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Inner Holidays in the Age of Thugs

by Dean Sluyter

Cue the Christmas music: Sleigh bells ring, chestnuts roast, it's the most wonderful time of the year ...


We've entered our first holiday season since the new dark age descended: the age of crude, cruel, ignorant thugs in charge, the age of the dangerously, perhaps catastrophically reckless driver at the wheel. Not surprisingly, patients in record numbers are calling on psychiatrists and demanding to be medicated … sixty-somethings, who lived through the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and 9/11, are telling pollsters that this is the most frightening time they've ever experienced … twenty-somethings continue in their epidemic of chronic anxiety … illicit drugs, once used to explore and expand consciousness, are now used to turn off, tune out, and drop dead.

Yeah, mustering that good old jingle bell spirit this year is a challenge. We want to spin the dreidel or rock around the Christmas tree, roast the turkey and watch the game, and know that things are OK, or will be any day now. But it's hard.

In easier times, the soothing repetition of our holiday rituals reassured us. We didn't have to reflect too deeply on their meaning: it was enough that they gave us a pretext to gather our families together in the name of something uplifting, even if our sense of what that something might be was pretty vague.

Now we're compelled to dig deeper. Taken literally, our miracle stories of the virgin birth and the resurrection, or the oil burning in the temple for eight days, just don't fly for most people. But for these stories to have resonated through so many centuries, there must be something more profound at their core than dusty legends that have outlived their shelf life.

The Chanukah story tells of a people oppressed and besieged, who finally rebuild their destroyed temple and rekindle their sacred flame. They fear that, without some outer source to refuel it, the perpetual light in their inner sanctum will burn out — but then, on its own, and in defiance of all reasonable expectation, it shines on. Our inner sanctum is the core of our own being: our deepest, most intimate, most interior space. Vaguely or clearly, we sense a light there, the silent, steady pilot light of pure Being, the light that sparks our every movement and moment, and which we somehow share with all others. In dark times like these, when everything seems under threat, we may well fear that this flame is in danger of being extinguished.

Christianity's two central miracles also defy all reasonable expectation: a virgin gives birth, her son transcends death. But, like the light in the temple, the nonliteral Jesus personifies the light of the world, our inner light, with the implied promise that even the harshest crucifixions cannot snuff it out.

What makes that promise hard to accept is our real-world experience: everything is vulnerable and finite. As the Buddha said just before his death, "All things, having been put together, must come apart." Our bodies are put together. So are our societies and customs, our collective and personal histories, our fleeting thoughts and our most firmly, passionately held beliefs. So are planets and molecules.

Seeing religion as put-together custom and belief, many people turn away. But perhaps that rejection is premature. Look deeper. All the sages, including Buddha and Jesus and the Baal Shem Tov, have advised us to look within. Sit down, be quiet, drop your attitude (whether smiley-face spirituality or frowny-face despair), drop your thoughts, drop your past and future, drop your doubts and expectations, drop your hopes as well as your fears, drop everything that can be dropped, and see what remains.

Don't try to push anything away; whatever it is, just relax your grip and let it drop on its own. Don't insist that it stay dropped for the rest of your life or even for the next minute; that would be holding onto an expectation. Just drop it now. And then now. And then now. And then now. After a while, stand up and go about your business, including the business of good citizens who do what they can to help save their country from thugs. Then tomorrow, sit down and drop everything again.

Don't try to figure this out — stop making sense — it's the peace that passes all understanding. Just keep doing this, and, gradually or suddenly, you'll notice something: a light (for lack of a better word) that's deeper than belief and custom and Christmas songs and everything else that's been put together, deeper than all your ideas about yourself and your world. It's the light that made the Buddha smile, that made Jesus and Socrates not fear death, the light that makes everything, even when it's all turned to shit on the surface, deeply OK at its depths. It somehow, in defiance of all expectation, renews and redeems our lives. There's no good reason to believe any of this, except that so many ordinary people have experienced it.

This is the real miracle, the inner miracle, which, at the inception of every religion, someone saw. After a few generations it's usually lost, degraded into literal, outer miracles that are puzzling at best, and, at worst, the Disney version — a little cheesy.

But none of that matters. And none of that prevents you from sitting down and marinating in the light anytime you like. I promise, it's easy.

Dean Sluyter is a long-time meditation teacher and award-winning author. His latest book, to be published in March 2018, is "Fear Less: Living Beyond Fear, Anxiety, Anger, and Addiction."

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