Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pema and Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And to stay awhile. 

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

Monday, October 29, 2012

Resolving To Give Up Resolving

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Nature and Self

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

Nature and Self

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

   Go to the Limits of Your Longing

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Book of Hours, I 59

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thin Places

Many of us have found a lot of joy in the Celtic tradition of 'Thin Places.' A Thin Place is some 'where' where a person feels like he or she is standing in a place where heaven and earth almost touch.

I remember my semester abroad in college standing in Durham Cathedral in England--impressed by its beauty and massiveness, by the years and years it took to build. But I didn't sense any special sacredness. And I regretted that. It had been a long time since I had been moved by (or into) the sacred.

At the time of this musing I was standing at the altar rail. I happened to look down. The place for kneeling on my side of the rail was plain stone--instead of stone covered by lovely hand-stitched cushions.

Then, out of the blue, I was overwhelmed with a strange and powerful sensation. Looking down I'd just noticed that all across this 30 or 40 feet of hand-hewn stone there were knee prints--cupped depressions made by eight centuries of human knees sinking, resting, waiting before the altar.

It's hard to articulate--or even know--exactly why I was affected, why so moved simply by noticing knee-prints. It must have had something to do with sensing a kinship with that long procession of people I'd never met--and never would. And I guess that just by wishing I could feel the specialness of the cathedral I had become a pilgrim too. I was getting some sort of pervasive intuition that Life, a Meaningful Life, is always like a pilgrimage.

I sank down and let my knees rest exactly where those other knees had rested. And in that moment, I was down the rabbit hole--or out the back of the wardrobe: Sacredness became stunningly palpable--in the cathedral and in me. I was in a thin place.

Earlier this year, Eric Weiner, travel writer for the New York Times was even writing ths about Thin Places:

"I’m drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again. It turns out these destinations have a name: thin places."

Unfortunately, getting to a thin place can be very expensive. I just went on Kayak and the cheapest roundtrip flight from Atlanta to London is $948--that's if you fly out and return on a Thursday. Travel near a holiday and it's a lot more.

Happily, we really don't have to go anywhere to get to thin places; we move through thin places every day. We're just moving so fast and have developed such thick human hides that we rarely sense the thin places we pass.

Instead of buying roundtrip tickets to London, Dublin, or Kiev, we could simply invest in Permeability. We can learn how to open, become permeable to sacred moments and places we move through every day. Instead of passing by them, we can through them, we can invite them to move through us as well. When we're open like this, we're being spiritually permeable. 

The word Permeable comes from two Latin words that simply mean to pass through

Pretend for a minute to be Mary Oliver: what do you do when you see a robin's egg? 

Imagine your favorite grandparent: what does or did he or she do upon seeing you? 

Do that. 

When you notice something that flickers with even a hint of something that attracts your soul, slow down--it doesn't have to be more than 30 seconds. Notice that flickering and the tiny beginning of a smile on you and in you. 

Give in to it, go with it. It wants to get bigger. Let it. 

Welcome it. Focus on it. Celebrate it. 

Thank yourself for slowing down. Thank God for being alive.

Let your neural pathways know this is important! Without taking a little time to focus, to welcome, to celebrate, our brain patterns won't change. Cathedrals took time to build. So do we.

Becoming permeable, allowing ourselves to slow down and let life pass into us and out through us, we become thin places. Others become thin places. Life Itself becomes 'thin' in evermore delightful and meaningful ways. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

If You Keep Walking

One Sunday afternoon this past summer I went hiking on the high grassy balds in Shining Rock Wilderness Area and got caught in a thunderstorm. Sitting on Tennant Mountain eating a sandwich I could see it, and hear it, coming. It was a small storm--and it was moving in a direction that wouldn't bring it right over me, so I kept eating, enjoying the sound of thunder and the feel of the wind.

I also put on a waterproof parka. And when the little storm went by me to the north, I was glad I did. Rain drops, not many, but big, began splattering on the rock outcrop where I sat.  I kept the last bit of sandwich dry by bending my parka'd self over it.

The rain got heavier. For the first time, lightning flashed close by. Apparently, as the little storm rose up the highest ridges, it was generating, growing. Time for me to get off the summit and move on.

For the next 45 minutes or so all around and over me lightening crackled and thunder roared and rain poured and I slogged along a trail that had become a lively little stream.

To say the least, it was a powerful experience.

Moments of terror, of prayer, of feeling like an idiot--and finally of a kind of resignation that grew, step by step, into a strange kind of peace. I was in the middle of something wild but wonderful--and something I had absolutely no say over. All I could do was walk on--soaked from the waste down, water squishing in my boots with every step.

Carl Jung used to tell his patients that emotional turmoil is often like hiking in the Alps in a thunder storm. As you climb up from your village, if you keep walking, often you'll climb right out of the storm--putting it behind and beneath you in the valley you just left. You can look down and see the lightening in the clouds below, hear the thunder, watch the drama. It's still storming down there--but no longer on you.

I was thinking about Jung's story as I walked. I'd soon be out of the storm, or struck by lightening. Nothing at all I could do about it.

So I began trying to 'embrace the moment.' To feel the rain on my face and the water in my boots. To marvel at the spears of lightening and the thunder that bounced off the ridges and rumbled and rumbled. I tried my best to let go of every fearful impulse my poor mammal brain was generating--and simply to keep walking.

One worrisome thought at a time...I let go. Again and again.

Breathing in, taking another soggy step, breathing out.

Rain on jacket, rain on face, rain running down the inside of my pants and wicking into my socks and on down into my 'waterproof' boots.

Wind. Lightening. Fast-moving clouds. Rolling thunder.

On and on and on exchanging fear for feel: wetness, wind, light, deep rumble.

It was almost mesmerizing.

What doesn't kill you, some say, makes you stronger. It can also make you just plain happy to be among the living.

Slowly the storm moved on, the rain stopped, the lightening and the thunder were at 'a comfortable remove.' And I was still alive. Really, really alive.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Getting to Know the Nature of Restlessness and Fear

Yesterday I wrote about Refraining. I went back again this morning to Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart, yet again, to read what she has to say about it. It's probably the 20th time I've read it. But it's not like reading a novel where you know how things will turn out and get bored with the story. It's more like reading a book about biking through America while you're actually biking through America. How do you find the scenic routes, the best out-of-the-way restaurants, the B&B's? How do you repair a flat, replace a tire, true-up a handle bar? What do you need to know and what do you need to do to make the trip safe and memorable?

Anyway, if you've caught a glimpse of how Refraining can be a very tasty practice, you're bound to learn more and enjoy it by reading these paragraphs from When Things Fall Apart.

Through refraining, we see that there's something between the arising of craving--or aggression or loneliness or whatever it might be--and whatever action we take as a result. There's something there in us that we don't want to experience, and we never do experience because we're so quick to act.

Refraining is the method for getting to know the nature of this restlessness and fear. It's a method for settling into groundlessness. If we immediately entertain ourselves by talking, by acting, by thinking--if there's never any pause--we will never be able to relax. We will always be speeding through our lives. We'll always be stuck with what my grandfather called a good case of the jitters. Refraining is a way of making friends with ourselves at the most profound level possible. We can begin to relate with what's underneath all the bubbles and burps and farts, all the stuff that comes out and expresses itself as uptight, controlling, manipulative behavior, or whatever it is. Underneath all that  there's something very soft, very tender, that we experience as fear or edginess.

There has to be some kind of respect for the jitters, some understanding of how our emotions have the power to run us around in circles.  That understanding helps us discover how we increase our pain, how we increase our confusion, how we cause harm to ourselves. Because we have basic goodness, basic wisdom, basic intelligence, we can stop harming ourselves and harming others. Because of mindfulness, we see things when they arise. Because of our understanding we don't buy into the chain reaction that makes things grow from minute to expansive. We leave things minute. They stay tiny.

It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It's a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space.

Anything can come up, anything can walk into our house; we can find anything sitting on our living-room couch, and we don't freak out. We have been thoroughly processed by coming to know ourselves, thoroughly processed by this honest, gentle mindfulness..

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Don't Just Do Something--Stand Still

I remember reading a passage in C. S. Lewis about temptation when I was in my twenties. He said that we humans are usually like grass in strong winds, we bend, we give in so quickly to life's many strong forces that we don't really know what strong wind is.

But, he said, an oak tree knows all kinds of wind because it stands upright, taking the wind's full force.

I got to visit Lewis's neighborhood in Belfast once. Strolling in a lovely park I remembered his metaphor of grass and oaks and strong winds. The park was full of massive old beech trees, smooth silver bark and coppery leaves. The day was delightful--cool, the sun going in and out of clouds, a light breeze. I wondered how long those beeches had lived, two hundred, three hundred years? And here they were, still standing.

Later, walking along a coastal cliff, I got to experience gale force wind. You had to lean into it not to fall down. Because the coastal path wound around inlets, sometimes the wind was coming from the land and other times it was coming from the sea. Every now and then it would lighten up--and I'd stumble in whatever direction I had been leaning--which was really scary when I had just been leaning toward a two hundred foot cliff three or four feet away! I decided to walk five feet to the leeward side of the path. Lots of tall grass and some rocks, but it gave more stumbling room.

Standing upright, being a stand-up kind of guy or gal in strong wind is not easy. As long as we go with the flow, we never get an accurate sense of just how strong the flow is.

The Buddhist's, who are often more pragmatic about spiritual formation than we Christians, suggest we practice something called 'Refraining' in lots of small ways so that we can learn how strong the wind is and also begin developing the muscles it takes to stand up when the wind is fierce.

Instructions for Refraining are simple: instead of going with the flow, whatever the flow happens to be, we simply don't. When we're about to scratch an itch, we don't. When we're about to interrupt somebody, we don't. When we're about to turn on the 6:00 O'clock news, we don't. Etc., etc., etc.

What comes next?

Usually some kind of antsy-ness. Some urge to do the thing we were just about to do.

Ironically, it's feeling and learning more about this 'what comes next' that begins to train us to be stand-up kind of people.

If we stick with it, sometimes Refraining is easy. Like a stroll in the beech tree park on a perfect day. Sometimes Refraining is really, really hard, like navigating a coastal cliff path in gale force winds.

When I'm practicing Refraining my mantra is often, "Be still and know that I am God." The stronger the wind, the quicker I usually realize how being still connects with knowing God is God.

Yet the essence is the same, whether life is sweet or bitter, downhill or uphill, breezy or stormy, it's always helpful to be practicing how to be still and discovering the kind of stuff we only discover being still.

At some point, not that long ago, on another path along coastal cliffs when the wind was fierce, I noticed a gull hovering, staying roughly in the same spot. She just shifted a wing a little this way, a little that way--rose a little, dipped a little, holding her ground, even though her 'ground' was coming at her at 20 or 30 miles per hour.

Ah, I  thought. There's somebody who knows how to do it.

Not many of us will ever learn to stand still in Gale-Force Life as elegantly as that gull, but the practice of Refraining slowly teaches our souls something about strength and balance. Something about the nature of the winds we face. Something about our 'selves.' Something about being still. Something about something in us. Something about knowing God is God.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Song of the Builders

What sustains our hope for the world? Especially the world just next door. What sustains us so that we regularly get renewed in hope and love and energy?

Over time, awareness shows us what feeds us and what doesn't. And Wisdom is always near to turn us toward to the good stuff, the energizing stuff.

It's Monday. Eat. Otherwise the journey will be too much for us.

Song of the Builders
-Mary Oliver

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God -

a worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Happens Next?

To highlight (dramatically!) the chutzpah it takes to 'lean into' what scares, frightens or repulses us, Pema tells this story about her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche.

The first time I met Trungpa Rinpoche was with a class of fourth graders who asked him a lot of questions about growing up in Tibet and about escaping from the Chinese Communists into India. One boy asked him if he was ever afraid. Rinpoche answered that his teacher had encouraged him to go to places like graveyards that scared him and to experiment with approaching things he didn't like.

Then he told a story about traveling with his attendants to a monastery he'd never seen before. As they neared the gates, he saw a large guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes. It was growling ferociously and struggling to get free from the chain that held it. The dog seemed desperate to attack them.

As Rinpoche got closer, he could see its bluish tongue and spittle spraying from its mouth. They walked past the dog, keeping their distance, and entered the gate. Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could--straight at the dog. The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.

We can meet our match with a poodle or with a raging guard dog, but the interesting question is--what happens next?"

Those last three words are a key to a door that opens, and opens, and opens to Life. What happens next? When we bump up against hard stuff--do we freeze, run away, or lean in?

Pema reminds her readers that the 'safest way' to begin to work with this 'leaning in' is in meditation (not in actually running toward rabid dogs)! Even if we meditate 5 minutes a day we will regularly meet unpleasant stuff. When we do, what happens next?

The purpose and gift of meditation is to train us for 'what happens next?' Just sitting still paying attention to our thoughts and feelings we routinely 'face' the whole range of our humaness. Facing means not turning away. Not turning away takes discipline, patience, and courage. Doing this a little bit every day develops discipline, patience, and courage.

Meditation also comes with the instruction to 'hold' all the stuff that comes up with kindness--which means we don't just see what we see but also learn to care about it. This seeing and caring is slowly and surely transformative.

Pema concludes this section of When Things Fall Apart by saying, "We don't sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we'll be more awake in our lives."

As I wrote yesterday, meditation--living mindfully, learning to not turn away from what scares me--helps me follow Jesus. Meeting challenges conscious that 'what happens next?' never has to be a hypothetical question continues to light up the reality that the Kingdom of God is always at hand.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Unknown Territory

As I continue this year by year spiritual journey (the same journey Rumi  calls 'this being human') I'm bumping into joy over and over again discovering that Wisdom is around us everywhere.

Every religion has profound strands of human and divine insights stored, treasured, and proclaimed. (Every religion also has lots of ways of distorting wisdom, too, smothering it under layers of fear, self-righteousness, nationalism, and lethargy.)

The natural world, science, poetry, literature--all areas of life also have profound lessons and classes in Wisdom. What a wonderful convergence is going on in the world for those who begin to trust that when we know the truth it sets us free.

Consider the convergence between the wisdom Jesus brought to life by dying--both in metaphor and in his own life story--and this Buddhist insight, simply stated in these two paragraphs of Pema's:

"Basically, disappointment, embarrassment, and all these places where we just cannot feel good are a sort of death. We've just lost our ground completely; we are unable to hold it together and feel that we're on top of things. Rather than realizing that it takes death for there to be birth, we just fight against the fear of death.

Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It's actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don't become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it's time to stop struggling and look directly at what's threatening us. Things like disappointment and anxiety are messengers telling us that we're about to go into unknown territory."

It's taken awhile, but now it's hitting me full in the face: 'Going into unknown territory' is exactly what it's like to follow Jesus.

He trained those who followed him by taking them into unknown territory every week or maybe even every day. Those followers either quit or grew. They died a little bit every week or day or hour, or they dropped out. There are no alternatives.

This stuff Pema's talking about, this practice is about getting with the program, going ahead and accepting once and for all that if growth takes death then, by God, we're gonna learn to die gracefully, bravely, lovingly and regularly!

Wisdom is always giving us little glimpses of how to do this, how to grow. Familiar habits and patterns are always giving us little excuses not to grow--giving us 'reasons' to stay put, fearful, and unchanged.

This 'little practice' Pema gives us of using disappointment and anxiety, etc., as reminders that we're stuck (for us Christians, that Jesus has left the building!) is wonderfully helpful on the spiritual path. The very things that have always slowed us down become the very things that start moving us along. This kind of practice strengthens our spiritual muscles and re-tunes our wisdom receptors.

Try it. Notice when you feel lousy. Lean into it.

Notice how you feel lousy, where you feel lousy; notice what feeling lousy does to you.

Be kind to yourself in each moment of noticing.

Notice that you have a choice about how to respond, how to choose what comes next.

Notice what it's like and how you change going into unknown territory.

Notice if these little deaths really do lead to bigger Life.

By noticing and choosing, in small yet potent ways, we learn what's true and regularly experience for ourselves what sets us free.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Finding Light in Dark Places

Yesterday I quoted a paragraph  from Pema Chodron's When Things Fall Apart where she's reminding us that some of our most uncomfortable feelings (disappointment, irritation, embarrassment, resentment, etc.) come as graceful reminders 'to perk up and lean in' to life, our life.

Pema has apparently learned to trust that these lousy feelings are actually (though ironically) helpful, really helpful, because they show us "with terrifying clarity, exactly where we're stuck."

She's good at explaining this irony and showing us, 'tempting' us even, to experiment with looking at disappointment, irritation, embarrassment, resentment, etc., in a very different way--a way that lightens up areas in our lives that we'd always assumed would always be dark. There's an implicit promise here too--that as this light shows us where we're stuck it also begins to teach us how to get un-stuck:

"Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news. We don’t have to go hunting for anything. We don’t need to try to create situations in which we reach our limit. They occur all by themselves, with clockwork regularity.

"Each day we’re given many opportunities to open up or shut down.... That’s being nailed by life, the place where you have no choice except to embrace what’s happening or push it away.

"Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.

"There are so many ways that have been dreamt up to entertain us away from the moment, soften its hard edge, deaden it so we don’t have to fee the full impact of the pain that arises when we cannot manipulate the situation….

"Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away….What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance. We see very clearly that we’re closing off. That in itself begins to illuminate the darkness of ignorance."

Monday, October 8, 2012

7 Key Feelings of Highly Effective People

Okay, first the words, then the secret of working with them.


  1. Disappointment
  2. Embarrassment
  3. Irritation
  4. Resentment
  5. Anger
  6. Jealousy
  7. Fear

"…For people who have a certain hunger to know what is true—feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us were it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck."  --Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Mary Oliver's Five Amazing Secrets of Paying Attention

Mary Oliver actually has a poem called "Mindful." Of course she does. She's been showing the world how to pay attention for 40 years. She does it mainly with poems about the natural world, though not exclusively. She sure paid attention to the bittersweet reality of life, her life, when her partner died.

Maybe some day somebody will write a handbook called "Mary Oliver's Five Amazing Secrets of Paying Attention!" No worries if nobody ever does--reading her poems is instructive and inspiring in a whole lot more than five ways.

Consider "Mindful":

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for -
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world -
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant -
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

~ Mary Oliver ~

This is what we born for too, isn't it--to look, to listen, to lose ourselves inside this soft world--to instruct ourselves over and over in joy? Not just pleasure, but joy? 

How can we help but grow wise with such teachings as these? And, of course, not all teachings, not all the classes, are about nature. Though all are about Life.

Worries and judgments and posturing are electives in the School of Delight. Dropping them to make time to notice and savor what's in front of us is the core curriculum. 

Today's homework: Notice, turn aside to, and stay with at least ONE thing--animal, mineral, or vegetable--that more or less kills you with delight. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ordinary Mysticism

When somebody is called a mystic, most of us don't quite know what to think. Is that somebody who spends all his/her time lost in holy thought? Somebody who lives alone or in a monastery?

Below is Richard Rohr's take. By his measure, which seems right on the mark to me, many of us are already in the ball park of mysticism (though perhaps not quite sure that we've been called out of the stands an onto the field)!

"Mysticism is when God’s presence becomes experiential and undoubted for a person. You can see a kind of courage and self-confidence in the mystics. That puts them in an extraordinary category. Most of us believe things because our churches tell us to believe them and we don’t want to be disobedient members of the church so we say “I believe” as we do in the creed.

"A mystic doesn’t say “I believe.” A mystic says “I know.” A true mystic ironically speaks with an almost arrogant self-confidence and, at the same time, with a kind of humility. When you see this combination of calm self-confidence, certitude, and patient humility, all at the same time, you can trust you are in the presence of a person who has had an actual “encounter” with God or the Holy."

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When Things Fall Apart

On a Saturday night at 2:00 in the morning about four years ago my wife handed me a letter. In it she said she had decided it was time to live life without me--she was filing for divorce.

It caught me completely by surprise. I felt the hugeness of it 'everywhere'. Head, heart, blood flow, gut, everywhere. And I had to 'do' church later that morning. Either that or get somebody else to do it at short notice.

She was clear that she didn't want to talk about it. Period. Done deal.'s now 2:30 in the morning and the only 'one' I have to talk to is God. Strangely, even for a priest, at first that seemed totally inadequate.

In retrospect, of course it did. Anything feels inadequate at times like these.

But I did talk to God. Pouring out my heart--with long breaks for worry and imagined work-arounds. After maybe an hour of this I began to shift to the realization that I'd done enough 'talking:' now it was time to be quiet and to embody God, to incarnate, the best I could, God's love and wisdom in that moment and in my body.

I went back to bed and brought every ounce of attention to my breath--trusting breath as Spirit. Any tiny distraction from focusing on breathing in and out, in and out, I let go of like it was a wasp or a spider.

I knew there would be time later to think through the immensity of separating from my partner and best friend of 32 years. Lots and lots of laters. My work the rest of that night was to incarnate wordless peace in the only realistic way I knew: contemplative prayer in the form of concentration meditation--also called tranquility or one-pointed meditation. Following the breath, noticing air coming into my nose as I breathed in, noticing the rise and fall of my belly, noticing the relaxing of my diaphragm as I breathed out. Just this. Just this.

Just this. Over and over and over.

There were lots of other ways as the days and weeks progressed to embody God's love and wisdom and I  kept coming back and back and back to what helped, what worked, what kept me sane and more than sane--what brought me back to the Center--and to what I knew was trustworthy and whole-making.

Whew. Grateful. Grateful. Grateful.

I felt so lucky, so blessed that I knew, at least a bit, how to hold pain, confusion, anxiety, anger, dumb-struckness as they came up over and over again.

One of my favorite 'go to' prayers during that time was this:

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,to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God.

Also, I was very grateful for a basic process that Pema Chodron had introduced me to some years earlier in her book When Things Fall Apart (below).

Wisdom, love, trust, prayer, mindful practices-they don't just get us through the night (though thankfully they do that too!): they move us through life and continually reconnect us with LIFE--even when life is its most challenging.


"Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

"When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don't know what's really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don't know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.

"We try to do what we think is going to help. Bet we don't know,. We never know if we're going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there is a big disappointment, we don't don't know if that's the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.

"Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don't get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It's a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Who Can Say?

Wise people are always encouraging us regular people to live in the present. Most of us hover between agreeing that staying in the present is wise and good while ALSO believing it's not really possible.

We come hard-wired to kvetch about the past and fret about the future. Or, less often perhaps, to savor something in the past and be excited about something in the future.

There's a wonderful old Chinese story about a farmer who takes a wiser view.


Once upon a time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.

"Who can say?" the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.

"Who can say?" replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. "This is so tragic!" said the neighbors.

"We'll see," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

"We'll see" said the farmer.

My friend Terry keeps the following Anthony de Mello quote at the bottom of his emails:

"A neurotic is someone who worries about things in the past that never happened.  Not like us normal people who only worry about things in the future that won't happen."  

One thing mindful practice always does over time is show us what goes on in our day to day thinking. I've never met any 'normal' person whose mind doesn't work at least a little like this de Mello quote. We may not be worried about stuff that never happened but we surely worry about stuff that did--and are regularly anxious about stuff that might or might not happen in the days ahead.

One way of doing mindful practice is every time we notice we're being somewhat haunted by a past action--expecting to reap something 'bad'--we simply get in the habit of saying to ourselves, "Who can say?" We incarnate that farmer's wisdom. Again and again. Who can say?

If it happens, it happens. God give me wisdom to deal with it if and when it comes.

Catching ourselves worrying about something in the future, predicting some negative outcome as if we were some kind of prophet, we let go of this wacky fiction and say instead, "We'll see." To do this is simply standing firmly on the good warm earth of human limits--acknowledging (duh) we're not prophets.

Whew. What a relief. Usually the deepest spirituality is about being more human, not less human. How many times have you worried about something in the future that never happens? Or happens very differently that how you predicted?

Most of us have gotten so used to operating this way we feel strangely irresponsible if we're NOT worrying about the future!

There are better ways to move toward tomorrow and tomorrow.

And better ways to work with all our yesterdays.

If we decide to try working more and more like the farmer in this old tale, I could predict we'd all be wiser, healthier, and happier. But, then again, "Who can say?"