Monday, December 20, 2010

Engaging What We Cannot Know

We have been evolving for millions of years. We still experience the world somewhat like the reptiles and mammals we used to be. As human creatures we've been singing for about 400,000 years but talking for perhaps only 100,000. It's understandable if trying to make sense of life mainly with words leaves much of life miscomprehended. --MH

The progression from the unacceptable to the unintelligible (unknowable) has real implications for the way in which we approach both spirituality and psychotherapy. To paraphrase Adam Phillips, we can know the unacceptable, but we can only feel the unintelligible. And we cannot claim the sense of vitality that we crave unless we learn how to feel that which we cannot know, a capacity that both meditation and psychotherapy are capable of encouraging. --Mark Epstein

Psalm 46
1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present* help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city;* it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.*

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 ‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.’
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.*

Monday, December 6, 2010

Premature Closure

Lectio for December 6

"A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions." Proverbs 18.2

Delusion is the mind's tendency to seek premature closure about something. It is the quality of mind that imposes a definition on things and then mistakes the definition for the actual experience. –Mark Epstein, Going To Pieces Without Falling Apart

Go on with this nothing, moved only by your love of God. And let nothing interfere with this therefore but persevere in this nothingness, consciously desiring that you may always choose to possess God through love, whom no one can possess through knowledge. For myself I prefer to be lost in this nowhere, wrestling with this blind nothingness, than to be like some great lord traveling everywhere and enjoying the world as if he owned it. –The Cloud of Unknowing

Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this. –Dogberry, Much Ado About Nothing

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Gift of a Path

Lectio for the first week of Advent

Psalm 84

Blessed is the one whose strength is in you, in whose heart is the pilgrims way.

Passing through the valley of Weeping they make it a place of springs; the early rain spreads it blessings.

Pilgrims journey from strength to strength until each appears before God in Zion.


A path is created by clarifying one's aims and removing what gets in the way of their realization. It is carved from commitment and opened up by letting go. It entails both doing something and allowing something to happen. A path is both a task and a gift.

A path is nothing in itself. It is the impression left by the tread of feet of those who went before. The relief of recovering a path is that of being reconnected with others like myself. Not only can I resume an unimpeded journey to its goal, but I have returned to the fold of my kin. A freshly discarded bottle is as reassuring as a signpost or a bridge. For a path is a subjective space. Its free and purposive trajectory is created and maintained by those who use it. Leave it for a year or two, and grasses and weeds will reclaim it. As you walk along a path, you are indebted to every man, woman, child, and dog who preceded you. And each time you place a foot on the ground, you maintain the path for those who will follow. In pushing aside a fallen branch, you take responsibility for those who will come later. --Stephen Batchelor

The Way It Is, William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Be willing to be blind

Lectio for November 22

There's a certain kind of practical mysticism where most (all?) religion meets. A certain place that lifetimes of search point to, a common WONDER and WAY we sense but can never adequately define or even describe. Here are three short passages to enrich the contemplation of this practical mysticism.

Be willing to be blind, and give up all longing to know the why and how, for knowing will be more of a hindrance than a help. –The Cloud of Unknowing

There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change,
but it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are following.
You have to explain about the thread.
While you’re holding it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen. People get hurt or die.
You suffer and grow old. Nothing you do
Can stop times unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread. --The Way Things Are, William Stafford

The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks. –Stephen Batchelor

Monday, November 15, 2010


Lectio for November 15

The glory of God is a human being fully alive. --Irenaeus

Emptiness is not something sacred in which to believe. It is an emptying: a letting go of the fixations and compulsions that lock one into a tight cell of self that seems to exist in detached isolation from the turbulent flux of life. This emptying leads to a falling away of constrictive and obstructive habits of mind that--as in removing a barrier across a river--allows the dammed-up torrent of life to flow freely. --Stephen Batchelor, Living with the Devil

Philippians 2
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My deepest me is God

Mysticism begins when the totally transcendent image of God starts to recede; and there's a deepening sense of God as immanent, present, here, now, within me. Augustine's line was "God is more intimate to me than I am to myself” or “more me than I am myself." St. Catherine of Genoa shouted it in the streets, "My deepest me is God!"

So you must overcome the gap to know—and then Someone Else is doing the knowing through you. God is no longer "out there." At this point, it's not like one has a new relationship with God; it's like one has a whole new God! “God himself is my counselor, and at night my innermost being instructs me,” says the Psalmist (16:7).

The mystics are those who are let in on this secret mystery of God's love affair with all souls, and recognize the simultaneous love affair with the individual soul—as if it were the only one God loves. It's absolutely our unique affair, and that sets the whole thing on a different and deeper ground than mere organized religion can ever achieve by itself.

Richard Rohr
Adapted from Following the Mystics
through the Narrow Gate (CD/DVD)


Early this morning I dropped a just-poured cup of coffee (half coffee, half milk) on the floor beside the washer and drier. What a lousy feeling.

I got paper towels and began wiping it up, but much of it was under the drier and some under the washer. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, what a mess, what a bother. Shifting washers and driers makes one late for work. Not getting to milky messes soon makes worse messes.

What is the combination of feelings and thoughts we have at times like these?

Whatever they are, mindfulness suggests that we don't avoid them and we don't identify with them.

It was hard for me not to identify with one loathed consequence or another: be late and be behind at work or leave that sticky mess to dry under the appliances. No way to win.

You might snicker to read this, but moments like these can be deeply spiritual, can in a funny kind of way take us into the Cloud of Unknowing, the One Hand Clapping, the To Have Your Life You Must Lose It.

However, just picturing the Pushmi-Pullyu of Dr. Doolittle is probably a better fit for spilled coffee!

As we experience binds like these, to see one bit of ourself pushing and the other pulling--and to laugh at the glory and bumble of being alive really can be wonderful.

It's a laughter not immune to tears, however. Somewhere a parent or sibling or teacher helped solidify those binds in a tender psyche, and along that path rules became laws of great consequence. To break them is to be a baaaaaad boy or girl. Taking a moment to hold these childhood experiences of ourselves and others empathetically is powerful medicine.

The sequence goes something like this:

Less bound.
More free.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Freedom--or the 'Vexation of Engagement?'

Lectio for November 8

After his awakening, the Buddha spent several weeks hovering on the cusp between the rapture of freedom and, in his words, the 'vexation' of engagement.

Our words, our deeds, our very presence in the world, create and leave impressions in the minds of others just as a writer makes impressions with his pen on paper, the painter with his brush on canvas, the potter with his fingers in clay.

The human world is like a vast musical instrument on which we simultaneously play our part while listening to the compositions of others. The creation of ourself in the image of awakening is not a subjective but an intersubjective process. We cannot choose whether to engage with the world, only how to. --Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

(In the parable of the Good Samaritan) the first question which the priest and the Levite asked is: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But... the good Samaritan reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" --Martin Luther King, Jr.

May our listening
be like those cozy old halls
where cellos sound best

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Once more, with feeling!

A core element of wise practice in meditation as well as life is 'letting go.' In formal meditation you usually let go of whatever you're thinking with your out-breath.

Christians often refer to letting go of a problem or a burden as 'giving it to God.' Letting go is a wonderful practice.

But 'letting go' can have a downside. The downside of letting go is letting go without knowing exactly what we're letting go of. Letting go can unintentionally be a kind of repression or dissociation. Another way of stuffing our feelings.

In formal meditation I try to 'follow the instructions' and let 'breath sweep mind,' which is to say not bring my present chatty voice into the next moment. But instructions also say to 'see things clearly' and 'with lovingkindness.'

I find I'm not yet skillful enough to consistently do all those things in the span of one breath. I found a few years ago that I was actually slowing or even holding my breath to better understand what it was I was about to let go of--trying to be faithful in holding what I was feeling in kindness before dismissing it--I would literally become faint from lack of oxygen.

I begin to realize that learning to meditate is like learning to do anything else. You have to move slowly. You have to learn scales with your left hand and then your right hand. You have to practice your serve and then your volley, your forehand as well as your backhand.

Now, if I sense a strong emotion associated with a thought, if I sense something rumbling or stirring that's somehow significant (while continuing to breathe!) I hold that thought-sense-feeling for a moment or two. Savor it, letting it speak for itself if it can. Letting that sense be felt if has no words. I do my best to hold this kind of stuff like a wise parent holds a child.

This doesn't mean I always know what I'm holding. But it does mean I'm usually holding most of what comes along with lovingkindness and with as much clarity as I have at the time. And I have a strong sense that along with slowly becoming more mindful I'm slowly becoming more whole.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lectio for Nov 1

Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Michah 6.8: God has shown you, O Mortal, what is good. And what is it the LORD requires of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lectio for October 25

Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense. For life to make sense it needs purpose....Such resolve entails aspiration, appreciation, and conviction. Aspiration is as much a bodily longing as an intellectual desire; appreciation as much a passion as a preference; conviction as much an intuition as a rational conclusion. --Stephen Bachelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

1 Samuel, Chapter 2
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 11Then the Lord said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.

O God of peace, you have taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the empowering of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God, Amen

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lectio From October 18

Ordinary Mindfulness, Lectio, October 18, 2010

Being alive is itself an expression of mystery. The clues to our real nature are always around us. When the mind opens, the body changes, or the heart is touched, all the elements of spiritual life are revealed. Great questioning, unexpected suffering, original innocence--any of these can require us to open beyond our daily routine, to 'step out of the bureaucracy of ego,' as the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trunpa counseled. Every day brings its own calls back to the spirit, some small, some large, some surprising, some ordinary. --Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
~ William Stafford ~

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid
From the Gospel of John, chapter 14

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lectio for October 11

The first quote below has become a kind of proverb. It's both a description of and a prescription for a bigger heart and a bigger mind. This saying of Jesus is also like of koan--in one way it can't be done, in another it's the best thing in the world to do.

Read each of these quotes and sit a minute with whatever it is they invite you to think and feel.

1.But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.


2.At the heart of the deepest spiritual understanding and experience is paradox. There is so much we want to exclude, yet at the heart of reality, in the heart of God, everything belongs.

--Richard Rohr (Everything Belongs, [paraphrased])

3. I want to tell you right now that the basis of this whole teaching is that you’re never going to get everything together. As long as you’re wanting to be thinner, smarter, more enlightened, less uptight, or whatever it might be, somehow you’re always going to be approaching your problem with the very same logic that created it to begin with: you’re not good enough. As long as you’re wanting yourself to get better, you won’t. As long as you have an orientation toward the future, you can never just relax into what you already have or already are. To me it seems that at the root of healing, at the root of feeling like a fully adult person, is the premise that you’re not going to try to make anything go away, that what you have is worth appreciating. But this is hard to swallow if what you have is pain.

--Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are

Monday, October 4, 2010

Lectio for October 4

Loving God and others can be more more basic than we imagine.

Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron
The basic ground of compassionate action is the importance of working with rather than struggling against, and what I mean by that is working with your own unwanted, unacceptable stuff, so that when the unacceptable and unwanted appears out there, you relate to it based on having worked with loving-kindness for yourself. Then there is no condescension. This non-dualistic approach is true to the heart because it's based on our kinship with each other. We know what to say, because we have experienced closing down, shutting off, being angry, hurt, rebellious, and so forth, and have made a relationship with those things in ourselves.

Welcome and entertain them all, even if they are a crowd of sorrows that violently sweep your house empty of its furniture. Still, treat each guest honorably.

Mark 12:28-31
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lectio for September 27

Reading the following you might consider what 'to find our own way' is, what 'journeying in stages' is about,and perhaps how being 'sustained in the wilderness' happens in your life.

Start Where You Are
, Pema Chodron
The truth of the matter is that even though there are teaching and practice techniques, still we each have to find our own way. What does it really mean to open? What does it mean not to resist? what does it mean? It's a lifetime journey to find the answers to these questions for yourself. But there's a lot of support in these teachings and this practice.

Genesis 12
1Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak* of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring* I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.

From our Eucharistic Prayer
Through Abraham and Sarah you called us into covenant with you.
You delivered us from slavery, sustained us in the wilderness,
and raised up prophets to renew your promise of salvation.
Then, in the fullness of time, you sent your eternal Word,
made mortal flesh in Jesus.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Uncomfortable Openess

Photo by Zen Sutherland

This flower with the bumblebee is Closed Gentian. It's rare in our neck of the woods. It's called 'closed' because it can't open by itself. The only pollinator strong enough to pry its petals apart is the bumblebee. Without the bumblebee, Closed Gentian would never bear seeds and would soon be gone from the earth.

I've watched bumblebees pollinate this lovely blue flower. It looks more like wrestling than caressing. Pollinated gentian of this species look bedraggled after a bee's embrace. The term dishabille comes to mind. Also Rumi's advice about rowdy visitors in The Guesthouse:

"Welcome and entertain them all, even if they are a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture. Still treat each guest honorably--he may be clearing you out for some new delight!"

This is the counter-intuitive logic of mindfulness practice. In the unwelcome and the uncomfortable and the frightening we find some our most helpful allies. When we really want to become fully alive, we learn to try to take help wherever we meet it. There are places in our hearts that will never open without help.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Muddy Water

We had a few small, potent thunderstorms in the area yesterday. We really need the rain and it was a blessing to get it, but storms like these also bring muddy runoff, which is not such a blessing.

It's interesting to live in a place with both a lot of recent building and a lot of national forest and park lands. After the heaviest rains, the rivers coming out of the Smoky Mountain National Park run clear, and watching the mud of 'civilization' flow into them is painful. And enlightening.

Our mindstreams are often muddy from scars and gauges new and old. Every place we go, our mud comes too. Just does. This is the kind of self-reality that is painful enough to ignore!

Mindfulness invites us not to ignore it but to appreciate it, to 'own' it, to notice how murky we sometimes make our interactions. Mindfulness also invites us to cultivate enough still places, deep places, for mud to settle out (at least somewhat). The lovely mix of patience and kindness toward ourselves that mindfulness encourages helps the settling out process work even better.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Prayer for now and not yet

Gracious God, your wisdom allows us to see this world both as it is and might be: give us grace and energy to work with you to move it toward what it might be, and give us grace and patience to live in and to love it as it is.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mary Oliver's 'Mindful' aloud

YouTube Video

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Why I wake early


Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less
kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for--
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world--
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant--
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
as these--
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

Thanks, Linda Kinnear, for sending this wonderful poem

Monday, September 20, 2010

Angel in the River

Below is the lectio readings the Ordinary Mindfulness crew used this morning (we meet at St D's at 7:30). Read over it perhaps paying attention to who you meet when you open mind and heart in meditation.

Lectio: Sept 20, 2010

Genesis 32 (Jacob on the night before reuniting with his brother Esau whose inheritance he stole many years before)

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28Then the man* said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,* for you have striven with God and with humans,* and have prevailed.’ 29Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel,* saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.


Whether in grief, anger, wanting, or restlessness, we can see that much of the work with the contractions of the heart is the work of our unfinished business. We encounter the forces and situations that have held us closed to ourselves and others. What is conflicted, ungrieved, unfinished shows itself as soon as we become attentive. It is here that we must learn how to work respectfully with the profound forces that govern human life. It is the layers of these energies that create contractions and suffering and the freeing of them that brings awakening and release. --After the Ecstasy the Laundry, Jack Kornfield

Friday, September 10, 2010

Turning Aside

4 Viburnum Leaves, taken lying on my back looking up through the leaves of a high-country viburnum into a very tall red spruce tree, blue sky beyond.

I often re-read RS Thomas's poem, The Bright Field:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I drive people a little batty sometimes because lovely or odd bits of the natural world pull me like a magnet. The response 'pauses' conversations and hikes and sometimes even trips in the car. I've come to justify it under the general heading of 'the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush' which is a pretty lofty, perhaps self-serving, claim. is that. God as creator leaves DNA in every bit of creation. And the lovely bits are easier to celebrate--they act as a kind of worm hole, a direct-connect to awe and wonder and gratitude and the kind of expansive joy that fills up the heart afterwards. Not necessarily for very long--which is why we have to keeping turning and turning aside the miracles of lit bushes.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Clear Eyes...Strong Hearts...Can't Loose.

That's what the coaches and team say before every game in Friday Night Lights. It's a great chant, wise and true. When our eyes take in clearly what's in front of us and when our hearts are strong enough to hold it all, then we're both more able to do our best (maybe a win) and live with whatever happens (maybe a loss).

The same chant could be used before meditation because it's very close to the substance of meditation. In every breath cycle we try to see clearly whatever we're thinking or feeling--to see it as it is not as we'd hoped it might be or how we think it should be. We just see it. At the same time we try to hold these thoughts and feelings gently, compassionately. Clear eyes, strong hearts.

It takes very little time for this practice to begin helping our 'game.' Spend 5, 10, 20 minutes in the morning immersed in clear seeing and big-hearted caring--it spills into your day. Something comes up. Something needs an action, a response. You remember to breathe. The habit is at hand. You see more and you see it more clearly. Your heart feels both a little braver and a little kinder.

Clear eyes. Strong hearts. Can't lose.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Spaciousnes...Give it to God

Sometimes when we feel particularly stuck or anxious about something a friend may say, 'Maybe it's time to give it to God.' Sometimes we remember to say it to ourselves. We've done all we can with whatever it is. It's time to quit stewing, fretting, reviewing.

Insight and prayer like this is a wonderful spaciousness practice. We start feeling cramped, then in a moment of sanity and a movement toward trust we connect with God. This doesn't mean we don't have a problem anymore. It means we've recognized we're stuck and and are choosing to get help.

But in doing this we're not really imagining God is reorganizing the world to make our problems go away, are we?

It's more like this. A serious gardening friend, Tom, used to start his own seeds in his garage. Lots of seeds. He's a wonderful gardener but not much of a seed-starter. Interestingly, one of his neighbors runs a commercial greenhouse. This guy is really good at turning seeds into baby plants. Ah! Maybe it's time to give it to Neil--which is what Tom does these days.

For the last few years Tom has ordered his usual wonderful variety of seeds, and when they come in the mail he gives them to Neil who gives them back in a month or two transformed and neatly arranged in a dozen or so trays of ready-to-plant veggies.

I have little idea what happens specifically when we give our problems to God. Perhaps the more specific we get when we talk about it the further we get from being faithful to the mystery of prayer, the mystery of God. I do know, metaphorically anyway, that seeds sprout wonderfully in this trusting sort of interaction and that life is more more fruitful because of it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Rumi and Spaciousness

We can take life seriously and laugh in the same moment, which is a wonderful way of practicing spaciousness. Anytime we let things which seem mutually exclusive settle in us we're practicing spaciousness, allowing our hearts and minds to hold what's real instead of what's just convenient.

Rumi's great at this. He's a laughing mystic. Reading The Guest House (below) with a little extra attention, maybe like an actor trying on a role, letting our feelings and facial expressions go with the script, we get to audition for spaciousness.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house,
Every day a new arrival,
a joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected guest.
Welcome and entertain them all,
even if they are a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(translated by Coleman Barks)

What makes you smile? Or cringe? I marvel at Rumi's outrageous advice. All the negative bits are framed by words like welcome, entertain, treat honorably, meet, laugh, invite, be grateful.

I think engaging life with this kind of intent is what being 'a gatekeeper in the house of my God' is about--welcoming, welcoming, never mind the clothes or the smell or the rowdiness or the sense there's just not enough room! Welcome and entertain them all.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Against Death

Saturday night Barbara and I were watching a Masterpiece Theater production of Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent. The main character is 85, has just lost her husband (formerly Prime Minister), is stepping out of his long shadow, living on her own and taking great delight in making both new friends and a new garden. She's clearly following a deep thread now that she had let go of in the past. One of her sons visits and can't quite fathom why she's behaving 'so uncharacteristically'. Her husband, his father, has just died and she's moved on her own to Hampstead (the boondocks in those days). The implication is that she's not mourning suitably.

She slowly surveys the garden and her eyes begin to twinkle. "This is a time to lay back against death," she tells him, "and to examine life with the sound of bees in the background."

Finding the bee pictured above on what might have been her last night put me in something of the same frame, a strong feeling--two parts warm, one part chill. Most everybody at some point begins to realize, to sense somewhat profoundly, that life, our own life, inescapably, has limits. There's a sorrow that comes with this. And a deep gratitude--we will lose all that we have, but Ah, what we have!

It was grand to see this particular bee all covered with dew in the morning, slowly moving one antenna at a time, and not t0 see her at all later in the day, neither dead on the basil nor the ground below it. All her passion was not spent and perhaps she'll choose to wake up wet with dew again before her end of days.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A month to live

Bumble bees, however, unlike lichen, live such a short time, about 3 months. This one and I had a chance meeting last night at the lemon basil in the garden. I came to gather a few leaves for grilled fish; she came either to sleep or to die.

The working members of a bumble bee hive live about a month. The stay-at-home types live longer.

She let me get very close to take her picture. She was barely moving. Perhaps her month was up. Or perhaps she was preparing to sleep--worker bees sometimes choose not to go home at night but to sleep where they forage--which makes me very curious about how they decide.

Is it intentional? Is it random? Is it an innate feeling she has--I want to breathe lemony basil all night and wake up in the morning covered in dew?

I came back early this morning and she was still there, still moving. Alleluia. I'll be pleased to learn when I come home from work if she's gone back to her foraging.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brother Lichen

The oldest lichen in the world has lived 4,500 years. It was a milestone for me this year to get to 59. My father died at 57. Neither of my brothers made it past 58. On Mt. Mitchell, where I took this picture, a 3x4 foot educational display put my 59 years in a different perspective.

Lichen grow about one millimeter per year. This one is maybe 8 inches (tall? long? deep? how do lichens prefer to be measured?) which means it's lived about 150 years longer than me. Made me want to kneel, like a person does at an altar rail in church.

Learning in and from the natural world is another way of practicing spaciousness. The space, measured in time on this earth, between me and this small silver lichen is big.

Yet here I am admiring you, brother lichen, and this simple exchange you and I are having enlarges my perspective. Just by reading the nature display and then looking up into the lower branches of the red spruce where you live, my world is instantly more spacious and neurons are flitting about in my head in a way that my heart indentifies as awe and gratitude and joy.

Thank you, brother lichen. I owe you.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mountains as Icons of Spaciousness

Mountains are powerful icons of spaciousness, ever-present reminders for those of us who live in western NC. Everywhere we look we see mountains, and they rarely look the same two days in a row or sometimes even two hours in a row. Sometimes fog drifts around their shoulders, other times you can actually watch billowing clouds form on the peaks. In cold weather just a few thousand feet above where most of us live it can be snowing. Five months out of the year we can watch the high ridges turning white while down here on the mountains’ feet it may not even be raining.

We human beings have our own weather patterns too, our own ecologies. Happy can turn to sad or mad in an instant. Sometimes anxieties linger in the gut even while the brain is processing some new information that makes us optimistic.

Carl Jung said that inner work can be like taking a long hike in the Alps. In the village where we start it may be raining. Lightening may be flashing and thunder echoing across the valleys, but after we’ve walked for awhile, we often come out of the storm. You might still see the lightening and hear the thunder behind and below, but we’ve moved on to another space. The storm hasn’t ended, only we’re not in it anymore.

The practice of spaciousness is regularly taking these kinds of hikes through the regions of our own hearts and minds. We learn not to ignore either the lighting within or the sun above the clouds. Both exist at the same time and in the same space—the same space when our perspective grows a little bigger. The practice of spaciousness is the growing of this very perspective, and it can be very exhilarating exercise.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Another habit mindfulness encourages is a growing awareness of spacious, a sense that whatever comes along, whether it’s a thought or a feeling or a person or an unexpected turn of events, there’s more room for it than we know.

You know that uncomfortable feeling that you just can’t take anymore of something? Like your mind and gut are crowded or tight or swollen? A practice of spaciousness encourages us to take these feelings as valuable and in some way true--just not take them as the whole truth. There's more.

One summer I was rafting on a rain-swollen river with some friends and we got swept under two huge pipes that spanned the river. The collision and force of the water dumped us out and the raft got stuck between the pipes. When I tried to come up for air I smacked into the bottom of the raft and freaked out, pushing back down and flailing around for a space where the raft wasn’t blocking my way to air and sky and life. I made it. Whew! Two of my friends were holding onto the pipe and gave me a hand, but another friend was apparently still under water.

In a minute he popped up. Somebody said to him, ‘You sure can hold your breath a long time!’ But he told us he hadn’t been holding his breath. He came up under the raft like me but instead of panicking, he searched around under the raft for trapped air, took a moment to breathe, then pushed back down, and out, and up.

Practicing spaciousness is like that. Not freaking out. Having a certain trust that somewhere there’s air enough for another breath, another try.

Our feelings and the thoughts associated with them are powerful. They’ve helped teach us about where danger and pain and heartache lie. But life is always bigger than what we’ve experienced so far. Even when we're convinced we've run out of air or time or options, when we have powerful feelings that this is so, it's probably not so, and if we create a mental space to explore the possibility of this we often find a corresponding space in our situation. Over time we begin to trust this, to count on it, even to laugh about it.

It feels good to be wrong about our limits. We feel better as we get in the habit of not asking life to only be as big as we can currently tolerate. We do better as we learn to trust that our minds and hearts can grow to encompass more and more of the challenges and richness of life as it comes.

Friday, August 20, 2010

This is my Practice


Every morning first thing after splashing my face with cold water I march out to the big oak in the front yard and fall on my knees repenting for all the trouble I cause in the world carbon dioxide spuming from every pore I fall face down and grieve till tears bead the grass like dew!

Right after this I leap to my feet and lift my arms to the heavens shouting “Thank you, thank you, thank you” to the Creator of Everything whom I cannot see or even know all that well but to whom I am so grateful for life and love and being!

And after this I run down the hill to Walmart where I embrace every person at every register saying very precisely and from my whole heart “How glad I am you are in the world how very very glad!”

This is my practice. Or at least it could be.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


One of the practices of mindfulness is ‘refraining’ – to simply hold back from doing what we usually do. You know the tongue-in-cheek definition of foolishness: ‘to continue doing the same thing while expecting a different result’? If we really want a different result we should try a different action. I’m naturally yangy—I tend to act first and consider later. Yin is being more open to letting things unfold on their own, letting them come to us.

When Ruth came home one night long past curfew I was waiting up for her, anxious and angry. Our conversation began as usual with me reminding her how she was supposed to be behaving and with her blowing it off. At some point I remembered the advice about refraining and so I just stopped talking. After a few minutes Ruth stopped talking too. Then she said something like, “Well, this is pretty stupid. Why aren’t you saying anything?”

I didn’t have anything to say so we continued for a minute in awkward silence. Then I said something like, “I’m being quiet because I don’t know what to say and I don’t want to say something hurtful.”

The awkwardness lasted another five minutes or so, with me stammering an attempt or two at a different kind of approach. (One of the things I loathe the most in life is being inarticulate.) But then something shifted and we wound up having the most open conversation we’d had in a long while, heart to heart and head to head.

My first attempt at ‘practicing’ refraining was not pretty. Nevertheless, it was profound.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Engagement without Attachment

Eight or so years ago our daughter was going through a tough time. At the same time I was teaching a course, Eastern Religious Traditions, at WCU. I had long known that attachment and detachment were important spiritual concepts in the East but had never really grasped the essence of what they were actually about. Love and fear and a stubborn commitment to my daughter brought me to an epiphany.

Love is a wonderful thing. Love is a terrible thing. Love makes you want with every fiber of your being to help people you care about. I kept looking for signs that Ruth was getting better. When I didn't see what I was looking for I just tried harder!

That didn't work out well.

One evening standing on our screened porch wondering where she was and what she was doing, an awareness jolted me. It took awhile to figure it out, but the experience of it was really very precise from the beginning. I was so attached to my idea of what help should be and what the results should look like, and so committed to helping this process along, that I was often being incredibly unhelpful. The very things I so ardently hoped for I was in many ways sabotaging. I was witnessing how meddlesome love's 'natural' actions can sometimes be.

So...what to do?

It took me awhile to be confident about this, but something in me recognized that it had to do with the very wisdom of engagement without attachment that I had been studying (and, alas, teaching). A person can love just as much and be just as committed without being so damn committed to particular outcomes.

To be a positive force in Ruth's life I was going to have to learn how to let go in a big way. That night I signed up for a full immersion course in engagement without attachment.

(To be continued....)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Focus on the Family

Some of us ‘spiritual types’ often wish we could spend more time at a quiet retreat. Maybe even that we’d gone to India to train when we were younger. Yet there’s no better place to train than in our own families. All the ingredients are here—love, commitment, and never-ending challenges! All we lack is a certain trust in knowing how to do it. A little ordinary mindfulness can be a huge help here.

The great gift of a mindfulness practice is that it reminds us over and over that whatever our reality is it can be better understood and more deeply appreciated. When we practice mindfulness it doesn’t take long before we begin to trust that the circumstances of our own lives work like teachers for us. This means we are, in a certain way, going to India or Tibet or Canterbury or Jerusalem or Mecca to train.

I plan to follow this theme over the next few weeks and welcome comments about your experience in ‘family’ spirituality.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Blueberry Season

It's blueberry season in western North Carolina. Cars are often parked on grassy edges of the Blue Ridge Parkway. People with buckets or widened plastic milk jugs are pressed into tall bushes or bending over short ones. Last year toward the far end of a long hike two women in long working dresses from what seemed like another century asked me, 'Vere ahr blueberries?'

Barbara and I pick them every year, too, but they never taste as good at home as they do just off the bush--not that I don't bring a few quarts home every summer to put on cereal.

Toward the end of August most of the berries are gone. People too. But the blueberries are around even into October, sometimes like raisins, dry but sweet with concentrated flavor. I often don't bring water with me on shorter hikes, and stumbling across a berry patch in September is a little like finding a spring. In October it's more like finding a candy store.

To love where you live is a grace. Making the acquaintance of mountains and trails and berries and people in search of them is enriching. Curiosity and appreciation are simple and fruitful habits.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

First thing

Waking up means entering the day in an almost dream-state. And the brain's ability to be otherwise is a bit fogged. How are we most helpfully mindful first thing in the morning? As always, it's dicey to carry over an habitual pattern without noticing what it is.


Hiking up the east flanks of Rough Butt Bald you come to a place where the red spruce have grown tall apparently at the expense of the old oak trees, many, very many of which have died and are dying. But they leave behind such beautiful wreckage.

This old hollowed out tree is still standing, at least 15 feet of it, though it leans against a red spruce which grew up robust and tall 10 feet away. There's a long gaping crack not big enough for a head but for a hand holding a camera to get through. I wouldn't have this picture otherwise.

When I try to figure out the age of things (this oak was surely over a hundred years old when it began to die--dying took years--slowly being hollowed out by bugs and birds took many more) and when the numbers begin to add up, I feel an accumulating respect. I want to say, God bless you, old fellow.

I'm glad my hand fit through the crack so I could see the lovely symmetry the years, the elements, the bugs and the fungi and the old oak itself have come to. It all reminded of a Leonard Cohen lyric--Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

Prayer Beads and a Spider’s Web

Back CameraI went out early this foggy morning to water the shade garden. Just the least bit of light was poking through the dogwood from the southwest and the most receptive thing it found to light up was this spider’s web. The spider stirred when I bent down to have a closer look, probably interrupting its spinning and weaving. Maybe that’s why there are a couple of holes in the web.

I realized that a person could count circles in webs instead of beads, and since this web is so near the ground we might naturally take a prayerful posture just getting close enough to get a good look.

I’d probably never finish counting because I usually get distracted  by a mix of wonder and wanting—wonder at the amazingness of creation and a felt need to run get somebody to come and marvel with me. I think most likely at the core of both those distractions is just a raw and poignant gratitude for simple beauty and our capacity to recognize it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mountain Monasteries

I've seen stunning pictures of monasteries in China suspended on mountainsides. Makes me want to go. But I probably won't. Yet that desire somehow travels with me through the mountains where I live, and pulls my attention toward things that are related. When I saw this mushroom cluster clinging to a tree on the Mountains to Sea Trail, a connection, a bridge appeared, and I knew it was possible to get there from here.

And for a few moments I was there. One part of me was simply delighted--to see something simple and beautiful, to have had enough sense to stop and be still (I was also rather pleased with myself for having an enlightened moment).

One part was just deeply grateful to be alive and to have eyes and mind and heart.

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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Getting to the next moment

“The crucial factor influencing how well we can respond in any given situation seems to be the level of mindfulness we can bring to bear upon the moment. If we don’t care to be present, unconscious decision-making systems will function to get us through to the next moment, albeit in the grips of (often flawed) learned behaviors and conditioned responses. If, on the other hand, we can increase the amount of conscious awareness present by manifesting mindfulness, we expand the range of our possible responses. Even if disposed to anger, we can choose to act with kindness. This is the essence of our freedom in an otherwise heavily conditioned system.”

Read more in Andrew Olendzki’s original article

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Kingdom of God Is at Hand

So many of our fundamental responses to life were formed when we where children and adolescents—long before most of us had much self-awareness.  Many adult patterns build up over time on top of these, making our responses to life pretty kludgy.

Mindfulness gives us a great window to see what all these responses are up to, which is a great gift.  Gradually, lots of misdirected and wasteful patterns can be noticed and in many ways re-formed.  We begin to see more clearly how the ‘kingdom of God’ is at hand—and, gradually, we’re better able to welcome it more wisely and enter it more freely.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
-R. S. Thomas

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brain Change

Can the mind change the brain? A growing consensus that it can is developing among neuroscientists.  Interestingly, it’s meditators who are providing some of the best evidence of this.  Long-time meditators’ brains light up brighter and in more places that in ‘normal’ brains.  Particularly in the places that are associated with compassion.  And (perhaps more counterintuitively) in places that show preparedness for action.

So…if you are contemplative, take heart.  When we meditate, we’re not only cultivating a more abiding sense of sacred space, but we may also be building the very brain networks that facilitate loving action.

If this is interesting to you, see Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.

Monday, February 22, 2010

What’s the end?

A friend was paraphrasing John Spong this morning: ‘Religion always thinks it’s the end.  But it’s not.’

I sense that the question this naturally follows, 'So, what is the end or purpose?', can be profoundly helpful.

I know religion gets in the way of spirituality for many.  I also know that spirituality is almost impossible without religion.  Religion ‘carries’ wisdom in story and exposition and in spirit from one generation to the next.

One of the great gifts of developing a habit of fruitful silence is that in contemplative practice we experience something of the end or purpose of religion wordlessly.  And we ‘know’ something that in a way is ‘beyond knowing’.

And we can agree with Spong and stay wholeheartedly involved in religion too.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Yesterday.  Saw a jet with its long vapor trail at dawn—made me yearn to be somewhere exotic.  Saw a bluebird in the afternoon sun with color out of Avatar.  Made me yearn to be right here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Imitation of Christ

If I ever write a book on meditation the title might be, Jesus is the Way but the Buddha has a Map. Jesus is such an incredible example of passion, wisdom, compassion, creative communication, courage. Love in action. How did he get so wise, so open, so effective? As Christians we have a strong tradition of The Imitation of Christ. And our style of spiritual formation sometimes feels more like imitation than incarnation. A lot of willpower and the very best intentions but not enough transformation. Could we use some help?

And REAL Buddhism? It seems more than a little impossible for average people. Reaching enlightenment is said to take years of monastic training and decades of rigorous practice. But mindfulness meditation is a rich gift from the Buddhists, something the rest of us can gratefully begin to practice, enjoy and and benefit from today. Something we can also (writing with both humility and hubris) mess with. Which is what this blog is about.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hiking the Spiritual Path

I don’t know that I’ve ever been lost hiking. I’ve had boots sinking deep and sucking mud with every step through boggy ground, and my back aching from twisting and crawling through laurel hells, and my spouse angry about our off-trail misadventures, but I’ve always known about where the intended trail was. That awareness comes from having a fair sense of direction and a better sense of the landscape where we usually hike. Our spiritual path has obvious parallels—like being called a ‘path’ for instance. Most—perhaps all—human beings have some innate way of perceiving the Path. And a growing knowledge of the Path comes as a great gift and as hard work.

When I’m tangled in interior laurel hells and feel like stopping, sitting down, swearing or crying I always know (eventually) the path is really never far away, that it is a self-deception to believe otherwise, to believe that here is a time and place to become discouraged and to give up.

The Path is always near, and the slogging or twisting to reach it may seem excessively boring or exquisitely painful. But ultimately and always it is not as painful or boring as giving in to being lost.

Short Prayer

Jesus, Wisdom proclaims that you are the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And we have heard and trusted and followed. Our minds are daily renewed and our hearts overflow with thanksgiving as we walk with you in this Way. Amen.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


To riff on a Pema Chodron thought I read recently in When Things Fall Apart, one of the activities of spiritual practice is to ‘indentify a sense of softness in our hearts and invite it to spread.’

We get these senses of softness at different times and in different ways.  I often get them reading a poem or watching a good movie.  Or listening to someone speak honestly from their own heart.  It’s a feeling of warmth and generosity.

And possibility.  Where we might have been feeling rushed it seems time has expanded.  Where we might have felt a little empty or dry suddenly we're back in touch with something like 'streams of living water.'

In meditation and contemplation we can work with this sense.  We can bring it into the way we let thoughts come and let thoughts go.  And the practice might be this: Try (just try) never to let a thought ungently go.  Never let a thought or feeling go without a palpable sense of kindness, without a bit of warmth.  When we begin to get the hang of this sense of kindness, then we're touching 'the softness' we might invite to spread—both through our prayers and our day to day lives.

Risky Business

If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.     -Thomas Aquinas

Even without punctuation…

ws merwin gets it so right.


one of the butterflies

by ws merwin

The trouble with pleasure is the timing
it can overtake me without warning
and be gone before I know it is here
it can stand facing me unrecognized
while I am remembering somewhere else
in another age or someone not seen
for years and never to be seen again
in this world and it seems that I cherish
only now a joy I was not aware of
when it was here although it remains
out of reach and will not be caught or named
or called back and if I could make it stay
as I want to it would turn to pain.