16 December, 2012

The Gnostic Response to Suffering

I get questions about what the Gnostic response to suffering is or should be when tragedies occur. This usually happens when there is a tragedy being reported in the American 24 hour news cycle. I recently received a couple of questions in light of the reprehensible massacre of men, women, and children in Newton, Connecticut.

I have been wary of answering questions like these in the past.

The Gnostic Response to Suffering

As a Gnostic I understand that suffering is a part of living. I have experienced this kind of suffering in my own life and have observed it at work in the lives of others. The Gnostic response to suffering is to acknowledge that it exists and to examine your own response to the particular situation. It's not an easy response or a particularly intuitive response, and it's much easier to say "this should be your response" than it is to actually respond that way.

Look at your mind non-judgmentally. You don't have to say "this is a good feeling and that one over there, that's a bad feeling." You don't have to say "I shouldn't be feeling this, because I am an experienced meditator/The Gnostic Pope/A Man/A Woman/An Adult." Start simply. Pay Attention™.

Remember, feelings and emotions aren't dirty things that need to be quashed or wished out of existence.

Should a Gnostic try to "do something" about a particular cause of suffering? Yes, I think so. If you can help ease suffering in a natural disaster by providing food or laundry soap do that. If you can help ease suffering by helping someone give voice to their feelings and experiences do that. If you want to take part in, or start, conversations about particular causes of suffering (like gun violence, the stigmatization of mental health, or poverty) do that too.

Meditation and Mental Health or "Can meditation cure depression?"

I freely admit I experience a fair bit of trepidation every time I am asked this question. Some people want to know if I am going to try and recruit them to my freaky cult and claim it can cure all their problems or whether or not I am going to try to sell them a book or guided meditation as a cure-all. Other people want to know if I teach some sort of distrust of psychology, psychiatry, or therapy in general.

My own experience has been that meditation has changed my relationship to depression. I experience depression far, far less than I did before I became a meditator. I don't need to take anti-depressants or spend a lot of time with a psychologist. I have at times needed those things, even after I became a meditator. I don't regard needing those things as a personal failing or as a marker of the insufficiency of meditation.

Some of my students who have grappled with depression have found that meditation and the kind of non-judgmental acceptance and inquiry in Thomasine philosophy very helpful. On the other hand, attempting that kind of inquiry when you are dealing with something like severe depression can be counter-productive.

Meditation and non-judgmental inquiry should be one of the tools used to combat depression, but by no means should they be the only tools used.

"If so-and-so had been a meditator would he or she have done this terrible thing?"

Meditation doesn't mean that people who meditate are no longer capable of harming themselves or others. You can search Google News for a plethora of articles about people who practice meditation and inquiry (in various forms and under the auspices of various religions) doing objectionable things. I have worked with prison inmates who tell me that as a result of their practice they experience less anger, less fear, and fewer violent impulses.

I have also spoken with and worked with people who were abused and manipulated by their "spiritual teacher" or guru despite the fact that said "spiritual teacher/guru" had practiced some form of meditation and inquiry for decades. I know meditators who struggle with alcoholism and over-eating, who have poor relationships with spouses and family, and many other things. Meditation is in no way a cure-all. It doesn't mean you're going to walk around constantly feeling beatific with a sh*t-eating grin plastered on your face. It doesn't mean you'll never make a mistake or have a moral failing.

05 December, 2012

Q&A: Music & etc

Q: What kind of music is used in Thomasine liturgical rites?

We don't really have an established hymnal. I favor instrumental works with a mood and tempo appropriate to the rite. One of my students has threatened to write a few hymns with verses from G. Thomas, but that hasn't happened yet.

Q: Where have you been?!

A: The same bat place at the same bat time. I do tend to get busy with things other than musing about Gnosis and life's Big Questions. I'm in the penultimate phase of a career change I started close to two years ago, and my time and energy are focused elsewhere. I am sort of on hiatus.

Q: Are you working on a book?

A: I have a tentative outline for a book to be tentatively titled The Way of Thomas: The Wisdom of the Twin. I probably won't begin writing the book until late 2013 at the earliest.

Q: What's the most important question?

A: So?

This should be followed by the corollary "So what?"

18 June, 2012

Delusion and The Fictitious Mind

I touched on this concept peripherally in "You're crazy and so am I," and it's something I would like to expand on in more detail.

In a Thomasine context, we don't really do much talking about Archons or The Demiurge; it's not because those concepts are flawed or phenomenologically untrue, but rather because the Thomasine corpus doesn't talk about those concepts by those names.

What most Gnostics call The Demiurge we call The Fictitious Mind. Buddhists might call this "Self."  Many theists might call this Soul or Spirit.  The Fictitious Mind is that thing you think is you. It's that thing you identify as an unchanging and unshakable.

The Fictitious Mind is an amalgamation of our most deeply held beliefs about our experiences. It is an object that we have created based on our inability to understand reality. It has many defense mechanisms. They're not unlike Agents in the Matrix; once we begin to question the Fictitious Mind, the Fictitious Mind rebels and begins the process of reinforcing its hold on our experiences.

We describe Delusion as one of the defense mechanisms of the Fictitious Mind. Delusion is that subtle, insidious capacity within all of us to convince ourselves that what we think, feel, and believe about our experience is really true. It manifests in many forms. Its goal is to keep the Fictitious Mind in control. It's what allows us to think that the stories our Fictitious Minds tell us are real and credible.

If I make a mistake at work and immediately move to blaming another employee or my boss, perhaps that's a Delusion, because I want to believe that I committed no wrong or that I was not at fault.

If I say "I dislike Christianity/Islam/Hinduism because all of those people are violent or immoral or they believe the wrong things about God" that too becomes a delusion. It's a delusion which allows me to think that those Others are not capable of compassion or of charity or of clear thinking.

Experiencing Delusion isn't an issue. We all do that. It's what we do with Delusion that matters. If I look at a situation at work and see what really happened, perhaps I can see that I wasn't blameless in whatever happened. Maybe I needed to pay more attention or I need more training or I simply haven't had enough experience to know how to make better decisions in that kind of situation.

If I am aware, I can liberate myself from the need to experience my present situation through Delusion.

11 June, 2012

Treebeard is my homeboy

On the back of my last post about the fact that there are pitfalls in contemplative or meditative practice, my continuing inability to transcend humanity as a meditator, and the wisdom of combining retreat with sex and/or romance, I'd like to talk about something related: pace.

One of the reasons I haven't written a book which contains all of the really cool super-secret Thomasine practices I only discuss with Initiates is pretty simple. It's not because the un-initiated are spiritually impure or because the stuff I say or recommend that people do is particularly special and in need of protection, it has to do with preparedness. 

I discuss stuff with Initiates because I know them and they know me. We talk about their practice and what's happening as a result of that on a fairly regular and constant basis. 

I could dump all of the doctrine (e.g. the stuff I teach) into a book, and you would know all about the Fictitious Mind, Delusion, The Illuminated Mind, Ignorance, Arrogance, Comfort, Attachment, Passions, Motivating Emotions, Nepsis, Hesychia, Illumination (or at least what I know about it), and a whole host of other topics.

However, it would probably not do a whole lot of good. Thomasine practice is something that grows over a period of time. It's a slow, gradual thing. My own teacher called it putting the mirror in front of your face. It's done slowly. 

First we talk about why people choose to engage in this kind of practice (e.g. Suffering), then we talk about Ignorance and Arrogance, and then we talk about Perception and Observation. There are exercises that go along with these. After that, I usually introduce some practices to cultivate Nepsis (or Awareness). Then meditation is introduced via Luminescent Water, with an admonition to start slowly and not to spend large amounts of time in meditation initially. Then maybe we'll talk about a meditation designed to expose "negative" emotions, and perhaps after that we'll talk about one called The Mirror and work on the concept of self. 

What you're introduced to and when all depends on you and on your teacher. 

Why does it work this way? Well, I like to avoid people saying things like "I feel like I've lost my self-identity" or "I feel like I've been encouraged to destroy my personality" or "I feel like what you've taught has caused me to suffer."

I sometimes browse Rick Ross's forum, and these are all things I've read from people who've followed folks like Eckhart Tolle and Ken Wilber. My own teacher used to tell me about students who he felt he moved too quickly with, which ended up with students having adverse reactions. I've done that in the past, too. It's one of the reasons I stopped teaching for a while; I needed to have a better understanding of what I was doing.

So, I try to move slowly with people whether they come to me with no experience in contemplative traditions or whether they come to me steeped in Zen or Advaita or something else. I also don't indiscriminately publish large volumes of material or "teach" via big seminars or online distance learning scenarios. 

I get to know you, you get to know me. Gnosis is a flowering conversation. It blooms when it blooms. There's no prize for first place, because this isn't a race. If you bite off too much too soon you could puke cookie all over yourself or you could choke on it.  

10 June, 2012

On the Laboratory of the Mind

I sometimes use the phrase "the laboratory of the Mind" to describe meditation. It seems to be a good way to describe what happens during the experience of meditation; we go within and examine our experience, and sometimes we tinker with the experimental protocol to achieve particular results.

Sometimes those experiments can go awry.

Meditation can sometimes lead to the surfacing of unpleasant thoughts or memories. Sometimes these thoughts or memories are tied to deep Attachments; they can happen to the beginning meditator and to the experienced meditator alike. I recently had an experience where I was overwhelmed with anger due to emotional Attachment surrounding members of my family. It was deep enough that I hadn't realized it was there until it surfaced during meditation earlier in the week, and it sucked me right in to the inferno that is anger.

I write about this experience for a few reasons. One, I feel it is important for the people who read this blog to understand that although meditation is a very liberating thing it is not without potential pitfalls. Secondly, it's important to understand that even people who teach this stuff can still Suffer just like anyone else. Hopefully there is more awareness of the roots of the suffering even while enthralled by it, but it still happens.

Lastly, a reader asked me a question about a group of Tibetan Buddhists in Arizona who made the news recently owing to some of their more interesting practices. The head teacher of this group used the phrase "The Laboratory of the Mind" and the reader in question has heard me use the phrase to describe meditation.

I want to be clear that I am not affiliated with this group. I don't really know anything about them. I don't encourage "teachers" to have any kind of romantic or sexual relationship with "students," in large part because sexual attraction and romantic love are very deep sources of Attachment. The practice of meditation, as I have mentioned, is not without potential for emotional turmoil, and to complicate the relationship between "teacher" and "student" with romantic love or sexual congress is unwise.

Meditation retreats are very intense due to the propensity of participants to spend much of the time in retreat in one form of meditation or another. The "teacher" or retreat leader is often tasked with counseling participants regarding things that surface during meditation, but when one's "teacher" is also one's lover or sexual partner, it becomes more difficult to do so from an impartial perspective.

Personally, I do not engage in the practice of retreats longer than 24 hours or so. The last time I arrange such a gathering it was over a weekend with an two four hour blocks for meditation each day with breaks inbetween to talk, eat, read, or do other things, and even those sixteen hours of combined meditation were intense enough that some participants felt there was too much time for meditation.

A three year retreat is, in my opinion, far too long. I understand from reading Brad Warner's new iteration of Hardcore Zen that three year retreats are a part of Tibetan Practice, but I still have reservations about retreats of such extraordinary length--espeically combined with sexual or romantic relationships.

05 June, 2012

What's the deal with the Thomasine Church?

Q: What happened to the Thomasine Church?

A: That's kind of a complicated question, actually. I don't know if I would say that there's a real organization called "The Thomasine Church" right now; it never really existed as a legal entity on paper, anyway. We were a group of people who gathered together to study a particular philosophy and practice a "spiritual path" inspired by The Gospel of Thomas and other Thomas-influenced texts.

Like all things involving people, things changed. People's interests waxed and waned, I went back to college, people got busy. There was apparently some sort of internal schism that I was only peripherally aware of, and some people left the organization.

In the years since that has happened, those of us who were initiated into the Thomasine Church continued to learn, to practice, and to grow.

I still talk with other Thomasine bishops, priests, deacons, and initiates. I still initiate and ordain as appropriate, and what I teach is more or less influenced by what my teacher taught me, albeit informed by my own experience and understanding.

So, the idea of the Thomasine Church has become a little more diffuse and less centralized. For me, it's about working closely with others who also have a desire to engage in this kind of meditative practice as a path to Gnosis.

I think it works better this way, to be honest. The idea of "church" brings with it the idea of buildings and pews (or people standing in a nave with clergy in the sanctuary) and structures that don't really have a whole lot of place in the bulk of what comprises Thomasine practice. Parish-planting and growing in the traditional sense of how many people come to Leitorgia or Mass or Sunday Service was never really what the Thomasine Church was about; this practice is, by and large, about being helped and helping along the road to Awakening and Liberation.

These days I mostly think of it as "the way I live." I sometimes call it "The Way" or "The Way of the Traveler" if I feel a need to call it anything at all.

02 June, 2012

Mailbag Q&A: What is Gnosis and more...

Q: Is Gnosis the same thing as Enlightenment?

A: I don't know that Enlightenment is even the same thing as Enlightenment. There's a lot of baggage surrounding the term Enlightenment, especially in terms of what happens to people who experience this state. I look at Gnosis as  process; I often liken it to the blossoming of a flower. If you aren't paying attention perhaps it seems that the flower has blossomed all at once, but if you really watch you'll see that it's a gradual process.

Q: Given your thoughts on Apostolic Succession how do you feel about initiation?

A: Initiatory experiences can be exceptionally useful. The Thomasine tradition is an initatory one. It's meant to be passed on from person to person. Initiatory events mark profound changes in one's life. We humans have a lot of initiatory events, even if we don't think of them that way; getting a driving license, registering to vote, graduating high school, entering university, and reaching drinking age are all examples of relatively common events which mark the end of one status and the beginning of another.

In the Thomasine tradition, Apolytrosis (the first initiation) marks your choice to become a part of our tradition, to walk down this particular road. It's a way of saying "Okay, I have chosen to do this thing, and I am going to recognize that in a formal fashion."

Sphragis (the second initiation) is a way of saying "Okay, I've done this thing for a while and, gee, it's kind of hard sometimes, but I still want to do it." Plus, you get to have some chrism smeared on your head, which is awesome, because it smells good.

On a more pragmatic level, undergoing the initiatory rites leads to an establishment of trust between "teacher" and "student" or initiate and initiator. It's also a reaffirmation of the relationship that has developed that led up to the decision to receive initiation from a particular initiator.

Some people ask me why I still use initiation instead of just putting everything in a book. One of the big reasons is that it's really quite difficult to "teach" this stuff in book or blog form; this whole thing unfolds in the form of an exchange between two people; me knowing you and you knowing me. I don't always "teach" everyone in the same order or the same way. Everyone is different, and a book is a bit too sequential for that, plus I can't know my reader like I can know someone I talk with over a period of years.

I've already talked at length about Apostolic Succession and how I feel about it. As an idea it's an anchor back to the person of the historical Jesus, particularly to the stuff he may have said to this guy called Thomas. There's no ju-ju or anything associated with it.

Q: If Apostolic Succession doesn't give you authority or spiritual power, where do you get those things from?

A: I only have the authority you give me; whether or not I have that authority and what I can do with that authority varies at any particular moment. My consecration as a bishop gives me authority to do certain things in a Thomasine context, but that's it.

I don't really use the adjective "spiritual" to describe what I do or how I live. Spiritual, to me, implies that we put this stuff into a box and cordon it off except for when we're doing "spiritual things" or we're with other "spiritual people." This stuff is too transformative for that.

Q: Do you get upset if people don't call you Bishop?

A: No. If I am introduced as "Bishop So-and-So" it's probably polite to call me that until I tell you it's okay to call me something else. Some people are really uncomfortable with titles; they have attachments of their own regarding what they mean, and if you're one of those people, I promise I won't mind if you can't bring yourself to call me "Bishop" if that's how we're introduced. If it helps, I am rarely introduced as "Bishop" outside of settings where one might expect to find bishops.

30 May, 2012

Revisiting Apostolic Succession

I receive a number of questions on apostolic succession. I keep getting them, so I figure I will keep trying to answer the questions about AS until I've done it enough that I don't get anymore questions; or, I'll keep answering them until I don't feel like it.

I've said, in the past, that Apostolic Succession isn't something you need to be a Gnostic or to have "valid" sacraments; some Gnostic groups put a lot of emphasis on the fact that they have it, and a few others put a lot of emphasis on the fact that they don't have it.

The modern ecclesiastical Gnostic movement has appropriated a lot of ecclesiology from its distant orthodox cousins, for better or worse. One interesting notion that many churches have acquired is the Western (e.g. Roman) notion of "sacramental validity" and the necessity of Apostolic Succession for the "valid" administration of sacraments. To my mind, that notion is a baseless one constructed on centuries of Western theological scholasticism. It has no place in the pursuit of Gnosis.

We all know that the lists of Apostolic Succession have holes in them somewhere, the Roman ones usually fall apart around the time of Cardinal Barberini, and the Eastern ones have their chinks too. While the myth of the Historic Episcopate passed down from person to person since the time of the Apostles could possibly be true it certainly isn't probable.

You the Gnostic make the sacrament "valid" by your participation in it. Whether or not you were ordained by someone whose name is on a list of bishops is immaterial to the efficacy of a practice. I don't have any special magic that makes these things more efficacious... well, okay, maybe I'm slightly more charismatic and charming than you are.

As Gnostics we're not looking to become another "successor to the Apostles" but another Christ. Our goal is that eventually we too will know and understand what three things The Living Jesus said to Thomas.

Within the Thomasine tradition, Apostolic Succession is a way of connecting with the past and, in a subversive way, of liberating the message of The Living Jesus from something that has become corrupted by its long association with power.

So, does apostolic succession matter? I don't really know. I do know that the consecration, as an initiatory experience, was meaningful and transformative for me. It has been a source of help to me over the years in the struggle for Gnosis. Also, Chrism smells good, so it was nice that I had a bunch of it poured on my head.

29 May, 2012

The Living Father and The Mother

Source: Carles Gomila

Q: Can you go into more detail about The Living Father and The Mother?

A: Sure. On the simplest level, The Father is allegorical for Force and Power. It is that which causes things to be set into motion. The Mother is allegorical for matter, energy, or potential. Think of it like an electrical outlet. there is current (The Mother) running through it but until the circuit is complete (or something is plugged in) the current is just there.

The Father is also called "the Silence and the Deep" or "Ruler of Rulers" and the The Mother is called "Source of Light," "Well-spring of Unfathomable Wisdom," and "the Holy and Comforting Spirit."

Some of these sobriquets relate to particular teachings for which one is meant to have a certain practical and theoretical background in Thomasine practice, so I'll refrain from going into too much detail.

In Thomasine Practice, The Mother and The Father are functions of the Mind and of experience; in essence, they're forces at work both within us and without in the universe, but they're not conscious entities and aren't prayed to or worshiped. They are contemplated. They are objects of meditative focus, and they're also story-telling tools.

For the Initiate the Mother and the Father are also two dichotomies which are resolved or unified through practice.

Jeremy Puma talks about a similar idea (or pair of ideas) in a Sethian context as The Logos (Reason) and Sophia (Wisdom). That's also a good way to think about it.

One of the other questions I've often received has to do with why we describe The Mother or Wisdom as feminine. This description comes in part from our Judeo-Christian heritage; in both Judaism and Christianity Wisdom is often personified as a feminine character. She gives birth to new ideas, to insight, and to understanding. She is nurturing and perhaps even motherly from time to time. She is also, in a way, seductive and therefore perilous. She brings with her the desire and longing to know and to understand.

25 May, 2012

More on Watchfulness

Nepsis (or Watchfulness) is nothing more or less than paying attention. What's going on as you're reading this post? What thoughts are you thinking? What are you feeling? Do you know what set the current thoughts and feelings into motion? What caused them to originate? Are they still there? Where did they go? What caused them to dissipate?

When starting this particular practice, it's a good idea to do it during relatively calm moments. I used to practice while doing the dishes. These kinds of practices are a lot like exercise. You can start by trying to lift a 300lb weight, but you'll probably hurt yourself in the process if you're not already in good shape. By starting with small things, little irritations that cause anger, small fears, little things that provoke jealousy, or craving/desire, you'll begin to understand your emotions. You'll know what the experience of them feels like and you'll have an idea about what provokes those emotions within you.

This kind of work will prepare you to deal with bigger things. Eventually, you'll be able to lift that 300lb weight without hurting yourself or dropping it on a friend's foot.

22 May, 2012

The Roots of Thomasine Tradition

Jeremy Puma has discussed the importance of acknowledging where the stuff we do in Gnostic practice comes from. The "churchy stuff" we do tends to be fairly visible and close to the surface, so there's a lot of focus on those aspects. And by those aspects I mean the vestments, the liturgies, and the notion of priesthood & etc.

Most people who get beyond the initial "Hi, I'm interested in doing Gnostic stuff!" e-mail are quite surprised to find that, at least in the Thomasine Tradition, the "church-y stuff" isn't at the forefront of what we do. As I've mentioned before, the "church-y stuff" isn't exactly useless, but the other meditative practices that don't involve vestments and liturgy take up more of an Initiate's time.

Where do those practices come from? No spiritual or Wisdom tradition grows up in a vacuum. We all come from somewhere, and our practices all arise somehow. In the case of the ancient Gnostics, we know what they wrote, and thusly we have some idea about what they might have taught, but we don't know what they did.

So, we had to look elsewhere. We took the best of our experiences with other techniques, systems, and traditions, and tried to create something that would function within a Gnostic and nominally Western Christian context.

My teacher was heavily influenced by Shingon Buddhism, and the mental disciplines of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts. This is one of the reasons we use a visualization meditation, and our Leitourgia incorporates an element of the Shingon Goma ritual.

Our method is also indebted to Martinism which is where the language we use about "reintegration" came from.

I myself came from a slightly more orthodox background. I studied Hesychasm and Centering Prayer, and those were two practices I brought with me when I became a bishop in the Thomasine Church. I also find the work of Meister Eckhart extraordinarily helpful.

So there you have it.

16 May, 2012

Detachment & Pain and Suffering

"Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional." --Unknown
I have no idea where this quote originated, but I know I read it somewhere, and it's kind of apt. A while ago, a friend of mine asked me how I "did it" referring to maintaining detachment from pain and suffering.

It's a good question. It isn't that I don't experience painful events in my life, because I do. Relationships have ended, loved ones have died, jobs have been lost, and expectations went unfulfilled. These things happen to anyone, and we can hardly avoid them--even if we go around like ostriches with our heads stuck in the sand.

I cannot control all of the events that happen (or those that do not happen) in my life, but I can do something about my subjective experience of those events. I can choose to listen to the story that my mind tells me about the event or I can choose to look at where that story is coming from and what actually happened.

So, let's say I've been with someone for a while and we break up. Perhaps I experience anger. Anger toward myself and my former partner for whatever led to the dissolution of the relationship. If I pay attention to that anger and really look at where it's coming from and where it goes, perhaps I will realize that I am telling myself more than a few enormous fictions about the relationship that I had and my role in it.

Or maybe I start to experience feelings of low-self worth and loathing because I made a romantic overture and it was rebuffed. I can listen to the enormous fiction my mind is trying to get me to embrace; I'm not attractive enough or I'm just not well-off enough; or, I really needed to have a relationship with this particular person because it would fill that ever-growing void and I would really, truly be happy.

When I take a step back and look at what is really going on I find that the reality of the situation is far different from my perception of the situation; while the two may share some similarities, they are not the same.

So how do I do that? It takes practice. There is the practice of paying attention to your emotions in situations where you are not in emotional extremis (e.x. exceptionally angry or smitten with love) and there is the practice of meditation. Meditation in this case being the practice of, in some fashion, sitting silently with yourself. These are two ways to make friends with your own mind and to learn about what particularly are causes of suffering for you.

I've been doing this kind of stuff for a long while and I still occasionally experience suffering. This is why we call it practice; you've got to do it and keep doing it to get any good at it.

On Detachment 

When I talk about detachment, people assume that it must mean that I somehow suppress my emotions or that I don't have any, and that this in some way involves disconnection with other people. It isn't that.

That reminds me of Vulcans from Star Trek, and we all know Vulcans become sex-crazed maniacs once every seven years.

This practice isn't about denying your experience or trying to suppress your experience. This practice is about staying with your experience whatever that experience is.

Detachment from emotions works more like this: I experience love, anger, fear, attraction, hatred, jealousy, and all of those things. Those emotions are like waves; however, I've become adept at surfing those waves. I've spent a lot of time making a surfboard and I take good care of it. I practice surfing so that I know how to maintain balance. So, I don't fall off my surfboard into the big wave. I can experience the emotions without those emotions controlling my reaction to the events in my life.

I feel like this helps me to be more connected with myself and with others around me. Not only do I have distance from the enormous fictions my mind is telling itself about me, but I also have distance from the enormous fictions my mind is telling me about you. So instead of perhaps focusing simply on the fact that I feel pain or joy or whatever it is I am experiencing at the time, I can, at the very least, acknowledge your experience free from attachment to my own. I can listen without having to constantly attend to my own internal narrative. I find that to be a very beautiful thing.

15 May, 2012

Mailbag: More Q&A

Q: How do you get crispy chicken skin when making coq au vin?

A: Traditionally, coq au vin doesn't require crispy skin. However, crispy chicken skin is one of life's great joys. Any dish involving a couple bottles of wine is sure to be one of my favorites, although I would imagine my liver doesn't quite enjoy being marinated in wine as much as I enjoy marinating it in wine.

If you're making coq au vin in a relatively shallow dutch oven, you can make certain you use only enough braising liquid to cover all but the very top of the chicken. I find that doesn't leave enough fond on the bottom of the pan, so I tend to remove the skin after browning it in the pan and then crisp it under the broiler when I am ready to serve the dish.

Please note that I am not actually an object separate from my liver and that this is not a cooking blog & etc. Also, I may or may not be a really terribly bad guru for thoroughly enjoying wine and meat.

Q: Will you baptize my baby?

A: No. I am happy to help you create a ceremony to welcome your child into the world, but the Thomasine Church does not use a baptismal rite and does not offer any initiatory rites to children of any age. There is no sin from which your child must be liberated nor an original state of brokenness which must be healed, so I find the traditional rite of baptism somewhat flawed.

11 May, 2012

Student and Teacher

People often ask me if I am some sort of guru or "spiritual teacher." The deeper Stillness becomes the more difficult it is to do things like say "I am this" or "I am that" or "I am not this" or "I am not that." It's entirely possible to be and not be something all at once. 

The idea of the guru brings with it many of the particularly Hindu ways of relating to one's "teacher," ideas like reverence for the teacher and the necessity of having a guru as a kind of vehicle for your own Awakening. 

Within the context of a Wisdom tradition like the one I practice, those images are not particularly descriptive of how things work (they may not be for Hindu practice, either). 

It's more like the Paul Kelly song "Dumb things." I've already pawned my rings and lost my shirt. I've done all the dumb things, so why not listen to what I have to say about what it's like to undertake this practice. 

Maybe you can avoid losing your shirt and your rings. The teacher is more often like a tour guide and rarely like the stern schoolteacher. There's an encouragement not to rely overly on the tour guide, because you might miss some cool things along the way. The kind of guidance given in this context is of a very careful sort. If there's a big pothole in the road, I do want you to avoid it, if you can. I also want you to experience the journey on your own terms, so there's a need to avoid creating an expectation about what something is going to be like based on my own experience.

10 May, 2012

You're Crazy and So am I

Credit: Rosipaw@Flickr

If you're "secular and atheistic" what is the point of meditating, of questioning the workings of your own mind? If there's no soul, nothing that is permanently "you" which survives death to live again, either in an afterlife or in some kind of reincarnated existence, why do all this stuff? Isn't it a little crazy?

Here's the deal. You're crazy right now. Yes, you.You are not normal. You live in a world deeply attached to your own internal narrative of how things are and "how things should be." There's a void that demands to be filled. That void is called Desire. It fills you with cravings and it whispers to you that if you could only buy that new Mercedes SLK series, have a larger house, a better career, or a hotter partner, you will finally be happy. It never seems to get any better, no matter how much you acquire by way of wealth or status. It keeps growing, you keep thinking "If only I could accomplish this next thing then I will be happy."

You're not alone. My "mind" was not, in any way, "normal" or "healthy" before I began this practice. I was deeply attached to my subjective emotional experience, the four-thousand RPM pace of my discursive intellect, the notion of a concrete "self" which existed and whose ever-growing list of desires must be satisfied for the fleeting promise of temporary happiness.

My mind is still not healthy all of the time, but it is healthier much of the time.

One of the features of Awakening is realizing the mind is constantly telling all of us stories, and most of those stories are false, although they may contain an element of truth. The point of Gnostic practice, if I had to choose a single one, would be that the mind tells us that we can fit a square block into a round hole. We cannot, and attempting to force something to fit in that fashion is painful and destructive.

So, that's the point of all the meditation, all the enquiry, all the conversations with teachers about "what I've learnt," and all the dressing up and participating in contemplative ritual.

09 May, 2012

It's not so bad...

I've dedicated a few feet of column space to talking about why I don't really identify with "Gnosticism" as a whole. It's difficult to describe what I do in a few words, but that too is okay. Gnosis transgresses boundaries and so must the Gnostic.

Ritual vs. Meditation

Jesus said to them, "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside... then will you enter [the Kingdom]."
--Logion 22, The Gospel of Thomas
Meditation and Ritual: This isn't the dichotomy you're looking for.

I made a post, a while ago, about some of the rituals used in the Thomasine tradition as I learnt it from my teacher. Someone asked me what the point of ritual was when meditation seemed to be where the "work" of knowing oneself was done.

I think that part of the issue here is the way we think of meditation here in the United States. If we think of meditation we think, perhaps, of the Buddhist monk sitting in Lotus with his eyes half-closed. Clearly, the monk is turning inward to do the great inner work of Liberation.

When we think of ritual as some external thing that we do which is somehow divorced from what we do in meditation. Ritual is a rote performance, like seeing a play.

Thomasine ritual is replete with meditative elements where all initiates, and not merely the priest, are invited to contemplate. Meditation is a form of ritual and ritual is a form of meditation.

08 May, 2012

Why isn't Gnosticism more popular?

This is an excellent question someone raised with me earlier this month. We were talking about the growth of various forms of contemplative/meditative "spirituality" in recent years and my interlocutor asked me why I thought Gnosticism hadn't taken off.

In part, Gnosticism isn't a well-established brand. The things one thinks of when thinking of Buddhism, for example, are fairly set. There are going to be variations based on the specific tradition, but people understand that there are things that go into the container "Buddhism" which make it different from the things going into the container "Christianity."

Gnosticism, on the other hand, can mean anything from the "Gnostic Restoration" of Jules Doniel and its attendant entanglement in 19th Century esotericism to the Apostolic Johannite Church and my own Thomasine Church.

Gnosticism suffers from an image problem: on one hand, doesn't look like it could possibly have anything relevant to say about the human condition and, on the other hand, it can look, sound, and smell far too much like traditional Christianity--so much so that it is off-putting to people who might otherwise be receptive to its message.

"Gnosticism" is relatively useless without a qualifier of some sort, and that's why I think it's not more popular. There are probably more Gnostics (e.g. someone who seeks Gnosis) out there than there are adherents of Gnosticism, but I suspect those aforementioned people may not think of themselves as Gnostics.

When I explain what I mean when I say "Thomasine Gnosticism," people tend to be receptive. If they're looking for a contemplative tradition rooted in the Gospel of Thomas that doesn't sound completely alien, they tend to hang around. If I say "Oh, I'm a Gnostic" or "I practice Gnosticism," people tend to be less receptive; it carries no particular message about the things you might do or what beliefs you might hold. Conversely, saying "I'm a Christian" without qualifiers at least says that you believ in a guy named Jesus who had 12 Apostles, who  was crucified, died, and resurrected. You may believe that last part literally or allegorically, but I think you get the idea here.

Anymore, I tend to agree with Jeremy Puma. "Gnosticism" is a dead horse or at least an empty one. Long live Gnosis.

My Gnosis (Sometimes) Looks Like This...

Seek the darkness so that there may be light.

I found this image years ago and am unsure who to credit. 

Playing with Symbols

The Holy Ghost (Wisdom) descends upon the Tau (itself a symbol of life and resurrection) which is swept up in the waves of Illumination. The three steps represent Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Nasrani Menorah/Symbol, but hopefully different enough that it won't lead to confusion.

I tend to be pretty clear that I cannot and do not represent the Malabar/Jacobite Thomasine tradition, which is a form of orthodox Christianity; but, just in case, the disclaimer is here.

04 May, 2012

Divinity Talk + Rosamonde Miller

Q: Why is it you don't frame Gnosis in the context of reunion with God or The Divine?

A:  If I had to describe my outlook I would describe myself as a Naturalistic Pantheist. That's one of the reasons I threw my hat in with the Thomasine Church; the initiate is encouraged to question the fundamental assumptions he or she makes about self and the world "outside." This includes socio-cultural and religious belief or assumptions. God and the concept of "Divinity" are assumptions. Those assumptions are not privileged above any others; they are something else to explore and illuminate.

Perhaps years ago I would have framed Gnosis in the context of Divine union, or an ecstatic experience of the Divine vis a vis Theresa of Avila or Hildegard von Bingen, but those things fell away and ceased to have meaning.

I know it may sound odd to say this, but it's really difficult to explain why things like "God" and "The Divine" are immaterial to Gnosis, because all I have is language, and Gnosis is a deep experience.

Q: Do you have any affiliation with Bishop Rosamonde Miller? What do you think  of her work?

A: I don't have any affiliation with Bishop Rosamonde. I've never met her. I did recently listen to an excerpt of an interview with her on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio (I still haven't figured out how to actually listen to a live show).

When I listened to Bishop Rosamonde talk of her experiences I felt like she could, in some way, be talking about things that I have experienced. I very deeply appreciate her de-emphasis of hierarchy outside of ritual and her willingness to maintain a space where people can come to contemplate and explore Gnosis.

03 May, 2012

What Do Gnostics Do? Six years later...

Q: Do you regret writing your "What do Gnostics do?" post?

A: No, I don't. For one thing, the post reflects where I was on my journey at that point in time. For another thing, by asking "What do Gnostics do?" I started to think about what Gnosis was and how, or if, Gnosis could be achieved. Some people joined me in that discussion. Other people just got angry and wrote me off as an agitprop. The post on this blog was written some time after a post on a now-defunct forum called The Palm Tree Garden.

I sincerely wanted to hear, from people more steeped in the experience of Gnosis than I, what sort of things people did. Did they pray? Did they meditate? Did they practice hesychasm? Were the sacraments practiced by Gnostic churches helpful? Was using the Mass from the Knott Missal and replacing certain parts with verse and prose from the Nag Hammadi texts really the best way to have a Gnostic Eucharist? Why was Apostolic Succession important? Does Apostolic Succession really matter?

Questions tend to make people uncomfortable. Questions are a form of scrutiny, and scrutiny is uncomfortable. Asking those questions made me uncomfortable, probably just as much as they made other people uncomfortable; but, that's how I knew I was asking the right questions.

And now we have people like Jeremy Puma who are "doing Gnosis" on their own terms and questioning the assumptions made by many in the ecclesiastical Gnostic movement. I can't take credit for that, obviously, but I am glad I asked those questions and that other people took them seriously enough to think about them and to attempt to form answers to them.

27 April, 2012

More from the Mailbag: Q&A

Q: Does the Thomasine Church use the standard liturgical calendar?

A: Not to my knowledge. The Thomasine canon doesn't include any texts that mention most of the things that are commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the orthodox Christian church. We allude to some things that the orthodox Bible talks about, like the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, but we don't have St. So-and-So's day or commemorate Easter.

For the Thomasine Church, every time we gather to offer the Leitourgia we are celebrating the Awakening of Jesus as we celebrate the capacity for that same awakening within ourselves.

Q: What do you offer in the Leitourgia? You've used the phrase "offer the Leitourgia" a few times.

A: We offer those things from within ourselves that prevent us from becoming like Jesus. During a part of the Leitourgia called the Ceremony of Light we burn slips of paper with those limitations written on them. The Thomasine initiate is meant to focus on the release of or destruction of those particular obstructions. At some gatherings, the priest (or bishop) will allow several minutes of contemplation prior to burning the paper.

Q: Does the Thomasine Church teach the Real Presence of Christ in the bread or wine?

A: During the Epiklesis of the Leitourgia we ask that the "presence" of Jesus is there among us as we drink from the cup. For us, this action recalls Logion 108 of the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus said, "He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he.."

We week to make The Living Jesus present among us by seeking Liberation and Illumination as he himself did.

Q: Are Thomasine initiates discouraged from the concurrent practice of other methods (like Zazen or Martinism)?

A: No. The "tools" provided via Thomasine hesychastic practice are presented as a starting point. All that is asked of Thomasine initiates is that they are willing to pursue the techniques taught as part of the Thomasine method. Personally, I ask that my students discuss their involvement in other practices with me, but by no means do they need to seek my permission to engage in them.

Q: Why doesn't the Thomasine Church make use of the minor orders like the Apostolic Johannite Church or the Ecclesia Gnostica? What is clerical formation like in the Thomasine Church?

A: The minor orders don't really have a place in the Thomasine Church. We felt that making use of the minor orders was cumbersome and that the roles filled by individuals in minor orders could just as easily be filled by any initiate.

Clerical formation begins with the first steps of Thomasine practice. Our deacons are primarily concerned with deepening their own contemplative practice and teaching that to others. As a process, the road to ordination is one of self-discovery, scrutiny, and education. You're expected to have a stable practice involving Thomasine techniques, to have a sound understanding of what we teach in the Thomasine church, and a willingness to continue teaching that to others.

While we don't have a formal seminary, you will be asked to read (or re-read) numerous books and have copious discussions with the bishop who will eventually ordain you.

26 April, 2012

But is it Gnostic?!

I am asked, fairly often, whether or not I think the Gospel of Thomas is really "Gnostic." I must preface this post by making it very clear that I am not a scholar of Ancient Christianity or even what we've come to call ancient "Gnosticism." My academic background is in cultural anthropology (particularly focused on ethnic identity construction) and education (Student Affairs Administration & Counseling), so I shan't present even the slightest pretense of having the scholarly bonafides to really answer this question.

All that and a set of the new Chrism Scented Bedsheets from Mar Shimun (available this Autumn at Wal-Mart!)...

I do not think that The Gospel of Thomas falls into the same category as either the Sethian Gnostic texts or the Valentinian texts. Thomas doesn't talk about archons, emanations, a Truly Perfect God™, or His Slightly Daft and Angsty Son Stu the Demiurge™. Thomas also isn't very world-denying or body-hating.

So, I do not think it's appropriate to say that Thomas is a product of an ancient Gnostic school.

The other tangentially related question I am asked is whether or not the Thomasine Church can really be said to be "Gnostic." Aside from the fact that we make use of verse from The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene and borrow sacramental names from The Gospel of Philip, we don't really teach from any texts that scholars (such as Dr. David Brakke and Dr. April DeConick) identify as having "Gnostic" characteristics.

So, the Thomasine Church probably isn't Gnostic in that it can claim a relationship to any historical Gnostic sect.

That's okay.

In a purely modern context, I would still be inclined to say that "Gnostic" is an appropriate descriptor for The Thomasine Church. Gnosis is what Thomasine Initiates seek.

Mailbag Q&A

Q: What do you mean when you say there's no self? I exist!

A: This is one of those times where I'm going to be mum and rather circumspect. No-self is a realization. It's a direct, experiential insight due to practice. If I tell you exactly what it means, it will be difficult for you to actually come to the realization on your own. Think about it. Who are you? Who sees? Who hears? What are you?

Q: Given the role of Apostolic Succession in orthodox Christianities why do you feel it's useful for Gnostics?

A: This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit recently, as the six year anniversary of my episcopal consecration recently passed. One of the original roles of Apostolic Succession was to be a kind of stamp of orthodoxy, so it seems a little funny that Gnostics would go ga-ga over something like that.

In a way, I think that taking Apostolic Succession is a way of saying "This too is in continuity with the teaching of Jesus." It's also sort of subversive in that we're taking what was once a stamp of orthodoxy and locating it within a Gnostic context.

It's a way of saying "A long time ago, someone had a really great message. He passed that message on to his disciples (students), and they passed it on to their students. However, somewhere along the way this message of very real liberation in the present moment became the tool of an imperial power and the meaning of that message was lost."

Apostolic Succession is in no way required for one to take on a teaching role in a Gnostic context. It's also not required for "valid" Gnostic sacraments. I talk more about that here.

In the context of the Thomasine Church we do say that you must have a certain ordination to perform certain sacraments, but I wouldn't say that the Leitourgia is any less useful if it's done by someone who is not a Thomasine priest.

25 April, 2012

Thomas the Contender

The savior said, "Brother Thomas while you have time in the world, listen to me, and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind. -- The Book of Thomas the Contender
Br. Jay from Nite Caravan asked me to discuss the role of Thomas the Contender in Thomasine teaching, as it relates to non-duality.

While the modern Thomasine Church is non-dualist, it's entirely possible that the communities who followed Thomas teachings in the ancient world accepted some kind of dualism; if not mind-body dualism then certainly body-spirit dualism. According to Dr. April DeConick, it's also possible that the Thomas community was an encratic apocalyptic sect.

In the Gospel of Thomas The Living Jesus says, in Logion 112, "woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh." Here, it seems, Jesus is pointing out the banality of the notion of a discrete soul-self which exists independently of you. The body cannot depend on the soul for existence and the soul cannot depend on the body for existence. If you attempt to make body and soul separate both will perish, but if they are one then they will live.

Moreover, those who have sight among things that are not visible, without the first love they will perish in the concern for this life and the scorching of the fire. Only a little while longer, and that which is visible will dissolve; then shapeless shades will emerge, and in the midst of tombs they will forever dwell upon the corpses in pain and corruption of soul. -- The Book of Thomas the Contender

On the other hand, we have The Book of Thomas the Contender. We make relatively light use of the Book of Thomas in both sacramental and instructional contexts. It is useful in some places because Jesus and Thomas, through their dialogue, expound upon some of the themes presented aphoristically in the Gospel of Thomas.

However, it is important to remember that these texts were the products of particular places and times. The Book of Thomas hints very strongly that the community from whence it came was encratic, possibly encouraging celibacy and other ascetic practices.

So, where The Book of Thomas makes an argument for a separate soul, as in the passage above, we shrug our shoulders and go on. As the 14th Dalai Lama said, in reference to science contradicting Buddhist teaching, we must be open to removing that which is contradicted by science from our teaching.

23 April, 2012

Q: Can you elaborate on what composes the canon of the Thomasine Church

A: Explicitly, the Thomasine Church includes The Gospel of Thomas, The Hymn of the Pearl, and The Book of Thomas the Contender Writing to the Perfect in its canon.

While the Thomasine Church doesn't explicitly include anything else, we don't explicitly exclude anything else either. In our Leitourgia, for example, we borrow a verse from The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene. I've explained the process of meditation using verses from The Gospel of Matthew and used verses from Wisdom/Proverbs in liturgies. Our notion of canonicity is fairly soft. The main texts that we teach from, however, are the ones I bolded.

Q: What's the difference between the Thomasine Church and the Apostolic Johannite Church?

A: That's a tricky question. I haven't spoken with a Johannite Gnostic in er... six or seven years. The biggest difference is probably the most obvious one: we show up for the Thomasine Stuff and they show up for the Johannite Stuff. If I had to take a guess, I would say that for the Johannites the Eucharist is the big unifying sacrament, and it's central to Johannite life. For the Thomasine Church, I would say that the Apolytrosis is the bigger deal.

The Thomasine philosophy is also non-dualist. Whereas one Johannite priest seems to make an argument for some kind of pre-birth existence of a soul or spirit which is distinctly you, we don't.

Their ecclesiastical structure is also much more Western/Latin Rite than that of the Thomasine Church, which is more Eastern or Assyrian in nature. Where a Johannite diocese has a Bishop, we have an eparchy with an Eparch. They have Primates, we have Exarchs (like me). They have minor orders... we don't.

You might try asking Fr. Scott Rasbach or Fr. Jordan Stratford of the AJC about the AJC. They know more about it than I do.

Q: Can you explain how the episcopacy works in the Thomasine Church? I heard that all Thomasine initiates receive episcopal consecration.

A: We have three different positions for bishops. I'm probably the most confusing bishop alive, for example. I was appointed a Chorbishop, received episcopal consecration as a result of that, enthroned as Eparch of Florida, and then later appointed an Exarch. An Exarch is a bishop who is responsible for certain administrative functions in the Church and is also generally responsible for a large geographical area.

There are separate rituals for the consecration of an Eparch and a Chorbishop, but both receive the fullness of the priesthood, anointing of the head/crown with chrism & etc. The original idea was that a Chorbishop was a priest who lived too far away from an Eparch for the priest's students/temple to receive the sacraments which required a bishop. An Eparch was supposed to be a Thomasine initiate who had achieved a different "level" (for lack of a better word) of insight than had a priest.

Most Thomasine initiates do not receive episcopal consecration, although ideally every Thomasine initiate will eventually have achieved the insights requisite for the episcopacy.

Q: Is anointing with Chrism optional in your church as it is in the Anglican churches?

A: Chrism is required for the Sphragis, priestly ordination, and episcopal consecration. The anointing of the hands and, in the case of bishops, the head are essential elements of the three rites I mentioned. Excepting extraordinary circumstances, Chrism is not optional. According to our rubrics, you must anoint the hands of a priest and you must anoint the head of a bishop. The same goes for Sphragis. The initiate must receive the anointing.

There's no such thing as a Thomasine evangelical, so we don't tend to have too many issues with people rejecting traditional things, like the use of Chrism.

You are who you are...

[The Living] Jesus said, "Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. For there is nothing hidden which will not become manifest."
When I talk to people about meditation and the notion of realization or transformation, people often tell me that they're frustrated with their practice because they feel they're not becoming "what they should be" or they feel that they were meant to be something or someone else.

We all create idealized images of what should be; we do it with ourselves, with our jobs and careers, with our families, and our loved ones. When we do not achieve our idealized image of ourselves, or others fail to live up to our expectations, we become angry, upset, sad, reproachful, and any number of other things. The creation of idealized images of ourselves and others is a cause of suffering and desire. Thomasine initiates spend time contemplating the nature of the self and through this grapple with the idealized notions of self and other.

As I often tell my students this process will not make you other than who you are. The initiate is still fully human, still prone to all of the folly and foible that humanity entails. There is a tendency among some meditators, perhaps all, to try to put on a costume and pretend that somehow they are no longer prone to this desire, and that is something that's extremely destructive to practice.

 You might wonder what the point of practice is if it's not to create "perfection." The point of practice is to see the you that is in the present moment. See past the illusory veils of idealized self-imagery, see past the illusions you have created about others in your life.

Do I still fall prone to this pitfall? Yes, sometimes. I went through a period of time where I was deeply unhappy that I was unable to find a job in my field due to the recession leading to a reduction in hiring. I kept telling myself "I should have a job with X title, Y responsibility, and Z salary." I suffered greatly, fell into self-loathing and depression because of my inability to do what I felt I should be doing. I wasn't earning enough money, I was working in a job that didn't even require a high school diploma, much less a post-graduate degree.

I became so fixated on the ideal that I had created for myself, my career, and my life that I was unable to see that there were other ways to change my circumstances. Once I realized what I was doing, I was able to see that there were other paths right in front of me; maybe they were things I hadn't considered before, but without the ability to accept the things that were I was unable to change my circumstances.

19 April, 2012

Nepsis: Watchfulness

The disciples said to Jesus, "Tell us how our end will be." Jesus said, "Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be. Blessed is he who will take his place in the beginning; he will know the end and will not experience death."

[The Living Jesus said] "....Therefore I say to you, if the owner of a house knows that the thief is coming, he will begin his vigil before he comes and will not let him into his house of his domain to carry away his goods. You, then, be on your guard against the world. Arm yourselves with great strength lest the robbers find a way to come to you, for the difficulty which you expect will (surely) materialize. Let there be among you a man of understanding. When the grain ripened, he came quickly with his sickle in his hand and reaped it. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear."

A reader enquired about a word I used in my last post. In traditional hesychastic practice, Nepsis is a state of watchfulness over one's emotions. In the Philokalia the Desert Fathers speak of the temptations of demons who seek to cause the hesychast to stray from the path.

In the mythical allegory used by the Thomasine Church, from The Hymn of the Pearl, we call those "the Wicked Ones" or "the demons of the labyrinth." As naturalists, we understand, of course, that these are not literal physical demons, but rather thoughts and emotions that distract someone. We chiefly think of these Wicked Ones as the "negative emotions," but any emotion or thought can be a distraction from contemplation.

My teacher used to tell me "Pay attention!" I would respond "I am paying attention!" I thought he meant I wasn't paying attention during our conversation, but he was intimating that I should pay attention to my own mind. It took me a long time to actually understand what "attention" meant in this particular context.

One cultivates nepsis by being aware of the thoughts one has from their beginning to their end. My own teacher called it riding the wave. I usually describe nepsis as watching oneself walking under a tree while sitting in the branch above. One of my students uses the image of an archaeologist sifting sand through a screen to find artifacts.

This technique is pretty difficult to explain in a blog post. It's one I've only been taught (and taught) by talking with someone. However, the two images I used above can be helpful. When you begin to feel an emotion, start paying attention. What led to the emotion arising? How long did it last? How did you feel when you experienced the emotion? Are you still presently experiencing the emotion as you are thinking these things?

18 April, 2012

Gnostic Meditation & The Thomasine Method

I keep telling people that I will write about meditation in the Thomasine tradition. I've also discussed how I feel about sharing too much, because many of the Thomasine techniques are meant to be discussed with one's teacher or within a group of Thomasine initiates. However, I feel comfortable sharing the basics.

Because some of you have asked, I don't know if the Thomasine technique is like zazen or vipasana; it may be and it may not be.

Luminescent Water

Luminescent Water is one of the most basic techniques and is used by every Thomasine Initiate at some point in practice. Often, the Initiate learns techniques for cultivating nepsis prior to, or concurrently with, instruction in Luminescent Water.

Sit in a comfortable place. If you have a zafu and zabuton, a seiza bench, a taize bench, a gomden, or any of the numerous sitting appliances sold by any of the numerous vendors of meditation supplies, you may use whatever you feel is most effective. I have scoliosis and lumbar problems, so I switch between seiza/taize style on a zafu and a straight-backed dining room chair.

If you sit in a chair, sit very slightly forward so that your back is not resting against the back of the chair; this will help you to remain physically alert while meditating. Try to sit in a place where you will not be interrupted unless it's particularly urgent.

Are you sitting on something? Yes? Spiffy.

Now, with your eyes half-closed, visualize a stream of sunlit water flowing in through your feet. Follow the course of the water through your legs, thighs, pelvis, up into your stomach, into your chest, through your arms, and then into your head.

Some of my students visualize the water flowing into their heads, down into the arms, into the chest, stomach, pelvis, thighs, legs, and exiting through the feet. I've done it both ways, and it doesn't really seem to matter which way I visualize the water flowing.

As you sit, pay attention to the way you feel as you visualize the water flowing through each part of your body. If you become distracted, simply acknowledge the distraction and move on. If you fish, it's a bit like the "catch and release" policy many states have for certain species. If you're distracted by a car horn, you can think or say "I heard a car honk its horn" and then return to the visualization.

I recommend that my students start with 10-15 minutes once a day. As students become accustomed to sitting, it's acceptable to sit for as long as you like. Some students have a preference for doing Luminescent Water in the morning and working on other techniques during the evening.

Common Pitfalls

"I should be able to sit for X minutes. My meditation is a failure if I can't sit for at least X minutes."

Your mind is what your mind is at the moment. Try to avoid creating expectations about what your experience should be and simply allow it to be as it happens.

"I have too many distracting thoughts or noisy occurrences."

That's okay. If you've tried acknowledging the distraction and, once it passes, returning to the visualization and still feel you can't focus, there's no harm in ending your session until you reach a time when there are less physical distractions or you feel like meditating again. 

"Thoughts or experiences come up that I can't or don't want to deal with."

That's okay. These things happen. Please feel free to stop your meditation and return to it once you feel ready. If the same thought or experience continues to arise, it is possibly something that requires attention. This is one of those times when having a teacher, spiritual director, or a meditation group can be helpful. I am happy to try and help as I have the time and ability. 

"I fall asleep when I lie down to meditate."

Me too. I had some problems with my back recently and spent a lot of time lying down as a result. I found it helpful to avoid closing my eyes at all while meditating in this posture. Also, if you can use a yoga/exercise mat or a plushly carpeted area, you may find you have less trouble falling asleep, because you aren't using your bed. 

One other common pitfall is becoming too attached to the place or objects used in meditation. It can be helpful to try meditating on a park bench or on your porch, for example. Thomasine students are encouraged to create personal "sacred space" from which to meditate but are also cautioned against cultivating attachment to that space.

12 April, 2012

Newsweek: Forget the Church, Follow Jesus

N.B. This was originally posted on April 6th at my Wordpress blog.
Q: Bishop, how do you feel about Andrew Sullivan’s April 9th Newsweek article entitled “Forget the Church Follow Jesus?”
A: I find myself in agreement with much that Mr. Sullivan has to say about what institutional Christianity has become and, as a former evangelical, many of his comments on the paucity of both evangelical theology and the evangelical Jesus strike close to home.
Like Mr. Sullivan, I want nothing to do with the vapid Jesus of Joel Osteen, nor the damning Jesus of Fred Phelps, nor the Jesus of the Catholic Church.
I am a Gnostic. I reject Sullivan’s literal belief in the Incarnation and divinity of Jesus.
We now understand that the canonical Gospels were written long after the death of the historical Jesus and that the Gospels may not describe the life of that Jesus with any degree of accuracy. We know that the Gospels are probably best understood from the twin perspectives of myth and allegory. Further, we now have a better understanding of precisely how the canon of the New Testament came to be and the amazing diversity of the early Christian milieu–both pre and ante-Nicene.
On one hand, we know that, historically, there is no way to prove the virgin birth of Jesus or any of the other miraculous/supernatural claims about him. We know that “Christ” was a title and not a surname. On the other hand, we know it’s likely that Jesus said some stuff. Years ago a group called The Jesus Seminar convened to try and figure out how likely it was that Jesus actually said and did the things recorded in the canonical Gospels.
We know that the Jesus tradition, at least early on, was largely an oral tradition; that shouldn’t be surprising given that the literacy rates in the ancient world weren’t stellar; yet, much of what the Jesus of the canonical Gospels said is good. If people (including me) actually lived as Jesus exhorts them to, the world would be a phenomenally different place.
If we loved our enemies, perhaps we would have fewer.
If we were simply willing to turn the other cheek now and again, perhaps there would be less strife and discord.
If we left our families in sense that we were willing to engage in radical questioning regarding the things our families taught us, perhaps we would have fewer stereotypes, cease seeking to restrict the civil rights of those who are different, and perhaps we would be more open to the reality of the experiences of the “other” instead of seeing them as inherently alien and threatening.
I am also struck by the similarity of Sullivan’s Jesus and that of The Living Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas; for the messages of these Jesuses to ring true today, there is no need to believe in miracles or the supernatural, but rather one must simply see wisdom for what it is.
Live by what Jesus himself (may have) said and not what Paul says about him or what Joel Osteen says about him, or what the Church Fathers under the yoke of the Roman Emperor thought he said.
I don’t mean to imply that my idea of Jesus means that I must somehow leave my experiences as a Gnostic Christian at home when I go to the polls, either. For example, Jesus’ exhortation in logion 25 of the Gospel of Thomas to “love your brother like your soul, [and] guard him like the pupil of your eye” resonates very strongly with me. If I feel that a politician isn’t going to do that, I don’t vote for them. When my elected representatives do something that I feel is not in line with that exhortation, I tell them so.

Maybe moving wasn't such a good idea

This is the blog that keeps on giving. I spoke with someone, the other day, who found my e-mail address by searching for "Florida gnostic church" on Google. Apparently, my mostly abandoned Blogger blog is the first search result for some permutations of that query.

That's kind of neat. At the very least, I will be posting both here and at the Wordpress blog I linked to in an earlier post.

I've always been kind of nervous about the whole idea of establishing me the brand when it comes to Gnosis and "spiritual stuff." As I have said in the past, it's not really about me as a person. There's nothing unique about me, at least in the context of the insights I've gained via meditative enquiry. Many people have had these insights.

While I've turned down offers to lecture for fees and resisted the calls to sell recorded lectures, I guess maybe snubbing the free, if unearned publicity Google has seen fit to bestow upon me is pretty daft.