Tag Archives: meditation

Turning: The basic skill of spiritual survival and growth

Turning is the essential soul-behavior we are all learning if we are still growing in faith and spiritual capacity.

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Shaker round dance

I’ve come to believe the Shakers were teaching the lesson of turning and dancing it out when they used the song that became their famous contribution to American folk music.

’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right. — Shaker song written and composed in 1848, generally attributed to Elder Joseph Brackett from Alfred Shaker Village.

[Judy Collins sings it] [Aaron Copeland dramatizes it]

It is hard to say exactly what Elder Joseph had in mind as he wrote the song. But it was probably the Bible. In the Darby version, Luke 11:34 says:

“The lamp of the body is thine eye: when thine eye is simple, thy whole body also is light; but when it is wicked, thy body also is dark.”

The goal is to be “simple,” to “turn ’round right.” So in Proverbs 20:27 the NRSV translates: “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part.” Call that spirit “conscience,” or our “moral sense,” or the “person,” it is the part of us which discerns spiritual realities, distinguishes right from wrong, and perceives the light of God by which we find our way. If we have an eye for that light, if we can see it, if our perception is not bent, then wholeness is our destiny, then we are a healthy human. Otherwise, we are divided within and consumed by our own complexity as well as the myriad neon lights of the world’s attractions. To live in the light of the God-lit lamp of our spirit, we need to turn from the dark and into the light.

It is hard to “turn ’round right”

I am honored to explore many souls with people who are turning into the light. They all have a lamp and many of them want it to be lit by God. All of them are having a difficult time turning. Like me, they have a demanding voice nattering in the ear of their souls which can preoccupy them with lessons from the dark. They don’t like it, but the narrative seems very familiar. And much of the teaching bombarding them tells them the dark is just who they are, it is where they belong and there is no one but them to “lighten up.” That is discouraging.

But the Bible encourages us to see things through the unalloyed lens of our love relationships with God. At the very beginning of John’s mysterious revelation, the subject is turning: “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands…” (Revelation 1:12).

And even though Jesus had to tell his right-hand man he was going to go through a dark time, the Lord was sure he could turn,

“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has obtained permission to sift all of you like wheat,  but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-4)

In the famous story of the prodigal son, the younger son comes to see his situation and turns home. The longing of the father causes him to turn his eyes toward the road. The older son turns his head to see what the music is all about and his father pleads with him to turn toward a new perspective. I think one of the basic skills of opening to grace and truth is turning until we “turn ’round right.” Turning is cooperating with our true selves on the dancefloor of love.

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The two-screen method of turning

Last spring I enjoyed a CAPS workshop with Dr. Scott Symington. He taught a metaphor he has been teaching his clients about turning. He calls it his “two screen method.” His idea is right there in the Bible, but his metaphor is well-tuned for people who relate to screens all day. See if it helps you to turn.

Imagine your internal world as a media room with two screens. All possible thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations show up in this room on one of two screens. Your chair is facing the primary or front screen. This is where positive and life-giving thoughts, feelings, and images show up. It’s the home of joy, contentment, and connection. It’s looking into the face of a loved one, attending to the present moment, being in the flow at work, laughing with a friend, feeling spiritually connected, and expressing the best parts of who you are. It’s all the inner activity that gives you a sense of well-being. When you say to yourself, “Today is a good day,” it’s a sign you’ve been connected to the front screen. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re all trying to stay connected to the front screen.

The challenge is, off to the side is another screen competing for your attention. This is the place where the threats, fears, anxieties, unhealthy temptations, and potentially destructive thoughts and feelings show up. You will be in a conversation, on the way to work, or trying to sleep when suddenly the side screen lights up and your internal eyes reflexively swivel over to take a look. Scrolling across the screen, there’s an anxious thought or unsettling image.

If you sit there and watch the side screen for too long, you risk locking into it like a kid with a video game. It doesn’t take much exposure before you get caught up in the worries or seduced by the destructive urge or mood. This happens because the side screen uses your preoccupied attention and reactivity as an energy source. Under the spotlight of attention, the destructive mood or anxious feeling intensifies. The images become more colorful and pronounced. The sound gets louder. Before long the side screen is an IMAX with Dolby surround sound, and you don’t feel you can or want to turn back to the front screen.

Image result for home dog squirrel gif"Let’s be clear. We can’t control what shows up on the side screen. Nor can we control the reflexive swivel of our attention when the unwanted thoughts and feelings first come into awareness. You will suddenly find yourself gazing at an anxious idea or depressive image scrolling across the screen. It’s what you do next that’s important.

You’ll be tempted to watch, analyze, debate, fight, or run from the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations announcing themselves on the side screen. All these responses may be natural, but they keep the side screen shining brightly. The more you try to avoid or resist an anxious feeling, the stronger it becomes. The longer you study the worry or entertain memories of past failures, the more anxious and down you’ll feel—and so on.

Turning from the side screen

To be free—to get the relief you’re seeking—you need to relate to the side screen in a new way that deprives it of your attention and reactivity. If you remove the spotlight of attention and purge the system of reactivity (efforts at resisting the unwanted experience), you pull the plug on the side screen’s energy source, causing it to fade into the background.

The Two-Screen Method shows you how to put these ideas into practice in two steps: striking a new relationship with the side screen, and staying anchored to the front screen.

Ideally, you want to cultivate a relationship with the side screen that is defined by acceptance and nonresistance. When an anxious thought or feeling announces itself—like, “I’m going to make a fool of myself”—your internal eyes will automatically dart over to the side screen, where the image of yourself being horribly embarrassed might be playing. As soon as you realize you’re on the side screen, with your new awareness you are guided by the motto “accept and turn.” You accept the hard feelings or unanswered questions, while gently turning your attention back to the front screen.

As you plant your attention on the front screen, you allow the side screen to run its tape in your peripheral vision. You accept the distracting stream of thoughts and images, as well as the emotional heat emanating from the side screen. You accept the experience of being heckled or taunted from the sidelines — “You’re going to fail. You’ll be a laughingstock. You suck.  You never get it right. You can’t get love.” Acceptance doesn’t mean you like or agree with the content of the side screen. The thoughts and feelings displayed there may be bad for you or contrary to what you believe or what you want to have happen. Acceptance is about letting go internally, focusing on what you can control, and responding to the unwanted thoughts and feelings with wisdom. You move into acceptance and nonresistance, even though it goes against your instincts, because that kind of action unravels your reactivity. It’s the turning that cuts off the side screen’s energy source, ultimately foiling the anxious feeling or destructive mood.

In short,

1) First step: Reshape your relationship with the side screen; de-energize the problematic thoughts and feelings by meditation. When we turn our eye to our inner parts we present our lamp to be lit as we experience our thoughts and feelings with God. Meditation increases our ability to be in the present moment, while accepting and not resisting the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations coming into awareness—especially the debilitating or unwanted ones.

2) Second step: Learn how to stay connected to the front screen, using one or more of the main anchors that can hold your attention as you’re turning away from the side screen: meditation, healthy distractions (like going to your cell or finishing a book—the Shakers used dancing), and loving action (call a friend and be one, or serve the cause).

The side screen will frequently exert a strong pull on your mind. During these times, it’s often not realistic to say, “Don’t watch!” unless you have another home for your attention with some sticking power. That’s where the front screen anchors come in. These anchors give you a safe place to secure your attention while the side screen storm is passing through. But this is not all they do. The front screen “anchors” are all those great gifts caring people have given you to make you healthy and loosen up the joy you long for. They help you take the energy that is normally consumed by the side screen and redirect it to activities that cultivate a sense of aliveness and well-being.

‘Tis a gift to be simple

These are great suggestions, but as the Shakers and everyone who wrote the Bible knew, “’Tis a gift to be simple.” We can turn into grace, but grace was there before we turned. We don’t manufacture our own health by practicing the two-screen method! But turning will always be the crucial test of the maturity we need to live into our fullness and not sink into sin and death.

In the middle of dire times, John heard a voice and turned to see lampstands burning. On the eve of his worst moment of turning away from his salvation, Peter was assured he would turn back and strengthen others who were facing their own sifting. When we are eating with the pigs or sulking in self-righteousness, our loving, patient Parent comes to us in a vision or with a personal plea and lights our way to return home.

Staying anchored to the main screen will take some determination and time. But hopefully this simple metaphor will be something to remember and something to do when the side screen lures you into thinking you are looking into the mirror and all is lost or hopeless. Jesus still came to find you just as you are and is leading you into who you will be.

Intensity: How to be in a movement, not a moment

So how was the meeting of the church yesterday? Was it about as exciting as the Eagles’ rout of the Bears? Did you skip it because you thought it might not be worth driving to? Are you out of the habit?

Maybe prayer has even slipped out of your schedule and you replaced it with caustic remarks about people who “drank the Kool-aid” and keep acting excited about things you “got over” a lot time ago. Maybe you chalk up your boredom to your “meeting fatigue” or “lack of bandwidth.”

I don’t mean to shame you if any of this is true about you. I just want to be honest. Christianity is intense – all the time. It is a life and death matter – all the time. Most of us have a moment of that intensity here and there, or we would desert Jesus altogether. But we need a movement, not a moment. And if we expect to reveal Jesus to the world and work with the Spirit as God transforms it, we certainly can’t do it with a few moments of intensity.

Earnest expectation

In Philippians 1:20 Paul says, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Many translations  says he has “earnest expectation” and hope.  He is intense. The Greek word has the idea of a head that is outstretched, as if waiting in suspense.

We can all relate to this sense of expectation. My grandchildren were afraid and delighted to be racing go-carts the other day. You may have a job interview lined up. The baby might be due. For Paul, he is writing while awaiting trial before a Roman court. It could be that the delusional Nero will give him a death sentence. What was Paul’s expectation? That Christ’s glory would be seen in his body whether he lived or died. That was his EARNEST expectation.

Paul’s intense desire was that Jesus, in whom he lived and who lived in him, would have free rein of him so he would prove to be the best vehicle of transformation he could be. If dying proved to be a better strategy, then so be it. Really! He wrote that to the church in Philippi, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” That’s intense.

Paul did not come equipped with his courage or will. We humans have those capacities, but they are mostly moments, not movements. His courage came from the Spirit of Christ who made him alive, even if he died. He was not talking about achieving an ongoing integration of Christ “into his life.” This was not post-therapy, post-intellectualizing Paul telling us how he ended up enlightened. Jesus is his light and he is confident Jesus will shine through what he is and does whether he lives or dies.  That is basic Christianity. It feels intense to us.

If the Sunday meeting does not provide us a moment, we might feel like we have no movement. If a person feels like they are too intense, we might want to put the brakes on their movement, since it feels like we are getting run over. I supposed we are getting run over — meanwhile, Paul appears to like getting run over. Being a vehicle for God’s glory is his definition of wonder-ful.

How do we get into the movement and stop living off the “crumbs” of the spiritual moments that don’t add up to enough?

1) We need to pray

Pray for yourself. Pray for others. Pray for the Congo. Intercession is crucial if anything is going to happen. If things seem flat, maybe we are not praying! But even before you get to interceding, practice the turn into the movement of God’s Spirit.  Work on the meditation that gets you out of thinking your courage and capacity makes it all happen.

2) We need to relate rightly

If you are talking about people instead of to them; if you’ve decided you can’t talk to them so you are just avoiding everyone, you are starving for connection and it is wrecking you. The moments of love you get may hurt, since they just point out how much more you need. Those moments might make you mad, since they seem to be depriving you or demanding of you. You need to be in the movement.

I wish our leaders told us every week that the Sunday meeting is not just about the speech or the songs; it is about the relating, the being together in the Spirit, the relationships built and the plans being made. What happens before and after the scheduled events should be just as important as what happens during them.

3) We need to do something. Trump is president.

The fact that the populace (or at least the system) elected a liar who would rather have a strong-man government like Russia’s demonstrates that the world needs saved. What are you going to do about it? Get depressed? Be resentful? Withdraw? Join in and make as much money as possible while the doors are open to exploitation? Get as mean and divided as the powers are promoting? Conform to an even more debased way of thinking? I wish I did not have to even list those things, but people are doing all those things.

Many people are doing just the opposite, of course, but temptation is everywhere. Black Friday background checks for gun purchases soared last week while we were calling for “buy nothing” day. While we are calling each other to Turn Up to Bail Out, the Ku Klux Klan claimed a surge in new members. Some of us are overwhelmed. We would never have done anything to get into prison like Paul did and if we did get there we might have gone crazy instead of converting the Praetorian Guard.

The main thing Paul does is demonstrate the glory of God in his body whether he lives or dies. He does not have a plan to save democracy or depose Nero. He is part of a movement of God’s Spirit that is way more than the present moment. He trusts in it. He is confident in it.  He is not waiting for a moment or disappointed because he missed it. He lives in an eternal now with Jesus.

The main thing Paul expects the followers of Jesus to do is demonstrate the presence of the risen Lord as the body of Christ. How we do that is discerned moment by moment, but we are always in the movement. If the powers that be try to kill us, that will make Jesus even more obvious.

I, for one, would not be a Jesus follower if Christianity were not intense. That’s why it is hard, sometimes, when I think the meetings feel a little dead, or I run into loved ones who are more resistant than resplendent with glory. But then, like today, I often remember Paul’s letter to the Philippians and note the contours of my cell — and maybe even pen my own letter, of sorts. Jesus is with me.

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There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it

I’m still savoring the memory of Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Mystical Hope, laying in my lap, a tear trickling down my cheek and a smile broadening across my face in deep relief and joy. I had just reached the part in which she quoted a little piece of a Thomas Merton cassette (!) speaking to his novices.  As I read it, I laughed out loud, since he used an image that was very similar to one I had received in prayer during a rich period of my thirties — an image that has sustained me ever since.

“God is near to us at the point that is just before final destruction. Take away everything else down to that point of final destruction, and the last little bit that’s left before destruction, a little kernel of gold which is the essence of you–and there is God protecting it…And this is something terrific. …[We] don’t normally get into that center unless we’re brought to the edge of what looks like destruction. In other words, we have to be facing the possibility of the destruction of everything else to know this will not be destroyed.”

Merton sounds a bit like he is inviting his novices to jump off a cliff, doesn’t he?! And I suppose he is. I suppose I jumped. But he is also inviting relative beginners into a life of prayer, like my three previous posts have been doing. It is a life that leads to the place of surrender and revelation he describes in the quote above.

Meditation “puts us immediately in touch with that ‘little kernel of gold which is the essence of’ us and allows us to begin to recognize it and trust it.” So much religion these days relies on a “good offense” or a “good defense.” On the one hand we are taught to release our preoccupation with death and suffering in order to experience blissful, mindless oneness with all life. Then on the other hand, many Christians offer something equally deficient when they promise an overcoming hope that seems hollow in the cancer ward, or when the baby is born with disabilities, or when the house is destroyed and a lifetime of memories seems washed away. Deeper than having a good defense or good offense  and more in line with the Lord’s example, on the other side of suffering is hope. Bourgeault says, “Only if we are still hanging on…only in the measure that we fail to yield completely into the mercy of God, will hope fail us. If we are willing to take it all the way, it will take us all the way.”

Jesus went beyond destruction to hope.

Isn’t this the journey Jesus took all the way? When he was arrested he told his disciples to put away their swords because he, like us, needed to pass through his own powerlessness and hopelessness. He was not going to hope in some nuclear arsenal of angels or call on a victory-making God. When he was in the garden praying and meditating (as the disciples fainted), he found that “protecting nearness” at the center of reality. How he went “to the edge of what looks like destruction” is an example for us. It is the Lord’s death as well as his resurrection that is our salvation.

In the wonderful old movie Babette’s Feast, the wonder centers around a sumptuous meal that reveals many secrets. It is like another last supper, only this one is full of old Danish people facing death, gathered full of faith and full of their regrets. The General gets up and names the wonder that is happening among them, the same wonder that is seen when Jesus, the living truth, yields himself faithfully into the Mercy. The General says, “Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced.” And all the joys and regrets become one in love as the Alpha and Omega is present in fullness.

There is hope

On All Saints Day, we look toward the people who have gone before us for the assurance that this wild thought is true: if I move over the edge of destruction, God will still protect the golden kernel of the true me. If I dare to meet the living God, my fallen, scarred, angry, abandoned, intolerably vulnerable self, my old self might die, but I will live. We get this assurance not only from our ultimate example, Jesus, but last week we celebrated Rosa Parks, who could have quoted Albert Camus: “In the middle of winter I discovered in myself an invincible summer.”

There is hope.

Or look much closer; look at Mike Escott’s covenant blog from the love feast last Saturday. He has gone through so much and is going through much right into life, right now:  “There had always been an emptiness inside me and after my mom passed, I fell into the grips of addiction. When I moved to Philadelphia to get sober, I was fortunate enough to meet Jimmy , in what will always be a “God shot” to me….I was immediately drawn to Circle of Hope and I now realize I was also being called to Christ. This journey brings me joy and deep connection. At times Circle Of Hope is all I felt I had, but the fellowship, my Cell, and my growing relationship with Christ have filled me and helped me to thrive again.”

There is hope.

God is protecting that golden true self at the heart of each of us, calling us to meet in that Spirit-open place where life moves us and draws us. The everyday way to living comfortably and securely outside our present-oriented injuries and fears and into our eternal now with God is the listening, feeling and releasing prayer of meditation. It is a new way, as Bourgeault says, “beyond linear, discursive thinking” into “inspired visionary knowing where Christianity finally becomes fully congruent with its own highest truth and its mystical treasures can be received into an awakened heart.”

If all that beautiful teaching from Merton and Bourgeault seem a bit much to you, just listen to Jesus and see where he leads. Or meditate on Rosa Parks when you pray. Or appreciate the love that guards Mike, even when he has just been called back from far away.

There is hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope
Next: Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Anxious and tired: Prayer that turns us toward hope

The notion that God is absent is the
fundamental illusion of the human condition.
Thomas Keating

If Cynthia Bourgeault is right (and my own experience says she is), then the way beyond egoic thinking is the way of meditation. She says, “Meditation, more than any other spiritual practice, nurtures the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to divine hope. In the classic language of our tradition, these capacities are known as the ‘spiritual senses.'”

That little paragraph might have seemed so weird it drove you right back into you egoic thinking! So hang on. All “egoic thinking” means is we humans have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and look at ourselves. As far as we know, we are the only species who can do this. Tigers don’t think, “I have a quick temper.” And whales don’t say, “I am really glad to be going north; I’m a cold-water kind of whale.” And tigers and whales don’t write children’s books where tigers  and whales seem cute when they reflect. Humans can imagine these different realities, looking back and forward, dreaming and visioning. It is a great thing about us.

we are drawn to meditation

Egoic thinking is great…until it’s not

The downside of this reflexive capacity, Bourgeault says, “is the tendency to experience one’s personal identity as separate — composed of distinct qualities, defined by what holds one apart from the whole.” So we all have an anxiety streak running through us because we really need and want to be together, not separate. The ego can’t get enough: praise, security, accomplishment, etc. to overcome that dreadful sense of being left out or thrown out and failing at being a full self. You can see how quickly we have all been driven into sin by this innate anxiety. And you can see why Jesus calls us to see our true selves, look at ravens and lilies, stop worrying and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” as the means of becoming free of what is depriving us of joy.

Art often captures the turning of meditation
Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910.

Meditative prayer is a way of discovering and nurturing the latent capacities within us that can perceive and respond to “the Mercy” I talked about last week. It is a primary way to experience the “mystical hope”I talked about the week before, the hope which is near and not the outcome of all our striving.  The centering prayer that Bourgeault teaches is “a basic, no-nonsense method of self-emptying — simply letting go of thoughts as they arise — to help practitioners break out of their compulsive attachment to thinking and entrust themselves to the deeper stillness of God.” [Here is Martin Laird’s take on it.] The essence of this kind of meditation is not keeping a perfectly clear mind. The essence is recognizing the moment when one is distracted and willingly turning back into the stillness of the Mercy, toward hope; turning toward the meeting place we have inside as an act of faith and honor; letting go of our own stuff and holding a space open for all God gives and all God is.

We need to get beyond self-awareness and its evil twin: self-centeredness

We have a “self” awareness that is beyond the egoic capacity that makes us human — we also have spiritual awareness. Meditation leads us out of ego-centered consciousness and into a space where we meet God. And so many of us know almost every feeling better than the feeling of communion with God! Someone has said we can also get to this meeting place by having a near-death experience or by falling deeply in love. I do not wish you the first short cut and do wish for you the latter. Meditation is the everyday path. It is the discipline that helps us “die daily” as Paul says he does, and helps us be one in love as he hopes we will be. The prayer of meditation puts a stick in the spokes of our outer awareness and leads us into the warmth and abundance of our inner awareness and into hope in the Mercy.

It is a hard world right now. Maybe you are pretty numb like a newscaster was saying she was after she was confronted with Donald Trump’s and General Kelly’s icky relationship with the family of La David Johnson. Or maybe you are feeling like the pastor who wrote to Christianity Today to voice how tired he is of trying to get into the white man’s church and how determined to separate into a black world until someone approaches him for once. If it were not a hard world, we’d probably make it one. So it is time to pray.

Have you listened to Jesus saying this to you lately?

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.”

Basic to that easy yoke is the prayer of meditation. We keep turning to it in our anxiety and fatigue and it keeps turning us toward hope.

More on Mystical Hope
Previous: Mystical hope in a deteriorating world
Swimming in the Mercy: The experience of hope
Next: There is hope: But you’ll need to die to enjoy it
Hope: The quality of aliveness right under our noses

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Nature Deficit, Information Surfeit

As if I could really get more inefficient, I have a new commitment to walking. Last week when I was going to see Dave in the hospital, I rode the train to 5th and Market so I could go to my bank (which Wells Fargo closed), so I ended up traipsing all over the place figuring out how to make my deposit. It was good for me. There are many advantages to traipsing. For one thing, I discovered a bakery that had “communal table” in their title and bought my cell the largest loaf of bread I have ever seen in my life. But the best thing about traipsing was being out in the sun, being with people, getting exercise. It was good for my soul.

How the world is not good for us

In the latest Newsweek, Andrew Weil verifies scientifically what most of us know instinctively. The modern world is not really that good for us. We experience what Dr. Weil calls, “nature deficit” and  “information surfeit.” As a result, a lot of us are depressed. Depression is a “disease of affluence.” In general, people who live in places that are furthest removed from modern standards have the lowest rates of depression. Amish people are ten times less depressed than the “English” who live in Philly. The human body was never designed for the postindustrial environment. We were not designed to be indoors so much, to eat industrially-altered food, to be isolated with our machines swimming in a deluge of electronic info. We all know we should be running around in groups hunting mastodons or sitting around in groups sorting seeds. Instead, we are vainly trying to adapt our brains and bodies to do what they can’t really do and they are rebelling by making us depressed.

Playa Samara, CR

My favorite solution to this dilemma is moving to Samara beach in Costa Rica and increasing my vitamin D intake enormously via my new-found skill of wind-surfing. Given that I sense God’s call to maintain my part of his mission to the megalopolis, I need to exercise some other options and so do you, probably. Let’s maintain ourselves well so we have the brain-health to be creative lovers in the Philly region! The church, as it turns out, is right in line with the scientists in this pursuit. We Jesus-followers, knew a lot about positive psychology before UPenn’s Martin Seligman and others popularized it sans Jesus.

How to encourage our mental health

1)    Practice meditation. We do this in our meetings sometimes. We’ll have an Advent day retreat to teach it and do it. As an every day discipline, meditation is a strong antidote to the brain-poisoning modern world. Our brains overeat mental junk food. Meditative prayer helps us develop concentration and the ability to attend to ourselves and to God. Rather than multi-tasking our way through life, we learn to be aware in the present moment.

2)    Sleep in the dark and get out in the sun during the day. Walk somewhere! Our sleep rhythms are impacted when we spend all our waking hours in artificial light and extend that into the dark. If the city lights are getting through your blinds at night, get some blackout curtains. Better sleeping means less depression.

3)    Stay social. This is a gift the church gives big time, since we make community a priority. It is a powerful safeguard to emotional well-being. The way of post-industrial society is toward more atomization all the time. We are often locked up in machines or relating through them. It is isolating and dangerous.

4)    Cultivate silence. Listen to pleasant sounds. Again, the church is good for this. We often practice silence together. Sometimes our music is beautiful; at least it is human and allows us to experience some natural sounds that relate to who we are most deeply. Some noise-cancelling headphones might be nice to have if you live in a  noisy neighborhood. Making regular field trips to places where you can hear the wind blow or listen to running water is a good idea. Fortunately, we have Fairmount Park. Just sitting by one of our rivers can absorb a lot of sound and cultivate some inner silence.

5)    Discipline your devices. The mobile internet so many of us have now dilutes our attentiveness even more. Info overload cultivates ADD. There has to be some limits to the amount of time we spend on the internet, with email or on the phone. Some of us have more capacity to work the machines than others. All of us, however, need to be the masters of our machines and not vice versa.

On another walk the other day, I passed by St. George Cathedral and the doors were open. It was time for daily mass. I had never been in the building so I decided to check it out, even though I was a bit afraid that I was interloping. They did not kick me out and I had a few minutes of quiet, listening to the priest chant the mass. I felt invigorated, like I had been hunting mastodons and stumbled upon a beautiful waterfall. The city is full of healthy things to do. The church is a big help.

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Yoga, Christian Meditation and the Debate about Our Souls

Intellectuals in the United States have been having a major religious, philosophical and political debate for the last fifty years about which model of human consciousness should be the dominant model. The results are trickling down to the general population in an interesting way, as any cell leader will tell you — they have variations on the debate almost every week.

Is it the soul of Christianity — created, fallen, in need of salvation?
Is it the psyche of modern psychology — conflicted though creative, controlled by hidden, unconscious forces beyond the surface ego?
Is it the Indian atman or Self — already immortal, divine and somehow seriously blissful?

Yoga Philadelphia

You can see how much the last explanation in the list above, the Hindu/Buddhist one, has been influencing us just by noticing the proliferation of yoga centers. Google “yoga Philadelphia” and the first page will display a host of options for someone to practice yoga within a ten block radius of the Comcast Center. Plus you will see a blurb on people practicing “urban yoga” in the plaza of the obelisk itself!

I want to talk about yoga for a minute as an example of “Hinduism’s” strong entry into the debate about our spiritual core. But I don’t intend to bash yoga. As a meditation technique, yoga practices are not that much different than any other techniques. But the techniques come from a philosophical base and most practitioners like the philosophy. We should be aware of that and have a conversation with it.

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Yoga purists regret how yoga has been marketed and practiced as a stress-reducing exercise routine. An ad for “pure” yoga tries to correct that: Yoga is for mastery of the body so that “the whole of Meditation can be learned and practiced, gradually leading one to know himself or herself at all levels, up to and including the eternal center of consciousness, which is one with the absolute reality, by whatever name you choose to call that.” That sounds a bit like AA doesn’t it? a bit like your therapist, maybe; a bit like people being politically correct, even. The Eastern consciousness has been translated into an American mindset.

I think all sorts of meditative practices can have positive impact on us. Physical meditation practices are commonly helpful regardless of philosophy or religion. The body is the body; learning how to move with our breathing, coming to focus, feeling release, resting in silence, developing mind-body-soul awareness is crucial to spiritual development. I made sure to practice my daily discipline of that before I began to write.

The danger comes when one enters this territory thinking it is neutral, or merely about one’s body. We need to be able to answer an important question. What am I going for? Am I looking for out-of-body mindfulness? Do I intend  my awareness of sexual energy to turn to bliss? Am I looking for myself to join in union with the divine Self? Do I expect my centeredness to ripple into the world and bring peace?

It is the end of meditation that counts

The Catholics see yoga meditation as kind of the “entry-level drug” of godlessness, an antichrist marijuana. In a paper on the subject the bishops say: “Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut.” I think they are right this time. It is the end of meditation that brings the depth and brings the dangers. What moves our meditation and where is it taking us? Christian meditation is personal and focused on God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, not on oneself or on the great Self being represented in us.

There are many Bible verses that reinforce how Christians meditate. This one will do:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.
Thou wilt keep her in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because she trusteth in thee.
Isaiah 26:3 (KJV)

The goal for Christian meditation is having our created “mind” fully “stayed” on our creator; subjecting our energies to the power who directs them. The feeling of the word “stayed” has many layers, of course. Think about it as gazing, being attentive, becoming aware, seeing and being seen, knowing and being known. The process results in peace. “Mutual gazing” might be good definition of contemplative prayer. John of the Cross summed it up this way: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God.” By means of this loving attentiveness one begins to moves into the place that Paul calls “in Christ.” From that place transformation comes and holiness grows.

Meditation is the technique we use to train ourselves to hold the gaze of God, to be attentive. We usually need to start with God so we can look at others like Jesus does and warm our hearts that way, too. To have this spirit-to-Spirit gaze takes stillness, or our natural defenses rise, our insecurities take over and our longing for attachment over runs us.

As I was saying on Saturday, we often benefit from having a word to help center our meditation and help us let the distractions go. The ring of a bell or the rhythm of chanting “om” might work, too — for some, the less content, the better. But for many, content is a good thing. We are becoming aware of someone, not merely emptying ourselves for the sake of being empty or for the purpose of uncovering some lost self in us. The other day, my spiritual director needed to go to the bathroom so he could continue listening to me. While he was gone, I had some well-informed silence to consider what we had been talking about and a word came to me that has been a centerpoint for my meditation ever since. For centuries, people have practiced using a core phrase of faith as the centerpoint of the meditation: Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (the “Jesus Prayer”). I hope that as you read this paragraph a word came to you. If you center in silence right now, the Lord might raise one up in you.

Since there is debate about these things, many people shy away from prayer, and certainly the prayer of meditation, as simply too dangerous. One person told me that they don’t meditate because they are afraid to do it wrong and open themselves to all sorts of dangerous spirituality! If your mind is stayed on Jesus in some little way, you are quite safe, I think. If you talk about what you do with a person you can see is on the journey with Jesus, that will make you even safer. The wonder of the practice is worth facing the dangers. The Bible calls us into the silent lands where we are known by and know God. Our hearts yearn so much for the peace of that land, some of us would even try letting a yoga instructor guide us there.

[It so happens that here in Philly a road show about the Jesus prayer is coming to Frankford and Norris on Tuesday, October 11 at 7pm. You might want to check it out — link to a site for the organization coming to town]