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.

About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

1 thought on “Turning: The basic skill of spiritual survival and growth

  1. Someone sent me this quote from C.S. Lewis that belongs here.

    I’ve had a good morning! I learned the Macarena for the toddler party. And I ran across this splendid old quote from C.S. Lewis that is not only psychologically sound, it is relevant to all our lives here in the man cell. — Rod

    “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes, and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is remain what we call “ourselves,” to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be “good.” We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly.

    And that is what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short: but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and resown.

    That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

    We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through.

    He never talked vague, idealistic gas. When He said, “Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder – in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” — Mere Christianity

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