Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Half the Work

In your own heart, what does the word peace evoke? How about the word equanimity?

Most of us appreciate peace deeply. To feel peace is to be in a place without all the stuff that troubles us. Fear, anger, anxiety--pain of all kinds.

Equanimity for most of us is a less-used word. Yet if we want to have more peace, eventually, we'll have to become more familiar with equanimity.

Equanimity is calmness and composure--especially in a difficult situation. Equanimity is peace in a non-peaceful place. Peace, when it comes, just comes. Equanimity, remarkably, is something we can learn to cultivate.

Equanimity is woven all through the lovingkindness practice I've been writing about the past couple of days. Mindfulness is shot through and through with clarity and compassion--seeing clearly and loving dearly. It's the stuff we 'practice' in formal meditation so that it gets embedded in our minds and hearts. Over and over and over--the brain 'just sees' and the heart 'just loves.' Clarity and lovingkindness are what we practice.

In one way it's unbelievably simple. Just notice stuff without any BS. Then just kindly accept what we notice.

So the lovingkindness practice we do, this re-teaching a thing its loveliness, is half the work.

Sometimes this is the half we need to work with. Working with it is what gets it embedded in us. And as compassion-kindness-love get embedded in us, it spills out and spreads through our lives.

Neither the concept nor the work is hard. We just work with it regularly.

    Breathing in I notice what hurts.
    Breathing out I rest with what hurts.

    Breathing in I fill with lovingkindness.
    Breathing out I am grateful.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Re-teaching a Thing Its Loveliness

In yesterday's post there's this bit from Galway Kinnell's poem,

    Sometimes it is necessary
    to re-teach a thing its loveliness

My experience is it's always necessary to re-teach a thing, a human thing, its loveliness. I've never met anybody who didn't need this re-teaching in one way or another. Yet we can only teach loveliness this way if we know it in ourselves. And we can only know it in ourselves as we re-teach ourselves (many times, in many ways) our own lost loveliness.

We have to start here.

'Here' starts with recognizing those places in ourselves we experience as unlovely. Recognizing those places in the company of compassion.

Jesus said,

    Come to me all you who are weary and weighed down and I will give you rest.

This is such a wonderful invitation to a depth of grace we long for, a grace we recognize we need.

Grace happens.

Grace happens more often as we learn the secret of being intentional about it and opening to it--the secret of showing up for grace. Showing up for grace is synonymous with spiritual formation.

Re-teaching ourselves our deep-down loveliness is part of our formation. Taking contemplative time to stand still long enough to receive a blessing is our work. The blessing is a gift.

How long do we need to stand still?
What's qualities of mind and heart do we bring to stillness?
Can these qualities be cultivated?
How can it be REST if we have to CULTIVATE it?

There's a lot of good teaching out there about this stuff. But like so much of life, understanding (though helped so very much by wise teaching) finally only comes by experience.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Be Kind to Yourself

Be kind to yourself. No, really, do it. Be kind to yourself. Not just by having a glass of wine or by zoning out in any number of pleasant ways. Do stuff that truly enriches you. 

As you read this portion of St. Francis and the Sow by Galway Kinnell, does anything about yourself come to mind--some piece of you that needs real kindness?

    The bud
    stands for all things,
    even for those things that don’t flower,
    for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
    though sometimes it is necessary
    to re-teach a thing its loveliness,
    to put a hand on the brow
    of the flower,
    and retell it in words and in touch,
    it is lovely
    until it flowers again from within,
    of self-blessing.

We all need to be re-taught our own loveliness. Galway Kinnell suggests this can come by self-blessing. 

Does that sound weird? Narcissistic? Shouldn't somebody else be blessing us? A friend, a lover, God, perhaps?

I think genuine, intentional self-blessing is incarnational. An act that embodies, makes present what's at the heart of creation anyway. It's being receptive to a reality meant to be absorbed, like corn in Kansas drinking in rainwater. 

Mindful practice functions this way.

    Breathing in I notice what hurts.
    Breathing out I rest with what hurts. 

    Breathing in I soak up lovingkindness.
    Breathing out I am grateful.

Breathe lovingkindness into your own heart as a sign, a sacrament. Be re-taught a loveliness that's been too long forgotten. 

Be kind to yourself. No really. 

Do this practice for 3 minutes, 3 times a day. More often and longer when needed. 

(You can set an online meditation timer here)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pregnant with Life

Today is the first day of Advent. Advent means something is on the way. Yet what is on the way is also already here as well, because it's already in us, gestating.

St. Ireneaus, who lived about 1,800 years ago in what is now Lyon, in France, said "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." That's what we're pregnant with and what we're always, progressively, giving birth to. We're pregnant with and giving birth to being fully alive. 

This Advent the moon is gestating with us. For the next few evenings it will be just a sliver setting in the west. But every evening it will be a little bigger and a little higher in the sky. A sign.

It's not a perfect sign. After 2 weeks of waxing, the moon will wane and in 2 more weeks it will be 'new' for Christmas Eve.

'New' in moon terms means no light at all, not even a sliver. Yet, bless it's faithful phasing, the moon will start brightening again on Dec 26.

I've had a really hard day today. Kind of a dark side of the moon day. Dark thoughts, uncomfortable feelings.  It's felt like being pregnant with anxiety and grief. I've 'let go' of these dark thoughts and emotions a hundred times. Yet, today, they've kept returning.

But underneath, much deeper, lives the recognition that I'm actually pregnant with Life--fresh, growing, whole life. That doesn't make dark thoughts and emotions less real, just less substantial.

This recognition is sustained by both grace and practice. Today I've felt anxious and sad, but I haven't practiced feeling anxious and sad. I've practiced letting go of them.

And practiced trusting this process of being pregnant with something better.

I'm really looking forward to watching the moon grow, too.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Conversation as Sanctuary

Every day we have lots of opportunity to be like a still forest pool. To slow down enough so that the silt settles. To be still and know. To shift from our yang side over to our yin side.

One of these opportunities is in conversation, casual or otherwise. What’s it like to be still in conversation? 

Is it to say nothing? No.

Is it to say less? Probably.

Is it to make others we talk to do most of the work? No.

Is it to shift toward thinking about our part of the work differently? This can be very helpful.

I don’t think it’s possible for us to get a step by step guide to wise, helpful, generous conversation. But it surely involves tapping into a ‘liking’ for other people and an ‘interest’ in who they are and a ‘curiosity’ about how this particular conversation might unfold.

Just like in meditation, a lot of it will involve ‘letting go’ of our thoughts so we can ‘pay attention’ to an ‘other.’ At heart it’s a very simple shift—it’s just we’re not used to relating in this way so it feels hard and at first awkward.

Thomas Aquinas, who spent most of his life developing theology, later in life made this kind of shift. Later in life he described his deepest purpose like this,

     With every breath I extract God.
     And my eyes are a shop where I offer him to the world.

Eyes. Ears. Mind. Heart.

Maybe we’re not so much of a shop. Maybe we’re more like a clear forest pool. Or a way station, a refuge, a sanctuary, a chair under an umbrella at the beach.

And sometimes roles switch, and others will offer sanctuary to us.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Approaching Stillness

Jack Kornfield’s teacher, Ajahn Chah, had a lovely way of approaching stillness, an image to enter and explore and return to many times.

Try to be mindful and let things
take their natural course. Then your mind
will become still in any surroundings,
like a clear forest pool. All kinds
of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink
at the pool, and you will clearly see
the nature of all things. You will
see many strange and wonderful things come
and go, but you will be still.

It’s really helpful when words like these—which evoke a vivid and memorable scene—can be let go of easily. Mindfulness lets go of words in order to experience ‘stuff’ wordlessly, in order to bring the parts of our brains that don’t process with words into play. We have more capacity than we know in those parts of our brains. Capacities that will bless us.

This kind of preparation takes us to that Be still and know place that the psalm (45) recommends.

Ajahn Chah’s image, as we go there, spend time there, practice with it, is worth thousands and thousands of words.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Coming Into Peace

I knew I wanted to live in the mountains of western North Carolina by the time I was 17. Just something about the greenness and the clear, chatty streams, the clouds drifting across the mountains that made me feel good.  

Took me 25 years to get here, and I’ve lived here now for 18. Nothing just naturally brings me out of worry and hurry and frustration and into peace like walking in all this beauty.

Wendell Berry says it wonderfully in his poem, The Peace of Wild Things.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Mindfulness practice also brings us, step by step, into the presence of still water—where we begin to be able to not tax our lives with forethought of grief—or the thousand other ways we burden ourselves.

By slowly uncovering and nurturing clarity, wisdom and compassion at our core, our wild things also begin to come in peace. Amazingly we find (without having to travel any distance at all) we too, little by little, rest in the grace of the world, and are free. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Coming Into Silence

A verse from Proverbs says, Where there are many words, sin is not absent. 

Evolutionary Psychologists reckon that humans have been talking to each other for one or two or at most four hundred thousand years. We've lived as mammals so, so, much longer than that. Our brains still retain even reptilian structure and function. We navigate life with the 'wisdom of the ages.' And with the instincts and impulses of life at varying levels of evolution.

Our minds have ways of working that we don't understand well, capacities that we don't use well. We have untapped receptivities to both what is right in front of us and to what is Beyond. 

"Be still and know," is a core part of spiritual practice. Being still and silent puts us in touch with...what? Some of us would say God. Some would say Wisdom. Some would say Original Mind. Or The Boundless. Or...? Or...? Or...?

The work and gifts of mindfulness practice and centering prayer are in part the teachings of techniques for coming into silence. 

I quoted Sylvia Boorstein yesterday. Below I've used her same word order but formatted the words like a poem. It helps to slow the reading down, to put it in a different kind of space. Perhaps it allows different parts of our brains, different ways of knowing to come into play. 

As we read her words, as we read any bits of wisdom that guide us toward silence, it's helpful to try to experience the words as scaffolding. Necessary scaffolding for us humans. 

But not the Main Thing. Just a way to approach the main thing. 

Silence is a tool, a context
   for direct, personal, intuitive
   of how things are....

Being silent
   doesn’t require
   being in a quiet place,
   and it doesn’t mean   
   not saying words.
It means, receiving
   in a balanced,
   noncombative way
   what is happening.

With or without words,
   the hope of my heart
   is that it will be able to relax
   and acknowledge the truth
   of my situation
   with compassion. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Got Frustration?

To practice, we must start exactly where we are. Of course, we can always imagine perfect conditions, how it should be ideally, how everyone else should behave. But it’s not our task to create an ideal. It’s our task to see how it is and to learn from the world as it is. For the awakening of the heart, conditions are always good enough.  –Ajahn Sumedho, The Way It Is

9:00 PM Saturday night: A few days ago I read the above Ajahn Sumedho quote. Liked it. Something popped out to me. I made a note to use it as part of our lectio for the Mindfulness Group that meets 7:30 Monday morning. Now it’s Sunday night and I’m tired. Read the quote again six or seven times, typed it, but I just can’t remember what it was I was going to build on. And the soup needs to be put up.

I wish my mind worked better, more consistently. When I stop to breathe in and out I notice a certain pressure in my chest. The thought that goes with the pressure is ‘breathing won’t write the lectio.’ I think I’ll walk the dog, put up the soup, wash up, try to get out of my head.

9:30 PM: Still fretting around in my brain. No insights. Just frustrated mush-mind.

9:45 PM: In bed; reading the following two paragraphs from Sylvia Boorstein (That's Funny, You Don't Look Jewish)--

Silence is a tool, a context for direct, personal, intuitive understanding of how things are.... Being silent for me doesn’t require being in a quiet place, and it doesn’t mean not saying words. It means, “receiving in a balanced, noncombative way what is happening.” With or without words, the hope of my heart is that it will be able to relax and acknowledge the truth of my situation with compassion.

I’ve discovered there are only two modes of the heart. We can struggle, or we can surrender. Surrender is a frightening word for some people, because it might be interpreted as passivity, or timidity. Surrender means wisely accommodating ourselves to what is beyond our control.

10:00 PM: Experienced these words like medicine then eased, gratefully, into a 'noncombative' state and drifted off to sleep.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sacred Breath

If you're newish to meditation, it's helpful to anchor meditation in the breath.

Set aside a modest amount of time. 5 minutes. Or 3. Just keep it up. It doesn't take long to see and feel the possibilities.

The goal is not to get somewhere but to be where we are in a fresh, whole-making way.

Set a timer. Use your phone's or the oven's.

Take 3 deep, relaxing breaths. Just feel the air come in and go back out. Feel it in the nose, throat, chest. Sense the movement of your diaphragm. Feel it and sense it. Don't think about it.

Then, continue to keep a piece of awareness on the breath but also begin to notice what you're thinking or feeling. Notice it. don't 'think' about it. Watch your thoughts as if they were clouds floating by. Sense your feelings as if they were ripples in a pond.

We can usually do this for about 5 seconds before we stop watching a thought or sensing a feeling and start thinking about it. That's okay. Thinking about a thought or feeling can just become the next thought we notice.

And when, inevitably, you get frustrated at how 'bad' you are at just watching, notice that thought, too, Smile toward that thought, let go of the judgment, bring kindness into the process. Over and over. Notice and smile. See clearly. Love dearly.

That's the pattern. With this very simple practice we begin evoking and strengthening AWARENESS and COMPASSION. Being 'bad' at it is just fine, as long as we stay committed to simple practice. We are all 'bad at it' at first, imagining some goal or breakthrough.

In a big way, the practice itself is the goal, because through practice we strengthen awareness and compassion. We sharpen our perception and we learn to be kind and gentle with what we perceive.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Try Not To Go There By Yourself

As we practice slowing down, noticing little by little what our stations are broadcasting, we begin to see why Presence is such a wonderful thing. A needed thing.

Remember Anne Lamott's "My mind is like a bad neighborhood--I try not to go there alone." When we run on automatic, we're just meandering through our stuff: our hopes and fears and traumas and ambitions and likes and dislikes, etc., etc. Our minds are a little like a bad neighborhood, a little like an asylum being run by the inmates.

Becoming mindful of this will be unnerving. Discovery is often scary. It's not a good idea to wander through our mindscapes alone. But, truth be told, we often  (usually?) wander there alone anyway.

Mindful practice cultivates clear and kind attention. Ultimately, we never want to be with ourselves or anybody else without the company of wisdom and kindness.

Simple. Yes? We just invite and embody these two qualities into every moment of our lives.

For us God people, this is Presence capitalized. Love + Wisdom = Something-Very-Like-God.

For non-God people, it's equally a Wonder. Something to be capitalized.

For either group, the practice is much of a muchness. Becoming mindful we learn not to tread old paths or new paths without being in the Presence of Love and Wisdom. Without bringing kind attention to each moment.

The reason I meditate most mornings is to get better at this. To anchor the process of consciousness in a sacred rhythm of breathing in and out seeing clearly and loving dearly. 'Anchoring the process' is another way of saying 'training the brain.' 'Forming new neural pathways.' It's not enough just to understand how it works. New pathways are only developed by travelling them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mindfulness & Brain Science

There Is a Super-Entity Inside the Human Brain [Science] -

All Talk All The Time

So...our deep-seated, repeating stories about 'Life' are not told by an idiot but by our younger trying-to-figure-out-how-the-world-works selves at various stages of development. And the loudest stories are formed by the most powerful experiences.

Underneath each story is a marker, a neural response coming from a particular part of the brain and the release of a particular chemical, a neurotransmitter. These markers were formed to call attention to what we registered once open a time as  IMPORTANT. Many of our markers have been faithfully transmitting ever since.

Like a radio broadcast. A talk show. An All Talk All The Time Channel. One of the 'gifts' of mindful practice is to become more and more aware of this constant chatter. I use the word gift with a sense of irony because hearing these voices is both disturbing and enlightening. Sheesh, I had no idea how much I talk to myself, we discover. What strong opinions I have. What a lot of BS. 

But also, Ah, what an amazing opportunity to learn, to discern, to let go, to re-form how we process our experiences of life.

We can can learn to pay wise and kind attention to our various talk stations. As we do we experience them for what they are. Voices from the past not the present. 'Wisdom' that is at best out of date and more likely never all that wise anyway. Conclusions arrived at not by UNDERSTANDING but by MISUNDERSTANDING.

Great time for RAIN work. Recognize when a broadcast starts. Accept that this is one of your channels--one that you often listen to without questioning it's message (remember to be kind to yourself all along!). INVESTIGATE what's being said--how accurate it is--how much you've believed this stuff up to this point--what you feel like when you're tuned in to this particular station--whether you still believe it at this stage of your life. NON-IDENTIFY with the untrue and unwise bits of the message. Remember that this is an out-of-date broadcast. It's very familiar but does not describe or confirm who you are now. It doesn't have to restrict who you will become.

Remember, too, there are other channels.  Like WISDOM CALLS ALOUD  (from wherever we are). We all have the capacity to tune into the STILL SMALL VOICE channel. And don't forget this one--it's particularly helpful: YOU WILL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Revising Our Stories

Yesterday I wrote that life is not a tale told by an idiot but by our own 'selves' at the different levels of our developing psyches. And for most of us humans, we've rarely been idiots--though we've never been infallible either. Much of the time, right from the start, we've tried hard to get things right. We've often responded to family and neighborhood and school contexts with the best wisdom we had. And the best wisdom we've had comes mainly from the people around us who've influenced us most. And that's been (how would you put this?) a mixed bag. Yes?

Even though it goes against my temperament, I am almost always on time. It's one of my 'good' qualities. Inside me is a strong commitment to NOT MAKE OTHER PEOPLE WAIT. I'm proud of this. Other people appreciate it. BUT, as I practice being on time faithfully, diligently, I also cause people to suffer.

That's because my commitment to always be on time comes from a deeply formed, immature response to life. At maybe 4 years old, I had been dressed in my Sunday clothes early enough to go outside and play before church. I played in the dirt. Got dirty. My father came to get me and saw what a mess I was. He was so mad he spanked me--one of only two times I remember being spanked.

My father also had a firm commitment to being on time. His faithful, diligent practice caused suffering too.

I can't be sure this was THE moment of a permanent fixation to be on time. But it's in the ballpark. And it's a useful story to see, to investigate, and to use as a kind of sacrament. Something just waiting to be transformed.

All my life I've tended to drive too fast to 'not be late,' to herd my family toward my goal (first in a nice way, but if they dawdle, then in a darker, controlling kind of way. It's "what I'm supposed to do!"

As I wrote yesterday, Some of our most vivid stories about ‘life’ were composed to mark what we found terrifying and bewildering once upon a time

So....what unhelpful 'wisdom' have you received once upon a time? What rules for life do you take for granted? What feels like 'THIS IS WHAT I'M SUPPOSED TO DO!'

Many of the laws we all live by are due for review. Recognize when your laws come into play. Be curious about them. Listen to the words that come with them, the memories, the stories that are connected to them. The feelings, the body sensations they evoke. Observe what words come out of your mouth.

Is anybody suffering from your laws? Are you?

Time to try something different? 

Our stories are still being written and revised. The revised editions can make the world more whole. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Told By an Idiot?

(For more about Non-Identification, you can refer to RAIN work here)

Macbeth, in Shakespeare’s play, laments "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." More than a few people find a certain recognition in Macbeth’s conclusion. Life can seem dark, confusing, lacking meaning. Without some wiser intervening point of view, people get lost in similar perspectives.

With mindful practice, however, over time we can see quite clearly that life’s not a tale told by an idiot but a tale told by our own often baffled, frightened, sincere younger selves at various levels of development through childhood, adolescence, late teenage years, early adulthood, etc.

Our DNA powerfully inclines us to name and mark strong experience. If we experience something as dangerous, the mind leaves a marker—avoid this, run away. Or if that’s not possible—hide, cower, conciliate. Some of our most vivid stories about ‘life’ were composed to mark what we found terrifying and bewildering once upon a time.

It’s so wise to learn to hold all our stories, our disturbing feelings and awkward thoughts, with kind attention. Mindfulness trains us, over and over, to hold feelings (that are happening in the present but are triggered by trauma experienced in the past) like wise and loving grandparents hold their children’s children.

The voice that names our storyteller an idiot is just another one of our own confused players who has not yet understood that the play is still being written. We have certainly been poor players at times; we’ve strutted and we’ve fretted. 

But it ain’t over yet. 

Wise and kind attention is the only audience fit to review the play as we’ve lived it so far—and the only author fit to discern what’s yet to come.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


This is the lake at Kanuga.  Walking around it during a short break at Convention, it was was easy to recognize that when we're at peace, the light and beauty of life just shine more naturally.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life in a Leaf

Apparently, the main guidance for the little guy in this Blackberry leaf was, 'Try to stay in the leaf.'

Looks like, same as Sarah & Abraham, he also journeyed by stages.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Familiar Comfort

Read the following two sentences aloud several times paying attention to your experience of and reaction to what is says:

     In holding on there is familiar comfort.
     In letting go there is unknown peace.

What do you make of this? Does it ring true? Do you want to argue with it? Revise it?

Remember the condensed version of the Adventures of Sarah and Abraham?

     God said to Abraham and Sarah,
     "Leave the familiar and go the place I will show you."
     Setting out and navigating by God's occasional guidance,
     Sarah and Abraham journeyed by stages for the rest of there lives.

They might have stayed where they where. The were old and reasonably prosperous. Why leave? Because 'God' told them? Who is God to meddle in their settled, reasonably comfortable lives?

Reading the many chapters of their adventure we can tell that much (most?) of the time going to the place God shows you is very unsettling. Unsettling? How to do we feel about that word?

Yet at many, many places along their way Abraham and Sarah stacked up stones, built altars in recognition that they were where they were supposed to be. That they had followed their path. That they had found their way. That 'God' was in that place.

They could have stayed comfortably at home. In holding on there is familiar comfort. But they chose instead quite literally to be un-settled.

In letting go we find unknown peace: a yet-to-be-discovered level and experience of all that peace can be.

It's a real piece of work to trade familiar comfort for yet-to-be-discovered peace.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Letting Go (Lovingly)

After the ungodly carnage of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, monk and activist Maha Ghosananda crisscrossed his homeland helping to heal and reestablish communities. Millions had been slaughtered in the "Killing Fields." Everywhere he traveled he found the orphaned, the bereft, and the terribly traumatized.

One of his practices was to gather communities together and have them chant for hours,

    Everything passes away.
    You have lost so much.
    Now you know how precious everything is.
    You must learn to love again and let new things grow.

What a gift to have a compassionate, wise, courageous presence at the heart of trauma and rebuilding.

It's my experience of myself and of Western tendencies in general that we resist the notion that "Everything passes away." In our relatively wealthy and stable lives in America, things don't exactly pass away, we think, they just wear out and we buy improved versions.

Of course, whatever our perceptions are, everything does pass away, and over time, if we're honest (and fortunate) we come to realize it personally, profoundly, and persistently.

When I was 20, my father had a heart attack at breakfast and died. I tried to revive him with 'the kiss of life' but failed. In a profound way, as I failed to give him the kiss of life he succeeded in giving me 'the kiss of death.' He bequeathed to me in that terrible moment an unshakable knowing that everything indeed passes away.

But it's taken me decades to shake that revelation free of enough of it's trauma to be able to experience it as the wisdom it is. I'm now 3 years older than Dad when we died. I knew 40 years ago that I had 'lost so much.' I know it much better now. And now I also know much, much more deeply 'how precious everything is.'

What a treasure it is to know in the marrow of our being 'how precious everything is.' But we only come to access this treasure when we take the time to take to heart that indeed 'everything passes away.' When we take the time to let go of the sleepy way we live with denial instead of affirmation, our minds and hearts develop a new capacity to hold Something Else.

Letting go of our strange notions of the durability of the stuff we've come to count on is not easy, but it frees us more and more to live where we live, with life as it really is. And the emptying of denial and delusion makes room for filling full with truth. And the truth is pregnant with wonder. Ah, loving again, letting new things grow. I want that.

O God, O God, O God, how precious everything is.
Your mercies are new every morning.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why We Let Go (again)

A young friend, five-year old Jason, went with his big brother on a longish hike with me and my good friend Bob. When we got back his mother asked if he liked hiking. Jason said, "Yeah, I like it." Then cocking his head as he thought more about it he said, "Except you have to walk."

Do we like fullness of Life? Joy? Love?

Yeah. We like 'em. seems we have to make room for them because we're stopped up with other stuff. Wouldn't it be nice if we could have the pleasure of Fullness without having the bother of Emptying!

Here's another chanty kind of thing:

There is much to appreciate within our selves.
Yet the usual experience of fullness of self
blocks fresh experience of fullness of being.

As we work to be more mindful it doesn't take long to notice we are distracted by many, many things. Noticing is the first part of the work. Mindfulness teachers can describe the common kinds of things we all notice, but the real 'aha' comes from experiencing the noticing for ourselves.

The payoff comes over and over again as we do the work and recognize that much of what we're involved with in our minds and hearts isn't what we need or truly want to be involved with. With these recognitions letting go stops feeling like a chore and starts looking more like the very trail we long to hike.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why We Let Go

Read the following, if you can, as a kind of chant or segment of liturgy:

God said to Abraham and Sarah,
“Leave the familiar.
Go to the place I will show you.”
Setting out and navigating by God’s occasional guidance,
Sarah and Abraham journeyed by stages
for the rest of their lives.

Come back, when you might need to, and chant/pray/declare it again later.

It's so easy to read the story of Abraham and Sarah and misunderstand it. We tend to think God promised the old couple a new home; and then, trusting God, they packed their bags, set off, and arrived. 

The reality is that from the very beginning to the very end Sarah and Abraham were wanderers. Explorers. Pilgrims. Strangers in a strange land. And being strangers in a strange land is how they got to know God. It is where the knowing happened--on the way.

Jesus invited the same kind of journey. Leave your work, your families, your stuff...and follow me. 

There is no such thing as a spiritual journey without journeying. And in order to have a spiritual journey we have to leave a familiar country. 

This is what letting go is all about, what letting go is. Letting go is finding trust and chutzpah enough to leave what we already know in order to discover what we yet don't know. This is spiritual growth. It's the same every day. We journey by stages.

In a profound way, Abraham and Sarah were in the Promised Land the moment they left home. Every time they trusted the promise and opened their minds and hearts to what God was calling them to explore, they were already there. 

When we leave the familiar we will often feel lost. Lost is the name of the place where we learn to love, take and value direction. 

Lost? Scared? Confused? 

Reoriented? Grateful? Confident?

These are place names on the way. Part of the map we've filled in as we've traveled. These maps show us where we've been and give us confidence for all the stages of the journey that remain.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Emptiness Is Like This

In my twenties, I river-walked the stream in this picture, Bubbling Spring Branch. We'd rock-hop when we could, wade or swim when we couldn't, and play in the water whenever we found a place to slide or a deep hole to explore.

Within 50 feet of where I took this picture there's a spring. Over the years somebody has made sure there's always a pipe embedded in a way that water flows out high enough to get a bottle or a jug under. I've been drinking from this spring a long time.

Last year I finally met a fellow who tends it--mucks out the weeds, cleans the pipe, resets it so the flow is good.

Emptiness is like this.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Emptiness as First Cousin to Absence

We tend to think of emptiness as a negative thing. A hollow feeling, a spiritual bankruptcy. And, of course, it can rightly have that connotation. But emptiness, in healthy spiritual practice, is a goal--and in it's most helpful form is a verb: EMPTYING.

Making room. Creating space for living water, holy spirit, wisdom, compassion. Preparing the way for our truest selves rather than small-ego-selves.

It's a bad pun, but I can't help but relate Emptiness to Ruminess, because of Rumi's wonderful poem, The Guest House, which is as wise a study of healthy emptying as has ever been passed on. This poem all by itself could form a degree program in spiritual practice.

And many of the classes would be on how to embody all these potent verbs...

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're 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.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Absence as Prelude

So...Absence can be experienced as prelude to Presence (yesterday's post).

Mindfulness practice helps tune our receivers to Presence. As we faithfully, skillfully, lovingly do the work of paying attention and letting go we begin to make space and capacity for perceiving what the Buddhists speak of as 'The One Who Knows.'

Jesus promised us the Spirit of Truth would guide us into all that is true. Many years earlier, Jewish writers were proclaiming that Wisdom (Sophia) calls aloud from the gateways and doorways and marketplaces.

Wisdom, lucky for us, is both all the wise things our forbears passed on to us AND the ability to know truth from untruth. Wisdom is completely intertwined with The One Who Knows.

Back to poetry.

Mary Oliver works with the same materials R. S. Thomas worked with (yesterday's poem). But her point of view and tone are (to say the least) distinctly different.



It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

She suggests a lot is possible with a little, yes? The verb 'patch' is helpful. And the words 'doorway' and 'thanks' can encourage us to work with the words 'vacant' and 'silence' more expectantly, yes again?

Absence and Presence are intertwined.

So friends, the preacher intoned, don't let Absence put you off your game. Work with it as the gift it can be.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Faith and Emptiness, R S Thomas

Most people of faith struggle with faith. It's like snakes and snake skins--to grow, something dies and has to be sloughed off. It's usually unnerving.

But the more we tend our relationship with both God and the world, the more we let Wisdom speak to us regarding both, the more we'll grow and will need the sloughing.

The Welsh priest and poet R. S. Thomas writes like he was unnerved much of the time. He's a hard read much of the time. But worth it (though I don't read his poems without remembering to be prayerful, mindful).

He often describes faith in need of sloughingFaith dried out and peely. Yet in the integrity of his bare honesty, there's something roomy, and in the skilled and beautiful ways he writes, there's something that inspires. Thomas writes so faithfully about his experience of Absence that I often find myself experiencing God as Presence, through the 'Rare Bird' named below, for instance.

More on this in future posts. In the meantime, see for yourselves. But pray first. Pray during. Pray after reading, remembering that emptiness precedes fullness.


Grey waters, vast 
                        as an area of prayer
that one enters. Daily
                      over a period of years
I have let my eye rest on them.
Was I waiting for something?
but that continuous waving
                             that is without meaning
              Ah, but a rare bird is
rare. It is when one is not looking
at times one is not there
                                  that it comes.
You must wear your eyes out
as others their knees.
               I became the hermit
of the rocks, habited with the wind
and the mist. There were days,
so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled,
                          its absence
was as its presence; not to be told
any more, so single my mind
after its long fast,
                          my watching from praying.

- R.S. Thomas
in Laboratories of the Spirit, 1975