A man falls from a cliff and just manages to catch hold of a thin root growing out of the rocks. He is hanging, dangling above certain death, and although he is not religious, he calls out to the heavens, "Help! Is there anyone up there?" A voice responds, "Yes, my son. I hear you. Let go of the branch and I will catch you." The man thinks for a minute, looks down at the rocks below and then shouts, "Is there anybody else up there?"
This joke, recounted by Art Lester in his chapter on "Letting Go" in Seeing with Your Ears, goes to the heart of his philosophy about religion for the non-religious. Most people have a chance to get a hold on God, but many of us, try as we might, can't make that stick.
There are too many thorns with the roses, as Lester points out. No sooner have you gotten something together, such as a nice love relationship, when you remember that God doesn't approve of sex. The doctor tells you a glass of wine every evening might help your heart, but the church says no. It seems at every turn that religion wants us to give up the very props that make human life bearable.
It's learning when and how to let go that counts. As Lester points out, "You can't practice detachment with somebody else's life." The best you can do is study the lives of people - like The Buddha, like Jesus of Nazareth - who not only preached detachment but practiced it.
The title of Lester's book is based on the statement of the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba: "Asking to understand God is like asking to see with your ears." This intriguing koan invites us all to look for God in less-than-ordinary ways and situations, and Lester attempts to sketch out a few of those as a guide for those whose answer machine, cosmically speaking, is out of order.
Lester takes his subject seriously but keeps the book appropriately light-hearted. A former Unitarian minister and village-level development worker, he draws on wisdom from many waters: Freud and Jung, Paulo Friere, Mullah Nasruddin, Pythagoras, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Foucault and Willie Nelson.
Lester makes metaphors that work, and his writing flows. Talking about getting glasses as we grow older, he says, "I believe that we have used up our inherited lenses. Trying to peer through our granddad's spectacles is inefficient and painful. How he focused the light with them suited his time, not ours. We need new pairs of our own if we want to see clearly again."
Since the author has lived away from America for some years, his largest audience has been anglophonic, and this comes out in his turn of phrase. His work also reflects the gentler approach that Europeans have to self-discovery, a concept that still seems alarmingly racy and perilous to many across the Atlantic divide. However this takes nothing away from Lester's work, which is profound without being ponderous, mellow without seeming mushy.
If you're looking for new ears with which to see the world, and for a solid grasp on the ever-changing, this book could be the instruction manual you've been hoping for.