Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ordinary Alchemy

I love this Mary Oliver poem…

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?

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

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

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

Good stuff happens.

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

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

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

We can do it too. Really. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thou Shalt Not Be Late

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

Thou Shalt Not Be Late

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Generous Listening for Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then do it with somebody else.

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sacred Irony

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

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. 
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

How many times today will we get what we want? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Wholeness Hypothesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, there's God.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fairy Dust

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Everything Is Workable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or corrective lenses. My choice.

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

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

    Notice what it is
    where it is
    what it feels like

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sliding Towards Acceptance

Wonderful guest post from my friend Jane Coburn. The growing, the loving, the making-room in her heart for her sons is a beautiful thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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