Monday, December 31, 2012

Opening the Door


On the seventh 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 exactly how.

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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Stay Near This Door


On the sixth 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 sixth day of Christmas--are you still here near this door?

If you are, something better than 6 geese seems to be promised.

If you are suffering....

If?

Hah!

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.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Door that is Never Locked


On the fifth 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.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Great-Hearted (re-post)


On the fourth 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 over the holidays? 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.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Silent Watcher (re-post)


I often wish that mindfulness would just get installed in my brain. I understood the basic premise years ago. I've had a bunch of 'enlightening' experiences where I saw things with startling clarity.

But we don't seem to get mindfulness 'once and for all.' It only seems to come 'now and on purpose.'

I've quoted my young friend Jason before. I love what he said. We'd been on a long hike and when we got back his mother asked him if he'd had a good time. He said, "Hiking's okay. Except you have to walk."

Mindfulness is okay too--except we have to pay attention. 

Despite my kvetching, it's worth the effort, this ever so slowly turning lead into gold.

Here's a very helpful mindful 'to do' list from Eckhart Tolle. I've made a couple of small changes and formatted his one paragraph into a poem so that it scans more slowly--inviting our brains to take it in point by point, step by step, breath by breath.

---

The Silent Watcher

Be present as the watcher.
Be at least as interested
in your reactions
as in the situation
or person
that causes you
to react.

Notice how often
your attention
is in the past
or future.

Don’t judge
or analyze
what you observe.

Watch the thought,
feel the emotion,
observe the reaction.

Don’t make a personal problem
out of any of them.

You will then
feel something
more powerful
than any of those things
you observe:
   the still,
   observing
   presence itself
   behind the content…
the Silent Watcher.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When Life Says No (get a second opinion)

One of the lousiest feelings we have in life is when we get totally stuck. Or thwarted, confused, rebuffed, turned down, ignored, abandoned.

One of the most hopeful and helpful things we get in life is a growing realization that, somehow, deep down life, being stuck is optional.

A great example is that woman in the Bible with the really sick child. She comes to Jesus for help. She's not a Jew, she's more like an enemy of the Jews. But her daughter's serious illness trumps reticence and social norms.

At least for her--though strangely not for Jesus.

When she asks Jesus for help he says, "It's not right to take the children's bread and throw it to dogs."

Whoa. What?

People speculate a lot about what Jesus was up to when he said that. Some say he was trying to teach his disciples how wrong discrimination was by this shocking response. Some say it was a teaching moment not from Jesus but for Jesus.

Anyway, it's the woman I'm thinking about today. Trying to put myself in her shoes. Trying to slow down and feel the sting of Jesus's words. Being called a dog. Being sick with worry about my child. Being consumed by hope and fear.

Most of us know that kind of insistent, jangly, obsessive drivenness we have when we're facing such real life terror and longing.

What a remarkable confluence for this woman. Her daughter's achingly sick, and a renowned Healer, some say Messiah, has ventured into her territory. She get's 'an audience' with him. And then...?

Hard to imagine a more painful kind of "NO" than the one she gets.

We're not told what's going through her mind. But whatever it is, I want some of that.

She literally does not take "NO" for an answer. She begs. She begs to differ. "Even dogs gets scraps."

And Jesus says, Wow. What strong faith. When you get home you'll find your daughter is whole again.

We're never told the woman's name. Maybe we should call her Saint Chutzpah. Or maybe St. Second Opinion.

As long as we breathe and are conscious, we never are finally stuck or totally thwarted. Not that we always or even usually get exactly what we want--like St Chutzpah did.

The trick is to keep negotiating. Like a mountain climber negotiates a mountain. Or a mathematician a sticky equation.

Our usual focus is on the path we want and have envisioned. This imagined path is often blocked. When that happens we feel blocked.

There are many doors that do not open. And the more important they seem to us the more we will we feel thwarted, rebuffed, turned down, ignored, abandoned. And STUCK.

But we're not walking on a ready-made path anyway. The only part of our path that is fixed is the part behind us. The path ahead is negotiable. Always.

This is where mindfulness can be so helpful. It trains us to slow down. To suspend our fixed notions for a few moments. To stay patient and to be curious about what our fixed notions actually are. Are they wise? Accurate? Are they fixed?

Then, slowly, we usually find we can remove our gaze from the path that might have been--and discover the delicious possibility of being able to open our minds and hearts to Something Else, the path that may be.

Then, in the Presence of this Something Else, we can look around. Listen. Consider. Reconsider--imaginatively, even playfully. All these small actions can be part of larger discernment and prayer. Little bits adding up to bigger life.

The main trick is to be able to remember and to trust, right there in the middle of a fog of stuckness, that this kind of negotiating, this kind of navigating, is always possible.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Love the Frustrations (re-post)


We often come across Rilke's quote, "Love the questions."

I've usually enjoyed exploring the kinds of questions Rilke seemed to have in mind--questions of the heart and of the soul. At least I've enjoyed them when I've been able to glimpse the answers, or at least glimpse the regions up ahead where the answers might be found--like hiking and seeing the next ridge or two on the path you're on.

It's a different thing to love questions when you can't glimpse answers, when you're not sure there are answers, when you're not sure you have the ability to find some answers even if they do exist.

Rilke's advice then becomes more like, "Love the frustrations."

Raise your hand if this could be one of your favorite quotes.

Frustration is the feeling of being upset or annoyed as a result of not being able to change or achieve something. Frustration is also the prevention of our progress, success, or fulfillment of something.

Alas, frustration is also the thing that convinces us, by its persistent uncomfortableness, to stop trying to get to where it's so damn hard to go--even when it's the place deep down we want most to go.

What would happen if we actually could grow to "Love the frustrations?" What would that be like?

What would a moment in life be like if Frustration was scratching at our door and we opened the door laughing and invited it in--treating it honorably, trusting (at least a little) that even Frustration is sent as a guide from beyond?

The way to hear what Frustration (as a Guide from Beyond) has to tell us is to find time to be still. To consciously slow down, take a few deep breaths, and listen to and feel what Frustration is bringing to the party.

First, simply feel what frustration is doing in your body. Maybe it's sitting on your chest!

But that's okay. Frustration is never really as heavy as advertised.

Just keep some attention on your breathing, in and out, and a little attention on Frustration's great big butt on your chest--or tightness in your throat--or droopiness in your posture. Wherever Frustration is, just breathe into that place for a few minutes with no other intention but to treat it honorably.

Then keep doing the same thing with a little wider awareness. Listen to whatever is speaking. Try not to argue or be defensive. Breathe. Feel. Listen. Treat each thought and feeling honorably.

Welcoming whoever comes, as Rumi recommends, is always just as simple as this and at the same time almost never just as simple as this. As with everything else in life, the only way to explore this kind of welcoming is to give it a try yourself.

Love the frustrations. Opening our doors to them in a playful, welcoming way sometimes is the same thing as having a door opened for us along those very ways that have seemed, so far, so very closed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mindfulness for Couples


Below is an article about couple relationships by therapist and mindfulness person, Christopher Germer. It comes from Tricycle. It's good stuff. 
The one 'clinical' example is maybe a little dramatic for most of you 'happy couples' out there, but the underlying theory and practical advice is worth the price of admission!
---
OVER THE YEARS I’ve come to a conclusion: Human beings are basically incompatible. Think about it. We live in different bodies, we’ve had different childhoods, and at any given moment our thoughts and feelings are likely to differ from anybody else’s, even those of our nearest and dearest. Given the disparities in our genetic makeup, conditioning, and life circumstances, it’s a miracle we get along at all.
Yet we yearn to feel connected to others. At the deepest level, connectedness is our natural state—what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” We are inextricably related, yet somehow our day-to-day experience tells us otherwise. We suffer bumps and bruises in relationships. This poses an existential dilemma: “How can I have an authentic voice and still feel close to my friends and loved ones? How can I satisfy my personal needs within the constraints of my family and my culture?”
In my experience as a couples therapist, I’ve found that most of the suffering in relationships comes from disconnections. A disconnection is a break in the feeling of mutuality; as the psychologist Janet Surrey describes it, “we” becomes “I” and “you.” Some disconnections are obvious, such as the sense of betrayal we feel upon discovering a partner’s infidelity. Others may be harder to identify. A subtle disconnection may occur, for example, if a conversation is interrupted by one person answering a cell phone, or a new haircut goes unnoticed, or when one partner falls asleep in bed first, leaving the other alone in the darkness. It’s almost certain that there’s been a disconnection when two people find themselves talking endlessly about “the relationship” and how it’s going.
The Buddha prescribed equanimity in the face of suffering. In relationships, this means accepting the inevitability of painful disconnections and using them as an opportunity to work through difficult emotions. We instinctively avoid unpleasantness, often without our awareness. When we touch something unlovely in ourselves—fear, anger, jealousy, shame, disgust—we tend to withdraw emotionally and direct our attention elsewhere. But denying how we feel, or projecting our fears and faults onto others, only drives a wedge between us and the people we yearn to be close to.
Mindfulness practice—a profound method for engaging life’s unpleasant moments—is a powerful tool for removing obstacles and rediscovering happiness in relationships. Mindfulness involves both awareness and acceptance of present experience. Some psychologists, among them Tara Brach and Marsha Linehan, talk about radical acceptance—radical meaning “root”—to emphasize our deep, innate capacity to embrace both negative and positive emotions. Acceptance in this context does not mean tolerating or condoning abusive behavior. Rather, acceptance often means fully acknowledging just how much pain we may be feeling at a given moment, which inevitably leads to greater empowerment and creative change.
One of the trickiest challenges for a psychotherapist, and for a mindfulness-oriented therapist in particular, is to impress on clients the need to turn toward their emotional discomfort and address it directly instead of looking for ways to avoid it. If we move into pain mindfully and compassionately, the pain will shift naturally. Consider what happened to one couple I worked with in couple therapy.
Suzanne and Michael were living in “cold hell.” Cold-hell couples are partners who are deeply resentful and suspicious of each other and communicate in chilly, carefully modulated tones. Some couples can go on like this for years, frozen on the brink of divorce.
After five months of unsuccessful therapy, meeting every other week, Suzanne decided it was time to file for divorce. It seemed obvious to her that Michael would never change—that he would not work less than sixty-five hours a week or take care of himself (he was fifty pounds overweight and smoked). Even more distressing to Suzanne was the fact that Michael was making no effort to enjoy their marriage; they seldom went out and had not taken a vacation in two and a half years. Suzanne felt lonely and rejected. Michael felt unappreciated for working so hard to take care of his family.

Suzanne’s move toward divorce was the turning point—it gave them “the gift of desperation.” For the first time, Michael seemed willing to explore just how painful his life had become. During one session, when they were discussing a heavy snowstorm in the Denver area, Michael mentioned that his sixty-four-year-old father had just missed his first day of work in twenty years. I asked Michael what that meant to him. His eyes welling up with tears, Michael said he wished his father had enjoyed his life more. I wondered aloud if Michael had ever wished the same thing for himself. “I’m scared,” he replied. “I’m scared of what would happen if I stopped working all the time. I’m even scared to stop worrying about the business—scared that I might be overlooking something important that would make my whole business crumble before my eyes.”

With that, a light went on for Suzanne. “Is that why you ignore me and the kids, and even ignore your own body?” she asked him. Michael just nodded, his tears flowing freely now. “Oh my God,” Suzanne said, “I thought it was me—that I wasn’t good enough, that I’m just too much trouble for you. We’re both anxious—just in different ways. You’re scared about your business and I’m scared about our marriage.” The painful feeling of disconnection that separated Michael and Suzanne for years had begun to dissolve.
From the beginning of our sessions, Michael had been aware of his workaholism. He even realized that he was ignoring his family just as he had been ignored by his own father. But Michael felt helpless to reverse the intergenerational transmission of suffering. That began to change when he felt the pain of the impending divorce. Michael accepted how unhappy his life had become, and he experienced a spark of compassion, first for his father and then for himself.
Suzanne often complained that Michael paid insufficient attention to their two kids. But behind her complaints was a wish—not unfamiliar to mothers of young children—that Michael would pay attention to her first when he came home from work, and later play with the kids. Suzanne was ashamed of this desire: she thought it was selfish and indicated that she was a bad mother. But when she could see it as a natural expression of her wish to connect with her husband, she was able to make her request openly and confidently. Michael readily responded.
A little self-acceptance and self-compassion allowed both Suzanne and Michael to transform their negative emotions. In relationships, behind strong feelings like shame and anger is often a big “I MISS YOU!” It simply feels unnatural and painful not to share a common ground of being with our loved ones.
We all have personal sensitivities—“hot buttons”—that are evoked in close relationships. Mindfulness practice helps us to identify them and disengage from our habitual reactions, so that we can reconnect with our partners. We can mindfully address recurring problems with a simple four-step technique: (1) Feel the emotional pain of disconnection, (2) Accept that the pain is a natural and healthy sign of disconnection, and the need to make a change, (3) Compassionately explore the personal issues or beliefs being evoked within yourself, (4) Trust that a skillful response will arise at the right moment.
Mindfulness can transform all our personal relationships—but only if we are willing to feel the inevitable pain that relationships entail. When we turn away from our distress, we inevitably abandon our loved ones as well as ourselves. But when we mindfully and compassionately incline toward whatever is arising within us, we can be truly present and alive for ourselves and others.
Christopher K. Germer is a clinical psychologist, specializing in mindfulness-oriented couples therapy and treatment of anxiety, and a co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. His website is www.meditationandpsychotherapy.org.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Blessed are the Opinionated

I often write about our main challenge as human beings in terms of small-self, big-self; false-self, true-self; closed-self, open-self. I guess that's because it's been so helpful to me to have been challenged to notice how often my small self keeps me stuck in small life. Opening to God has given me enough glimpses to know and trust that life can be SO much bigger than I often allow it to be. Mindfulness practices have given me a glimpse of how we ordinary humans can effectively participate in letting go of 'small' and opening up to BIG.

Below are a few paragraphs from Pema Chodron's book, When Things Fall Apart. She's writing about one of these kinds of participations. It's mostly an on-the-hoof kind of practice--we get to do it in little mini-bursts of inspiration during the day--stumbling again and again into sacred ground (almost by accident).

It's an ironic kind of practice fueled by something we have plenty of--Opinions. Read it. Give it a try. It'll either work for you or not. If it does, consider yourself 'lucky.'

---


In meditation we allow a lot of space, and then we begin to see whatever comes up with increasing clarity, with increasing vividness. Then we begin to be attuned to our habitual patterns and see what we do and who we are at the level of holding ourselves together with opinions and ideas about things.

One of the best practices for everyday living when we don’t have much time for meditation is to notice our opinions. When we are doing sitting meditation, part of the technique is to become aware of our thoughts. Then, without judgment, without calling them right or wrong, we simply acknowledge that we are thinking.

When we’re not in meditation, we could begin to notice our opinions just as we notice that we’re thinking when we’re meditating. This is an extremely helpful practice, because we have a lot of opinions, and we tend to take them as truth. We have a lot of emotional backup for these opinions. They are often judgmental or critical; they’re sometimes about how nice or perfect something is. In any case, we have a lot of opinions.

To have even a few seconds of doubt about the solidity and absolute truth of our own opinions, just to begin to see that we do have opinions, introduces us to the possibility of egolessness. We don’t have to make these opinions go away, and we don’t have to criticize ourselves for having them. We can just let those opinions go, and come back to the immediacy of our experience.

 If we can see our opinions as opinions and even for a moment let them go, and then come back to the immediacy of our experience, we may discover that we are in a brand-new world, that we have new eyes and new ears. 

---

Blessed are the Opinionated--who learn to take their opinions with a grain of salt!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wholeness (is never lost)

Wholeness has become a favorite word. And more. It's what I want when I grow up. It's what and who I aim to be.

The process of becoming whole is kind of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. At some point, most of us will have pieces in our hands that we would swear just don't fit. And we'll see empty places in the puzzle whose piece we'd swear has been lost, "I've looked everywhere--it's just not here!"

To become whole is to work with the pieces we see and to not give up on the pieces we don't see. And to trust--against all common sense it would seem--that what we need is here, Somewhere.

What follows is a version of the lectio we're using in our two Neighborhood groups this month.



Lectio for Neighborhood Groups, December, 2012: Wholeness

It would be good for the English-speaking world if we were to dispense for a while with the use of the word holiness, because it has been smirched like the word church with sectarian meaning. Holy and whole, holiness, and wholeness are synonymous; and health is but another way of writing holth or wholth, holiness or wholeness. Piety and virtue and a lot of other qualities are component parts of holiness, but in themselves they are no more holiness than the sun's ray is the sun. Holiness is the normal condition of a whole person….          –Charles Henry Brent
---

A woman who had suffered a condition of hemorrhaging for twelve years—a long succession of physicians had treated her, and treated her badly, taking all her money and leaving her worse off than before—had heard about Jesus. She slipped in from behind and touched his robe. She was thinking to herself, “If I can put a finger on his robe, I can get well.” The moment she did it, the flow of blood dried up. She could feel the change and knew her plague was over.
At the same moment, Jesus felt energy discharging from him. He turned around to the crowd and asked, “Who touched my robe?” His disciples said, “What are you talking about? With this crowd pushing and jostling you, you’re asking, ‘Who touched me?’ Dozens have touched you!”
But he went on asking, looking around to see who had done it. The woman, knowing what had happened, knowing she was the one, stepped up in fear and trembling, knelt before him, and gave him the whole story. Jesus said to her, “Daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re healed and whole. Live well, live blessed! Be healed of your plague.”   Mark 5.25-33
---

We are all more than we know.  Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten. Integrity rarely means that we need to add something to ourselves; it is more an undoing than a doing, a freeing ourselves from beliefs we have about who we are and ways we have been persuaded to "fix" ourselves to know who we genuinely are. Even after many years of seeing, thinking, and living one way, we are able to reach past all that to claim our integrity and live in a way we may never have expected to live.  –Rachel Remen

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Stuck in Punxsutawney

Albert Einstein famously said, "Problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness that created them." It's amazing how simple this sounds--and yet how incredibly hard it is to understand and to live into the implications.


There's a related quote that's often attributed to Einstein, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Rita Mae Brown is probably the first person to say this however.

Whoever said it, this second quote is just as wise and powerful as the first. And just as ironic. 

Life's great trick is getting on the OTHER side of these two quotes. Anytime we find ourselves in Groundhog Day scenarios, we just need to remember that the situation won't change until we do. If it's true that we reap what we sow (and it usual is) we gotta start experimenting with new seeds!

Below is the lectio we used yesterday morning at St. David's in our Mindfulness group. It represents a kind of pre-Groundhog Day training we can work with so that the next time we get stuck in Punxsutawney PA we know how to begin navigating our way out. 

(This is a followup to RAIN work--if you're not familiar with it, you can read more about it here.)

---


RAIN: Recognition/Acceptance/Investigation/Non-Identification is a handy acronym for mindful practice. Each step (Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, Non-Identification) is progressive, helpful, and the order makes sense. At the same time, remembering not to identify at every step keeps us from being swept up into old patterns of thoughts or feelings at every step.


When we’re working with our own sticky stuff it’s necessary to remember and remember and remember not to identify with it. Our strong reactions and feelings come with convincing narratives—at least they’re convincing to us. Long rehearsed and rehashed narratives and familiar feelings feed off one another, energizing a loop. This is what being stuck is.


Our most familiar narratives each came into being at a certain time in the past. Certain things, perhaps ‘powerful stuff,’ happened. Presumptions were believed. Conclusions were reached that we’ve been inclined to accept as true ever since. We’ve identified with our stories so long that their truth seems self-evident. And as long as we take them as self-evident, investigation, etc., seems pointless. We can’t attend to these stories unless we suspend our belief in them. Part of mindfulness is the practice of suspending old beliefs so we can get to fresh levels of consciousness which allow us to see old problems in fresh ways.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ordinary Alchemy


I love this Mary Oliver poem…


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


We all need daily to be in the presence of stuff that ‘more or less kills us with delight.’ I wake early to do this. Can’t seem to navigate life very well without a daily dose of  ‘daily presentations.’

Jesus woke early too. He’d go up into the hills a good while before dawn to get his daily dose of ‘untrimmable light.’ I understand the Dali Lama also wakes early. Every day. Every day he spends his first 4 hours meditating. Otherwise, he says, he doesn't have what it takes to get through the day wisely and compassionately.

Prayer, contemplation, meditation—at least the version of these that I understand—puts us in a place of refuge and Presence. When we ‘take refuge’ in a place and way of Presence (mmmmmmm, how to say this without it sounding pious, predictable, stale, etc., etc., etc?)...

Good stuff happens.

Taking refuge in Presence is the magic that the old Alchemists were looking for. It’s a place and process where iron turns to gold. Mary Oliver is most always refreshed and inspired among ‘the ordinary, the common, the very drab.’ She says she can’t help but ‘grow wise with such teachings as these.’

Don’t we all want to say to the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having!”

But it’s not just in the common deep-down beauty of the natural world this kind of alchemy happens. It also happens in ‘the fearful, the dreadful.’ I suspect it was often this kind of thing that woke Jesus early and took him to quiet places deep in Presence so he could have the fearful and the dreadful transformed in him. We often meet him later in the day and see him working wisely and compassionately with fearful and dreadful stuff.

We can do it too. Really. 

To humbly say ‘O not me, Lord’ is really a lame kind of dodge.

This beautiful and accessible refuge, these places of transformation are ours too. It’s where in the tenderness and confidence of Presence we learn slowly again and again and again that fear, uncertainty, anger, revulsion, doubt, and essentially every other daunting thing look different—they become something different—within this sacred container, this Refuge. 

This is where we meet our fears on purpose. Hear them out. Put them in perspective (read: Presence). And notice how they're not as daunting as before. Refuge is where we welcome 'what makes us crazy' in a way that (slowly) 'makes us wise.' 

The commitment and patience and courage it takes to do this also slowly grows. 

Lead to gold. Stuck to moving. Anxious to trusting. Bored to engaged. Numb to caring. 

PS: Nothing written in stone that Refuge is best early mornings. But it is usually best at a time when our energy is good. 

            


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Be Late

Though it goes against my temperament, I'm almost never late. Somehow somewhere in me it is written:

Thou Shalt Not Be Late

I know it has to do with my father--he was, shall we say, committed to being on time. He was also committed to encouraging his wife and 3 boys to be on time. Being the youngest, and seeing my brothers catch hell for holding up the show, it must have seemed really, really important for me to get it right.

This particular commandment is not only carved in stone but hardwired in my neurons. It's a superhighway among neural pathways.

If I'm paying attention I can feel this gift from my dad as driven-ness. I'm agitated when I'm 'behind' time, a man on a mission. I get tense and terse and tend to see things as 'in my way' rather than simply being what they are.

Life has been telling me for a long time to slow down--to loosen up and to open up. To stroll more, to linger, to chat, to visit, to savor, to bask.

But it's a slow process--like negotiating right-aways for a Greenway in Brooklyn.

So I love it when help comes--like this bit from Mark Nepo's Seven Thousand Ways to Listen:

When fully here, we touch what is before us: life-force to life-force, essence to essence. When asleep or numb or moving too fast, we only touch surface to surface. And without that glow of life-force, that glow of essence, things just get in the way. It seems that the feel of truth and meaning waits below the surface, and it's the heart of listening that allows the life-force in all things to touch us.

---

I'm working on going from seeing things IN the way to seeing things ON the way. It seems a little farfetched that we'll often meet 'essence to essence' but it doesn't seem much of a stretch at all to begin intending to mingle at least some of what we truly are as we bump into each other on the Way.



Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Generous Listening for Thanksgiving

Spiritual formation is not a spectator sport. We're all players--at least we can be. Thanksgiving is a great time to play!

I think I'd be embarrassed to be visited by the ghosts of Thanksgivings past. They'd show me a million missed opportunities to savor family and friends.

If you know what I mean about Thanksgiving being a verb and would like to DO Thanksgiving this year, here's a really simple practice: We can express gratitude with Generous Listening. We can listen generously.

You probably already know how it works. You've probably met two or three people in your life who've given you the gift of generous listening.

The ingredients are simple--a little curiosity, a little creativity, and a lot of letting go. When somebody else speaks--perhaps particularly somebody that doesn't get listened to enough--tune in. Be curious.

And then quickly (before somebody hijacks the thread) follow up with a genuinely curious question. Then do it again. And maybe even again.

Then do it with somebody else.

Here's where the 'lot of letting go' comes in. It's almost impossible to ask 'good' questions if we're in our usual mode of listening--tuned in to our usual random thoughts. We have to let go and let go and let go of these in order to make room for curiosity and creativity and generosity. If we can't let go of our own threads, we're very unlikely to be able to recognize and invite others to explore theirs.

Of course, conversation in most family dinners is random and kind of chaotic. Don't expect a lot of success.

Though even a little can make a difference. And if nothing else, generous listening keeps those of us who practice it more lively than lethargic.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sacred Irony

How often can we return to these words of Rumi and find them fresh yet again?

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!



How many times today will we get what we want? 

How many times today will we get what we don't want? 

In the The Guest House, Rumi names one 'good' visitor (joy) and five 'bad' ones (depression, meanness, dark thought, shame, malice). Which ones will we meet today? What's the ratio between 'good' and 'bad' likely to be?

One of the great towering baffling questions in this being human is "How in the world can we welcome and entertain them ALL?" 

Rumi suggests it's possible to live in an ever-available state of Sacred Irony. Irony

      "Something that seems deliberately contrary to what we expect--yet is often wryly amusing."

Sacred Irony is the opposite of bitter irony--a grim smile stretched across a feeling that yet again fate is against is. 

Sacred Irony is the way to laugh with God. A way to be with God. An outrageous way to meet today's pains-in-the-butt not peeking through a window curtain but standing in an open door laughing!

It's hard to laugh and be miserable at the same time. Maybe it's even impossible.

Maybe it's not the least bit hypocritical to laugh, to smile deep down inside meanness, dark thoughts, shame, malice--even depression, when it's not clinical. Laughter in the face of the day's usual suspects is a powerful way to embody faith, trust, courage and compassion. 

Start with a smile. A wry smile. Feel your mouth begin to spread, your cheeks rise, your dimples deepen. Go with it. Open to the irony. Open to the Sacred.

Maybe you've heard the saying, "Wanna make God laugh? Make plans!" 

We never get days exactly as we've planned. Wouldn't it be transforming--laughing with God instead of bemoaning our fate?

The only reason Rumi encourages this is because he found it helpful. And he found it possible. 


Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Wholeness Hypothesis

My dear old dog-friend Mattie is 13 now. She’s always taught me more than I've taught her. As she’s moving more and more into being an old lady, some of her lessons are more poignant and plainer.

About two weeks ago we were going out for our usual last walk before bed when a truck backfired really loud. She’s always been terrified by thunder, fireworks, and gun shots. She whipped around and began towing me back to the house. Nothing I could do to placate her. She would not be comforted.

What’s different this time is that now she won’t go on that walk anymore. We've been taking that particular neighborhood walk for 12 years. Been thunder and fireworks and gunshots before. She’s always tried to tow me home. But she’s always also been glad to go on the same walk the next day.

I'm thinking it’s both some kind of degradation of a ‘good’ neural pathway as well as a strengthening of a 'bad' one. The part of her that used to be able to shake off the big bangs isn't working like it used to, while the part of her that carries the sensation and message of terror has opened the floodgates.

I love the following quote from John O’Donohue (thanks Rebecca Caldwell):

“Ancient, forgotten things stir within our hearts, memories from the time before the mind was born. Within us are depths that keep watch.”

I've tended to take this in an entirely positive way. God, Wisdom, Awareness always active deep in us even when our day to day minds are focused on the usual stuff.

But I’m coming to realize that’s not the whole story. Different parts of us keep watch in different ways. There’s a lizard in our brain stems that keeps watch. There’s an aardvark and possum and otter keeping watch in our middle brain. There’s an orangutan, a Neanderthal, and our own mothers and fathers keeping watch in our top brain, our primate brain.

These brains of ours evolved over a long, long time. Scientists say it wasn't an elegant progress, it was a kludgy process. Elegance wasn't the goal, survival was. Emotional well-being, wholeness was not a goal: living long enough to pass on our DNA was the only goal. 

We have LOTS of help keeping watch. Every feeling, every sensation, every impulse we've every had or ever will have has this long lineage behind and within it.

On the other hand, there's God.

Scientists can't really bring God into the hypothesis. But we can. I think science and spirituality can dance a wonderful and very beautiful dance.

The way I experience it is that some things in me keep watch. And Some One in me keeps watch, too. Both realities are active all the time. Being aware, welcoming both is the Wholeness Hypothesis.

When it comes to certain kinds of intuitions and gut reactions, I'm not much different than Mattie. But when it comes to working with those intuitions and reactions, we humans have this incredible new possibility--conscious evolution, which in one way is what spiritual formation is.

We can learn to welcome the strange mix of reports that are forever coming in from our various watchers. We can even learn to say 'Thank you' for every last strong, wild, helpful or unhelpful sensation-urge-impulse we ever feel. We can do this because the other One Who Keeps Watch has been holding this strange mix together forever.

I'm thinking that's what wholeness is. Letting there be room for life as it is--and letting there be room for life as it can be. Learning to discern which is which; choosing with to follow and which to simply let go. Conscious evolution. Spiritual growth. Making peace, deep peace, with our three brains, our watchers and our Watcher. Welcoming and working with all of it. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fairy Dust

The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Walking in the Great Way, following Jesus, waking up we become a little more lively, a little more full of life's best energy every day.

Sometimes, alleluia, we hit new places of liveliness all at once.

It's a bit like a politician looking for babies to kiss. One morning along the way he gets sprinkled with fairy dust. A little later he spies a mom and a baby and strides toward them like always. Only when he gets there and looks down at the baby he sees the miracle she is. Looking at her, he loves her. And loving her--he sees himself--and everybody else in the crowd as part of the same miracle. Boom! Shezam! In that moment life is LIFE--beautiful, SO interesting--and just brimming with more joy and wonder and gratitude than he thought was possible.

If we keep opening little by little to the Sacred, we're always getting a wee bit of fairy dust. In fact, there's no lack of fairy dust. The more we open the more we're dusted.

Still, nothing wrong with celebrating each new dusting as the miracle it is.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Everything Is Workable

My senior year in high school I started out being the punt returner. I lost that assignment by the first half of the first game.

I had won the job by being the best at it during summer practice. We practiced during the day--but games were played at night. In games, as the football flew high off the punter's foot at night, I'd lose sight of it in the black sky and the glare of stadium lights.

I wore glasses in class because I'm nearsighted. But I did alright without them in practice and did NOT want to bother with goggle glasses or contacts for football. Hated the thought of it.

So on the very first punt in the very first game of the season I watched a football fly off a punter's foot and disappear--then suddenly reappear so close to me that I jumped aside so it wouldn't touch me--which would have made the ball 'live' and given the other team a great chance to recover it on our 25 yard line.

When I got back to the sideline the coach said very kindly, "Hudson! What the hell do you think you're doing out there!"

On the next punt I focused with all my might. Still lost it, but was ready for it to reappear again. Ha! I called for a fair catch--meaning I couldn't run with the ball but the other team couldn't tackle me either. I made a perfect catch!

Then looked around and nobody was close enough to tackle me anyway. I could have run for 10 or who knows how many more yards. That was it for me as the punt returner. I got replaced.

Yet I did just fine all year as the kickoff returner. Those kicks don't go as high--I could see the ball all the way. And the other team doesn't have time to get close before you catch it--there's not all that 'instant' pressure.

I think about that game, that season now. It's potentially a helpful paradigm for solving problems, stuck places, dilemmas. "OMG, I can't see the ball." Panic. Frustration. Public failure!

Or corrective lenses. My choice.

It would have been nice if after that first game one of the coaches had told me to get off my butt and go to the ophthalmologist. But nobody did. It was simply up to me--and stubborn resistance to a relatively simple solution was the main ball I dropped that season of life.

One of the great gifts of mindfulness teaching is its insistence that Everything is Workable. Much of the work of getting unstuck is learning to notice and work with our own special kinds of resistance.

    Notice what it is
    where it is
    what it feels like

what's actually going in on in our minds and hearts that keeps us resisting possible solutions to problems that are messing with and messing up our lives.

"Everything is workable" doesn't mean that we can mold life to get what we want and avoid what we don't want. It simply and profoundly means that every problem has a way to be worked with wisely. Inherent in the process is a growing commitment to trust workability-. Out of that trust comes a certain gameness to simply try working with life's problems and our resistances more often.

Every few months or so, from trusting this, doing this, perking up and considering yet again that everything is potentially workable, the trusting increases and the doing gets done more often.

Every few months or so we look around and notice that our seeing is sharper--even when the sky is dark or the glare is nearly blinding.

We often also notice that 'now' we have one or two fewer stuck places in our lives.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sliding Towards Acceptance

Wonderful guest post from my friend Jane Coburn. The growing, the loving, the making-room in her heart for her sons is a beautiful thing.
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There is freedom that comes with acceptance.  I wish I had learned this earlier in my sons’ lives, but I am grateful I have stopped fighting.  When it came to their autism, acceptance meant failure.  I thought if I accepted the autism then I was giving up.  Surrender meant losing.  For years, I fought this opponent over which I had no control.  I am saddened thinking about all the ways I did not accept my sons, focusing more on fixing them, on treatment, on making them conform to what society expected.  Letting my own insecurities about what other people would think cloud moments I should have embraced. Despite all the therapy, all the doctors, all the modeling behavior, and all the love, my children still have autism.  And yet, we have far from failed.

A few months ago, I went to the park with Austin.  At 15, he still loves the park.  This playground had a large, tall slide.  Austin climbed the stairs excited to try the slide, but froze when he got to the top.  Puberty has hit and Austin is now taller than me, he has to shave and has a deep voice.  Boys his age are not going to playgrounds with their mothers.  Boys his age usually don’t want to go anywhere with their mothers.  This is a blessing not lost on me, to have an almost sixteen year old who enjoys my company. 
So, there he was at the top of the slide bobbing his torso up and down as he often does when he is excited or nervous.  In this case, both.  I gave him some words of encouragement.  He yelled down to me, “Are you sure?  I am nervous!”   The fact that he can express his apprehension is yet another blessing.  I reassured him and asked if he wanted me to hold his hand as he slid or would he rather I wait at the bottom to “catch him”.  As if I could actually “catch” this almost full grown man.

Minutes passed, Austin bobbed, I reassured, and a line formed behind him. Several children well below Austin’s age anxiously waited to use the slide.  In the past, before I waved my white flag of surrender, this situation would have triggered a fear inside me.  It pains me to know I would have let my fear come out as anger towards Austin.  Watching all those children and their parents waiting for Austin and watching this teenager bob and shake and call out to his mommy for help would have made me snap.  My fears of what other people might think, my fear of being judged, my fear of Austin’s vulnerability, my fear that he would never be able to care for himself, my fear that I would die and no one would care for him, advocate for him, or protect him as fiercely as me would manifest themselves in this one moment.

All these fears would come out as venom…venom not towards these people staring, but at my own son for simply being himself.  I would have yelled at him to hurry up or get down most likely scaring him and paralyzing him at the top of the slide even longer.  The fear and disappointment about Austin having autism would follow me home.  It would ruin what could have been a pleasant outing to the park.  The venom would then be turned inward and I’d spend the rest of the day admonishing myself for being a horrible mother.

Thankfully, on this beautiful day at the park, I had already learned the freedom of acceptance.  I patiently offered Austin some help and words of encouragement waiting as long as it took for him to decide he was ready.  Not one child or parent complained.  He took me up on my offer to hold his hand and he slid down hanging on tight as I ran along side him…big smiles on both our faces.  Next we ran to the swings and swung side by side trying to see who could get the swing pumped higher into the air.  With love, and patience, and surrender, the sky is the limit.

Acceptance gives me the freedom to focus on his strengths.  Instead of always worrying, always measuring him against his peers who left him in the dust years ago, always focusing on the challenges, acceptance let’s me enjoy him.  Give up?  NEVER!  I will be teaching him, nurturing his independence, advocating for him, and loving him until my last breath.  Acceptance is just going to make it a lot more fun.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pema and Paul


In a letter to the church in Philippi, Paul says something astounding. Is he being really honest--or maybe just describing his deepest ideals?

"I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be. I know now how to live when things are difficult and I know how to live when things are prosperous. In general and in particular I have learned the secret of facing either poverty or plenty. I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives within me."

Pema Chodron says pretty much the same thing in her book to the contemporary world. Is she really able to live like this herself?

"Inspiration and wretchedness are inseparable. We always want to get rid of misery instead of seeing how it works together with joy. The point isn't to cultivate one thing as opposed to another, but to relate properly to where we are. Inspiration and wretchedness complement each other. With only inspiration we become arrogant. Without inspiration, we lose our vision. Feeling inspired cheers us up, makes us realize how vast and wonderful our world is. Feeling wretched humbles us. The gloriousness of our inspiration connects us with the sacredness of the world. But when the tables are turned and we feel wretched, that softens us up. It becomes the ground for understanding others. Both the inspiration and the wretchedness can be celebrated. We can be big and small at the same time."

What do you think? Is this level of flexibility realistic? Pema and Paul aren't exactly ordinary people. 

But I'm persuaded they're both talking about something possible for ordinary people--probably never at the level that P & P experience it--yet nevertheless doable

Both of them have understood and experienced some place deep within us where transformation is always possible. A Still Place where we begin to trust that when 'shit happens' it can be composted.  

And that when something wonderful happens we can be right there with it--letting it permeate us with joy.

Somewhere deep in the grace and presence of God and deep in the trust and effort of ordinary people like us, something extraordinary can happen and is happening. 

In my experience, the trick is remembering to go to that place--grateful for the grace, committed to the effort. 

And to stay awhile. 



Long enough for the alchemy, the composting, the permeating, the transformation to take hold. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Resolving To Give Up Resolving

First the bad news: pretty much everything I post on Ordinary Mindfulness is hitched to a personal practice of meditation. Unless you're meditating, or learning to, much of this blog won't make a lot of sense.

The good news is that if you do meditate or are learning to, this stuff may nurture and challenge your practice and your soul as much as it does mine.

A great 'for instance' is the bit below from Pema Chodron (When Things Fall Apart) that we used as lectio in the Monday Mindfulness Group this morning. What Pema says can be extremely counter-intuitive unless we're practicing and 'seeing' this stuff for ourselves.

The kind of meditation Pema assumes we're doing here is Insight Meditation. In this context 'Insight' has less to do with 'epiphany' and more to do with simply seeing what's right before our eyes--direct perception rather than something inferred or something derived from reasoning. To meditate this way is simply to 'see for ourselves' whether something is true and real. Or not. Seeing for ourselves leads to lots of epiphanies, but first comes the donkey work--basic, straightforward practice.

In the four paragraphs below she's pointing out an inevitable challenge we come to in our adventures in meditation--this grand experiment with seeing clearly, loving dearly, and letting be. Pema, as usual, is offering encouragement big enough to meet the challenge.

---



We don’t hear much about how painful it is to go from being completely stuck to becoming unstuck. The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing our DNA. We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution

As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better that that…an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.

Meditation provides a way for us to train in the middle way—in staying right on the spot. We are encouraged not to judge whatever arises in our mind. What we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as thinking, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong. We are instructed to let thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather. This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.

(This) allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humor at who we are. 

---

If you'd like a rich refresher on how to DO Mindfulness Meditation, Gil Fronsdal, of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, CA, has a five minute jam-packed, straightforward audio primer HERE

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Nature and Self

Joanna Macy seems to me part saint, part prophet, and part poet. A rare combination. This 9 minute interview with her is filled with a bit of all those things. She's a force. Thank God for her.

video
Nature and Self


If you like Rainer Maria Rilke, you may already know Joanna Macy's name and a bit of her work. She and Anita Barrows have given us wonderful English translations of his poetry. For instance...



   Go to the Limits of Your Longing

   God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
   then walks with us silently out of the night.

   These are the words we dimly hear:
   You, sent out beyond your recall,

   go to the limits of your longing.
   Embody me.
   Flare up like a flame

   and make big shadows I can move in.
   Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

   Just keep going. No feeling is final.
   Don't let yourself lose me.
   Nearby is the country they call life.

   You will know it by its seriousness.
   Give me your hand.

   Book of Hours, I 59
---

As we grow and move through the years, that line "Don't let yourself lose me" is such wonderful advice. God is never just who we think God is. Standing fixed in even our dearest and best ideas of God we lose God. 

I get lost all the time in the confusion of what to do about the steady destruction of this world God has given us. Painfully lost. Full of guilt and despair--finding refuge mainly in my private self and relatively safe life. 

To grow is to move, to move is to be, for a time, lost. To be lost is to be confounded and yet potentially to have fresh energy to seek. 

If we listen carefully for God, even from our fixed places, we will always hear something like, "Don't let yourself lose me--give me your hand."