My Sangha…

In this video talk about what’s known in Buddhism as the Sangha, or the ‘community’, and what it means to take refuge in the sangha if you don’t have a local Buddhist community or when you just don’t have time to go to your local Buddhist community. Below is a rough transcript. Enjoy!

So, if you’re a Buddhist or if you’ve studied Buddhism at all you may have come across the term Sangha. A Sangha is a Buddhist community of practice, in other words, a temple, meditation center, or a Zen center. But, what if you don’t live near a temple or Zen center? Or, if you’re like me and you don’t always have time to get your local Zen center, what is a sangha for you then. That’s what we’re going to talk about right now.

In Buddhism there’s something called the Triple Refuge or the refuge of the Three Jewels: “I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher). I take refuge in the dharma (the teaching). I take refuge in the sangha (the community). I know this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the Three Jewels. I briefly discussed them in part four of my “Montaigne & Buddhism” titled “Why Should Buddhists Care?” But, today I wanted to focus on the refuge of the sangha a little more. Maybe you’re like me in that I’m a predominately a kind of self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, and dharma talks etc. So, for me the endeavor into Zen and Buddhism was not one primarily of community orientation. At the time I wasn’t even aware if there was a Zen center near. I’ve since discovered that there is. I have visited my local Zen center more than once and I have greatly enjoyed it each time. However, between hectic-ness of work and family life I don’t get to go as often as I would like. But, as I said in the intro maybe you live in an area with out any kind of official sangha, without an actual temple or Zen center. How does one, then, take refuge in the community, the sangha?

In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “The word sangha…means “community” but, also that “the word sangha as used in Mahayana Buddhism means…the community of all beings.” Fischer goes on to say that “In the relative sense, sangha is the people you practice Zen with” and In “the absolute sense, sangha is all sentient beings.” In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and especially in Zen. There is no separation between one’s practice and one’s everyday life. They are one and the same. If one’s practice and the activities of one’s everyday life are not separate spheres, then, it also stand to reason that the idea of a sangha  cannot be separately demarcated sphere. In other words, perhaps, one could say that the Sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, or anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, or contributes to your Zen practice.

I just wrote an Article for The Tattooed Buddha Website that was published a few days ago. The title of the article is “Barking Dogs & Meowing Cats: Samatha Meditation Between the Pauses”. In the article I talk about what my daily meditation practice is like and what the environment of my daily meditation practice is like.

Every morning I get up early, I grab my cushion, I let the dogs out, I set my timer, and I meditate on my patio for about 45 minutes. On paper, that sounds more serene than what it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, some mornings, when I have enough awareness, or when I’ve gotten enough sleep the previous night, the sound of birdsong and the whispers of a slight breeze softly pirouetting through the trees in my backyard is meditation gold. Picking an object of concentration in such a setting is like being at a buffet. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually the most accurate portrayal of the soundscape. Remember those dogs I let out? Yeah…let’s talk about them for a minute. I have a Chiweenie who has made it his personal mission, his quest, to vigilantly defend the yard against every rustling bush, viciously hunting down every intruding lizard, and barking vehemently as if sounding the alarm against the evils of the squirrel menace. I also have a neurotic Jack Russell Terrier mutt, who noisily and aggressively rushes to the aid of her pint sized comrade in arms, unquestioningly seconding the commotion, yelping without ever having a clue as to what is being yelped at. She quickly grows tired of the traumas found in the backyard battlefield. Whining, panic stricken, and in a state of utter despair, she scratches at the patio screen door seeking asylum, calling for canine sanctuary. If that wasn’t enough, throw in an indoor cat meowing incessantly at the sliding glass door, desperately yearning for the outside world. Not so serene now, is it?

I’ve begun to see that regardless of the torrent of external and internal activity, I can physically locate a stillness, a quiet, somewhere within myself. Often while I’m watching the breath and becoming distracted by the cacophony of diversions that both my mind and my environment elicit, I search for that stillness. I try to see if I can I touch this stillness, even if but for a moment. Sometimes I find it in the still stability of my hands as they rest together on my lap. Sometimes I find it in the brief pause between breaths.

I don’t always find this quiet, I can’t always see the stillness, and I don’t always have the ability to touch it, but, when it happens, when I can manage to touch that ever-present stillness within myself, I simultaneously touch the stillness that is present in everything else around me. There is a stillness in the tress as the wind caresses the leaves. There is a calm in the chirping of the birds. There is even a quiet stillness found present in a barking Chiweenie, a whining Jack Russell, and an incessantly meowing cat.

Zen Meditation, or zazen, is at its best when it welcomes in, embraces, and sits with the present moment of the world around us, whatever it may be, whatever may be happening, and whatever it may contain. In Brad Warner‘s book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japean’s Greatest Zen Master, he writes that “unlike most other forms of meditation, [in zazen] we keep our eyes open. This is a way of acknowledging the outside world as part of our practice and as a part of us.” Warner says that “By opening our eyes, we are letting in that light that Dōgen says we should shine inward. So although we are shining our light inward, we also accept that there is no hard line that divides ourselves from the outside world, or the rest of the universe.”

You may be thinking, that all sounds great, but, what about the sangha? what does any of this have to do with the sangha?

I’m getting there, I promise. I just read a great blog post by Sensei Alex Kakuyo called 3 Things I learned from my Outdoor Meditation Retreat. In the blog post he writes about a time he was working as Farmer, and not only did he not have access to a local sangha but, virtual or online access to a sangha and such dharma related resources was limited. So he would do self-led meditation retreats, autonomously exploring outdoor meditation. He writes about the experience stating “I wanted to sit in a beautiful park with birds singing in the trees.  But you can’t enjoy those things without dealing grass stains and bird poop.  They’re part of the process, and expecting anything else is a cause of suffering.” I can relate. For me to sit zazen in the morning on my patio means I also have to deal my dogs barking and whining, and one of my cats meowing. Sensei Alex highlights the fact that “The world will always be there, banging at the front door.  The best way to deal with it is by letting it in.” This next part of his essay was the light bulb moment for me and it drives home the point I’ve been trying to get it in this video. He says that as he was meditation in these outdoor areas, observing and “letting-in” the contents of the environment he began to recognize that “The birds, the ants, and the people at the park had all been supporting me like a traditional Buddhist sangha”. All of these various elements of the outside world became so apart of his practice that they were actually supporting and upholding his practice, they became his sangha. He says that “Everyone and everything on the planet is working hard to help us in our walk toward awakening.  We just need to open our eyes and notice the gifts that we’re given.”

in a weird kind of way, my sangha is made of up my of these dogs and cats, and the whole conglomeration of what is present at the time and place of my practice. The sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, any thing or anyone that somehow contributes to your Zen practice.

As Max Erdstein says “The Whole world is the monastery”.

This may sound strange but, this really isn’t a foreign concept to Zen. I just recently finished reading The Essential Dogen. Dogen, who I mentioned earlier and who I’ve quoted in a past video, was a 13th century Zen Buddhist priest, who has not only been credited with bringing Zen to Japan but, also founded the Soto school of Zen. In Dogen’s voluminous writings he talks about ‘insentient beings speaking the dharma’.

Dogen writes the following:

“Mountains practice with one who meditates. Water realizes the way with one who practices.”

“Because earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles of the world of phenomena…all engage in buddha activity, those who receive the benefits of the wind and water are inconceivably helped by the buddha’s transformation…and intimately manifest enlightenment.”

“The sutras are the entire world… There is no moment or place that is not sutras.”

“The sutras are written in letters of heavenly beings, human beings, animals, fighting spirits, one hundred grasses, or ten thousand trees. This being so, what is long, short, square, and round, as well as what is blue, yellow, red, and white, arrayed densely in the entire world… is no other than letters of the sutras and the surface of the sutras. Regard them as the instruments of the great way and as the sutras of the buddha house.”

Everything that you encounter on the path of your practice is the dharma. The entirety of the phenomenal world forms the letters of the sutras. Everything is your sangha. As you begin to practice and as you continue to practice take a deep look at everything and everyone in your world, that is your sangha.


Beggar at the Gates


I dance with my despair
I kiss my suffering mouth to mouth
Lips wet with saliva and tears
sweat and strain

Do not let my stutter depart from me

I limp because I have wrestled
I have striven with “God” and men and have prevailed
Disjointed and crippled, I am whole

I am laughing sweetly with my anguish
Ever tasting this supple sorrow
I do not seek to numb the pain

I waltz with my sadness
never knowing who leads yet still we sway

I have made love to my wretchedness, never knowing who recedes yet here we lay

Shrouded in the darkness of a melancholy joy
May I rise, take up this bed and walk away
But, in my lameness may I remain

A Few Further Notes on Rob Bell ‘After Magic’

A few days ago I wrote a post entitled “Rob Bell After Magic.” The focus of the piece wasn’t so much upon Bell himself but, rather upon exemplifying what I found to be some of the most profound and powerful ideas within Kester Brewin’s latest book After Magic. To re-cap the book examines several key culturally recognizable films and works of literature to draw attention to the move ‘beyond-magic’. That is, each of the stories synchronistically display the protagonist laying down ‘magic’, rejecting and abandoning ‘super-nature’ in order to bring about a resolution that breaks the addictive cycle of power and violence, there-by strengthening the bonds and ties to humanity itself.

Rob Bell has recently spoken out in regards to his affirmative support of  marriage equality. This story has certainly been making the rounds on news sites and the blogosphere. While, I normally try to avoid jumping on these kind of topical band wagons, after reading Brewin’s book I couldn’t help but see an illustration of Brewin’s theme within Bell’s statements.
When Bell was asked to convey his thoughts on whether the Christian knowledge of “Truth” has ultimacy, Bell had this to say:
“I would say that the powerful, revolutionary thing about Jesus’ message is that he says, ‘What do you do with the people that aren’t like you? What do you do with the Other? What do you do with the person that’s hardest to love?’ . . . That’s the measure of a good religion, is – you can love the people who are just like you; that’s kind of easy. So what Jesus does is takes the question and talks about fruit. He’s interested in what you actually produce. And that’s a different discussion. How do we love the people in the world that are least like us?”

This seems to illustrate another key point made in Brewin’s After MagicBrewin writes that “The love we see ‘after magic’ is a love that prefers others to the self.” After magic “ultimacy” is not known or given to ‘Truth’ in and of itself. The Ultimacy of ‘Truth’ is only known in the ‘Truth’ of the other. The other is the only ultimate truth which  we must know. This represents a dramatic within the sphere of religion. When religion moves beyond ‘super-nature’, as Brewin proposes, “in place of the sermon on ‘how should you live?’ escaping from under the demand to worship and defer to commandments of super-nature, faith ‘after magic’ asks simply this: ‘how should you love?’” Yet, this ‘love’ that finds expression within religion after magic and beyond super-nature is not to be confused for romance, sentimentality, charity, or simple compassion. This would be an objectivization of the other, in effect, a transformation of the ‘other’ into another ‘Big Other,’ a new ‘magical’ fixation, a ‘super-naturalizing’ of the other. This prevents one from actually engaging and encountering the other. Perhaps, ‘love’ after-magic entails a kind of reflexive subjectivization, a cold naivety, a cruel ethicality, and an utter confrontation of ugliness and monstrosity. Perhaps, ‘love’ after-magic is a call to love dangerously…

(dis)Placing Christian Origins

Last week I re-blogged a terrific post from the Blog “Living the Kingdom” entitled “How Not to Be a Good Christian“, which you can read here or here.  This essay outlined many of the most common failings, discrepancies, and area of in-congruence that have now become firm attributes and characteristics that have been historically perpetuated in what could be considered the dominant or mainstream occurrence of Christianity. This struck accord with me personally as the impetus of this essay is substantially similar to the locus of my own musings and positions that are specific to this very subject. Several such blog postings that I’ve written on this topics can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

After re-blogging this post began to receive some interesting feedback from one of my Facebook friends. He raised a very intriguing question, which incited an intriguing dialogue that I thought it would be both beneficial and significant to the conversation to share. Below you’ll find his questions and comments followed by my response. I hope you enjoy!

In the book, The Monstrosity of Christ Paradox or Dialectic by Davis on page 5 he asks by identifying the displaced origins of Christianity, displaced by accommodating empire values, can we wrestle about the meaning of Christianity and its practices in a real way. Clearly much of the practice of Christianity today has more to do with capitalism then Jesus. So are the doors and windows open to discuss what is the original meaning and what practices would that lead to today?

You bring up an excellent point and a particularly great book! This is an intricate and complex argument that is rife with nuance and subtlety, which I have continually devoted thought and consideration to in much of my studies and written explorations. This is not to say that I have come upon any satisfactory conclusions but, rather deeper and more probing questions that are increasing sociological.

Certainly even referring to the movement of the Early Christ followers is utterly anachronistic as imparting such a modernistic understanding brings with it a well-spring of presuppositions and preconceived notions that are contextually inaccurate and inapplicable. The Early “church” (for lack of a better term) was far from systematic, uniformed, or even unanimous, which only complicates matter more but, is still extremely indicative of this precise “displacement” and incongruency.Obviously, what we see in this initiating community is anything but institutional and may be far more representative of what Hakim Bey referred to as a Temporary Autonomous Zone, that is a space formed on the fringes of a society, created within the crack and crevices of a culture, a veritable blind spot within the Empire, in which there is an utter refusal to conform to the systemizations or hierarchies of the state. These T.A.Z.s, as Bey calls them, are in the world but not of it, so to speak. They are spaces not intended to be concretized or grounded into permanence, their operative significance is their grass-roots orientation and their ability to mobilize. They are not revolutionary in that they are not seeking to overthrow the presiding powers, replace them with new systems, and or garner control. Although they are socio-political, they are simply seeking to subvert, to elude formalized structures, and to unblock those places where culture has become blocked.
Thus, to answer your question, I do think that the doors and windows are open to discuss the original meaning but to do so in order to find the practices that it would lead to today, I think it must take place outside the religious institutions, as these the formal structure would only stifle the creativity of the query, for I do not believe the answers will be found in tradition, liturgy, orthodoxy, or even the sacred but, in the dirt, in the profane, in the secular, in the mundane, through that which is existentially thematic.

The All-New Jesus Show

I haven’t been very productive with my blog as of late. My academic endeavors have been more than all consuming. I’ve even become increasing behind on the blog that I often enjoy reading. Through the process of catching up I’ve come across a few pieces that I’ve enjoyed or that have hit home and struck a chord with me and I’d like to share them.

This blog is one such piece. I have found myself in almost the exact same position as this writer. As one has come of age in the throws of Evangelical/Conservative protestant Christendom, who no has two young children and who has also walked away from the church, faith, and theism, this seemed to me to be a very poignant essay which raises many of the very same concerns that I have had.


Recovering Agnostic

Older son’s at an age where he’s realised that some things aren’t real, but he doesn’t know which ones, or how to tell the difference. He’ll be watching TV and ask me if Mister Maker is actually real, and then I’ll have to explain that there’s a real man who really makes things, but he’s not really called Mister Maker, he doesn’t really live in a cardboard box, and no, he doesn’t live in the TV either, which then usually leads to a long discussion about how TVs work.

He can get confused by the strangest things – I once had to explain how I knew the Octonauts aren’t real:

Well, animals don’t talk, and they don’t wear clothes, do they? And they don’t live in huge motorised underwater mobile homes, and polar bears aren’t really the same size as cats and penguins, and there’s definitely no such thing as…

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The Erosion of the East?

This is another of the many essays written for an Intro to World Religions class. In this particular assignment we were asked to concisely sketch the differentiation of thought and practice between Eastern religions and those that are more Westernized. Enjoy!

In his book, Liberating the Gospels, author John Shelby Spong writes, “The fact that we must recover is that Christianity was not born as a Western religion. A Western mentality has been imposed on this Middle Eastern understanding or revelation of God” (18). Though Spong is speaking specifically to the Judaic origins of Christianity, it raises several important considerations when examining differentiations between the religious dynamics of the East and West. We often take for granted that the three ‘Western’ monotheistic faiths did not come to fruition or arrive fully formed and they did not develop in a vacuum from the influences chronology and surrounding cultures. As Spong reminds, many of the faith that we have come to consider Western have, in all actuality, been westernized. These religions were not always as we have them now but, they are rather Hellenized reflections of their former selves.
When examining the adamant polytheism of the Hindu tradition it is easy to draw stark distinctions between these pluralistic ideals and the monotheism of Judaism. Indeed, as Karen Armstrong makes clear, “We assume that the three patriarchs of Israel – Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob – were monotheists, that they believed in only one God” but , it is far “more accurate to call these Hebrews pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan” (14). The ancient Hebrews were monolatrous, at best, prior to the full development of monotheism around the sixth century.

It seems that Western sensibilities are all too willing to unashamedly impose modern concepts, beliefs, and interpretations upon a people, a text, and a time in which such ideas were unheard of, ungraspable, unavailable, and inconceivable. Karen Armstrong explains further, “We have developed, for example, a scientific view of history, which we see as a succession of unique events. In the [Eastern] world, however, the events of history were not seen as singular but as examples of eternal laws, revelations of a timeless, constant reality” (10). Armstrong continues, “Before the modern period, Jews Christians, and Muslims all relished highly allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric interpretations of their sacred texts” (12).

In many of these regards it seems that Christianity has suffered the most from its eroding divorce from its Eastern heritage. “Where Christians have come to indentify orthodoxy with correct belief, Muslims, like Jews, require orthopraxy, a uniformity of religious practice, and see belief as a secondary issue” (37). The “right belief” of Christianity has become the very basis of its soteriology, i.e. doctrinally ascribed beliefs will result in salvific reward of “Heaven” in the afterlife. First and foremost it must be noted that Jesus very rarely speaks of Heaven. Jesus is found speaking more predominantly of the Kingdom of God, though in the Matthean tradition, which is the most Judaic in orientation, renames this verbiage as the Kingdom of Heaven, neither of which should be understood as destinations following death. The “Kingdom,” though implicitly eschatological, was a present reality in-breaking, culminating, and coming to fruition in the here and now. This is far more indicative of  ‘realized eschatology,’ that is the Eschaton as a possession of the present. This is an existential engagement with the world and thus has more in common with Buddhism in this regard.

As such in one of the few instances in which Jesus references the day of Judgment, though he does so only in parabolic form, we see that as one stands in Judgment the questions asked by Jesus are not issues of doctrine, dogma, or even belief. He does not ask for a confession or statement of faith. He does not ask for an affirmation of his divinity or any other such theological conception. Instead, those servants found to be “good and faithful” are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to those who were thirsty, gave hospitality to the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. This bears resemblances to the cessation of suffering spoken of by the Buddha.

Here, I’m reminded of a story in the Talmud. Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are approached by a gentile who requests that they recite the entirety pf the Torah while he stands on one foot. Rabbi Shammai is appalled and condemns the gentile questioner. Rabbi Hillel said to him, “That which you hate, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” In Hillel’s astute paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18 he suggests that the love of the neighbor alone serves as the foundation of the Torah and all its 613 mitzvos. He suggests that every aspect of the Pentateuch is directly connected to man’s piety in relation to his fellow man and the only ‘god’ that seems to enter the equation is that which is revealed in the face of the other.

The Talmud then teaches that a person should envision the world as being perfectly and intricately situated in a state of balance, having equal parts good and evil(reminiscent of the Taoist view) (Ciner). When a person performs a Mitzvah he tilts the entire world towards good and likewise when he commits evil he shifts the entire world towards evil. In the Jewish faith it’s believed that Kedusha (holiness) and Tum’ah(impurity) are the causes of the good and evil in the world and any good that enters this world does so a s a result of a holy act performed by someone in this world. Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, similarly suggests this idea in its notion of Karma (Ciner). Buddhism sees suffering occurring as a consequence of greed, hatred, and delusion and thus, seeks to end suffering by replacing greed with selflessness, hatred with loveand compassion, and delusion with wisdom and enlightenments. As Thomas Merton once said, “In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 – Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Random House, 1993. Print.

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Ciner, Yisroel. “Acharei Mos-Kedoshim – 5761.” Parsha Insights., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

Spong, John Shelby. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.

Dialogues of a Christian Atheist, pt.2

A few weeks ago I posted a blog entry titled “I Don’t Believe in God but, I Take Jesus Seriously,” and a few of my close friends were kind enough to push back on some of the ideas expressed there in. This is quite possibly one of the most beneficent attributes of dialogic relationships with those  who are of divergent views and perspectives. Rev. Scott Elliott, who is the pastor of Riviera United Church of Christ and the host of A God Vlog, is one such friend. He offers engaging conversation that is both probing and never content to simply allow my notions to hang in the air unquestioned. This often forces me to chase down my own thoughts further than I may have initially been prepared to. I’d to think that is reciprocal, that my own suggestions push him out of his comfort zone but, his arguments are often far more conducive then those I present. Thus, in this post below and the next few that will follow will consist of some of his thoughts in response to the aforementioned blog entry and my follow up to his appraisals. Enjoy!

Rev. Elliott: I have yet to find a way to satisfactorily convey my conviction that this love siren and loving way we are drawn to can also –if we want or choose–safely, sanely, rationally be named God. This experience of being we are in has that siren you/we hear in it, and if we go to where it is beckoning we end up loving. We don’t have to call it God; we can believe it is not God. It only matters because it means (aside from semanitics) that we are on the same page, love is the point. And love by any other name is still love. (Or as this theologian spins it, if God is experienced as love –a very Biblically sound claim– then love by any other name is still God).

 Hmmm I still didn’t get it right, but, this all depends on what the definition of God is. I’m assuming that the “God” you do not believe in, is something other than love.

Response:  I can’t confess to have the capacity to conducively convey my thoughts on this subject in a satisfying manner either. Perhaps, in some regards, it is a question of semantics. For me, the “word,” as well s the concept, “God” is problematic. It seems that in many ways, “God,” is a void of meaning word. Paul Van Buren said that the word God itself is “either meaningless or misleading.” Van Buren goes on to say that “we cannot identify anything which will count for or against the truth of our statements concerning God.”

Its here that the word operatively falls into utter subjectivity, it is filled with our own contents, meaning that “God” has meant something different to everyone. As such, Merold Westphal has said, “I’ve never prayed to a God that wasn’t an idol.” In this regard what i garner from atheism is its ability to act as a critical examination, objection, and perhaps even a rejection of all our conception of deity.

To say it another way, any God that I can conceive of is immediately a God hat should be denied or disavowed, as it is ultimately of my own construction.

Perhaps, too, it is a question of “presence” versus “absence.” Given my previous religious upbringing the “presence” of God was the most emphasized aspect of religious worship, practice, and experience. Perhaps, then, an over-exposure to the emphasization and stimulation to this heightened idea or presence is numbing. Thus, what I find more resonant is absence, not the absence of the experience of God but rather the experience of the absence of God.

For me it seems that the imperative call to the “Song” of love beckons more urgently and sings more resoundingly in the absence.

Rev. Elliott: And yet we cannot deny we HEAR that siren call to “LOVE” and feel lured, compelled and on a quest to answer it. Which is a close to truth and identifying as as we can get. Idolizing Love is all that matters. And that I cannot deny or disavow –and empirically it seems to not be of my own construction (though I have certainly dinged, dented and re-painted it on my own, but it still runs).

Response: I would whole heartedly agree that the “idolization of love” ( I Love that by the way) is most central. It is compelling above all else. Here we are precisely on the same page, where we diverge perhaps is that I am content simply with “love,” this is a word powerful enough, that doesn’t necessarily need to be renamed. I love that you said “if we choose to” we can call it God, I can willingly admit that I “choose” to just let love be love and let love be enough.