Spiritual Practices

Stumbling into Grace

Author and speaker Wayne Dyer passed away a few days ago. I remember watching him on PBS years ago. He spoke about a much-anticipated meeting with a guru from the East. He had to wait quite some time for his audience with this spiritual teacher. As he waited his mind raced through questions to ask:

  • What could he learn about God?
  • About life?
  • About the mysteries of the universe?
  • How could he make the most of this rare meeting?

Finally, he was invited into the room and was seated a few feet away from the guru, just the two of them, alone at last. And every pre-meditated question went right of Wayne Dyer’s head.

The guru looked at him and held silence. The guru’s gaze emanated compassion that seemed to fill the room. Wayne felt embraced by a tangible, unconditional acceptance. Tears began to flow down his face as he soaked in divine love radiating from the guru.

No words were said.

After about an hour of sitting silently together in tears of loving joy, the guru said, “My son, do you have any questions for me?”

Wayne responded, “No. They’ve all been answered.”

There's a place, a consciousness, within each of us, where all questions are answered...in fact, where no questions need be asked. In that open space, possibility, love, expansion, and pure bliss dwell. It's not a pollyanna denial of reality, but it puts reality in a different context. It unveils a Deeper Reality that is our core identify midst the mutating clouds of external turmoil.

Centered in that Deeper Reality, we know more than our spinning mind knows. We understand beyond our preconceptions. We love beyond our normal capacity. Cherished illusions dissolve, and truth emerges.We act cleanly.  We are aligned with the God (Life Essence) Within.

How do we get there? We create space to notice what wants to emerge from within. We let our striving questions fall right out of our heads. In that moment, we are likely to stumble into grace.

"Within you is an infinite, passionate soul that wishes to express itself. It’s the God within you, urging you to fulfill a deep sense of what you were meant to be." Wayne Dyer

Momentary Freedom

The photo is of a papaver hybridum, or "Queen's Poppy", in our backyard. Each magnificent bloom lasts only a day before its ephemeral beauty blows away. Like a short-lived blossom, each moment is a purity unto itself. Ephemeral. Unrepeatable. Unique. Having its own meaning apart from any other moment.

Our minds try to categorize and order our moments. We assign them meaning and place them in the context of other moments. That's normal and necessary in order to function in daily life. The downside is that we lose the purity of the moment. We create stories to explain or control events, which takes us out of experiencing the next moment freely, as it is.

I go out into the yard and step in dog poop. I'm annoyed. I clean off my shoe. It's an unpleasant task. As I approach the door to the house, I have a choice.

One option: Will I carry the annoyance inside with me? Will I keep it alive with a narrative about how the dogs always poop in the most inconvenient places and then blame myself for not picking up the poop every day? As I turn the door knob, I'm still in the backyard, irritated, and I bring that foul mood into the house.

Another option: I leave the annoyance in the backyard. It happened. I choose to move on to the next experience. I turn the door knob and am greeted by two dogs, tails wagging, whose exuberance lights me up.

"Just know, 'I am not the imagination' and be free." Shri Nisargadatta Maharaj (as rendered by Prasanna)

Our imaginations birth art, weave tales, invent products, and dream us into new potentials. They also generate unnecessary drama, prolong suffering, and create negative fantasies that have no root in reality.

You are not what your imagination generates. Know this and be free.

Experience what is happening. Feel the emotions. Perhaps even indulge in weaving a tale around that experience.

Then realize you have a choice:

Buy into the tale as absolutely true and fan the emotional flame it evokes for minutes (or hours, days, even years).

Or hold the tale lightly as one possible perspective and then let it go in order to experience the purity of the next moment.

If the moment is "sticky" (hard to release), breathe and refocus on what is currently happening. Focused attention on the present is an easier path to freedom than trying to let go of the past.

There is choice in every moment. What will you choose next?

Do You Have Phantom Conversations?

I was walking up a steep hill in our neighborhood on a sun-baked late winter day with unseasonably early irises blossoming my path and wild turkeys chit chatting in the distance. Yet, I barely noticed any of it. My mind was busy having an unpleasant conversation...with someone who wasn't there. Do you ever have "phantom conversations"?

There are wonderful conversations to be had with someone who is not present. Perhaps we might seek support or advice by connecting with the essence of a deceased loved one. Or we might want to prepare...once or twice...for an important meeting by rehearsing what we will say.

I define a phantom conversation as repeated, agitated internal conversations with someone not present. It's not a one-time rehearsal for a talk I plan to have, but rather ongoing inner disturbances that often occur in lieu of actually speaking my truth to someone.

Now there is one helpful thing about a phantom conversation. Sometimes in the midst of my internal rant I realize that my self-righteous position is absolutely ridiculous. I end up saving myself and the other person a great deal of unnecessary drama.

Mostly these inner diatribes are just a ticker tape of my judgments and self-defenses. When I can liberate myself from their addictive lure, I realize the total futility of proving myself right to someone not present.

So how do I liberate myself when caught up in a phantom conversation? Midst my rambling, I realize that I've not been hearing the gobbling turkeys or savoring the jasmine fragrance. The present moment intrudes on my illusion, and I return my attention to what is right in front of me.

I then choose to open my heart with the power of gratitude and let this moment nourish me. For me gratitude is often the key that will open my mind and free my heart. Otherwise, the lure of the internal drama is simply too strong. In that gracious space, a smidgeon of compassion for the person I've been "talking at" might sneak up on me.

Perhaps such a shift is what it means to live a contemplative life. Contemplation, originally comes from the Latin templum, which is a "place of observation". So, contemplation is to engage from a place of observation. The contemplative life is cultivating the ability to observe both our inner workings and our outer reality simultaneously, and then take an appropriate action here and now with a free mind and an open heart.

Of course, this is not easy. We have spiritual "practices" because this game of life is challenging.

Cultivating inner freedom through non-judgmental self-observation is my daily commitment. Like an addict, I have to return each day to the admission that I'm hooked by phantom conversations and other unhelpful habits of my psyche. Then I return my attention to the Highest Power of the current moment, reconnect with gratitude, and pick up my conversation with the here and now. Some might call that a return to sanity. I call it prayer.

Playfulness, Pace, and Presence

What do our dogs teach us? Can we learn new tricks from them? Our terriers, Flash and Cowboy, have started a new morning ritual. After breakfast and some free-range roaming in the backyard, they come into the sunroom and settle down together for a side-by-side morning coffee break…without the coffee. As I see them lying together, I become aware of their way of being in the world, which is becoming my mantra for how I want to be in the world:

  • Playfulness - Nothing brings them more joy than playing with their favorite toy: THE KONG. This indestructible rubber ball is both serious business and serious fun. How can I bring a sense of playfulness to those responsibilities that feel burdensome? How can I infuse my work with the fresh exuberance of a child or my dogs? My intention is to make all of my serious business bubble over with serious fun.
  • Pace - Our dogs move at the pace that is authentic for each of them. For Flash, our old Airedale, that pace is unhurried, like a sumo wrestler lumbering through a marathon. For Cowboy, our Fox Terrier, that pace is frenetic and hyper. Neither is right/wrong or better/worse. They move at the appropriate pace for their temperament. I have come to accept that my natural rhythm is closer to Flash's pace than Cowboy's. Yet, it seems like the world I live in wants me to move at Cowboy speed. I recommit myself to a pace that is authentic for me and own that without apology. The world is not best served when I fly at breakneck speed, multitask myself into a tizzy and feel the anxious weight of being constantly behind. The world needs me to be me: thoughtful and spacious, persistent and tranquil, forward moving yet with a sense of the deeper reality penetrating each moment. My intention is to own, accept, and celebrate my authentic pace.
  • Presence - Our dogs give no thought to yesterday or tomorrow. Only this moment has any meaning for them. Can I meet the inevitable interruptions and not-according-to-plan moments with compassionate attention and welcome rather than resistance, anger, and judgement? Can I focus on what is happening rather than what did or might happen? Can I be grateful for and open to what is, as it is? I intend to shift more and more of my attention to this present moment.

For our dogs, playfulness, pace and presence come naturally. For me, those traits require practice. Perhaps, some day, with more training, I will become as wise as they are.

Blessed Are The Cheese Makers

In the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian”, Jesus is heard from a distance saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” People on the periphery of the crowd mangle Jesus' words. “What did he say?” 

“I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’”. 

"What’s so special about the cheese makers?”

“Well, it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”

Sounds like a theological conference where wisdom teachings are readily parsed into meaninglessness. What was Jesus really up to? Was he merely saying, "Cheer up. It gets better, if not in this life, then the next"?

I believe Jesus was inviting us into a series of paradoxes:

  • Deep within our lives we already possess what we have been seeking.
  • What we avoid and resist contains a seed of life that can blossom into what we yearn for most.
  • Buried within the last place we'd think of looking (grief, lack, a hunger to make the world fairer, being opposed when taking a stand for a good cause) is where we find that we already have all we truly need.

I've tried my hand at crafting a new translation of Jesus' words from Matthew 5:1-12. They are often called "The Beatitudes", which literally means blessed, happy or fortunate. I prefer the word "grateful".

Look through the list below and see which human experience most resonates with your life now. Then lean into it.  What is the yearning or human need nestled at its core? How might the fulfillment of that need already be present in your life? (If the term "God" does not work for you, try substituting another term like "Life" or "Universal Love" into the sayings below.)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. When he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He opened his mouth and began to teach them saying:

Grateful are those who don’t put on spiritual airs, for it’s much easier to get close to God when one’s ego is not in the way.

Grateful are those who have the courage to mourn, for in the epicenter of their grief they encounter a love that comforts them.

Grateful are those who don't act like the world revolves around them, for the whole earth becomes their next of kin.

Grateful are those who long and hunger for fairness, for their bellies are full of grace, which alone will satisfy.

Grateful are those who risk compassion, for their kindness will return to them many times over.

Grateful are those whose hearts have been scrubbed clean of narrow self-interest, for they see God everywhere.

Grateful are those who do the hard work of making peace, for they find the world is full of their brothers and sisters, all children of God.

Grateful are those who are oppressed for doing the right thing, for they feel a connection to God seldom experienced this side of heaven.

Be grateful even when you are insulted, oppressed, disrespected, and lied about because you have aligned yourself with me. Celebrate! Shout for joy! Everyone who takes a stand for something or Someone bigger than themselves receives the same treatment, but they also receive the same reward: the secret of eternal life.

Mismatched Shoes

Yes, I did it. I was in such a rush to get out the door for an appointment that I put on two shoes that did not match. About a block away from my destination I realized what I had done...too late to turn back. We all had a good laugh when I arrived. [Yes, prepare the meds and set up my psych exam.} Sometimes, however, a mismatch is exactly what is needed. In many spiritual circles, we only dance with sweet qualities: love, peace and joy. God (the LIfe Source), however, is varied and diverse, encompassing a full range of energies.

In Muslim and Sufi communities, a list of 99 names for the divine provides endless opportunities for reflection. In the Sufi tradition, these names are divided into two categories: Jamal and Jalal. Jamal are names which relate to beauty, that is, they have a feminine sense of warmth and loveliness. These qualities include compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love. Jalal refers to those qualities related to majesty, which have more of a masculine feel. These qualities include power, independence, advocacy, and justice.

In the midst of these 99 divine qualities are some that are mystifying and off putting: "The Restrainer", "The Humiliator", "The Reckoner", and "The Distressor". We could chock these strange divine names up to the influence of patriarchal waters that have washed over our great religions. That's too easy. Part of the purpose of such a list is to normalize our human experience by finding in the divine every aspect of the psyche.

These qualities, especially the ones that repel us, are worthy of contemplation and cultivation in order to be well-balanced human beings. For what is the purpose of reflecting on the divine if not to become more divine-like ourselves? Each of us at times needs more restraint or humility. There are moments when we need to call up that divine anger when someone's harmful behavior requires a reckoning. Even distress has its place. An old adage says that Jesus came to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". Causing distress for the privileged is the first step toward justice and equality. For every beautiful/lovely shoe, there is by necessity a corresponding, seemingly mismatched shoe of majesty/justice.

The key, of course, is to know which quality, which shoe, is appropriate in each moment. If we only step with one foot, we don't move much. [Case in point...Washington, D.C....For most of his two terms, President Obama has focused on the qualities of gathering/relenting. Republicans have displayed firmness. To make progress, each needs to try on the quality displayed by the other.]

So how do we discern which quality is appropriate for the moment? Which do we overemphasize or underemphasize? Which quality does the divine yearn for us to put on? More and more I'm relying on my body to tell me. When my feet, my stomach and my jaw feel open, free, loose and buzzing with energy, then I sense that I'm embodying the appropriate choice for the moment: whether that be the bliss of compassion or the clarity of anger. When I feel constricted, devoid of life, or about to burst with frustration, that's a cue that a different quality is necessary.

Where is Aliveness in this moment? Step, walk, run after it! Whether or not your shoes match makes no difference. It may well be the mismatched pair that brings you closest to the divine and sets you on the truer path you've longed for all these years of forced marching.

Waking Up to Your Dreams

I've had a series of interesting dreams lately. In one I am back in school, ready to graduate. A friend then reads my name from a list of people who have missing assignments. In spite of my protest that I have turned in everything, I have to go to the teacher and resubmit my assignments, including one which is disfigured beyond repair. After I walk away in disgust, the teacher admits to one of my fellow students that he had actually found my original assignments. I already had an "A", but this was the only way he could get to know his students. What does a dream mean? I take my dreams as messages from within and beyond that are prodding me toward self-awareness, wholeness and actions I need to take. I have numerous ways I work with my dreams. One way is to utilize the process below, which an amalgamation of dream classes I've attended. See which of the following practices might help you interpret a dream. I call them "Ten Steps Toward Understanding Your Dreams":

  1. Rewrite the dream in 1st person, present tense: “I am walking on the beach. He says…”
  2. Feelings. What feelings did you have during the dream? What feelings did you have when you awoke? What feelings do you have now that you are recalling the dream?
  3. Free association. Make a list of key images and actions in your dream. Write down your associations with each word. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Don’t try to interpret the images. This is free association. An orchid in the dream may remind you of grandma’s living room or of a trip to Japan.
  4. Puns, colors and imagery. Any puns? (A bee might represent the need to just “be”.) What is the predominant color(s)? What might it symbolize? (Blue for “the blues”?) Does an image in the dream represent part of your shadow/dark side? If so, what part?
  5. Key images. Notice which images have the most energy from the dream. Look up those images in a dream dictionary. Record anything that seems to resonate.
  6. Title the dream. Looking over your story and your associations, give your dream a unique and catchy title that would distinguish it from any other dream.
  7. Ask. “What is this dream trying to tell me about my life? What to know, change or do?” “How does this dream relate to some current circumstance in my life?” “Does this dream offer a message from the divine/Sacred/Mother Earth? If so, what do I sense that message is?”
  8. Walk the dream. Walk outside for a few minutes. Set the intention as you walk that any deeper wisdom from the dream would bubble up to conscious awareness.
  9. Summary of dream’s message. Review all that you’ve written and reflected on so far and complete the statement: My dream’s message seems to be…
  10. Gratitude. Thank your dreams and your subconscious for the message(s) received.

There are numerous other ways to work with a dream: draw it, turn it into a poem, pretend you are  conflicting characters in the dream and talk back and forth as each character until a sense of resolution or an "aha" emerges. The multi-layered meanings of a dream may continue to offer practical applications  to your waking life for many weeks, perhaps even years after the dream occurs.

Dreams can become valuable allies when we honor those that we recall by recording them and seeking the wisdom these messengers from the deep have to offer us. Sweet dreams!

P.S. Hypnosis can be viewed as a form of wakeful dreaming in which we access the full riches of the subconscious in service of our goals and aspirations. There is still time to register for Heal Yourself Through Hypnosis, a class on how to do self-hypnosis, which begins Monday, May 6. Click here for information and to register. 

Coming Out of the Closet...Again

I have a confession to make. I've been seeing someone. It's been very intimate and private. Yes, my partner knows about it, and it's ok. Where does this happen and who is it? Early mornings in my studio I close my eyes, relax and let myself descend into a sanctuary I've created in my own imagination. In that sanctuary I sense that something other than my conscious mind takes over. There I have met with my grandparents, my parents, Buddha, Mary, and animal guides. But the most frequent visit is with Jesus Christ.

I know that for many of us spending time with Jesus sounds like a fundamentalist's relic, laden with toxic theology. But this is not the stale, suffocating, disconnected-from-real-life Jesus Christ of organized religion. It is a living, fresh encounter with a vibrant Christ. During and after these times together I feel liberated, whole, inspired, encouraged, grounded and washed over with love. I feel as if life is starting over with unlimited potential.

What do we do? Sometimes, we sit in a beautiful garden and admire nature. Sometimes we enter a chapel and soak in the luxurious silence. Sometimes we look out over the ocean and chat. Other times symbols or feelings or colors or other sacred figures appear, each with a message or healing gift. It's as if I'm meeting Jesus for the first time and discovering that he's exactly what I had hoped he would be: warm, welcoming, insightful, funny, mystical...someone who really gets me, meets me where I am and gently leads me to a more authentic expression of myself.

So, what is really happening? Is it all just my subconscious mind creating fantasies in a state of half-sleep? Am I actually on tuning in to the Spirit of Christ, whatever that means? I'm not sure, and I don't think it's relevant. I only know that I am experiencing Life as freer, truer, lighter and more trustworthy. A bit more compassion is flowing for others and for myself.  And it's a result of rekindling a relationship I had almost written off as irreconcilable with my sexuality, intellectual honesty and my affinity for other faith traditions.

I'm not sure what to call myself as I come out of the closet and claim that I regularly meet with Jesus. The only word that comes to mind is "grateful".

P.S. Please join us for classes this spring on Self-Hypnosis and Mindful Photography.

The Body Mantra

I've been noticing a number of bad equations circulating in my head. These formulas equate two things which are, in truth, not the same. But I often act and feel like these formulas are valid. Here are a few of my untrue equations:

Someone is disappointed = I've done something wrong.

Someone is pleased = I've done something right.

GLEE still = good television worth watching.

Everything got completed and was done correctly = I'm a good person.

Things did not go as planned = I screwed up.

The script of any Twilight movie = ...Wait a minute, they had scripts?!?

What untrue equations still operate in you? Often I don't even realize that I'm being run by one of these faulty formulas until I've made myself, and most likely those around me, miserable.

I have, however, found a reliable way to change my operating system so that I'm running on a truer equation that yields better results. In last week's post, I wrote about living from a place of "belovedness", from the sense that I am already and irrevocably loved, and I am eternally ok.

I'm discovering that the key to living from this belovedness is physical, not mental. I can't think my way into belovedness. Instead I rely on my body. When I have felt in my bones, down to my core, that I really am all right...in those moments I sensed a warm, vibrating, open peace. Rather than try to reason my way back there, I get still and focus on returning to that same felt sense. It's not so much the feeling that I'm going for, but the shift in perception because everything looks much different from a felt sense of "all is well".

It's much like meditating with a mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase chosen before meditation begins. When the chatty-Cathy mind inevitably starts to wander, focus returns to the mantra as a way to re-center. When I drift off into a Sea of Bad Equations, my body feels tense, closed, cold and agitated. By shifting my focus back to that space of "all is well" within me, I use my body as a mantra that resets my entire way of interacting with life. My body becomes the sacred path back to reality.

Those false equations still float around within me, but I don't have to be run by them anymore. My body tells me so.

P.S. If you'd like to practice creative ways of resetting your old equations, join us on Tuesday nights, starting April 16, for a weekly gathering called Tuesday Night Live.

Lord of the Dance

My prayer time and meditation practice has felt rather stale and empty lately. The emptiness I'm ok with because I want to be emptied of all my silly stories and ego patterns. Yet, even in this necessary spaciousness, I've sensed that something essential has been missing, though I could not put my finger on it. Well, they say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives. My partner Herb recently gave me a lovely miniature bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja. Nataraja means "Lord of the Dance". This figure symbolizes the heart of both Hinduism and of our human experience.

The statue depicts the contradictions that define our lives. In Shiva's upper right hand is a drum that beats the sound from which the universe was born. In his upper left hand is fire, which destroys creation, reminding us of the constant cycle of birth and death, creation and destruction. The ring of fire represents everywhere that this dance occurs, which is the whole of the universe. And the statue sits on a lotus flower, symbolizing that the whole of the universe rests in the human heart or consciousness.

What Herb and I find most intriguing is the only moving part: Shiva's hair. The hair strands winging out to the side of his head look like a halo and are reminiscent of the Biblical character Samson, whose locks gave him great strength. The tradition is that Shiva's hair, usually wrapped up in a pyramid atop his head, starts to unravel and flails with reckless abandon as the dance becomes wild and ecstatic. He is fully embodied, sensuous, and on fire with life.

Oddly, Shiva's face is impassive. His expression represents that tranquil nothingness out of which all creation springs, reminding me of the emptiness I've been experiencing in meditation. It identifies neither with the joy of creation nor the pain of destruction, but rather holds it all with an accepting perspective. His gaze is eternity; his dance is the temporary, fully-engaged rhumba of the here and now.

I am realizing that this symbol speaks directly to my own spiritual path. I have focused so much on the gaze of eternity, that I've been missing the dance of life. Both are essential experiences. So, I'm starting to experiment. My morning devotional time still features quiet, but I'm also incorporating movement, vibrations of a singing bowl, images from my dreams that lead to inner dialogs, St. Francis' prayer spoken aloud while standing, and the warming beams of the sun's early rays. The silence and the sensuous are starting to spill over into the rest of my day, enabling me to experience that tango between the infinite and the finite.

While I don't have any hair to fling wildly in ecstatic dance, I am sensing the drumbeat of the universe in my own heart...and in my spontaneously tapping toe.

Reflections of the Divine

Last week I attended an early morning contemplative service with hypnotic Taize-style chants. Just as mesmerizing, however, was the rainbow of reflected light emanating through the stained glass windows. As the sun rose, its rays painted an increasingly vivid palette of Monet-esque colors across its canvas of plastered walls. I feel like those walls. I see reflections of the divine scattered across my life. My partner's smile. Our cat "making biscuits" on my lap. My feet spontaneously tapping to the rhythm of a catchy new tune. A walk on the ridge near our house where I catch sight of a darting jackrabbit. I see these reflections of the divine, but I can't see the Source of those reflections.

What is that Source? A being? A presence? An energy? An evolutionary process?  I can't see through the window to know.

For many, of course, these questions are irrelevant. They savor the reflections with little thought given to their Source. While I honor and appreciate that straightforward approach to living, I've yearned for intimacy with that Source Itself. I've craved more. I've longed for more felt connection, more clarity about who/what the divine is, more of a deep sense of knowing, and, yes, more mountaintop ecstasy.

Instead what I experience are these reflections, disparate rays catching my attention, if only I am paying attention. And I'm wondering if that might be what's needed after all. Much like a committed human relationship, maybe it's not about grasping for that honeymoon or first kiss experience. Maybe it's about paying attention to and savoring the "blessed normalcy" of life together. Yes, there are peaks and valleys, but most of the relationship is marked by ordinariness that only nourishes when noticed and treasured. And in that noticing and treasuring is the connection, the intimacy and the seeing.

So, I am going to try an experiment. When I notice "reflections", I'm going to stay with them just a tad longer to appreciate them and let their sacred ordinariness be enough. I'm also going to honor my longing for more and notice if in that longing itself, I feel more connected to Source. The longing is sacred; it's the addiction to its fulfillment feeling or looking a certain way that causes me such angst.

And, if and when I catch a glimpse of Source Itself, of the divine, of God, I'll value that experience as no more sacred than moments spent admiring the violet-blossomed, amazingly fragrant orchid on the mantle above our fireplace. For in any moment of openness and awe, the seer and the Light and the reflections are all intimately one.

The Tyranny of American Enormity

Several years ago author Wayne Muller facilitated a workshop that I attended. One of his phrases has stuck with me: "the tyranny of American enormity". We live in a culture where enough is never enough. Every laptop and cell phone must have more features and be faster than the previous model. Profits this year must exceed last year's profits. More choices. More data. More. More. More! The consequences of our consumer culture on the planet and on the poor laborers who make our lust for more possible have been well documented. According to the Worldwatch Institute, we are 5% of the world's population, yet we consume 24% of the world's energy. Every day we eat 200 billion calories more than is needed, enough to feed 80 million people.

Nowhere is this addiction to "more" more apparent than during the Christmas season (a.k.a. retail season) as we spend our way into greater and greater debt. But the tyranny of "more" is not just economic. It's become an entire lifestyle. How many of us can keep up with the increasing number of emails we receive? To read, reply to or act on each email would take most of us most of our daylight hours. Just to triage email requires the skill of an e-surgeon.

Of course, email is not the only technology which has grown to enormous proportions in our lives ...text messages, Facebook, Twitter, radio, television, podcasts, Internet sites we frequent...the list is endless. And, of course, it's not just technology. Billboards, snail mail flyers and junk mail, books and magazines we've not read, clothes we've not yet worn or no longer wear, piles of papers and possessions...all compete for our attention and add a sense of weight to our lives.

How can we escape this tyranny of American enormity? This is the culture in which we live. How do we become counter-cultural and yet still function?

Here are some questions for reflection that might help us lighten up and simplify:

What if...

  • Instead of buying Aunt Polly a 3-pack of jams for Christmas, I make a donation to a charity in her name?
  • I take a three-minute break outdoors when I'd normally be immersed in keeping up with the demands of whatever my e-addiction is? What if I look at a tree or a bird or even water flowing over a wood bridge (photo above) until I feel a sense of awe, of "enough"?
  • I limit the number of times I check email to once or twice a day? If my work does not allow that, what if I take a "e-Sabbath" one day a week or month when I don't check email or surf the Internet?
  • I spend more time getting to know the camellia in my backyard and less time catching up on the latest "Honey Boo Boo" gossip?
  • I unsubscribe to at least one email subscription and make it ok that I am choosing to keep up with one less thing in the world?
  • I pause before buying the next item I plan to purchase and reflect on why I feel the drive to purchase it?

The Magi brought the baby Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts I long to receive this Christmas are simplicity, awe and a felt sense of "enough".

When You Can't See the Forest for the Trees

This past weekend my partner and I went to Muir Woods National Monument in search of Coho salmon, which are starting to work their way from the ocean into fresh water in order to spawn. Because of the heavy rains, the water was too muddy to see anything. While strolling through the skyscraping redwoods, I noticed an interesting phenomenon, "tree rain". While the skies were almost clear, the trees were so saturated with moisture that it felt like a steady rain was falling under the canopy. The unexpected precipitation was made all the more magical by the sun's radiant beams bursting through the dense foliage.

Sometimes it takes a broader view to see reality. When all that's visible is water descending from above, the obvious conclusion is that the storm still rages. A more panoramic view, however, reveals a truer picture in which sunny clarity beams above and at times through the drizzling darkness.

When all we sense is gloom and pain, a more expansive container for our experience is available. Whether we call that our Inner Wisdom, the Web of Life, God, or Higher Power, the invitation is to take a step or two back, look up and around and within.  Yes, we are getting wet and it's unpleasant, and there is also more going on that gives context and hope for our dampened spirit.

Brother David Steindl-Rast said that hope is the willingness to be surprised. In the midst of your obvious difficulty, is something surprising also starting to shine through? How can you get enough distance to be able to see it?

Spirituality is just a pious term for the intentional practice of welcoming surprise. It is letting go of our allegiance to what we think is going on until what is currently beyond our field of vision becomes visible. That view usually comes as a surprise, a gift, but the preceding willingness to release our narrow viewpoint is a choice. To have hope and notice life-giving Spirit everywhere is not a miracle reserved for saints or the lucky. It flows from the intention to open the aperture of the soul from narrow to panoramic.

Shake It Off!

After my mother was diagnosed with cancer, we spent a lot of time together. When I visited on weekends, we would try to have at least one outing to do something she enjoyed. One weekend she was stuck in a very pessimistic, anxious space, even deeper than usual after her diagnosis. As she continued this emotional nosedive, we still kept our commitment to go have some fun. We went to La Cantera, her favorite mall in San Antonio, Texas, which is known for its undulating outdoor paths, streams, quaint cabanas, and oases of lush landscaping.

Our venture to La Cantera, however, did not mitigate the downward spiral. We stopped for some hot tea as the emotional turmoil brewed within her.

In the midst of the overcast mood, we became aware of a mother and her young daughter seated next to us. The little girl was about four years old with numerous shoulder-length, tight brown curls. This little princess, however, was not getting her way about something. Nothing her mother said assuaged her, and her disappointment boiled over into a full-blown public tantrum.

The mother turned to her seemingly demon-possessed daughter, looked her in the eye and lovingly yet firmly instructed her, "Shake it off!" The little girl became still for a nanosecond and then began shaking her entire body with gusto, her bouncing curls flailing back and forth like a poodle after a bath. After about 30-seconds of "shaking it off", her mother asked, "How are you now?" "All better Mommy!" she enthusiastically replied.

My mother and I looked at each other and could not stop giggling. More dark steps loomed on the horizon as my mother continued her journey with cancer. When the fear, anger and sadness would on occasion spiral downward from a normal emotional reaction into despair, then we would remember that little girl. My mother would shake her head vigorously until she felt she was in a better space.

Tragedies and unpleasant emotions are unavoidable. The only way out is through. When, however, we find ourselves stuck in a place that is unhealthy, counterproductive or self-destructive, perhaps there's no better medicine than starting a wiggle that builds into a frenetic, full-bodied gyration, like a whirling dervish caught up in the divine. The cobwebs clear as the outer movement stirs inner movement. As we literally shake it off, we may discover that the body is a most trustworthy ally in the search for peace of heart, mind and soul.

P.S. If you want to "shake off" old ways of relating to the divine in favor of images and practices that are meaningful for you today, join us this Saturday, December 1 for a day retreat. Registration closes Thursday, November 29 at noon. For more information and to register, check out the Classes page.

Facebook: My New Prayerbook

Facebook is becoming the face of the nation...and of much of the world. About 1 billion people are now active users, with half a billion posting each day. On the one hand, Facebook is a blessing. We can share parts of our lives with friends and loved ones around the world: a photo of an exuberant child enjoying a day with grandma,  the latest video of your dog at the park, or a picture of your latest culinary masterpiece that makes every reader's mouth water. I am grateful for the ability to stay so immediately connected with what is happening in the lives of people far and near.

And yet, there is a downside because Facebook is also an addictive ego trip consuming countless hours of our lives. I've been listen to my own internal dialog as I browse through posts. Here's some of what I hear within:

  • Wow! Look at how many people liked my post...they like me, they really like me!
  • Hmmmm, I wonder why no one commented on or shared my post? Did I say something offensive or was it just not that interesting?
  • He needs a filter. That was way too much information.
  • I'm doing or looking fantastic/pathetic in comparison to....
  • I can't believe the ignorance of these people I've known since elementary school.

My internal chatter sounds like the din of a middle school cafeteria. My little ego wants recognition, approval, and to be proved right and superior. And Facebook is the perfect venue for my ego to play out its addictive games in pursuit of those pusillanimous yet very human drives.

This morning I brought my Facebook experience into my prayer/meditation time. I let go of all that was arising for me: my desire to be approved as evidenced by people liking and sharing my posts, my comparison of myself to others on Facebook, and my anger about what I perceive to be narrow-minded, closed-hearted posts from people I grew up with.

Over and over again, I acknowledged, owned up to, accepted and then released these ego trips into the divine spaciousness within. As I did a realization arose. Facebook had become my prayerbook. I then prayed for my loved ones and for those childhood friends whose posts had offended me. I prayed for our country and our world in light of both the beauty and the ignorance I had seen on Facebook. I prayed for my own beauty to be revealed and my own ignorance to be lifted. And then I let go; I let go of my needs, my self-righteousness, and of Facebook itself and experienced a deep peace, freedom and wholeness.

I intend to return to Facebook with a different posture. While I'll still share and read and like and post, I'll also use it as my book of prayers for all the faces behind those electronic posts. I'll use it as a mirror to reflect those patterns within myself that I will bring to my meditation and prayer time for healing and release. And, of course, I'll take it less seriously. After all, it's just an online middle school cafeteria. Might as well have some laughs, spend fewer minutes there, and move on.

Oh, and even though I know Facebook is just a glorified middle school cafeteria, I still hope you'll like and share my post. Everyone else is doing it.

P.S. Please join us for the new series of day retreats I'll be leading this fall, and/or spread the word to those you think might be interested. Details are on the Classes page. Thank you!

Seeing Ear to Ear

Are you a good listener? Sometimes we give the appearance of listening through our silence, but we are actually busy generating potential responses to the speaker. The result is that we are not really present with the other person but rather with our own internal commentary.  Understanding and authentic connection evaporate. The next time someone shares something of importance with you, try this simple practice:

  • Allow the other person at least 5 minutes of uninterrupted time to speak.
  • Hold silence and withhold commentary, questions and any effort to fix, advise, top, sympathize with or augment what is said. Simply be silent and listen.
  • When the mind starts to generate the perfect response, let it go and return attention to what the person is saying in the present moment.
  • Listen to what is going on beneath the actual words. Often there is a more honest communication going on just beneath the surface of the content that is spoken.
  • When the person is complete (or when you've held your peace, truly silent peace, for at least 5 minutes), take a deep breath before responding. Give yourself a moment to integrate what has been said.
  • Respond from a deeper place than the typical surface banalities. Speak with openness, clear honesty, appreciation, and an an intention for mutual understanding.

Since we are not used to holding silence while another person speaks, some find it more comfortable to practice this kind of deep listening during a walk. When you have honed your ability to hold silence, internally and externally, take the next step and ask a companion to join you in the experiment. Each person gets 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted time to speak followed by an open discussion. Holding silence for each other prepares the soil for a fertile conversation.

The experience of being deeply listened is unusual and can be a profound gift for the listener as well as the speaker. Poet John Fox wrote:

When someone deeply listens to you it is like holding out a dented cup you have had since childhood and watching it fill up with cold fresh water.

When it balances on the top of the rim When it overflows and touches your skin you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you the room where you stay starts a new life and the place where you wrote your first poem begins to glow in your mind’s eye. It’s as if gold has been discovered.

When someone deeply listens to you your bare feet are on the earth and the beloved land that seemed distant is now at home within you.