Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tasting Life

Life often feels good. Life sometimes also feels bad. Sometimes it's bland. Sometimes it's delicious. Slowing down helps us notice and honor--maybe even welcome--whatever life feels or tastes like.

I love this Jean Janzen poem. It supports my own bias--to grow in openness and skill to taste life to the full.


Wild Grapes  --Jean Janzen

Grandfather, dying in November,
asked for wild grapes from
a distant creek. He remembered them,
sweet under the leaves, sent Peter,
his eldest, on horseback.
Through the window the light,
golden as broth, filled his bedside cups,
and the dusty air shimmered.

I have known others who, at the end,
crushed the flesh of nectarine against
the dry palate, or swallowed bits
of cake, eyes brimming.

What to drink in remembrance
of each morning that offered itself
with open arms? What food
for the moments we whispered
into its brightness?

Grandfather, the last pain-filled days,
dreamed cures. He who loved God,
who would go to him, but who also
loved this world, filled as it is
with such indescribable beauty that
you have to eat it.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Pilgrimage and Presence

There's a wonderful old prayer, formatted below as a poem:

O God of peace, you
have taught us
that in returning
and rest
we shall be saved,
in quietness
and confidence
shall be our strength.
By the might
of your Spirit
lift us,
we pray,
into your presence,
where we may be still
and know
that you are God.

If you haven't already, take an unhurried moment to read, to move with these words at a pace where you neither get ahead of them or fall behind. 

If you find a word or phrase unhelpful do your best to translate them into something that’s truer for you. 

What else might you change to make this prayer a prayer that describes what takes you into Presence? 

I can imagine God might want to make changes too (though we can never be really sure what changes those might be)!

I experience this as a wonderful prayer. Almost every time I pray it, it functions for me like an incantation--like Gandalf chanting "Speak Friend And Open," at the Gates of Moria. If I slow down and move with these words, literally at the pace of comprehension, doors open, and I am present for Presence.

Lots of people used to invest lots of time and effort in order to come into Presence. People made pilgrimages to holy places. 'Holy Place' is how 'Sanctuary' translates. The thing that sanctifies a place is Presence

Read this snippet from an R S Thomas poem:

In cities that
   have outgrown their promise people
   are becoming pilgrims
   again, if not to this place,
   then to the recreation of it
   in their own spirits. 

We live at a time when people are becoming pilgrims to holy places in their own spirits. This doesn't mean we don't also find Presence in traditional sacred places. It's a both/and thing for many of us, though for some, for one reason and another, it's often necessary to make new paths.  Both old and new pilgrim paths move people toward Presence. And both take people into community and adventure. 

And both involve inspiration, effort and grace. But neither guarantees Presence—though it's very rare when Presence is not experienced on the way to and within the holy places of pilgrimage. 

Just slowing down and 'entering' the prayer at the beginning of this post is a kind of pilgrimage. The 'returning' describes a path we take and take and take. No guarantee of Presence. And yet....

And yet...it is on journeys like this, short or long, where we find the quieting and the stilling and the knowing that something in us is always longing for.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Pace & Peace

Wanna find God? Simple. Drive slower--God doesn't break the speed limit unless somebody's pregnant and needs to get to the hospital.

Wanna find peace? No problem. Let the worries of your driven self race on ahead while you stay behind with what's left.

Wanna be joyful? Easy. Chew slow enough to taste your food. God prepares a table for us every day--and even though it's often in the presence of our 'enemies,' each bite of God's cooking is too good to miss.

Do these and similar things figuratively and literally.

By 'literally' I mean at least once a day drive slower than usual. Use your car as a hermitage. Be kind. Make room for others on the road. Take the scenic route.

When you feel anxiety like a squirmy bunch of catepillars in your gut, pick one, just one, and watch it until it metamorphs into a moth or butterfly and under it's own power flies away.

At 3:45 in the afternoon say to yourself, "How about a nice cuppa tea?" Then put a kettle on and call the time it takes to boil a sabbatical.

All those wise ones over the years are right, you know?

Going faster than the actual speed of life keeps us perptetually just out of reachof what life actually can be--Real, Pithy, Delightful, Full of Flavor.

Wave your wand. Take one small step...backward. Exhale. Move at the pace of Life.

(MH--re-posted from last year)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Healing: The Mind

Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free." This is a favorite Wisdom saying for me these days. Only I've been adding President James Garfield's addendum to it: "But first it will make you miserable."

This isn't always true. And Garfield says it in a way that shocks for emphasis. Yet when we're on a spiritual path, and we're inspired and brave enough to stay on it, it's true enough. 

The following passage from Jack Kornfield is a good description of one of the unavoidable views we get along 'true' spiritual paths. It's the prettiest picture. Yet "True" trumps "Pretty." Doesn't it? 

Or at least, Shouldn't it?

Mindful practice trains a person to observe the mind honestly and compassionately. What follows from JK is the honesty part--a truth that steady, clear, and brave observation always reveals. As you're reading it, remember the compassion part--the combination of clear eyes and warm hearts is the very prescription for deep and lasting healing. 

('Sweeter' bits will follow soon)

Just as we heal the body and the heart though awareness, so can we heal the mind. Just as we learn about the nature and rhythm of sensations and feelings, so can we learn about the nature of thoughts. As we notice our thoughts in meditation, we discover that they are not in our control—we swim in an uninvited constant stream of memories, plans, expectations, judgments, regrets.

The mind begins to show how it contains all possibilities, often in conflict with one another—the beautiful qualities of a saint and the dark forces of a dictator and murderer. Out of these, the mind plans and imagines, creating endless struggles and scenarios for changing the world.

Yet the very root of these movements of mind is dissatisfaction. We seem to want both endless excitement and perfect peace. Instead of being served by our thinking, we are driven by it in many unconscious and unexamined ways. While thoughts can be enormously useful and creative, most often they dominate our experience with ideas of likes versus dislikes, higher versus lower, self versus other. They tell stories about our successes and failures, plan our security, and habitually remind us of who and what we think we are.

This dualistic nature of thought is a root of our suffering. Whenever we think of ourselves as separate, fear and attachment arise and we grow constricted, defensive, ambitious, and territorial. To protect the separate self, we push certain things away, while to bolster it we hold tightly to other things and identify with them. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Healing: The Art Letting Go

Richard Rohr, in the three paragraphs that follow, connects 'letting go' with forgiveness. Both these practices, Forgiveness and Letting Go, are part of the life work we do to heal ourselves and our world.

It's a beautiful teaching. Embodying it, practicing it, letting the habit of doing it become familiar (and almost delightful!) transforms us.

What does letting go on the practical level tell us? Letting go is different than denying or repressing. To let go of something is to admit it. You have to own it. Letting go is different than turning it against yourself; different than projecting it onto others. Letting go means that the denied, repressed, rejected parts of yourself, which are nonetheless true, are seen for what they are; but you refuse to turn them against yourself or against others. This is not denial or pretend, but actual transformation.

The religious word for this letting go is some form of forgiveness. You see the imperfect moment for what it is, and you hand it over to God. You refuse to let any negative storyline or self-serving agenda define your life. This is a very, very different way of living; it implies that you see your mistakes, your dark side, but you do not identify with either your superiority or your inferiority. Both are equally a problem.

Forgiveness is of one piece. Those who give it can also receive it. Those who receive it can pass forgiveness on. You are a conduit, and your only job is not to stop the flow. The art of letting go is really the secret of happiness and freedom.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Healing: The Heart

We continue the 'healing' thread. This week: healing the heart.

Following is a short and very helpful 4 lines by Thomas Keating, the godfather of a resurgence of Contemplative Prayer in North America. And a longer section from Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart.

In this section JK quotes a wonderful poem by Windell Berry, I Go Among Trees and Sit Still. I've added a stanza that was left out.

I find all of this very helpful, but also deeply intuitive. I had to read WB's poem 5 times before I could even begin to absorb who was scared of what, etc.

Yet these re-readings were wonderfully rewarded--a growing understanding began to light up some of the typical stuff that troubles me, body and soul.

I wish the same light for you.

   The mind deceives.
   The body never lies.
   Listen to the wisdom of your body.
   Hear its truth. --Fr.Thomas Keating

Just as we open and heal the body by sensing its rhythms and touching it with a deep and kind attention, so we can open and heal other dimensions of our being. The heart and the feelings go through a similar process of healing... Most often, opening the heart begins by opening to a lifetime's accumulation of unacknowledged sorrow.

As we heal through meditation, our hearts break open to feel fully. Powerful feelings, deep unspoken parts of ourselves arise, and our task in meditation is first to let them move through us, then to recognize them and allow them to speak. A poem by Windell Berry illustrates this beautifully.

   I go among trees and sit still...
   Then what is afraid of me comes
   and lives a while in my sight.
   What it fears in me leaves me,
   and the fear of me leaves it.
   It sings, and I hear its song.

   Then what I am afraid of comes.
   I live for a while in its sight.
   What I fear in it leaves it,
   and the fear of it leaves me.
   It sings, and I hear its song.

   After days of labor,
   mute in my consternations,
   I hear my song at last,
   and I sing it. As we sing,
   the day turns, the trees move.

In truly listening to our most painful songs, we can learn the divine art of forgiveness; both forgiveness and compassion arise spontaneously with the opening of the heart. Somehow, in feeling our own pain and sorrow, our own ocean of tears, we come to know that ours is a shared pain and that the mystery and beauty and pain of life cannot be separated. This universal pain, too, is part of our connection with one another, and in the face of it we cannot withhold our love any longer.  --Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart

Monday, August 5, 2013

Healing: Suffering Is Optional

Deep in the DNA of mindfulness is the insight that suffering is optional. If you practice mindfulness, even after a few weeks, you'll likely begin to see this for yourself.

However--there's a catch. There's some playfulness here with the definitions of pain and suffering. The Buddha used an example.

You get shot in the arm with an arrow. It hurts. A lot. That's pain. It's very, very real.

Ah, but then, you react to getting shot with an arrow. Who did this! Why me? Will my arm become infected? How long will it be before I can play tennis again? Maybe the Buddha didn't actually say this last bit. But he did say that this secondary discomfort is like getting shot by a second arrow. This is Me shooting Me, and You shooting You. This second arrow is suffering.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Mindfulness both invites us and trains us to see which is which.

We are invited to take pain for exactly what it is and to work with it skillfully. We practice giving our best attention to the first arrow and dealing with it wisely and kindly.

And we are invited to take suffering for exactly what it is and work with it skillfully as well. We train in slowing down enough to note this second arrow--and who shoots it. In doing this we see (over and over) how reactive we are to pain.

Pain is inevitable; pain visits us regularly. Suffering visits us regularly too. But it's not inevitable--in many ways it is truly optional. And we can progressively come to understand what causes suffering and what cures it.

Below is another wise and helpful teaching on this from Jack Kornfield's A Path With Heart.

We can learn to be aware of pain without creating further tension, to experience and observe pain physically as pressure, tightness, pin pricks, needles, throbbing, or burning. Then we can notice all the layers around the pain. Beyond this may be an emotional layer of aversion, anger, or fear, and a layer of thoughts and attitudes such as "I hope this will go away soon" or "I feel pain: I must be doing something wrong."

Some practices try to conquer the body. Sometimes healers will recommend consciously aggressive meditation for healing certain illnesses. For certain people this has been helpful, but for myself and others, who have worked extensively with healing meditation, we find that a deeper kind of healing takes place when instead of sending aversion and aggression to wounds and illness, we bring loving kindness. Too often we have met our pain and disease, whether a simple back ache or a grave disease, by hating it, hating the whole afflicted area of our body. In mindful healing we direct a compassionate and loving attention to touch the innermost part of our wounds--and healing occurs.

Bringing systematic attention to our body can change our whole relationship to our physical life. We can notice more clearly the rhythms and needs of our bodies. Without mindfully attending to our bodies, we may become so busy in our daily lives that we lose touch with a sense of appropriate diet, movement, and physical enjoyment. Meditation can help us find out in what ways we are neglecting the physical aspects of our lives and help us hear what our body asks of us.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Healing: We Must Study Pain.

More from Jack Kornfield on healing--specifically healing for and through the getting in better and better touch with our bodies. JK's advice "we must study pain" sounds pretty unattractive. It sure is counterintuitive for almost all of it. Funny, how helpful it turns out to be.

Thankfully, mindful practices get very specific in giving us both the why and how we do it.

Meditation practice often begins with techniques for bringing us to an awareness of our bodies. This is especially important in a culture such as ours, which has neglected physical and instinctual life.

With awareness, we can cultivate a willingness to open to physical experiences without struggling against them, to actually live in our bodies. As we do so, we feel more clearly its pleasures and its pains. Because our culture teaches us to avoid or run from pain, we do not know much about it. To heal the body we must study pain.

However, most often the kind of pains we encounter in meditative attention or not indications of physical problems. They are the painful, physical manifestations of our emotional, psychological, and spiritual holdings and contractions. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich called these pains our muscular armor, the areas of our body that we have tightened over and over in painful situations as a way to protect ourselves from life's inevitable difficulties. As we sit still, our shoulders, our backs, our jaws, or our necks may hurt. Accumulated knots in the fabric of our body, previously undetected, begin to reveal themselves as we open. As we become conscious of the pain they have held, we may also noticed feelings, memories, or images connected specifically to each area of tension.

As we gradually include in our awareness all that we have previously shut out and neglected, our body heals. Learning to work with this opening is part of the art of meditation. We can bring an open and respectful attention to the sensations that make up our bodily experience. In this process, we must work to develop a feeling awareness of what is actually going on in the body.

When you meditate, try to allow whatever arises to move through you as it will. Let your attention be very kind. Layers of tensions will gradually release, and energy will begin to move. Places in your body where you have held the patterns of old illness and trauma will open.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Healing Body, Mind & Heart

I'm rereading Jack Kornfield's A Path with Heart and (yet again) finding it wise and helpful. I hope to be able to put some regular snippets here over the next month. 

Early in the book JK points us to the relationship between mindfulness and healing: healing of our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. Not surprisingly, he slows us down, taking the time to allow us to consider and begin to understand why this is so--and how mindfulness both invites and enables healing to happen. 

I first read A Path with Heart about 6 years ago. Seeing it on my shelf a couple of weeks ago, part of me was thinking, 'I've already read this 3 times; it will probably be boring to read it again.' 

Ha! It's just as stimulating and challenging as it was before. Though there is the difference of seeing how what I have been able to understand, take to heart, and practice has enriched my life over the past 5 years. 

As the banner of this blog declares, "Slow transformation is way better than no transformation." All spiritual practice is a kind of Path-ing: setting deep intentions and following them. Going where we hadn't yet been and gradually incarnating our deepest and truest desires.

Almost everyone who undertakes a true spiritual path will discover that a profound personal healing is a necessary part of his or her spiritual process. When this need is acknowledged, spiritual practice can be directed to bring such healing to the body, heart, and mind. This is not a new notion. Since ancient times, spiritual practice has been described as a process of healing. The Buddha and Jesus were both known as healers of the body, as well as great physicians of the spirit.

Wise spiritual practice requires that we actively address the pain and conflict of our life in order to come to inner integration and harmony. Through wise guidance, meditation can help bring to this healing. Without including the essential step of healing, students will find that they are blocked from deeper levels of meditation or are unable to integrate them into their lives.

Many people first come to spiritual practice hoping to skip over their sorrows and wounds, the difficult areas of their lives. They hope to rise above them and enter a spiritual realm full of divine grace, free from all conflict. Yet at some point we encounter all the unfinished business of the body and heart that we had hoped to leave behind.

True maturation on the spiritual path requires that we discover the depths of our wounds: our grief from the past, our ceaseless longing, the sorrow that we have stored up during the course of our lives. This healing is necessary if we are to embody spiritual life lovingly and wisely. Unhealed pain and rage, Unhealed traumas from childhood, abuse or abandonment, become powerful unconscious forces in our lives. Until we are able to bring awareness and understanding to our old wounds, we will find ourselves repeating patterns of unskilled desire, anger, and confusion over and over again.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Home By Another Way

We have the ability to recognize home. But the complexities of human life cause us to forget. This forgetting feels like exile, and we make elaborate structures of habit, conviction, and strategy to defend ourselves against these feelings. But our condition isn't hopeless, it's possible to work wisely with these evolutionary, cultural, family and religious structures so we can turn and find our way home.

--based on a quote by Joan Sutherland

Monday, July 8, 2013

Getting Somewhere

All the time I hear, "Oh, I can't do mindfulness--my mind just doesn't work that way." 

When you were a kid, did you learn how to ride a bike? Remember how discombobulating it was a first? OMG, the WOBBLES! 

But almost all of us really, really wanted to ride a bike. We kept at it. It didn't take nearly as long to learn to ride as we feared. Probably not a person reading this blog got good enough to do bike tricks. Probably everybody reading this got good enough to go places, to ride with friends, to occasionally experience the amazing freedom and joy that comes simply by being on bike. 

Mindfulness is like that. There's a learning curve. But within a week or two with a little regular practice and we begin to find that blessed sense of balance. 

And we go places. 

Below is our lectio from Monday Mindfulness. It's a piece from Jack Kornfield's A Path With Heart. He's writing not so much about how we initially find our balance. He's writing more about where we're able to go as we do begin to find that balance. 

Wise words follow... (If you're looking for simpler instruction on how to begin, try here)

We cannot easily change ourselves for the better through an act of will. This is like wanting the mind to get rid of itself or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. When we struggle to change ourselves, we, in fact, only continue the patterns of self-judgment and aggression. We keep the war against ourselves alive.

The purpose of a spiritual discipline is to give us a way to stop the war, not by our force of will, but organically, though understanding and gradual training. Ongoing spiritual practice can help us cultivate a new way of relating to life in which we let go of our battles.

When we step out of the battle, we see anew. We see how each of us creates conflict. We see our constant likes and dislikes, the fight to resist all that frightens us. Our prejudice, greed, and territoriality. All of this is hard to look at, but it is really there.

When we let go of our battles and open our heart to things as they are, then we come to rest in the present moment. This is the beginning and the end of spiritual practice. When we come into the present, we begin to feel the life around us again, but we also encounter whatever we have been avoiding. We must have the courage to face whatever it is. As we stop the war, each of us will find something from which we have been running.

You may have heard of "out-of-body" experiences" full of lights and visions. A true spiritual path demands something more challenging, what could be called an "in-the-body experience."

With wise understanding we allow ourselves to contain all things, both dark and light, and we come to a sense of peace. This is not the peace of denial or running away, but the peace we find in the heart that has rejected nothing, that touches all things with compassion.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Aging Wisely

What do you think of the number 62.5? How about strolling under a deep blue October sky and 62.5 is the temperature at 3:00 in the afternoon--jeans and sweater weather? That's many people's idea of a perfect Autumn day.

On the other hand, 62.5 is my age right now and I have mixed feelings about that number. When I shaved this morning, the face I saw in the mirror was very different from the face that had seemed perfectly familiar until about 10 years ago.

It was around that same time (10 years ago) that I went to my doctor with shoulder pain. Forgetting his bedside manner he casually observed, "Getting old is not for sissies." Recently, I returned the favor by casually saying the same thing when he was kvetching about his memory.

Mindfulness practice, since it's always about cultivating the ability to be fully alive now, has a whole bag of tricks to help us 'age' gracefully. Maybe I should say a whole bag of good medicine.

My doctor is right, growing old really isn't for sissies. Growing old is an adventure and so it's for adventurers--spelunkers, climbers, decathletes, mothers, fathers, pilgrims, magi.

Below is the lectio we used for this morning's meditation group. Like the last couple of posts, it's from Ron Siegel's The Mindfulness Solution.

Wise words follow...

As we age, most of us long for some aspect of the good old days. We envy those with younger bodies who have their whole life ahead of them. We don't realize that on average younger people aren't actually happier. Monitoring the moods of people ages 19-94, researchers found that older people experienced positive emotions longer and had negative emotions subside more quickly than younger people.

As long as our basic needs are met, much of our well-being or misery has more to do with how we interpret our situation than with the situation itself.

What we learn through mindfulness practice is that it's our attachment to how we see ourselves and our circumstances, rather than age-related changes themselves, that cause much of our difficulty with growing older. Once again, it is our wish to avoid unpleasant experience that's at the root of our unhappiness.

What we learn from mindfulness practice is that it is both possible and rewarding to face hard realities. In ancient texts, students are encouraged to meditate on the following points:

1. I am sure to become old. I cannot avoid aging.

2. I am sure to become sick. I cannot avoid sickness.

3. I am sure to die. I cannot avoid death.

4. All things dear and beloved to me are subject to change and loss.

5. I am the owner of my actions; I will become the heir of my actions.


I mentioned above that mindfulness practice has a whole bag of tricks. Committing to memory uncomfortable Reality-Bites is one of them. Oddly, and very counter-intuitively, regularly working with phrases like the above has the capacity to bring us to a very stable Happy Place. A place that doesn't argue with reality--but explores, affirms, navigates, and often celebrates it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

'Me' and My Shadow

I'm continuing a lovely, slow stroll through Ron Siegel's book, The Mindfulness Solution. As a therapist and teacher (Harvard for more than 20 years) his experience of life is a lot different from a priest or rabbi or Zen master. I'm appreciating his perspective (below).

Wise words follow...

Carl Jung described the parts of our personality that we don't acknowledge because they don't fit our conscious identity as our shadow. We all have one, made up of everything we don't like about ourselves.

By illuminating how we construct our identity, mindfulness practice helps us recognize and accept our shadow moment by moment. Every desirable and undesirable feeling, thought, and image eventually arises in meditation, and we practice noticing and accepting them all.

We see our anger, greed, lust, and fear along with our love, generosity, care, and courage. Seeing all of these contents, we gradually stop identifying with one particular set and rejecting the other. We eventually see that we have a great deal in common with everyone else, including those we are tempted to judge harshly. We see for ourselves why people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

It has been said that mindfulness practice is not a path to perfection but a path to wholeness. We don't wipe out the aspects of our personality that don't fit our desired identity, but rather make friends with these elements. This is humbling but also freeing.

By simply practicing awareness of present experience with acceptance, we can see ourselves and others more clearly, not distorted by the desire to see ourselves in a certain light. Despite all our attempts to distinguish ourselves from one another, we share so many human foibles. We naturally start to relate to others with compassion when we see they're just like us. We also come to appreciate that we are unique--just like everyone else.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Practicing PRESENCE

Anne Lamott says, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood—I try not to go there alone.” But our minds are also rather like grammar school playgrounds—it’s not wise to leave the kids unattended. Seeing both of these metaphors as shrewd and potentially helpful invites us to cultivate them both. Go often to the playground and regularly to the bad neighborhood—but never go alone. Vaya con Dios, go with God, with Presence—whether our idea of Presence is “He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” Or our idea  of Presence is “Being Itself.” Or our idea of Presence is the quality of mindful awareness we cultivate and do our best to bring into any moment—focused, non-judging, kind, and curious. Go often. Vaya con Dios.     

Below are 3 rich reflections about Presence.

With every breath I fill with God. And my life is a table where I offer God to the world.
–Thomas Aquinas

"There is need for awareness that the mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans which we need as much for our psychic integrity as for our physical nourishment. This presence, whether experienced as Allah, as Atman, as Sunyata, or as the Buddha-nature or as Bodhisattva; whether as Tao or as the One or as the Divine Feminine, is the atmosphere in which humans breathe deepest and without which we eventually suffocate."  --Thomas Berry

Flickering Mind

Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent....

I elude your presence.... Not for one second
will my self hold still, but wanders anywhere,
everywhere it can turn. Not you,
it is I who am absent.

You are the stream, the fish, the light, the pulsing shadow,
you the unchanging presence, in whom all
moves and changes.
How can I focus my flickering, perceive at the fountain's heart
the sapphire I know is there?             --Denise Levertov

Monday, June 3, 2013

Welcoming Anxiety

I dove into mindfulness practice because I needed a better way to work with raw family tensions. My daughter was 16, I was worried about her, and my worry--though coming from deep love for her--was too often expressed in ways that felt nothing like love to her. Getting better at working with my own anxiety about her showed me over and over how to better embody my love for her.

Of course we're still working with our stuff--anxiety, frustration, communication, even as we continue to find ways of anchoring love in day to day life. Still, it's not a stretch at this point to say it's been a game changer.

Our lectio for this morning's mindfulness group was about working with anxiety with growing skill. Wise words follow....

Oh the house of denial has thick walls
and very small windows
and whoever lives there, little by little,
will turn to stone.
--Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

Fear is our mind and body's ancient, hardwired response to every perceived threat, no matter how subtle. We are therefore frightened much of the time though we often don't think about it this way.

All worry is anticipatory. Even in terrible current circumstances, our worry is about what is going to happen next, not about what is happening right now. Since mindfulness practice cultivates awareness of present experience with acceptance, it tends to bring our attention out of the past or future and into the current moment. And the present moment is usually safe.

Mindfulness oriented approaches to anxiety involve sitting with experiences (however disturbing) and letting them run their course rather than trying to change them. When we do this, it interrupts an important mechanism that maintains anxiety, since we're no longer generating fear of the anxiety itself. This approach also frees us to make intelligent or skillful choices. Welcoming anxiety is actually a powerful way to develop courage.

                                    --Ronald Siegel, The Mindfulness Solution

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


This morning I woke up already feeling behind. So much to do--so little time. I did what I usually do: walk the dog, exercise (a little!), make tea, read something that feeds the soul.

But through it all there was still a nagging sense of pressure. Too much left undone--so many worthy things. And a conviction--a  hunch--a duty--a feeling--that if I only worked smarter or faster or harder or more skillfully I'd be able to do more stuff and do it better--and get the monkey of 'things left undone' off my back.

But (probably influenced by reading something that feeds the soul) instead of simply believing the storyline in my head, I stopped. Breathed. Prayed. Listened.

And listening deeply it was pretty easy to see what a bunch of crap my sense of Optimized Living was.

I kept still for awhile. Then wrote a few things down to remind me what my saner soul was hearing. During breakfast I opened Mary Oliver's book, A Thousand Mornings (I try to read one Mary Oliver poem 3 or 4 mornings a week).

What a lovely corresponding voice in the poem whose turn it was to be read today. What a blessing. Thank God for M O.



Today I'm flying low and I'm

not saying a word.
I'm letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.

The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.

But I'm taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I'm traveling
a terrific distance.

Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Growing in Listening

Lively interactions with others is one of life's treasures. How many times a day do we find ourselves in conversations? How often in those conversations do we find ourselves completely tuned in? 

Steady listening is a rare thing. Staying tuned in to the person in front of us is really hard. But we can get better at it. And as we get better, life gets richer and richer.

The following is from Susan Chapman. Her most recent book is The Five Keys to Mindful Communication.

Learning how to switch out of defensiveness into a more humorous, receptive state of mind is a big deal.

By shutting down the channel of communication, we put up a defensive barrier that divides us from the world. In our mind, we justify our defensiveness by holding on to an unexamined opinion that we are right. We undervalue other people and put self-interest first. In short, our values shift to "me first". Closed communication patterns are controlling and mistrustful. We see others as frozen objects that have importance only if they meet our needs.

In-between is a place we normally don't want to enter. We find ourselves there when the ground falls out from beneath our feet, when we feel surprised, embarrassed, disappointed, on the verge of shutting down. At this moment, we might feel a sudden loss of trust, an unexpected flash of self-consciousness. Learning to hold steady and be curious at this point is critical to the practice of mindful conversation.

The in-between state of mind is where we gain both compassion and insight. It is not only where we witness ourselves closing down, but also where we notice the miracle of opening up again. Why and how does this happen? What exactly is it that makes us stop caring about being right and begin taking an interest in another person's point of view? Mindfulness makes us more curious about this turning point, both in our communication with others and within ourselves.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Don't Worry...

We may not have evolved to be happy. Natural selection, the process that guides our evolution, favors adaptations that help us reproduce successfully. This means surviving long enough to mate, snag a partner, and then support our children's survival. Evolutionary forces don't particularly 'care' whether we enjoy our life--unless this increases our survival for mating potential. And they really don't 'care' about what happens to us after our child-bearing and protecting years are over.

But we care. While most of us think the survival of humanity is a good idea, we would also like to be able to enjoy our lives while we're here. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask.

Thinking and planning, wonderful and useful as they are, are at the heart of our daily emotional distress because, unlike other tools, we can't seem to put these tools down when we don't need them.

They keep us worrying about the future, regretting the past, comparing ourselves to one another in thousands of ways, and forever scheming about how to make things better. This makes it very difficult to be truly satisfied for more than a brief time. Our constant thinking can make it impossible to wholeheartedly enjoy a meal, or listen to a concert, to fully listen to our child, or to fall back asleep in the middle of the night.

Mindfulness developed through thousands of years of cultural evolution as an antidote to the natural habits of our hearts and minds that make life so much more difficult than it needs to be. Mindfulness is a particular attitude toward experience, or way of relating to life, that holds the promise of both alleviating our suffering and making our lives rich and meaningful. It does this by attuning us to our moment to moment experience and giving us direct insight into how our minds create unnecessary anguish.

--Ronald Siegel, The Mindfulness Solution

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Getting to Cape Hatteras Without Taking the Ferry

Choice. Options. The freedom to pick what we want. What a blessing.

And yet...also...a bit of a curse.

We've evolved to 'love' choice. It's natural for us to 'choose' what we prefer. And what we tend to prefer is what has kept us alive across millenia. Choosing quickly, almost instantaneously, has been a key to our survival.

The curse of picking what we want (nearly instantaneously) is that in the world as it is now we often want what we don't need, even what's harmful. As Paul of Tarsus groaned, "The very thing I want I don't do. I wind up doing the very thing I don't want!"

Slowing down, sinking down, into that quieter place where we can get centered, we find a different kind of choice--an ability to choose what we really want--to prefer something other than what we have tended to prefer.

Think about that word, prefer. It comes from the root word for ferry, which is both a noun and a verb. To be ferried is to be taken across a river or a bay or even part of an ocean. Have you been ferried? It's an adventure for most of us, especially those who don't grow up on a coast or an island.

Here in North Carolina we often take a ferry from 'Down East' to Okracoke--and then from Okracoke to Cape Hatteras. Wow. I've done this maybe three times. Never been the same journey. Rained one time. Rough sea once. Calm. Windy. Gray. Blue.

The other part of prefer, pre, means before. To prefer literally means to choose before. To already like one thing, want one thing, count on one thing before we get to the thing itself--to come to something new with an old mindset, something fresh in a canned way. To pre-fer can mean something like getting to Cape Hatteras without the richness of taking the ferry. .

Try this sometime. When you're with somebody who matters to you and you're trying to decide something together and you're about to go with the same old same old: Sink down into that quieter place in you, that place where time slows down and intuition pops up.

Take a few seconds to feel what it feels like to PREfer whatever it is you often prefer. Just feel whatever it is that inclines you to stay on automatic pilot. After feeling the push of that feeling, do your best to let it relax.

Then picture yourself at a dock, a landing, a ferry port. Don't PRE the ferry. TAKE it. Walk down together to the ticket window. Look at the options--the routes--the sailing times. Take joy in considering the possibilities.

Life is full of options and routes and sailing times. We so often have choices we miss, neglect, ignore. We so often wind up doing what we want instead of what we really want.

It's not that hard to get out of this habit. Don't PRE the ferry. Take it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What We Need Is Here

I've experienced nothing in my life any more helpful than getting into the habit of pausing--hitting a kind of reset key that refreshes body, mind and soul all together. What follows is a short re-do of an older post about what this is and how can work.

In the Wendell Berry poem below we can sense his deep sense of the sacredness of Life--something always available, always possible, always potentially sustaining:

What We Need Is Here

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

The poem also reminds us we don’t really have to go anywhere to get to a sacred place. 'What we need is here.' This doesn't necessarily mean we stop taking retreats and making pilgrimages--heaven forbid! It just means that life, in a strange and wonderful way, can be just as rich in our ordinary 'here' as in any extraordinary 'there'.

By cultivating a habit of a Sacred Pause, over time we prove to ourselves this is so. A Sacred Pause is not complicated. It can be as simple as breathing in and breathing out, letting go of whatever we’re doing, whatever we’re holding to, or gently slipping out of the grip of whatever has a hold on us so that we can slip into being ‘quiet in heart, and in eye, clear.’

When we stop our usual down-pat ways of 'doing’ life and start making room for ROOM--open, patient, playful, curious, kind--we get reoriented over and over to what matters most to us. If we cultivate these Sacred Pauses our experience of freshness and openness and possibility begins to happen consistently enough that we can't help but begin to trust the process. Practice builds trust. Trust sustains practice--a gracious spiral into sacred space.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Poem of the One World

Jesus clearly reaffirmed what is central: Love God with our whole being; love our neighbors as ourselves.

I want to grow to love my neighbors as much as I love myself. And I want to grow to count the natural world as my neighbor. At best we tend to ignore what we don't love. At worst we misuse or abuse it.

We humans don't have long to learn this. We misuse the natural world so 'effectively' these days, and there are so many of us now, that we are on the brink of effectively destroying what sustains life. Really.

So many of us love Mary Oliver poems. May we learn to love them more! And differently--to hear them like bells across cities not only calling us to joy and insight but also to prayer and growth.

                    Poem of the One World, Mary Oliver            

This morning
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water

and then into the sky
of this the one world
we all belong to

where everything
sooner or later
is part of everything else

which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite beautiful myself.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Gift of Drudgery

William Blake famously invited use to see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower. How about getting a pinch of bliss doing chores--and a sense of joy in drudgery?  Karen Madden Miller has some good advice for us below. 

I have a garden in my backyard, and even if you don't call it a garden, you do too. In the fall, the broad canopy of giant sycamores in my yard turns faintly yellow and the leaves sail down. First by ones and then by tons. A part of every autumn day finds me fuming at the sight of falling leaves. Then I pick up a rake.

Tell me, when I'm sweeping leaves till kingdom come, is it getting in the way of my life? Is it interfering with my life? Keeping me from my life? Only my imaginary life, that life of what-ifs and how-comes--the life I'm dreaming of.

We don't just struggle with a shirt in a Zen koan. We struggle with the shirts in our hampers. With the pants, the blouses, the sheets and the underwear. Laundry presents a mountainous practice opportunity because it provokes a never-ending pile of egocentric resistance. Its not important to me. It's tedious. I don't like to do it!

If we're not careful, this is how we approach mindfulness: as an idea, one we rather like, to elevate our lives with special contemplative consideration, a method for making smarter choices and thereby ensuring better outcomes. The problem is that the life before us is the only life we have. The search for meaning robs our life of meaning, sending us back into our discursive minds while, right in front of us, the laundry piles up.

Transcending obstacles and overcoming preferences, we have an intimate encounter with our lives every time we do the wash. Its nothing out of the ordinary, but no one turns their nose up at a clean pair of socks.

With only a slight change in perspective, the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty. When we don't know, we don't judge. And when we don't judge, we see things in a different light. That is the light of our awareness, unfiltered by intellectual understanding, rumination, or our evaluation. When we cultivate non-distracted awareness as a formal practice, we call it mindfulness meditation. When we cultivate it in our home life we call it the laundry, the kitchen, or the yard--all the places and ways we can live mindfully by attending without distraction to whatever appears before us.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Wisdom of Not Knowing

I'm reading a good, helpful & simple primer on Mindfulness--The Mindfulness Revolution. Very short chapters, each by a different writer covering many different takes, styles, and arenas. The bit below is an excerpt.

Being uncomfortable and uncertain need not be seen as a weakness or problem that needs an immediate answer. Not knowing is a tremendous resource for being effective and innovative at work.

Not knowing means being willing to slow down, drop our preconceptions, and be interested and present to our work situation as it unfolds. Not knowing in this sense is an exercise in balancing effort--actively and intelligently being somewhere in the process of getting somewhere.

We no longer cling to what we know and instead become excited about what we don't know. We ease up on the race to get our jobs done and permit ourselves to notice things we don't normally notice. We let our curiosity have a free rein.

Not knowing is highly inquisitive, and energetic curiosity that inspects then questions without being rude or disrespectful.

We can allow ourselves the opportunity to appreciate, listen, and observe and to be curious about the incidentals, routines, surprises, and even irritations of our work rather than taking them for granted or being put off by them. We can afford to listen for the unspoken messages, often sent unintentionally and even more often misunderstood. By not knowing we open up and so does the world around us, offering an untapped wealth of insight and guidance.

-Michael Carroll

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Take Control of Your Life

The title of this post is ironic. I cringe when I see magazine articles titled "Take Control of Your Life!" The subtitle is usually something like "5 Secrets of Getting What YOU Want." Yet there is a kind of control we can begin to grow into. It has to do with choice--a rich ecology of choice!

For me it starts with coming to understand that all choices have consequences. Mine, yours, and everybody else's. Including non-human beings.

When I was 16 I chose to do that thing that teenagers often choose to do: friends each telling their parents they're spending the night with each other and then spending the night out 'raising hell.'

It was fun for awhile. We'd had our obligatory couple of six packs, we were all buzzed, and at about 11:00 we all needed to pee--which we 'chose' to do in a mall parking lot. A policeman saw us. One of us yelled, "It's the cops--quick, jump in the car!" Then the driver chose to floor the accelerator and peel out the side of the parking lot.

No surprise--the policeman chose to give chase and floored his accelerator, flashed his blue lights, and took off after us. The three of us not driving told the driver to give up, to pull over. That we were 'busted.' The driver said, "Don't worry, I've outrun many a cop before!" We said, "Don't be a damn fool--pull over!!!"

He chose not to.

20 seconds later, he lost control of the car, bounced off a tree, and slammed into a South Carolina red dirt embankment. The guy riding shotgun tore up his shoulder and broke 4 front teeth on the dashboard. The rest of us just got bounced and bruised. All of us got taken into custody.

Choice: We can choose wisely, or stupidly, or choose not to choose and just go along for the ride.

However we choose, we will still travel into the future, the immediate or distant future, and experience some form of consequence from our choices or the choices of others.

We'll also experience the 'random' consequences of weather and earthquake, solar flares and asteroids, etc., etc. We all will always be experiencing, in one way and another, the consequences of being alive in a vast and measureless creation.

This is why I cringe at "Take Control" articles. Nevertheless...

Participating consciously in the collective karma of Life is the wisest thing any of us can do. And (big surprise) mindfulness is a huge help.

One of the richest lessons in the Jewish scriptures is this: "Wisdom calls aloud at the crossroads." How many times will we come to a fork in the road today?

These places where paths diverge are more numerous than we know. We miss most of them. And even the ones we notice, we often 'choose' by default--taking the fork we always take.

Learning to notice forks in the road is a wonderful practice. Learning to pause at forks in the road is a more wonderful practice. Remembering that Wisdom calls aloud at forks in the road is the wonderfulest practice of all.

Stopping, and doing our best to open our minds and hearts to what Wisdom is saying--now--this may be "The Secret of Life!" Surely it's one strand in the thread of Life's deepest grace.

Briefly, when we practice meditation and contemplative prayer regularly, we begin to see the difference between our own habitual patterns of thinking or feeling and Wisdom's quieter, deeper Presence and Voice. We not only get in the habit of pausing and listening at forks in the road, we get in the habit of trusting that Wisdom will regularly give us those countless positive packets of wise and kind discerning that guide our choosing--and leaven the world.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Grieving and Grateful

Many of you know that I had to put my wonderful dog down a couple of weeks ago. To say that Mattie was a dear companion doesn't quite hit the mark. She seemed more like an old wise woman in the second half of her life. An old soul. I miss her terribly.

And I grieve.

But the quality of this present grief is different from other heartbreaks I've had because of the mindful spiritual formation that's come as work and grace over the last 8 years. It's not exactly that it makes loss less painful. It's just better 'situated' these days.

One of my first lessons in mindfulness was a practice called 'sitting in the fire.' Sounds fun, huh? It's somewhat like the 'welcoming prayer' of Contemplative Christianity. But it's more like the Marines might do it than the Monastics.

When big pain comes, whatever source, whatever variety, we just sit with it, invite it, welcome the burn, the sting, the fear, every bad feeling it conjures. BUT...we do this in Deep Silence. Wordlessly. Each time words come up, we move our attention from their narrative back to full awareness of the sensation of pain, wound, hurt--wherever it is in the body. Chest, throat, cheeks, head, gut. Wherever.

My own experience of this practice has been as promised. The pain has never been as bad as the fear of the pain has prophesied. And it doesn't last as nearly so long without its chatty narrative looping back, over and over.

But there's something else. With this fresh grief for dear old soul Mattie I've been sitting in the fire and toasting marshmallows at the same time. After holding her, comforting her, laying a hand on her head, and telling our very kind vet I was ready, I watched Mattie die--almost in the blink of an eye. And then drove home choking with tears.

Then I sat down to practice.

It didn't take but a moment to 'see' in those powerful memories, emotions, and sensations I was experiencing, that GRATITUDE was all bound up in the grief. If she hadn't been so wonderful, losing her wouldn't have been so painful.

When my father died I was 20. My mother and I dealt with the pain of his dying mostly with repression. We'd be desperately sad for a moment then we'd 'pull ourselves together.' I've spent a long time (and a good bit of money on therapy) learning to let go of anything kin to repression.

So now, grieving for Mattie is a both/and thing. I've been anchoring it with breathing. When, as Keats wrote, "the melancholy fit shall fall sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud" I take the melancholy in, passionately, as much as I'm able to hold.

That is, as much as I'm able to hold in one in-breath. As I breathe out, I connect (it's not hard!) with the gratitude that's somehow wrapped up in the same bits and pieces of memory the grief is wrapped in. I breathe in, I breathe out. I cry, and I smile. I hurt and I give thanks.

Of course, I do this alone. I'm too self-conscious to be this weepy and loopy with others.

Well, not really alone. The gratitude part of the practice seems always to bring an awareness of the deep and participating presence of God.

Grieving and grateful. Who knew...

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Winter Should Have Meaning

I read "Snowdrops" by Louise Gluck this morning. It's in her book, The Wild Iris. It became a kind of prayer  to me for those I know (and don't know) who suffer from depression and seasonal disorders. Ms. Gluck is so honest. And her poetry is so good. And her experience seems to me to strike a beautiful balance between hopelessness and hopefulness, deadness and renewal.

All of us deal with depressing experiences and feelings from time to time. Living into the life-cycle that the poem takes us through takes patience. And courage. And trust.

Mindfulness and contemplative prayer gently and persistently train us in these 'virtues.'

Our tendency is too often to read a poem like this once, twice or three times and enjoy the momentary buzz we get from it. This is not enough.

If the poem speaks to us, and if we sense it might bring us more deeply into the living cycle that the poet lives and describes, we must sync our cycle, challenging as it is to do, with the snowdrop.


Snowdrops~Louise Gluck

Do you know what I was, how I lived?  You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me.  I didn't expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my  body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring-

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

Monday, February 25, 2013

My Deepest Me is God

Following is the lectio the Monday Mindfulness group used this morning--first a quote from Richard Rohr and then four paragraphs from Eckhart Tolle.

Richard Rohr is pretty straightforward. Tolle may or may not read that way for you. For Christians, I think it's really helpful to think of his advice as 'incarnational'--a way the Spirit can infuse our minds and hearts with practical grace in order that the same Spirit can slowly become part of who we most deeply are.

Tolle's recommendations for "freedom, salvation & enlightenment" need to be practiced, repeated, worked into the ground of our experience. The more it is, the more we religious folk are able to turn 'talk' into 'walk.'

To "know ourselves as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain" is surely what St. Catherine was experiencing when she raced through the streets of Sienna proclaiming, "My deepest me is God! My deepest me is God."

Our image of God creates us—or defeats us. There is an absolute connection between how we see God and how you we see ourselves and the whole universe. The word “God” is first of all a stand-in for everything—reality, truth, and the very shape of our universe. This is why theology is important, and why good theology and spirituality can make so much difference in how we live our daily lives in this world. Theology is not just theoretical, but ends up being quite practical—practically up-building or practically defeating. --Richard Rohr

For love to flourish, the light of your presence needs to be strong enough so that you no longer get taken over by the thinker or the pain-body and mistake them for who you are. To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.

To dis-identify from the pain-body is to bring presence into the pain and thus transmute it. To disidentify from thinking is to be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior, especially the repetitive patterns of your mind and the roles played by the ego. 

If you stop investing thinking with “selfness” the mind loses its compulsive quality, which basically is the compulsion to judge and so to resist what is, which creates conflict, drama, and new pain.

In fact, the moment judgment stops through acceptance of what is, you are free of the mind. You have made room for love, for joy, for peace. First you stop judging yourself; then you stop judging others.

Monday, February 18, 2013

God is sung best in a psalm without words

The quote below is from Eckart Tolle (with a mashup from one of the Desert Fathers, John the Solitary). This is what we used for our lectio this morning in the Monday group. 

Tolle can sometimes seem bone dry--but 'bone dry' can also be the same thing as 'clear and to the point.' 

One of the great ironies of mindful practices is that they can appear to be self-focused and self-absorbed. Yet the sweetest fruit of mindful practice is freedom from this very thing--the sticky gravity of our small selves. 

Through mindfulness we see the many habits and patterns that keep us stuck. Over time, recognizing and recognizing and recognizing these habits and patterns, it becomes easier and easier and easier to let them go. 

Tolle is very helpful describing how this works.

Since ancient times, spiritual masters of all traditions have pointed to the Now as the key to the spiritual dimension. Despite this, it seems to have remained a secret.

With the timeless dimension comes a different kind of knowing, one that does not “kill” the spirit that lives within every creature and every thing. A knowing that does not destroy the sacredness and mystery of life but contains a deep love and reverence for all that is. A knowing of which the mind knows nothing.

If you find it hard to enter the Now directly, start by observing the habitual tendency of your mind to want to escape from the Now. You will observe that the future is usually imagined as either better or worse than the present. If the imagined future is better, it gives you hope or pleasurable anticipation. If it is worse, it creates anxiety. Both are illusory. Through self-observation, more presence comes into your life automatically. The moment you realize you are not present, you are present. Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence.

Be present as the watcher of your mind — of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don’t judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.

There is a silence of the tongue,
and a silence of the body;
a silence of soul
and a silence of mind.
There is silence of spirit, too—
and, of course, 
the vast silence of God.

Within this silence
we sing God best
in psalms without words. 

--John the Solitary

Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning to Cherish the World

My morning 'mindful' reading these days is The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, Notes for a Contemplative Ecology by Douglas Christie. Before I 'pop this mortal coil' I'd really like to feel increasingly connected to the natural world. Which is pretty much saying that I'm feeling too separate and distinct now. 

Sometimes the barrier comes down for a moment--maybe when I flush a grouse, glimpse a fox or see (and hear!) a V of geese flying overhead. Those moments are such a delight. But more often (I hate to admit this) the natural world is not much more than background music to my thoughts, my musings, my problems--even my camera. 

I sense a possibility and a kind of calling to become less separate and  more and more permeable to the life of the world. Which is way I picked up Douglass Christie's book. He's spent a lot of time thinking, praying and working with this same possibility and sense of calling. Here's an excerpt....

Can ancient contemplative traditions help us in our efforts to learn to see and cherish the world more deeply? I confess that this question has come to have real personal importance for me. Over time, I have come to feel that the often-hidden work of contemplative practice—rooted in a simple, open-hearted attention—does have enormous meaning and significance.

The deepening of awareness that occurs through this practice really can change the quality of being, not only one’s own being but also the being of the world as a whole. This, I realize, is an audacious claim, and one that cannot be proven. Still, there is ample testimony from the contemplative traditions that such practice can and often does yield a deep sense of freedom and openness—to oneself, others, God, and the world as a whole.

This shift in awareness has meaning not simply for the one engaging in such practice but also for the larger community, however that community is understood. The contemplative undertakes this work not only for himself or herself but also for the sake of the larger whole.

My own experience of sitting in stillness, of waiting, listening, struggling in the silence of such contemplative space—whether in the company of my friends at Redwoods Monastery or as part of a more solitary practice—has given me glimpses into the kind of clarified awareness and deepened reciprocity that can arise when such simple attention takes root in the soul. It can soften the hard edges of one’s habitual perceptions, so that what previously seemed utterly distinct or separate from one’s own life now appears as intimately woven into the fabric of one’s very being. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Training and Strengthening the Mind

Jan Bays next plug for mindfulness is that it "trains and strengthens the mind." (The bit I posted yesterday was that mindfulness 'conserves energy.') Here--as in the title of her book--she's using the same metaphor the Buddha used two and a half millennia ago: taming a wild elephant. 

One of the things I especially appreciate about Jan Bays is that she leads a relatively normal life--she's a pediatrician, mother and grandmother (I say relatively because she also lives in a monastery!)

We are all aware that the human body can be trained (think of gymnasts, acrobats, ballet dancers, piano players, weight lifters). We are less aware that there are many aspects of mind that can be cultivated.

When we practice mindfulness, we learn to lift the mind up out of its habitual preoccupations and place it down in a place of our choosing in order to illuminate some aspect of our life. We are training the mind to be light, powerful, and flexible—but also able to concentrate on what we ask it to focus on.

The Buddha spoke of taming the mind. He said it was like taming a wild forest elephant. Just as an untamed elephant can do damage, trampling crops and injuring people, so the untamed, capricious mind can cause harm to us and those around us. Our human minds have a much larger capacity and power than we realize. Mindfulness is a potent tool for training the mind, allowing us to access and use the mind’s true potential for insight, kindness, and creativity.

…When a wild elephant is first captured and led out of the jungle, it has to be tethered to a stake. In the case of our mind, that stake takes the form of whatever we attend to in our mindfulness practice—for example, the breath….We anchor the mind by returning it over and over to one thing. This calms the mind and rids it of distractions.

Once our mind is tamed, we can remain calm and stable as we encounter the inevitable difficulties the world brings us. Eventually we don’t run from problems but see them as a way to test and strengthen our physical and mental stability.

Mindfulness helps us become aware of the mind’s habitual and conditioned patterns of escape and allows us to try an alternative way of being in the world. That alternative is resting our awareness in the actual events of the present moment, the sounds heard by the ear, the sensations felt by the skin, the colors and shapes taken in by the eyes. Mindfulness helps stabilize the heart and mind so they are not so badly tossed around by the unexpected things that arrive in our life. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Mind Seems to Think We're Stupid

What follows is tell-it-like-it-is description from Jan Bays of why it's worth learning to live mindfully. It's a 'first the bad news' kind of thing. Her book, How to Train a Wild Elephant (and Other Adventures in Mindfulness) is full of good news, too. But she understands (as most of us do) that we won't bother with something difficult unless there's a good reason to. Here she makes the case that we have a very good reason to take on the task of using our minds--instead of continuing and continuing to allow our minds to use us.

It is fortunate that we can learn to do tasks skillfully. It is unfortunate that this skill enables us to go unconscious as we do them. It is unfortunate because when we go unconscious, we are missing out on large parts of our life. When we “check out,” our mind tends to go to one of three places: the past, the future, or the fantasy realm. These three places have no reality outside our imagination. Right here where we are is the only place, and right now is the only time where we are actually alive.

The capacity of the human mind to recall the past is a unique gift. It helps us learn from our errors and change an unhealthy life direction. However, when the mind doubles back to the past, it often begins to ruminate endlessly on our past mistakes. “If only I’d said this . . . , then she would have said that. . . .”

Unfortunately the mind seems to think we are very stupid. It calls up the errors of our past over and over, blaming and criticizing us repeatedly. We wouldn’t pay to rent and watch the same painful movie two hundred fifty times, but somehow we let our mind replay a bad memory over and over, each time experiencing the same distress and shame. We wouldn’t remind a child two hundred fifty times of a small mistake he or she made, but somehow we allow our mind to continue to call up the past and to inflict anger and shame upon our inner small being. It seems that our mind is afraid that we will fall prey to bad judgment, ignorance, or inattention yet again. It doesn’t believe that actually we are smart—smart enough to learn from one mistake, and not to repeat it.

Ironically, a mind filled with anxiety is likely to create what it most fears. The anxious mind doesn’t realize that when it pulls us into daydreams of regret about the past, we are not attending to the present. When we are unable to be present, we tend not to act wisely or skillfully. We are more likely to do the very thing the mind worries we will do. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Contemplative Ecology

I feel bad that I haven't posted in so long. Been wrestling with a digestive thing which has caused me to stay up later at night--and sleep later in the morning. Haven't had that early morning time to write lately. 

Also, I'm reading something really different--The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, Notes for a Contemplative Ecology by Doug Christie--and finding in it a wonderful mix of inspiration, helpfulness and challenge! 

But I haven't felt competent to transpose Christie's insights into some kind of shared experience with mindfulness and contemplative prayer. 

The gist of the book is that Our Time is calling us to deepen our attention and connection to the natural world. 

Calling us to cultivate a contemplative awareness of all things natural so we can begin to undo this sense of being separate from the rest of Creation that we suffer from. 

It is from this deeper connection that we will be sustained by nature's beauty and power AND become more empowered to do more to slow the destruction of God's beautiful earth. 

Here's a sample:


…The shared sense that the ecological crisis (which is also a cultural, social, and political crisis) we are facing in this moment is at its deepest level spiritual in character… means our response to this crisis will require of us nothing less than a spiritual transformation.

To speak of an ecological spirituality or spirituality that is informed by intimate contact with and feeling for the natural world can and will mean many different things in the present cultural moment. But a common feature of spiritual practice is a deepening awareness of oneself as existing within and responsible for the larger whole of the living world.

One attempt to express this broad and diffuse understanding of spirituality defines it as: “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life-integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives.” (Sandra Scheiders)

Something similar can be said about the notion of “lived religion,” an idea that is coming to have increasing importance for helping us understand the creative and eclectic strategies which human beings imply to discover and express spiritual or religious meaning in their lives. In practice, such strategies often reflect an open and flexible relationship to religious traditions, a willingness to hold apparently conflicting or paradoxical views in tension in the search for a meaningful way of being in the world.  

…Spiritual practices are often undertaken by persons and communities in order to achieve freedom from harmful, compromising attachments and to create the climate in which it becomes possible to adopt a more open, loving disposition toward others and the world. Such practices often lead to a serious engagement with and critique of fundamental social, cultural, and economic values that are perceived as tearing at the very fabric of life and community.