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.