Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Letting go means just what it says

Whenever we practice the Sacred Pause, we also bump right into the possibility of practicing Letting Go.

A lot of us know how helpful (and advisable) it is to let go. Nobody that I know is all that good at it. It's what some folks would call a 'growing edge' for us. I practice letting go enough to realize that I don't practice letting go enough! But I think it gets easier to practice as we get better at recognizing its potential and experimenting with the many, many opportunities we get to let go.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has a wise perspective on it--a wise perspective sometimes obscured by overlong sentences and complex syntax!

But it's easy enough to forgive Brother Jon when we stay with him long enough to discover what very insightful things he knows and is committed to passing on. I'm very grateful to him.

What follows is one short chapter from his book, Wherever You Go There You Are.


The phrase “letting go” has to be high in the running for New Age cliché of the century. It is overused, abused daily. Yet it is such a powerful inward maneuver that it merits looking into, cliché or no. There is something vitally important to be learned from the practice of letting go.

Letting go means just what it says. It’s an invitation to cease clinging to anything—whether it be an idea, a thing, an event, a particular time, or view, or desire. It is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding. To let go means to give up coercing, resisting, or struggling, in exchange for something more powerful and wholesome which comes out of allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in your attraction to or rejection of them, in the intrinsic stickiness of wanting, of liking and disliking. It’s akin to letting your palm open to unhand something you have been holding on to.

But it’s not only the stickiness of our desires concerning outer events which catches us. Nor is it only a holding on with our hands. We hold on with our minds. We catch ourselves, get stuck ourselves, by holding, often desperately, to narrow views, to self-serving hopes and wishes. Letting go really refers to choosing to become transparent to the strong pull of our own likes and dislikes, and of the unawareness that draws us to cling to them. To be transparent requires that we allow fears and insecurities to play themselves out in the field of full awareness.

Letting go is only possible if we can bring awareness and acceptance to the nitty-gritty of just how stuck we can get, if we allow ourselves to recognize the lenses we slip so unconsciously between observer and that then filter and color, bend and shape our view. We can open in those sticky moments, especially if we are able to capture them in awareness and recognize it when we get caught up in either pursuing and clinging or condemning and rejecting in seeking our own gain.

Stillness, insight, and wisdom arise only when we can settle into being complete in this moment, without having to seek or hold on to or reject anything. This is a testable proposition. Try it out just for fun. See for yourself whether letting go when a part of you really wants to hold on doesn’t bring a deeper satisfaction than clinging.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I really hate being told I'm wrong

Yesterday I posted a video on Facebook of a young woman interviewing people on the Western Carolina University Campus about a controversial amendment we have coming up in NC this May. What we'll be saying Yes or No to in North Carolina is this:

“Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

The young woman doing the interviewing at Western is part of a group trying to raise consciousness about what a huge impact this vote will have. 

She's also very passionately opposed to the ammendment and hopes to get lots of folks to vote against it.  I'll certainly be voting against it. 

Later in the day a Christian friend I haven't seen in 3 decades, somebody I've recently become Facebook friends with, sent me a very strongly worded, rebuking kind of message. One of the scripture quotes in it was, "Woe to those who call good evil and evil good."

Funny, the sermon I preached yesterday was about how hard it is to let go of BEING RIGHT. 

I really like to be right.

I really don't like not being right.

I really hate being told I'm wrong. 

So...getting this message from an old friend gave me a wonderful opportunity to practice, yet again, what I preach. 

And I don't mean I think this means I'm wrong in what I believe. It's just that mature spirituality offers wiser ways to relate to the whole concept of RIGHT & WRONG.

I quoted Yehuda Amichai's poem in yesterday's sermon:

    From the place where we are right
    Flowers will never grow
    In the spring.
    The place where we are right
    Is hard and trampled
    Like a yard.
    But doubts and loves
    Dig up the world
    Like a mole, a plow.
    And a whisper will be heard in the place
    Where the ruined
    House once stood.

Great wisdom in this poem. Especially for those of us with strong attachments to being right. 

Reading the Facebook message from my old friend was a great time to practice The Sacred Pause. 

I was so riled up. Three or four possible responses popped into to my head. Fueling every one of them was that  potent mix of anger and pride and self-righteousness that drives so many unhelpful 'discussions.'

Sensing those strong feelings--anger and pride and self-righteousness in myself--reminded me to simply pause. To just be with what I was thinking and feeling. To try to view it all and feel it all without acting on any of it...YET. 

To tell the truth it was kind of a messy process. The phrase "stewing in his own juices" comes to mind. 

Eventually, however, the heat under us and in us always gets turned down. Not even a simmer left. 

And we find two really good results have come. One is that we've been able to see and smell and taste almost everything that's been stewing (nothing much edible or edifying!). The other is we haven't jumped to a hasty action. 

A seeker once asked a sage, "What is the wisdom of a lifetime?" The teacher answered, "An appropriate response."

Pausing is the practice that allows space for an Appropriate Response to be sought, awaited, recognized, considered, and embodied. 

Life's too short to cook up and serve self-righteousness. Especially when your deepest desire is to cook up and serve something so much richer.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Mutant Possum

I heard about a farmer in the Midwest who was really good at cross-breeding corn. He paid a lot of attention to which varieties had the best qualities and patiently mingled them in ways that naturally 'incarnated' the best qualities of each into his experimental crops.

When he was satisfied that the new seeds were really good, and when he'd got enough, he'd share them with neighboring farmers.

Somebody asked him, "Wouldn't it be better for your business if you kept the best seed for yourself--wouldn't it give you an edge with your buyers?"

The farmer said, "No. When my neighbors grow inferior corn, it'll cross-breed with my corn and take me backwards. Sharing is better for all of us."

Cultivating and sharing goodness is a wise thing.

The agro-conglomerate Monsanto entices farmers to switch to Monsanto's genetically modified seed and then SUES those farmers if, after a successful harvest, they save some of the harvested seed from their own crops to plant the following year.

Monsanto also sues farmers whose neighboring non-GMO crops cross-pollinate with Monsanto's GMO crops making them 'inferior.' They even sue farmers whose own organic fields get cross-pollinated by Monsanto's GMO crops and the GMO corn 'naturally' springs up here and there in the organic farmers' fields. They sue the organic farmers for patent infringement!

Cultivating and enforcing small-mindedness is not a wise thing.

Monsanto is more like the possum than the chicken.

Except Monsanto is a GMO possum.

On steroids. A  mutant possum bullying traffic. Buying up roads. Suing drivers. Refusing to evolve naturally. Forcing growth unnaturally and unwisely.

The Monsantos of the world are a reality. Thank God for those who know how to take wise action in  opposition to them. May the rest of us be mindful of what products to support and which to avoid.

The world is always in need of people who know how to grow and cross-pollinate wisely in the evolution of the human spirit.

Problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness that creates them.

Creator of us all, help us grow.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Incarnating the Possible

Junior year in high school, I think it was April, my friend George invited some of us guys to his parents' cottage in the North Carolina mountains. He said he had some really great places to show us.

We got to the cottage at night, figured out who was sleeping where, woke up, had a hurried breakfast. George said, "Lets go!"

Took us maybe twenty five minutes to drive east on 64 then south on 281 and come to a pull-off alongside the Horse Pasture River.

As soon as we opened the doors we could hear a waterfall. Always something exciting about that.

We followed George down a little path that led to the top of the falls. George said, "Take off your shoes." Then he began to wade across about twenty feet upriver of the falls. We followed.

The water was really, really cold.

There was another path on the far side. It led down beside the falls. "Drift Falls," George told us.

The path was steep, rocky, kind of washed out, weaving around rhododendron through which we had a broken but continuing view of the falls. About half way down George turned off the trail and took us out to rocky edge of the waterfall itself.

Drift Falls isn't a 90 degree straight down waterfall. More like 45 degrees--like a sliding board beside a swing-set. A really huge, bumpy, roaring, flooded kind of sliding board.

George took off his shirt.

"What are you doing, George!?" somebody asked. I don't remember which of us spoke, but it was the question on everybody's mind.

"I'm gonna slide down," George said.

None of believed him. We were a band of scoffers. The water was so fast, so cold, the prospect was so scary.

About 40 feet and directly below where George was standing a big plume of water, a rooster tail, shot up and out treacherously. Impossible.

"No way!" we said.

George smiled at us, a little disdainfully, turned his head downstream and sat down.

Immediately the river took him. His legs were straight ahead. He kept his hands flat against the falls for balance and, it seemed to me, for navigation. In a blink of an eye he was going as fast as the water, shooting forward, his back ramrod straight, his eyes fixed ahead.

He managed, just barely, to miss the rooster tail. But the contour of that great slab of granite beneath the falls has a certain kind of launching effect about 10 feet below the bottom. It lifted George, impressively, off his butt, into the air and then into the big pool of water at the falls' base.

He disappeared under the white wavy water and popped right back up with the kind of great and happy scream a boy has when he's done something big and brave and fun.

The four of us back up on the rock beside the falls looked at each other with a very different kind of feeling, though still a big one. George had shown us, like the chicken showed the possum, that sliding down Drift Falls could be done.

What George did was a very, very powerful kind of showing. We boys, standing up there, still on the dry side of adventure, knew we had to decide if we were men enough to do it.

I hope to continue this thread tomorrow. Friday's my day off and right now it's time to turn my head toward chores, remembering how many times and how many ways I've been shown by friends and family that chores, too, can lift us off our butts and into life's stream. 

(Though most Fridays I'd just as soon slide down a cold waterfall.)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Sense of the Possible

One morning at breakfast in the church I served in Norfolk, a little boy about five years old came up and tugged on my sleeve. He was smiling--a big, mischievous smile. "Wanna hear a great joke?"

"Sure," I said.

He said, "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

Somehow I couldn't imagine how a Why did the chicken joke could be great. But his smile was great, so I gamely replied, "I don't know. Why did the chicken cross the road?"

With a voice and affect of a teacher passing on the coolest insight in the world he declared, "To show the possum it Can Be Done!"

All of us at the table laughed and laughed. This was 20 years ago. I still think this really is one of the coolest insights in the world.

In 15 words he'd given me as good a definition of Incarnation as I've ever heard.

When Jesus invited people to "Come and see!" what was he inviting them to come and see?

When Einstein said, "Problems can't be solved at the level of consciousness that created them," what was he trying to tell us?

As we all discover, there are a million ways to be wrong, to be hurt, to get tired of being hurt. In one way it's really wise to stop trying to cross the road. Better to stay where we are than to be road-kill.

But then here comes that chicken, crossing the un-crossable. And if we're open and honest, we won't keep telling ourselves it can't be done.

If we're open and honest we'll say to ourselves, "Holy crap--it can be done!"

And then maybe, "It's possible--I just don't know how to do it."

Living in the tension of the not yet possible can be very unpleasant. We often beat ourselves up for not doing what we 'should be able to do.'

On the other hand, living in the tension of the not yet possible can be energizing, stimulating--it can connect us to the very positive sense of curiosity and hopefulness.

One of the great gifts of life is to witness other people crossing roads we haven't yet been able to navigate. This is one of the ways God gets into the world.

Jesus says, Come and see! Einstein nudges us to another level of consciousness. A little kid, five years old, gives his assistant rector some of the most helpful assistance he's ever had.

There are a lot of roads we don't know how to cross...yet.

"Oh, Lord," let us pray, "keep sending us evolved chickens."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Hundred Years of Rain

I remember so well hearing James Taylor for the first time. I was a freshman at UT, Knoxville, driving home to my apartment. I heard a guitar played in a way I'd never heard before. An extraordinary voice came through that so-so radio. Then, O my God, such harmony. I actually had to pull my old Ford Galaxy over to the side of the road--I was so lost in the song it wasn't safe to keep driving.

James Taylor has written so many wonderful songs over the years. I love listening to him.

Yet like almost all song writers, way too many of his songs are about eros love. Our culture puts way to much hope and weight on finding fulfillment in romantic relationships.

A wonderful partner is a wonderful thing, but nobody can make anybody else whole. We must tend to our wholeness ourselves and cultivate love in many, many other ways.

There's a wonderful line near the end of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Benedick, who has been sparring with Beatrice the whole play (and we've been hoping all along they'll figure out they love other) finally realizes the moment is right and, recognizing that Beatrice is feeling sad and tired a little lost, he offers her (very tenderly!) this advice:

    "Serve God. Love me. And mend!"

It's such a lovely moment in the play. And pretty close to good advice.

Except that to serve God and truly mend, we have to widen and deepen and focus our love beyond one lover. And I don't mean that we should be serially monogamous or poly-amorous!

I mean we have a reservoir of love that's big enough to spill over, at least potentially, everywhere we are and onto everyone we're with. Springs of living water--enough and more to sustain complete and complex gardens.

Something marvelous, of priceless beauty, can grow in flower pot. It takes something bigger to grow a garden.

I love JT's songs. Mean Old Man is a great example of his great writing.

Listen to it again or scan the lyrics below. Think about how all of us need saving from time to time--and how wonderful it is to be cared about and cherished--to have our hearts buoyed up--to feel delivered from 'a hundred years of rain.'

Care deeply about yourself. Tend to your own wholeness. Cultivate your deepest places. Fill up with living water. Allow that water to flow on to wider places.

    Serve God. Love many. Mend.
    Tend the world.


Mean Old Man
by James Taylor

On my own
How could I have known?
Imagine my surprise
Just a fool
From a tree full of fools
Who can't believe his eyes
Imagine my surprise

I was a mean old man
I was an ornery cuss
I was a dismal Dan
I made an awful fuss
Ever since my life began
Man, it was ever thus
I was a nasty tyke who was hard to like

I had to misbehave
I did things in reverse
Refused to wash or shave
I was horrid to my nurse
I got back what I gave
Which only made me worse
I had to have my way
Which was bleak and gray, oh dear

Living in here
One hundred years of rain
Such a drag
This riches to rags
With just myself to blame
A dirty low-down shame

Silly me
Silly old me
Somewhere outside my mind
Clever you
Walking me through
Willing to lead the blind
Just in the nick of time

Who gets a second chance?
Who gets to have some fun?
Who gets to learn to dance
Before his race is run?
Who gets to shed his skin?
Who comes up born again?
Who was a mean old man
'Til you turned him into a golden retriever
Puppy dog
Who's a good boy?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Damming and Undamming Life

A nice little creek ran behind the houses on the block where I grew up. We neighborhood kids loved to play in and around it. One of the things we liked to do was build dams. It wasn't easy to build a good dam--especially when the only tools we used were hands and feet and sticks.

We had good materials, though--lots of rocks, almost limitless sand, sticky clay--sometimes red, sometimes almost white.

The first part of the dam was never a problem. Line up a row of big stones, put little ones in the holes, great handfuls of sand behind on the upstream side.

But as soon as we'd got the first two thirds working okay, that meant all the water started flowing through the one third of the stream bed that was not yet dammed. The flow was three times stronger there. It was harder to get rocks to stay put!

We figured out that we had to use bigger rocks on the last third. And we had to work faster.

But then, once we finally got our rocks and sand and clay to hold, the water would start flowing over the top somewhere and start eroding those spill-over places from the top down.

Oh, well. In the meantime we had fun splashing around in the little reservoirs we'd created behind our dams.

At some point somebody brought a piece of an old pipe and 'installed' it at one end near the top of our newest dam. Worked pretty well. The water could collect behind the dam and then could flow out without washing big chunks of the dam away. At least for a while.

In the end, our lovely dams always collapsed. But as kids we were just about as happy to jump over to the downstream side and feel the rush of let-go water as we'd been to play in the pent-up water the moment before.

About three decades later, I remembered those dams, and the memories were sacramental. I had developed a strange intolerance for tight clothes. Couldn't bear tight collars, tight waist bands, tight shoes.

Long story told short--I saw a good therapist, got wise and gentle counsel, and this strange irritation from tight places began to ease. Too much had been dammed up in me. My psyche had gotten too good at bottling stuff up.

I've had a lot of good therapy since, learned to recognize better what damming the flow feels like--and what it does to my life, inside and out.

One of the reasons I like mindfulness practice so much is because it can be such good therapy.

Mindfulness is simply the practice of paying kind attention to our lives, inside and out. Noticing how our lives flow, noticing what's dammed, what's eroding, what's leaking, and what's working.

In many ways mindful people, over time and with practice and good teaching, become their own therapists. We bring honest, nonjudgmental Presence to our woundedness, our confusion, and our wholeness.

As a God person, I think of this process as incarnational: welcoming God's wise and loving Presence so regularly that it begins to be palpably embodied.

One more thing about mindfulness--sometimes it helps us experience our lives like kids again. As we keep bringing curiosity to more and more moments, something in us remembers what it once was like to be really good at being curious, adventurous, experimental, and playful.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dangers in the Deep End

Almost all of us need encouragement to risk going deeper in our lives. The ego likes it better when we don't contradict its opinion of itself. 

Frank Leahy, football coach at Notre Dame, famously said, "Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity.” Our egos are made to protect 'us' from full disclosure of our 'usual selves'--until we're mature enough to protect and nurture our full and becoming selves in wiser ways.

But if we don't want to stay ignorant of who we are and what we're made of--if we don't want to continue to stunt our growth--we have to risk going deeper, getting to know better both the what and the how of our thinking and feeling. On the way we will meet uncomfortable stuff. Sometimes scary stuff. 

Ann Lamott famously writes, "My mind's like a bad neighborhood--I try not to go there alone." That's not just true of Ann Lamott. We all have bad neighborhoods somewhere in us. 

Encouragement to go deeper is helpful. Cautioning about going deeper is helpful.

Most of what this blog is about is encouragement. I've been helped so much by intentional spiritual formation, by meditation, by mindful practice, that I can't not want to pass it on. 

I keep saying, one way and another, try this! Take time for mindful practice! Don't just read about it--do it! 

I say this because it's only in the do-ing that we actually go deeper and have our lives continually being transformed, slowly and surely. 

Some time in the process, however, we come upon memories, feelings, traumas, woundedness that's just more than we can handle. More than we can 'say grace over.' 

It's helpful at times like these to consult a therapist, a spiritual director, a wise pastor, rabbi, meditation teacher, etc. 

And it's also helpful to know that scary stuff is stored in all of us. When you meet dark stuff in yourself it won't just be 'your' stuff. Dark matter and black holes are apparently universal.

Sometimes by going deeper I trigger feelings in myself--black moods that are both deeply troubling and persistent. 

Don't be surprised when it happens to you. Don't be horrified or despondent, either. 

The good news is that the honest seeing we practice in meditation coupled with the compassionate holding of all we experience in meditation combine to bring healing and integration of all the 'stuff' we uncover in meditation. 

Speaking of practice--when we get triggered by scary stuff, it's really helpful to know how to do simple focused breathing. Purposeful, deep, strong, loud breathing.  Following the breath as it comes in through the nose, down into the throat and chest--noting the way our chests expand, our diaphragms move. Then following the breath out again. No thinking! Just simple and complete attention on the breath over and over and over.

Doing this for 5 or 10 minutes can be remarkably centering, soothing, restoring. 

If you intend to continue going deeper into mindful practice, you might want to practice this every now and then--so that when you need it you'll have it. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Diving Lessons

The Revised Common Lectionary gives us a reading from Jonah today. The story of Jonah fits right in with our continuing DIVING, and DEEP END OF THE POOL theme.

It's hard to read Jonah and not think about all the time that's been wasted on arguing about whether or not it's possible for a person to survive the digestive processes of a big fish or a whale.

Most people haven't heard that the book of Jonah is a Wisdom text, not a book of prophesy like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, etc., etc.

Jonah is a wise and wonderful PARABLE.

God asks Jonah to carry a message of redemption to Nineveh--Israel's historic and bitter enemy. Jonah books passage on a boat going the other direction. When it comes to finding room in his heart for an enemy, Jonah is completely out of his depth.

So what does God do to nurture a bigger love in Jonah?

God sends a storm. God sends a storm that begins to sink Jonah's ship. The storm is a gift to get Jonah in deeper water. The sailors, against their will, toss the runaway prophet into the waves.

Jonah sinks.

God sends a big fish.

The fish transports Jonah in the direction opposite Jonah's heart: The Big Fish swims toward Nineveh, toward the deep end of life.

One of the great myths of our culture is that we love love--that we love love's depths--that we love to fall in love and experience love's depths.

We do love to fall in love. But even then, we resist love's depths. Love's depths are scary and painful. We rarely want to go there. It often takes storms and metaphorical big fish to move us to places where our hearts are challenged to grow, to deepen, to stretch.

An interesting thing about Jonah is that it ends with a question. Jonah, very begrudgingly, has carried God's message to Nineveh. He walks somewhere near the center of town and in a one-off 8 word speech warns the town folk of impending judgment and then walks on through town to find a vantage point to watch Nineveh be destroyed.

It's summer in Nineveh. Hot as hell. Jonah is miserable. God sends a vine to shade Jonah's hard head. Jonah is filled with joy!

God sends a worm to eat the vine. Then God sends a fiery desert wind. Jonah is miserable again and turns as peevish as 4 year old who didn't get his nap. "I'm so uncomfortable I could just die!"

Then God tries one more time to widen and deepen Jonah's heart--with wisdom that ends in a question:

‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And Jonah said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the vine, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’

The book ends with this question.

Jonah is a parable about God's big love. God sends us lots of wonderful things--storms, creatures of the deep, shade, worms, hot dry winds--all as a heart-deepening gift. 

God sends us these little gifts so God can send other people bigger gifts. The bigger gifts God is always preparing to send is us--our own deepened and stretched by big love selves. 

Should God not send us these little gifts?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Gift of the Sacred Pause

Another way of taking refuge, similar to the trout resting behind a rock in calmer water, is the Sacred Pause. It's a remarkably simply practice--a remarkably simple practice that leads over and over into consternation and then on to insight and possibility and peace.

Here's the simplicity of it: Any time you're in the middle of something and you feel pressured or tense, frustrated or confused, angry or afraid...Pause. Don't go with the flow--step out of it. Whatever you're about to do...don't. Just don't. Simply...Pause.

Remembering to Pause is like the trout remembering where the river's best rocks are.

Actually Pausing is our movement to the still place behind the rock.

The current around us is still just as strong as it was--only we're not exactly in it anymore. We sense the rush and the roar, we sense some of the old tug too, often very strongly.

But here's thing--the current is not taking us where it usually does because we're pausing and resting in a stiller place.

And then?

Then something else, something fresh becomes possible.

One of the first times I gave pausing a real try was in the middle of one those habitual arguments couples get into. One of those 30 year kind of arguments where you each dig in to the same old position you've always had and lob rocks (or grenades) over the other's wall.

A few minutes into the escalating battle, I remembered the possibility of pausing. And tried it.

I stopped arguing. At least out-loud. There were still lots of heaving and seething in part of me--but there was also this other thing, this other thing I was trying to embody, this Pause thing.

I settled into breathing, in and out, in and out, trying to listen both to what my wife was saying and to my own aggravated thoughts and feelings. It wasn't easy but it was doable.

At first I thought maybe that without actually participating in the argument out loud myself, she'd stop too. But finally having a chance to say what she wanted to say without smart-ass interruptions and attacks from me was apparently too sweet an opportunity to miss--she let me have for about 10 or 15 more minutes--which gave me an extended opportunity to explore Sacred Pausing in depth!

It was painful. It was promising. It was obvious that Pausing was full of fresh possibilities.

Why...I could use this time to find the perfect stone to throw--and wait till just the right moment to sling it--like a major league pitcher picking a runner off first base!

Or...I could use the time and space of this pausing, this resting behind a rock and out of the strongest currents to actually try to embody my deepest self's intentions.

My deepest self's intentions are a lot more loving than my habitual self's intentions.

So much is possible when instead of doing the usual thing we open our minds and hearts to deeper, fresher possibilities.

But I was new at this and had no clue how to make it work. This is the consternation part--to recognize the presence of such possibility and not yet know how to use it well.

On the other hand, I was at least learning how to stop the war. The best I could do at the time was to listen, and listen, and pray for wisdom. And keep my mouth shut.

Over time we slowly make better use of our possibilities--of God's possibilities. Though I don't think the consternation ever goes away or needs to. God's possibilities will always stretch and challenge us beyond our comfort zone and current ability.

This mix of deeper intention, and consternation, and peace, and possibility and Presence is why the practice of Pausing is called Sacred. It's not a stretch at all to discover that practicing the Sacred Pause in one of the best ways we experience for ourselves, over and over, right here in the middle of our human mess that the Kingdom of God is always at hand.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Wonderful Paradox of Non-Doing

So...how can we rest in life's turbulence like a trout behind a rock? Got time for wise counsel?

What follows is a helpful bit from Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Wherever You Go There You Are.

Certain attitudes or mental qualities support meditation practice and provide a rich soil in which the seeds of mindfulness can flourish. By purposefully cultivating these qualities, we are actually tilling the soil of our own mind and ensuring that it can serve as a source of clarity, compassion, and right action in our lives. These inner qualities which support meditation practice cannot be imposed, legislated, or decreed. They can only be cultivated, and this only when you have reached the point where your inner motivation is strong enough to want to cease contributing to your own suffering and confusion and perhaps to that of others.

If you cultivate patience, you almost can’t help cultivating mindfulness, and your meditation practice will gradually become richer and more mature. After all, if you really aren’t trying to get anywhere else in this moment, patience takes care of itself. It is a remembering that things unfold in their own time. The seasons cannot be hurried. Spring comes, the grass grows by itself. Being in a hurry usually doesn’t help, and it can create a great deal of suffering—sometimes in us, sometimes in those who have to be around us.

Patience is an ever present alternative to the mind’s endemic restlessness and impatience. Scratch the surface of impatience and what you will find lying beneath it, subtly or not so subtly, is anger. It’s the strong energy of not wanting things to be the way they are and blaming someone (often yourself) or something for it. This doesn’t mean you can’t hurry when you have to. It is possible even to hurry patiently, mindfully, moving fast because you have chosen to.

    Do you have the patience to wait
    till your mud settles and the water is clear?
    Can you remain unmoving
     till the right action arises by itself?
        --Lao Tzu

The flavor and the sheer joy of non-doing are difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress. Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless. The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete. The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lie in knowing that something else surely will.

It reeks of paradox. The only way you can do anything of value is to have the effort come out of non-doing and to let go of caring whether it will be of use or not. Otherwise, self-involvement and greediness can sneak in and distort your relationship to the work, or the work itself, so that it is off in some way, biased, impure, and ultimately not completely satisfying, even if it is good. Good scientists know this mind state and guard against it because it inhibits the creative process and distorts one’s ability to see connections clearly.

Non-doing has nothing to do with being indolent or passive. Quite the contrary. It takes great courage and energy to cultivate non-doing, both in stillness and in activity. Nor is it easy to make a special time for non-doing and to keep at it in the face of everything in our lives which needs to be done.

But non-doing doesn’t have to be threatening to people who feel they always have to get things done. They might find they get even more “done,” and done better, by practicing non-doing. Non-doing simply means letting things be and allowing them to unfold in their own way. Enormous effort can be involved, but it is a graceful, knowledgeable, effortless effort, a “doerless doing,” cultivated over a lifetime.

Meditation is synonymous with the practice of non-doing. We aren’t practicing to make things perfect or to do things perfectly. Rather, we practice to grasp and realize (make real for ourselves) the fact that things already are perfect--perfectly what they are. This has everything to do with holding the present moment in its fullness without imposing anything extra on it, perceiving its purity and the freshness of its potential to give rise to the next moment. 

Then, knowing what is what, seeing as clearly as possible, and conscious of not knowing more than we actually do, we act, make a move, take a stand, take a chance. 

Some people speak of this as flow, one moment flowing seamlessly, effortlessly into the next, cradled in the streambed of mindfulness.

TRY: During the day, see if you can detect the bloom of the present moment in every moment, the ordinary ones, the “in-between” ones, even the hard ones. Work at allowing more things to unfold in your life without forcing them to happen and without rejecting the ones that don’t fit your idea of what “should” be happening. See if you can sense the “spaces” through which you might move with no effort. 

Notice how if you can make some time early in the day for being, with no agenda, it can change the quality of the rest of your day. By affirming first what is primary in your own being, see if you don’t get a mindful jump on the whole day and wind up more capable

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Taking Rufuge

Sometimes when I'm hiking along a stream and the sun is just right I see trout making their way in the world.

Some are scanning the surface looking for their next meal.

Some are deeper, moving in and out of shadows.

Some are taking refuge behind rocks nearer the surface, resting, almost completely still except for the gentlest undulation of their bodies, a slowly animated S, a gentle wag of a fishtail that allows them to stay right where they are.

I've felt envious of resting trout sometimes. Imagine--resting so easily in a moving stream.

    'I love you, O Lord,
    my God, my Rock
    in whom I take refuge....'

These are words of a psalm many of us have seen, taken to heart, and prayed in one way and another many, many times. Times when we've felt afraid, wounded, baffled or swept away.

For decades I recalled and prayed this kind of prayer as if all the work was God's. Contemplative practice has been an epiphany. We have essential work to do in 'refuging' too. We have 'to take' it--take refuge.

These days I'm practicing that gentle-undulating-fishtale movement that keeps us poised in the still water where we are able to

    Be still
    and KNOW

that God is God. When it becomes obvious that strong currents are wearing me down or sweeping me places I don't need to be, I don't just pray to the Rock, I swim to It.

And when the currents are strong (in other words when we most need refuge) swimming can be arduous. But then, alleluia, we reach the Rock, we find the Still-Place. We rest.

Of course, even when we rest in the still waters like a trout, we also drift. Woosh--we're caught again in the current--all at once 10 feet downstream!

It takes another burst of effort to get back to a place of the undulating, slowing moving S that keeps us in the still-place. And then another sweeping-away and another burst of effort. And then another. And another. This is a basic rhythm of mindful practice.

Is Taking Refuge grace or work?


Look at the words. One is active. One is not.

It's really a kind of koan for contemplative prayer.

    is active!
    is not!


"People are not free when they are doing just what they like. People are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving."  --D. H. Lawrence

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Playing in the Waves

I'm continuing to work with D. H. Lawrence's wise words this week:

"People* are not free when they are doing just what they like. People are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving."

For all of you who've had the joy of being a child at the beach, wading out, having your hand held, feeling the little waves slap against your legs, the tug of retreating waves, the sand being sucked from under your feet, you already have a wonderful context to imagine what it is to go deeper in our interior lives.

Shallow water is wonderful, just as wonderful as deep water. It's just that, over time, we want both.

Remember going farther out into the ocean--the water rising every few steps--the waves slapping higher up--a strong force--3 steps out, 2 steps back?

At each point, growing up, you find your appropriate depth. Until you're ready, a big person stayed with you. You held hands. Your big person was an anchor--the waves that knocked you back didn't knock her or him back.

You grew. You became a big kid. Imagine that! You could go out by yourself or with other kids about your size. You learned to jump up high when the waves came.

And then you learned to duck under them--or dive right through them.

You ventured out a little farther. Some of the waves were too big to dive over or through--and if you just stood there they'd  slap you really hard, maybe knock you down and tumble you along the bottom. You learned which waves do what. You learned to go under the big ones if you wanted to stay where you were. Or to ride them all the way in if that's what you wanted.

Now you're grown up. Imagine that! You probably don't play in the water as much as you used to. But life is still full of waves. Your memory of beach and ocean  is a wonderful gift.

Pay attention to each day's waves. Some you can stride right through. Some you can rise over or ride back to shallow water. But now that you're so often in deeper water, most waves invite getting under, one way and another--ducking or diving or just gracefully dropping below.

And now that we're all grown up, it's kind of ironic to spend so much time bitching out loud or to ourselves about all the damn waves when some part of us understands that once upon a time we knew exactly how to play in them.

*I changed 'men' to 'people'

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Deep End of the Pool

One summer day when I was 4 or 5 my two big brothers told our mother they were taking me to the Furman pool to teach me how to swim.

"You boys be really careful," Mom said.

"Don't worry," they promised. "We'll take good care of the little tadpole."

It was an indoor pool. The sliding doors were open, but many other windows were fogged up. A lifeguard kept watch perched on his tall chair at the edge of the pool.

One brother took me by the hands, the other by the feet, swinging me back and forth, "one and two and three...." 

Then, without further ceremony or advice, they flung me into the deep end.

As I posted last week, D. H. Lawrence wrote, "Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving."

Religions are in deep trouble when their people stay in the shallows. 

How is it possible to know, to go with God, if we don't get out of our depth? 

Becoming free and fully alive takes getting to the deep end of the pool--but the way I got there is not the best way. 

I only really know one religion, Christianity. Christianity certainly recommends getting to the deep end, but for centuries we have effectively failed at training people how to swim in the deep end. 

Perhaps it's because we have such a high regard for grace--and such a low regard for works--a high regard for God--and a low regard of our own capacity to meet God, even to incarnate God in the depths of our own lives and in the deep places of life. 

To swim takes training and practice. I flailed my way to the side of the pool after my brothers threw me in. The most I could do the rest of that summer was dog-paddle. The next summer, by watching other swimmers, I developed a passable stroke. It wasn't till I was in my 30s that I actually got lessons, practiced, and actually experienced the joy of smooth, efficient movement through water. 

Love the deep places. 

When we don't love the deep places it's almost always because we haven't been there or haven't been lovingly, skillfully, practically prepared to be there. 

I hope to follow this thread over the next few days. In the meantime, I'd like for as many of you as possible to post here or on my Facebook page the names of people, books, and practices that have helped you come into, to trust, and to navigate the deep end or your religion, soul, spiritual tradition or practice. 

I ask you to do this because it can be so wonderfully helpful for us to check out what inspires, trains and sustains others. If somebody names a person or book--Google the name, go to Amazon and read the book reviews, explore similar books that Amazon's algorithm suggests--then order what looks good from your local book store! 

Follow the threads that seem hopeful and helpful. 

Cultivate and share what works.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Love the Frustrations

We often come across Rilke's quote, "Love the questions."

I've usually enjoyed exploring the kinds of questions Rilke seemed to have in mind--questions of the heart and of the soul. At least I've enjoyed them when I've been able to glimpse the answers, or at least glimpse the regions up ahead where the answers might be found--like hiking and seeing the next ridge or two on the path you're on.

It's a different thing to love questions when you can't glimpse answers, when you're not sure there are answers, when you're not sure you have the ability to find some answers even if they do exist.

Rilke's advice then becomes more like, "Love the frustrations."

Raise your hand if this could be one of your favorite quotes.

Frustration is the feeling of being upset or annoyed as a result of not being able to change or achieve something. Frustration is also the prevention of our progress, success, or fulfillment of something.

Alas, frustration is also the thing that convinces us, by its persistent uncomfortableness, to stop trying to get to where it's so damn hard to go--even when it's the place deep down we want most to go.

What would happen if we actually could grow to "Love the frustrations?" What would that be like?

What would a moment in life be like if Frustration was scratching at our door and we opened the door laughing and invited it in--treating it honorably, trusting (at least a little) that even Frustration is sent as a guide from beyond?

The way to hear what Frustration (as a Guide from Beyond) has to tell us is to find time to be still. To consciously slow down, take a few deep breaths, and listen to and feel what Frustration is bringing to the party.

First, simply feel what frustration is doing in your body. Maybe it's sitting on your chest!

But that's okay. Frustration is never really as heavy as advertised.

Just keep some attention on your breathing, in and out, and a little attention on Frustration's great big butt on your chest--or tightness in your throat--or droopiness in your posture. Wherever Frustration is, just breathe into that place for a few minutes with no other intention but to treat it honorably.

Then keep doing the same thing with a little wider awareness. Listen to whatever is speaking. Try not to argue or be defensive. Breathe. Feel. Listen. Treat each thought and feeling honorably.

Welcoming whoever comes, as Rumi recommends, is always just as simple as this and at the same time almost never just as simple as this. As with everything else in life, the only way to explore this kind of welcoming is to give it a try yourself.

Love the frustrations. Opening our doors to them in a playful, welcoming way sometimes is the same thing as having a door opened for us along those very ways that have seemed, so far, so very closed.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Wonder and Work of Epiphany

The wonder and work of Epiphany is captured in three words--Come And See.

When people began to notice the curious smile, words, and actions of Jesus--and found themselves curious--curious enough to ask, Where do you stay, what is your Source?" Jesus, no doubt with that curious smile, replied, "Come and see."

Curiosity about the important things in life leads to our salvation--leads to wonder, to openness, to wholeness, to fullness of life.

Everyone who responds to the invitation to Come and See, everybody who actually comes with eyes and mind and heart open, has a really good chance of seeing--of seeing a wider, deeper, richer, more malleable  world than we've yet seen.

In the season of Christmas we celebrate Incarnation. We travel with the magi and see that God is in the world! We're so grateful that God is in the world our natural response is Adoration. We fall on our knees.

Epiphany is about responding in the next way.

We see that God is in the world and we get up, we get off our knees and onto our feet so we can follow, explore what Incarnation does in the world. And when we come and see, we see, we witness what Incarnation does in the world. And that leads to the next response, which is Inspiration--we're so stoked by and filled with energy and purpose and a fresh sense of the possible.

And then--if we hang in there--if we stay curious and keep our hearts and minds open, our next response is Imitation. Though we're not sure exactly how it works, we're sure that we too want to help, to share, to love, to make a difference in the world--in the world where we touch it.

In Chapel Hill last week, just before breakfast, my friend Newt Smith and I were in the living room reading and he said--"You wanna hear a good poem?"

I did.

He read.

What he read is a wonderful story of what it is to Come And See--what it is to come with an open mind and heart--what it's like to try to do our best to make a difference in the world.

Here's the poem:

Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal 
Naomi Shihab Nye, Apr 26, 2007

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
 I heard the announcement:

If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
 Please come to the gate immediately.
Well --one pauses these days.
Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
 Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her.

What is her Problem?
 We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she Did this.

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
 Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew – however poorly used
- She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely.

She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the Following day.
I said no, no, we're fine, you'll get there, just late,
 Who is picking you up? Let's call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English. 
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and 
Would ride next to her -- southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it.

Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and 
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.

Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian Poets I know
and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering Questions.
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies --little powdered 
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts --out of her bag --
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a Sacrament.

The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, 
The lovely woman from Laredo -- we were all covered
with the same Powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better Cookie.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from
huge coolers -- Non-alcoholic -- and the two little girls for our flight,
one African American, one Mexican American -- ran around serving  us all apple juice 
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too. 

And I noticed my new best friend -- by now we were holding hands -- 
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, 
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition.
Always Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
 This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
 Not a single person in this gate -- once the crying of confusion stopped
 -- has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
 They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.

 This can still happen anywhere.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Time Will Tell

My daughter has been working hard for a couple months on getting financial aid and a loan in order to continue her education. But...bureaucracies can be a very sticky wicket. It's been one frustration after another. 

However, this past week she'd got it all done and was waiting as patiently as possible for a final decision. 

Thursday night we had supper together and watched an episode of The Forsyte Saga. Afterwards she checked her email and learned that she had not gotten the loan--apparently they would only approve me for the loan, not her. She already knew that I wasn't going to take out a loan. 

She's was devastated. She is soooooo ready to go back and finish her degree.

But as she read over the email again and again, she realized the language wasn't all that clear. We talked about the possibility of suspending judgment (and devastation) until the next day when she could go once again to Financial Aid and find out what was what.

Friday morning she told me she hadn't been able to sleep. She'd anguished all night long. She was so worried and so miserable.

There's a Zen parable that speaks to this very dynamic.


Once upon the 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.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

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

“You never can tell,” 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 saying, "This is such a tragedy!"

“Who can say?” 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.

“Time will tell,” said the farmer.


Evolutionary necessity has given us minds that size up situations quickly, make judgments quickly, set a course of action quickly. But nothing has given us the ability to know the future. None of us is a prophet.

One of the great treasures of 'diving' (see yesterday's blog) is that diving down below the waves of our fast reactions shows us both how much we prophecy and how unhelpful it is to believe our prophecies. 

I've punished myself enough by borrowing tomorrow's trouble. At this stage of life, instead of borrowing I'm working hard to invest in tomorrow by doing my best to sow wise responses today.

Friday morning Ruth went one more time to the Financial Aid office. It was just another mistake. Everything was fine. She got the loan. She gets to go to back to school. She's over the moon. I'm so happy for her.

"How wonderful!"

“Time will tell,” says the farmer, the wise old sower of seeds.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What Our Deepest Selves Like

Are we having fun yet?

Where are we in our life's progression? Are we pleased with where we are? Is our trajectory taking us where we want to go?

Actually, I shouldn't be wondering about such things or sitting at the computer messing about with blogging right now. I should be outside scraping the ice and snow off my car.

To tell the truth, as I'm looking out at the car, maybe what I should really be doing is cleaning the living room windows--they're grimed from the propane heater and smudged by dog noses.

And you? What should you be doing?

You probably shouldn't be reading this blog. You slacker. 

Because...because what we really like is getting stuff done, right?

What's the balance between getting stuff done (and recovering from getting stuff done) and moving toward where we really want to be?

D. H. Lawrence wrote, "Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes. And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving."

Yes, I know, DIVING, another damned thing to get done. Except...

Except--in another way DIVING can be a profound way of not-doing.

Take 2 minutes--for not-doing.

Really, right now--take 2 minutes.

Let your mind ease down into your heart. Rest there.

Just be.

For a brief time--Just Be.

Allow your mind to be active enough to Just Rest.

This is a wonderful way to remember and remember, to discover and discover, what our deepest selves like.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

3 Day Pilgrimage

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness--
only light can do that." MLK
I'm off on a pilgrimage over the next 3 days.

Been a UNC basketball fan most of my life. I've seen 100s of games--but never in person. Tonight, God willing, I'll see my first in the Dean Dome.

Tomorrow we (Newt & June Smith & I) make our way to the Rembrandt Exhibition at the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Thursday, we pay homage to the Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro. The museum is in the old Woolworth building where the historic 1960 non-violent lunch counter sit-ins happened.

The call of Epiphany is to Come and See. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness--only light can do that." MLK

Monday, January 9, 2012

Crossing the Thames

The first time I remember ever paying attention to the word epiphany was in a remarkably apt place to do it. My mother had paid substantially more for my fall senior semester at Furman so that I, an English major, could study in London and Stratford.

The professor who led these trips was Willard Pate, a great mentor. We'd come across the word epiphany in something we were reading early in our six week stay in London. She said, "The next time you cross the Thames' footbridge, remember to stop. Turn around. Look back. Maybe you'll have your own epiphany."

That very night a few of us were going to a piano concert across the Thames at the Royal Festival Hall. We took the footbridge. We remembered. We paused. Turned around to see Whitehall and Westminster lit up at night, the iconic images sparkling, floating on the big river below.

It made my breath catch. Just seeing the beauty, being at least a little aware of how much water had flowed under this bridge, along these banks, metaphorically, across the centuries. My soul seemed to grow--it had to grow in order to make room for the shear wonder of it all.

Then I caught an image of Mom in my mind's eye. I remembered the conversation we'd had about the trip. It was only a year after my dad died of a heart attack. I had said something about the England trip being a big deal for some of the students--but that I knew it cost too much. I was also thinking she might not relish living by herself quite yet.  She'd said simply, "Don't be silly. Go. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'll be fine"

This memory came with a surge of gratitude--I was suddenly experiencing my mom's willingness to bless me. Up till then I hadn't exactly perceived what a rich blessing it was. Then suddenly I was as rich in gratitude as she had been in generosity.

Dr. Pate was right. I was getting a taste of epiphany.

We are in the season of Epiphany now and for the next 6 weeks. The great invitation to the season is Jesus's profound invitation, "Come and See!"

How many ways are there to say yes?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

How To Be A Magus

There’s a star you follow. It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the star.
But it's sometimes hard for others to see.
While you follow it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing we do can stop time’s unfolding.
Don't ever lose sight of the star.

(This is a riff on William Stafford's poem, The Way It Is.)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cultivating a Path

A path is a way. The original name for Christianity was simply the Way. Buddhism is called the Middle Way.  Tao (which can't be literally translated) is often called the Path or Way or Road.

We're always on a path. Looking backward we can see that our past experience is the path we've been on so far. At some point, many of us, looking back, come to a place where we want to choose the way forward more wisely than we chose in the past. We want to cultivate a saner, wiser, richer path.

One of the sweetest realizations in life is that this can be done.

What follows is a string of insights into what it is to value and cultivate a mindful path, a spiritual path. It's from Stephen Batchelor's, Living With The Devil.

A foot path is a space because it offers no resistance to placing one foot in front of the other. Its space allows one to move without hindrance. Space is thus a metaphor of freedom. Instead of seeing a path as a thing on which one walks, imagine it as the space between things that allows one the freedom to walk. If the English language did not condemn us to separate the path from the act of walking, we could speak of such free movement as "pathing."

A compulsion is any mental or emotional state that, on breaking into consciousness, disturbs and captivates us.

Compulsions obstruct the path by monopolizing consciousness.... To escape their grip does not entail suppressing them but creating a space in which we are freed to let them go and they are freed to disappear.

Thus emptiness is a path. It is that open and unfettered space that frees us to respond from a liberating perspective rather than react from a fixed position.

A path is created by clarifying one's aims and removing what gets in the way of their realization. It is carved from commitment and opened up by letting go. It entails both doing something and allowing something to happen. A path is both a task and a gift.

(Creating a path) is guided by an intuitive yearning for what we value most deeply; its space is the openness we are able to tolerate within our own hearts and minds; it is sustained by the network of friendships that inspire us to keep going.

The survival of a path is achieved not by preserving it but by walking it--even when you have not clear idea where it will lead.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Navigating a Closed Path

Life will always confront us with plenty of closed paths--fallen branches, knotted catbrier, etc. And we also have plenty of these within ourselves. We don't need to create any more closed and scratchy paths. 

One of the great gifts of contemplative practices is the training they give us in a GROWING ABILITY TO NAVIGATE CLOSED PATHS. 

Sitting down to meditate is often like entering a thicket--a tangled thicket of thoughts and feelings. Ideas and memories. Compulsions, ego-stroking, ego-damning. Pressures, fears, hopes, dreams. 

Mindfulness doesn't teach us to push through these in order to get someplace else--it trains us instead to be still as these things come to us. 

In an interesting way, mindful practice is nevertheless very much like a path--a path that is traveled best by keeping still. 

To me this does very often feel like Mary Oliver describes it:

Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. 

By keeping going with the practice of being still, we do seem to get somewhere. And coming to the edge of a pond seems as good an image as any for where we get. Open space. A bigger perspective. Light. Air. 

And doesn't the edge of a pond feel good in contrast to knotted catbrier!

Spiritual formation often feels like PUSHING THROUGH. 

Learning to recognize the special kind of balance where our souls can rest often feels like really hard work. And it is. It's the hard work it takes to become familiar with how to rest--anywhere. 

Coming to the edge of the pond doesn't mean we'll often see 'a shower of white fire,' it doesn't mean we'll be always be able to 'step over every dark thing.' But it does mean, learning to be stiller does always mean, we will see better.

We will see WHATEVER. 

We will we better see whatever might present itself. Whatever comes into the open space in front of us, around us, behind, we will see. 

And we're so much better navigating life when we see it.

Today is Epiphany. When a couple of curious disciple-wannabees saw Jesus passing by, they asked him, Where do you stay? 

He answered, Come and see.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Path To the Edge of The Pond

Mindfulness is like being at the edge of the pond. It's also like the path that takes us there.

Be Mary Oliver for a moment. Walk in her shoes, live in her skin, feel what she's feeling, think was she's thinking:

Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that's how I came
to the edge of the pond:

After being hemmed in and frustrated by tight, ensnaring conditions, what a wonderful experience it can be to come to an open place.

Light. Air. Room to see.

And even though she's come to the end of this path and can't go any farther (at least with her feet), she keeps going--by another way.

By stopping, pausing, watching, she's able to go even farther.

And that's how I came
to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds
at the far shore
which, as I looked,
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets - - -
a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them - - -
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

I have my own recognitions reading this, my own 'white fire.' But, if you have a few minutes, linger at the edge of the pond and see what you see.

I think it's wise not to prejudice you with my epiphanies before you've had time--sacred time in this sacred space at the edge of the pond--for your own.

You know, quite amazingly, today is Epiphany Eve.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Curiosity Killed the Cat

--I kept going...

This is we're we paused yesterday.

Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going....

This 'manway' my friends and I were hiking on Saturday was a delight to discover. And the place it finally would take us is spectacular. But the finding of this particular path had been a long and sometimes frustrating process. When I was first exploring the area years ago, I got lost a lot.

Of course, getting lost a lot teaches us a lot about where the path does not go. One time I persisted in a direction that put me in a laurel hell. A laurel hell is the name locals use for massive thickets of laurel and rhododendron.

Very often, at the edge of a laurel hell, you see something that looks like an arch, a path, a kind of tunnel through their tangled trunks and branches. The reason it's called a 'hell' is because these tunnels usually lead deeper into the thicket--and then close in again. And since you've already invested effort in getting where you are, and since you're headed in the general direction you want to go, you keep going--either crawling under the tangled branches or slowly snaking over and through them like a contortionist.

Then you find something else that seems to be a way through, another arching tunnel. Ah, thank God, you think--I can stop crawling and contorting. Then that tunnel peters out too--now deeper into the 'hell.'

I'm grateful for these experiences. I've learned a lot about my stubbornness, which is often unhelpful to myself and others. And I've learned a lot about curiosity--which, though it sometimes fuels stubbornness, is of itself a lovely form of energy. I'm glad to repent of stubbornness. I don't repent of curiosity.

I can remember my mom, every time somebody said, 'Curiosity killed the cat,' replying, 'And satisfaction brought him back!'

Mary Oliver's poem continues,

I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that's how I came
to the edge of the pond...

Curiosity keeps us moving forward, exploring life. And when we're curious about the deep places of life, when we're curious about what really matters, when we keep exploring even as the mosquitoes come 'wheeling and whining,' eventually we often come 'to the edge of the pond.'

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Closed Path

My friend Jeanne Finan opened up my Sunday morning for me with a Facebook post and link to a guy who decided several years ago to read a poem every day. I followed the link and was transported--literally and otherwise. The link eventually led to Mary Oliver's poem, 'Egrets'. 

I don't know exactly what it is that happens when we're reading a wonderful poem and suddenly we're seeing something new--or seeing something familiar in a new way and life just lights up

Here's the poem...

Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that's how I came
to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds
at the far shore
which, as I looked,
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets - - -
a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them - - -
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

Last Saturday I took a hike off the Blue Ridge Parkway with six newish friends, none of whom know this area well. The Parkway was closed because of icy patches--we couldn't get to the 'best' trails.

For 18 years I've hiked around here by myself nearly every Thursday. It's a wonderful way to work on a sermon.

Over these years I've stumbled across what some people call manways. These are ad hoc trails, usually short, often connector trails. I suspect many of these are made by hunters.

I asked my new friends if they were game to take a manway in order to get to a 'real' trail. They were.

But manways are not exactly maintained. They are faint paths to begin with. Limbs and trees are often blown down across them. Bushes and brambles grow into them.

I often move fallen stuff off manways. Knock down a few briars along the way. I suspect most folks who take these little trails do a little maintenance.

Animals do maintenance too. The parts they walk on are better worn. But animals have their own destinations. And their trails always take off in another direction at some point, and it's often hard to tell the difference between their trails and ours.

Often I've taken the wrong trail without knowing it and then realized it's bending in the wrong direction or just petering out all together. I know I'm close to where I want to be. But I'm not there. Is it best to back up--or press on through forest and underbrush?

I love this poem's first 5 lines for their immediacy and vividness,

    Where the path closed
    down and over,
    through the scumbled leaves,
    fallen branches,
    through the knotted catbrier--

I love the next line for its chutzpah and inspiration,

   --I kept going.

This first bit of 'Egrets' is something worth being mindful about--a least for a day!

Monday, January 2, 2012

What Is Insight Meditation?

Vipassana means 'insight.' Or 'to see clearly.' It's the kind of meditation a lot of people do the world over. The Buddhists developed it--and give it away freely. Meditation is not inherently religious. But it's a marvelous tool for spiritual people. 

Vipassana is also translated as 'to see clearly.' Before I knew this translation, I already 'knew it' from meditating. Early on, doing vispassana meditation as part of my morning quiet time, I found myself singing "to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more nearly, follow Thee more nearly--day by day." 

I knew that meditating would help me see, and love, and follow Jesus in a much richer way. For me this is pretty much the same thing as following my life path--living into Irenaeus's words: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." 

Spirituality gets moldy, vapid, feeble without day to day spiritual formation.

What follows is a clear, helpful description of how to 'DO' vipassana meditation. It's from Tara Brach, (the book is Radical Acceptance). 

Find a sitting position that allows you to be alert—spine erect but not rigid—and also relaxed. Close your eyes and rest your hands in an easy, effortless way. Allow your awareness to scan through your body and, wherever possible, soften and release obvious areas of physical tension.

Because we so easily get lost in thoughts, vipassana begins with attention to the breath. Using the breath as a primary anchor of mindfulness helps quiet the mind so that you can be awake to the changing stream of life that moves through you.

Take a few very full breaths, and then allow your breath to be natural. Notice where you most easily detect the breath. You might feel it as it flows in and out of your nose; you might feel the touch of the breath around your nostrils or on your upper lip; or perhaps you feel the movement of your chest or the rising and falling of your abdomen. Bring your attention to the sensations of breathing in one of these areas, perhaps wherever you feel them most distinctly.

There is no need to control the breath, to grasp or fixate on it. There is no “right” way of breathing. With a relaxed awareness, discover what the breath is really like as a changing experience of sensations.

You will find that the mind naturally drifts off in thoughts. Thoughts are not the enemy, and you do not need to clear your mind of thoughts. Rather, you are developing the capacity to recognize when thoughts are happening without getting lost in the story line. When you become aware of thinking, you might use a soft and friendly mental note: “Thinking, thinking.” Then, without any judgment, gently return to the immediacy of the breath. Let the breath be home base, a place of full presence. While you might notice other experiences—the sounds of passing cars, feelings of being warm or cool, sensations of hunger—they can be in the background without drawing you away.

If any particular sensations become strong and call your attention, allow those sensations, instead of the breath, to become the primary subject of mindfulness. You might feel heat or chills, tingling, aching, twisting, stabbing, vibrating. With a soft, open awareness just feel the sensations as they are. Are they pleasant or unpleasant? As you fully attend to them, do they become more intense or dissipate? Notice how they change. When the sensations are no longer a strong experience, return to mindfulness of breathing. Or if the sensations are so unpleasant that you are unable to regard them with any balance or equanimity, feel free to rest your attention again in the breath.

In a similar way, you can bring mindfulness to strong emotions—fear, sadness, happiness, excitement, grief. Meet each experience with a kind and clear presence, neither clinging to nor resisting what is happening. What does this emotion feel like as sensations in your body? Where do you feel it most strongly? Is it static or moving? How big is it? Are your thoughts agitated and vivid? Are they repetitive and dull? Does your mind feel contracted or open? As you pay attention, notice how the emotion changes. Does it become more intense or weaken? Does it change into a different state? Anger to grief? Happiness to peace? When the emotion is no longer compelling, turn your attention back to the breath. If the emotion feels overwhelming for you, or if you are confused about where to place your attention, relax and come home to your breath.

The particular sensations, emotions or thoughts that arise when we practice mindfulness are not so important. It is our willingness to become still and pay attention to our experience, whatever it may be, that plants the seeds of Radical Acceptance. With time we develop the capacity to relate to our passing experience, whether in meditation or daily life, with deep clarity and kindness.