Category Archives: Strategies

A sample from “What I learned In My Cell: Taking a Contemplative Stance in a Time of Pandemic.”

Introduction

It is April 10, 2020 as I write these words.  And these last long weeks have—in some ways—been the strangest days I have ever lived through.

A virus they call COVID-19 has made its way across the globe.  People—especially the vulnerable—are dying.  We are isolating, together.  Nearly everyone in the entire world.

Isolating together.  It’s kind-of funny.  We are alone, together.  We have cut ourselves off from contact with the world outside of ourselves.  And we have done it in the name of cooperative living.  The people who are ignoring the instructions not to gather are the least cooperative and collective of us.

Many of us are not working.  And the endless days bleed into endless nights.  Many of us who are working are working twice as hard as we ever did.  The hospitals are overwhelmed.  The stories are running out of the things our lives depend on.

It is so scary to go out into the world.  It is so scary not to go out into the world.

It is April 10, 2020 as I write these words.  And these last long weeks have been — in some ways—just the same as all the days I have ever lived through.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  There are willfully ignorant people who say that this is all nothing.  I am not saying that.  This virus will change us as individuals and as societies.  It is a big deal.

It is an Armageddon.  But I don’t mean what people often mean, when they say Armageddon.   I am not imagining fireballs and laser beams, destruction on a huge scale.  Originally, the word ‘Armageddon’ meant “uncovering.”   That’s what this is: an uncovering.  The dynamics that have always been at work among us are suddenly revealed for what they are.  I am thinking about how you can manipulate the light and darkness, and shape your hands just so, and it creates a shadow play, an illusion cast on a screen.  Up until this time, we have all been watching the screen.

Now, we have an opportunity.   Somebody just turned the lights on.   We will see the hand that has shaped itself in just the right way to resemble a duck flying, or a soldier marching, or whatever it was.  We will all gasp, “ah.” As we come to understand the things that have always been going on.

It first came into my head that writing this book would maybe be a thing worth doing a few days back.  I was sitting at home, and I had just dropped some THC under my tongue, and the mourning came on me so deeply.  It was so sudden, so intense and unexpected that all I could do was moan.

Mom died about five years ago.   And if you had asked me five months ago… five weeks ago…. Five days ago, I would have told you that I was in a place that I had released my anguish about this event.  And yet as I sat there, in the pandemic, here it was, so fresh, so vital, so acute.

And it was lovely in a way I can’t describe.  I was and am thankful for this opportunity to mourn for mom again.  There was this stuff in me that I would have told you I put away.  But I hadn’t put it away.  I had just covered it up.  Then this Armageddon came, and it uncovered it.

It uncovered so much.

This virus has uncovered more than I will be able to explain.  I am writing from the very middle of this thing.  Later, I will probably have some other things to say.  Distance will give me a certain perspective.  And that perspective will have a value of sorts.  But here in the middle of it?  That closeness is valuable, too.

I am an introspective person with a love of writing and a set of spiritual practices that allows me to see things in a way that I think is helpful for people.  I have a sense that the most helpful my insights will ever be is now, while we are still in the middle of this crisis.  I have some experience writing, publishing, and selling books on spiritual practices, so I have a little background in how to do this efficiently and quickly.   Before I say more about this thing that I am trying to do, I want to be clear about the things I do not want to do here.

I do not want to say this is worth it.  It’s not.  People are suffering and dying.  It is the height of insensitivity and callousness to say that it will end up being a good thing.  If this whole affair was some sort of transaction, the price we must pay is not worth the item we are purchasing.

I do not want to be opportunistic, and benefit from this thing that is happening.  All I can say really, about this later point is that today is Friday.  That mourning came at me on Tuesday.  The idea of writing these words occurred to me then.  I have spent these last several days carrying this concern, weighing my thoughts, weighing my heart, wrestling with this possibility.

Can I be honest with you?  I am only pretty sure that this is the right thing to do.  It is only most of me that has motivations that are pure enough for me to be proud of them.  There is a time I would have expected myself to be positive.  There is a time I would have told you that I searched my heart and it was 100% in the right place.

I wouldn’t have known I was lying at that time.  I would have believed the words I was saying to you.  But that would not have made them true.  The time that mom died was this time of transformation for me.  Even if mom hadn’t been dying, I would have been leaving the evangelical church I had been part of for the prior decade.  The fact of her cancer and the feelings I had about it, they brought a certain urgency to that transition.  My journey out of the black-and-white moralistic Evangelical church has been one into an airy, Christ-centered mysticism.  My experience meditating every day is probably the biggest single action I have taken to help position me to understand this great uncovering.

 

It’s funny how I have this sense that I am getting ahead of myself when I keep getting sucked into wanting to tell you about the things that are in my past.  I guess that is part of the point.  This Armageddon is a Great Uncovering that is giving me a glimpse beneath the surface of things in more than just the present.  It has uncovered some of my past.  It has uncovered some of my future.  I am writing this because I think we ought to be sharing and talking about these uncoverings.  I don’t think these will fully redeem this suffering.  But if we get a little something out of this time, then at least it won’t all be for nothing.

Let me tell you about day-to-day life.  A few weeks ago, I was a Special Education Teacher.  I have taught at my place of work for over a decade now.  I have picked up a few extra gigs along the way, like mentoring the new teachers and coordinating the school’s technology.  Most of the time, I love my job.

I am asthmatic.  I average about one hospital stay a year, whenever the Spring rains bring more mold than my hyper-allergic system can handle.  I was worried, therefore, when the earliest reports made it clear that people like me with respitory vulnerability were at risk.  The school at which I teach is residential. Most of the kids don’t just spend the 8 hours of the school day together.  They spend their nights their too.  And the students I teach aren’t kids who are always receptive to being taught to practice good hygiene.  There was a lot of stuff working against them.

It is a testament to my wonderful place of work that they were willing to validate my concerns.  I had been flirting with a variety of administrative tasks.  We worked out a few preliminary projects for me to do at home.  When the public schools began closing, my assignment began to shift.   The fifty kids who were bused into my school from the homes where they lived with their families were going to need to be educated remotely.  I became the lead on that.  Many of my healthier colleagues continue to show up to their teaching jobs every day.  Our school is one of the few that is not closed.

Dear God, I miss my classroom.  It’s only been three weeks.  How could it only have been three weeks?

            What’s next

This book will be structured into chapters.  Each chapter will be made up of an introduction, a series of reflections, and a gathering of spiritual practices that relate to the topic of the chapter.  The introduction will, of course, explain the importance of the theme of the chapter.  Each of the meditations will conclude with a few questions to encourage exploration of those ideas in the reader’s own life.  If the spiritual practices were practiced daily, I believe firmly that you will benefit greatly from this investment.

The first chapter will focus on the power of the lament.  It will recognize the meaning and depth of our suffering at this time.  In a way, that chapter will be focused on the things I am learning about this pandemic by using my contemplative practice as a lens to understand the world around me.  The second chapter will turn the lens around.  This chapter will explore the things I am learning about my contemplative practice by the things that are going on with this pandemic.  The third chapter will be a deeper dive into the nature of isolation itself.  The fourth and final chapter will try to sketch out some of what these meditations and this time in history means, for myself as an individual and for contemplative practice as a whole.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: Laments

One of the almost-forgotten gifts of many of the world’s great religions is the lament.  Laments, of course, are deep sorrows.  Sometimes, they can almost seem like too much.  Perhaps you are a kinder person than me.  But if I am going to be honest, here, I would confess something:

There is a part of me that can watch a person lament and doubt the whole thing.  Is it so bad, whatever it is you are bemoaning?  I can usually put this skepticism away very quickly.  But it is there, nonetheless.

As a look at the idea of lamenting through the lens of this pandemic, as I recall that this a Great Uncovering, there are a few things that I notice.  The first is that the answer might be “no.”  It might be that whatever the actual thing is that a person is mourning, maybe it isn’t as bad as all that.  Maybe it’s not worth the wailing and the tears on its own.   But this is not a reason to invalidate the sufferings someone is expressing.  On the contrary, it is a reason to recognize what a powerful force lamenting is.  It can be a kind-of spring cleaning.

There was a family member I hated going to see movies with when I was a child.  She would cry in the movies.  Not little tears, either.  She would engage in this shoulder-hitching, gasping-for-breath sobbing.  At the time I felt it was embarrassing.  She once said that she liked going out to movies and doing this.  She said she got to cry about the movie, but she was also letting herself cry about all the other stuff in life that is worth crying about.  At the time, I felt that was all weird.

Now, I see a deep wisdom in it.  This is what I am trying to say about laments.  Perhaps they are only about the thing being mourned on the surface.  Perhaps the lament is an opportunity to mourn for all the other things we haven’t properly mourned.

Perhaps that cynical voice within me only appears to be about the other person.  Perhaps when I wonder if some of this isn’t just for show, I am really trying to deny my own mourning and loss.  And maybe, I am also trying to distance and separate myself from the person, too.  I am trying to other them.

When I watch a person physically suffer, I want to alleviate their suffering.  But also, I want to make sure I can’t and won’t suffer in that manner, too.  Next chapter we will explore this topic of contagion.  For now, let’s just say that if I can distance myself from a person who is hurt, I can feel safe and comfortable, holding onto the delusion that I won’t ever be in their position of deep lament.

This chapter will explore the losses we are mourning.  Sometimes we will be missing the things that we are losing now.  Other times it will really be about some wound that runs older and deeper.   One of the reasons that this pandemic is so difficult is that it manifests itself in so many different, sometimes even diametrically opposed ways.  Let’s begin with noticing that.

 

 

 

Reflection 1-1: The Many Different Manifestations

It is difficult to imagine a catastrophe which would hit us more universally.

Every corner of the globe is in some stage of preparation and action.  Every person we know is having their lives shaped by this thing.

At the same time, while it is certainly impacting each one of us, it is hitting us all so very differently.  It is hard to imagine a thing which could have produced a wider variety of impacts.  At the very most general level is the question of how endangered we are.  Those of us with homes, health, responsive and respectful workplaces, effective governments, and robust social networks are hit by this in a certain way.  People without these resources are hit quite differently.

For some of this is largely preventative and theoretical.  Others of us are literally fighting for our lives.  Some of us find that we are laid off with too much time on our hands.  Others are now asked to work twice as hard for twice as long.  Some of us have a low desire for social contact and find this isolation partially invigorating.  Others of us long for connection and find ourselves so very lonely.

The thing is, we mostly chose the lives we had before.  But the circumstances we are in now?  It is all quite random.  It is quite likely that there are at least some elements of where we are that someone else would like a whole lot more than we do.

How do you do with people grieving and mourning?  What do you wish people would do for you when you are lamenting?  What are the things you are missing and mourning right now?  To what extent are your feelings about what is actually going on now, and to what extent are they about things that are from your past?

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Strategy #5: More on the Breath

There is lots to be said about the two most obvious parts of the breath: The inhale, and the exhale.

The first is an act of bringing something that is outside of us, inside of us.  It is like eating, being nurtured, or educated.  In each case, the alchemy is one pointing toward the self: it begins beyond our boundaries, and it ends inside of our boundaries.

The second is an act of sending ourselves out in to the world.  It is like using our knowledge to make a meal or teach a lesson, tending to the wounds of someone, or expressing our love in words.  Here, the alchemy is a transformation of energy that begins as something unfelt and untouchable by the world, and yet we manage to make it an experience to those within the world.

This is why it can feel like such a transformation to change from an inhale to an exhale as we think or say words.  The inhale is an act of bringing this truth in to my inner world.  Saying a part of a breath-prayer with the inhale is an act of changing myself.  The exhale is an act of sending the truth out into the world.  Maybe sending the thought out there changes the world.  At the bare minimum, exhaling with a statement is a sort-of promise to follow these words I am sending out with actions.

There is actually more than just the inhale and the exhale, when we want there to be.  We have the ability to pause,  to hold the breath for a moment.

You won’t be the first person to ever tell me I am overthinking things, but I believe this to be true:

There is a strange sort of subtle fear involved with holding the breath.  Our bodies, of course, need a constant source of oxygen.  Our cells cry out when we cut off our supply to them, even if it is only for a moment.

I think this is why considering a thought or phrase while holding the breath feels so intense.  It is a bit like turning a spotlight on, or cueing up soundtrack music to intensify the feelings.  There is this background sense of ‘Alert!  The body is not getting its oxygen.’

Holding the breath, for even a moment, is a bit like a fast in microcosm.  It is a way to temporarily assert that we are bigger than our physical nature.  Paradoxically, both a fast and a holding of breath must come to an end if we are to live.  In a different way, therefore, each of these reinforces the idea that we are not bigger than our physical nature: Holding the tension between these two ideas…  Owning the idea that we both are and are not bigger than our physical nature?  This is a nondualistic reality that contemplative activities alone can usher us into.

 

Big Picture Consideration: the Apophatic & the Cataphatic

A somewhat trite folk song and an amazing section of the bible say it well:

There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

Maybe this points to a really important distinction, one that sometimes feels as though it were a hidden, a thing that modern Christianity sometimes seems to want to treat like a dirty little secret.

On the one hand are the things we can speak of.  This side of the spectrum is characterized by understanding and light.  It is built on the assumption that the world is knowable.  It is associated with happiness and explanations.  This has been called the Cataphatic.

On the other hand, there is the truth that words only get us so far.  This side of the specrum is characterized by the not-knowing and darkness.  It is built on the understanding that there are some (many?) things that we can not comprehend.  It is associated with a lack of joy and a reluctance to explain.  This has been called the Apophatic.

To whatever extent these things are true about reality in general, they are doubly true about The Ground of All Being/God/Spirit/ Jesus/Truth/Allah….

The Cataphatic is easier for most people today.  I don’t know if it is a sign of modernity.  Or the evangelical church.  Or one of the inheritances of the age of “Enlightenment.”  Or simple and universal human nature…  Probably a bit of each.

Much of what we do in modern faith context is built around words (sermons, singing words, small group discussions) and happiness (upbeat melodies to worship music, cherry picking the happy parts of psalms)   There are lots of powerful spiritual exercises to explore this side of the spectrum.  But it seems to me they are a little less necessary than apophatic spiritual exercises.

Because we don’t spend much time in the apophatic.   We don’t have too many options open to us.  We have lost the art of lamenting.  We are so tempted to view agnosticism as a sign of weakness and ambiguity as a sign of the weak.  I think these are all the signs of a mature spirituality.  Perhaps we could enter into them earlier if we had more avenues for it.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it requires some life experience, some humiliation, some dying in order to be able to recognize that this all can not be out prayed, out sang, and out worshipped.

Regardless, this is where it is.  Give a try to an apophatic meditation today.

 

Strategy #4- Touch

There are several traditions which use some sort of tactile stimulation to help practioners be in the moment.  Most notably, Buddhists have their prayer beads, and Catholics have their rosaries.  As simple as these are, we can get some of the benefits of them with nothing more than hands.

There is research verifying the idea that tracking our progress by touching our thumbs to each of our finger tips is beneficial.  For example, we might start with the left hand.  The first time we complete a breath prayer, touch left thumb to left pointer finger.  With the second completion, touch left thumb to middle finger.  Then touch left thumb to ring finger, and then, with the fourth completion of the breath prayer, touch the thumb to the pinky.  We can then, obviously, switch over to the right hand.

It’s such a little thing.  But I notice a difference.  I suppose it is partially the sensory stimulation making the thoughts more meaningful.  I think it also prevents my mind from wandering and helps to track progress through the spiritual exercise.

Why don’t you give it a try today?

 

Big Picture Consideration #5

I have spent some time wrestling with how best to share the stuff I am writing about today.

In true contemplative fashion, I am doing my best to hold two equally important (and in some ways contradictory) realities.

The first reality is that The Faith-ing Project is a labor of love for me.  I am passionate about sharing these practices with anybody and everybody, regardless of their ability to financially support this endeavor.

The second reality is that there are a handful of direct expenses involved with this.  They include the expenses of keeping this website ad-free and able to host things like audio files.  I also have a hope of upgrading some of the equipment being used here.  And the time I am investing is no small thing.  It would be nice to be free of the temptation of taking up a side hustle or second job.  Having to do that would not be good for the development of materials here.

Since The Faith-ing Project began, I have utilized Patreon to give people an opportunity to make a small monthly contribution.  In exchange for $3.00 a month, patrons receive access to a growing library of audio files which present the spiritual exercises.

If you would rather make a 1-time contribution through paypal, I can be reached at otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com

If you are in a position to support this important work with a small monthly gift or a 1-time payment, I am deeply thankful to you.  If The Faith-ing Project’s resources and email campaigns have been helpful to you, or if you share my conviction that these practices are desperately needed by the world, this financial assistance is one way to express your solidarity with me.

If you are not equipped financially to support what we are doing at this time, I would not want you to hold on to any kind of guilt about this.  I (generally) believe in the power of prayer and would ask for your prayers regardless of your financial situation.  Offering feedback and concrete suggestions on what you see here is another way to support this project.  (I feel particularly out of my element in the visual and technological side of all this)

Regardless of whether you can support The Faith-ing Project in any specific way, I am thankful for your presence here and wish you peace on the journey.

You can help in turning The Faith-ing Project into a fully functioning community.  You can do this in several ways:

  • Share your thoughts, feelings, and criticism below in the comments.
  • email otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com to share something directly with the Project’s Director, to join our next email campaign, or to ask to be placed on the mailing list.
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Big Picture Consideration #5: Inclusion, not Appropriation

A phrase that has landed on lots of our radars over the past couple years is “Cultural Appropriation.”

My understanding of why this is a bad thing is evolving.  It took me a while to see how it is a problem at all.  As time has gone by, I still need somebody to go slow and help me with some of the details.

The problem of cultural appropriation plays out in a few specific ways for me here, at the Faith-ing Project.  The most obvious one is my use of practices from traditions that I do not consider my own.  It is inevitable that I am going to oversimplify, misrepresent, and gloss over important aspects of all the practices that I present here, especially the ones that don’t come from the tradition I identify as my own.

I have considered whether I should be sharing them at all.  After lengthy consideration, I have decided that it is worth it, despite the risk.  There are a few reasons for deciding I should include Buddhist, Jewish, and (soon) Islamic practices here.

#1) Part of the mystic’s journey is to recognize the thing that all the major world religion’s have in common.  This is not saying they are all identical, or that they all take us to the same “place.”  But it is important to recognize their commonality.  And for me, that begins with the spiritual practices.

#2) My hope is that your time here is the launch pad for your spiritual practice, not the end-game for it.  As you dive deeper into a practice or belief system, I am hopeful that any errors you picked up here will get corrected.

#3) The real power of the internet is the possibility for interactions.  I truly, deeply, and sincerely hope that if I have misrepresented something that you will help me out.   There is a fine line here, of course.  There are certain things which are simple disagreements and can’t be authoritatively decided in this lifetime.  I don’t mind you sharing these sorts of things if you would like.  But what I am more passionate about is the places where I am demonstrably, objectively wrong about what a certain group practices or believes.    Please hear this invitation: if I got something wrong, please feel free to use the comment section of the posts, the contact button up top, or to email me at otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com

 

Big Picture Consideration #4: Beyond Words

One of the most important people in my life regularly undergoes a procedure that has the unfortunate side effect of really messing up certain parts of her brain chemistry.    One of the main areas impacted is the language part of the brain.

For a good week or two, she is very limited both in understanding and speaking.  Loving and supporting her has been a learning experience for me.  (To be clear: I have the easy part of the deal.)

I am a very word-oriented person.  It is one of my main ways of relating and of spending time with someone.  Recently, I was thinking about this learning process.  And realizing it mirrors the changes in my relationship with God.

A bunch of years ago, my main connection with God was through talking.  And sometimes listening.  So many of my practices now wordless.  I have developed this whole new list of ways to spend time with God.  It’s not different than the re-learning I have had to do with this special person: finding new ways to be together.

One of the best things I am learning is that words only get us so far.  In some ways, the spiritual activities were a little more chosen.  But the reality is that the new things I am learning to do, those not reliant on words, are some of my favorite things to do.