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Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life Hardcover – April 19, 2011
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Q&A with Author Richard Rohr
The phrase “two halves of life” was first popularized by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist. He says that there are two major tasks. In the first half [of life] you've got to find your identity, your significance; you create your ego boundaries, your ego structure, what I call “the creating of the container.” But that's just to get you started. In the second half of life, once you've created your ego structure, you finally have the courage to ask: What is this all for? What am I supposed to do with this? Is it just to protect it, to promote it, to defend it, or is there some deeper purpose? The search for meaning is the task of the second half of life. (This is not always a chronological matter – I've met 11 year-old children in cancer wards who are in the second half of life, and I have met 68 year-old men like me who are still in the first half of life.)
Why is the “further journey” of the second half of life especially important for people of faith who are seeking a deeper relationship with God?
I think the further journey has to be clarified especially for religious people because for the most part we've pushed off the journey into the next world. We’ve made the teaching of Jesus largely into an evacuation plan for the next world so we don’t have to take this world seriously, this life, this earth, what's happening right here or now. The further journey has to happen in this world. I wrote the book because I want to say the further journey happens in this world and then you're ready for heaven. You're living in heaven now, you're practicing for heaven and so heaven is not even a big change of venue. It's a continuation of what you've already begun to experience.
What do you mean when you say, “we grow by falling down”?
You know, when I chose the title of Falling Upward I thought that surely there would be six other books with that title. Believe it or not, there weren't. I thought it was a perfect title because it conveys a sense of paradox. The first part of the title (about falling) isn't about what you expect. In fact, most of our concern in the first half of life is about rising, achieving, accomplishing, performing. I tried deliberately to use a somewhat shocking or controversial phrase, implying that there is a necessary falling that comes into every life. It's not like you have to manufacture or create the falling; it will happen. If you can find grace or freedom in and through that falling, you find that it moves you forward, upward, broader, deeper, better—to growth. That’s just the opposite of what you first think when you fall, fail, or lose.
What is so important about the idea of necessary suffering? Why is it necessary?
The question of why is suffering necessary is probably the greatest and most problematic question in Christian theology. Why is there suffering? How is God good if there's so much suffering on this Earth? There’s no answer that appeals to the rational mind. The answer lies elsewhere; I'm going to therefore start with the psychology. Carl Jung and many others said that suffering is the only thing strong enough to defeat the imperial ego. In other words, when you're in control, in charge, looking good, building your tower of success -- which is what you expect a young person to be doing into their 30s -- you get so addicted to it that you think it's the only game in town. When that game falls apart, it’s because it's largely a self-constructed game, a game at which you can look good, you can succeed, you're building your own kingdom, which is not, in Christian language, what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, so your little kingdom usually has to fail you. It has to fall apart. It has to, or you'll remain narcissistic, egocentric well into your later years, asking questions like what makes me feel good? What makes me look good? What makes me make money? Many people do. It might feel like success, but no spiritual teacher would agree. First half of life preoccupations won't get you into the great picture, the big picture, which Jesus would call the Reign of God. So, necessary suffering is whatever it takes to make your small self fall apart, so you can experience your big self--maybe what Buddhists would say is your Buddha self. We would say your Christ self, your God self. It doesn't really matter. You can tell people who have passed over from the first to the second half of life, usually you can tell it within the first ten minutes, whether someone is still building their tower of success. And that isn't even wrong; it's just they have something else to experience, and you pray for them and you hope that they will be able to see suffering as a doorway and not an obstacle when it happens.
What do you think prevents many of us from growing in the second half of life?
If you eliminate necessary suffering in the first half of life and you don't know anything about the second half of life, you won’t know what to do. As a Christian, I would say that's why we largely don't understand Jesus. He's talking from the ultimate perspective of maturity and we're all back here just trying to look good. It doesn't work.
Right now there's a lot going on in the world. We have a financial crisis in the U.S. We had a natural disaster in Japan, political upheaval in the Middle East. How would you address suffering in regard to those situations?
I can talk about necessary suffering somewhat glibly and theologically, but if I were in Japan right now, I might not be talking about it so easily. Or if I was a rebel in Libya, perhaps I would not be talking about it so glibly. We have to try to talk about it, to give some kind of frame, to give some kind of direction or meaning, but it never satisfies the rational mind. As a Christian, we're the only religion that has a very strange God image: a naked, bleeding, dying man. A naked, bleeding man is not a natural, even rational or even attractive, image of God. It's not an image anybody would have expected, really. It's about as counterintuitive as you can get. And, so, as a Christian, I've got to say: if I am to believe that Jesus is the image of God, then what is Jesus saying about the nature of God? He's saying, “I am in this crucified situation with you.” For those who are suffering, those who can gaze upon the crucified one, it is an unbelievable consolation to the soul. It gives deep meaning to human suffering. At the heart of Christianity is what I call the myth of redemptive suffering. Actually, even though Jesus gave us the myth of redemptive suffering, if I look at most of our history, the myth we've really lived out of is the myth of redemptive violence, that somehow by killing bad people, we were going to redeem the world and make the world safe for democracy or safe for Christianity. Jesus gives no such message. He doesn't inflict suffering on other people. He, as the image of God, participates in the pain of the world, and that's an answer to the soul. I admit, it is not a satisfying answer to the brain. When you're seeing your loved ones suffering, you better be looking at the crucified every hour, and trying to find some meaning for the soul, because the rational mind will rebel (and it probably should).
What are the qualities of people who have successfully taken the further journey into the second half of their life?
You can recognize a second half of life person is by a kind of inner outpouring, a kind of inner generativity. They're not guarded. They're not overly self-protected. They're looking for ways to give themselves away, because they're now living out of their abundance, and they find that it's an overflowing wealth. I think of a wonderful woman like Maya Angelou. When she talks, you yourself feel grounded because she is. You want to be compassionate because you can feel the compassion in her very voice. You want to have soft eyes, because you see her soft eyes. It almost comes through non verbally, but you especially see her concern about others. So, second half of life people are generative people. They're people who've learned to pay back. They know they've been given to abundantly so now they say, "Okay, I've got enough. In fact, I've been given more than enough, and the only thing that makes sense is to give away this generous grace that has been handed to me when so many people in this world have never experienced it." So in the second half of life, I think you have an increased empathy and sympathy; you know inside how much it hurts to hurt, and so when you see another person hurting, you can feel it and you know, many times, that you can't change it. Most of the time you can't change it, so you want to pray for them. You want to help them if you can. You want to send good energy toward them. You want to give them wisdom that will lead them out of their suffering according to your gift, and we're each gifted in different ways. What you'll never not find in a second half of life person is this universal caring.
I want to emphasize, finally, the word universal. In the first half of life, as Jesus put it, you can only care for your neighbor, those who are your own religion, your own class, your own social group, your own skin color. That means very little by the second half of life. You've learned to see the soul, and once you see the soul, you see it's evenly distributed, and you don't look at externals. They don't mean that much. You know that the wino on the street has just as much a soul as the rich man who's working at the bank. You stop being what we used to call a “respecter of persons.” Of course, that upsets first half of life people, because they think you're not patriotic. Now you see that Mexicans are just like Americans, that Americans aren't any better than Mexicans. Or, as a Catholic, you can’t say anymore that only Catholics are going to heaven. Lots of people who are still in the first half of life will say you're a heretic or disloyal or rebellious or unfaithful, but you are thick skinned enough that those criticisms don't deter you from what you know you have to do, what you know you have to be. You like to make people happy, but you don't need to please them to be happy yourself. A second half of life person knows that happiness comes from within, not from whether other people like you.
How can people start to look at that second half of their lives?
You can plan for it. As I say at the beginning of the book, you fall into it just like you fall into love. You normally have to fail through some form of transgression or humiliation or defeat (the necessary suffering). Then you can look to some elders, some wiser people in your circle of friends or to a book if you don’t have friends who know how to guide you across the transition and into the second half of life. We're a culture with many elderly people but not a lot of elders.
How do you hope your book will make a difference in people’s lives?
Well, I guess first of all I hope it’s going to give them courage and some kind of safety in that courage. Most of us have been taught to be afraid of ourselves, afraid of our journey, afraid of our mistakes, our sins. Sin was something you just didn’t do. But I don’t think that’s what the Bible is saying at all. The Bible takes sin for granted. It’s given, even in the Genesis story, where God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the apple. That creates the whole story line. God absolutely knows they’re going to eat the apple. That’s what creates the creative tension and it’s in the eating of the apple and the struggling with the relationship that they come to relationship with God. An awful lot of Christian people live in shame and guilt and enormous lack of self esteem. I knew the great spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen as a personal friend. We were walking once on the streets in Cincinnati and I said to him, “Henri, how would you define what the Church called original sin?” And he said, “Richard, I think original sin is humanity’s endless capacity for self-loathing, or maybe self-doubt.” I think that’s true, but sadly I think we in the world of religion have often contributed to that self-doubt and self-loathing. In that, we haven’t given the world good news at all, but bad news, and you know the world Gospel means good news. So I hope my book is a bit of a gospel. I hope it’s good news. I hope it’s truthful news, not false good news, but good news that really is good and new.
Review on CNN.com:
"Imperfect people" are sometimes more equipped than "perfect people" to help those who are struggling... The person who feels that he has ruined his life often has more capacity for humility and compassion."
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This is the third book that I have read by Father Rohr. I have also followed his daily meditations for perhaps the last 2 years. I read his message of spirituality as essentially two pronged:
First, our world, especially when we are younger, is “dualistic”. This dualism is reflected in our mindset of things being right or wrong-an “either/or” approach to life’s questions and problems. At some stage this must be largely replaced by “nondualism”, or unitary thinking, where “both/and” replaces “either/or”, especially as we examine our own life and psyche. This way of thinking will bring us to a point of compassion and love, what he feels is the essence of God.
Second, when we reach this level of consciousness we will be able to receive grace, or experience “oneness”, or however one best expresses a feeling of connectedness to all of creation. I emphasized “receive” because Father Rohr stresses that this holy acceptance is not something that must be earned, as it is always present. We are always at one with God or the universe, but our ego, or “either/or” thinking, prevents us from being in a spiritual position to receive and appreciate this grace. Indeed, he often faults organized religion, including his own Catholic Church, as having lost this essence of true Christian belief by clinging to ritual and fear to cement its power among parishioners.
The Naked Now is a collection of essays that wonderfully expands and explains the author’s spiritual message by numerous different questions and scenarios. Being so divided it is a very easy and enjoyable read, and can be reread in parts without the need to review the entire book. It stresses the need to “see as the mystics see”, referring to ancient men and women of faith who embraced the mystery of the world and of faith.
The work, like ancient Gaul, is divided into three parts. I read the first part as introducing the reader to non dual thinking and the contemplative mind. The author emphasizes that we must abandon dualistic thinking, as all the “mature religions” have done. By contrast, our culture seeks order and control through duality, not oneness and a presence in the now. Spirituality should be about finding a presence, and experiencing heaven now, not as some distant promise. By non dual thinking we can reach a higher level of consciousness, a higher level of seeing.
This sight is with our “third eye”. The first eye is the sensate–it grasps what we can actually see and feel. The second goes beyond that to include our imagination, intuition and reason, adding to the experience of the senses. The third eye represent the awe before an underlying mystery, a coherence and spaciousness that connects the viewer with everything else. The mystics see with this third eye.
When we see with our third eye our heart, body and mind are all simultaneously open and non resistant– what the author calls presence. He feels that contemplative thought is the path to this higher level of seeing, to having presence. Contemplation is an exercise in keeping your heart and mind spaces open long enough for the mind to see other hidden material. But true spirituality is not just accumulating more knowledge, but developing a new way of thinking and seeing things when one is present.
I am always drawn to the breadth of the author’s sense of spirituality. Although much of his belief and training are grounded in Christian Catholicism, he readily acknowledges the wisdom of other religions, including native ones. For me, he also adds a sense of what I might call secular spirituality by seeing “God” as not a wise person, but as a sense of oneness or connectedness. Indeed, he notes early writing suggesting that the word Yahweh was originally thought to be a duplication of the sound of breathing. He feels that concentrating on breathing, a basic meditative tool, makes one realize that he or she is
“ connected to humanity from caveman to cosmonauts, to the entire animal world, and even to the trees and the plants. And we are now told that the atoms we breathe are physically the same as the stardust from the original Big Bang. Oneness is no longer merely a vague mystical notion, but a scientific fact.”
It is this oneness that applies broadly to spirituality.
I think the second part is aimed more at seeing the basis for nondual thinking in Christian scriptures, and also further expanding on the need to reach a level of union in order to effect meaningful change.
He notes that Jesus always referred to himself as human, and sought private prayer as his refuge. In fact, the author feels that Jesus condemned public prayer, or was at least wary of it. This shows Jesus to be more of a contemplative thinker than one bound by ritual or dogma. The author also feels that Jesus’ warnings may have recognized that when we make too much of public prayer and ceremony, we risk using them for our own aggrandizement, rather than prayer being a interior practice to change the one who is praying.
Some ritual also tends to say “only” here or only there, or only in my church, rather than saying that God is always everywhere. The author feels that “Jesus is in effect saying that if God is everywhere, then God is not anywhere exclusively”. Yet groups, including churches, “hold together much better when there is a clear and defined ‘us’ and ‘them’, and when we are the superior ones.” This is again a criticism of dualistic thinking as debasing the Christian message. Indeed, Father Rohr seems adamant in his belief that any church that says its way is the only way has missed the whole crux of Christianity.
The author’s reading of the scriptures sees Jesus as an instrument of change, a change here on earth. He feels that the use of the “kingdom of God” by Jesus was a metaphor for a new consciousness, not a place or an afterlife, but a way of seeing and thinking now. “The kingdom of God is the naked now- the world without human kingdoms, ethnic communities, national boundaries, or social identifications”.
I believe the author really encapsulates much of his feelings in a few passages. He speaks of prayer as resonance.
“Prayer is actually a tuning fork. All you can really do in the spiritual life is get tuned to receive the always present message. Once you get tuned you will receive, and it has nothing to do with worthiness or the group you belong to, but only inner resonance and a capacity for mutuality. Prayer is indeed the way to make contact with God/Ultimate Reality, but it is not an attempt to change God’s mind about us or about events. Such attempts are what the secularists make fun of- and rightly so.” Prayer is about changing you, not God.
He then admits to his position:
“You can see that in this book I am a man of one major idea: immediate, unmediated contact with the moment is the clearest path to divine union; naked, undefended and nondual presence has the best chance of encountering the Real Presence.”
This is consistent with his overriding insistence that Grace/Heaven/Oneness/Union is always within us and must be received, not earned. We receive it by being present. And we are present when we have lost control, when we have suffered greatly or loved greatly and thus removed our barriers and become prepared for union.
I read part three as expanding on the nature of nondual thinking, attempting to clarify it for the reader. The author points out what it is not–it is not relativism, or mere skepticism, or merely saying there are two sides to everything. It is not some fuzzy or esoteric way of thinking and avoiding all judgments or taking appropriate positions, but does not allow one to begin by judgmentally searching for error and sin in others so that he or she can eliminate it or project it on others. It is just a broader way of seeing that doesn’t eliminate possibilities out of hand, that doesn’t exclude the mystical, that accepts paradox. The author feels that embracing paradox is necessary to see things, and life, in a different way. Everything and everybody has contradictions, not necessarily “good” and “bad”, but just inconsistencies that might seem less so if seen from a different point of view. The author feels that most Western religions have tended to “objectify paradoxes in dogmatic statements that demand mental agreement instead of any inner experience of the mystery revealed”.
When one can accept paradox, and become nondual, he or she is aware, and has fallen into a pure consciousness separate from himself. One stops labeling people and just sees them. One is no longer defined by status, or wealth, or group affiliations, even churches or temples. His identity comes from himself, even though he finds himself connected to everybody and everything. One still needs to love and serve others, but not in order to define yourself either positively or negatively. Indeed, the author feels that one must experience human love to access God as love, and that if you never let God love you, you will not know how to love humanity in the deepest way.
The author sees the basic Christian teaching of the Trinity as reflecting the non-dual nature of the gospel. Jesus is the personification of nondualism. If a Christian can live in the concept of the Trinity, then “either-or” thinking becomes useless. But Father Rohr feels that most Christians have not really embraced the mystery of the Trinity, but just believed it to be true and then gone on to other things. As he says so often, the churches must go beyond dual thought to properly deliver the message of the Gospel. He also points out that,
“Although I am a Catholic Christian, I am impressed that all three of the great Asian religions- Hindu Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, and Chinese Taoism- build upon a world view of nonduality and paradox.”
In one of his last chapters, he perhaps summarizes much of what he is saying in what he calls “Principles of Likeness”:
“The enormous breakthrough is that when you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else, too, and you know it is just as undeserved and unmerited as it is in you. This is why you stop judging, and that is how you start loving unconditionally and without asking whether someone is worthy or not.”
I feel that this book is an excellent reference for the teachings of Richard Rohr. It’s series of short chapters makes it very readable, if not a bit repetitious. However, he acknowledges that there may be quite a bit of duplicity in this writing, but that it helps to understand the concepts of non-dual thinking and the gift of grace in many different contexts. It has great appeal to me as a person unaffiliated with any church, uncertain about the mysteries of faith, but searching for a rather universal sense of spirituality. The author always stresses that no one religion has all the answers, and that any that so claim are clearly wrong. His concept of faith and love is all encompassing, inclusive, and accepts that mysteries are found in both the secular and the religious worlds. He challenges the reader to just reflect, to be contemplative, and to be willing to search for the union that he feels is present in the world.
I reccommned this book (and other Rohr books) if you are trying to move into a productive second half of life.
The layout of Richard's total message is structured around the seven themes of his teaching: Methodology, Foundation, Frame, Ecumenism, Transformation, Process and Goal. In each category of thought he delivers short, focused (but very accessible) insights that together build an integrated worldview of God's creation and our place in it. Reading this book is like savoring daily meetings with a loving, human and deeply inspired personal spiritual director.