Thursday, August 30, 2012

Self-Help for Skeptics

Here's an article about "Self-Compassion" that I read yesterday (in the Wall Street Journal!). It was titled Self-Help for Sketptics. I'm really happy to see more and more people waking up to the benefits of intentional healthy practices.

And just think, if practices like the ones suggested below--ones that just barely scratch the surface of our 'souls'--can be helpful, how much richer can integrative practices of mind-body-spirit be?

Buddhist monks, Sufi masters, Jewish and Christian mystics have been diving deep, deep beneath the surface for millenia, and their 'research' is becoming more and more widely available. AND more accessible. We don't have to be 'monkish' to get way beneath the surface ourselves. I named this blog Ordinary Mindfulness for that very reason.

My take is that people who practice meditation or contemplative prayer for 6 months or so usually 'know' more about the deep benefits of self-compassion than the researches who are (thank God) getting so stoked about the kind of results the following article highlights.

Anyway, I'm really grateful for the growing convergence between our current scientific research and the richest mindfulness practices of our ancient traditions.

In times of stress, even people with close social networks can feel utterly alone. We're often advised to "buck up," "talk to someone" (who is often paid to listen) or take a pill. Wouldn't it also make sense to learn ways to comfort and be supportive of ourselves?

Think of it as becoming our own best friend, or our own personal coach, ready with the kind of encouragement and tough love that works best for us. After all, who else knows us better than ourselves? If that sounds crazy, bear in mind it sure beats turning to chocolate, alcohol or your Pekingese for support. (Personally, I find pets to be remarkably supportive -MH)

Experts say that to feel better you need to treat yourself kindly—this is called "self-compassion"—and focus on the positive, by being optimistic. Research shows self-compassionate people cope better with everything from a major relationship breakup to the loss of their car keys. They don't compound their misery by beating themselves up over every unfortunate accident or mistake. Car broke down? Sure, it's a drag, but it doesn't make you an idiot.

"They are treating themselves like a kind friend," says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. "When bad things happen to a friend, you wouldn't yell at him."

In 15 studies conducted over the past seven years, Dr. Leary has found that self-compassionate people are happier. Three of the studies, soon to be published, examine how self-compassion affects people over age 65. The studies found that people who accepted memory lapses, arthritis and other difficulties of getting older, and who treated themselves extra nicely on tough days, reported more positive emotions and were coping better with the aging process.

Self-compassion helps people overcome life's little, and not-so-little, stressors, such as public speaking. In another study, Dr. Leary asked people to stand in front of a videocamera and make up a story starting with the phrase, "Once there was a little bear…" Then he asked them to critique their performance, captured on videotape.

People whom the study had identified as being high in self-compassion admitted they looked silly, recognized the task wasn't easy and joked about it. People low in self-compassion gave harsh self-criticism.

Experts say you can learn self-compassion in real time. You can train your brain to focus on the positive—even if you're wired to see the glass as half empty. A person's perspective, or outlook, is influenced by factors including genetic makeup (is he prone to depression?), experiences (what happened to him?) and "cognitive bias" (how does he interpret his experiences?). We can't change our genes or our experiences, but experts say we can change the way we interpret what has happened in the past.

Everyone has an optimistic and a pessimistic circuit in their brain, says Elaine Fox, visiting research professor at the University of Oxford, England, and director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex. Fear, rooted in the amygdala, helps us identify and respond to threats and is at the root of pessimism. Optimism, in contrast, is rooted in the nucleus accumbens, the brain's pleasure center, which responds to food, sex and other healthy, good things in life.

"The most resilient people experience a wide range of emotions, both negative and positive," says Dr. Fox, author of "Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain." To enjoy life and feel good, people need roughly four positive emotions to counteract the effect of one negative emotion, she says.

It's possible to change your cognitive bias by training the brain to focus more on the positive than on the negative….

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Make Yourself Smarter?

I find myself adding psychology and biology to my spiritual reading list these days--and really appreciating it. When we know the truth it sets us free.

Not that our science is forever settled; it surely keeps morphing. But that's one reason I'm so glad to be getting updated: SO much has changed since I was in school.

For a long while I've experienced profound overlap between science (hard and soft) and spirituality. To make sense of things, we have to process stuff honestly and reasonably accurately. Knowing how thinking and feeling (how we) work is liberating. And challenging. And often disorienting.

Yet (alleluia) reorienting is a wonderfully apt way of picturing what repentance actually is: it's a kind of 'turning, turning' like in the Quaker song, 'til we come round right.'

Repentance, understood primarily as cringing, or even apologizing to God, is not very helpful. Repentance can be much more like simply keeping ourselves oriented in the direction the best, the wisest parts of us 'just know' we want to go.

So, here's a passage from James Pennebaker's book, Opening Up: the Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. If you've been exploring mindful practices, his research may make you smile--may be like one more stack of stones on the road marking the Way.

His main theme is how surprising and promising it is that people who are able to make sense of their lives by journaling, talking with friends, working with therapists--or even confessing to a priest!--keeps them physically healthier. People who make an effort to witness their lives and open up about what they see are sick less often.

This is a longer blog than usual--and offers at best a tiny taste of the book. If you don't have time today, come back when you do. And if it rings true, add another stone to the stack beside the road along the Way.

Freud…discussed a number of defense mechanisms that individuals employ to protect themselves from overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Many defense mechanisms, such as denial, suppression, and obsessions, are akin to low-level thinking strategies. More recently, scientists have attempted to identify how thinking patterns affect problem solving in general.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer began a compelling project that sought to understand when people became “mindless” versus “mindful” in their everyday thinking. When people are mindless, they are rigid in their thinking and cannot appreciate novel approaches to problems. When mindful, people are active problem solvers, looking at the world from a variety of perspectives. According to Langer, all of us can be mindful at one time and mindless at others.

Being mindless, a state similar to low-level thinking, has some major drawbacks. All of us can be lulled into mindless thinking in a variety of ways: living completely predictable lives, letting others do our thinking for us, watching television, and being in uncontrollable settings where we think that nothing we do can make a difference.

When we are mindless or thinking on a low level, we don’t feel much pain, nor do we feel much happiness. We don’t feel much at all.

…In a mindless state, people are not motivated to talk with others, develop new interests, or learn new things. Across several studies, we know that when people are mindless, they perform more poorly on tests of creativity and complex thinking. Mindless people are also far more likely to be persuaded by con artists, television advertisements, and political speeches. In a very real sense, mindlessness makes us stupid.

Mindfulness makes us smarter. Low-level thinking and mindlessness reflect thinking styles that can protect us from feeling and thinking. If our lives are miserable, any escape can sometimes be welcome. Most of the examples that I have mentioned suggest that low-level thinking reflects an automatic way of dealing with upsetting experiences. Usually, people move to lower thinking levels without any conscious awareness. 

Americans have turned to jogging, racquet sports, weight lifting, and exercise groups like no other people in the world. Part of the exercise craze reflects a general concern with physical health. I suspect it also provides an efficient way to get stupid, that is, move to a lower level of thinking (though exercise can also be a healthy practice).

Mindlessness, compulsive and addictive behaviors, and other forms of low-level thinking dull our pain by making us less thoughtful and aware. In short, low-level thinking usually serves as a mental Band-Aid to chronic psychological anxieties.

…Psychologically confronting upsetting experiences produces long-term benefits in psychological and physical health. Study after study points to the value of confronting unwanted thoughts directly.
…Confronting our unwanted thoughts can be painful and anxiety producing. Fortunately, the pain is usually temporary. Confronting the source of our problems undermines the need for low-level thinking. In short, acknowledging and disclosing our thoughts and feelings can make us smart again.


A note from the blogger: Social Psychologists are usually better at studying data than outlining wise spiritual paths! Working mindfully, contemplatively, is rarely about "Confronting problems." It's always more about welcoming them, letting them be what they are, holding them with kind attention and keen awareness--and then taking action--choosing to do something or simply choosing to let something go.

"Letting go and letting God" is more our style--and letting go and letting God is always richer when we bring our 'best game' -- our 'high level awareness' into the mix. When we 'see more clearly' and 'love more dearly' it's SO much easier to 'follow more nearly.' 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

An Empty Bucket

Today I'm working with the first sentence of the poem in yesterday's post:

To move

I don't have much of a grasp on that. I usually blog what already makes sense to me, what has been explored, what is known. And this is what I 'know' today--that it's really been helpful to me to explore what I don't know--the stuff that somehow rings true or at least comes from somebody who's life (or poetry) rings true.

So I'm just going to carry

To move

into the day. Like a bucket. Or maybe a prayer: God, what does it mean to move cleanly? Michael, what is the world around you saying about what it means to move cleanly?

Wisdom calls from the crossroads. And from the tingly little feelings at the top of the chest when we're curious and baffled at the same time.

The first three definitions in my dictionary say about clean:

  1. Free from dirt
  2. Having been washed since last worn
  3. (of paper) Not yet marked by writing or drawing.

Hmmmmmm. Little something already in the bucket.

I friend I trust says that 'moving cleanly' has something to do with being open and honest, a certain 'freshness.' Being somehow strong and gentle at the same time.

So nice to talk about meaningful stuff with a wise friend.

How nice to wake up with 'nothing' in our bucket and already have such interesting 'gifts' just plopped right in.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Below is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. It was our lectio reading in the Monday Mindfulness Group earlier this morning. 

Just six sentences in the poem. A person could take the first today, the next tomorrow, etc., and be finished in time for a day of rest on Sunday. 

I'm often reminding myself (and anybody else who'll listen) that inspiration, as wonderful as it is, is just the beginning--like hearing about a great new restaurant from a friend and making reservations--because it just sounded like such a great place. 

It's the 2 or 3 hours we spend in the restaurant that really count. 

Ms. Nye sets a good table. Bon appetit. 

Naomi Shihab Nye

To move

Needing to be
Nowhere else.

Wanting nothing
From any store.

To lift something
You already had
And set it down in
A new place.

Awakened eye
Seeing freshly.

What does that do to
The old blood moving through
Its channels?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Anxiety and Compassion

As a follow up to yesterday's post about pairing anxiety with kindness, I'm re-posting an earlier reflection (below). In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes, "Blessed are the sense-makers!" He says this because research has shown that people who are able to 'make sense' of their lives, particularly who are able to integrate trauma and adversity, are happier than those who are not able to make sense of their lives. He notes that in various experiments, religious people, in general, test “happier” than non-religious people--more than likely because religious people have major paradigms for making sense of life. 

James Pennebaker, in his book, Opening Up, tells us that people who journal (or dialogue with trusted friends) openly about traumas are healthier than people who don't--at least they don't go to doctors or hospitals as often. 

It makes sense to 'make sense' of our lives. Mindful practices help by allowing us to see more and more precisely what’s really going on with us and in us. Contemplative practices in all spiritual traditions are full of wise, time-tested counsel for becoming whole.

God bless us—and keep us on paths of sense-making.

Anxiety as the Abuse of Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Healing Ourselves With Kindness

Yesterday morning I was reading in Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart this Barbara Kingsolver quote from High Tide in Tucson:

"Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life: a frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, a loss of a job or a limb or a loved one, a graduation, bringing a new baby home: it's impossible to think at first how this all will be possible. Eventually, what moves it all forward is the subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living.

"In my own worst seasons I've come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again."

Kingsolver frames this bit of wisdom as a coming back from our 'worst seasons'--and our worst seasons DO seem to almost compel us to do SOMETHING to buoy ourselves up, to redirect or maybe even 'save' ourselves. There is real potential grace in adversity.

Yet the grace of mindful practice invites us not to wait until life falls apart to 'teach ourselves joy, over and over again,' but to do it now. It's like Emily Dickinson's insight: Instead of going to heaven at last we're going all along.

I've blogged about anxiety in my family here. As I began to slow down and pay more attention to my life, I noticed that low grade anxiety is with me a lot--and it feels unhealthy, corrosive--like something I shouldn't just 'let be.' It feels like something that should be let go, transformed, healed.

Ah, but what a challenge this is. I think I 'caught' anxiety from Mom well before I learned to speak. It's pretty much hardwired in me. It doesn't 'switch off.' Though I often 'let it go' it never goes very far! At least not yet. However...

I can 'like a stroke victim training new parts of the brain...teach myself joy, over and over again.' For me, joy comes as grace--and grace comes with kindness.

Whenever anxiety begins to feel the least bit corrosive, I 'pair' the feeling of anxiety with a very intentional dose of kindness. Breathing in and out I focus on exactly how anxiety feels. Breathing in and out I bring (with heart, soul, and strength) kindness into the jangly static of anxiety.

You know, with every in-breath we bring oxygen into our bodies. With every out-breath, we move carbon dioxide out of our bodies. It's the hemoglobin in our blood that carries O2, energy we need to live, from our lungs to every cell in us and then returns from every cell carrying CO2 back into our lungs to be released through each out-breath into the air around us. It's the heme in our hemoglobin that makes this possible. Heme is just as happy escorting O2 'in' as it is escorting CO2 'out' (See Breathing Partners).

I'm trying to mimic Brother Heme more often--practicing being a steady little donkey carrying anxiety and kindness up and down, in and out, half a breath with one, half a breath with the other, over and over--calling upon a full heart to teach an old brain new tricks.

The practice, the habit, becomes more natural, steadier, a little more ingrained over time: neurons that fire together wire together. More and more 'I'm' not exactly remembering to work this way with anxiety, some other part of me, the faithful donkey part, just starts doing it. Bit by bit, heme by heme, I'm becoming more 'in love with life' by steadily pairing wholesome lovingkindness with corrosive anxiety.

Most of us can do this. We don't have to be depressed or anxious. Kindness plays well with all kinds of suffering. Imitate Brother Heme. Start rewiring some neurons.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Shadow Boxing (and The Welcoming Prayer)

"Shadow"  is the name Carl Jung gave to the part of our 'selves' that we've repressed. Our Shadow is not so much unconscious as it is unwelcome and ignored! When you hear somebody say, "The Devil made me do it!" (or anything like that) it's usually an attempt to gloss over the Shadow 'acting out.'

In contemplative practice the Welcoming Prayer is a wonderful tool for inviting this 'stuff' we've kept in the shadows to step into the light and be accepted and reintegrated into our lives. When something in us 'feels' unacceptable (embarrassing, strange, too strong, shocking, violent, vulgar, etc., etc.) there's a good chance it's a 'piece' of self that has been kicked down to the basement and is now attempting to 'out' itself. To out a part of your self, my self.

Richard Rohr says this about the Shadow:

Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has just been exposed. Watch for any overreactions or over-denials. When you notice them, notice also that the cock has just crowed (Mark 14:72)! The reason that a mature or saintly person can be so peaceful, so accepting of self and others, is that there is not much hidden shadow left. (There is always and forever a little more. No exceptions. Shadow work never stops.)

One of the great surprises of the two halves of life is that humans come to full consciousness precisely by shadowboxing, facing their own mistakes and failings. People who have had no inner struggles are invariably both superficial and uninteresting. We tend to endure them more than communicate with them, because they have little to communicate. Shadow work is almost another name for falling upward. Lady Julian of Norwich put it best of all: “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!” I am celebrating that mercy on the 50th anniversary of my first vows today (Aug 16). I have surely fallen many times and my only real recovery has come from God's unconditional acceptance and forgiveness—and from like-hearted friends, like you!


Here's The Welcoming Prayer. It's a lovely way to bring Shadow and Presence into our souls in the same moment. When you feel creatures from the Shadow stirring, instead of trying to stuff them back into the darkness, try something different--welcome them into the light of day--like this:

Gently become aware of your body and
your interior state. 

Welcome, welcome, welcome. 

I welcome everything that comes to me in this moment
because I know it is for my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions,
persons, situations and conditions. 

I let go of my desire for security.
I let go of my desire for approval.
I let go of my desire for control. 

I let go of my desire to change any
situation, condition,
person, or myself. 

I open to the 
love and presence of God
the healing action and grace within.

––– Mary Mrozowski 1925-1993
The creator and spiritual mother of the welcoming prayer practice

Monday, August 20, 2012

RAIN Dance

A helpful way of getting unstuck from Tar Baby--and an acronym for very earthy mindfulness work--is RAIN. It’s useful both as a challenging version of formal meditation and an on-the-hoof practice whenever we’re strongly hooked, stuck, frustrated, angry, melancholy, anxious, envious, puffed-up, etc., etc.

RAIN stands for: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-Identification. This is what our Monday Mindfulness group is working with this morning. This is tried and true--good basic stuff. Working with RAIN Practice effectively allows us to see what is 'true' in our lives--and what it not true. Knowing the truth is what continues to set us free.

What follows is re-posted from Sept 26 of last year.

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.

For a better understanding of RAIN work, read Jack Kornfield’s, The Wise Heart, p. 101 ff

Friday, August 17, 2012

Choosing Happiness

The Buddhists have a saying: "Speak and act from unwise thoughts, and sorrow will follow you as surely as the wheel follows the ox who draws the cart. Speak and act from wise thoughts and happiness will follow you as closely as your shadow, unshakable."

So, let's just do that, okay? Let's do the second part, choose the wise stuff and experience happiness as unshakable.

Well, I've been experimenting with this for awhile now and can say with some confidence, it takes a helluva lot of choosing--because I have a whole lot of unwise thoughts.

On the other hand, I've been able to notice that when I go with the flow of my usual thinking patterns 'sorrow,' or its cousins disappointment, confusion, frustration, regret, etc., etc., etc., keep coming like a whole parade of carts. And when I do make an effort to notice unwise thoughts, let 'em go and make room for something saner-wiser-healthier, the results make me a lot happier.

So it makes a whole lot of sense to me to keep working with this--because happiness is a wonderful thing.

Nothing is more helpful in this work than the 'Sacred Pause.' The Sacred Pause is a momentary time-out. Whatever it is we're thinking and about to do, we don't do it. Instead, we pause. Simple as that. We let go of the 'usual' in order make room for 'something-else'.

And in this moment of flexibility and openness, we bring a certain understandable bias for this 'something else' to be helpful, healthy, positive, wise.

Each time we enter one of these small moments of a sacred pause it's like coming to a fork in the road--or five forks in the road. Without the pause we almost always go our usual way--and wind up getting where we usually get. Pausing--and being open to a new direction--we wind up going somewhere else. Going the usual way we keep getting what we always got. Going a different way gets us something different.

In Proverbs, Wisdom calls aloud from crossroads. Taking a moment to listen is transformational. Just like in the Buddhist saying above--Speak and act from wise thoughts and happiness will follow you as closely as your shadow, unshakable.

Add one Sacred Pause today. Several tomorrow. More next week. Notice new forks in the road. Trust that Wisdom will speak. Wait for Wisdom to speak. Choose a few new ways--just for the fun of it. Learn from 'mistakes,' give yourself a pat on the back for being curious, adventurous.


     Five roads diverged in a yellow wood,
     and you? You paused and trusted and listened--
     and chose a new way.
     And that, sisters and brothers,
     will make a difference.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Working With Transitions

A friend sent me this short essay yesterday--written by Danaan Parry (The Essene Book of Days). It's kind of scary. It's also kind of wonderful. Like most wisdom writings, it won't do us much good to read it once--in fact it's way too dicey to read just once. You might not be in a place where this makes sense at all, but if you are, it may be one of those perfect bits of insight that will help re-calibrate your Life Compass in just the way it needs at this point in time! 

If that's true, read it a lot--work with it--until you consistently can 'just tell' you're navigating life in a way you recognize as your way.

Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging onto a trapeze bar swinging along for a few moments in my life, or hurtling across space in between trapeze bars. Most of the time, I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.

I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But, once in awhile, as I’m merrily or not so merrily swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it. It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me. In my heart of hearts, I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present, well-known bar and move on to the new one. Each time it happens to me, I hope (no, I pray) that I won’t have to grab the new one. But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and for some moment in time, I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of knowing I have always made it.

Each time I am afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But, I do it anyway. Perhaps this is the essence of what mystics call the faith experience. No guarantee, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives. And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It is called Transition. I have come to believe that it’s the only place that real change occurs. I mean real change, not the pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get pushed, I have noticed that, in our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing,” a “no-place” between places. Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real too. But the void in between? That’s just scary, confusing, disorienting “no-where” that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible. What a waste!

I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing and the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us. Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are incredibly rich places. They should be honored, even savored. Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out-of-control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate expansive moments of our lives. And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang out” in the transition zone between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word: Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.”

And fly we must.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Becoming Who We Are

Here's a recent reflection from Richard Rohr we used as our lectio in the Monday Mindfulness group. As usual, RR is interesting and helpful.

The greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally unsolvable. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.              
~ Carl Jung

Whether we find our True Self depends in large part on the moments of time we are each allotted, and the moments of freedom that we each receive and choose during that time. Life is indeed “momentous,” created by accumulated moments in which the deeper “I” is slowly revealed, if we are ready to see it. Holding our inner blueprint, which is a good description of our soul, and returning it humbly to the world and to God by love and service is indeed of ultimate concern.

Each thing and every person must act out its nature fully, at whatever cost. It is our life’s purpose, and the deepest meaning of “natural law.” We are here to give back fully and freely what was first given to us—but now writ personally—by us! It is probably the most courageous and free act we will ever perform—and it takes both halves of our life to do it fully! The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it.
--Richard Rohr

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Art of Letting Go

The following is from Richard Rohr (I'm often saying to myself, Thank you, God for Richard Rohr ;-))

"What does letting go on the practical level tell us? Letting go is different than denying or repressing. To let go of something is to admit it. You have to own it. Letting go is different than turning it against yourself; different than projecting it onto others. Letting go means that the denied, repressed, rejected parts of yourself, which are nonetheless true, are seen for what they are; but you refuse to turn them against yourself or against others. This is not denial or pretend, but actual transformation.

"The religious word for this letting go is forgiveness. You see the imperfect moment for what it is, and you hand it over to God. You refuse to let any negative storyline or self-serving agenda define your life. This is a very, very different way of living; it implies that you see your mistakes, your dark side, but you do not identify with either your superiority or your inferiority.

Forgiveness is of one piece. Those who give it can also receive it. Those who receive it can pass forgiveness on. You are a conduit, and your only job is not to stop the flow. What comes around will also go around. The art of letting go is really the secret of happiness and freedom."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Making Peace with Mystery

When we begin our spiritual journey we're usually given a map by somebody--and kind of we need one. We're shown something like "This is where we are and over here is where we're going."

But the longer we stay on this journey, open and honest, curious and discerning, the more we see that maps are not all that helpful. The thing we really need is a compass.

And, thanks be to God, we have one. A heart open to Presence is a compass, a good one--not perfect but good enough. Experience and Presence are always tuning, 'truing' the compass. And it's a good thing--because we never know exactly where we are, where we're going, or how to get there.

Many of us come to faith-spirituality-religion yearning for something like certainty. Ironically certainty to spiritual pilgrims is like kryptonite to Superman.

Gerald May's book, The Dark Night of the Soul, wisely explores this frustrating and wonderful reality. It was Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross who named this necessary and counter-intuitive reality The Dark Night of the Soul.  "Dark' here does not stand for bad or depressive--it simply stands for Mystery, for unknowing. To KNOW God doesn't mean we ever really understand God. Knowing God means we experience God, we have a relationship with Being Itself.

Coming to experience our Dark Night necessarily makes us queasy--and necessarily keeps us feeling disoriented. Yet it's not that we aren't allowed a map--it's that we come to understand there is no map, maps don't work. Abiding works. Trusting works. Following works. Again, not perfectly but delightfully adequately.

Making peace with Mystery is a basic calling, a necessary learning. The three paragraphs that follow are Gerald May's very helpful distillation of making peace with Mystery.

As far as I can tell, the dark night of the soul is endless. This is, for me, the most hopeful thing about it; the dark night is nothing other than our ongoing relationship with the Divine. As such, it must always remain mysterious, dark to our understanding and comprehension, illuminated only by brief moments of dawning light. And as such it never ends; it just keeps deepening, revealing more and more intimate layers of freedom for love.

As our dark nights deepen, we find ourselves recovering our love of mystery. When we were children, most of us were good friends with mystery. The world was full of it and we loved it. Then as we grew older, we slowly accepted the indoctrination that mystery exists to be solved. For many of us, mystery became an adversary; unknowing became a weakness. The contemplative spiritual life is an ongoing reversal of this adjustment. It is a slow and sometimes painful process of becoming "as little children" again, in which we first make friends with mystery and finally fall in love again with it. And in that love we find an ever increasing freedom to be who we really are in an identity that is continually emerging and never defined. We are freed to join the dance of life in fullness without having a clue about what the steps are.

The darkness, the holy unknowing that characterizes this freedom, is the opposite of confusion and ignorance. Confusion happens when mystery is an enemy and we feel we must solve it to master our destinies. And ignorance is not knowing that we do not know. In the liberation of the night, we are freed from having to figure things out, and we find delight in knowing that we do not know.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Food in the Desert

Here's a powerful story to consult when life gets rough.

Elijah the prophet has just learned that one of the most ruthless monarchs of all time, Queen Jezebel (you've probably heard that name before), has sworn to kill him. Elijah is literally undone. He journeys into the desert and sinks down in the meager shade of a lone broom tree and tells God he wants to die. Then sinks into a deep sleep.

Elijah is 'us' in our darkest moods--in those times when we feel threatened, confused and powerless, and the best response we know is unconsciousness--numb, dull-witted escape of one kind and another.

Yet it's right here in Elijah's most lifeless state that LIFE touches him. Literally. While he's sleeping an angel touches him--perhaps has to shake him to wake him up.

Then, when Elijah is conscious enough to hear a voice beyond his own listless depressive looping thinking, the angel, in 4 words, speaks the bleeping secret of life: "Get up and eat."

That gets his attention. Waked him up enough to do one thing--to look, to see what the angel was talking about. Was there really something to eat?

What do you know, there was! Flat bread, baked on a stone. A jug of water too.

Elijah is awake enough now to eat and drink. Though that's about it. He eats the bread, drinks the water, and lies back down to sleep. Apparently this is okay with the angel, who leaves and lets Elijah rest.

Yet the angel returns. Lays a hand on Elijah again. Wakes him up. Says the same thing--but this time adds a crucial bit of wisdom: "Get up and eat--otherwise the journey will be too much for you."

Sometimes it seems to me all the grace of God is encoded in the DNA of this story. Life can get overwhelming sometimes. On our own, in our default states, we're just not up to it. The best we can do is duck and cover.

Until we learn that's NOT the best we can do.

Somehow, as we are touched by Messengers of God, we get waked up, we shake off the dullness, realize our depletedness and our hunger and our thirst, and we find fresh bread and cool water in the desert.

The truth--it's rarely as plain to us as it is in this story of Elijah. Yet this story of food in the desert is just as true for us as it was for Elijah. As we 'open' to the hope, challenge, and beauty of the story--and as we learn to trust it and try it, its reliability proves itself over and over and over.

We get touched by angels and find our bread and water and our rest in many unexpected places and in many different ways. Yet at the center of the story and at the Center of every lone and precious soul we all share in the same offered grace. We just have to 'hear' it, 'trust' it, and 'do' it. We have to remember that it's always possible to lie down hopeless and rise up trusting.

"Get up and eat," says the Messenger of God. "Otherwise the journey will be too much for you."

God give us grace to remember.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Instructions for Living a Life

Mary Oliver writes:

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

These 7 words have potential to open hearts and resuscitate souls. Yet our tendency is to 'like' what Mary Oliver has written, to read it quickly, and move on.

Awareness practice will slow this process down--a lot--and teach us not only to like it but to stick with it till we metabolize it.

And as we metabolize it we also may come to understand that Something ELSE might be written and metabolized. Something about inviting others (with eyes and smile and body language and Presence) to do the same--to tell us what astonishes them.

And then to listen, listen, to practice listening, liking, savoring--and gentle prompting.

We could do a lot worse than go through a day, any day, THIS day:

Paying attention.
Being astonished.
Telling about it. 
And inviting others...
   to do the same.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Praying WITH Suffering

Wonderful counter-intuitive teaching from Richard Rohr:

I would like to offer you a form of prayer so you can practice letting go and practice what seems like losing but is actually finding.

“The Welcoming Prayer” encourages you to identify in your life, now or in the past, a hurt or an offense: someone who has done you wrong, or let you down.

Feel the pain of the offense the way you first felt it, or are feeling it in this moment, and feel the hurt in your body. (Why is this important? Because if you move it to your mind, you will go back to dualistic thinking and judgments: good guy/bad guy, win/lose, either/or.)

Feel the pain so you don’t create the win/lose scenario. Identify yourself with the suffering side of life; how much it hurt to hurt. How abandoned you felt to be abandoned.

Once you can move to that place and know how much it hurts to hurt, you would not possibly want that experience for anybody else.

This might take a few minutes. Welcome the experience and it can move you to the Great Compassion. Don’t fight it! Don’t split and blame! Welcome the grief and anger in all of its heaviness. Now it will become a great teacher.

If you can do this you will see that it is welcoming the pain, and letting go of all of your oppositional energy against suffering, that actually frees you from it! Who would have thought? It is our resistance to things as they are that causes most of our unhappiness—at least I know it is for me.