Friday, December 30, 2011

A Lot Happens On a Mountain

One of the first things I remember about bringing 'spaciousness' into mindful practice came from Pema Chodron. It was simple: "A lot happens on a mountain."

The way I remember it, she was advising new meditators to picture ourselves as a mountain--solid, big, imperturbable.

I took this picture on a hike a week ago. On one side of the mountain, a whole valley was under low cloud. The other side was completely sunny. I was about a mile high--high enough to see that even above the cloudy side, the sky was a brilliant blue (though the folks in Waynesville were still having a gray day).

What often perturbs us are our strong feelings and insistent, sticky thoughts.

And here's the thing--the reason we're perturbed is because we're identifying with these thoughts and feelings, wrapped up in them. We're feeling somehow defined, named, circumscribed, fogged in.

But a lot happens on a mountain.

Clouds on one side, sun on another. Icicles growing long at a creek's headwaters, the same creek flowing freely a couple of miles down.

A lot happens on a mountain. A lot happens in us. Practicing spaciousness invites us to see beyond the in-your-face perspective of strong feelings and sticky thoughts. Not to ignore or repress sticky thoughts and feelings, just to hold them in a roomier way.

When we don't identify with these thoughts and feelings, when we can see them for what they are and what they're not, then there's somebody home to hear their messages.

"Meet them at the door, laughing," says Rumi. "Invite them in. Each has been sent as a guide from beyond."

When we regularly meditate with this in mind, even for a few minutes a day, we discover we have more capacity to hold stuff, to keep tricky thoughts and feelings in perspective than we've realized. We begin to learn that becoming familiar with the things that make us small is part of a natural process of becoming bigger.

Basic Training for the Great-Hearted

There are lots of ways our hearts grow. Loving as a partner or parent. Stepping up for work that makes a difference. Taking God's love into us and trying to embody love in our particular neighborhoods.

There are ways to train in heart growth too. For years I never imagined meditation could be such a powerful way of growing the heart.

One of the qualities that insight meditation recognizes and cultivates is something called spaciousness. Just by slowing down and allowing our thoughts and feelings to come and go, noticing them without judgment, cultivates spaciousness--room enough to hold whatever comes.

Several years ago I was driving to a very important meeting. The car's check engine light came on. Then the low oil light came on. I figured it wouldn't hurt to go another 25 miles. I was wrong.

After 20 miles the engine began to 'knock'. To go clunk, clunk, clunk.

After the meeting I drove to the dealer. A mechanic told me it didn't sound good. 20 minutes later he came back to tell me I'd pretty much ruined the engine, melted the rods--or something like that.

Sitting there, waiting for my wife to pick me up, I was so angry at myself. Worried about the $5-6,000 butcher's bill, too.

I'd been practicing mindfulness for 3 or 4 years. A 'check engine' light was flashing somewhere in my head--but I didn't want to go there, didn't really think effective mindfulness practice was possible for me in a circumstance like this. Yet after stewing a bit more, I at was least willing to try.

I began to breathe. Doing nothing at first but following the breath and trying to not listen to all those overheated judgmental thoughts slamming around in my head.

I began to recall what spaciousness was all about--making room for our thoughts and feelings. It was an ironic moment. No ****ing way to make room for this mob of tyrants.

But I kept trying.

"Just let it ventilate," I remembered. "Where do you feel this in the body? Breathe right into this very place. Breathe into it and through it and all around it. Sense the space this creates."

I did. Lots of clanging around still going on. But I kept breathing. Kept imagining. Continued to sense wild feelings & thoughts, breath & space.

After awhile my mind and heart seemed nearly able to hold all that hot, difficult energy. To hold it--not repress it or resist it--and be reasonably at peace at the same time. What a lesson.

    Welcome and entertain them all!  (says Rumi)
    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.

Having our hearts swept empty is very underrated. This being cleared out for new delights is an amazing gift. Practicing spaciousness is good training for those who want bigger hearts. 

Making room in our hearts to deal with our own crap also reveals that we have more room than we knew for other people's crap. For life's crap. More room for life's delights, too. 

Cultivating spaciousness is a wonderful kind of spiritual formation.

    Be grateful for whoever (or whatever!) comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Opening the Door--a Key

We've been following the thread of an inscription carved in stone over a church door in Iran. It reads

    Where Jesus is, the Great-Hearted Gather.
    We are a door that's never locked.
    If you are suffering any kind of pain, stay near this door.
    Open it.

Though the door is never locked, opening it is not exactly something we control. Perhaps, remembering what Jesus said is a key:

    Knock and the door will be opened.

And there are other doors, related doors, practice doors, that we do control--or at least doors that we might learn to open (and open, and open).

The author of those 4 lines above the church door in Iran is the poet Rumi.  His poem, The Guest House, offers some of the best door-opening wisdom a person can get.

Many of us know this poem--we see it quoted a lot. I hope its familiarity won't dull another reading. It's a poem of the Great-Hearted. And a perfect poem for us Great-Hearted folks in-traning too.

    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.

If we take this to heart, if we welcome and entertain and meet and laugh and are grateful for whoever comes, pretty soon we'll know what it's like to be a door that's never locked. Our hearts will grow. We won't really notice who's on which side of the door anymore. 

This 'welcoming and entertaining them all' is at the heart of mindfulness practice and centering prayer and spiritual formation of all kinds. Learning how it works, practicing this non-judgmental kind of welcome, is one of the things that makes a heart literally greater--bigger, more stretchable. 

We practice on our own, sitting or walking quietly, welcoming whatever comes. Seeing thoughts and feelings clearly for what they are without judging or shooing them away. Welcoming whatever comes with honesty and warmth.

We practice with others, watching how our minds resist or ignore people we interact with, noticing--and then letting go of--our own clutter in order to make room for another person's clutter! And beneath that their unique and precious self.

    We are a door that's never locked.
    Welcome and entertain them all. 
    Come to me all you who are weary and burdened.

Who says this? Who practices this? 

Who opens the door that's never locked?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On the Fourth Day of Christmas

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me--the last line of an amazing bit of wisdom carved into the stone above a door of an ancient church in Iran. So now we have the whole quote:

    Where Jesus Is, the Great-Hearted Gather.
    We are a door that's never locked.
    If you are suffering any kind of pain, stay near this door.
    Open it.

Is it that simple--Open it?

Remember in the Lord of the Rings when the nine companions get to the door of the Mines of Moria? Where's the entrance? They can't find the entrance.

Then the moon peeks out from behind a cloud and the intricate mithril silver design etched in the door is revealed on the great cliff face. Written in elfin are the words, "Speak Friend and Enter."

Gandalf is thinking, 'Piece of cake.' So, knowing that he is a friend of both elves and dwarves, he confidently begins to speak every arcane incantation for 'Openings' he knows. All of them.

The mountain is unmoved.

Tired, baffled he sits down, exasperated.

Then...he laughs.

Ah! He's realized the door will open of itself when he simply says the word 'friend.' He says, Friend. The door opens.

Following the advice carved above the church door in Iran is like that. It's so simple. Yet it's never something to take for granted. It's a process that we can absolutely trust, but it's never a process we control or command.

Not that we don't try to open the door.

How long can we sustain being baffled? How long can we sustain deep trust? How long can we hold trust and bafflement in our hearts? How long will we stay near a door we can't seem to open?

Well, maybe not that long--at first. Yet holding frustration and trust in the same heart enlarges that heart. And it is the Great Hearted who are gathering here. It is in the company of the Great-Hearted we want to be.

How do we open the door?

The inscription doesn't tell us 'how.' It tells us 'to.' Nobody can tell us how.

Yet I think we can trust that the inscription is telling us everything we need to know.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Third Day of Christmas

On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me--the next line of an amazing bit of wisdom carved into the stone above a door of an ancient church in Iran. So now we have three lines:

    Where Jesus Is, the Great-Hearted Gather.
    We are a door that's never locked.
    If you are suffering any kind of pain, stay near this door.

This is the third day of Christmas--are you still here near this door?

If you are, something better than 3 hens seems to be promised (even if they are French hens).

If you are suffering....



Who is not suffering in one way or another? And if we're not suffering surely it's impossible to be among the Great-Hearted. Anybody whose door is never locked suffers.

The old King James Version of Jesus' quip to those who would shield him from the annoyance of children comes to mind: "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Modern version: "What? You think I can't tolerate the chaos of kids? Kids are a window into the realm of God!"

Jesus can tolerate a lot--even us: "Come to me all you who are weary and weighed down and I'll give you rest." This invitation can only come from a heart that has been stretched a lot.

I'm pretty sure the only way hearts grow is by being stretched. And being stretched always causes suffering. New wine bursts old wine-skins.

And (this may be the greatest most ironic majestic heart enlarging laughing out loud truth of this life) not being stretched causes the most profound suffering of all.

So, here we are, reading these three lines, pondering what they may have to do with us. And then we realize the reading and the pondering have actually allowed us to fulfill the first bit of advice the inscription has:

Stay near this door.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On the Second Day of Christmas...

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me--the next line of an amazing bit of wisdom carved into the stone above a door of an ancient church in Iran. So now we have two lines:

    Where Jesus Is, the Great-Hearted Gather.
    We are a door that's never locked.

The immediate thing I want to know about this second line is, who is the WE?

Who do you suppose is the WE?

Is it the congregation of the church that bears the inscription?

Is it the Great-Hearted?

Is it potentially anybody who happens to stumble into places where Jesus Is--Jesus, God, Buddha, Sophia, Creator, Mystery, Ground of Being?

As I imagine myself wandering through an unfamiliar town and winding up standing in front of this inscription, I recognize how I've always wanted to be among the Great-Hearted. And I recognize how very often I have not felt I belonged.

So I see myself reading these words and feeling two things--smallness and longing.

In the smallness part, I recognize the many ways my heart has been locked, protecting itself from what it fears.

In the longing part, I recall people I've recognized as great-hearted and realize there's nothing I want more than to be among them, welcomed, recognized myself, un-locked myself.

I can imagine other things, too. Other people coming up to the door, a small throng standing in front of these words, curious, intrigued, having their own experience of the inscription.

I can imagine conversations springing up--and an eagerness both to speak and to listen.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

On the First Day of Christmas...

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me--the first line of an amazing bit of wisdom carved into the stone above a door of an ancient church in Iran:

    Where Jesus Is, the Great-Hearted Gather.

I've noticed over the years that people who gather in Christian churches, myself included, are often not particularly great-hearted.

Maybe the first line carved in stone above this church door is a prophecy, something about our potential?

What does it mean to be great-hearted? Or maybe it's better to ask, what does it take to be great-hearted?

Perhaps it's about having hearts that continue to keep pace with our lives. To grow so that there's room in us to hold life's circumstances wisely--maybe even with a sense of humor.

And with more kindness--both for ourselves and everybody else who wanders in and out of our hearts' neighborhoods.

Any chance you'll eat more than you can hold today? There's something in that feeling that's parallel to not being great-hearted, for not having room for what we're taking in.

But then the metaphor breaks down. We don't need bigger stomachs.

But having hearts that grow to hold what life brings--that's another thing.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

New Moon On Christmas Eve

It's not often Christmas Eve and the new moon coincide. Tonight they do.

Much of my life I'd supposed the new moon was the first little bit of visible crescent. But a new moon is a 'no' moon. The new moon is the moon we cannot see. Or at least can't see in our electric world. On a clear night in the ancient world earth-shine faintly illuminated the 'no' moon.

The new moon is when the moon is between earth and sun. The 'new' moon is when what we call the 'dark side of the moon' is completely bright, completely lit up--in the half we never see from Earth.

The Welsh priest and poet R. S. Thomas writes about new-moon-darkness in 'The Moon in Lleyn'.

Thomas was vicar of several small parishes in Wales just at the time when churches were 'dying' all across his country.

It was a dark time. It is a wonderful poem.

The Moon in Lleyn

The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea's
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
can say.

But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint's name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth's
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.

Our churches face dark-of-the-moon challenges too. Christmas Eve is a wonderfully pregnant time to explore these challenges.

Hopes and fears of all the years are met tonight. On dark streets we'll get a chance to contemplate everlasting light.

People are always becoming pilgrims again. Always and always. The great star that lights up our path tonight leads to something.

And from tonight forward over the next 28 days, the moon will only grow brighter. Prayer has its phases--as does life.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Triggers

The ‘hopes and fears of all the years are met…’ every time we have extended family visits!

As much as we love and value our closest family, there’s just nothing like holiday gatherings to set us off, light our fuses, show us where we’re stuck, make us crazy—and to remind us in wonderfully obvious ways just how wired we still are to old family patterns.

The following is copied from Rick Hanson’s book, The Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. It’s a great holiday read!

It may or may not make us feel better, but it’s almost guaranteed to make us chuckle at the ironies of our lives—and perhaps even to smile at the possibility of learning how to say grace over and within the wacky minefields of the season.

Taking five minutes to read this might at least make it easier for you to appreciate why you feel the way you do.


 Suffering is not abstract or conceptual. It’s embodied: you feel it in your body, and it proceeds through bodily mechanisms. Understanding the physical machinery of suffering will help you see it increasingly as an impersonal condition—unpleasant to be sure, but not worth getting upset about, which would just bring more second darts.

Suffering cascades through your body via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Let’s unscramble this alphabet soup to see how it all works. While the SNS and HPAA are anatomically distinct, they are so intertwined that they’re best described together, as an integrated system. And we’ll focus on reactions dominated by an aversion to sticks (e.g., fear, anger) rather than a grasping for carrots, since aversive reactions usually have a bigger impact due to the negativity bias of the brain.

Something happens. It might be a car suddenly cutting you off, a put-down from a coworker, or even just a worrisome thought. (It might be conversation around the family table*! [MH]) 

Social and emotional conditions can pack a wallop like physical ones sincepsychological pain draws on many of the same neural networks as physical pain (Eisenberger and Lieberman 2004); this is why getting rejected can feel as bad as a root canal. Even just anticipating a challenging event—such as giving a talk next week—can have as much impact as living through it for real. Whatever the source of the threat, the amygdala sounds the alarm, setting off several reactions:

  • The thalamus—the relay station in the middle of your head—sends a “Wake up!” signal to your brain stem, which in turn releases stimulating norepinephrine throughout your brain. 
  • The SNS sends signals to the major organs and muscle groups in your body, readying them for fighting or fleeing. 
  • The hypothalamus—the brain’s primary regulator of the endocrine system—prompts the pituitary gland to signal the adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones”epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.

Within a second or two of the initial alarm, your brain is on red alert, your SNS is lit up like a Christmas tree, and stress hormones are washing through your blood. In other words, you’re at least a little upset. What’s going on in your body?

Epinephrine increases your heart rate (so your heart can move more blood) and dilates your pupils (so your eyes gather more light). Norepinephrine shunts blood to large muscle groups. Meanwhile, the bronchioles of your lungs dilate for increased gas exchange—enabling you to hit harder or run faster.

Cortisol suppresses the immune system to reduce inflammation from wounds. It also revs up stress reactions in two circular ways: First, it causes the brain stem to stimulate the amygdala further, which increases amygdala activation of the SNS/HPAA system—which produces more cortisol. Second, cortisol suppresses hippocampal activity (which normally inhibits the amygdala); this takes the brakes off the amygdala, leading to yet more cortisol.

Reproduction is sidelined—no time for sex when you’re running for cover. The same for digestion: decreases and peristalsis slows down, so your mouth feels dry and you become constipated.

Your emotions intensify, organizing and mobilizing the whole brain for action. SNS/HPAA arousal stimulates the amygdala, which is hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it. Consequently, feeling stressed sets you up for fear and anger.

As limbic and endocrine activation increases, the relative strength of executive control from the PFC declines. It’s like being in a car with a runaway accelerator: the driver has less control over her vehicle. Further, the PFC is also affected by SNS/HPAA arousal, which pushes appraisals, attributions of others’ intentions, and priorities in a negative direction: now the driver of the careening car thinks everybody else is an idiot. For example, consider the difference between your take on a situation when you’re upset and your thoughts about it later when you’re calmer.

In the harsh physical and social environments in which we evolved, this activation of multiple bodily systems helped our ancestors survive. But what’s the cost of this today, with the chronic low-grade stresses of modern life?


Becoming aware of all this stuff that goes on in us can make us a little crazy. But not nearly as crazy as not becoming aware of it.  Happy Holidays.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Longest Night of the Year

It's the shortest day of the year. Least light. Longest night.

The flip side is that this is the very day and night that light begins to increase.

    As we recognize the patterns--and we turn a certain way,
    even when the path is darkest we are faced to greet the day.

Thomas Aquinas, who many take to be the most important Christian theologian in the West, was also someone who took religion with a grain of salt. He knew that religion, theology, cover up as much as they reveal. But also that they have the capacity to reveal so much.

Many folks who love to mark the solstice don't have much use for religion. Many religious folks don't have much use for solstices.

Ain't that a shame.

Aquinas, who wrote volumes and volumes and volumes of theology, also tried getting to the heart of spirituality in simpler ways--like the two lines below:

    I once asked a plant, "What does light talk about."
    "I'm not sure," said the plant, "but it makes me grow."

A blessed Solstice to you!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Recipes for Wassail and Frustration

Ah, the Christmas season! What joy...what frustration!

Shopping. Crowds. Traffic. Family. Lists. Lines. Canned carols. Wassail steeped at Christmas has nothing on simmering holiday frustration.

Long, long ago, Plato published a recipe that tops both:

                  "Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

And this is a recipe that has to steep, too. On Facebook and Twitter and through email we read inspiring quotes all the time. How long do they keep us inspired? How deeply does the wisdom that briefly opens our hearts spread? It's got to steep to spread. It's a recipe that calls for steeping.

Then serving.

While shopping in crowded stores, bogged down in traffic or long checkout lines--or on the third day with family--pause, breathe, come back to your truest self.

Then practice Plato's mantra: Be kind--everybody here is fighting a hard battle.

As you repeat the phrases, breathe, and locate kindness in yourself.

Where is it? What is it's source in you? Rejoice when you find it. Savor it in yourself for a moment or two. Let it steep.

And after you've tasted it in yourself and it tastes good, then serve it up to others in whatever way is consistent with who you are.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

High Places, Low Places, Forks in the Road

Yesterday's post ends with "Who knew?"

Who knew how somebody can go from seasons of searching to a moment a finding so immediately? I didn't know. Not then. But since 'then' I've been paying more attention to what that's about.

I love this bit in Proverbs 8--

Listen as Wisdom calls out!
      Hear as understanding raises her voice!
 On the hilltop along the road,
      she takes her stand at the crossroads.
 By the gates at the entrance to the town,
      on the road leading in, she cries aloud,
 “I call to you, to all of you!
      I raise my voice to all people."

The word Wisdom is quite a word. Wisdom is all the wise words ever uttered and passed on. Our scriptures and philosophies, novels and plays and folk tales, songs, family legacies, and on and on and on.

Wisdom is also the ability to recognize what's wise and what's not.

Wisdom is what's been known and the knowing and The One Who Knows all together.

Is The One Who Knows 'you?' I think so. It's the sum of the rich process of discernment.

Is The One Who Knows 'God?' I think so.

A very long time ago receptive people begin to experience this. They blogged about it. They wrote songs and shared them. "Be Still and Know I Am God" is one of those lyrics.

Not everybody who Knows calls the Knowing "God." I don't doubt their Knowing--at least no more than I doubt mine or anybody else's. We all see through a glass darkly. We all know only in part.

Yet we see. We know.

Try that. Trust asking and seeking, knocking and exploring.

Wisdom calls aloud from high places and low places, forks in the road--Wisdom actually meets you in all the way-points of your everyday life.

Try slowing down. Listening. Being still and knowing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Door at the Back of Beyond

The thread so far is just at the point of sitting with both Absence and the Possibility of Presence at the same time. It's not the easiest of things to do. But like so much else in life, learning to recognize our moments, to read the signs, to follow the star becomes more familiar in the doing. 

But after a long plod sometimes things happen all at once.

Lucy was just playing hide and seek when she climbed into the wardrobe, edging back behind its old coats so she wouldn't be found. Back and back and back until she discovered there was no back--and something was crunching under her feet--it was snowing! She was in Narnia.

Moses, having run away from Egypt to save his life, was tending his father-in-law's goats so far from the familiar that it was called The Back of Beyond. This is where Moses saw the great sight--a bush that burned but didn't burn up. 

Four years after my friend gave me the gift of being lost, I was again sitting and reading one morning (I had become so curious and open to where the thread I was following might take me that I was actually reading the Bible--pretty much the last place I thought wisdom might be found.) One of the 'wise people' I'd been reading quoted Jesus here and there. He obviously had been experiencing Jesus as  a particularly rich source of wisdom. Go figure. 

So I had plodded through the first 10 chapters of Luke. Same old same old.

Then in chapter 11, I saw it, I got there--the back of the wardrobe, the back of beyond. Here's what I was reading, Jesus was saying:

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

I wasn't 19 anymore. I was 23. Some things I was beginning to see from both sides, at least a little. I had come to that point in time where a child can begin to see his/her parents in a fresh way. How hard most parents try. How hard it is to be a parent. How much most parents really care about their children. How much my parents cared about me. 

Here's what I read next, Jesus is still talking--

So, make the connection. You humans, being as fallible as you are (one thing my 4 years had taught me was how very fallible I was), know how to give good gifts to your children. Consider what God wants to give you.

Then, just like that, in a flash--Narnia, a flaming bush.

I jumped out of the chair. My heart was on fire. My brain was nearly exploding with wonder. I kept looking back at the chair. And the Bible. Who knew!

All I had done was to consider what God might want to give me. It came faster than Next Day Air.

Who knew?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Glorious Impossible

It's the last Sunday in Advent. Advent is a yearly pilgrimage to what Madeleine L'Engle calls "The Glorious Impossible." Mary, Mother of God, is the image, the icon, the poster-teenager of the glorious impossible.

Einstein had his version of the glorious impossible, too:

"Problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness that created them."

You know that queasy feeling we get when we have a problem that looms over and in us that really needs to be solved, fixed, dealt with--and yet we can't figure out how to do it?

Einstein suggests those kinds of problems are only solved by growth. By fertile consciousness that knows how to gestate.

Mary, as she hears the angel say, "you will give birth to God," says two things:

    First, "How is this possible--I'm a virgin?"

    Last, "Let it be with me according to your word."

Our minds and other people often say of working with tough problems, "This just isn't possible!"

Sometimes they're wrong. Gestating with the glorious impossible is the only way to know which is which.

Life always turns out to be more than we can currently envision if we can just remember to modify our 'impossibles' by keeping 'glorious' in front of them

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why We Wake Early

It is virtually impossible, and senseless anyway, to commit yourself to a daily meditation practice without some view of why you are doing it, what its value might be in your life, a sense of why this might be your way and not just another tilting at imaginary windmills. 

In traditional societies, this vision was supplied and continually reinforced by the culture. If you were a Buddhist, you might practice because the whole culture valued meditation as the path to clarity, compassion, and Buddhahood, a path of wisdom leading to the eradication of suffering. 

But in the Western cultural mainstream, you will find precious little support for choosing such a personal path of discipline and constancy, especially such an unusual one involving effort but non-doing, energy but no tangible “product.” What is more, any superficial or romantic notions we might harbor of becoming a better person—more calm or more clear or more compassionate—don’t endure for long when we face the turbulence of our lives, our minds and bodies, or even the prospect of getting up early in the morning when it is cold and dark to sit by yourself and be in the present moment. 

It’s too easily put off or seen as trivial or of secondary importance, so it can always wait while you catch a little more sleep or at least stay warm in bed.

--Jon Kabbat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are

Guides Along the Way

It’s tempting, writing this, to just jump to the place where faith takes hold again. This tale of being upended by a friend, being shaken to the core and feeling lost, is really a sidetrack to the exploration of mindfulness practice. It’s a ‘for instance.’

For instance, the next time you’re upended and shaken, you might consider taking heart. Having our ‘familiar self,’ our ‘comfortable self’ shaken can be a door opening, a wormhole to a parallel reality. A way of ‘being’ where what we experience is more real than the way of ‘being’ we know now.

One of the blessings of mindful practice is, overtime, learning how to slow down and witness our own lives. We’re more able to see what’s true, what’s not. What’s helpful, what’s harmful. We get better at recognizing when the compass is pointing true north and when it’s not.

For four years I wanted so badly to learn what true north was. And in some of those books I checked out from the library, I got the sense that it was possible. For four years, I never knew what true north was for me, but I could tell that some other people’s compasses were working for them. And even though it was frustrating as hell not to know my own way, hope stayed kindled by witnessing other people’s wisdom and integrity and confidence.

Alan Watts, Teilhard de Chardin, G. I. Gurdjieff. I understood very little of what these guys wrote, next to nothing, really. But I got a clear sense that they were guided by that which they found trustworthy, by that which deepened their lives and opened their hearts. Witnessing their steadiness kept me going.

Most every morning for those four years I got up an hour early and read. Sometimes I tried to pray or meditate, but nothing clicked for me those days with prayer or meditation. But the practice of sitting in the morning with a hot cup of tea and a book of wise words--witnessing other people finding their way--fed my spirit just enough to keep me trusting that there was such a thing as spiritual food.

At the same time (alleluia, alleluia, alleluia) how that quiet, solitary, consistent time in the morning whetted my appetite. How sitting with both absence and the possibility of presence kept alive a sometimes-sense that one day spiritual food might rain down like manna even for me.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Faith As a Noun Is It's Own Worst Enemy

When I was walking up and back surveying all those religious books in the Greenville library as a 20-year-old, I had lost faith in Christianity. I’d tried to believe in what many well-meaning people had tried to pass down, but it just didn’t connect.

Looking back now, it seems to me that faith had been misrepresented. It had been presented as a noun. Stuff to believe.

Faith is its own worst enemy when it’s presented as a noun.

It’s ironic, makes me laugh now to realize, that right there in the library, by being confused and miserable and desperately curious all at the same time I had already crossed over into the realm of faith as a verb.

Much later there would come a time when I laughed out loud about it reading what Jesus, that Jewish guy I’d quit believing in, had said.

Ask and you get. Seek and you find. Knock and a door opens.

These are real faith words. They’re active, effective.




Help is a faith verb too. Unless we misunderstand, confusing it with a passive process.

Follow is the central faith-word in Christianity. But I was still a long way from following.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Evolution on Purpose: Threat Signals

For you to stay healthy, each system in your body and mind must balance two conflicting needs. On the one hand, it must remain open to inputs during ongoing transactions with its local environment (Thompson 2007); closed systems are dead systems. On the other hand, each system must also preserve a fundamental stability, staying centered around a good set-point and within certain ranges—not too hot, nor too cold.

For example, inhibition from the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and arousal from the limbic system must balance each other: too much inhibition and you feel numb inside, too much arousal and you feel overwhelmed. Signals of Threat To keep each of your systems in balance, sensors register its state (as the thermometer does inside a thermostat) and send signals to regulators to restore equilibrium if the system gets out of range (i.e., turn the furnace on or off).

Most of this regulation stays out of your awareness. But some signals for corrective action are so important that they bubble up into consciousness. For example, if your body gets too cold, you feel chilled; if it gets too hot, you feel like you’re baking.

These consciously experienced signals are unpleasant, in part because they carry a sense of threat—a call to restore equilibrium before things slide too far too fast down the slippery slope. The call may come softly, with a sense of unease, or loudly, with alarm, even panic.

However it comes, it mobilizes your brain to do whatever it takes to get you back in balance. This mobilization usually comes with feelings of craving; these range from quiet longings to a desperate sense of compulsion. It is interesting that the word for craving in Pali—the language of early Buddhism—is tanha, the root of which means thirst. The word “thirst” conveys the visceral power of threat signals, even when they have nothing to do with life or limb, such as the possibility of being rejected.

Threat signals are effective precisely because they’re unpleasant—because they make you suffer, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. You want them to stop.

--Rick Hanson, Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom 

Where Does a Person Start?

College life as I had been living it just didn't seem worth it. I dropped out of my fraternity. Stopped dating. Trudged through finals. Drove home to South Carolina. Over Christmas decided to take a break from school.

Two days after Christmas I left on a road trip--a hitchhikers road trip. I aimed at Vermont where another friend was living. He was a rock-solid kind of guy who was also dissatisfied with the way he'd been living his life. Together, I'd supposed, we might hitchhike to California where it would be warm and full of other kids our age hungry for insight.

Mom and Dad, resigned to my determination, drove me to the interstate--though the whole way suggesting alternatives to hitchhiking north at the end of December--it was already snowing as far south as Georgia.

You hear people say that there's no fool like an old fool. But a young fool is often not far behind.

Getting rides was slow. By the time I got to the North Carolina-Virginia border it was about midnight. Six inches of snow on the ground, though the sky had cleared. I kept my thumb out for a couple of hours but nobody stopped.

I went into some tall grass a hundred or so feet from the road. Fished around in my dufflebag for the tarp and sleeping bag. Laid them out, slithered in, and as my breath formed tiny ice crystals around the edges of the mummy bag, I contemplated the wisdom of my expectations.

That beam of light that had filled my head--where was it now? In those distant stars sparkling overhead in the December sky? What was it all those wise men had said?

It dawned on me that I didn't have a clue what wise people had said. I'd never really paid attention. And though I didn't understand it, this realization was the beginning of wise receptivity to the wisdom I didn't yet have! It was the thread.

I fell asleep.

My shivering body woke me up a couple of hours later. I've never been so cold. Good Lord, I thought, I might die here.

I stuffed my gear back in the bag and jogged across the crusty snow to the interstate, thumb out.

Thank God somebody stopped. Took me all the way to Washington, where I realized I had cousins. My ride let me out at a gas station. I called them. Got directions. Called a cab, arrived, got fed and took a hot shower. Next morning I spent all my money on a plane ticket back home.

The very next morning my path took a new tack. I went to the library and found the Religion section. Walked through it, up and down, back and forth, wide-eyed and thinking, Here's where a person encounters Wisdom.

But...where does that person start?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

In the months after my friend ‘helped’ me become conscious of my shallowness, I tried to carry on life as it had been. It worked sometimes. More times than not there was a gnawing in the heart—something that had been mostly repressed before--but no longer could be.

After about three months my college roommate at the time asked me if I wanted to try something ‘absolutely mind-bending’–in pill form--that might help me. I didn’t want to.

But over a few weeks he persisted. Told me it was ‘pure stuff.’ That it would help me ‘see inside my soul.’ That it was like 'those magic mushrooms Native Americans use for insight.'

I was still skeptical, so he suggested maybe I could just take ‘half a tab.’ And though not convinced, I was intrigued. 

I took half a pill. And in about 45 minutes it was down the rabbit hole. It was down the rabbit hole for the rest of the night.

As he promised, it was mind-bending. At first mostly just a sluggish ‘WOW’ state. Before long there was a kind of ecstasy. Thinking in vivid colors and in 3D with surround sound. 

At one point my roommate put headphones on me and played a song by the Moody Blues. The bit of lyric I remember is

   A beam of light will fill your head 
   and you’ll remember what’s been said 
   by all the wise men this world’s ever known.

That's how the experience was unfolding. At first a perfectly marvelous sense of being led through landscapes of insight, wisdom, epiphany. 

But as the night wore on the landscapes were more about comparisons, inadequacies, judgment, self-loathing, condemnation, and fear.

Well into the night it was all I could do to just hold on. It was like being caught in a great whirlpool, going down, down, down. Something told me I must not go down any further. That people who went down further never came back.

For the rest of the night I swam with all my might against that powerful, threatening current, at some point finally drifting off to sleep.

When I finally woke up it was with the absolute certainty that I had to understand what this 'thing,' this powerful experience of the mind, was about. Not just because I was curious. Mainly it was because I had a deep sense that this 'beam of light' would either light my way forward or burn me up. And that 'lighting my way' or 'burning me up' would depend on whether I stepped willingly into spiritual exploration or ran away hoping to return to where I'd been.

There's a thread we follow. While we hold it, we can't get lost. Though for me it would feel mostly like being lost for the next 4 years. 

Mostly. But not always.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What if we don't want to know the truth?

When I was nineteen, one of my best friends, a guy who I really liked and admired, said to me, "You know, for somebody as perceptive as you are, you sure can be shallow." Hearing him say this felt like a snakebite to the heart.

It hurt so bad because something in me knew it was so true. I was just cruising, trying to squeeze as much fun out of life as I could. Didn't care that much about using people along the way. Just wanted to keep the fun coming.

Whatever that something was, the something that knew, it was profound and persistent and somehow undeniable.

Overnight I became lost, disoriented, unsure, tentative.

And miserable.

Looking back, William Stafford's poem, The Way It Is, comes to mind:

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.

Only at that time, this thread-following William Stafford wrote about was something I didn't understand at all--even though this was the moment I began to consciously follow the thread. 

I don't think there's any one name for the thread. But it has something to do with recognizing and owning what's true. And at that time, what the truth did for me was hurt.

Why follow that?

Who can say? 

Maybe it's a certain grace that comes with pain--that pain somehow marks the place where healing is not only necessary but possible.

Maybe what Jesus said about truth is carried somewhere in our DNA, maybe even in our reptile brains: "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free." Maybe it's just dirt level basic--recognizing how and working with the way things are.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bottom Up Thinking

"The Glory of God is a human being fully alive!" -St. Irenaus

Our brains are a little kludgy, like somebody didn't want to throw their old Atari computer away and over the decades cobbled together new hardware and software.

Neuroscientists say that we humans have three brains--the reptilian, the paleomammalian, and the neomammalian. Or more colorfully, we have a lizard, a squirrel, and a human brain all wired together. These three brains evolved one at a time, growing one on top of the other and wiring together. Our three brains, working together, are are how we process life.

I find this wonderfully encouraging. It explains why our thinking and feeling can be all over the map.

The reptile brain is simple. And fast. And what it 'wants' comes into our awareness as very strong urges, intense 'motivation.'

Our top brain (neomammalian/human) is slow and 'motivationally diffuse.' Our most sophisticated brain communicates with subtler 'urges.'

Mark Twain said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

Our lizard impulses can spread from our ears to our toes while our top brain is still processing what's happening--what's happening both outside us and what our lizard and squirrel brains want us to do about it.

This all happens while we're 'still putting on our shoes,' so to speak.

Mindfulness, by slowing us down and training us to notice what we think and feel, enables us to watch this. To understand it better. To work with our selves (and our three brains) as we are.

And it gives us a reason to smile, chortle even, in the process. Ah! No wonder it's tricky--this growing into being fully human.

I wish I'd known how this stuff works when I was a teenager.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Learning to Read the Night

It's Sunday, so this is a Sunday thread.

We're in Advent, a season of longing and preparation for the coming of light. Also, as it happens this year on this day, we have a full moon. It rises in the east and sets in the west.

When the moon is full its rising always means the sun is setting. Its setting always means the sun is rising. Two completely round orbs balanced at either end of our world. Together they mark one full day and orient us in both time and direction.

Here's a hymn about longing and preparation and paying attention. About blessings we experience practicing celestial navigation.

In the winter's early darkness,
through the days of failing light,
travelers may delay a journey
or may learn to read the night.

Turning on a steady axis,
cold and burning, black and bright,
heaven tells a faithful story
of the coming of the Light.

As we recognize the patterns
and we turn a certain way,
even when the path is darkest,
we are faced to greet the day.

(you can sing this to the same tune as Come Thou Long Expected Jesus)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Evolution & Spiritual Formation

These are Trilobite fossils on our living room mantel. Trilobites flourished in our oceans 250-500 million years ago. They headline this post simply because they're ancient, beautiful, and part of the evolution of life on Earth.

I plan to follow an Evolution Thread for awhile here at Ordinary Mindfulness. I think spiritual formation is a kind of evolution, a very intentional kind of evolution.

Everything that lives lives because life has evolved to this point. We humans have passed on a reasonably sophisticated DNA. We learned how to farm and were able to support larger families and communities. We learned to make weapons in order to hunt and protect ourselves.

In some places we grew prosperous and powerful. Built great cities and eventually great armies. We evolved  so dramatically that we have become dangerous critters.

Dangerous to every form of life on the planet including ourselves.

If we don't learn to evolve purposefully from here on out...we might really mess up God's gift of life forever, at least on this planet.

I saw a poster once that said, None of us is as dumb as all of us. A cartoon that read, We have met the enemy...and it's us!

I get really stoked about spiritual formation because it is a key ingredient in the wise evolution of our race. It's something we can participate in that cultivates a wisdom and an ability to grow toward LIFE--full, enjoyable, sustainable life.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Nothing Memorable Accomplished

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand. I love a broad margin to my life.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a reverie, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless though the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.

I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works.

For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished. Instead of singing, like the birds, I silently smiled at my incessant good fortune.

As the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so I had my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest.

-Thoreau, Walden

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Gloomy Day, Bright Day

Yesterday I was reflecting on gloomy weather and gloomy feelings. But early this morning, walking the dog before dawn, I saw lots of stars vivid in the December sky.

Later, in the time I do 'sacred reading' and just as I came across a quote from Thoreau, the sun sprang up over the mountains.

My chair faces north, so the sun rises directly to my right. It was so bright that as it struck my cornea and lit up the right side my nose, I was a little bit blinded.

With wonderful irony, this is the quote I was reading at this precise moment: "Only that day dawns to which we are awake." I had to laugh out loud.

I was reading Jon Kabat-Zinn's, Wherever You Go There You Are. This is what preceeded the quote:

"Taking up a formal meditation practice by making some time for it each day doesn't mean that you won't be able to think any more, or that you can't run around and get things done. It means that you are more likely to know what you are doing because you have stopped for a while and watched, listened, and understood."

This has a lot to do with why I meditate. I really appreciate the encouragement and instruction to stop and watch and listen.

The payoff is to understand, at least to understand a bit better and better over time. And sometimes light dawns in a surprisingly vivid way.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gloom, Wisdom and Whoopi

This is our third day of gloom. What do people in the Northwest do during their long cloudy season?

Part of feeling gloomy must be located in our DNA. Some primal urge to keep migrating until you find a place with more sunshine.

However, wisdom suggests that we make do.

Actually, wisdom suggests that we do more than make do, we make peace with where we are. Maybe even make whoopi with where we are. You know, if you can't be with the one you love . . .

In these mountains we're often not just under a cloud but in a cloud. This morning is one of those in the cloud days. It's more accurate to think not of a low ceiling but of a cloud floor.

So...feeling gloomy, I looked up the word. I especially like to see where words come from, what language, what people coined the words we use to describe our experience of life.

Gloomy means 'dark or poorly lit' and/or 'causing or feeling depression or despondency.'

But, and this is rarely the case, the experts don't know where the word comes from. I had guessed that maybe it was related to 'gloaming' -- which is an old word for dusk or twilight. But apparently not.

So...not only am I feeling gloomy but I will never know where the word comes from. Great start to the day.

But, Wisdom suggests . . .

So, I'm listening to rain on the tin roof. Nice sound. Noticing that the lights on the roof of Walmart glow in a lovely spread out kind of way when it's this damn gloomy.

Noticing how useless it is to be wishing the weather would change.

I guess what I'm really wishing is that my own interior weather would change. And remembering that just a few weeks ago when it was so dry and our forest floors were full of dry leaves and fire danger I was wishing for rain. This makes me laugh. Laughing is a hard environment for gloom to survive in.

Not quite making whoopi yet, but it's a nudge in the right direction.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Introduction to Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn

The following is a very helpful introduction to mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn taken from his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. It can be helpful even for those of us who've been doing it awhile. I think he was following a golden thread as he worked on this book.

While it may be simple to practice mindfulness, it is not necessarily easy. Mindfulness requires effort and discipline for the simple reason that the forces that work against our being mindful, namely, our habitual unawareness and automaticity, are exceedingly tenacious. They are so strong and so much out of our consciousness that an inner commitment and a certain kind of work are necessary just to keep up our attempts to capture our moments in awareness and sustain mindfulness. But it is an intrinsically satisfying work because it puts us in touch with many aspects of our lives that are habitually overlooked and lost to us.

It is also enlightening and liberating work. It is enlightening in that it literally allows us to see more clearly, and therefore come to understand more deeply, areas in our lives that we were out of touch with or unwilling to look at. This may include encountering deep emotions—such as grief, sadness, woundedness, anger, and fear—that we might not ordinarily allow ourselves to hold in awareness or express consciously. Mindfulness can also help us to appreciate feelings such as joy, peacefulness, and happiness which often go by fleetingly and unacknowledged. It is liberating in that it leads to new ways of being in our own skin and in the world, which can free us from the ruts we so often fall into. It is empowering as well, because paying attention in this way opens channels to deep reservoirs of creativity, intelligence, imagination, clarity, determination, choice, and wisdom within us.

We tend to be particularly unaware that we are thinking virtually all the time. The incessant stream of thoughts flowing through our minds leaves us very little respite for inner quiet. And we leave precious little room for ourselves anyway just to be, without having to run around doing things all the time. Our actions are all too frequently driven rather than undertaken in awareness, driven by those perfectly ordinary thoughts and impulses that run through the mind like a coursing river, if not a waterfall. We get caught up in the torrent and it winds up submerging our lives as it carries us to places we may not wish to go and may not even realize we are headed for.

Meditation means learning how to get out of this current, sit by its bank and listen to it, learn from it, and then use its energies to guide us rather than to tyrannize us. This process doesn’t magically happen by itself. It takes energy. We call the effort to cultivate our ability to be in the present moment “practice” or “meditation practice.”

Grace Under Snake

My friend Larry and I once sneaked into the Greenville reservoir to fish over a Labor Day weekend. We brought a tent and sleeping bags, but the weather was mild and the sky was clear so the first night we decided we’d just sleep under the stars.

Sometime in the middle of the night my body warned me something was not right. I woke with a start to the horrifying awareness that there was a snake lying across my chest. A really big, thick, heavy snake.

On automatic pilot my head had shot up immediately, but since the rest of me was in the sleeping bag, this had been my only movement so far.

It was enough to startle the snake, whose head turned toward my face. I could clearly see the outline of it against the backdrop of the stars. Some part of my brain instantly calculated that at the widest part, the snake’s head was about four inches across but that it was probably not a pit viper (poisonous) because the place where its head met its neck wasn't so dramatically differentiated. Some other part of my brain had already calculated a response: DON’T MOVE!

I didn’t. Though in a flash I considered my options.

Roll over hard or sit up fast to fling it off my chest?

Try to ease my hands out of the bag and grab the snake just behind its head?  

It was still hovering, moving slowly back and forth not more than ten inches from my face. I could see its tongue flicking in and out by the light of the stars. And I was certainly not sure it wasn't a copperhead or a timber rattler. 

Probably not a good idea to startle it.

I was aware of the massive amount of adrenaline surging through every part of me. Lots and lots of powerful energy. But all that energy kept pointing to the one thing: DON’T MOVE.

The snake stayed where it was, moving its head and flicking its tongue. Best guess...from the time I waked up it was on me no more than a minute or two. Then it slithered on. I could feel its slow S-shaped movement across my chest.

I was amazed and incredibly grateful when the snake was far enough away for me to jump up and warn Larry. And the thing that amazed me most was how all that adrenal surge could resolve to such a startlingly clear message to just stay still.

This experience has been a good teacher. It’s encouraging to know that our mind-body could have such timely wisdom inscribed in its DNA.

It’s also a wonderful metaphor about equanimity, about finding balance in the presence of stuff that could easily knock us completely off balance. That we contain in ourselves models of grace under pressure.

We can laugh and remember that our lizard brains and our mammal brains know how to be still even though our human brains may still be struggling with the concept.

Now…back to the here and now, I try to remember at the office sitting at the computer when my neck aches because it’s been stuck in the same position God knows how long and there’s a knowledge somewhere in me that I’ve been pushing myself t0 hard to get some important thing finished—pushing to the point of ignoring body pain and jangly feelings—now, here, this day, this moment I try to re-call the wisdom of being still.

Take a break. 3 minutes will do just fine, repeating something like the following, one phrase at a time, during each in and out breath:

Breathing in I calm by body.
Breathing out I calm my mind.
Grace whispers: May you be balanced.
Grace smiles: May you be at peace.

I know deep down, though this kind of grace under pressure is not nearly as dramatic as remaining still with a snake on your chest, it is nevertheless, over time, another kind of life-saving response.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sitting With Our Demons

When I was a kid I was afraid of the dark. Maybe it was all knotted up with the family anxiety I mentioned earlier. Maybe it was because my two big brothers liked to turn out all the lights in the house when my parents were gone, then hide and jump out to scare the crap out of me.

I remember trying to cure myself by taking long evening walks around the back side of the abandoned college campus across the street from our house. I would set my resolve. Steel my nerves. Set out, determined to walk--not run--even through the blackest part of the old road.

It didn't work. Even though I did it for about 3 summers in a row. Every time I got to the point furthest away from my house, the part with no streetlights, I'd get an irresistible urge to RUN.

There's a Buddhist story about a tough guy who repented and wanted to awaken. Often as he sat in meditation he was visited by his demons. Some of them he was able to face down. Those demons gave up on him and went away.

But the worst, toughest, and scariest demon wouldn't budge. Nothing the man did could vanquish this demon. And the demon's presence itself was a constant rebuke. It made the novice monk think of himself as a failure.

One night, as he sat meditating and the demon came and sat with him yet again, opening his huge mouth to reveal his terrible teeth, the aspiring monk stood up and walked over to the demon. Then climbed into its mouth, and there he sat, resolved to practice his meditation there.

Dismayed and disgusted, the demon went away.

I take this as big hint that trying to banish our demons, overcome our fears, is perhaps not the wisest intention. It's that equanimity thing we want to cultivate. An ability to rest even in the presence of what scars us. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Even though ___

Even though ___

Even though ___ (fill in your own terrors here).

Breathing in we notice was scares us.
Breathing out we rest with what scares us.
Breathing in we're kind to ourselves (and patient with our demons!).
Breathing out we're grateful for trust enough to try this.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Recovering the Incandescent Power of love

I get a little busy on Sunday mornings. But here's some helpful guidance from Sharon Salzberg--from her book, LovingkindnessThe Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Cultivating the good means recovering the incandescent power of love that is present as a potential in all of us. An awakened life demands a fundamental re-visioning of the limited views we hold of our own potential.

To say that we cultivate the good means that we align ourselves with an expansive vision of what is possible for us, and we use the tools of spiritual practice to sustain our real, moment-to-moment experience of that vision.

This vision is always available to us; it doesn’t matter how long we may have been stuck in a sense of our limitations…. Once we contact our capacity for love and happiness—the good—the light has been turned on. 

Practicing…is a way of turning on the light and then tending it. It is a process of deep spiritual transformation. 

This transformation comes from actually walking the path: putting the values and theories into practice, bringing them to life. We make the effort to abandon the unskillful and cultivate the good with the conviction that in fact we can be successful.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Therapeutic Donkey

Yesterday day I wrote about using healthy imagination to better understand how my mother's enduring anxiety got passed down to her children. Understanding this has been an epiphany for me.

Feeling like 'there's something wrong with me' because of my latent anxiety has been a pain in the ass doubled. There's the anxiety. And there's the nagging feeling that having persistent anxiety somehow is a 'bad' thing--that there's something 'wrong' with me. Coming to understand the source of the anxiety (my mother's great trauma) begins to permeate both those feelings.

But it's a process.

I love epiphanies, seeing 'the light.' Light can seem like an angel come with healing in his wings. And maybe that's so, in a way. But even though epiphanies come all at once, healing is a process.

I've had some really helpful, foundational therapy in my life, which I am so very grateful for. But even with the best therapists, 'therapy' mostly happened once a week. When we practice mindfulness every day, 'therapy' can happen every day. Through patiently doing the work and developing our practice, we ourselves become an engaged and caring listener. If we get good teaching, we become wise, engaged and caring listeners or witnesses.

Because mindfulness has such potential for healing both mind and heart, I've heard it referred to as a miracle (I think The Miracle of Mindfulness may be a Thich Nhat Hahn title!).

But one of the really wonderful things about Mindfulness Practice is that it's donkey work: what it requires more than anything is a capacity to show up and faithfully perform a very simple task--over and over and over and over. To sit. To follow the breath. To bring kind attention to whatever thoughts and feelings arise.

So, I've seen the light regarding my family's persistent anxiety. Now the work is to continue to trust the process--over and over and over and over. To be a donkey with healing in his hooves, continually bearing wise and kind attention, back and forth, to and fro, up and down, there and back again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Anxiety as the Abuse of Imagination

Do you remember the scene in the Lord of the Rings movie where the signal fires get lit? One after another, across those glorious mountain peaks, the carefully stacked fire wood, soaked in oil, is ignited and the flames leap up! And the proclamation goes out: “The Beacons are lit! The Beacons of Gondor are lit!”

The Beacons of Gondor were a sign that great danger was at hand and help was desperately needed.

Deep anxiety was my mother’s great wound. When she was 11, her young father, who loved to hunt and who kept 2 dozen dogs, was bitten by one of them and died a horrible death 3 weeks later from rabies.

It happened in the middle of the Great Depression. Her mom was forced to take her two girls, leave their home in the country to take a job as a seamstress 15 miles away in ‘town.’

This upheaval left my mother with a festering wound, a pervasive terror that no matter how stable life might seem, something horrible was always looming.

Though she always tried to put a bold face it, each of her 3 sons inherited this same certainty, a gnawing unease that somehow something bad is always lurking.

I’ve always known this isn’t really true. I’ve worked hard to infuse this fear with reason and outward confidence. But…

I can’t tell you how often I’ve waked up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning thinking, “The Beacons are lit! The Beacons are lit! The Beacons of Gondor are lit!” All juiced up with adrenalin, I brace my half-awake self and anticipate the worst, wrestling with the demon Dread for the next hour or two.

Of course, my family ‘Beacons’ don’t work right, they’re dysfunctional. I know that. But part of me wants to stride out and find the idiot who keeps lighting that first beacon and throw him off the mountain!

Yet as I’ve sat with my irrational anxiety, tracing the string of beacons back to their source, I’ve realized it’s my mother who lit the first one. She’d be the one I’d have to throw off the mountain.

Somebody said that anxiety is the abuse of imagination. Sounds about right to me. It’s certainly the misuse of imagination. Inventing all kinds of nasty future scenarios.

On the other hand, it’s been imagination, put to better use, that has helped me follow my family’s beacons back to find my grieving, terrified eleven-year-old mom with matches in her hand. It's a scene that lights a different kind of fire in the heart.

All wise spiritual traditions and practices cultivate love. As we meditate, we work on meeting each thought, each feeling, each image, each story with love. And when love meets pain it morphs into compassion. That’s just what it does. And when anxiety or any other unhealthy mental or emotional process is held in compassion it is transformed. Maybe very slowly and maybe over a long time, but it is transformed.

Healthy imagination and mindfulness has allowed me to follow this deep trauma to the very place of its birth. Who knew it could turn out to be a sacred place?