The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden.
My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter.
For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by.
There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real.
A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different.
I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to.
But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard.
I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward.
I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction.
I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me.
In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past.
As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine.
I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.
Once those details are committed to, we can move into an attitude to have about hand washing. (It was this amazing podcast that helped me to see this, by the way.)
There is something to be said about having a regular return to the here and now through out the day. Christian Monks had a Liturgy of the hours which called them to their prayers periodically. Zen Buddhist teachers are known to periodically strike novices to bring them into the present while meditating. Some people like periodic chimes to help bring them to the present. Mindfulness and Celtic Traditions both would have us identify common occurences like walking through a threshold as an invitation into the present.
In this time, when suddenly we are washing are hands as frequently as we should have been all along, we have a rather convenient and regularly occurring event that we might use as our gateway into being here, now. Each time we wash our hands, we could pass those twenty seconds singing “happy birthday” or whatever. Or we could use it as a time to fully in those moments.
What is even better is that this is an act of self care, an act of affirming our body, an act that carries sensory experiences with it. Just as we might focus on the feeling of the air right below our nostril as we inhale, we might locate our full attention on the soft, sudsy warmth flowing over our hands. Our senses– including touch– do not have the ability to regret the past or worry over the future. This is why tuning into to sensory input is such a centering practice.
Whatever you do, please just make sure you passed the full 20 seconds!
Each time you wash your hands, simply be present to that wonderful moment. Tune into the temperature and percussion of the water. Feel the soapy slickness as the lather works up. Try and find something new about this experience. Catalog each little detail.
Two of the most important aspects of my mystic’s journey have been the words of St. John of the Cross and the idea of God’s breath.
St. John of the Cross said, “The soul that is united and transformed in God breathes God in God with the same divine breathing, with which God, while in her, breathes her in himself.” I am not really sure how it works. But I think it’s something like this:
1. Take three deep and cleansing breaths.
2. Begin with the knowledge that your soul is breathing the very substance of God.
3. Inhale the very material that forms God.
4. Exhale the very stuff that forms God.
5. Repeat these breaths two more times.
6. As you hold this knowledge that the soul is breathing God into you, know that you are surrounded by God.
7. Inhale, knowing that you are in God just as a fish is in the sea.
8. Exhale, knowing that you are in God just as a fish is in the sea.
9. Repeat steps seven and eight two more times.
10. For three breaths, hold both sides of that equation: You are in God. God is in you.
11. Now, know that God breathes. The God outside of you breathes.
12. Inhale, knowing that God breathes just like that.
13. Exhale, knowing that God breathes just like that.
14. Repeat steps 12 and 13, two more times.
15. With your next inhalation, visualize, again, how you breathe in God.
16. With your next exhalation, visualize, again, how you breathe out the very stuff of God.
17. Now, know that just as you breathe in God, God-outside-of-you is breathing in the very stuff of you.
18. Exhale God, knowing that God-outside-of-you-exhales you.
19. Repeat steps 17 and 18 two more times.
20. Recall that God is within you, breathing as you inhale.
21. Recall that God is within you, breathing, as you exhale.
22. Now, impossibly, paradoxically, and perfectly: God-within-you… breathes in the very stuff you are made of. Inhale with this truth.
23. Impossibly, paradoxically, perfectly: God-within-you…. breathes out the very stuff you are made of. Exhale this truth.
24. Repeat any portion of this progression. Or release the words entirely.
Background: It has been said that 3’s make a conscious and controlled decision to put their feelings away. This has been compared to a folder, where feelings to access later are filed away. Sometimes, they might even get around to feeling those feelings. In many cases, being in the moment probably would have been better for the 3. This is a visualization that encourages 3’s to go back to their feelings and experience them.
The Practice: Take three deep breaths. Find yourself here, and now.
Close your eyes. In your mind’s eye, see a file cabinet. Give the cabinet a color. Look closely to see whether it is new. How many drawers does this file cabinet have. Reach out to it, Feel the cabinet.
This cabinet is the home of the folder for feelings to be accessed later. Find yourself with a key in your hand. Of course, you are the only one with the keys to this particular cabinet. The hanging folders are dark green and hanging. The folder with the memories to access later is right in front. If you would like, you can spend a moment flipping through the other folders. It might be interesting to know what is there. It might be worthwhile to come back here later and explore the other folders. I suspect they have names like, “Feelings I will not allow myself to feel at all.” and “Feelings I have worked my way through.”
Today, take out the folder for feelings to be accessed later. Hold it carefully. Walk across the room. Find yourself in a comfortable chair, or a hammock even. Respectfullty, carefully, open up the folder. The feelings you have been saving for later will wash over you.
Perhaps they will come on quickly. Perhaps it will be a slow transition. It might be an intense, even overwhelming mix of feelings. If they become too much, you can close that folder. I do not think you will need to close that folder.
Have an attitude of curioisty about these feelings. Explore them. You can feel them as deeply as you wish to. Consider whether you know where and when these feelings are coming from. Sit them for as long as you need.
When you are ready, return the folder to the file cabinet. It is quite likely you over use this folder. You can make a decision today, if you wish, to rely on this folder a little bit less in the future. You can try and be mindful of those times when you put these feelings away and decide, even as you are tempted to file your feelings away, that you wish to experience them instead.
As you close the file cabinet, I hope that you feel a sense of peace. These feelings which were waiting for you are no longer locked away, but they have been experienced by you.
We are proud to present a new podcast focusing on contemplative practices and the mystic’s path. My best is that episodes will be released more often than monthly but less often than each week.
Transcript of episode #1:
Hi. ‘Welcome to the Open Hand: A Faith-ing Project Podcast. It might be asked, why would you want to release a podcast now?
It is a strange time. We began as these isolated people living these isolated lives. And now some of us find ourselves under doctors orders to isolate more. Others of us find ourselves wanting to be good citizens, and wondering how much contact with each other we should have. Should I go to church? Should I go to the bar and have a beer?
Our health, safety, jobs, and ways of life are threatened.
I live in urban Massachusetts; that’s the north eastern corner of the United States. When I went out yesterday, it seemed like most people are responding to this crisis by rushing out, buying the most unlikely and impractical of things, and then rushing back home. People are buying enough toilet paper, cleaning products, paper towels and bottled water to withstand the end of the world a few times over.
I am sure I am not the first person in your life to observe how little sense this makes.
My read on this situation is that we have become like Pavlovs dogs. We have been conditioned to feel relief when we spend money. There are only a few things we can control right now, as elected leaders and bosses make policies that will rock our world, as friends and neighbors get sick, as our security nets begin to show signs of strains. One of the The few things that we can do to lower our chances of getting sick are around cleaning. So my best guess is that these two impulses are working together, deep inside. I don’;t think many people buying these supplies are consciously recognizing it… and of course, once the shortage begins the rest of us are faced with the question of what we are going to do, knowing that we are going to need some of them. When we watch the supplies dwindling will we practice defensive shopping and snatch up as many items are there? Or will we resist our anxiety, resist our capitalistic programming, and simply get what we need?
And that brings me back to the fear and lonlines, the anxiety and the isolation. This is why I decided it was a good time to begin this thing. One of the things I love about podcasts is that they are made of human voices. There are times that the content of a podcast doesn’t matter to me. If I am missing human connection, just hearing another human being talk helps me to feel connected.
I hope that you get a little more out of this than just the comfort of hearing somebody talk. Hopefully these words are a little more helpful than somebody reading their grocery list, or doing math problems.
My love for contemplative practices comes out of the transformation they have created in my own life. When I was collecting my thoughts for this podcast, the first thing I wrote here was that there is so much less fear in my life now than there was before I started to meditate. But that’s not qutie right. The thing is, the level of fear in my life? When the world isn’t in the grips of a pandemic, It;s about the same as it always was. The reality is that I now know what to do with my fear. I can hold it with the conviction that it won’t destroy me.
One of the things I wanted to make a regular feature of this podcast was to identify and carry an intention through each recording. This is a paralell to an intention I might set before sitting down to do a spiritual practice. In the podcast, the idea is that this intention will be a recurring theme for that particular episode, a lens, perhaps, to view things through at that particular time.
The intention I would like to set this week is to be as radically honest as I know how to be, around my motivations and hesitations. In this spirit, I would like to say a bit more about my sense of timing about why I chose to create this podcast now.
To be honest, I am a little conflicted. Because it’s entirely possible that there is a bit of really ugly oppurtunism mixed up with all my other motivations. Mostly, I really want to help. I want to reduce lonliness. I want to equip people to better face their fears. But the truth is that I love being noticed, I love being thanked for helping people out. My work in the faith-ing project has begun to generate a few dollars. And I am so very thankful for this. Yet…. it does complicate this work.
There is no easy solution to this. But naming it helps keep me humble and honest and pulls it out of the darkness where it can do the most damage. So there we are: I have an ego. I wonder how much of this that I am doing now is motivated by a desire to gratify that ego.
Phew. That was quite a long introduction. At this time, I think the plan for each of these podcasts will go something like this: After I offer up a brief introduction where among other things I will introduce the intention I have for that particular episode. I will share a brief spiritual practice to clear the mind and get us ready for being present to the rest of the episode. In part 3, I will share a bit about my journey and how I got hear. In part 4, I will share a bit more about what I see as some of the joys of the contemplative path. Each week, we will close with an additional spiritual practice.
This is where I got the name ‘Welcome to the Open Hand.’ The Open Hand is, of course, such an evocative symbol. It has so much meaning in particular associated with contemplative practice. In my brain, each of these 5 parts is like a finger, or thumb. Where these comes together, the palm of the hand, so to speak, is what you do with them: how will you pull all these experiences together in your own life?
In between these five sections I will share some information that I think you might want to know. Some of this will be shameless self promotion. Some of it will be good work that I have come across, whether it is being done by friends or just a resource that I think ought to be on your radar. When I give these little pitches, I will be transparent about what my level of connection is to whatever it is that I am pitching.
So, that’s the plan. Make sense? Good. Let’s begin then, with our opening spiritual practice.
In the middle of all the things that are going on, there is probably lots of things that we are not adressing. Today’s introductory spiritual practice is a version of the welcoming prayer. reate a safe, quiet environment for yourself. Turn down your phone and consider lighting a candle.
Breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.
Take a mental inventory of where you are, right now. List the feelings you are experiencing. Do your best to engage this with a nonjudgemental attitude. Your feelings are neither good nor bad. They simply are.
Choose the feeling which seems to be the most impactful. Think, or say “Welcome ___________” (E.G. ‘Welcome, Fear. Welcome, sadness. Welcome, anxiety. Etc.)
Say, or think “I let go of my desire for security and survival.’
Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.’
Say, or think ‘I let go of my desire for power and control.’
Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire to change the situation.’
If you wish, you can repeat this process for a second, troubling emotion.
Let’s just take another minute of silence before we continue. If you would like more than a minute, now is a good time to pause this recording. If you would like to try this practice again, now is a good time to cue this recording back to the appropriate spot.
So, you’re probably getting that in each episode there will be five separate sections, like fingers. After the introductory spiritual practice I will share a little bit of my story. This is not because I think there is anything particularly exceptional about me. On the contrary, I suspect that in all the imnportant ways, my story is a whole lot like your story. We are in this together. I might go so far as to say that we are, in fact, one.
There’s probably some kind of joke in the fact that we are now on the middle finger, and that’s when I am going to tell you about me. But I guess I will leave that one alone for now.
In a variety of different ways, I get some questions that are variations on a theme of “What is the faith-ing Project?” or “Why are you doing this?” Today, I would like to take a shot at answering those questions. This is going to be a pretty quick run through a few years of my life. In the future, I will probably offer up a few details on the story that I am know going to share in some pretty quick, broad strokes.
I spent over three decades searching. I was a philosophy student in college, and a spiritual pilgrim for all my life. I had a lot of contempt for many of the people I met associated with Christianity, and for the institutions associated with them. At the same time, I had a fascination with the person of Jesus.
There were a lot of things that fell into place when I first became a Christian. The first was my wife. Things were not easy for us, early on. We fell into a script. We said hurtful, stupid things to each other. And it took me a long while to realize that I was still going and she was not.
She had something about her that was able to resist the temptations I was falling into. A gentleness, a kindness. One of the many stupid and hurtful rants I would go on would be to disparage her faith. I found myself beginning to think that there was maybe something to it after all.
We ended up at a church that seemed reasonable, at least some of the time. I began to spend some time with the associate pastor. He eventually became the executive pastor. I would ask him questions and expect him to come out with pat, useless responses. Some of the time he would respond to my critiques. Other times he would recognize that I made a really good point and admit that he did not have all the answers.
I fell quite in love with the people at the church. They took good care of me. I lead small groups and eventually took on responsibility for all of the small groups. It was a good time in my life.
But when things took a turn for the worse in my life, the church was not sure what to do with me. Honestly, I did not know what to do with me either. At first, people made attempts to help. There was some incredible genourosity. But my experience was that there was something toxic, too.
As my difficulties did not get any better, it began to feel like people believed that this situation was entirely my fault. Please know that I was far from perfect. I made numerous foolish decisions that made things much worse. But there was this subtle, profound piece of theology that nobody would have ever expressed in words. Most of them did not know that they believed this, I think. But this does not change the fact that there was this belief: it was a belief that if things are going good in your life, that is a sign that you are doing things well. If things are going poorly, this is a sign that you are doing something sinful.
From my vantage point of all these years later, I would like to observe that this is an ironic thing to believe, if you make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus suffered horrifically and undeseveredly on the cross.
As time went on my family was in jeapordy. I developed paralyzing anxiethy and substantial depression. I lost my license, was perched on the edge of financial disaster. If it was not for the hard work of really bright pschologists and psychiatrists I would not have been able to function through that time.
As my spiritual deconstruction commenced in the midst of all this, people were making it onto my radar who promoted the power of meditation, contemplation, and spiritual practice. I had always been interested in these topics, but in my years as an evangelical didn’t get very far with them. Now, I was given permission to explore.
At first it was difficult to figure much out about how you do these things. It seems like some people believed firmly that there was only one way to do these things correctly. The problem was that they couldn’t all agree on just what that method was. I was just getting out of the fundamentalist movement. I wasn’t interested in trading one fundamentalism for another.
Also, many people wanted more money than I had in order to share what they know. I don’t begrudge them that. We all have to eat. But it didn’t help me at that time.
As I began to figure these things out, I began to get much better. I slowly reduced the time I spent in therapy. I slowly reduced the amount of psych meds I felt like I needed. I felt… happy. I began to wonder why somebody had never told me about this stuff before. I made a promise to myself, if I could, I would make it easier for the next person to walk that path.
So here we are. Several years later. I continue to experience all the benefits of those choices I made to invest in a spiritual practice. I have curated a website and social media platforms dedicated to sharing the wonders of mysticism and spiritual practice. I have engaged in dozens of email explorations, sharing the spiritual practices. I have written a bunch of low cost books on the topic, which have subsidized the time and energy I have put into all the other outlets.
I am happier. I am less afraid. I am calmer. I love to hear about other people reaping the benefits of these gits. I have had these experiences of God that transcend my ability to communicate… they practically transcend my ability to understand them. They have brought me closer than I have ever been to the maker of this universe.
But I want to be real. I still have bad days. I still get hangry, sometimes. I don’t want to meditate every day, even though I have lived this transformation. Walking the contemplative path makes things better. It doesn’t make them perfect.
Maybe at some point in the future I will get all fancy with musical interludes to signal the fact that I am now transitioning to another segment. For now, my friends, you are going to have to deal with awkward conclusions, and me saying things like, “Well, that’s the end of that segment.” So…. “That’s the end of that segment.”
Let’s take a little pause right here and now, in the middle of the podcast.
The fourth finger…. The ring finger. Gifts of the contemplative journey. The topic of being afraid came up earlier today. Let’s talk about that for a while.
I don’t know if the people around me would have described me as being a fearful person, several years ago. I do know that fear did motivate lots of my decisions before I started these spiritual practices. I think that it was a little bit about not wanting a negative outcome to come to pass. But it was a lot about not wanting to live in the discomfort and anxiety.
Let me try to give you an example. I am a special educator. For most of my career, I have worked in residential settings with kids that we sometimes have to physically manage to keep them safe. The thing about working with kids that could become violent is they don’t magically land at my school after a bad day. By the time they come to us, these kids have had multiple school failures. They have been placed in lots of classes, worked with lots of adults. One of the things we all do with each other, all the time, is shape each other’s behavior based on past interactions.
My students are used to forming temporary unspoken agreements with the people they work with. If these agreements were sustainable in the long term they would not have ended up with me. But they might, for example, come into a classroom every single day and tear up the text book as soon as it is placed on their desk. As the teacher tries to begin a very long process that moves very slowly of helping administrators understand the student is not a good fit for their class, he has to live his day-to-day life. So it is quite understandable that he stops placing the textbook in front of the students, as he watches his supply of useable books slowly diminish.
When the student is not presented with work that might not be attaimable by him, or which he might not possess the mental endurance to complete, he feels that he has accomplished something. The teacher and the student have reached a sort-of agreement. For a time, there is peace in the classroom, and some peace in the heart of the student and the heart of the teacher. Things are better than they were.
Except that the student isn’t learning anything that he is supposed to be learning. And both the teacher and the student know it.
Eventually, the student ends up in the school I am at. If things are rough at home, too, he might live there.
When I started in the field, I was worried by kids who destroyed books. Or threw chairs. Or assaulted staff. I had been trained in physical management. I use these techniqus when I or someone else is in physical danger. But this is no easy thing. I have been hurt on the job a hanffull of times. Once, I was out for over a month with a sprained back. Even when I am physically safe and everything goes right, restraints are inevitably are the low point of my week.
But back to the hypothetical student who destroys text books. Earlier in my career, I would have avoided any kind of confrontation. His aggressive tendencies would have shaped my behavior. My passive tendencies would have shaped his. I would confirm his impression that a show of force is what it take to get people to leav you alone.
I would have taken a very long time to even get to the point where I was expecting any work out of this student at all. I would recognize that a complete blow up ending in a restraint would have not been particularly likely on any given day. But as soon as I started to push the issue with him, I would have been in an uncomfortable territory. My heart would be moving just a little bit faster. My breath would be coming just a little bit quicker. I think I did more to avoid that heightened sense of anxiety than to avoid the somewhat unlikely worst case scenario of needing to call for assistance to physically manage the student.
Neuroscientists say that we can trace the evolution of animals through the brain. If you go the very base of the brain, where it meets the spinal cord, you see an architecture that looks like a very primitive land animal. If you move out from this center a little bit, the brain looks a little more sophisticated. When you get to the outer layer—the cerebral cortex—you only see this structure in primates. I gather that this is the way evolution works, adding new and complicated structures ones to the more basic ones. There is no magic wand here, to erase what has gone on before. It would be very strange and surprising if we didn’t see the remnnants of the creatures that came before us.
Fear and anciety locate all the brain activity in those basic places. We get stuck in our lizard brain. We are imprisoned to the basic reactions we had before. When I am not in my lizard brain, it seems pretty simple to come up with a solution like having multiple photocopies of the pages we will be reading for the student who destroyed the books. When I am not in my lizard brain, I find myself wondering if this student is terrified that the world will find out that he can’t read. When I am not in my lizard brain, I can explore whether he get’s some sort of tactile gratification out of tearing the books up and help him find something less expensive and destructive to do with his hands.
That’s all pretty basic stuff. My old special education professors would probably give a very intellectual “no duh.” To all three of those approaches. But the thing is, my brain activity wasn’t in the place I could access all that when I was filled with fear and anxiety.
As somebody who calls himself a mystic, who values and talks about meditation, I feel like the things I am supposed to say are supposed to sound like the words of Master Yoda from the Star Wars movies. I am all for Yoda, but the thing about meditation and fear is an explanation that is really to simple to make a very good fortune cookie.
You wouldn’t think that it took much courage to just sit with out distraction. You would think that doing nothing would be the easiest thing of all.
But take a look at what we do to our lives. We fill it with noise and clutter. We pack our schedules so full. When we are alone we put on the radio or a podcast. Sometimes we are even honest enough to admit that we just want some background noise.
Why? Why do we do this?
When is the last time you have bucked this tendency?
Physically, outwardly doing nothing is a great first step. But there is some part of our very own mind that colludes with this strange desire that lives inside of us, and in the space between us. Even when we eliminate the outward noise, the outward busyness, we create this endless babble.
And all of it… we do it to drown out the things we are feeling, thinking, and fearing. I love the image of one of those little, annoying dogs that barks at everything to describe our fears. Have you ever seen one of these little things that looks as much rodent as it does canine, maybe it is behind a fenced in yard, and every time a car goes by, it runs until it hits the fenced wall, barking all the way?
I always wonder what the little dog would do if the fence wasn’t there. The car is thousands of pounds heavier. Hundreds of times larger. What’s the end game here, little doggy? Will you be sinking your teeth into the bumper and dragging it back to your water bowl?
Our fears are that little dog. Only nobody told us it was a little dog. We always thought it was a dinosaur. So whenever we heard it we sped up as we passed that house. Meditation is like somebody opening the gate. The dog comes out, barking away, maybe he even jumps up and gets half his mouth around a little corner of the bumper. Regardless, he won’t be dragging us to his water bowl.
Now, I want to be really careful here. I am not saying that all your fears are unfounded. Though studies show the huge majority of the things we worry about never come to pass, some bad things happen. Some of them might have been avoided. Some of them we saw coming.
Let’s make this real. One month ago, most of us had lots of worries and fears. Most of us had no reason to think that this pandemic would soon be the biggest thing on our minds. Many of the fears and anxieties we held are in fact moot points now.
The dog doesn’t stand for the things you fear. He stands for the fear inside your mind. In a really important way, that saying is one hundred percent wrong. One of the only things we shouldn’t fear is fear itself. When we create a space and time of emptiness. When we stop with the noise and the clutter, sometimes that is the very first time we looked at our fears at all.
When we let them come to light we find that we can dismiss most of them. Then we can do work on the ones that are legitimate and reasonable. We can’t avoid everything. There are certain things we will be powerless to avoid. But in my experience, we do a lot more damage to ourselves by living in denial.
We deny all of our fears rather than face them, usually. We never sort through and weed out the foolishness. Most of it is foolishness.
I am not advocating a spiritual practice where you make the decision to consciously just walk into all the things you are afraid of. There are some who do this. They find it useful. But that can be like drinking from a fire hose. And also a little sadistic.
There is a wisdom in the body and the mind. When we put away all of our distractions, it will give us what we are ready for. Just quietly sitting. employing a mantra, or a technique like labelling the thoughts, or any of the other possibilities that are out there…. These are like turning the fire house down, so that you get the fears and anxieties in bite size chunks.
Sometimes, people get frustrated when the their chosen spiritual practice doesn’t seem to work perfectly. Disruptive thoughts sneak in. Anxieties get past the image we have chosen to focus on. Fears lead us to lose our focus on the breath.
These practioners find themselves on a hamster wheel of frustration. Their irritation gets them further away from the peace they sought. And then they are even further away and more disruptions arise.
This is not a helpful way to look at them. Spiritual practices are a win-win. One possible outcome is that they feel like they are leading to a sense of calm, and then it is good. But the surprise is that the other outcome is also good. When we lose focus, when these fears, disruptions, and distractions arise, that is also good. We are seeing these for what they are. We are given the opportunity to engage the practice again: to return to the breath, to say our sacred word, to place the thought on the leaf on the river.
So, here we are. Just about to move on to our final segment. I am going to take this time, between the fingers as it were, to put some things on your radar. I want to keep my commitment to you that I would be upfront about this stuff, so please be forewarned that the things I am sharing with you today are directly connected to my work with the faith-ing project.
Sometime around May, you can look forward to the next book from the faith-ing Project. It is called Contemplating the Enneagram. As you may know, The enneagram is a centuries old system that helps give meaning to our motivations and personalities. One of the major aspects of the enneagram is the division of all people into types which are assigned numbers. For example, I am a 5. Fives are characterized by their love of knowledge, their stinginess, and their challenges with human connections and emotions.
There are lots of great introductions and descriptions of how the enneagram works. I recommend the Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile or The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert. Contemplating the Enneagram is not another introduction to this way of understanding our personhood. Instead, my book will be mostly focused on contemplative exercises specifically chosen for each type and some considerations unique to each number as they build their own spiritual practice. Their will be a brief review of the characteristics of each type, but this book will be most helpful after readers familiarize themselves through the books mentioned previously, any of the dozens of podcasts available on the topic, or online resources like the recent Center for Action and Contemplation emails which went out or the Enneagram Institute.
Let’s conclude with another spiritual practice. This is a relatively brief mindfulness practice. I am sharing it hear because it is another good antidote to these fear filled times we are living in. Like many mindfulness practices, this is a good thing to do in the middle of the every day stresses of life.
For more spiritual practices coordinated to specific Enneagram types, see Contemplating The Enneagram. available May, 2020.
Background: An interesting game to play is “What if there were only type ___ in the world?” Twos love to help others. They have a great deal of trouble accepting help0 from others. If there were only twos in the world, I imagine them running around trying to help and support each other. And none of them getting to do it. Because all of them would refuse the help of others.
Like nearly any comment you can make about personality types, this is of course a generalization and an over simplification. But it gets at a fundamental reality for two’s: it is easier to give help than recieve it.
As the above thought-experiment demonstrates, giving and recieiving help are both vitally important. We couldn’t have one with out the other. This first practice equates this interdependence to the parts of the breath. Just as we could not have an inhale without an exhale, so too we could not have helpers with out those they are helping.
Somewhere, deep down, we might have this tendency to think, “Well, I can help other people… because they have an easy time recieiving help. I don’t need to be the person who takes help, there’s plenty of other people out there.”
This is an adventure in missing the point. Much of the spiritual work that needs to be done by twos is allowing themselves to be helped.
Place your feet flat on the floor.
With the next inhale, think “I can recieve help.”
With the next exhale, think, “I can give help.”
For most of the time that you have devoted to this practice, repeat steps 5 and 6.
When you are ready, release these words. Sit in a time of wordlessness.
Type one’s often face an inner critic. A personality-within-a-personality that offers a never ending diatribe about all the things that they are doing wrong. Sometimes, it is helpful to meet this creation head on.
There are many ways and approaches to disarming the inner critic. One is to name it something ridiculous and personify it in a manner that is outragous. A second is to be more humane with it. On this account, we recognize that it once did us good.
Find an empty chair. Bring it near you.
Close your eyes and take three deep breaths.
Consider your inner critic and consider the power it has over your life. Ask yourself which approach would work best for taming it.
Now, personify your inner critic. See her or him sitting in the chair. Imagine the color of the critic’s hair. The timbre of their voice. See the clothes your critic is wearing.
Sit in silence with the critic for a time.
Tell the critic that it is no longer doing what it set out to do. Explain that it has worn out its welcome.
Dismiss the critic. Let it disapear.
Spend some quiet time alone.
For more practices curated especially for Enneagram type 1, see Contemplating The Enneagram, available in May 2020.
Background: I suspect that the contents of this practice were inspired by James Finley’s understanding of Thomas Merton’s words, as expressed here.
This practice will ask you to relive a stressful experience. It is wise to begin to think about that now. Please practice discretion and self care as you select an event. There is no need to choose something to distressing.
And now, bring to mind the feeling in your body at times of stress and busyness.
And now, in your imagination, place yourself in a general sort of situation that might cause this feeling. A meeting at work. A difficult class. An unwanted confrontation. A procedure you would prefer to avoid. Furnish your imagination with sights, sounds, and smells.
And now! make it real. Place yourself in an actual event like this that you recently experienced it. Continue to use your senses. Linger on this experience if you can.
And now! see a toddler. The child is at play. But the child is serious about, it too. There are toys before the toddler. This child is holding them carefully, turning them over, feeling them, listening to the sounds they make. The child’s parents are sitting in a love seat. The smile of the child’s father is only in his eyes. His mother smiles with her lips though. The parents are adoring the child. Watch this scene for as long as you want.
And now! The toddler is you. And you are the toddler. All the things that felt so serious and important are the explorations the child was making into the world around themself.
The mother-father on the love seat is God. You can climb up there and sit between them, if you wish. They will help you climb up.
Background: This is a modified version of a practice which appears in Richard Rohr’s Just This.
Their is much of value in the first several steps of this practice. It might be that you are ready to work through to steps 9-11. However, don’t rush into it. It might take weeks, months, or even years. The first 8 steps are quite a powerful practice on their own.
Place your feet flat on the floor.
Rest in the Silence.
When you are ready, feel embraced by her. Let the Silence flow over you.
As sounds or distracting thoughts threaten to disrupt your practice, realize that the silence still exists, beneath the distractions. Look for the silence beneath these things which rise up. All that happens comes out of silence and will sink back into it.
Continue to be embraced by it.
At some point, you may just be ready to shift your vantage point. This step is the optional one: Shift the seat from which you see the world. It began in the head, with thinking. Feel this vantage point move down the physicality of your body. Let yourself reside in the heart, now. See the world from this place.
Continue to dwell in the silence and bring it in.
You will know that you are authentically occupying the heart space when you experience a clear vastness.
When you are ready, release this practice. Sit in a time of wordless wonder.
Background: Julian of Norwich is responsible for one of the most famous phrases in all of mysticism, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” In her vision this is said by Jesus. He is responding to her distress. She states that if God had just stopped sin from happening, then “all should have been well.”
Jesus response is that sin is necessary. But it doesn’t matter. And that’s when he gave Julian the phrase which she then gave the world: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
It seems that the phrase has lots of resonance with those who do not know the wider context. It certainly appealed to me before I researched it. I like knowing the full story though, because it helps me to understand part of the appeal.
The Jesus of Julian’s vision uses her very own language. It is almost as if she says “Things were supposed to be good.” And that response is so very affirmative and over the top, that it puts it to shame. It is a little bit like the contrast between saying “he is risen.” and “he is risen indeed.” The second statement goes further than the first.
It seems like the appeal of this statement is in the promise that in the widest possible view, the outcome of everything will be so much better than we could have possibly hoped.
Place your feet flat on the floor.
Sit straight and comfortably.
With the next inhale, think “All shall be well.”
With the next exhale, think “And all shall be well.”
With the next inhale, think “And all manner of things shall be well.”
Repeat steps 5-8 for most of the time you have to devote to your practice today.
When you are ready, release these words and sit in a time of wordless union,
An Audio version of this practice is available below:
Background: Visualizations are journeys that begin with the words written by someone else. Often, these words are not much more than a setting. The most successful experiences I have had with visualizations are the times I accessed some child-like imagination and playfulness and allowed myself to go beyond where those written words would have taken me if I had just stuck with the script. Like most spiritual practices, it is wise to begin a visualization by reading through the entire description to get a big picture about what, specifically, is going to happen. After that first read through, I will then engage the practice.
After reading through the whole thing, I recommend rereading a few sentences, then picturing what they describe. Taking the suggestions about sensory input is a very important part of the process. Do not rush through experiencing the temperatures, textures, tastes, and sounds of these words. If your imagination takes you some where new, continue to ask yourself what it feels, smells, and sounds like where you are.
This visualization is written in a narrative format.
Today’s visualization is rooted in the fact that Jesus’ baptism occurred just before his time in the desert. Great journeys are often begun in a ritual such as this one. I hope that today’s visualization commemorates the beginning of your Lenten journey.
Find yourself sitting at a table on the shore of a beautiful lake. It is almost uncomfortably warm. But a gentle breeze comes in carrying dampness and cooling it to a nearly perfect temperature. The sky is so very blue. If you would like, loved ones are nearby. They do not have to be.
You get up and look to the stone staircase. This lead down and into the lake. Over and around these steps is an elaborate gate, a sort of trellis. Vines and flowers are woven into it. The grass is soft under your bare feet. You walk to the gate and open it.
The first several steps are above the water line. The stones are smooth, but much firmer than the grass. At the third step you find yourself ankle deep. The water is only a bit of a shock.
On the fourth step you look up to meet the gaze of a kind teacher. It might be someone you know. It could be Jesus. The person might not be alive now. And yet, they are here with you. The teacher smiles. You smile. You are knee deep, now, in the refreshing water.
When you are chest deep, you are next to the teacher. The teacher’s arms are firm. You trust them as you lean back and are, lowered all the way into the water. There is some fear. It is unnatural to be underwater, trusting in another. The teacher, of course, lifts you back up.
“This is my wonderful child. I am well pleased in them.” Where are those words coming from? You cannot be sure.
This strange lake does not get deeper than this. You are not meant to go back out the gate you came in, today. Walk across the lake. The teacher will come with you while you are in the water. He might speak to you. You might hear the words the teacher says.
This is the beginning of an adventure. You will return to this shore you set out from. But not today. Eventually you reach that far end of the lake. What waits for you there? Will the teacher come with you? Continue this visualization if you wish.