Thursday, July 19, 2012

Eden's Other Gates: Courage

John Bowlby was the English aristocrat and psychoanalyst who developed attachment theory, which "begins with the idea that two basic goals guide children's behavior: safety and exploration; a child who explores and plays develops the skills and intelligence needed for adult life." (Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis)

Bowlby was raised by a nanny and shipped off to a posh boarding school at a young age. It's not much of a stretch that he became interested in how early interactions with our parents shape the balance we find and feel between 'safety and exploration.' All mammal offspring naturally bond with their mothers (often fathers too, but evolution has tied us more to mom than dad). When the bond is 'right,' when we're kids and live in balance between exploring more and more of the world around us WHILE being able to regularly touch base with a caring parent, we grow up to be adults who 'know' how to navigate life.

Not all of us grow up with this skill deeply formed. We're still working on learning to discern healthy balance in our experience of safety and exploration.

This is where courage comes in. Courage is another gate into Eden, the Garden of God. Courage is the ability to do what frightens us. We often don't quite understand what it is and how it works. Some people appear to be doing something courageous when they're not. What they're doing doesn't scare them, so it doesn't take courage to do it.

Courage comes from the Latin cor, which simply means heart. People have long intuited that to be brave takes a lot of heart. Wee mammals find encouragement to explore the world around them regularly to-ing and fro-ing with mom and dad as home base.

Whether we come to adulthood with this gift well formed or not, we can take real pleasure in developing it. Developing courage literally means being enheartened--encouraged. Practicing 'going to the places that scare us opens, strengthens, widens and fills our hearts. 

We don't need to look far to find places that scare us. The lives we have right now hold lots of places that scare us. All we need to do is GO THERE sometimes--ON PURPOSE.

The best places to start are PLACES THAT MATTER. Places our heads and hearts KNOW are worth going to. Places we recognize--places we recognize because they've become very familiar as we've gotten good at avoiding them. 

Practicing courage is not something to attempt half-heartedly. It's usually a little dangerous--this going to places that scare us. It's wise to go there wide-eyed and carefully, full of care for these very selves of ours who are afraid. 

First we can decide to experiment. Then discern the WHAT we intend to experiment WITH. Then we can remember to be good parents to the fearful self who doesn't want to go to places that scare us. We can keep a circuit open from mind to heart, to-ing and fro-ing between what we're DOING and what we're FEELING. Allowing the 'wee mammal' to touch base with a wise, kind inner parent as it explores new aspects of life.

Expect to be at least a little scared when you try this. An angel with a fiery sword guards Eden's East Gate. 

Be sure also to take time to savor the fruit of encouragement when, having purposed to practice going to a place that scares you, you find yourself in this very garden, having come home to it, courageously, by another way. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Eden's Other Gates: Gratitude

At some level, most of us humans experience a kind of spiritual homelessness. A disappointment that life is not as full or good as we know it might be--or could or should be. And neither are we. It's an ancient ache.

The story of the Garden of Eden is all about this ache. Something in us is homesick and yearns for life--our life and LIFE itself to be other than it is. Some of our ancestors let this ache fill and then spill out of them as the powerful narrative of gift and loss that Adam and Eve embody. They had it all--and through their own 'fault' lost it. God banished them from the Garden--escorted them to the East Gate of Eden and posted an angel with a flaming sword to guard the gate eternally. We'll never live there again.

But we can visit.

The fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, steadfastness and self-discipline--are portals to Eden. These fruits (and others) are like day-passes (or maybe hour or minute passes) into the Garden of God.

But there's another story we need to tell alongside Eden and the Fall--the story of evolution.

Instead of being created all at once at the top of the food chain, we humans rose up through the ranks: the shape and history of our brains tell this story. We a have fish/lizard brain, a mammal brain, and a primate brain glommed one on top of the other--each doing the 'job' it evolved to do. Our primate brain knows Good is always possible. Our lizard brain knows Bad is always likely--and it's wired to fire fast--to bite, to run or to hide in the blink of an eye. Lizard impulses can race from brainstem through our whole bodies while our human brains are still putting on their shoes.

Lizard brain is amoral, too--whatever gets you through the night in one piece! Human brain can imagine the Garden of God--and can intuit we don't really deserve it!

Defining what we deserve is above my pay grade, but pointing toward what we might experience is my vocation. And I think we can visit God's garden and taste its fruit many times a day. There are many ways back to Eden, at least for a visit. One way, for example, is through the gate of Gratitude.

Our 'brains' have to work together to do this. Lizard brain is wired for negativity. We're five times more likely to focus on negative experiences than positive ones. Winning tickets of the evolutionary lottery were held by those who had a knack for sniffing out danger. Fear and avoidance helped us survive. A good portion of our misery comes as a hangover from this gift! So, it might not seem fair (fair, shmair!), but we get to work five times harder to 'wire' our brains positively instead of negatively. Gratitude is a great Re-Wirer.

To visit Eden, almost as often as we want, all we have to do is to remember to notice the Good we experience during the day and STAY with it for awhile--like about six times longer than we tend to do! We do what we can to enlist Brother Lizard to begin to be vigilant for the Good. And we reward him by Tasting the Good, savoring little bits of the day's grace with a grateful heart and mind and body. We're not just remembering to notice the good stuff--but to hold it, feel it, linger and rest in it.

We simply set our minds to begin using our brains as they are instead of how we wish they were or believe they should be. At some point in our lives most of us thought 'Counting Blessings' was kind of lame. We don't need to think like this anymore. Counting our blessings can be nothing less than a portal to Eden. When we do it, when we practice gratitude five or six times a day, sustaining our focus for 10, 20, or 30 seconds, our brains begin to take a different shape. Literally. Neurons that fire together wire together--and the homelessness our souls have been tuned to experience begins to morph into the sense of home-coming we're determined to practice and trust.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Compassion Practice

"Memory fails me." More than it used to. Just in the past couple of days, stuff I've forgotten in my work has inconvenienced other people. The small self hates that because it makes me look bad. And then it tries to 'spur' me on, with BLAME and SHAME, so I can 'do better.' Bigger self works with the situation differently.

But for now, let's stay with small self tactics. Can you conjure what blame and shame feel like? I'm still somewhat under their influence this morning so it's no trouble to feel both. And the most helpful way I know to describe what they feel like is CORROSIVE. They're eating away at me--steadily working semi-consciously.

So...what can we do with corrosive responses? How does the Growing Self work with blame, shame, etc.?

Compassion Practice is a great place to start--it's good medicine.

Mindfulness is 'composed' of Clarity and Kindness--seeing clearly, loving dearly. Sometimes we especially need to love dearly.

As I Christian, I've long understood that we can lean back into the Everlasting Arms. I've long taken Jesus up on his invitation to "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give your rest." 

I've also appreciated Buddhist psychology's stress on embedding lovingkindness, literally embedding it into the fibers of our minds and hearts--with practice--practice--and more practice. 

It comes together for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists as we commit to love our neighbors as ourselves. Yet most of us have lived most of our lives with very little love for ourselves. AND there's a connection.

Thich Nhat Hahn recommends a simple, elegant, and very short practice. He says, Do this:

Breathing in--I notice my heart.
Breathing out--I smile to my heart.

When I first read about this practice, I thought it was insipid and simplistic. But, of course, the more one learns about Thich Nhat Hahn, the more one realizes there must be more to it. Noticing and Smiling can be understood as Seeing Clearly and Loving Dearly. Being Clear. Being Kind.

There's never anything Pollyanna about kindness when we're seeing clearly. 

The challenge is coming to understand what goes into that Smile--our own particular smile. We all have to bring our own sort of integrity to the process. What works for you? Which components of a smile can you honestly integrate into the way you smile to your heart?

I find it's almost always possible for me to bring a little irony in--just a hint of a grin--Here we go (sigh) again!

But deeper than that, a lot deeper, we have a reservoir of love itself--though often it feels unreachable from "HERE"--the place we're stuck in blame or shame or _____, or _____.

I often reference an early mentor who said, "Love is more than a feeling. It's a choice." I knew this mentor well and he practiced what he preached. Showed others what he said was possible. So, I can never long get away with believing love is truly beyond reach. Just remembering this, eventually, usually sooner than later, makes me smile.

In a more earthy way, dogs and cats bring a smile. Other people's kindness, the night sky, nearly all growing things, picturing my dad's smile, remembering my plucky 5'2" mother--taking a moment to recall and 'see' any of these has the capacity to first neutralize and eventually replace corrosive feelings.

There are many formal lovingkindness practices. If you don't yet have one you work with regularly, taking two or three minutes to notice your heart, to smile to your heart, can make a difference the first time you try it. And as you continue to explore what fuels your smile, it only gets deeper and better integrated with who you genuinely are and are becoming. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Wanna be wiser? And happier? There’s an app for that. It’s called BigTentMind.

Sages right down to the present keep updating it. They often call it non-dual thinking. But not many people will download an app called Non-Dual-Thinking.

I didn’t come up with the name BigTentMind. God copywrited it a long time ago—about two and half millennia ago. Isaiah was doing God’s press releases back then.

“Make a large area for your tent.
      Spread out its curtains.
      Go ahead and make your tent wider.
   Make its ropes longer.
      Drive the stakes down deeper.
  You will spread out to the right and the left.”

This is how BigTentMind works. It spreads, widens, lengthens, and deepens till there’s room in our understanding for everything that needs to be understood—not that we’ll ever understand it all—just that we’ll keep making room for it.

Another Bible thing comes to mind—the story of Mary and Martha, when Jesus visits them. Mary stops work and sits down to hear what Jesus has to say. Martha keeps working in the kitchen—and gets mad at Mary for leaving her to cook by herself. She interrupts Jesus just long enough to say, “Would you please tell my sister to help me fix the *^%# meal!”

Jesus says, “Martha, my dear, you are worried and bothered about providing so many things. Only a few things are really needed, perhaps only one. Mary has chosen the best part and you don’t need to tear it away from her.”

In the 35 years I’ve been having conversations with people about this story, we always seem to pick sides…which is better--service or prayer, practical hospitality or contemplative presence, yang or yin?

“Only a few things are needed,” says Jesus, “perhaps only one.” The trick, seems to me, is knowing which one.

It’s not like Jesus didn’t have both a Service Practice and a Contemplative Practice. You know the time he fed all those people? You know what he was on his way to do when he ran into them? He and his disciples have been working too hard and are worn out--plus they've just learned that Jesus's mentor, John the Baptist, has been beheaded--he’s taking them to a quiet place to rest, to pray together, to heal and be restored.

Yet he doesn’t say NO to all those thousands who need him at this moment . He suspends his plans—he “settles down to teach them about many things.” And, as it got late and everybody got hungry, he feeds them. Sometimes he’s Mary, sometimes he’s Martha. It’s a BOTH/AND thing. One thing this time and another thing another time. It's perhaps more accurate to say, it's all ONE thing.

BigTentMind stretches its boundaries, puts tent pegs down deeper, holds more stuff—yet holds it much more comfortably.

Some things can only be done in solitude. Some things can only be done in a crowd. Some things drain us. Some things fill us up.

In one way, Life is asking us every waking moment, “Is this a time to DO?” or “Is this a time to BE?” A time to talk or to listen? A time to work or a time to rest? A time to try or a time to wait? A time for speed or a time for patience?

In the Big Tent, there’s plenty of room for Doing and plenty of room for Being. Enough time to pray and enough time to act. Continuing to explore the balance between 'this' and 'that',  within both the yin and the yang of our moments, we find our way. Our work and our rest.

Most times, it’s possible to yin before we yang. To ‘take a moment’ (just a moment) to settle down, to quiet our souls, to inquire, is it time to sit down and listen or time to get in the kitchen and cook? Yinning first, we’re able to Yang with so much more focus and natural pace. Over time we experience more peace in our doing AND more energy in our resting.

It’s a Both/And thing—held together in BigTentMind. It’s downloadable in every moment. And, as we face the 'right way,' we’ll always have coverage. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Working with Strong-ish Feelings

Below is one of the practices we used this morning in our Monthly Mindfulness group. It adapts well for home use too!

Mindful Walking & Reflection (45 minutes)
o   Sit or walk with this. Find a comfortable place to read it—2 or 3 times if need be.
o   Then begin to work with this practice as suggested
o   When the church bell rings, slowing ‘come back’ (you’ll have 10 more minutes)

If you decide you’re ready to ‘practice’ investigating one of your strong-ish feelings, then take time to review some ‘stuff’ you’ve been experiencing lately. Choose one strong-ish feeling to work with.

Think about it. Journal with it. Is it familiar, regular? How long have you experienced it? What’s it about?

What’s its source? Journal just enough to make this feeling ‘active’ now. Then stop thinking and journaling and begin to work with it in meditation.

Bring kind attention to your mind and body. ‘Welcome’ what you’ve been thinking and journaling about. Don’t try to get rid of any part of it.

How do you ‘feel’ the feeling—where is it in the body? What does it feel like--Hot? Cold? Solid? Soft? Sharp? Does it come with anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, shame? Or something else? Just notice this much.

Then ask, What ‘story’ or ‘stories’ does this feeling tell or evoke? What habitual narrative is paired with it? Let it tell its tale.

Now, begin to let the story, the thinking part, go. Let it go. Slowly, purposefully let it go.

Bring your attention, your kind attention, only to the feeling. Hold it gently in awareness.

Continue to feel it as you breathe. Breathe into the feeling. Breathe out from the feeling. Breathe all the way around it. Continue to do this kind of breathing in and out and around--doing your best to notice both the feeling and the breath. Repeat the pattern—in and out and around—see if the feeling ‘relaxes.’

If the feeling seems too painful or if it feels in some way dangerous, put more of your attention on your breathing—in and out and around. If it’s still painful or seems dangerous, bring all your attention to your breathing. Keep breathing, with your attention anchored in your breath.If it gets to feel unmanageable, stop. Get up and walk. Let your attention go entirely to something else.

This is a way we can work with feelings and their narratives—small and big. Either way, whatever comes up, we learn more about it. Most feelings and the stories that come with them naturally dissipate, at least somewhat, when we work with them in this way. If they’re big and scary, we can work with them more slowly, gently, lovingly and cautiously. Over time, even scary stuff most often becomes manageable. And this back and forth between conscious thinking (whether journaling or just good, focused thinking) is a fruitful process.

This is a good practice to use regularly with small-ish stuff—and then, in those times when stronger feelings are hijacking our lives, we’re more prepared to work with those too.  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Active Awareness: Writing on the Heart

Many people think that other people meditate in order to find inner peace, to be calm. And that's true. But it's not all--and it sounds too passive. A lot of people meditate in order to bring peace, too--a very, very active process.

I love the story of Jesus and "The Woman Caught in Adultery." It's a wonderful glimpse into active awareness.

Many of you know the story--but don't let that stop you from hearing for the first time!

Jesus is doing his thing, moving from town to town, trying to show people what the realm, the territory of God looks like by actually embodying that realm wherever he is.

But he's unorthodox--stretches accepted mores--breaks some of the rules that religious leaders consider inviolate--and just generally gets up the noises of by-the-book people. And these by-the-book people want to show others just how unorthodox and unacceptable Jesus really is.

So they 'catch' a woman in the act of adultery, drag her out of her house, bring her to where Jesus is teaching, drop her between Jesus and his 'audience' and then say--"Teacher, we just caught this woman committing adultery. The Law says she must be stoned. What do you say?"'s a moment for Active Awareness. It's a moment for us to consider and savor how Jesus worked with hard stuff. It's a put up or shut up kind of moment. A so very public opportunity for Jesus to show how the realm of God works--how love gets embodied wisely and effectively in the world.

Jesus doesn't answer at first. This seems to me as important as anything in this story. He doesn't answer. He moves instead into a Sacred Pause. He literally doodles in the dirt.

The prophet Jeremiah said that a time would come when we would know God's way not from reading the law carved in stone but from actually experiencing God's finger writing on our hearts. I think this is what Jesus is inviting, expecting, and pausing to create.

I imagine him exhaling, whew, and thinking something along the lines of "Holy crap."

Then I imagine him taking stock. A woman's life is at stake, this woman's life who's kneeling here in front of me in the same dirt I'm writing on.

Wisdom itself is at stake--how these people in this town will come to understand God's way.

I think Jesus has come to trust the process of God's finger writing on his heart. I like to think that Jesus's finger writing in the dirt is a kind of parallel expression of this trust--as well as a very practical process: ALLOWING TIME for 'wisdom' to happen. Allowing space for the prayer "What might I say and do?" to be answered. Allowing time for God's finger to write on his heart.

In this space there is the kind of peace that people associate with contemplation. Jesus regularly took retreats in quiet places. He's taking one now, in this moment. The quiet place is a moment of 'the peace that passes understanding.' It's a place reached by pausing. Because he's found it often before alone and in unhurried ways, it can happen now in a crowd, under pressure, and in the time it takes to doodle in the dirt.

As Jesus returns to the outer reality, he says (rather memorably, don't you think?) "Let those who've never sinned throw the first stones."

Wonderfully, there's another pause. God's finger is apparently writing on other hearts. Then there's the sound of stones falling to the ground, and people walking away. And then the long, grateful sigh of one woman.

Every day finds us in places where love might be embodied wisely right where we are. Often in ways we don't yet know how to embody. We'll sense possibility--and then perplexity. This glimpse of possibility and this sense of perplexity can be ignored or welcomed. To welcome it all we need do is to invoke a Sacred Pause. To ask, to wait, to hope, to trust, to experiment with allowing God's finger to write on our hearts.

In my experience, the 'Way' is never as clear in me as it was for Jesus--yet it's always more than it would have been if I hadn't given it a try.

The connection between the peace we find in contemplative practices and the peace we intend to share in the workaday world is potent. The world is often dropping stuff in front of us and saying in one way and another, "This is just how it is!" And the world is right. It is how it usually is.

But it's not how it might be. And sometimes can be.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What's the Big Deal about Spaciousness?'ve decided to take Rumi's advice and experiment sometimes with letting your life be like a guest house. You're welcoming whoever (and whatever) comes. Meeting them at door laughing. AND, against so-called 'better judgment''re inviting them in.

So, here's the question: Where in the world are you putting all these guests?

Last week I wrote about the quality of awareness. I started with TOLERANCE...

"Tolerance is a beautiful thing. It's a growing ability to see, to recognize, to accept and to work with things as they are (in contrast to how we wish or perhaps fear they were). The more we cultivate and appreciate tolerance, the more the quality of our AWARENESS expands and deepens."

Look back at whatever you've been welcoming, tolerating lately. Ask yourself again, Where AM I putting all these guests?

Is it that you're holding them in awareness? Holding more and more stuff in awareness--more than you used to be able to hold? Is maybe the quality of your awareness expanding and deepening?

The fruit of tolerance is SPACIOUSNESS. Roominess (I can't help making the pun--Rumi-ness--since his 'Guesthouse' is coming to be such a widely loved metaphor for spaciousness).

In mindfulness we don't exactly practice spaciousness. We practice 'welcoming' and 'tolerance' which teach us there's more room in us than we ever guessed. Because of our commitment to welcoming whoever comes, the old certainties of becoming engorged with and smothered by what we're scared of and disgusted by don't seem true anymore. The tightness of fear and repression is being transformed into the spaciousness of trust and welcoming.

This is a big deal. Fear keeps things 'out there' somewhere in the dark--unknown and potent. Repression keeps things pushed down, crammed somewhere down in the basement--unknown and potent. Tolerance welcomes them all, brings them into clear and kind attention. "Here" (as opposed to "there") we make the acquaintance of what we fear--we befriend our supposed enemies.

Spaciousness is a big table. God prepares a banquet for us in the 'presence of our enemies' and fully intends for us to enjoy the feast. Trusting that this is possible helps make it so.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Quality of Awareness: Curiosity

Curiosity spices our lives. It's another filament we can spin into our practice of being awake and aware. The word curiosity comes from the Latin, cura--which means care. If I were a parish priest in England, I might be called a curate because I would have responsibility for a 'cure of souls.' Yet 'cure' doesn't mean what it sounds like, at least not literally. A 'cure' is the physical area of a parish, the boundaries of a priest's parish neighborhood.

Curiosity means to take a conscious interest in something. Literally to 'care' about it. Curiosity naturally fuels active awareness. When we're interested in something, curious about it, the 'something' draws us in, engages us, teaches us, maybe even delights us.

Jack Kornfield relates a wonderful example of a reluctant kind of curiosity:

One young army officer who had a hot temper and a history of anger--and stress-related problems--was ordered by his colonel to attend an eight-week mindfulness training class to help reduce his level of stress. One day, after attending the class for some weeks, he stopped for groceries on his way home. He was in a hurry and a bit irritated as usual.

When he took his cart to check out, there were long lines. He noticed the woman in front of him had only one item but wasn't in the express line. She was carrying a baby and talking to the cashier. He became irritated.

She was in the wrong line, talking, holding everybody up. Then she passed the baby to the cashier and the cashier spent a moment cooing over the child. He could feel his habitual anger rising.

But because he'd been practicing mindfulness, he started to become aware of the heat and tightness in his body. He could feel the pain. He breathed and relaxed. When he looked up again he saw the little boy smiling.

As he reached the cashier he said, "That's a cute little boy."

"Oh, did you like him?" she responded. "That's my baby. His father was in the air force, but he was killed last winter. Now I have to work full time. My mom tries to bring my boy in once or twice a day so I can see him."

Curiosity leads us to care about stuff; it gives each of us a 'care of souls,' ours and others--an active interest in what's in and around us. Care widens our boundaries. As we say 'Yes' to curiosity, Life opens in life-changing ways.