Friday, March 30, 2012

Got Suffering?

Got suffering?

Want to feed it? 

First question, yes. Second question, probably not.

Time is to suffering what oxygen is to fire. It takes ‘time’ to suffer. Not 'real' time, but 'borrowed' time. Time imported by remembering the past or anticipating the future.  

Other than the real pain we feel from injury or disease, brooding about the past or worrying about the future is what causes pain. As somebody said…"Pain is unavoidable. Suffering is optional."

In the extended quote below, Eckhart Tolle gives a really clear account of ‘optional’ pain—the pain that is nurtured by ‘psychological time’—not real time, not now time, but time remembered or anticipated.

There’s a world of wisdom in his description (particularly about borrowing trouble from the future). If, when we’re caught in suffering, we can remember what suffering is and how suffering works AND remember how it ends, then we begin to understand and experience a kind of freedom that is almost imaginable.

All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.

When you create a problem, you create pain. All it takes is a simple choice, a simple decision: no matter what happens, I will create no more pain for myself. I will create no more problems. Although it is a simple choice, it is also very radical. You won’t make that choice unless you are truly fed up with suffering, unless you have truly had enough.

To alert you that you have allowed yourself to be taken over by psychological time, you can use a simple criterion. Ask yourself: Is there joy, ease, and lightness in what I am doing? If there isn’t, then time is covering up the present moment, and life is perceived as a burden or a struggle. 

To alert you that you have allowed yourself to be taken over by psychological time, you can use a simple criterion. Ask yourself: Is there joy, ease, and lightness in what I am doing? If there isn’t, then time is covering up the present moment, and life is perceived as a burden or a struggle.

If there is no joy, ease, or lightness in what you are doing, it does not necessarily mean that you need to change what you are doing. It may be sufficient to change the how. “How” is always more important than “what.” See if you can give much more attention to the doing than to the result that you want to achieve through it. Give your fullest attention to whatever the moment presents. This implies that you also completely accept what is, because you cannot give your full attention to something and at the same time resist it.

As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out of present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love — even the most simple action.

So do not be concerned with the fruit of your action — just give attention to the action itself. The fruit will come of its own accord. This is a powerful spiritual practice. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the oldest and most beautiful spiritual teachings in existence, nonattachment to the fruit of your action is called Karma Yoga. It is described as the path of “consecrated action.”

When the compulsive striving away from the Now ceases, the joy of Being flows into everything you do. The moment your attention turns to the Now, you feel a presence, a stillness, a peace. You no longer depend on the future for fulfillment and satisfaction — you don’t look to it for salvation. Therefore, you are not attached to the results. Neither failure nor success has the power to change your inner state of Being. You have found the life underneath your life situation.

In the absence of psychological time, your sense of self is derived from Being, not from your personal past. Therefore, the psychological need to become anything other than who you are already is no longer there.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal

A friend sent me a quote yesterday from Jeanette Winterson’s New Memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. It’s the kind of thing (like her title) that gets a lot of juice out of a few words,

            “What we notice in stories, is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”

In her memoir Ms. Winterson lets us know right off that she knows about wounds:


"I'm locked out and sitting on the doorstep again. It's really cold and I've got a newspaper under my bum and I'm huddled in my duffel coat. A woman comes by and I know her. She gives me a bag of chips. She knows what my mother is like. Inside our house the light is on. Dad's on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won't sleep. She'll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he'll let me in, and he'll say nothing, and she'll say nothing, and we'll act like it's normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer . . ."

"Growing up is difficult. Strangely, even when we have stopped growing physically, we seem to have to keep on growing emotionally, which involves both expansion and shrinkage, as some parts of us develop and others must be allowed to disappear. ...Rigidity never works; we end up being the wrong size for our world."

“What we notice in stories, is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”


I’m always so grateful to writers and storytellers who give us an honest glimpse into a life that, though desperately challenging, is still a life worth living.

All of us have wounds. Some more than others. Some are wounded so deeply that it’s hard for many of us to fathom. 

Thank God that many people who recognize their woundedness and seek healing…find it. 

How? When? 

The answers to these questions unfold over a lifetime.

But as to the question of Where, Ms. Winterston gives us an answer Now. Almost always, maybe even always, we find healing in “the nearness of the wound to the gift.”

And so we come to trust, over time, though we are never healed always and forever, that every time we are in the grip of our wounds we are also near the source of our healing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Silent Watcher

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.

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.


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,
   presence itself
   behind the content…
the Silent Watcher.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Power of Now

At 7:30 Monday mornings, a group of us gather to 'do' lectio and mindfulness meditation. The Lectio reading for today is below--it's a short bit from Eckhart Tolle's, The Power Of Now

Join us. 

To do the lectio, read the passage twice--slowly and reflectively. First time, just note a couple of words or at most a phrase that somehow speak to you. Write them down.

Pause a minute. Breathe. 

Then read it again, slowly, being as present as you can to every sentence. Note again what your 'attention' has highlighted. 

Then take another few minutes to reflect on what you highlighted. 

What may Wisdom be saying to you? If you have a minute, right a couple of sentences that sum this up.

Then meditate--for as short or as long as time allows.


Since ancient times, spiritual masters of all traditions have pointed to the Now as the key to the spiritual dimension. Despite this, it seems to have remained a secret.
With the timeless dimension comes a different kind of knowing, one that does not “kill” the spirit that lives within every creature and every thing. A knowing that does not destroy the sacredness and mystery of life but contains a deep love and reverence for all that is. A knowing of which the mind knows nothing.

There is a place for (the merely ‘thinking’) mind and mind knowledge. It is in the practical realm of day-to-day living. However, when it takes over all aspects of your life, including your relationships with other human beings and with nature, it becomes a monstrous parasite that, unchecked, may well end up killing all life on the planet and finally itself by killing its host.

So break the old pattern of present-moment denial and present-moment resistance. Make it your practice to withdraw attention from past and future whenever they are not needed. Step out of the time dimension as much as possible in everyday life.

If you find it hard to enter the Now directly, start by observing the habitual tendency of your mind to want to escape from the Now. You will observe that the future is usually imagined as either better or worse than the present. If the imagined future is better, it gives you hope or pleasurable anticipation. If it is worse, it creates anxiety. Both are illusory. Through self-observation, more presence comes into your life automatically. The moment you realize you are not present, you are present. Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence.

Be present as the watcher of your mind — of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also 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 them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Unnecessary Pain

I haven’t been posting much lately. I’m seeing a chiropractor some mornings at the time I usually write. More important--trees are blooming. I don’t mean apple and pear and plum, but maple and oak and alder, etc. The kind of pollinators that many of us are allergic to. In the mountains of western North Carolina, trees outnumber people by a thousand to one (I made that number up; it may be three thousand to one).

But that’s fine, there’s a pill for allergies. Only the pill makes a lot of us drowsy. When I’m taking allergy meds, I don’t have the usual access to my brain. I can stare at a computer screen for quite awhile and have no clue how to express anything that seems worthwhile to say about mindfulness.

I’m grateful, however, that as I study in the mornings, I find others who have profound things to say:
Nobody’s life is entirely free of pain and sorrow. Isn’t it a question of learning to live with them rather than trying to avoid them?

The greater part of human pain is unnecessary. It is self-created as long as the unobserved mind runs your life. The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment. On the emotional level, it is some form of negativity. The intensity of the pain depends on the degree of resistance to the present moment, and this in turn depends on how strongly you are identified with your mind. The mind always seeks to deny the Now and to escape from it. In other words, the more you are identified with your mind, the more you suffer. Or you may put it like this: the more you are able to honor and accept the Now, the more you are free of pain, of suffering — and free of the egoic mind.

Why does the mind habitually deny or resist the Now? Because it cannot function and remain in control without time, which is past and future, so it perceives the timeless Now as threatening. Time and mind are in fact inseparable.

Yes, we need the mind as well as time to function in this world, but there comes a point where they take over our lives, and this is where dysfunction, pain, and sorrow set in.

An increasingly heavy burden of time has been accumulating in the human mind. All individuals are suffering under this burden, but they also keep adding to it every moment whenever they ignore or deny that precious moment or reduce it to a means of getting to some future moment, which only exists in the mind, never in actuality. The accumulation of time in the collective and individual human mind also holds a vast amount of residual pain from the past.

you no longer want to create pain for yourself and others, if you no longer want to add to the residue of past pain that still lives on in you, then don’t create any more time, or at least no more than is necessary to deal with the practical aspects of your life. How to stop creating time? Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life. Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation. Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to something that already is?

The present moment is sometimes unacceptable, unpleasant, or awful.

Yes--It is as it is.

Observe how the mind labels it and how this labeling process, this continuous sitting in judgment, creates pain and unhappiness.

By watching the mechanics of the mind, you step out of its resistance patterns, and you can then allow the present moment to be. This will give you a taste of the state of inner freedom from external conditions, the state of true inner peace. Then see what happens, and take action if necessary or possible.

-from Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Soul, Role and Letting Go

Not long after being ordained, I was browsing in a bookstore in Norfolk run by two wise and wonderful nuns. I was wearing my new priestly garb, feeling a bit special.

One of the nuns walked over to me and asked quietly if I'd be willing to 'bless' a cross that a customer had just bought.

My first thought was, Wow, sure. I'm pleased to be asked.

But right on top of that first thought came a jumble of responses with a very different tone. This is a Roman Catholic bookstore-the customer  'looks like' a Catholic-so does the cross-I don't have a clue what blessing an RC priest might give.

I say 'Yes.' But while I'm being introduced to the lady who bought the cross, and she's saying something to me, I'm busy trying to remember if my Liturgics professor (a former Catholic) had told us anything about moments like this, and failing to remember, trying to compose a blessing in my head.

The only part of the blessing I can remember now is 'Amen.' I'm sure it was adequate. But...

It could have been more than that. I could have slowed down, relaxed, taken a few minutes to get to know the woman who bought the cross.

Why didn't I?

Anything like this ever happen to you?

Well, my response in the bookstore is what IDENTIFICATION looks like. In this case with a role--a new role, an imagined role: "What's a good priest supposed to do, exactly?" No doubt also in the mix was my family dynamic of GETTING THINGS RIGHT.

Non-Identification could have given me more space. I might have felt the same pressure, but then, noticing how strong it was...taken a moment. Realized I didn't have to get it Right. Understood there wasn't a right way and a wrong way. Just a Way.

If I could get a do-over, here's what I'd do. Notice that first shot of adrenaline. Notice what "I" was telling "Me" to do. Take a moment. In that moment I'd have probably realized with real relief, Ah, this involves me but it's not about me.

Then I could have engaged this woman with her new cross in a conversation that would have gone...somewhere...who knows where...listening...curious...caring...God knows where...I don't know because it was too much about small me then.

The voices and pressures and identifications that make up our non-examined selves are self-limiting. As we give them more of our 'kind attention,' we hear what they say, learn what they advise, feel how they urge--and realize how very much the voices and pressures of our small selves limit our responses to Life.

You shall know the truth.

Jesus said that.

And truth sets us free. Free to do lots of meaningful little things without the habitual limitations of little selves.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Souls and Roles

A very natural way to get a good idea of how to take our ‘selves’ more lightly is to think about the roles we all play in life. We’re always learning the balance between our work-selves and home-selves. We move in and out of other roles—child, parent, grandchild, niece, nephew, uncle, aunt, grandparent. Student, teacher, employee, boss, etc., etc.  

Moving in and out of these roles is part of the ‘Non-Identification’ step in RAIN practice (see yesterday’s post).

Over time we begin to recognize how life-giving and life-saving it is for us not to confuse our souls with our roles.

Jack Kornfield—in all that follows—fleshes this out more fully:

All are roles. Each arises due to circumstances and conditions. When we are young we feel the role of son or daughter most strongly when we are with our parents. We try to fulfill it and behave accordingly. Yet when our parents are absent and we are playing with our friends, our role as son or daughter drops away—unless, of course, we have a mother who, because of her own shaky identity, insists that we think about her all the time. For forty hours a week, many of us enact our role as worker or provider. Yet to the extent that we cling to any of these identities, we suffer.

If I try to keep my role as Buddhist teacher when I come home, it is a disaster.

If I offer my frazzled wife Buddhist teachings on patience or generosity, she will feel patronized and simply remind me that it’s my turn to water the garden and do the dishes. My daughter does not want a teacher of meditation or a psychologist; she wants an ordinary father who will listen, understand her experiences, and be playful, supportive, and sympathetic. When I am a partner, husband, and father, the three of us learn from each other.

If a policewoman can’t relax and be just a human being when she’s out with her friends, she is imprisoned by her identity. If a CEO can’t let go of his work when it’s time to care for his son, they both suffer.

To be wise we need to be able to enter each role fully, with awareness and compassion, and to let it go when our part is done.

When we marry we have to let go of being single. When our children become adults, we have to let go of our old role of helping manage their life. When we take a new job or leave one, retire, or change from employee to manager, we need to let one role go and take up another.

We can be free only if underneath all these temporary roles we do not forget that they are not who we really are.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What Do You Mean, NO SELF?

As I've posted before, all spiritual traditions recommend distinguishing between small self and big self, false self and true self, non-self and more-than-self, dying to self in order to be fully alive. NOT IDENTIFYING with our narratives, not mistaking the stories we tell about ourselves for who we truly are is a powerful way of embodying the wisdom of these traditions.

Any idea of ,Dying To Self, Non-Self, More-Than-Self, at first seems strange. A big part of mindful practice is taking the strangeness out of the the concept--by making the experience of our 'selves' non-conceptual--actually making our experience of ourselves, hmmmmm... EXPERIENTIAL. 

Mindfulless teaches us, trains us, to pay attention and actually experience our selves

Jack Kornfield writes, "From the smallest organisms through complex life-forms to human beings, the creation of boundaries and the perception of separateness is universal."

He continues,

"The gift of Buddhist psychology is to take us to the next step, the evolutionary capacity to see beyond the separate self. The functional self, even at its most healthy, is not who we are. And to the extent that we adults remain caught and identified with any of the earlier stages of development, our suffering is perpetuated. Unlike its Western counterpart, Buddhist psychology recognizes that the ordinary process of development does not end the story. From a functional self, it offers a path to the discovery of selflessness. It shows us how the sense of self is created moment by moment. Then it dissolves identification and shows the joyful openness which exists beyond the self."

Jesus says, "Those who try to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will save them."

13th Century Zen Master, Dogen, writes,

To study the way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.

It's not difficult to become aware of the very interesting goings-on of our lives. It's a challenge to stick with it sometimes. We can be shocked, disappointed, with our selves. But, as you probably already know, we kinda disappointed with our selves already--when we pay attention. 

Kornfield writes more,

"Modern science tells us that the molecules of the body are completely replaced every seven years. If I am not the physical elements of this body, then what am I? Am I the stream of changing feelings? Am I the memories and perceptions? Am I the thoughts and concepts, the views and beliefs? Who am I? This is not a theoretical question; it is the most practical question for us to ask in the midst of our problems and our sorrows. Who do I take myself to be: at work, in my family, in my community, in my own heart?

The way we answer this question can lead to entanglement and struggle or—no matter where we are—to freedom and ease. It is absolutely crucial to understanding the human predicament. According to the classic Buddhist understanding, two mental states create the sense of self. One is called “self-view,” which takes some aspect of experience as I, me, or mine. The second is “compared view,” which evaluates the created sense of self as better than, worse than, or equal to others.

We create a sense of self whenever we identify with our body, our mind, our beliefs, our roles, our situation in life. This identification happens unconsciously, over and over, whenever we hold our feelings, thoughts, and perceptions as me or mine."

If you've read this far, and recognize what this is about, and if you want to work with it more, you might review RAIN practice (below). 


RAIN stands for: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-Identification.

R         We can practice RECOGNIZING whenever we’re hooked. The word RECOGNIZE means ‘to indentify something from having encountered it before.’ It’s a great word for the way we learn to work with unhelpful, habitual responses to life. It reminds us we have the capacity to develop transforming habits of mindfulness right in the many places where we’re working with unhelpful habits of our minds.

A         We can practice ACCEPTING what’s going on with us every time we remember to. We learn to look our own experience in the face. This practice is the opposite of denial. Accepting means we do our best to be aware of exactly what’s happening without judging ourselves. ACCEPTANCE is more than gritting our teeth and bearing the unbearable. It suggests roominess, generosity, kindness, a welcoming spirit. Inhaling is a good a metaphor—the diaphragm making room for what keeps us alive.  

I           We practice INVESTIGATING the ‘stuff’ we’re noticing and welcoming. Are there bodily sensations? Where in the body do we sense it? Is it a pain? A numbness? More like cold or heat? Tightness? What about feelings? Are they pleasant (or not)? Does this particular experience come with sadness, happiness, fear, frustration, etc.? What exactly do those feelings feel like? Where in the body are they lodged? (Don’t forgot ACCEPTANCE here—with every feeling we notice we do our very best to hold it with kind attention.) And what about memories—do memories come up? What narratives surface with them? Is a story being told? What’s it about? Who seems to be telling it? Who’s listening? Is it possible to listen objectively—and kindly?

N         We practice NON-IDENTIFICATION. All spiritual traditions recommend distinguishing between small self and big self, false self and true self, non-self and more-than-self, dying to self in order to be fully alive. NOT IDENTIFYING with our narratives, not mistaking the stories we tell about ourselves for who we truly are is a powerful way of embodying the wisdom of these traditions. DON’T INDENTIFY may sound like a command, but it’s better seen as wise, helpful, healthy practice. We DON’T CONFUSE the feelings, thoughts, memories, moods, stories or predictions about ourselves for who we most truly are.  RAIN work often exposes us to the very sticky feelings and stories we do identify and suffer with, but all the while, as we slowly grow in practical skill and gracious discernment, we’re seeing for ourselves the truer self—and the more-than-self knows and rejoices in the difference.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Participating In Our Own Salvation

Is it possible to regularly participate in our own “Salvation?” I think so.

Whatever salvation might be in eternity, right now it’s mostly about healing and wholeness. Becoming freed from what keeps our souls hard and small. Becoming freed for loving God and our neighbors as our ‘selves.’

Mindfulness is a way to participate in this whole-making process—at its most basic understanding and in its most profound embodiment.

The following is another passage from Jack Kornfield’s, The Wise Heart, that describes and illustrates simple participation in salvation.

When we learn to be mindful of mental states, we also begin to see the ways that they are habitual, how conditioned they are. Modern neuroscience tells us that our past reactions are engraved onto the synapses that send messages from one neuron to another, making them more likely to send the same message in the future. Paying attention, we recognize how often a moment’s experience is followed by an immediate reaction. It can be shocking to realize how impersonal and habitual our responses are. But gradually we realize that mindfulness gives us the option to choose a healthier response.

A meditation student, Jeremy, told me about a difficult encounter with a former friend, Zach, who had betrayed him in a business deal. Previously, whenever Jeremy encountered Zach, he experienced the sight of his friend together with the arising of affection, excitement, and happiness. Now seeing Zach, there arose the mental qualities of anger, sadness, worry, and unhappiness.

In these two scenarios, the sense experience of meeting Zach is the same. The critical difference is the mental qualities that arise with the experience. Because he lived nearby, Jeremy regularly encountered Zach. They had tried to talk to each other; they had even tried mediation. Still the feelings of anger and resentment persisted. At the sight of Zach there followed an automatic response conditioned by the betrayal. Jeremy could feel his mind and body contract in pain as the memory arose again.

With the next encounter, instead of replaying the story of how he had been wronged for the five hundredth time, Jeremy paused. Feeling the pain, he inquired deeper. Yes, there was hurt. But he had already done what was necessary to prevent further loss. Breathing gently, he could notice that there was no new problem, that his states of mind were the result of past conflict. He breathed again and let the anger and agitation be there, held in mindfulness, without feeding them. They began to subside, and a quiet relief arose. As his ex-friend walked by, Jeremy could acknowledge the betrayal, but he didn’t have to dwell in the unhappy states.

In this simple act of looking at his states, Jeremy had taken a step toward understanding and liberation.

As Ajahn Chah taught, “When you have wisdom, contact with experience is like standing at the bottom of a ripe mango tree. We get to choose between the good and rotten mangoes. It is all to your profit, because you know which fruits will make you sick and which are healthy.” By training ourselves in mindfulness we begin to see clearly the healthy and unhealthy fruit. As we practice mindfulness with pleasant and unpleasant experiences, we discover the power of the mindfulness to allow a healthy response to whatever arises.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Becoming Free-ER

I first explored mindfulness practice when it became obvious that I was making life harder than it needed to be for myself and others. I read a short article in a magazine--something about our capacity to learn to work with life more skillfully.

Simple stuff.

Slow down. Practicing noticing. Practice adding compassion to what we're noticing. Let go of the stuff that's harmful. Make more room for the stuff that's helpful. Don't force any of it--be patient in the process so that 'change' comes naturally.

This bit below from Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart is another example of what this process looks like and how it works.


To work with our mental states, we have to acknowledge how rapidly these states can change, often disappearing without our noticing. Because we are not aware of our inner states, we feel controlled by outside influences. The world will alternately please us or be at fault, and we will be caught in habitual grasping or frustration. There was an article in a San Francisco paper about angry drivers in the nearby town of Pleasanton. It seems the police had trouble with habitual speeders on the main highway. They asked their traffic engineers to create signals that can sense the speed of a car 350 feet before the intersections. Drivers who habitually speed find all the lights turning red in their path. There were a lot of mad drivers. “Instant karma,” it was called in the press. A better way to travel is to look at our states of mind.

Training in mindfulness, we learn to be aware of our own mental states without being caught in them. This capacity for self-reflection is the key to Buddhist psychology. The Buddha asks, “How does a practitioner remain established in observation of states of mind in the mind?” He instructs, “The practitioner becomes aware when the mind is tense and when the mind is relaxed…the practitioner becomes aware when the mind contains hatred and when the mind contains love…the practitioner becomes aware when the mind contains worry and when the mind is composed.”

When we look at our own mind, we can notice the mental states that predominate, as if we were noticing the weather. Just as a storm can bring rain, wind, and cold, we can observe the clusters of unhealthy states that appear on our bad days. We may find resentment, fear, anger, worry, doubt, envy, or agitation. We can notice how often they arise and how attached we are to their point of view.

We can also notice the healthy states in our most free and openhearted periods. We can notice how love, generosity, flexibility, ease, and simplicity are natural to us. These states are important to notice. They give us trust in our original goodness, our own Buddha nature.

June came to see me in the middle of a messy divorce. She was especially worried about her eleven-year-old daughter. We began by sitting together, not trying to fix anything, but holding the grief and hurt of the whole situation in compassion. Instead of treating her experience as an emergency and trying to change it, we took some deep breaths and settled into the experience of just being present in the moment. With this new spaciousness, I asked June to be mindful of her inner states, what she was feeling and thinking. Immediately she began to weep. She said her inner life ranged from extreme worry and agitation to self-recrimination, guilt, and anger. She couldn’t sleep; she obsessed over an imagined future that had not yet happened. June’s doctor had given her tranquilizers, which calmed her somewhat. But still her mind was easily overwhelmed.

I invited June to gently acknowledge out loud the states that became present. She began to identify the clusters of angry and fearful mind states as they arose. She could feel how sticky they were, how easy it was to believe the spell they cast. And yet, as we sat and her mindfulness grew stronger, she began to notice that they were not all there was to her life. She laughed a little and realized how long it had been since she’d felt any relief.

To support this newfound openness, I suggested to June a whole program including daily sitting meditations using both mindfulness and compassion practices. She also undertook a commitment to practice non-harming, even toward her soon-to-be-ex-husband. Each morning she recited a daily intention of compassion and peace for herself and all she encountered. She simplified her living situation and with some friends began to exercise again. She spent a lot of time with her daughter. I met with June periodically to support the changes that would foster her healthy mind states and help her trust her inner strength and goodness.

June went through a long legal process and eventually ended up with enough money and shared custody. Even with the meditations, she said, she suffered and agonized during the whole period. However, because she was suffering so much, she was also motivated to work with her mind. Through her dedication to mindfulness, June began to recognize more and more clearly the fearful and jealous patterns as unhealthy mind states. She noticed how much pain they brought to her body and mind. Because they were toxic and destructive, and because she wanted to live in a more loving way, she slowly began to let them go.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Who We Really Are

For me, in the good times,
hope is synonymous with trust.
I move into the next moment
with confidence and
an expectation
of goodness.

In the hard times,
hope takes on
an increasing feeling of risk.
I hope for the best,
but the approaching moment 
feels uncertain,
even scary.

And in the worst of times—
hope and desire
may be reduced 
to a bare ember
so faint 
as to be
almost undetectable.

But it is always there.
And sooner or later
we are drawn to it.

I believe, 
through repeated experiences  
of touching that desire,
we do learn—
to recognize it,
claim it,
and know it
as who we really are.

Gerald May, from The Dark Night of the Soul 
(formatted as a poem, with minimal alterations by Michael Hudson)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Getting Hang of It

Some of my Christian friends worry that I’ve gone over to the dark side because I appreciate, study, and talk a lot about Buddhist practices. The truth is that mindfulness practice helps me follow Jesus.

In John’s gospel we read, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Mindfulness is such a great tool for ‘knowing.’ It doesn’t tell us what to know, it just develops and sharpens our perception. It teaches us how to know. How to see clearly, how to recognize the brain fog, the murkiness that heretofore has seemed so very, very normal. 

Jack Kornfield, a psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher, has been a huge help in my ‘getting the hang’ of this process. Below is a good chunk of what getting the hang of mindfulness is like--from JK's book, The Wise Heart.

While studying Buddhism in college, I tried a little meditation on my own. But I was unsuccessful because I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t that I was afraid of silence or of some terrible darkness that I would find inside, though these are common misunderstandings of meditation. It was that my body would get uncomfortable and my mind would spin out in a million directions. When I heard Ajahn Chah’s teaching, the practice became gradually clearer. He taught me to relax and feel my breath carefully, which helped focus and quiet my mind. Then he taught me just to mindfully notice the stream of thoughts and sensations without reacting to them as a problem. This took some practice.

Finally he taught the most important lesson, to rest in consciousness itself. As his own teacher Ajahn Mun explains, “We can notice the distinction between consciousness and all the transient states and experiences that arise and pass away within it. When we do not understand this point, we take each of the passing states to be real. But when changing conditions such as happiness and unhappiness are seen for what they are, we find the way to peace. If you can rest in the knowing, the pure consciousness, there’s not much more to do.”

Does resting in consciousness mean we are simply checking out of the world or withdrawing into navel gazing? Not at all. Resting in the knowing is not the same as detachment. When I look back at my own life I can see my own struggles to discover this truth. Because of the conflict and unpredictable violence in my family, there were many times I wanted to run away but couldn’t. To cope with the trauma, at times I became depressed, angry, or cynical. But as a primary protection, I developed the capacity to detach myself from what was happening. Detachment came naturally to me. I used it to become peaceful within myself and to try to calm those around me. Of course, these patterns persist, and now I do it for a living.

So when I first tried to meditate, I confused it with my familiar strategy of detachment. Gradually I discovered how wrong I was. My detachment had been a withdrawal from the pain and conflict into a protective shell. It was more like indifference. In Buddhist psychology indifference is called the “near enemy” of true openness and equanimity, a misguided imitation. To rest in consciousness, I had to unlearn this defensive detachment and learn to feel everything. I had to allow myself to recognize and experience the feelings and thoughts, the conflicts, the unpredictability of life in order to learn that I could trust the openness of consciousness itself. To rest in consciousness is the opposite of contraction and fear. When we rest in consciousness we become unafraid of the changing conditions of life.

In the monastery Ajahn Chah would often notice when we were caught up in a state of worry, anger, doubt, or sorrow. He would smile with amusement and urge us to inquire, “Who is doubting? Who is angry? Can you rest in the consciousness that is aware of these states?” Sometimes he would instruct us to sit at the side of a person who was dying, to be particularly aware of the mysterious moment when consciousness leaves and a person full of life turns into a lifeless corpse. Sometimes he would say, “If you are lost in the forest, that is not really being lost. You are really lost if you forget who you are.”

This knowing or pure consciousness is called by many names, all of which point to our timeless essence. Ajahn Chah and the forest monks of Thailand speak of it as the “Original Mind” or the “One Who Knows.” In Tibetan Buddhism it is referred to as rigpa, silent and intelligent. In Zen it is called the “mind ground” or “mind essence.” Hindu yogis speak of the “timeless witness.” While these teachings may sound abstract, they are quite practical. To understand them we can simply notice the two distinct dimensions to our life: the ever-changing flow of experiences, and that which knows the experiences.

“Who are we, really?” the Zen koans demand. “Who is dragging this body around?” or “What was your original face before your parents were born?” These questions force us to look directly at the consciousness that inhabits our body. Ajahn Chah asked us to “be the Knowing.” Tibetan teachers instruct their students to direct their gaze inside to see who or what is doing the looking. Ajahn Jumnian, a Thai forest master, tells his students to witness all experience as if from the “third eye” in the center of the forehead. In each of these practices we turn toward and rest in consciousness itself.

It is as if we were in a movie theater, completely lost in whatever film—romance, adventure, comedy, or tragedy—is currently starring ourselves. Then we are told to look behind us, to find the source. Turning our heads, we recognize for the first time that the entire drama arises from a series of changing images projected by a beam of light onto the screen.

At some moments there are also gaps in the action; the show gets a bit slow, even boring. We might shift in our seats, notice the people eating popcorn around us, remember we’re in a movie. In the same way we can notice that there are gaps between our thoughts, gaps in the whole sense of our self. Instead of being lost in ideas and the problems in front of us, creating the whole drama of ourself, there are moments when we sense the space around our experience, let go, and relax. “These gaps,” says the meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, “are extremely good news.” They remind us that we can always rest in awareness, that freedom is always possible.

A boy in school suddenly notices a sunbeam illuminating the dust and he is no longer the earnest fifth grader struggling with math. He smiles as he senses the ever-present mystery and his whole building and schoolboy drama are held in a silent, free awareness. A woman walking down the street thinks of a distant friend and for a moment forgets her errands, feeling eternity and her own small life passing through it. In an argument we stop, laugh, let go, and become silent. Each of these moments offers a taste of freedom.

As we have seen, when we first turn to investigate who is being aware, we may feel confused, like a fish looking for water. We discover that there’s nothing solid, no one who is perceiving. This is a wonderful discovery. Awareness has no shape or color. It is beyond presence or absence, coming or going. Instead there is only a clear space of knowing, of consciousness, which is empty and yet cognizant at the same time.

As you work with this inquiry regularly, you can gradually develop the capacity to distinguish between the events and experiences of life and the consciousness that is knowing. You learn to rest in the knowing, unperturbed, to settle back in the midst of any circumstance, even those that are difficult or confusing.

When we learn to rest in awareness, there’s both caring and silence. There is listening for what’s the next thing to do and awareness of all that’s happening, a big space and a connected feeling of love. When there is enough space, our whole being can both apprehend the situation and be at ease.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Nurturing Concentration

Last Saturday I posted Thich Nhat Hahn's simple, encouraging instruction on mindful breathing--a first course.

Here's the second course--a simple addition that nurtures our capacity to bring our minds 'home.' It's the kind of practice that we can do for 3 minutes sitting in front of a computer, stuck in traffic, sitting in the driveway, just before going to sleep--or perhaps longer during spiritually formative times that we set aside every morning or evening.

The payoff is that this increasing capacity to bring our minds home allows us to sustain our attention on...well, on anything. Listening to what somebody's saying, thinking through a problem, savoring time with children or grandchildren. Even something as simple as appreciating tonight's conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.

The instruction is easy--though remembering to do it can be a little dicey! Good luck.


The second exercise is that while you breathe in, you follow your in-breath from the beginning to the end. If your in-breath lasts three or four seconds, then your mindfulness also lasts three or four seconds. Breathing in, I follow my in-breath all the way through. Breathing out, I follow my out-breath all the way through. From the beginning of my out-breath to the end of my out-breath, my mind is alwayswith it. Therefore, mindfulness becomes uninterrupted, and the quality of your concentration is improved.

So the second exercise is to follow your in-breath and your out-breath all the way through. Whether they are short or long, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that you follow your in-breath from the beginning to the end. Your awareness is sustained. There is no interruption. Suppose you are breathing in, and then you think, “Oh, I forgot to turn off the light in my room.” There is an interruption. Just gently return to your in-breath all the way through. Then you cultivate your mindfulness and your concentration. You become your in-breath. You become your out-breath. If you continue like that, your breathing will naturally become deeper and slower, more harmonious and peaceful. You don’t have to make any effort—it happens naturally.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

God's Other Bible

Consider, one more time, these quotes I’ve recently posted:

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.

-R. S. Thomas

"Without a mythological context,
sacred text, or some symbolic universe
to reveal the greater meaning
and significance of our life,
we can become trapped
in our own
very small story.”
- Richard Rohr 

To look at the Bible
as some kind of fixed and final
Word of God is
a canon firing
in the wrong direction. 
The Bible
is part of the movement
of God’s revelation,
which is continuous.”
- Curtis Almquist

Each of these quotes--in one way and another--is about moving on, staying open, getting the gist of allowing what ‘WE KNOW NOW’ to be fertilized by what WE MIGHT LEARN every day. To continue to be spiritually vital means we’re always on pilgrimage.

What joy there is in arriving on purpose at the sacred place we’ve set as our goal. And what deadness there is in mistaking that place for our final destination.

Our best stories—as well as our best science—are the ones that ring truest. But when we try to keep them only as big as we can fathom, wrap our arms around those stories, mistake yesterday’s truths as final and unalterable, they always become small, confining, and eventually suffocating.

This lovely musical mash-up of passionate astrophysics is a powerful example of pilgrimage.  On pilgrimage we carry in our heads and hearts all that has ever rung truest—even as we keep purposefully moving along paths that will take us to places of fresh revelation.

As a Christian I’ll never ever plumb the depths of our Bible, our Word of God. There’s never been a week in my adult life that I’m not fed, challenged, inspired and/or humbled through reading, studying, contemplating, and trying to embody its wisdom. In every reading I try to listen to what the Spirit is saying to God's people.

And here Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye (God bless them!) are reading from what Thomas Aquinas calls God's other Bible--Creation. And they have given us another page of the sacred story, a humbling and exhilarating way to savor the great mystery of Being:

The cosmos
is also within us
We’re made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the Cosmos
to know Itself.
Across the sea of space
the stars are other suns-
we have traveled this way before,
and there is much to be learned.

What a journey! May we each continue to find our way.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Church of the Freed Flying Monkeys

Today in our morning meditation group, my friend Curtis Wood referenced a Richard Rohr quote:

 "Without a mythological context, sacred text, or some symbolic universe to reveal the greater meaning and significance of our life, we can become trapped in our own very small story.”

Yesterday my friend Jeanne Finan referenced this Curtis Almquist quote on Facebook:

“To look at the Bible as some kind of fixed and final Word of God is a canon firing in the wrong direction. The Bible is part of the movement of God’s revelation, which is continuous.”

Both these get at the pilgrimage and sanctuary thread I’ve been following for awhile. We’re losing our religion in the West. Often because it’s been too much like a canon pointing in the wrong direction—blasting us with ‘infallibility,’ ‘law,’ ‘certainty,’ and ‘judgment.’

It’s very wise to turn and walk (or run) out of range of destructive religious practices.

On the other hand, "Without a mythological context, sacred text, or some symbolic universe to reveal the greater meaning and significance of our life, we can become trapped in our own very small story.”

It’s the saddest thing, being trapped in a very small story.

I grew up with the Wizard of Oz. My earliest memories of television are sitting in the living room once a year transported into this magical, mythical, very BIG story.

When I got to the part where the flying monkeys were dispatched to capture Dorothy and friends, it scared the crap out of me. Gave me bad dreams.

But over the years I began to see how trapped the flying monkeys were themselves in the service of the Wicked Witch. And I clapped my hands when they were set free!

And then I worried about them. How were they going to live in the wild? Who would feed the freed flying monkeys? Wouldn’t they be cold without their little red jackets?

Over the years I’ve seen so many people set themselves free from harmful or sterile religion. A good many of those people seem never to have found meaning and significance in anything else.

There are big stories and sacred texts out there that feed and engage us in wise and essential ways. Sometimes we need to go looking for our own freed flying monkeys—make sure they're healthy, happy, suitably challenged and supported in their new lives. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mindfulness of Breathing

Good teachings are so very helpful. Inspiring and nourishing. 

For all our 'doing' we'll always need feeding. And though the practice itself leads to nourishment, most of us will also always need (and gain) strength from the strength of others. 

Here's simple, basic food from Thich Nhat Hahn. A 'first course' in a sacramental meal.

First Mindfulness Exercise: Mindful Breathing
The first exercise is very simple, but the power, the result, can be very great. The exercise is simply to identify the in-breath as in-breath and the out-breath as out-breath. When you breathe in, you know that this is your in-breath. When you breathe out, you are mindful that this is your out-breath.

Just recognize: this is an in-breath, this is an out-breath. Very simple, very easy. In order to recognize your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself. What is recognizing your in-breath is your mind, and the object of your mind—the object of your mindfulness—is the in-breath. Mindfulness is always mindful of something. When you drink your tea mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of drinking. When you walk mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of walking. And when you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing.

So the object of your mindfulness is your breath, and you just focus your attention on it. Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath. When you do that, the mental discourse will stop. You don’t think anymore. You don’t have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don’t think of the past anymore. You don’t think of the future. You don’t think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.

It gets even better. You can enjoy your in-breath. The practice can be pleasant, joyful. Someone who is dead cannot take any more in-breaths. But you are alive. You are breathing in, and while breathing in, you know that you are alive. The in-breath can be a celebration of the fact that you are alive, so it can be very joyful. When you are joyful and happy, you don’t feel that you have to make any effort at all. I am alive; I am breathing in. To be still alive is a miracle. The greatest of all miracles is to be alive, and when you breathe in, you touch that miracle. Therefore, your breathing can be a celebration of life.

An in-breath may take three, four, five seconds, it depends. That’s time to be alive, time to enjoy your breath. You don’t have to interfere with your breathing. If your in-breath is short, allow it to be short. If your out-breath is long, let it be long. Don’t try to force it. The practice is simple recognition of the in-breath and the out-breath. That is good enough. It will have a powerful effect.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Something We Can Do

What I mostly want to communicate in this ordinary mindfulness blog is that Presence, this something we need so deeply and benefit from so profoundly, is partly up to us.

Learning how to BE present is something we can DO.

Being present is a description of mindfulness. There's a simple method to mindfulness--show up, breathe, observe, embrace.

All these simple actions--the showing up, the breathing, the watching, the welcoming describe 'us' becoming 'present.' But it doesn't stop there.

In our ordinary practice we enter some place--some altered space--rather regularly. Often something else happens. Some ONE or some THING becomes...palpable.  We work. We Watch. We Welcome. We wait (without expectation!) And then?

As Rumi wrote,

Keep knocking, 
and the joy inside 
will eventually 
open a window 
and look out 
to see 
WHO's there!

That THING, that ONE who's there, is the very Presence we prepare for and often experience...but never summon or control.

Mindful practices slow us down, center us, make us receptive. Practice cleans the windows. Maybe even opens them.

That's our part. It's something we can do. It's enough.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

9 Breaths

A wonderful way to re-boot and refresh is to take a minute here and there during the day to breathe purposefully. In other words, take time when you really need it to relax on purpose

Before you start 'officially,' place your hands on your stomach and take a few deep breaths. Notice your stomach rise and fall. If the 'rise and fall' isn't easy to notice, breathe a little deeper. 


9 Breaths

As you inhale during the first three breaths, imagine your breath traveling to any physical tension you are holding in your body, and then imagine the exhalation carrying this tension away.

As you inhale with the next three breaths, imagine the breath traveling to any place in your body where you feel you are holding emotional tension, and then imagine the exhalation carrying this tension out of your body.

During the last three breaths, inhale into the part of your body where you are holding mental tension such as worries, thoughts about what you are doing, or fears that you can’t be successful. Breathe into the place in your body where you are holding this mental tension and then release it with the exhalation.

(If you're new to this kind of mindful breathing, for a week or two simply take the nine breaths with your hands on your stomach keeping as much attention as you can on what your breath feels like as it comes in your nose and as it moves your hands. When this begins to feel familiar, begin to work with the next three steps.)

--Tsultrim Allione (Joan Ewing). Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Seventh Cathedral

When I was a student at Furman I went on a pilgrimage without knowing it. Instead of a pilgrimage it was called a semester abroad. For us English majors this meant going to Britain. Our first three weeks, before settling into studies in London and Stratford, we zigzagged through Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England.

We zigged for a lot of cathedrals. By the time we were in Durham (Cathedral #7) I was pretty sure I never wanted to see another one. But it was cloudy and drizzly that day so I meandered rather aimlessly around a cathedral once more. I lit a candle. Looked up at arches and the vaulted ceiling a lot.

For awhile the organist was practicing--I paid some small attention to that. Watched little clots of people walking purposefully from one place to another. Stood before the altar rail. There was a sign that asked visitors not to go any farther.

All the while I'm mostly thinking, What's the big deal? Then I looked down.

There were grooves in the stones in front of the rail. Suddenly I got that kind of feeling that comes with goose bumps and catches your breath. It hit me that people's knees had made those grooves in the stones. How many knees over how many years does it take to make deep grooves in stone?  Without thinking I sank down, put my knees in those groves.

I had 'lost' God 3 or so years before--and had been rather earnestly seeking a reasonable substitute ever since. It didn't seem to me that I was finding God in that moment. What was palpable was a sense of being in the presence of tides and tides of people who were was also seekers--seekers and finders, pilgrims and wanderers.

God, it was a rich experience. And a significant stepping (kneeling) stone in my own 'pilgrimage.'

I wasn't able to look up and get any clues about God, but looking down at those grooved stones, letting my knees rest in those hollowed-out marks, I entered Presence. Didn't understand it at all--but that didn't keep me from experiencing it.

Seeing those knee prints was like seeing signs of a trail after being lost, deeply lost, in a forest for a long time. Though I had been seeking Presence in a meandering way for 3 years, it's not accurate to say I found it. But it is accurate to say I entered it.

In the vocabulary of yesterday's prayer those knee prints gave me confidence--not a lot, but enough for doors to open. Generations and generations had been seeking and finding for centuries. For a powerful moment I came to trust that the same was possible for me.

"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."

That sign? The sign that said not to go any farther--on a certain level, I completely ignored it. Those kneeling stones became stepping stones, and I'm pretty sure that's all we ever need.

This blog is about paying attention to knee prints. Learning to trust that the grooves we and others make in bringing ourselves over and over again into the possibility of presence, keep us, all of us, right there, right  here in the possibility of Presence.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Re-Thinking Pilgrimage

There's a wonderful old prayer, formatted below as a poem:

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

If you haven't already, take an unhurried moment to read, to move with these words at a pace where you neither get ahead of them or fall behind. 

If you find words like 'saved' or 'might' or even 'God' unhelpful do your best to find words that work within your own sense of spiritual aptness. 

What else might you change to make this prayer a prayer that describes what takes you into Presence? 

I can imagine God might want to make changes too (though we can never be sure what changes those might be)!

Still, as I wrote at the beginning, I experience this as a wonderful prayer. Almost every time I pray it, it functions for me like an incantation--like Gandalf chanting "Speak Friend And Open," at the Gates of Moria. If I slow down and move with these words, literally at the pace of comprehension, doors open, and I am present for Presence.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, lots of people used to invest lots of time and effort in order to come into Presence (as well as to be 'saved;' but that's another matter). People made pilgrimages to holy places. 'Holy Place' is how'Sanctuary' translates. The 'thing' that 'sanctifies' a 'place' is 'Presence.' 

Yesterday's quote from R. S. Thomas's poem was

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. 

We live at a time when people are becoming pilgrims to holy places in their own spirits. This doesn't mean we don't also find Presence in traditional sacred places. It's a both/and thing for many of us. Though for some, for one reason and another, it's often necessary to make new paths.  

Both the old and new pilgrim paths move people toward Presence. And both take people into community and adventure. And both require effort. 

But neither guarantees Presence. Though it's very rare when Presence is not experienced on the way to and within the holy places of pilgrimage. 

Just slowing down and 'entering' the prayer at the beginning of this post is a kind of pilgrimage. The 'returning' describes a path we take and take and take. No guarantee of Presence. And yet....

And is on journeys like this, short or long, where we find the quieting and the stilling and the knowing that something in us has always longed for. 

More (God willing) on presence and Presence) tomorrow.

Monday, March 5, 2012



I watched this scene with Ruth when she was a child more times than I can count. As melodramatic as it is, it often touched some place deep in me, invited a recognition of something longed for and valued.

We all have parts of our selves that need to be rescued. We all need to find a safe place where we, like Quasimodo, can claim "Sanctuary!" for ourselves and those we care about. Claim it and actually receive it.

I've blogged about R. S. Thomas's poem, The Moon In Lleyn, several times. We hear someone praying in a  old stone church on the coast of Wales. Nobody comes to church that day. The person praying is discouraged--sees the demise of 'church' across the land.

Then another voice says...

    Not so fast, mortal...
      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. 

For centuries people could claim Sanctuary in cathedrals and churches quite literally. They could receive 'due process' of law that otherwise would not have been granted. For many centuries after that a majority of people found spiritual sanctuary in cathedrals and churches. 

Many churches and shrines and cathedrals had such promise, such presence, that people made time, invested great effort, to go there, to be there. Taking this kind of time and making this kind of effort was called pilgrimage

Most people don't make pilgrimages to churches these days. Fewer and fewer people are finding sanctuary in churches these days.

I could write a lot about why this is--and I can say a lot about how many churches, including my own, aren't moaning about what we've lost but instead opening our heads and hearts to what new generations of seekers are longing for. 

I find R. S. Thomas's words, 'people are becoming pilgrims again, if not to this place, then to the recreation of it in their own spirits,' healthy and wise and very functional. 

I hope to follow this thread over the course of the week, exploring how contemplative practices are a new way for us to become pilgrims again, if not to the old places, then to the recreation of them in our own spirits.