Exercise 67: Tonglen for Times of Division and Strife

Background:  Sometimes I hover on the edge of paralysis; I am nearly overwhelmed.  Even while I hold these experiences I know that even this sensation is a symptom of my privilege.  I am a white person living in America during a time of racist police brutality, protests, and looting.  I have the luxury and means of working from home during a time of worldwide pandemic and mass unemployment.

There are players and perspectives in these events I easily emphasize with.  There are others are do not.   This morning, I had a very powerful experience of the Buddhist practice known as Tonglen.  I incorporated a few elements of metta, or loving-kindness meditation.  I have tried to reproduce this morning’s practice here.

Traditionally, Tonglen asks the practitioner to breathe in the suffering of a chosen person or group, and then to widen this circle of compassion.  I love tonglen for the ways it empowers me.  To recognize that my body can withstand and transform suffering is a wonderful thing.  Before starting this version there are a few things to think about.

It is likely going to be easy to find the group or person whose suffering you’d like to begin with.  I find it more difficult to find who I can widen that circle to.  Their is spriritual growth in rising to the challenge here or stretching the compassion muscles to someone who it is not easy and natural to feel compassion for.  However, we are limited and growing human beings.  If I am too ambitious about who I wish to widen my compassion to I come grinding to a hault.

Lots of powerful words have been written about the tension between action and contemplation.  My sense is that the goal here is to move us out of paralysis.  We can hold our compassion while moving forward in a certain direction which may not instantly and obviously be a win-win.  The goal here is not to come to terms with the idea that everyone is a little bit right.  Rather, the goal here is to hold the suffering of increasingly wide groups of people and move forward into the world decisively after having done so.

The Practice.

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath,.
  2.  Inhale deeply.
  3. Exhale deeply.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 at least two more times.
  5. With the next inhale, breathe in heat, claustrophia, and suffering.
  6. With the next exhale, breathe out spaciousness, c6 atoolness, and joy.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 at least two more times.
  8. With the next inhale, breathe in through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.  See, in your minds eye, the whole of your body taking in heat/claustrophobia/suffering.
  9. With the next exhale, breathe out through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.
  10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 at least two more times.
  11. Now, as you continue this pattern, let this suffering be specifically for you that you inhale.  Let it be your claustrophobia, heat, suffering.
  12. As you exhale, let it to be joy and spaciousness for you.
  13. Continue this for as long as feels productive.
  14. There is a group or person close to your heart.  As you continue this deep breathing, this breathing through the whole of the body, bring them to mind fully.   Picture what they might be wearing, how they might stand, what they would wearing.  Is their a distinctive sound of their voice?  A smell which might be associated with them?  “See” them with all your senses.
  15. Inhale their suffering.
  16. Exhale them peace.
  17. Can you go deeper into their experiences: the suffering of their life, or even across the generations?  
  18. Continue with this for as long as feels productive.
  19. Bring to mind a wider group.  Perhaps one that is challenging to feel for.  Picture them with all the living specificity you brought to mind earlier, when it was easier.  Exhale your judgements as you seek to make them clear in your mind.
  20. Inhale their suffering, closeness, heat with your whole body.
  21. Exhale them peace, openess, coolness with your whole body.
  22. Continue for as long as feels productive.
  23. Now, in your mind, bring the suffering together of both people/groups.  Inhale the suffering of both groups.
  24. Exhale peace to both.
  25. Continue.  When you are ready, progress to the next step.
  26. Can you widen your compassion further?  If so, take in the suffering of more people with your inhalations.  Exhale peace to this widened circle.
  27. Release this practice.  Sit wordlessly for a while.
  28. Now, sit with the tension between contemplation and action.  Explore in your mind which steps you are ready to take to physically change the world.  

Exercise 66: Mindful Eating

Background:   Mindfulness asks us to sit with our sensory experiences.  It recognizes that our ability to taste, touch, and smell does not have the ability to look to the future or the past.  Nearly anything can be approached this way.   But eating is a good place to begin, particurly for sevens.  When Enneagram lore identifies ‘gluttony’ as the sin of sevens, they are careful to point out that this means more than food.  But food is certainly a part of it!

This is a practice that can be done with incredibly tiny parts of food.  To anticipate the eating, for example, of a single M&M can be a joyous, delightful thing.

As written below, this practice assumes that you will have something prepared to eat.  But there is no reason to begin feeling present once the food is prepared.  Being slow and aware during the process of getting the food ready is a great way to be.

 

The Practice 

 

  •  Take three deep breaths: inhalations and exhalations.  Finding yourself here.
  • Experience yourself as existing in the center of a vast network of relationships, all of which collaborated to bring this food to you.  Consider the person who sold it to you, the person who stocked the shelves.  The shippers who transformed it.  The farms that grew it or the factory that packaged it.  Allow yourself a moment of grattitude for this network of relationships; widen it even further if you wish; consider the people who trained and supported the shipper, the sales people, the farmers., for example.
  • Behold the food that you are going to eat.  Seek to see it as something truly unique.  This is not just an example of whatever sort of food you are eating (i.e. it’s not just an apple; it is one particular apple.)  
  • Turn the plate so that you can view this from some other angle.  Seeking to discover something about the appearance of this thing.
  • Smell the food.  Make yourself present to this scent.
  • Place a small bite of the food in your mouth.  Explore this texture with your tongue.  Don’t bite into it yet.
  • Note the flavor and the texture of this thing.  See if this texture and flavor are  unifrom.
  • Now, bite into this food slowly.  Notice the ways it is ground between your teeth.  Be present to the tastes and the textures that change.  Allow this chewed food to land on your tongue.
  • Tune in to the ways that this slowly grows uniform in taste and texture.  Notice any changes in your body as it reacts to the tastes.
  • When it is time, swallow this bite of food.
  • If there is more of the food left, take a look at the portion that remains.  Note how the bite you took out of it.  
  • Smell the food again.  How has the taste changed?
  •   Be present to other changes in your body.  Does your belly began to feel full?  Is your throat dry?  What taste remains even with the food no longer in your mouth?
  • Repeat steps 6-13 until the food has been eaten.
  • Sit in a moment of grattitude for this food. 

 

 

Book of Grief, Gratitude and Love

Introduction

The world does not need another book which is quietly assured that you need to be more loving, grateful, or aware of your grief.  Prescriptions of this type have likely caused more problems than they have solved.

Most of us are quite ready to hear our faults when someone approaches us in the right way.  When we are approached and told that we ought to do this, or that, we are sometimes eager to do whatever it is we “should” have been doing all along.  

So we adopt whatever it is that is being pitched.  Praying more.  Morning affirmations.  Taking action in the world.  Giving longer hugs.  Eating more vegetables.

Certainly all of the above are good ideas for some of us.  Maybe most of us.  But if we begin them because someone told us to, we are likely to end them soon.  We are likely to feel betrayed when they don’t deliver an end to our hurts, disappointment, and loneliness.  We are likely to demonstrate a comparatively shallow level of commitments.  I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you something about the way my mind operates.  There is a thought, deep down:  If there is a problem for everybody, and this book offers a solution for everybody, even if I go only half way, I am better off than most everybody else.

Somehow, you ended up reading these words.  There was probably something in the title that connected with you.  But I would like to begin from a place of honesty.  It seems like that is the best indication that maybe this is something in these pages for you. It seems to me that most of the people I know have some struggles with grief, gratitude.  And these two are doorways into love. 

It is not easy to walk into grief.  To engage in practices that invite this experience in?  That feels like driving toward the foreboding clouds that threaten to unleash their fury at any second.  There is something primal within us that is whispering that this is a really bad idea.

My experience is that this opens up an experience of fullness.  It is good.  A life lived in this manner is not easier.  This introduction is not a condemnation of who you are and how you have lived.  You will not become morally superior to the people not engaging these practices no matter how thoroughly you master them.

 

This book did not come together in quite the same way as the other Faith-ing Project Guides.  It began with a sense that gratitude is an important thing and this area had not been covered in those other books.

Gratitude is incredibly important.  But it didn’t feel like a book of practices only focused on gratitude was the right way to go.  It needed a little something more than that.  And it was in a discussion with someone close to me that it was observed that there is a powerful relationship between grief and gratitude.  They seem, in a sense, like proverbial opposite sides of the same coin.

This felt mostly right.  It seemed like it was close to  perfect.  I spent a few days sitting with this possibility, the idea of creating a book of practices built around both of these experiences.  What I began to reflect on was that the thing that joined them together, the coin itself, is Love.

Grief, Gratitude and love.    Yes.  That seemed entirely right.  To begin with, love can only be experienced in the context of gratitude.  How could we love someone we are not thankful for?  At the same time, being thankful for a person (or a thing, or an experience) seems likely to lead to an experience of love.  Gratitude and love seem quite likely to lead to each other and quite difficult to imagine apart from each other

.  Yet, true love also inevitably leads to grief. All of us will die.  Everything will change.  A mature, reflective view of love is about making the choice that it is worth it, it will be worth it, and it will have been worth it.  If we live a contemplative life we enter into loving truly aware of the cost.

It seems that grief without gratitude is bitter.  Meanwhile, gratitude without grief is shallow.  They seem to need each other to make love a viable experience.  

I hesitate to call “grief” “gratitude” or “love”  emotions.  Each of them is more than that.  Each of these three characteristics is one of the defining qualities of humanity.  Each… even grief…. Are the things that makes this life worth living.

This book has been built with a section for each of these three important characteristics.  .  Each section will begin with a few opening remarks and then progress to two different types of spiritual exercises.  The first spiritual exercise is rather specific to the topic of the chapter.  

These exercises will come primarily out of the world’s great spiritual traditions.  I was not surprised, when I wrote this book, that so many of these reflect my Christian orientation.  It’s not that  I feel that Christianity is any better than the other great religions.  I expected to end up with lots of Christian practices because these are the practices I am closest to, the practices I am most qualified to share.

 I was a little surprised to discover how many come out of the Buddhist tradition.  In my head I knew that the Buddhists have a profound psychology and many excellent tools for being fully human.  As I wrote this book, I was reminded of this and experienced it first hand.

The second type of exercise within each chapter will be a bit more general.  Many of these exercises come out of the growing discipline known as mindfulness.  Mindfulness emphasizes an awareness of our present circumstances.  It often does this by stressing the importance of listening to the wisdom of the body. One major obstacle to gratitude, grief, and love is finding ourselves lost in the past or worried about the future. 

When we are out of the moment, stuck in the past or the future, it might look  like grief, gratitude, or love.  But it is not.    Grief, gratitude and love are experienced in the present.  This is why mindfulness, with its brilliant emphasis on our senses, is so critical here.  When we find ourselves looking, listening, feeling, smelling and tasting, we are in the present moment.  Our senses do not have memories.  Nor do they have hopes, dreams, or fears about the future.  They can only report what is happening now. This is key to the work we are doing.

  I am sure that all of us will have an area we are more comfortable with than the others.  Many of us might feel comfortable expressing our love but have not worked through our grief.  Some of us might feel that gratitude comes naturally but love does not.  Though this is to be expected, I am certain that  an over emphasis on any one of them, at the expense of the others, is an unwise, unbalanced way to live.   The area that seems to be the least attractive to you is likely the one you need the most.   My hope for you, reader, as you read this book is that you will carry each with a full awareness.

This full awareness is an important thing. 

Before we dive into the sections presenting the practices around gratitude, grief and love, it is worth wondering, just how should this book be used?  Dozens of practices are presented here.  It is clearly not feasible to regularly maintain a practice comprised of all these exercises…  Yet, the whole point of what we are doing here is precisely that: to assist you in building your spiritual practice.

Consider this book a catalog of options that are open to you.  Just as you would not buy all the shirts in the clothes  section of a department store, just as nobody would buy every single shape of pasta available at their local grocery store, you will probably not build a spiritual practice out of every single practice in this book.

You would probably take a look at most of the shirts in the section of the department store.  Similarly, it is wise to examine all the practices contained in this book.  You might pile up a number of shirts and bring them with you into a dressing room.  Accordingly, I hope you will try most of the practices in this book.  After this process you might buy several shirts.  Some you will keep forever.  Others you might try out but ultimately  return.

I hope that you try out many practices from this book.  You might “return” some.  You might keep others, incorporating them into your long-term practice.

My sense is that when a person is ready to settle into a spiritual practice, it is important to commit to which specific practices will be used.   Ideally, the practice would incorporate no more than three.    It does not seem to be helpful to switch quickly and easily between practices within the same session.  Rather, you might dedicate Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to one practice.  Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays might be reserved for a different practice.  Sundays might be left for both practices.  Or neither.

One of the great things about spiritual practices is how flexible they are.  Lots is gained by doing them solo.  There are other benefits by doing them in community.  They can be done almost anywhere by anyone.  Of course, all of these practices “work” by simply reading them and then “doing” them.  However, sometimes, it is preferable to have someone directing you through them.  Many of the meditations here are available as audio files at https://faithingproject.com/audio-files-associated-with-publications-of-the-faith-ing-project/

 

Let us begin.  There is nothing more important than love.  And love is built through gratitude and grief.  

 

Gratitude

Gratitude is often described as a spiritual practice.   There is a way in which this is strange.  It is not often that we hear other mental states like happiness, sadness, frustration, or joy pitched as spiritual practices.

However, it is not always natural to think about the things that we have to be grateful for.    The things that make us angry are easy to notice, and if we are excited about the things that make us happy are probably near the top of our minds.  It seems that when someone suggests gratitude as a spiritual practice, what they are really suggesting is that we maintain an awareness of the things that we have to be thankful for.  This isn’t always easy, of course.  If we were rational creatures, the things that we have enjoyed for the longest would be the things we are most thankful for.  We are not rational, though.    These things that stay with us across the years are so easy to overlook.  We come to forget that we are not owed these things that we have had for so long.  And they can be the most difficult to release when it is time to let them go.  

The person who experiences physical health for many years may not know how to be sick.  The person who is wealthy for much of their life is the most surprised when this wealth goes away.  The person given a deep and passionate love is the most lost without this person.

When we experience health, wealth, or love for long periods of time, we increasingly lose touch with what it is like to be without these things.  Perhaps we even begin to feel entitled to them.

Furthermore, sometimes the negative makes such a huge impact.  It can blot out the positive utterly.  Making a concerted effort to remember the good things that happened is not easy.  I had an interesting lesson in this.  During the 9-5 work day, I am a Special Educator.  I work with emotionally challenged kids.  Sometimes, there is just one very hurt child who can make my life very, very difficult.

 One of the aspects of the kind-of programs I work with is that students often have a sheet where we monitor and rate their behavior.  A thing I have learned over the years is that there are many days where I am sure every single student has been at their absolute worse.  When I take a look at the kids’ point sheets, I am often shocked.  I will generally note that one, perhaps two students had a very difficult day.  The vast majority of the kids might have actually had a great day.  It is difficult to remember this, though, in the moment.  In the middle of a rough day,  the excellent behavior of nearly everybody is overshadowed by the difficult behavior of a small number of kids.

This is something most of us intuit.  I saw it quantified.  In many cases, I scored the point sheets of the kids who had a pretty good day.  Yet, at the end of the day I was still surprised that most of my students did pretty well.  

  Sometimes we need a reality check.  Sometimes we think that everything is going badly.  Practices which help us focus on the reality we are living– in other words, practices that build our gratitude– can be critical because they give us that reality check.  

This does not minimize the challenging parts.  I have worked with kids who want to do very, very bad things to me and to others.  There is no need to sugarcoat this.  But it is helpful to realize that my whole class is not the problem; similarly, we can have very difficult aspects of our lives.  It is helpful to be reminded that very difficulty aspects do not mean that everything is falling apart.

It seems worthy to aim to feel gratitude nearly all of the time.  However, it is not a worthy goal to aim for a sense of gratitude about all aspects of everything.  Their is a cheap, easy, destructive mockery of gratitude that can lurk within us.  This pretender wants to invalidate righteous anger.  It  wants to gloss over the hurts done to us.  In the end, it can leave us with a diminished sense of our own value. We can be left with a thought that goes something like this: “It’s ok that they hurt me.  It was only me.”

Authentic gratitude does not operate this way.  It leaves us free to feel angry, or not.  It leaves us free to defend ourselves and the ones we love.  It deepens our sense of the value of many things, including ourselves.

  The practices in this chapter are ones that help us notice the things that we have.  They remind us that we are not entitled to them.  They encourage us to live in the knowledge of how wonderful they are. 

Background to the Examen

The Examen was introduced by St. Ignatius.   Overall, the idea is to look back over a certain period– such as a day– and to consider where our consolations and desolations were.  Consolations are the places we can see God working.  Desolations are the place where God does not seem to be present.

One of the things that I love about The Examen is that it always challenges me.  My first temptation is to think God is moving in the things that were easy and enjoyable.  God is not present in the things that are difficult and hard.  But when I look at it carefully and honestly, the easy stuff is often rather fluffy.  It has no lasting value or meaning.  Conversely, the difficult stuff is often the things that leads to growth.

The three different forms of the examen presented here have some things in common.  These are practices which ask us to look back.  There are a wide variety of ways to look back at a period.  One is to begin in the moment and work backward from it.  Another is to begin 24 hours ago and work toward this moment.

Sometimes I find it helpful to break up the preceding day into three 8-hour intervals.  This method can easily be incorporated into the section of each of the following practices that asks us to reflect back on our lives.

As I share this practice with people, one of the things that has amused me to learn is that there seems to be two types of people in the world.  One type of person has difficulty breaking yesterday up into 3 8-segments.  The other person simply can not understand why breaking up yesterday into segments is all that difficult.

If you are in that former group, this section is for you.  Let’s practice breaking yesterday up into 3 8-segments before you begin the practice so that it won’t be distracting when it is time to actually do the practice.

Take a look at the time right now.  The furthest you will go back is to this time yesterday.  This time yesterday is where you will begin.  I am writing these words at 7:30 PM on a Saturday.  If I were to do an Examen right now, I would begin with 7:30 PM on Friday.

Next, add 8 hours to the time it is now.  This will outline the length of your first period to consider.  Eight hours after 7:30 means that I will end that first stretch at 3:30 in the morning.  (7:30-12:30 is 5 hours; 12:30-3:30 is 3 hours.  5 + 3 =8)  Much of that first period will be time when I was asleep.  That is ok.  I can think about my sleep last night.

The middle section begins where the first section ends; eight hours after this time yesterday.  In my case, that middle segment will begin at 3:30.  I will find the end of this segment by adding 8 hours to this time.  3:30 + 8 hours = 11:30.

The final section begins where the middle section ends.  My final section begins at 11:30.  Eight hours after that time brings me to 7:30, the time I started my Examen.

There are a couple things worth considering about either form of examen before we move on to them.  The first is that the more sensory the recollection is, the more vivid this time will be.  If I try to remember the feel of the air on my skin, and the texture of my clothes, and the pressure of a seat beneath me, and the sounds I heard and the smells in the air and the taste of food and drink, I will be more effectively returned to the events of yesterday.

The second consideration is that there is nothing magical about a 24 hour period.  You might do an Examen on a period of a couple hours or a couple years or anything in between.  Whatever time you choose, do your best to relive it chronologically, beginning with the longest-ago and concluding with the most recent.

Examen I

  1. Begin to find your center and place your feet flat on the floor.  
  2. Breathe and relax, as best you can.
  3. When you are ready, bring the last 24 hours to your mind.  Continue to breathe slowly, in through the nose and out through the mouth.  Begin by reliving where you were 24 hours ago.  Gradually, bring yourself through the last day of your life.  Do your best to deeply engage your senses as you relive this day; feel the events on your skin, hear them, taste them, even recall the smells.
  4. Consider your desolations:
    1. What are you least thankful for?
    2. Where can’t you see God?
    3. What seems to be moving you away from God?
  5. Release your desolations by breathing slowly and calmly.
  6. Consider your consolations.
    1. What are you most thankful for?
    2. Where can you see God?
    3. What seems to be moving you toward God?
  7. Release your consolations by breathing slowly and carefully.
  8. As you consider the last 24 hours in their fullness, are there any things you would like to consider: was God, perhaps moving in things you initially labelled ‘desolations?’  Is it possible that God was not present in things you initially labelled ‘Consolations’?
  9. Release the word-based part of the practice.  Enjoy a moment with God.

A Sample from “Guide to Building Your Spiritual Practice: Making Contemplative Practices Work For You.”

Introduction

When somebody wants you to do something, it all boils down to a couple of simple questions:

Why should I do that?

How do I do that?

So let’s get straight to it.  There is something I think you should do. I think you ought to have a spiritual practice.  By this I mean that  I think meditation and other contemplative actitvies ought to be a part of your life.  I have a sense about one effective way to do this.  I built my own spiritual practice and helped countless others do the same, through my website, The Faith-ing Project, dozens of email explorations, and a handfull of books.

 These practices lead to a way of living in the universe that changes everything.  In some ways, it’s analogous to living healthily.  On one level, living healthily might be defined as  doing the right exercises and eating the right foods.  But of course, it’s not really about the specific diet or exercise.  Exercise and healthy eating are gateways that give us access to living longer and feeling better.  

It’s worth noticing that there are lots of healthy ways to eat.  There are many effective physical fitness exercises.  After a person learns a few basics, they are prepared to begin choosing meals and exercises that are best for them.  It is not different when it comes to building a spiritual practice.

In this book, I will do my best to explain why a person ought to build a spiritual practice. 

And I will do my best to explain how a person could build a spiritual practice.

This book is organized this is like a sandwich.  The bread?  That’s the question of “why.”  I will address the question of “why” at both the beginning and the end of this book, much as a sandwhich has bread at the top and the bottom.  I will do this because the question of ‘why’ is a complicated one.

As a person builds her spiritual practice, she might, early on, answer that question in a certain way.  The opening of this book will deliver some introductory answers to that question.  It will hopefully deliver on some reasons to get this process started.

The bottom piece of bread will delve a little deeper.  It will explore some answers to the question “why” that I personally  would not have been able to come up with when I first started down this path.  Some of these will be an explanation of who I am becoming and how I view the world.  In some cases it might be hard to see this stuff at all.  I hope that by the time we get there, I have earned a little trust from you.  It might be that you will take my word for it on some of these things.

(I will probably have lots of this stuff wrong by the way.  I imagine if I wrote this book at some point further along in my journey, my ways of looking at the “why” will be quite different.)

Of course, a couple pieces of bread are pretty boring without something to go between them.  And it would be a bit of a tease if I shared with you why I think you ought to do a thing with out explaining how it is that you ought to do it.  So in the middle of this book, you can expect to find an exploration of how you can build a spiritual practice.

This exploration will address some things that are relevant to nearly every kind of practice.  It will also feature a brief exploration of a number of different spiritual exercises a person ought to consider.  I don’t think your spiritual practice should look exactly like my spiritual practice.  It also shouldn’t look like your neighbors, your spouses, or your parents. 

I will do the best I can at exposing you to a number of different possibilities.  But humanity has been at this for thousands of years.  This book is a place to begin.  It is the very first steps.   I will offer you a few observations about where and how I think these practices might be effective.  But mostly, you will learn what works for you by trying them out. 

After you take these first couple steps, you might take a third and a fourth step with the other Faith-ing Project Guides or website.  But this is still just the first few steps.  I hope, sincerely, that you go deeper.  There will be truths I fail to convey.  There will be critical details I miss.  As you begin to discover the practices that work for you, I hope that you will explore the rich and varied sources that inspired my attempts at potraying them here.

Before we go too much further lets spend a few minutes with some of the words that are likely to pop up along the way.  These are words that are often used in these kind of endeavors.  It is probably helpful to understand a little something about how I am using them.

Let’s begin with one of the more general terms: contemplation (and of course, all of the related forms of the word like contemplative.)  I was thrilled, recently, to discover that the term ‘contemplation’ is related to the word temple.  It is obvious once it is pointed out.  Most of the letters are sitting there, right in the middle of the word.  The prefix, “con” means “with.”  On a basic level, then, “contemplation” is related to the way a person might look at the world from inside a temple.  The wonderful thing is that the temple is already within us.

More specifically, I will use the word “contemplation” to refer to a broad category of ways of seeing the world, a way of progressing, a way of seeing.  There are many ways to contemplate.   Two that concern us here are prayer and meditation.

I will use the word “prayer” to mean certain types of contemplative activities which are more or less connected to connection with something bigger than us.  Prayer can be a kind of conversation.   Most forms of prayer assume a divine listener.  A spirit-entity we might (or might not) call God.

I will use the word “meditation.” to mean certain types of contemplative activities which are less word-dependent.  Often, in meditation, there will be no assumption of a force above and beyond us.

In a book focused on these two things, it can grow monotonous to use the same 2 words over and over again.  As a result, I will sometimes use words like “spiritual exercise” or “practice.”   But the word “practice” is a little tricky.  I will follow the conventions of language and use it sometimes to mean one specific set of things to do, a form of meditation and prayer.  Other times, it has a wider meaning.   A practice is also an ongoing comittment to do the best we can.  A medical doctor or therapist might discuss their private practice.  As a Special Education Teacher, I might refer to my practice, too.  By this, I might mean the collection of all the things I do in my class to ensure that students are learning and being safe.

In a wider sense, then, when we discuss a Spiritual Practice we mean something broader than one particular method of meditation or prayer.  A spiritual practice in this broad sense is what the title of this book refers to.  It is our ongoing promise to ourselves, our plan of which specific prayers and meditations we will engage in on a daily basis.

It is worth noting that reading this book is a bit like dipping a toe into the ocean.  This is a vast and wonderful territory.  There are some practices we will not explore at all because they are not the sort of things easily expressed in a book.  Many of these are spiritual practice which help us to remember the body: dancing, yoga, drumming, and art for example.

There are other spiritual practices which are neither meditation nor prayer.  Fasting, giving, and many forms of worship are also  spiritual practices which I hope you will explore.  But they will not be covered here, either.

In fact, even the practices we begin to explore here will only be introduced briefly.  I hope that the brief introductions made here lead to a long standing relationship.  Practicing these every day will lead to a deeper relationship.  So will going to the source of these practices and exploring them in their spiritual context.

And so if the time we spend together on this journey is short of long, I am thankful for your time and trust on this part of it.  Let’s begin with the question of why a person ought to build a spiritual practice at all.

The First Why

Let’s take a look at some reasons we might want to build a spiritual practice. 

Last chapter, I shared the idea that a spiritual practice is a regular comittment to meditating and praying.  At this point, it’s probably wise to take a closer look at this idea.  It is all well and good to throw around those words.  But it is worth wondering what this all actually means.

What that means is this: you should dedicate yourself to at least half an hour a day of doing nothing.  I say that with my tongue only a little bit in my cheek. 

In the west, we often throw around words like “meditation.”  These words have a sort of mystique about them.  We can say them and feel a little bit of pride in ourselves.  In the east, the words they sometimes use is the language’s equivalent to simply “sitting.”  No big ideas or navel gazing.  Just sitting.

This is not as easy as it sounds.  There are lots of ways to do it.  Some of these different ways of sitting lead to certain positive results.  Others lead to other positive results.  Some are good for nearly anybody.  Others are good for only a certain type of person. 

We will explore these different options soon enough.  The bulk of this book will be a survey of several different types of meditation and prayer.    But let’s begin with a broad understanding of the goal.  What we are talking about here is slowing down, releasing pretty much everything.  Eventually, getting up to at least half an hour a day of it.

I am sure there are lots of things in your life that sound like they would be better to do than nothing.  I am sure that the millions of different ways we entertain ourselves, the countless ways we want to be productive seem like much better choices than sitting.

This, then, brings us back to the “why.”  Why would we want to do nothing when there are so many good things we could be doing? 

This discussion of the “why” is going to be rather abstract and theoretical if we don’t root it in the actual practice of sitting.  So before we take a deeper look at the question of “why.”  I wonder if you might indulge me.  Let’s give our first practice a try before we proceed.

 

Practice #1: Simply Breathing

 Preparation:  This practice is very, very simple.  But before we begin, I would like to ask you a question: How long could you comfortably sit and do nothing?   Perhaps it is only a minute.  Perhaps it is thirty.  However long you choose, could you try and push yourself?  Would it be possible to add just a few more minutes onto whatever total you just decided?

 

  •  Create a calming space.,  Set your phone to ‘do not disturb.’  Light a candle if you would like.
  • Place your feet flat on the floor.  Sit in a manner that is upright but not uncomfortable.
  • Inhale, through the nose if possible.
  • Exhale through the mouth.
  • With the next inhale, give some attention to really filling up the lungs.  Place your hand on the belly.  Feel the movement outward of your hand.
  • Exhale, feeling the belly moving in toward the spine.
  • Continue for the time you have allocated for this practice today.

 

 

 Some final introductory throughts of ‘Why.’

I am of two minds about simplicity of practice.  There is a way in which our mission is accomplished right here.  With this simple 7-step series of instructions.

This practice accomplishes a tremendous number of things.  One way that we might begin to explore the “why” of spiritual practice is to take a careful look at what we are accomplishing here.  Perhaps the most important thing we are doing here—perhaps the most important “why”  —  is that we are facing our fears and worries head on.  We are no longer running.

Almost every single thing we do is part of a huge pattern of denial and fear.  We have been taught explicitly and implicitly to keep moving.  To run from the fears that are chasing us.  To drown out the voices that are whispering to us.  We fill up our schedules.  We turn on the radio. 

We are so very afraid of silence and stillness.

This is a surprising statement for many.  But to anyone who wants to resist this reality, I have a very simple question:  If we are not afraid of silence and stillness, why is it so very difficult to sit quietly for any kind of length of time at all? 

The glory of facing our fears by sitting with them is just this: we suddenly realize that there is actually nothing they can ever do to us.  In fact, it is the denial of our fears are dangerous.  Some of our fears are things we can do nothing about, but our failure to face them is what makes them grow large in our hearts.  Other worries are things we can do something about.  But we can only take action if we have stopped running long enough to identify just what they are.

Closely connected to this fear is the message that we must be productive at all times.   By sitting, we (ironically) take a stand against this message.  It is one thing to say, “I am more valuable than the things I produce.”  It is another to actually take a period to stop producing.

If this is hard for you, you might find some solace in the possibility that this is a win-win.  Anecdotal reports, research, and wisdom from the world’s spiritual tradition all agree: a time of rest is vitally important.   There are many quotes from many directions which are variations on the theme “On a normal day, I meditate (or pray) for an hour.  On the days when I know I am going to be really busy, I meditate (or pray) for two hours.”  At least one of the things meant by these quotes is this: when we take a moment to be non-productive, we end up more than compensating for the so-called lost productivity.  When we return to our work, we end up being much more productive.

  The final “why” we are going to consider for now is the quieting of the mind.  Our brains produce a cacophony of noise.  The job of this organ is to think.  From a certain vantage point, it is very good at this.

There is a limit to the usefulness of our thoughts, though.  Especially when we stand in the middle of too many of them.  Like a wise man standing in a crowd, our best thoughts can get drowned out from the babble coming from all the others.  There are many sorts of things our thoughts don’t help us solve.  There are some sorts of things that our thoughts in fact make worse.

There are many things in our minds which are difficult to notice when our thoughts are taking center stage.  We have feelings, of course.  These feelings are valuable guides as we become aware of them.  Our mind is also where we become aware of bodily sensations.  Sometimes this awareness is important on a sheerly physical level.  We notice that our heel is sore and we need new shoes.  We note a growing pain in our belly which requires medical intervention.  But more than this, the body has its own wisdom.   When we turn down our thoughts we tune into the things that the body is trying to tell us: the tension in our shoulders says, “don’t trust this person.”  The quickening of our breath tells us that we were angry about something we aren’t having an easy time of owning.  It is easy to miss these signals when the babble of our brains is uncontested.

Those of us who believe in something greater than us—call it God for lack of a better, more inclusive term—are generally aware that God speaks in a still, quiet voice.  It can be difficult to hear this voice sometimes.  When our brain is busy over producing, it can be even more difficult to truly discern what is coming from us and what comes from elsewhere.

There are a few common misconceptions to clear up before we move from the “why” to the “what.”  The first common misconception is that the brain is bad and thoughts are not helpful.

Collectively and individually, we owe our brains and thoughts quite a lot.  We could not be where we are without them.    Our brain is like a hammer.  Our thoughts are like nails.  There are lots of things that hammers and nails are good for.  But a hammer and nails can’t do everything.  They can’t turn screws.  They can’t saw boards in half.  The situation we find ourselves in is as if we have gotten very good at hammering and have now begun to try to use the hammer to solve all of our problems.  It simply won’t work.

A related misconception is the idea that we are trying to turn all of our thoughts off when we meditate.  This is not possible.  Many methods of meditation employ one device or another when intrusive thoughts arise.  This leads practioners to believe that the goal is to use these to eradicate all thoughts.  When the thoughts continue to arise, the natural result is to experience feelings of frustration or even anger that it is “not working.”  Or worse yet, to see the self as a failure at it.

These reactions create a viscious circle.  They are rooted in a common misunderstanding of what we are trying to do. If you are engaged in a practice which asks you to use this or that device whenever thoughts arise, just give yourself a mental pat on the back for doing it correctly.  Appreciate the opportunity to dismiss the thoughts. 

Your mind will wander.  That is what it does.  It might be a few seconds.  It might be most of the time you have devoted to your practice.  When you find this is happening, return to the practice without hard feelings to yourself.  As time goes by, this will become more of a habit.  In a sense, it becomes easier. 

One of the biggest realizations I have contended with recently is the profound gulf between “simple” and “easy.”  My tendency is to view these two things as one and the same.  But this is a great counter example.  Meditation is a very simple practice.  It is not, for most of us, easy.

 

The how.

Something stirred you to buy this book.  And you read through the section on why you might build a spiritual practice.  So it seems like we ought to take a look at how you will do it.

It is quite a lot like dating.  Or choosing a job.  Or selecting your favorite pizza toppings.  The first step is to discover what is out there.  The second step is to select what is right for you.

            I suspect this will be a bit more involved than choosing your favorite pizza.  Perhaps it will be a bit less complex than choosing your vocation.  But in the broad strokes, it begins the same: read the menu (or consider all the potential people you could date.)  Order the first pizza.  (Or ask a person out on a date.)  Reflect on what went well and what didn’t go well about your decisions.

            On a more specific level:  I would like to recommend you enter a time of playing the field, spiritually speaking.  It is important to commit to the idea of trying new practices.  The end game here is to select just a few.  These will form the backbone of your spiritual practice.  As time goes by, this regimen might shift and evolve.  You are not committed forever.  But a few things are worth noticing before we proceed further.

            The first is that real spiritual growth has been achieved by people who had access to only one spiritual practice.  It is entirely possible that those with out many resources have achieved more than those of us with access to dozens or even hundreds of spiritual practices.

            The danger and temptation of too many practices is that we can hide behind the bells and whistles.  The real growth happens when we face the monotony, fear, and baggage of our lives.  Spiritual practice can become an ego game.  We tell ourselves we are growing and facing our issues.  But right when things begin to get uncomfortable, we put a new, different, exciting spin on the process.  We lose ourselves in the minutia of the practice we just have switched over to.

This is most of the reason I advocate so strongly for the end game of settling into a schedule of practices.  It is good to explore what is out there.  It is also good to commit, to settle in and dedicate ourselves to those which work best.

            This selection process is no easy thing.  It is likely that the most challenging practices are the best for us.  Just as it is difficult to choose the things we need the most (from a nutritional standpoint) at a buffet, it is difficult to commit to those practices which are the best for us.  It is tempting, sometimes, to choose the ones which are the easiest and the most pleasant.  The ones which leave us feeling pleasantly buzzed, which leave us feeling competent and profound and spiritual.  

            Even if we avoid this trap, we can so easily fall into the shadow of this ego game.  We can choose things with an almost masochistic fervor, selecting the things which are difficult and unpleasant as if this makes us worthy of some sort of spiritual extra credit.

            These struggles are compounded by the sad reality that we often times we are not particularly good at knowing what practices will work well for us over the long term.  Just as we can grow infatuated with a person that is not a good long term decision for us, we can try and commit to a spiritual practice that we have no future with.

You can order the complete book on Amazonhere.

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?

To order this as a paperback, click here.

To order as a kindle/ e-book click here.

If you are not in a position to afford a book but feel that this could be helpful for you, please fill out the contact form above.  I would be happy to email you a pdf of the complete book with no questions asked or no strings attached.

Enneagram Type 4

Background: Type fours have difficulty separating themselves from their emotions.  They tend to identify with these, conflating the feelings with the self. Contemplative practice can help to overcome this tendency.   As we observe our thoughts and feelings, we discover that we are something like the observer, not the things we are observing; if we were our feelings, we would be unable to take a vantage point “above” our emotions and watch them from a distance.

 

The Practice

 

  •  Place your feet flat on the floor.  
  • Let your breath come.  Observe it, without seeking to change it.
  • Become aware of your thoughts, feelings and observation.  Let your approach to the breath be a sort-of object lesson.  Approach your thoughts and feelings just as you approached your breath.
  • Observe the things you see in your mind and heart with a sense of gentle curiosity.  If you can, do not judge these. If you find yourself judging, release this as best as you can with the breath.  Try and avoid the hamster wheel of judging yourself for judging.
  • Now, became aware of the “I” doing the observing.  Note that this self is not the feelings being watched.
  • Sit with this awareness of the observing self.

 

 

 

Exercise 65: Hand Washing as a Spiritual Practice

Background:  The most important thing is that you wash your hands correctly.  See this link for more details.

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!

The Practice:

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.  

Exercise 64: St John of the Cross and God’s Breath

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.

 

 

Enneagram Type 3

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.

 

 

 

Welcome to The Open Hand Podcast

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.

Episode #2: 

Episode #1:

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.

  1. Breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  2. 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.  
  3. Choose the feeling which seems to be the most impactful.  Think, or say “Welcome ___________”  (E.G. ‘Welcome, Fear.  Welcome, sadness.  Welcome, anxiety.  Etc.)
  4. Breathe once.
  5. Say, or think “I let go of my desire for security and survival.’
  6. Breathe again.
  7. Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.’
  8. Breathe again.
  9. Say, or think ‘I let go of my desire for power and control.’
  10. Breathe.
  11. Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire to change the situation.’
  12. 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.

 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.