that seemed to allow him to just see the strings that pull on it. We once went backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and walked for a few days on the John Muir Trail. We were going to meet a friend of his, in order to give us supplies for the following week, and, since I was all of 13 or 14 years old, I thought we were actually going to meet John Muir!

My dad was really Superman to me; you know, he would swoop in and save the day, only to recede again into his impermeable fortress of ice. I ran across this quote by John Muir in my Google search for inner peace that my dad would have appreciated. It went something like this: "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn." Maybe this is a good way to acquire inner peace, to breathe deeply in the vastness of nature... um, no. That’s not going to work, even though it is a good start.

So, when my dad and I were sitting in the den, my dad said to me that he didn’t really believe in God, per se, but that he believed in a Creative Force that brought the world into existence, a kind of First Being, that was still deeply and intricately involved in all things, spiritual and physical. I perceived at the time that he must have been recoiling, to some extent, from what his perception of what the world had done to God with all of its metamorphisms to suit its’ own agendas over the millennia. You know, when we expand our sense of self, our sense of ‘humanity’ until it can barely support itself anymore? This idea, looking at it now, seems to be where the ‘East’ has high-jacked inner peace in the contemporary mindset.

Let me explain: This way of seeing the world, becoming centered to the point that you only exist in a heightened sense of enlightened solitude, living within nature and within humanity, but only enough to quiet your mind, is a very eastern way of thinking, but this is only part of the picture. There is a story in Genesis about the six sons of Keturah, Abraham’s Concubine, mentioning how the sons were sent east with all the knowledge of the world. Some say that they ended up in Arabia, but many say that they went far beyond that, into the Far East — with all the ‘knowledge of the world...’ Um, for clarification’s sake, that means this world, not the next...

It seems that by plugging into this ‘eastern’ philosophy thing, we are essentially plugging into an eternal truth that exists for us all; maybe it’s even like plugging into the Infinite, but, I have to say, without the fruit punch... For instance, here is a quote from an American Indian named Black Elk about peace that I did happen to find in my Google search: "The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us." This quote really struck me, since it is essentially classic Jewish Philosophy 101… You don’t suppose that Native Americans are one of the lost tribes, do you? Oy, I will have to leave that for next time.

So, having heard this, supposedly ‘eastern’ sounding, philosophy from my dad at such a tender age in life, as you can imagine, I have since spent much of my life searching for the truth. Believe it or not, my searches began with the homeless philosophers and drunks that frequented my local surfing beaches. After that, I quickly moved to the local Hare Krishna Temple (much to the chagrin of my mom at the time). I never shaved my head, but I did read the Bhagavad Gita once or twice, looking for that essence, for that ‘peace within’ kind of feeling.

Looking back on it, a quote comes to mind about peace (Don’t believe it; I had to look it up again… - Bhagavad Gita, 12:12): "Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.” I agree with the ‘surrender of attachment leading to peace’ part of the idea here, but what is weird about the whole idea is that “knowledge” is under “meditation” on the scale. I mean, what is knowledge anyways? In Hinduism, there are many gods, not One First Being that created everything. So, are we talking about knowledge of Shiva, Krishna, Brahma, or some other god in the Hindu Pantheon? Are we supposed to meditate in order to quite our minds, getting those internal demons and demigods out of our heads, separating them and dissipating them, or are we supposed to identify with one over the others, making our peace that much more fragmented? What are we talking about, anyways?

If we follow Black Elk’s advice, knowledge can only be about one thing: knowing the Great Spirit, the One True God. Even the first of the 10 Commandments says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me,” which essentially means remember who God is or in other, other words, before you start anything in life, know who God is by using your rational powers to acquire ‘knowledge’ and seek out that reality.

A nice little story I read recently about the Baal Shem Tov explains it in a different way. I’ll shorten it a bit for the sake of brevity, since we all have lots of other things to do today:

A chassid (pious person) went to the Baal Shem Tov and said, “Rebbe, I want to see Elijah the Prophet.”

“It’s simple,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “Get two boxes and fill one with food and the other with children’s clothes. Then, before Rosh Hashanah, travel to Minsk. On the outskirts of town is a dilapidated house. Don’t knock on the door immediately; stand there for a while and listen. Then, shortly before candle-lighting time at sunset, knock on the door and ask for hospitality.”

So, the chassid went and did as the Baal Shem Tov told him. He arrived at the dilapidated house shortly before evening and stood in front of the door, listening. Inside, he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry and it’s Yom Tov! We don’t even have any nice clothes to wear!”

He heard the mother answer, “Now children, trust in God. He’ll send Elijah the Prophet to bring you everything you need!” The chassid then knocked on the door. When the woman opened it, he asked if he could stay with them for the holiday. “How can I welcome you when I don’t have any food in the house?” she said.
“Don’t worry,” said the chassid, “I have enough food for all of us.” He stayed there for two days, waiting to see Elijah the Prophet; but, he saw no one.

*INTERMISSION*

Speaking of “no one,” returning to the subject of the Dalai Lama, this guy seems so happy when I see pictures of him. Yeah, he has had it tough: They took his country away, killed his people, banished him, and he is now watching as his entire culture gets washed away by Chinese invaders… His ‘peace’ quote was as follows:

"I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed."

I like it. The problem that I see with it, however, is that I also found ‘this’ quote by the Dalai Lama:

“My advice is that if you must be selfish, be wisely selfish. Wise people serve others sincerely, putting the needs of others above their own. Ultimately you will be happier. The kind of selfishness that provokes fighting, killing, stealing, and using harsh words; forgetting other people’s welfare will only result in your own loss.”

He seems to be hedging a bit, backing down, maybe, from his first statement. Think about it, if you had to build a railroad track through the desert, making sure it was straight and perfect, with every tie perfectly placed, but you forgot that the whole point is for a train to travel on the tracks, sort of forgetting the big-picture and focusing on the details or losing sight of the forest through the trees, could you truly be happy? Would you recognize that there was a higher, more pure level of truth in the world?

Let’s get back to our chassid…

*END OF INTERMISSION*

So, the chassid returned to the Baal Shem Tov and said, “Master, I did not see Elijah the Prophet!”

“Did you do everything I told you?” asked the Baal Shem Tov.
“I did!” he said.

“Then you’ll have to return for Yom Kippur,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “Go back before Yom Kippur, with a box of food, to the same house. Again, be sure to arrive an hour before the sun sets, and don’t knock immediately. Wait for a while and just stand in front of the door, listening.” So the chassid went back to Minsk before Yom Kippur and stood in front of the door, listening.

Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry! We haven’t eaten the whole day! How can we fast for Yom Kippur?”

“Children!” said their mother. “Do you remember you were crying before Rosh Hashanah that you had no food or clothes? And then I told you, ‘Trust God! He’ll send Elijah the Prophet, who’ll bring you food and clothing and everything else you need!’ Wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come and bring you food and clothing? He stayed with us for two days! Now you’re crying again that you’re hungry. Elijah will come now, too, and bring you food!” Then the chassid, who was listening outside the door, understood what the Baal Shem Tov had meant. And... he knocked on the door.

So, wasn’t that a nice story? Did you get it? Did you get that what the chassid understood was that for each and every one of us, God is a personal knowledge and only a knowledge that we can each know for ourselves. For the poor kids, Elijah the Prophet did come, sent by God to comfort them. For their mother, God was obviously working in the world, strengthening her faith. God is inside each and every one of us, in the most personal and unique way possible. We all have our struggles, but the point is that in order to quite the mind, we need to wage war on our outer-selves, our egos. Our egos are the reason that we separate from God, which is the reason that we have irrational violence and conflict in both ourselves and the world around us.

Coming back to the smiling Dalai Lama... here is a quote by Thich Naht Hanh that may explain it a little better: "If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work."

Then again, Sun Tzu, in the Art of War, put it nicely when he said, “In peace prepare for war; in war prepare for peace.”

Or, maybe Mother Teresa said it best: “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family."

Or even better yet, the Buddha says, “Better than a thousand hollow words is one word that brings peace." (This is pure Judaism – forget the Bu-Jew stuff…)

And, in Avot, 1:12, Hillel is reported to have said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them close to Torah.”

Really, it all seems to be about finding that inner peace, like the Dalai Lama seems to have, but then to use it to connect the Creator of the Universe. Maybe that is why we have ‘Eastern Philosophy and ‘Western Ideals and Concepts,’ to unite the whole lot and catch the fast train straight to reality, straight to God.

Ba’atzlacha (success) to my son and a really big Refu’ah Shlemah (complete healing) to you Ema…

Shabbat Shalom!