Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

I was standing in a garden, a beautiful garden filled with gazebos and fountains, flooded with the light from hundreds, thousands, of the tiniest of oil lamps. It was the Hindu festival of Tihar, a five day long celebration of life that has its participants honoring all of creation. On this night, the festival manifested itself in flickering flames throughout Kathmandu. Out of the chaos that characterizes much of the city, I was guided through an aged stone portal and into this respite of quiet and charm called, most appropriately, The Garden of Dreams.

The Chinese concept of Yin and Yang came slowly to mind as I stood surrounded by candlelight, captivated by the contrast between the bedlam just beyond the garden's walls and this island of serenity. Recognizing the opposing forces of our nature that can keep us so wonderfully in balance or so painfully askew, I was grateful for this opportunity to experience its truth first hand.

Of course, a balanced life can be achieved in New York or North Dakota as easily as Nepal. It begins with the recognition that our spirit needs to be fed just as surely as our body. Such sustenance can come in a myriad of ways. For some it is traditional: communal worship, private prayer, ritual acts of obedience. For others, a less structured spiritual life takes its shape in a quiet walk through the woods or a boisterous song from the shower. The possibilities are endless, subject only to our own imaginations.

In the West, the truth of the aphorism: "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy." is played out in an epidemic of exhaustion that leaves parents little time with their children and almost none for each other. Our race to succeed in one world has us failing dismally in another. From well-appointed homes we send out children bereft of the spiritual nurture needed to bring our society back into balance.

Here in Nepal, where it is said there are more temples than houses, the quest for balance takes a decidedly different course. While Nepali culture should pride itself on its admirable hospitality toward differing religious traditions and its communal celebration of the spiritual life, one glance at a child rummaging through a pile of garbage on the side of a Kathmandu road is enough of a catalyst for an entirely different consideration. This is a country with one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world at $300. Balance for the Nepalese will come when bodies are fed as enthusiastically as their souls.

I have long been enamored with religious systems that not only recognize the theoretical merit of the balanced life but make its achievement a paramount goal. Among these attractive South Asian people, the work of Mother Teresa and The Sisters of Charity comes readily to mind. The sisters' adherence to a religious understanding I do not share doesn't prevent me from enthusiastically supporting their work among the poorest of the poor. To find similar sentiments in other traditions should be a cause for celebration rather than conflict. Be they Buddhists or Born-Again Christians, Sudanese Muslims or Sri Lanka Sikh, religious folk who find ways of putting the truth of the balanced life into practice are, at least in my mind, the holiest of people.

In our race for our own particular rewards, we can become so convinced that only our tradition, only our system of beliefs, only our understanding of history, only our concept of what is civilized and what is not, is the only legitimate means of measuring progress. By such foolish convictions we become terribly out of balance and our actions then reflect that instability. Recognizing this reality helps explain the sad predicament we in the West now find ourselves in.

Standing amidst the flickering flames in the mysteriously lovely Garden of Dreams, I see not just the beauty of one night in Kathmandu but perhaps the answer to a world gone terribly wrong.