Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dropping Opinions. Finding Stories

One of my favorite quotes comes from St. Augustine. It was at a time just after Rome had been persecuting Christians. A lot of Christians had been laying low; some even lied about their faith. But one group, the Donatists, stayed 'true' and stayed visible and vocal (though if my memory's right, they lived a long way from Rome).

When the persecution was over and Christians were regrouping, the Donatists didn't want to 'receive back into the fold' those less courageous, less faithful than themselves.

Augustine, who was the preeminent voice of Western Christianity, sent word to the Donatists: "The heavens roll with the thunder of the glory of God--and here you sit in your small ponds and croak: 'We are the true Christians!'"

This speaks to me, sooner or later, every time I'm feeling especially right (and righteous). God has a lot of ways of being present and experienced in the world. Huffy and absolute certainty has never proved to be one of them for me.

Still, this kind of "We're right and righteous" thing, this strange conviction that our "we" is so much purer or better than someone else's "we" seems to be as prominent as ever these days.

Funny, Augustine himself, particularly as he got older, was often intolerant and dismissive of those who disagreed with him. He could see truth so clearly and write about it so powerfully. Yet he didn't seem to be able to live it much better than the people he so often tore into.

To be whole, each of us has to get a handle on this "I'm right" thing. We have to let go (and let go and let go) of 'right THINKING' and move into (and move into and move into) right BEING.

I posted something Tuesday about children being icons of this kind of healthiness  Not that children can't be stubborn and closed sometimes. Yet just being a kid means exploring life, taking chances, being open to new stuff every day. Open, expecting new discoveries every day.

The Buddha said that people who are certain of their own opinions are always roaming around the world annoying people. The antidote to this is something called "Don't Know Mind."

When Jesus sent his friends out to bring good news to folks who hadn't had much good news, he told his friends not to take much with them. His disciples went out almost completely empty handed and needy themselves. Jesus had put them in a place where they would always receive as much as they gave. He sent them out in a "Don't be superior" frame of mind.

Most of us in the West don't travel so lightly. We go out into the world richly provisioned with all kind of crap.

So, here's one practice to help us stop annoying people with our surplus opinions and go into the world carrying less crap. The next time we hear somebody say something 'wrong' -- lets let it go. The next time somebody says something that bothers us--something we have a strong urge to speak to, lets take a breath.

Let's let go of our opinions. Or at least try to. Really. Let's simply let more of our opinions go.

Instead of being corrective, why not be curious--curious about what happens when we invite conversation instead of conversion.

Curious about what we might voice instead of an opinion. Curious about what we might learn from somebody else. Something that starts from a DON'T KNOW MIND and moves into a WANT TO KNOW MIND.

The words "Tell me more," can do this. And "Tell me more" has a thousand variations.

To be alive is to grow. To grow is to change. To change is to be open to new stuff.

It's possible, even when the old energies rise up as strong as ever, it's possible to let go and grow. To choose to roam around the world NOT annoying people with our opinions. It's possible to do the very opposite: to roam around the world engaging people.

When we let go of our pet opinions, suddenly there's more 'room in here' for all kinds of other stories. And other people have so many stories that need telling.

And hearing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Kettle of Hawks

Last Thursday morningI was hiking--working on a sermon as usual. In last week's lesson Jesus was asking his friends to be like a child. The week before he was asking his friends to pick up a cross. I'd never paid enough attention to the closeness of these two stories.

Anyway, as I'm walking along in these glorious high mountains on a wonderful cool blue September day, this pair of images, cross and child, is stirring something up. I'm imagining Jesus walking along with his friends in real time between talking about a cross and lifting up a child.

You remember, when he talked about the cross, Peter got it all wrong and got scalded by Jesus' sharp response. Maybe Jesus has been considering how to give Peter a new way to see what it means to lay down a familiar life in order to pick up a fresh one.

The as-yet-cluelessness of Jesus's friends may have convinced him he needed another image of what life in God and life in the world can be.

Later that day at dinner, he picks up a child. Maybe he's thinking, Ah, here's the perfect icon. Somewhere here, between the lifting up of a cross and the growing up of a child, is how this all works.

As I'm hiking along, I'm looking at that child too. I'm looking back 55 years or so, remembering what it was like to be 5. Wow, what a lot of possibilities there are. I'm short--but I'm gonna grow. I can't read but I have no doubt that I'll learn. My brothers kick my butt at sports and everything else but I know at some point that will change. As children we just have a natural confidence in GROWING UP.

This came as a strong and helpful realization. I decided to quit working on the sermon and let it work on me for awhile.

I looked down and saw beautiful things growing--ground cedar, lichen, blueberry bushes. Then looked up. Wow!

3 hawks were maybe 70 feet up and to my right. Not sure I'd ever seen 3 hawks at the same time.

Wait! Not 3 but 7.


Oh my God, not 10, more! I looked back northeast, following the ridge line. Lots more--heading right at me.

I kept counting. 23, 37, 60.... Got to 92 and started noticing that as they got ahead of me, up nearer the crest of Black Balsam, they stopped flapping and started gliding.

Maybe soaring is a better word. Groups of them circling and rising, using updrafts of warmer air--thermals--to gain altitude, going higher and higher and higher and then aiming southwest again, wings extended, not flapping, just coasting on toward their destination. Coasting--at 40 mph or more.

I learned later that these hawks, Broadwinged Hawks, use the Appalachian ridgeline as their highway to their winter home in South America. They pass through our area around the last 2 weeks of September. Their rising up and circling is called kettling: apparently a long time ago it reminded somebody of how ingredients in soup rise up in a boiling kettle.

The last hawk finally flew by. I'm guessing the whole process didn't take much longer than 7 or 8 minutes. Counting with all the concentration I could muster, I got to 188. 188 hawks in 7 or 8 minutes.

As I walked on, my blood, my energy seemed to be rising up and soaring too. What a thrill to see something so beautiful, rare, and wonderful--and yet somehow also so usual and predictable--been going on years, centuries, maybe millennia. I just had never known about it or witnessed it.

Hiking on for 5 or 10 minutes I met a guy coming toward me. We both were grinning from ear to ear. Can't remember which of us asked first, "Did you see all those hawks!" We stopped and rather breathlessly did our best to name what it was we'd just seen and how amazing it was to have been there to witness it. We talked about birds, hawks, what we'd seen here before. Neither of us had a clue what kind of hawk this was. Both of us planned to go home and Google 'hawk migration in North Carolina!'

A little later he told me that the trail we were on was his family's favorite hike. That he was from Cincinnati--but had come to North Carolina alone this year. He said, "Actually, it's my father's favorite hike." Then he paused and seemed to be considering what to say next.

"We buried my father 2 weeks ago. Today, I'm hiking for him."

I nodded. Felt something rising up in me again. Not completely different from how I felt as a witness to the migration of Broadwinged Hawks. I surely felt blessed to be a witness of something special, important in this moment too. Couldn't help my eyes misting up. I smiled, looking for words.

"Well," I offered, "may the hike, this day, be all it can be."

He nodded, eyes bright, a little irony in his smile.

"Thank you."

Then he turned on his heel and strode off NE, the direction the hawks had come from.

And I went my way, looking down, looking up, looking deep, looking right in front of me all the while overflowing with a sense that life is full of possibility.

Almost back to the car I looked up again and saw one lone hawk. Smaller than the others; probably a teenager. Had to have been 30 minutes since his group had sailed on. He seemed to be laboring, flapping hard. But then he found a thermal. Up and up he spiraled. Up and up and up. Finally he pulled his wings in tight like a falcon and shot off southwest like an arrow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Resistance and the Growing Soul

I suspect everybody who reads this blog made a decision some time ago to grow as a human being. To be more alive this year than last year. To be a little wiser and kinder and happier next year than this year. I write about mindfulness because it's such a wonderful tool for the growing soul.

Ironically, perhaps what mindfulness does best (or at least first) is to show us where we're stuck--where we resist growth, where the old wine skins are no longer flexible. It shows us which bits of us are resisting the very growth we, in our deepest selves, want so badly.

The very first dilemma we face in being mindful is dealing with our resistance to being quiet, being still. Becoming still takes muscles our culture never taught us how to develop.

The word resistance comes from the Latin verb resistere. It means to stop and stay stopped. To resist an invading army, to stand unmovable, can be wise, courageous and hugely beneficial. But to resist the unfamiliar and the unpleasant and the difficult is just dumb. 

Dumb--and normal. 

And this very first challenge we take on, working against the habit of resisting being still and mindful, gives us skill and confidence to face Brother Resistance the thousand other places we meet him. 

And, thankfully, something wonderful and important happens when we gradually learn how to quiet our minds:

"...Your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still." --Ajahn Chah

It's a challenge, however, to realize that these "strange and wonderful things" Ajahn Chah speaks about often come as PUSHME-PULLYOUs: What we deeply desire we often strongly resist. As St. Paul says--the very thing I hate, I do; while the very thing I want to do, I resist.  

Sitting quietly we see lots of thoughts and feelings coming and going. Many of them petty, egocentric, nagging, and out of touch with our deeper values. We'll also see beauty. But first, we'll need to learn to be still enough to allow this steady stream of 'strange and wonderful things to come and go.'

It's amazing how helpful it can be as we learn to "let go and let God" to see in detail what's got hold of us--what's pushing and pulling us and squandering the soul's energy. 

It's just as amazing to realize that by learning to face and let go of resistance we are also building up the muscles it takes to hang in there, stay still, and tolerate all kinds of uncomfortable inner work--all kinds of strange and wonderful things. 

If you are somebody who experiences resistance to becoming still--take heart! Greet Brother Resistance expectantly. He comes to train us, to strengthen us, to nurture something that can keep our souls growing all our days. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mary vs. Martha

A Guest Post by Jane Coburn

I continue to be amazed by themes surfacing in my life.  I will read an article about a topic and then someone a few days later will make a comment about the same topic. A few days later while flipping channels on the television there’s someone discussing the same topic.  I know this is God and the Universe literally tapping me on the shoulder saying, “yoo hoo, Jane – pay attention , there’s a lesson here!”  Recently, while chatting with my mother about something completely unrelated to the Bible, she referenced the Bible story about the sisters Mary and Martha.  I had not heard, read, or thought about this story in several years.  A few days later at my monthly meditation group, my friend Michael talked about Mary and Martha... “yoo hoo Jane…”

I love the visual the Mary and Martha story conjures in my head, Martha running around trying to cook, clean, and serve her guests while Mary just sits and listens to Jesus.  Too often, I am Martha, over-doing, trying to please everyone and not experiencing the moment.  Like Martha, I’d then be resentful of having done all the work, but didn’t we choose this service instead of being in the moment with our guests?  I can picture Martha years later saying, “I can’t believe I had Jesus in my house and I ignored him to do the dishes!”

My Western, dualistic mind wants to side with Martha.  What is wrong with working hard and taking care of others?  Hard work and service should be rewarded.  I want to say, “What is Mary’s problem?  Why didn’t she get off her lazy butt and help poor Martha?”  I want to label one good and one bad, but the truth is they are both fine.  It is learning to balance our Mary and our Martha that is important.  There is a time for serving, for doing, for working hard.  There is a time to be silent, to listen, to contemplate, to breath.

The key is to be present enough to know when to be active or contemplative.  The present moment should be right at our finger tips and yet it eludes us most of the time. There is a saying, “The present is called the “present” because it is a gift”.  It seems cheesy and simplistic and I’ve rolled my eyes more than once when I’ve seen this posted on someone’s Facebook wall.  Yet, like all clich├ęs, it is true. 

Meditation is giving me this gift.  Too often, my mind is stuck in the past or the future.  Instead of being fully present, I am regretting something in the past or having anxiety about something that may not even come to fruition in my future.  Meditation is teaching me to be more present and it is a gift.  A gift I find myself wanting to share.

As a mother, I am always thinking five steps ahead or three behind.  Too many times, I’d be playing a board game with my kids while cooking dinner, checking my e-mail in between turns, thinking about our plans for the next day, and getting frustrated that my son is taking so long with his turn.  I was clearly not accepting the gift of the present moment.
Lately, I’ve heard my own voice inside my head saying, “Hey wake up and don’t miss this moment – BE PRESENT!”   Through meditation, I am finding my inner Mary.  The other day, my thirteen year old son and I were walking together and he grabbed my hand.  We walked for a good ten minutes holding hands.  He’s right on the cusp of puberty – my hand holding days with him are numbered.  At that moment, I consciously found my inner voice saying, “Enjoy this, be present.”  I took a deep breath and enjoyed it – felt the hand that is still a bit smaller than mine and poured my love into it, forgetting where I was going or what I needed to be doing.  I just enjoyed the warmth of his hand and the closeness of our bond and walked. 

This happened again with my other son yesterday. Austin and I were at a local amusement park and they have this pond filled with these insane carp and Japanese Koi fish who jump, dive,  and pile on top of each other to get to the tiny fish food pellets we throw into the water.  Austin could sit and watch these fish all day--his inner Mary is well nurtured.  I need to remember that when I am desperately trying to make him be Martha. 

As he fed the fish and his face lit up and his giggles poured out, I heard the voice again telling me to soak in this moment.  We bought a second bag of fish food – most fun I’ve ever had for a dollar!  I found myself present and filled with joy sharing these few moments with my son.  It is difficult to express in words how deeply these moments have imprinted on my soul.  These memories seem to come back to me more vividly than others, my mind accessing the feelings and sensations in a deeper way.

The present is a gift, but one not always easy to accept.  In fact, as I write this, I find myself wishing I could go back and be more present with my children when they were younger, regretting going through the motions at times out of exhaustion or boredom.  Why do our minds always want to take us back?  Why go there – it serves no purpose but to conjure up grief and guilt.

I hope that I will always have my inner Martha, she has served me well, but she needs a break. I feel Mary now, guiding her and giving her the gift of mindfulness and the joy of being present.  I hope she will continue to be open and accept Mary’s gift.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Relaxing in the Middle

In the three quotes below (lectio for the Monday Mindfulness group) we don't find a story,we find a 'way' of making sense of the stories our lives have 'told' so far. We may also find a way of living into fresher stories in the days ahead.

To use these quotes as lectio, read them slowly, pausing between each paragraph. After you've read all three, take a few minutes to reflect. Make a note of what few words speak to you.

Read the quotes again. Slowly. Let the words speak again. Discern what you're curious about, interested in, drawn to (or bothered by!).

Write about it for a few minutes--or 15 minutes if you have time.

Read over what you've written. Let this speak to you as well.

Then sit quietly for a few more minutes in prayer or meditation.


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

When we discover the middle path, we neither remove ourselves from the world nor get lost in it. We can be with all our experience in its complexity, with our own exact thoughts and feelings and drama. We learn to embrace tension, paradox, change. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, we let ourselves open and relax in the middle. In the middle we discover that the world is workable.    -Jack Kornfield

Of course, we can always imagine more perfect conditions, how it should be ideally, how everyone else should behave. But it’s not our task to create an ideal. It’s our task to see how it is, and to learn from the world as it is. For the awakening of the heart, conditions are always good enough.        -Ajahn Sumedo

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What's In the Temple

What's In The Temple?

In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.
The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.
If she stands still it will catch up with her.
Pause with us here a while.
Put your ear to the wall of your heart.
Listen for the whisper of knowing there.
Love will touch you if you are very still.

If I say the word God, people run away.
They've been frightened--sat on 'till the spirit cried "uncle."
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can't name.
They know he's out there looking for them, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.

I can't talk about God and make any sense,
And I can't not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God.
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur,
And sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
You see there the consequences of carelessness,
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.

We don't build many temples anymore.
Maybe we learned that the sacred can't be contained.
Or maybe it can't be sustained inside a building.
Buildings crumble.
It's the spirit that lives on.

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?

Go there now.

~ Tom Barrett ~ 
(Keeping in Touch)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Path of a Bodhisattva

Below is the lectio divina our mindfulness group used this morning. It's from Jack Kornfield's The Wise heart; it's about the path of a Bodhisattva.

Bodhisattva is the Buddhist term for somebody who, believing in reincarnation, vows to keep coming back to earth again and again, as long as it takes, until all living beings become free.

Even for us 'God people' in the West--though most of us don't believe in literal reincarnation--the love and commitment of a bodhisattva is a lovely and powerful embodiment of what committing to compassion looks like.

Also, for those of us who are 'God people,' I don't think is much of a stretch to think of God as a bodisattva, too. Not leaving us as orphans, but loving us, living with us and in us for as long it takes for the commonweal of God to become the common reality of everything that lives and breathes on Earth.

I find the Buddhist understanding of the path of a bodisattva helpful--and very bracing. Something about it wakes me up--shows me the Jesus Way freshly, reminding me again what it is and what it takes to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.


May I be a guard for those who need protection
A guide for those on the path
A boat, a raft, a bridge for those who wish to cross the flood
May I be a lamp in the darkness
A resting place for the weary
A healing medicine for all who are sick
A vase of plenty, a tree of miracles
And for the boundless multitudes of living beings
May I bring sustenance and awakening
Enduring like the earth and sky
Until all beings are freed from sorrow
And all are awakened.


Following the bodhisattva way…is based on the truth that we can transform our own circumstances into a life of inner and outer service. To do this without being overwhelmed, the bodhisattva creates a life of balance.

This is eminently practical. If we want to act wisely in the world, the first step is to learn to quiet the mind. Only when our own minds and hearts are peaceful can we expect peace to come through the actions we take.

The quieting of our mind is a political act. The world does not need more oil or energy or food. It needs less greed, less hatred, less ignorance…. Through meditation and inner transformation, we can learn to make our own hearts a place of peace and integrity. Each of us knows how to do this.

There is no separation between inner and outer, self and other. Tending ourselves we tend the world. Tending the world we tend ourselves.

Therapists talk about how clients eventually become sick of listening to themselves, which is actually a good sign. It means we are moving beyond the identification with our personal suffering. We are ready to care for a world larger than our own.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Trusting Our Sacred Pause

Cultivating the habit of slowing down, arresting our forward movement for a moment in order to recollect ourselves, is called Sacred for a reason. Sacred means set apart, permeable to that which is More. A sacred place is 'some' Where where this happens--more often than not.

A lot of us love sacred places and go to them when we can. There's a certain 'feel' about them--whether they're cathedrals, forests, standing stones, mountains, canyons or quiet park benches. Sacred places 'give' us something. They 'add' something to our lives--which we find so very welcome amid the work and worry of lives that so often seem to be subtracting lots of somethings.  

In this Wendell Berry poem (What We Need Is Here) we can perhaps sense, deeply, the inherent sacredness of Life--something always available, always possible, always potentially sustaining.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

It's come as a shock to discover I don't have to go anywhere to go to a sacred place. 'What we need is here.' 

This doesn't mean I plan to stop taking retreats and making pilgrimages--heaven forbid! It just means that life, in a strange and wonderful way, can be just as rich in our ordinary 'here' as in any extraordinary 'there'. 

By cultivating a habit of the Sacred Pause over time, we prove to ourselves this is so. When we stop our usual down-pat ways of 'doing' life and start making room for ROOM--open, patient, playful, curious, kind--we get reoriented over and over to what matters most to us. This begins to happen so consistently that we can't help but trust the process more and more and more. 

Instead of being convinced that what we need is 'there' we move more and more into realizing what we need is 'here'--our here, not somebody else's. 

Practice builds trust. Trust sustains practice--a gracious spiral into sacred space.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pausing for the Possible

I got baptized into the vast potential of the Sacred Pause when my daughter was 16 and I realized (painfully) that a lot of my ways of 'guiding' her were the opposite of helpful. I had just started reading Pema Chodron's   When Things Fall Apart (what a coincidence, huh?). Her bit about pausing--making space to stop whatever it is we're about to do and then doing something, anything, else but what we usually do--seemed like something I should try. So every time I would be about to give Ruth advice or correction I'd pause and do something else.

Mainly I'd do nothing.

Amazing how hard it can be to do nothing. To just be there with that great force of momentum pushing you to do what you usually do.

Over time what gets born in the Nothing is a deep sense of the Possible. Instead of the one great Usual we begin to notice many branching Possibles.

One of the most amazing Possibles is simply listening. At first 'just' listening and not responding can feel like you're doing nothing, but true listening is a huge Something. Usually when we're listening we're planning (plotting) our next move, our next response. But listening, it seems, works a whole lot better when our first intention is to actually make room for and understand what a person is trying to say.

Amazing how powerful this kind of listening can be. Rachel Remen says that when we practice generous listening sometimes people hear a truth IN themselves for the first time.

And 'listening' is just one of the things that is possible when we enter wholeheartedly into a Sacred Pause.

If you aren't familiar with the Sacred Pause perhaps it would be worth your while to give it a shot. Try it in the little ways 'Something' in you suggests. See what happens--in traffic, conversation, grocery stores, desk work, committee meetings, meals, etc., etc.

When the usual becomes the possible and the stale becomes the fresh...the old world where you've been touching it can become astoundingly new.

Go ahead: don't just stand there...Pause ;-)