Dec 222011
 

In this Advent season I imagine what it would be like to be Mary and Joseph, with long days and nights on the road to Bethlehem where the Divine Child would be born to them.  Both of them know who and what this Child is, and surely both must experience long periods of silence in which they ponder their worthiness and ability to answer such a profound call.

I have thus found myself ruminating on my own backsliding and hypocrisy, all the ways I have failed to nurture the Christ Child within me. I remember the ways I have not served Love with as much truth, beauty, and justice as I might.  I revisit so many ways I have missed the mark.   Sometimes I give myself a pretty hard time about this sort of thing, yet over the years I have increasingly come to realize that it’s not very helpful, that it’s even harmful, to continually disparage and punish myself for being human.  In my experience, the intolerance of our own humanity is intimately linked to our intolerance of humanity in general.  I’ve also found lurking behind that intolerance is an irrational expectation that I, others, and life itself, should be “perfect” in some vaguely imagined way, a way that I think so many of our utopian myths try to portray.

Reflections like these have often put me in the position of seeing the human mind as a kind of dweller between worlds and perhaps a simultaneous denizen of both, which I will for convenience call the “ideal” and the “actual.”  The ideal world is the one we envision as the way things “ought to be,” the Eden to which we would return, or the Heavenly Jerusalem that we would hasten to call down upon us.  That world has no lack of compassion, kindness, beauty, creativity, and joy, and there is nothing to interfere with them.  The actual world is this one we know through our senses, where all that ideal goodness seems to go hand in hand with selfishness, cruelty, ugliness, destruction, and pain.  It may be that our laws and moral codes have arisen out of our consciousness of this dichotomy and with the aim of restraining and redirecting those negative principles so that the experience of life can more closely approach the ideal.  Yet, despite all our laws and codes, the negative principles still assert themselves, and often more within our own hearts, minds, and behavior than within the natural world around us.

One of the things I find so fascinating about all of this is how quickly we can embrace the negative principles as justifiable when we perceive that someone or something else is interfering with the manifestation of my Eden!   Living this way means being intolerant toward those I judge as intolerant, incompassionate toward those I judge as incompassionate, impatient toward those I judge as impatient, unforgiving toward those I judge as unforgiving, self-righteous toward those I judge as self-righteous, hostile toward those I judge as hostile, condescending toward those I judge as condescending, unfair toward those I judge as unfair, selfish toward those I judge as selfish, lazy toward those I judge as lazy, and so on.  Attitudes and behaviors like these are often easily justifiable when living only according to the letter of our laws and moral codes.  If someone else dares to act in a way that threatens my peace as I imagine I should experience it, then I feel justified in attacking their peace if not totally destroying it.   You know what I mean – “peacekeeping force.”  Ironically, embracing this attitude automatically robs both the other and me of peace even more!

So why do I do this?  Is it that temporarily sacrificing the good in order to destroy what I judge as evil is not only acceptable but actually necessary?  Or is it that behind all the arguments there is simply a lack of faith that good, that Love, is indeed stronger and that in the end all the sacrifices it asks of me are worthwhile?

In this season of Advent I see this spiritual struggle as one of the things, if not the very thing, that Jesus was born to address.  According to the narrative of the Bible, it seems to be the chief spiritual dilemma of Israel at the time.  Perhaps it is always at the core of the human experience.  In any case, unlike some philosophers and preachers, Jesus doesn’t tell me to deny the reality of either the ideal world (Heaven) or the actual world (Earth, or simply “the world”) as a way to try escaping this struggle.  In fact, at this moment I see this as the cross he says I take up if I am his follower.  He urges me to live as though the dominion of Heaven were coming at any moment, and he teaches me to live in such a way as to make the ideal more present and active here and now.  He was, in my clearest understanding, teaching me about a way of life, both internal and external, as a way to respond to this struggle.

What is that way of life?  In short, it is loving God and our neighbors, who are God’s children here in the actual world.

Yet how should I love?  How am I to know what is the most loving thing to do in any situation?  Where am I to turn when the way is unclear?  Jesus says to first seek the dominion of Heaven, the Ideal, by which I take him to mean I should first open my heart to the authority of divine inspiration, also called the Holy Spirit.  Paul echoes this when he says:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And the one who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. Romans 8:26-27

And yet I am not always able to clearly and accurately discern the call of the Spirit, so what then?  In these times I can fall back on the example and teachings of Jesus.  During his sermon on the mount, Jesus laid out some powerful examples of the fruits, the kinds of attitudes and behaviors, people bring forth when they are following the call of the Spirit and living in accordance with the will of God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,those who mourn,the meek,those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, …the merciful,the pure in heart,the peacemakers….

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Matthew 5:3-9, 38-45

Paul later suggests these qualities as evidence of letting Love live more fully in and through us:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  1st Corinthians 13:4-7

If you are like me, deep down you know the truth of these teachings, yet you also realize how very hard they can be to actually apply.  Trusting the Spirit, trusting Love, in other words really having faith in them, means subjecting myself to some huge risks here in this world.  It means the possibility of losing all my comforts and luxuries, my liberties, maybe even the necessities for my very life in this world.  After all, look at what happened to Jesus and to Paul.  More recently, look at what happened to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.  It’s no wonder that anyone who truly lives this way is regarded by most of the world as a fool or a crazy person.  It’s no wonder that I see Jesus looking directly into my eyes when he says, “Oh you of little faith….” (Matthew 8:26, 14:31, 16:8)

I’m thankful that God understands and forgives the weakness of my faith even more than I do.  I’m thankful that a little over 2,000 years ago the world received an innocent Child who would grow to inspire us to love above all else.  And I am thankful that this Child can be reborn in me over and over again, no matter how many times I betray him.

Maranatha!

Merry Christmas!

Agape

Oct 062011
 

At various times along our mystical paths, it can prove rewarding to perform a spiritually directed experiment for a period of at least a week.  Each of the activities listed below can provide meaningful and educational experiences.  You can select something that builds naturally upon strengths and talents, or you can choose something that might challenge your perceived weaknesses or shortcomings.  Because this is a time of experimentation, it is especially recommended that you try something significantly different from your usual practices. In any case, avoid setting yourself up for failure. It is recommended that you keep a simple log or calendar to chart your activity, and that you discuss the experiment with a mentor or spiritual friend at least once before proceeding and once upon ceasing the experiment.

Meditation or Prayer: There are many possibilities for methods of meditation and prayer, and perhaps a mentor or spiritual friend can be of help in making choices. See some options I recommend by clicking here.  Select a regular place and time(s) to practice.  Commit to practice once, twice or three times per day for 10, 20, 30 or 60 minutes per sitting, at least three times per week.

Devotional Ritual: Design and perform a short devotional ritual to be performed at a regular place and time(s) once or twice each day, at least three times per week.  See an example by clicking here. Consider the use of elements such as these:

  • An altar or shrine bearing an image and/or book you consider sacred
  • Placing a fresh token of faith or thanks on the altar each time
  • Bowing and/or kneeling
  • Crossing yourself
  • Lighting a candle and/or incense
  • Ringing a bell
  • A short inspirational reading
  • Saying an opening and/or closing prayer

Journaling: Spend time each day recording your thoughts and feelings about your spiritual life. This can be an activity of its own, or combined with any of the others.

Reporting: This experiment can be an activity of its own, or combined with any of the others.  Once or twice per week send your mentor or spiritual friend a written report of your thoughts, feelings, readings and other actions relevant to your spiritual life, and invite that person’s feedback.

Mindfulness: Find a time each day to mindfully perform a common activity, such as taking a walk, eating a meal, or completing a particular routine chore. As you perform the activity, keep focusing your attention on it, being as aware as possible of every action involved, no matter how minor or automatic it may seem.  It is usually helpful to be alone in this activity.

Meditative Reading: Select inspirational material such as scripture, or spiritual poetry or lyrics to read slowly and carefully at least three times per week.  Choose a short passage that captures your attention and imagination, and focus upon it more intently. Memorize it and continually return your thoughts to it until the next reading, allowing and noting all thoughts and feelings that arise in connection with it.

Nightly Review: Before you fall asleep each night, review the events of the day. The review can be from morning to night or, in reverse order, from night to morning.  In either case, consider performing it with your eyes closed so that you can visualize events as you recall them.

Dream Work: Record your dreams immediately upon awakening. Consider what messages they may have about your spiritual life.

Inspirational Artwork:  At least three times per week set aside time to try to artistically express your thoughts and feelings relevant to your spiritual life.  This experiment can be any kind of art – drawing, painting, poetry, sculpting, music, dance, etc.

Expressing Gratitude: Tell at least one person each day how you are especially thankful for her or his presence in your life. This experiment should be done in person if possible, but can also be done by phone or mail.

Anonymous Acts of Kindness: Each day do something for another person without her or him knowing, and take precautions not to be discovered.  It is much easier to do this with strangers and people you do not closely interact with on a daily basis. Try to be creative and do something that could be especially pleasing or touching to the recipient.

Virtue Commitment:  Select a single virtue, continually striving to think and act in accord with it.  Practice simple awareness and acceptance of your successes and your difficulties.  Consult with your mentor or spiritual friend if you want help making your selection.

Sacrifice: Select a particular pleasure to forgo.  Your sacrifice should be something you regularly if not habitually enjoy, and can be primarily physical, social or intellectual in nature.  You might choose something you consider to be a vice, or something that seems totally innocent and even beneficial to you in some way.  In any case, perform this experiment as an act of spiritual devotion, taking note of all the thoughts and feelings you have about it.

 

Aug 192011
 

Dear friends, I hope you will join me in this prayer from time to time.

O Great Mystery,
O Divine Lover we seek without understanding,
O Love that transcends all sense and reason,
we open our hearts and minds to You now,
here in this moment, as though little chicks
opening their mouths for nourishment
delivered to them by a good mother and father.

We don’t really know how or why You feed us,
but we know that we live and we long for this;
and whether it is fear, faith, hope, or joy that moves us,
here we are crying out for You before all things,
You who is at once the food and the One who feeds.

O Unfathomable Truth,
moved by You we pour out our faith, hope and love
for our brothers and sisters, Your children,
who thirst and hunger for You.
Bless us all by accepting this offering
and delivering it to their hearts and minds
so that we may all feel Your mysterious presence,
so that we may all more fully know You,
our Light and Life, Love Itself,
the very Spirit of our souls,
the essential Mind of our minds,
the central passion that stirs all our desires.

Here our words fail us, O Ineffable One;
there are no images, no sounds we can cling to,
no emotions or sensations that capture You,
and so we simply relax and let them all go,
sitting right here, right now, attuned to the silence
in which all our words arise and depart,
attuned to the stillness in which all our feelings move,
attuned to the darkness in which all our images
flash into and out of being,
attuned to the mysterious realm within us
that gives birth to all, and is the nest and parent of all,
attuned to You.

Let us simply rest in this for a while
without expectation,
simply open and willing to receive
whatever may come as a sign of Your love,
even if it seems to be nothing at all
but this silence, this stillness, this darkness itself,
this seeming emptiness that is nonetheless
the source and the home of all that is.
Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

 

Also posted at:  http://chuckdunning.blog.com/2011/11/30/a-prayer-for-spiritual-nourishment/
Mar 202011
 

The First Temptation

The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness.  Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles.  That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace.  So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.

In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries.  In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others.  It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry.  Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves.  Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service.  Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of  spiritual peace.

None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas.  To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way.  Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions.  This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing.  The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction.  Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.

So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness.  When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy.  But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?

In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  This statement is a more complete reference to  Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah.  So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us.  Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace.  This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter.  In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.

It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”.  But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed.  It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism.  While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort.  From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them.  By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share.  The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it.  In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself.  The emptiness is realized as fullness.

We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.

Feb 272011
 

The Apostle Paul admonished his followers to “pray without ceasing,” which might seem like an impossible goal.  If we take the admonition literally, and also think of prayer in the most common sense of bowing our heads, closing our eyes and speaking to God, then it would be practically impossible.  On the other hand, we don’t have to take Paul literally, but we can understand him to be strongly encouraging us to pray as often as we might. That shift opens the door for attitudes about prayer that aren’t trapped by all-or-nothing thinking.  It is also not necessary for us to be limited by one method of prayer. Christianity actually offers a wide variety of methods we can adopt to enrich our prayer lives, but it isn’t the purpose of this essay to examine or even list all the different ways we can pray.  So it is that this post offers some ideas on how we can more frequently attend to our relationship with the Divine in the course of a typical day for most Westerners, and thereby more fully enter into the heart of God.

If there is more than one way to pray, then perhaps we ought to begin by considering the very nature of prayer.  In The Essentials of Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill says:

[prayer is] that part of our active and conscious life which is deliberately oriented towards, and exclusively responds to, spiritual reality. The being of God, who is that spiritual reality, we believe to be immanent in all things.

In other words, prayer is intentionally giving attention to our relationship with the Divine, here and now.

The Love Affair with God

While we cannot limit the Divine to being a single person in the human sense, it remains that the expression of personal affection and devotion is one of the most powerful ways we can relate to God.  In Vedic terminology this path is called “bhakti yoga” (literally “devotion/participation” + “uniting”).  This experience was clearly part of the life of Jesus, who repeatedly declares his oneness with God, which he addresses as “Abba”, the Hebrew equivalent of “Papa”.

One of the most touching and memorable ways humans share their love with each other is through words and actions that express our feelings of fondness, attraction, admiration and even passion.  We may even acknowledge a sense of attachment and interdependence, such that we cannot fully conceive of ourselves without referring in some way to the beloved.  While the great mystic sages are united in claiming that blind attachment to a human personality is misplaced, interpersonal devotion is nonetheless well founded if we acknowledge that the Spirit of the Living God is shining through each person’s life in a limited and yet wonderfully unique way.  As mystics on the Way of the Heart, we owe it to God, our fellow human beings, and to ourselves to express our love for God as directly as possible within our souls and through our love for other people.  Any attempt to engage that love affair consciously and intentionally is prayer, and the following methods are based upon awareness of that truth.

Ritualized Prayer

When we love others, we often make it a point to share certain times of our lives with them.  We share meals with them, make phone calls or send emails, and we meet with them on holidays and other routine events.  In effect, we demonstrate our commitment to them, and so communicate our love, by establishing and maintaining rituals of interconnection. We likewise ritualize our connections with God in many ways, such as going to church or meditating routinely, or learning and practicing specific prayers at various times.

Building upon this dynamic, one of the most common ways to more fully incorporate prayer into one’s life is through ritually reading or recalling prayers at specific times of the day and night, such as upon rising, at meals and before sleep.  Further steps can be taken by saying those prayers at the turn of specific hours, or setting a minimum number of repetitions to be completed each day.  Praying the Rosary is one of the most widely practiced methods of Christian ritualized prayer, as is the children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge in ritualized prayer is not allowing the practice to become relatively spiritless, with some mechanical part of the mind simply replaying the words while the majority of one’s consciousness is occupied with anything but attention to the Divine.  Still there is hope that even in those cases the prayer is stimulating the soul in some beneficial way at an unconscious level.  Another challenge is that we may be in a setting where performing ritualized prayer aloud would be uncomfortable.  In these cases there is nothing wrong with performing them entirely within the imagination, making no external sounds or movements to betray the inner work.

There are many traditional prayers suitable for these practices. The Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm are familiar to most Christians.  Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer are also traditional favorites among Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

“Hail Mary” (Roman Catholic version)

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen. (“sinners” is omitted by some people)

“The Jesus Prayer” (according to the rule of St. John Chrysostom)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us. Amen.

A number of doxologies, or short traditional hymns of praise, are also suitable. Here are two common examples:

“Gloria Patri” (an English version)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, it is now and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen.

“Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow”

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow; praise Him, all creatures here below; praise Him above, ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Of course, many beautiful prayers have been composed by or attributed to Christian saints, and have become standards throughout the Christian community. Consider this one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

For the purposes of performing ritualized prayer from memory, it is perfectly acceptable to choose shorter excerpts or fragments of prayers. Here is an excerpt from a prayer by Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin:

May Thy life, which is one everywhere, transform my whole being in the unity of Thine image, my heart in the unity of Thy love, my activity in the unity of the works of justice, and my thought in the unity of all lights.  Amen.

Internal Chant

Just as we frequently stir the memory of a beloved in our hearts and minds, we can redirect our awareness to the Divine through frequent, silent repetition of a few words, phrases or a short sentence that naturally evokes spiritual thoughts or opens the heart to God’s presence.  This practice is a sacrifice of some portion of one’s moment-to-moment consciousness, allowing internal space to be devoted to purposes more meaningful than the petty obsessions that too often waste our time and energy.  At first, it may be necessary to frequently remind oneself to return to the chant whenever the mind is not occupied by something of immediate importance.  In time the practice can become more like a constantly flowing stream that one joyfully hears again whenever other sounds have quieted.  Some people practice the Jesus Prayer this way, and you could also employ one of these options, among many others:

Be still and know that I am God.

Thou art with me.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Love God and thy neighbor as thyself.

As you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me.

I and my Father are one.

Please note that for this form of chanting we have not included any sacred names or words, such as Adonai, Elohim, Emmanuel, Yeshua Xristos, or Maranatha.  The chanting of sacred words, either silently or aloud, is recommended for times dedicated specifically to that purpose, and is often done in conjunction with other rituals and meditations. These matters are important and deserve further attention, but are tangential to our consideration of prayer in the typical course of daily life.

Love Notes & Other Keepsakes

One of the most pleasant ways we express our thoughts and feelings for loved ones is through sharing written words, pictures and other mementos with each other.  Heartfelt letters, poetry, songs, and even greeting cards are tangible manifestations, actual documents, of love.  We can relate to the Divine in the same way, and that is precisely what has led so many people to write their own prayers, or compose spiritual music and poetry.  Many great paintings and sculptures have also been expressions of prayerful states of mind. Other people find it meaningful to keep a journal or diary in which they write entries addressed to God, just as they would write letters to a most trusted friend.

When we receive artistic gifts from others, or make them for ourselves, it is very common to set them out where they can easily be seen and revisited, or to preserve them in collections of keepsakes through which we occasionally reminisce.  People typically frame the most cherished pictures or writings, making them perpetually available.  Many of us also do these things with the spiritual writings and icons we find most inspiring.  Every time we lay our eyes on such artifacts, they provide an opportunity to remember our relationship with the Divine, and to attend to it in that very moment.  Sometimes, and often just when we most need it, these items catch the eye not so much as reminders to attend to God, but rather strike us as personal messages from the Divine, reawakening our hearts and minds to the immediate presence of infinite wisdom and love.

Laborare Est Orare

“To work is to pray.”  This motto summarizes the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide to Christian monks of many orders that places honest work on an equal footing with religious study and formal prayer.  This value is present in the teachings of many spiritual traditions, and so we do well to incorporate it into our own lives.  As noted in the previous section, spiritual works of art often come from a reverent or inspired state of mind, and this can be true for almost any kind of benevolent human activity.  While it may be difficult for some of us to see our occupations in terms of relating to the Divine, it helps to remember that each person we interact with is a child of God, a manifestation of the Logos and a vessel of the Holy Spirit, and that even the most isolated work may touch the lives of others in some way. So we can at least be prayerful in how we work, knowing that to work in the spirit of love for our fellow human beings is to serve God (Colossians 3:23)

Silence

Have you ever noticed the touching sense of peace and comfort communicated by lifelong partners or old friends as they quietly go about their business with awareness of each other?  We can relate with God in much the same way.

Conclusion: Deus Caritas Est

This Latin phrase translates to “God is love”, a timeless axiom reminding us that we can have no truer concept of God than all-knowing, all-powerful, limitless and perfect Love. With this view in mind, we recall that in the Acts of the Apostles it is said, “we live and move and have our being” in God. That statement brings us back full-circle to the initial reference from Underhill, which voices the mystical realization of God’s presence.  When these ideas connect, we cannot avoid considering all of existence as an expression of Divine Love, no matter how distorted or corrupted many of its particulars might seem to us.  Of course, the challenge is to be mindful of this reality, to wake up to it and see it as clearly and directly as possible.  This wisdom is beautifully composed in 1st Corinthians 13:8-13:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

We are always and everywhere interacting with God, being loved by God, and we are prayerful to the extent that we are mindful of this truth.  All the methods of prayer we have been considering are meant to nurture such mindfulness, and each has its own value. But there is no substitute for the simple moment-to-moment remembrance and appreciation that the Divine is always right here, right now, both within us and without us, and this presence is Love.  Even in moments of the worst struggle and suffering, even in the hearts of people whose words and actions inflict pain, anger and despair, even when reason and understanding fail, and even in our own souls when we betray those closest to us and betray ourselves, Divine Love calls out and patiently waits to be rediscovered, embraced and shared, and this is a deep secret of acceptance and forgiveness.  To be loving is to midwife the Divine in giving birth to Itself, and there is no greater form of prayer than this.

Agape

Jan 302011
 

I, this watching, listening, reflecting point of consciousness, in the depths of meditation experience the will opening awareness to the vast silence in which all thoughts come and go.  Attention traces back along the paths of their manifestation – from words back to images, sounds and feelings.  Through these forms it traces back to pulses of energy filled with potential and emerging from the silence as though born out of nothing.

With continued observation it becomes clear that in the silence, beyond all perception, are mysterious intelligent forces and dynamics composing those emergent pulses. In time it is discerned there are forces and dynamics of different categories, “intelligences” focused on different aims, each leaving a resonance within the pulses it sends.  Through these pulses and the forms into which they unfold, increasing familiarity finds that some of those intelligences are aware of this probing, and some of them desire to communicate and be known.

As intention and openness to communication builds on many sides, the mysterious intelligences respond at times with bursts and floods of energy pulses.  These bursts and floods stimulate imagination to unfold the most dazzling artistic displays in dreams, visions, locutions, and the like, brimming with the excitement and disclosure of newly met lovers. Growing intimacy clarifies the “voices” of various intelligences, each singing at different times in differing degrees of cacophony, harmony, or unison. Patient intention for truth eventually distinguishes within the chorus a certain voice interweaving itself in and through all the others. At first it seems only one among the many, yet it becomes realized as the one to which all others respond, as a choir does to the whispers and motions of its conductor.

With knowledge of the central wisdom and power of the intelligence behind that voice, I resolve to focus attention upon it. I make known my commitment to it and to all the intelligences that might listen, so that those which can still themselves or sing harmonious responses to that voice will do so and thereby assist me in communing with its source.  What follows is an attempt at transcribing some of our communication, freely acknowledging that my abilities to single out that voice, translate it, and understand its meaning are still in development and sometimes in error, or perhaps always so to some degree.

An Allegorical Conversation

Hello. I believe I am welcome to communicate as directly as possible with you, is that correct?

You are more than welcome, much more.

I feel awe in doing so. It is a mixture of excitement, joy, wonder, anticipation, so many feelings, but also fear, I must admit.

Yes, that’s all natural, including your fear. Be still. It passes.

Thank you.  I see that this is my response to the unknown, knowing that I cannot predict or control it. It is my lack of trust in myself to protect and preserve myself.

Yes, that fear and lack of trust stem from your desire to remain much as you are, to not die to the illusion of yourself, and the conflict of that desire with the knowledge of your limitations and the desire to be free from them, to die to the illusion of yourself as you know you must. It is simply part of your present existence that you cannot clearly discern the illusion of you from the essence that you truly are.  You know this.

Yes, I do. I wish it were otherwise.

You do and you don’t wish it were otherwise, which is fine.  In time it becomes otherwise, but outside of time it already is, always was, and always will be.  You know this, and that knowledge is what enables you to be patient with and even enjoy the illusion despite its torments.

Yes, and with that, in this moment, I sense a release from the fear of communicating with you so freely.

That’s right.  You are free to communicate with me as openly, honestly and informally as your most intimate friend, even more so.

Okay, that makes sense.  And, as in an intimate conversation with a dear friend, it naturally calls for devotion.

Yes, and with time the rapport builds.  Though there are phases in which I seem silent and distant to you, even absent, they pass so that you increasingly come to know we are present to each other in all circumstances.

I’m smiling with the thought and feeling of that.

As am I.

Hmm. I’ve wondered if you feel things like I do.

I feel everything, everything you feel, everything every creature feels, has ever felt or ever will feel.

That’s comforting, yet I cannot begin to imagine what that must be like for you.

Once when you were lucid you were asked what would happen if you didn’t imagine anything, and so for a moment you emptied yourself into complete silence and stillness, and then suddenly it was filled with golden light, as if by an explosion.

Yes! I recall it was so alive and full!  It was humming and buzzing and shining with so much energy!

That moment was a glimpse of what it’s like to feel everything all at once.

What do you call it?

Your mind might call it “Life”, “Light”, or “Logos” but your heart is already calling out another name.

Yeah, it’s “Love”, and more than I ever thought love could be.

Yes.

Love is everything. It is the Logos, the Life and the Light. Even the things I don’t always recognize as love must be Love.

Yes.

You are Love.

I am.

I want to know you, so much!

You do know me, and always have known me, and your knowing continues to grow.

Ah, yes, I have known you in so many ways, some of them lesser and some greater.

Yes, but now you know the greatness even in the least of these.

Ha ha ha ha!  Yes!  Yes, you remind me that as a child I learned to see you in the Jesus who spoke such similar words.

“Jesus loves the little children….”  You know the song.

Oh, you bring tears to my eyes!

I love you. You know it is always true.

Yes, yes, my beloved. I’m so grateful. My tears say what words cannot.

I am always with you. I know what is in your heart.

Yes, thank you.  I forget that so easily.  I am so easily distracted and absorbed in the illusions.

It’s okay. You are my child at play in the playground I have given you.  If I had not wanted you to forget yourself in play, I would not have made it so.

But there is not only joyful play here. There is labor and misery and evil here too.  Did you create these?

What I am about to tell you is only one way to comprehend this mystery, yet it is true. I create you and your kind with individuality. Into each of your beings I pour some of my love, my life, will, and creativity, and I seal it with the forgetting of its root, and then send you into the natural world with its laws, which I have ordained.  I do this so that you might be free to participate in creation with me, even to make worlds of your own.

In the forgetting of your root you sense your loss and limitation, yet the heat of my eternal being and the will to become is also there. Thus, believing you are that which is temporary and bound to space and time as you know it, rather than remembering you are that which is eternal and free, you desire to artificially make the temporal into something eternal, the illusory into the real, the relative into the absolute, and therefore cannot help but know the frustration of your desires and the fear of oblivion.

So it is that your ignorance and fear shape your understanding of things, and thus much of your relative reality, into what you call misery and evil.  Yet, I made all of this to be as it is, and though I am not bound to it, I am in it with you, within you and all around you.  I have not only sealed you with the forgetting of your root, but have also endowed you with the potential to break that seal and begin remembering me, and so begin to see love glowing through the veils that are your suffering.

If everything is love, even misery and evil, why should I care what anyone experiences or does?  Why be compassionate and ethical?

There are many ways to answer, and one way is this: Because you can’t really stop yourself.  It is part of who and what you are to want these things for yourself and others, and it would only be compounding the illusions of your life for you to pretend otherwise. This desire is part of what breaks the seal of forgetting your root. It involves recognizing your deepest self in others, for I am in each of you.  It is interwoven with your desire for the truth beyond the duality of evil and good as you know good, in that state where all is known as the Love that has no opposite.

Heaven. It’s about bringing heaven and earth together as much as possible.

Yes.

I believe all of this, but it’s still hard to understand how love can create circumstances that are sure to result in suffering. That seems more like cruelty than love.

From the perspective of separation it must seem to be so, but consider three things: First, I am with you even in that suffering, suffering with you, though in me the suffering is known as love.  Second, I only reveal the truth to you in the ways you are presently able to accept it.  Third, even to one who has awakened to remember and find union with me to the fullest possible extent, the necessity of it all shall remain a mystery, for it is such even to me, who knows it is undeniably true.

Even for you?!  Aren’t you God?!

I am.  Yet “I am” is somewhat like the awakening of consciousness from deep sleep.  It takes little attention for “I am” to know there is a still and silent One that is the transcendent source and substance of all that is possible and all that is impossible.  I am the first-born of That. I am one with That, yet I am not all It was, is or can be.

Ah, in this I hear the answer to why there is something instead of nothing: All we can know of this, all we can communicate, is that it is the mysterious will of the silent One.

Yes.

So you do not have the power to change the essential way of things?

Yes and no.  If I were to change the essential way of things, it would be the will of the One working through me, but the will of the One is for things to be as they are.

I can sense this line of questioning isn’t going to reveal much more to me.

You are free to change the subject.

Thank you. I feel this is a good place to rest, though one more question comes to mind: What if I share this with others? I know some will welcome it, but I know others will not, and I am a little fearful of how it will affect them and how they will respond.

Let go of your fear.  Remember that what they and you really are cannot be harmed, and that my love is always with you, each and all. When you share these words, some might hear it as you do and take comfort, and others might hear it as the babbling of a child and they will smile with grace. Some might hear it as a mockingbird heralding the dawn, as the howling of a dog in the night, the squealing of a hungry pig, or the taunting of a devil.  All hear as they are best able to hear, and they respond accordingly.  Go now and do what you must with love, from love, for love, and you will know me as you have said you want so much to do.

Thank you, Love.  It makes no sense to say goodbye.

Hello!

Jan 052011
 

To paraphrase something one of my spiritual teachers once said: “Sometimes ego and Spirit seem to point in the same direction.  Be wary of allowing your distrust of ego to prevent you from following what you believe is the guidance of Spirit.”

Sometimes we find ourselves at a crossroads and can’t clearly sort out the various motives and intentions in our desires to move in some direction.  To oversimplify, we can find ourselves uncertain as to whether or not a particular turn would be driven more by ego or by Spirit, more in selfishness or in selflessness.  When we are at such an intersection, it can be tempting to choose inaction, fearing that our motives and intentions aren’t pure enough, or that our judgment isn’t true enough to ensure that our actions are righteous, healthy, or good enough.  So it is that we become stuck in our want for clarity and confidence.  It’s as if we are waiting until we can sufficiently quantify the various factors to plug into an equation that will solve the problem, or until circumstances appear to force movement in a particular direction.  Yet discerning the urges of the ego from the call of spirit is not really a matter of mathematical calculation, and doing only what external factors drive us to do is often just a strategy to play it safe and have a ready-made excuse if things go wrong.  So we can see that to fully and joyfully engage life is a matter of wisdom that transcends ordinary logic and a matter of courage that transcends playing the odds.

Wisdom

Of all wisdom’s attributes, the awareness of how to be most loving is central.  There are various ways of attaining such wisdom in Christian practice, but for now let’s note two broad approaches:

  • psychological – examination of the self, with the aim of becoming thoroughly familiar with the various factors of the psyche and ways they interact with each other, both internally and in relationships;
  • mystical – opening to the infusion of Divine Wisdom, which is, in effect, a way of trying to remove the personal elements of the psyche from interfering with the action of God’s love in and through us.

We can then divide the methods for both of these approaches into those that are more internal or external.  Yet, at least for an incarnate human, there is no real separation between the internal and the external; these two realms are as interwoven for us as the rays of light traveling back and forth between a candle and its reflection in a mirror.  It is further suggested that the psychological and the mystical approaches to wisdom are just as interconnected, and thus both must be involved in the work of spiritual formation, illumination, sanctification, or theosis.

Please understand that I am not addressing the possibility of Divine Wisdom expressing itself through a human soul without regard to any personal disposition.  Considerations of that possibility lead beyond the scope of this post.  The present aim is instead to consider how we can most fully engage life.  To that end, Jesus taught, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thine understanding; and thy neighbour as thyself.” (Luke 10:27)  He further said, “anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me” (Matthew 25:40).  These two passages indicate that Christian life includes a responsibility to integrate every aspect of our being as fully as possible in the realization – internal and external – of love.

We can become more attuned to wisdom psychologically and mystically, and thus our ability to experience and express love, to be an instrument of the absolute within the relative is enhanced.  But attaining wisdom is not as simple as having a book of rules and answers to reference; it is a matter of hard-won experience and the grace of inspiration or infused contemplation.   Furthermore, to the extent that we find our wisdom lacking, or the risks of serving wisdom seem to mount, we discover that wisdom alone is insufficient for being as loving as we might.

Courage

Another teacher once said: “Concern yourself more with the presence of love than with the absence of sin.”

Both the attainment and the enactment of wisdom require courage, which is simply the willingness to take risks.  If we never test ourselves and knowingly take the risks of being in error, then we do risk stagnating, growing in neither wisdom nor courage.  That observation is likely to be patently obvious in the most mundane contexts, but it is also true in religious and spiritual life.  Many of us spend our lives with hidden lights, stifling our potentials and putting on a show of meekness that is really a mask over our anxious self-torment in the fear of sinning (“missing the mark”) before God or offending our fellow human beings.   This choice can also be about protecting our pride, slyly avoiding the possibility of having our ignorance, foolishness and vices laid bare, even if it is only to oneself.

This anxious state of being is tragically ironic. On the one hand it connects with a deep sense of genuine humility, while on the other it is confounded by a powerful desire to hide one’s ignorance and vulnerability.  It belies a denial of faith and hope, a refusal to trust that we can, with God’s help, make the best of our mistakes.   It is succumbing to the fear that our sins are not, will not, or cannot be forgiven; and it is being blinded with the misunderstanding that the only remaining option is to attempt minimizing the multiplication of our sins by putting our spirits to sleep and waiting for death.  In actuality, this burying of our talents compounds the irony of this state of being because it entails a willful missing of the mark set by Jesus and his Apostles, who joyfully went about acting in ways that were widely considered sinful and taking the most serious of social risks.

Joy

When we speak of joy in this context, we are not speaking of it in the sense of great personal elation or sensual pleasure, but rather an abiding sense of peace, freedom and assurance.   It bears a kind of childlike innocence and comfort that can remain with us even when we are doubtful and suffering in many ways. It is the Spirit’s lasting affection for the beauty of life, even when the personality is most disappointed with the world and its own existence.  In Christian terms, this attitude is a gift of grace to which we can awaken through the heart-centered embrace of faith and hope in the Good News, opening to the infinite love of God revealed through Christ in us.   It is not that our faith and hope bring that grace upon us, but rather that through them we recognize and welcome what was already present.   In short, joy is the sense of liberation we feel as we more fully realize the presence of God’s loving grace in our lives.

One of the greatest experiences of liberation in this joy is the letting go of fear, gaining trust that we are not doomed to damnation for our sins.  This confidence gives us more courage to take risks, to make mistakes, to accept their consequences and learn from them, and thus grow wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  By continuing this renewal of our minds and the “proving” of God’s will, the ego’s voice becomes more harmonious with the voice of the Spirit; joy is further realized, courage further overcomes fear, and love’s evolution naturally spirals wider open within us and out into the world through our lives.

A Caveat

As beautiful as this process sounds, it should be clear that greater blessings often come with greater challenges.  It is with this thought in mind that the picture of St. John Bosco was chosen to illustrate the face of joy.  His pictures always shine with his characteristic smile, and he was known for his commitment to gentleness and kindness despite the poverty, injustice and violence he personally suffered and bravely confronted in society.  Other exemplars whose great spiritual joy has been accompanied by great personal suffering are the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., countless saints, and certainly Jesus and many of his Apostles.  So it would be foolish to presume we have, at least while here in this present world, ever evolved beyond the experience of fear and pain.  We must all pass through our own Gethsemanes and hang upon our own crosses.  And then, even if we should momentarily be lifted into some beatific transcendence of the ordinary human condition, love leads us back into our humanity through broader reaches of compassion, “feeling with” the suffering of others, calling upon us to respond with wisdom, courage and joy.

Dec 162010
 

Picking up from the previous post, I want to address two common challenges with spiritual practice: The first is discipline and the second is misunderstanding the value of experiences.

With regard to discipline, in observing my own practice and the practice of others, it’s obvious that consistency and persistence can be  huge challenges.  Quite frankly, I believe a central part of this problem is our wanting easy, low-cost, instant gratification. It might be a little reductionist, but it sometimes seems to me that we regard spiritual practice more like a form of entertainment than a way to greater awareness, wholeness, integration and depth of being in ourselves, in relationship with God, and in our presence in this world.  Many of us also want our experiences to be intellectually or emotionally profound, and perhaps even socially or materially tangible.  Any practice that doesn’t seem to fulfill these wishes can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different; we can also imagine ourselves as having already “advanced” beyond the need for that practice.   It’s so easy to ignore how often the great saints and sages have asserted the value of commitment to even the most basic practices.  It has even been said that it’s in persisting through boredom with a spiritual practice that we begin to gain the most significant, yet often most subtle, benefits.  Said another way, the most important experience can sometimes simply be the doing of the practice itself.

It might be obvious that we’ve already begun considering how confusion about the value of experiences can be inherent in our judgments about the value of a practice.  Plainly stated, the value of an experience, and therefore the practice that facilitated it, is not necessarily measured by its immediate magnitude. Another aspect of this confusion is in taking an extraordinary experience too literally; there are countless stories of visionaries who have brought horrible suffering to themselves and others because of knee-jerk reactions to their own inner experiences.  Strong desires can lead to mistaking an experience as a direct contact with something that the experience actually only represents.  For example, a flash of light experienced in the depths of meditation may reveal something to us about the presence and action of the Spirit, but it does not necessarily mean that the light was the appearance of a particular spiritual being.  Similarly, just as the on-screen image of a movie actor is not the actual character portrayed, or even the actual actor, so too can dreams and visions about spiritual beings be far removed from actual contact with them.  Even the images of these words are not the actual forms on the computer screen, let alone the actual thoughts in my mind, but are your mind’s perception of the words and the thoughts behind them.  Another potential confusion is taking the magnitude, frequency or total number of one’s experiences as an unquestionable sign of spiritual “progress.” Such an attitude is dangerously self-aggrandizing and a highly volatile fuel for wish-fulfilling delusions.

So, is there some way to minimize these risks without turning spiritual practice into nothing but a heartless drudgery or abandoning it all together?  Yes, to begin with, it might already be apparent that one guideline I’ve found valuable is paying careful attention to the overall integration and harmony of the soul’s different aspects and functions.   Of course, this guideline is itself based upon a very deep, broad and persistent practice of honest self-awareness and caring self-acceptance.  Said another way, it is the practice of being lovingly present with oneself, and thus becoming increasingly aware of the very fluid interconnectedness within us – head, heart, and gut.  Along with this practice of presence, all the great spiritual traditions recommend the mindfulness and application of certain virtues.  In Christianity we traditionally rely on the four cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – and the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and especially charity (or agápē, spiritual love, “the greatest of these“).  But it’s very important to understand that the practice of the virtues is not about forcing one’s external behaviors to conform to some predetermined model of perfection.  The object here is not to build up some new facade in the place of being more consciously whole; in fact, the virtues are first and foremost internal processes. When incorporated with the practice of loving self-presence,  they shed significant light on the ways one is at odds with oneself, suffering from psychic fragmentation and compartmentalization, while also pointing out paths toward greater integration and harmony.  Being fully present with ourselves and working with these virtues doesn’t provide a foolproof guarantee that we won’t make mistakes, yet it can reduce the risks in making them.  When we do make mistakes, these guidelines can help us lovingly embrace them as learning opportunities and thus become even more meaningful experiences in our spiritual lives.  Beyond these very significant experiences, the practice of presence and the virtues may also facilitate a deepening awareness of something in ourselves other than thinking, feeling, sensing and doing – something quiet and still, and at first seemingly tiny and insignificant, yet more vast and powerful than we can comprehend, let alone control.

For many of us mystics, awareness of this other within ourselves is both fascinating and frightening – fascinating in its penetration into a very deep mystery of the soul, and frightening in our awareness of the comparative smallness and powerlessness of that part of us we most often identify as “me”, or what we commonly call the “ego”.  One risk associated with the fascination is confusing such an encounter with the mystical union we desire. A risk with the fear is the ego coming up with all sorts of excuses to avoid accepting and adjusting to the greater reality, including quitting a practice because we’ve realized how much it has been motivated by serving the ego; sometimes that’s just a sign that the practice is actually working!

Finally, with spiritual practice, like the rest of life, let’s acknowledge that there is no way to eliminate risk; even in retreating to avoid some risks we fate ourselves to take others.  So the question I’ll leave you with is this: What risks do faith, hope and love call upon you to take?

Agape

Dec 122010
 

Across all religious traditions, there are warnings about risks in spiritual practice, and especially practices of the mystical variety. This post is about exploring some of those risks, all of which I have experienced the hard way.

I’ll begin approaching this issue from the observation that each of us has a tendency to judge some particular kind of experience as especially meaningful or rewarding, and so we can naturally focus our efforts on spiritual practices that we believe improve our chances of having such experiences.  However, because no practice has a 100% return of the desired results, the effect of partial reinforcement can push us toward a kind of addiction in which we feel compelled to try harder and harder to get the high, no matter what the cost.  In effect, we run the risk of our practice becoming a drug that we use to attain our particular favorite high. Casinos profit obscenely from this phenomenon, and so do some people in the spirituality/religion business, but I digress.

From this point, let’s consider some different categories for experiences and practices people commonly consider meaningful or rewarding in their spiritual lives.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place and you are welcome to add some ideas of your own.  It will probably be fairly easy for you to look at the list and pick out a few things at each end of your own like-dislike scale.

  • Intellectual – These experiences are about the discovery, acquisition, processing and communication of information, ideas, and insight.  Along with such effects through the usual academic pursuits, this category would include those from all forms of analytical, theoretical, and speculative thinking, as well as from visions and related psychic experiences.
  • Social – These experiences are dependent upon relationship with other human beings, and involve themes of acceptance, belonging, support. roles and responsibilities, status, esteem and power.
  • Physical – This category involves increased or decreased sensory stimulation.  Nature, art, ritual, ceremony, service to others, dietary observances, exercise, sex, austerities, and the bodily aspects of meditation and prayer all have relevance.
  • Emotional – Here we are speaking of heightened or lessened feelings, such as pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort, satisfaction, frustration, excitement, sadness, happiness, anger, peace, confidence, anxiety, fear, release of tension, relief from boredom, and so on.

It’s apparent that these categories aren’t completely discreet from each other; they are interconnected.   In considering that interconnectedness, you might have already noticed how much the emotional category serves as the final arbiter of our choices.  We can come up with lots of rationalizations and justifications for pursuing one thing more than another, but the deeper we look the clearer we see that we’re more likely to follow through with something if we believe it promises some sort of emotional satisfaction for ourselves, whether it is comfort in having done the “right” thing or even a kind of masochistic satisfaction.  Even the continuation or cessation of our own physical lives is subject to this dynamic.

It’s not my intention to encourage self-flagellation about our very deep and powerful tendencies to serve ourselves.  I am convinced that emotional self-interest is an inextricable part of human nature, and any attempt to pretend otherwise only leads deeper into a life of unhealthy illusion.   These observations are instead made primarily to point out some of the most crucial dynamics leading to imbalance, disharmony and fragmentation in our souls.  Likewise, they suggest that our choices about spiritual practice can actually contribute more to psychospiritual dysfunction than to well being, even when they really feel good.

There are many different directions we could go from here, and I encourage you to explore whatever seems to lead you into a place of deeper self-awareness, honesty and wholeness.  In the next post I will offer a few further considerations.

Agape

Dec 052010
 

Psalms 46:10a – Be still and know that I am God.

A thoughtful friend once gave me a plaque bearing these words, and it has a central place on the altar in my study. This scripture has long been very meaningful to mystics and non-mystics alike.  It suggests there is something about the act of being still, of letting go, of surrendering, that somehow brings us closer to God, or at least delivers us to a greater sense of peace.  Rather than go further with interpretations of how it can be meaningful, in this post I want to offer two different meditation techniques that incorporate this passage.   It is recommended that you not practice both in the same sitting, and perhaps not even in the same day.  In fact, I would suggest working with one for a week or two before moving on to the other.

A side note before going further:  I’ve added a link to the blog tool bar for a page about Meditation Methods.  It begins with a basic meditation you can use to lead you into and out of other methods such as these.

Meditation #1

(Please note, this meditation may not work exactly as described in languages other than English. I invite readers fluent in other languages to comment and/or submit appropriate variations.)

Once you have become settled, relaxed and centered, inhale fully and then slowly whisper aloud the full translation of this passage, stretching the words out through your entire exhalation. Open your heart, mind and body to respond naturally to the words. Be aware of your response in all ways, observing, attending to and absorbing in the whole – intuitively, intellectually, emotionally, and physically:

Be still and know that I am God.

Inhale, and then slowly whisper:

Be still and know that I am

Continue to shorten the statement by one word each time, stretching the words out through the entire exhalation, always allowing your whole being to respond naturally to the words:

Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
Be still
Be

Inhale and exhale silently, attending to the silence itself. Inhale again, and then, as you exhale, begin rebuilding the statement one word at time:

Be
Be still
Be still and
Be still and know
Be still and know that
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I am God

Once again, inhale and exhale in silence. You now have some options: You can repeat the entire process as many times as you wish, you can repeat it silently within, or you can simply sit in silence and stillness. No matter what course you follow, it is recommended that eventually you take several minutes to just be still.

Meditation #2

The original Hebrew of this sentence is beautifully poetic and makes a fine chant. It can be transliterated as, “Harpu u’de’u ki-anokhi Elohim.” The pronunciation is:

harpoo oo’de’oo kee-anokee eloheem

This meditation is not as oriented toward insight as the previous method, but rather is aimed at gently guiding you into deeper stillness and openness to God.

Once you have become settled, relaxed and centered, inhale fully and then slowly chant the Hebrew words in a strong clear voice, resonating from your chest.  Chant the words out through your entire exhalation. It should be louder than your usual speaking voice, and more like the volume you might typically use when singing with a group.

After a few repetitions, begin to gradually lower the volume, so that after at least a dozen repetitions you are chanting at a whisper. Within a few more repetitions you are only mouthing the words before you shift to continuing the chant silently in your heart and mind.

Eventually you can let go of the internal chant to more fully abide in the stillness and silence in which the chant has been occurring all along. Simply allow any sensory perceptions, thoughts or feelings to come and go like background noise as your awareness remains centered upon openness to God.  Even thoughts and feelings about God are not to be dwelt upon, but rather allowed to pass by as one abides in the silence and stillness from which they are born and to which they return.   If you find yourself becoming distracted and attached to some sensation, thought or feeling, that’s okay; just gently return to the silent chant for a while, and as often as you need.

I hope you find these methods beneficial.

Agape