Who am I?

It is said that St. Francis passed an entire night asking, “Who are you, God?” and  “Who am I?”

 

Turning this into a breath prayer: “Who are you”?” (exhale)  “Who am I?” (inhale) is one of my favorite practices.

 

Tonight, there were moments of transcendence.

 

There was a timeless time that I lost myself.  I was asking the questions but would have been unable to tell you which question applied to me, the asker, and which question applied to the entity who is not (at least apparently) me.

 

My inability to know who I was doesn’t feel like I lost the knowledge of myself.  Rather, it feels like I fell into a deeper truth that I am, in some way, God. I think this might be connecting to that divine breath that turned the primal fist full of Earth into the first person.  I believe we still carry this divine spark, this image of God. I think, for just a moment, I was there, at that part of me so deep that it stops being me and it starts being something… magnificent.

 

A little more on Presence

Last time, I was considering the idea that God ability to be fully present in the moment seems like something that might be unique to God.  Presence is a powerful thing…  Once, I would have thought that being Fully Present was something like doing a hundred push ups, or running a five minute mile: impressive, but not divine.

But as I work at this, I realize how far I am from this goal.  As I have continued to think about all of this, I have realized that there are some more things worth saying about God’s full presence.

The first thing worth saying about all this is the ways we see it in the person of Jesus.  It seems like he is always saying just the right thing in a situation.  He is aware of the things that go unsaid, and the implications of what he was doing.  He is not  bound by people’s expectations on him.  There are some times that I never could have predicted what he would do or say in a situation, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense.  Then, there are times that his words and deeds seem baffling to me, and this, I suspect, is more a measure of my failure to be present than anything else.

God being fully present gives me a different way to think about those times we fall short of potential.  Evils, mistakes, sins, and errors.  God is fully aware of the ramifications and the causes of these things that happen.  He is one hundred percent present at the moment of our betrayals.  I escape painful experiences in hundreds of ways.  God, I think, does not.

But it is equally true that God is fully present in the moments when we reach our potential.  He is with us fully at that moment we decide to turn from the dark path we are headed down.  This puts a different spin on the idea of repentance, for me.

 

Daft Punk and Meditation as a Jesus-Move

I follow Jesus by sitting in silence.

There is a way in which quiet meditation is a re-enactment of his death.  Like him, we become silent and still, beyond words and thoughts.   But there is something more than that.

Because when the world gets loud, there is a part of me that wants to get louder.  When it moves fast there is a part of me that wants to move faster.  When it positions itself in this way, I want to out maneuver it that way…

I have been eager to hear that Jesus wants me to respond in just these ways.  There have been people that have told me that Jesus will make me (just like in that Daft Punk song) bigger, better, faster stronger.

I am growing increasingly convinced that none of it works that way.

In meditation  I meet the deafening clamor with silence.  I meet the quickening with a slowing down.  I meet the machinations with non-action.   This is the Jesus way, this victory through redefining the rules of engagement.

 

Silver Linings after a Lousy Week

This last week has been hard for me.  I have been surprised at how hard it has been to sit during this time.  It felt like I had never begun these contemplative practices at all.  While meditating,  I wanted to get up and move and do things.  Thoughts and feelings and fear were so invasive.

There is a part of me that is tempted to write that meditation sucked this week.   People who are wiser than me, people that have been at this longer than me, I think they would have pushed back at this idea claim.

I am just starting to grasp this concept: the success is in the practice of it.   It’s not about what we get out of it.  It’s not about what mind states we end up with.  The theory is that If I am doing this to attain calmness, then I am missing something, cheating myself out of something.  I haven’t, for the record, internalized this idea.  I still have a desire for how my meditation will go.   I have a sense that I am getting there, that I am slowly letting go of my desire and intent.  But I am not there yet.

As the dust starts to settle from this challenging week, and I return to more calm in contemplation, I am starting to see something else.

As Shrek might say, there are all these layers.  I don’t mean that there is a hierarchy, in the sense of of one thing being more important than the other…  But the most intense meditation reaches me somewhere incredibly deep within.  The thing is,  even when I can not get there, important things are going on.  Let me be a bit more specific.

Let’s call my very deepest place spirit.  It’s the interface between me and God.   A meditative practice is only ever going to reach my spirit by making it’s way through my soul.  My soul is more identifiable with me.  But for a meditative calm to get here, it must move through my mind, home to thoughts and feelings that seek to intrude.  But to calm the mind, I must first calm my body.

This week, I didn’t get much deeper than calming my body.  But as I did this, I have this sense that their are lessons that carry over.  It was especially hard this week to resist the urge to scratch my itches, as I meditated.  Once I began, I kept wanting to shift my weight and position.  I was there, mostly in my body, trying for something deeper.

When I was able to work through these temporary desires, I built up some sort of discipline that would apply at the deeper levels.  I had the experience of waiting out a desire, working through it and past it, witnessing that I wanted to do a thing, and just letting that desire exist with out satisfying it.

I suppose the big picture is that we take these lessons past the time we are sitting quietly and breathing.  Because in my everyday life there are countless opportunities when it would be wise to resist instantly fulfilling my urges.  There are dozens of times each day that I ought to simply observe my discomfort and accept the idea that a little bit of discomfort won’t kill me.

There is value in these bad weeks.  But they still suck.

 

There was this one time I was crucified by Love…

The first time it happened I felt like I had been crucified by joy and love.  I had this sense of this cross beam, not so much behind my shoulders as going straight through them.  This was mounted on a similar post, which went through me.  It was overwhelming but not painful, clearly a thing that was not physical.

I felt lifted in the air on this thing, even as I retained the physical sensation of sitting in my seat.  My breath came fast.  I imagine if you could have monitored my brain, you would have seen all the pleasure-centers lit up; all the neurotransmitter which transmit euphoria and peace were working overtime.  I mostly had absolutely no idea who I am.

And the second time, I was so keenly aware of Jesus, living in me.  And God, everywhere, just Everywhere, around me.  And Jesus within me, reached upward, and God reached downward, and the Holy Spirit somehow bridged the space between them, and the three were one with me at ground zero.  I was, again, mostly lost, in the best way possibly.

During my college years, I had a fairly limited set of experiences into morally and legaly questionable practices.  These two experiences blew all of those away.

I have been wrestling with what to say about my recent mystical experiences.  I don’t want to brag or give somebody else reason to feeling inadequate.  That is part of the reason I want to say so firmly this wasn’t me, I didn’t earn these experiences or deserve them.   Wise and holy people allude to these sorts of experiences but seem to avoid very specific discussions of them.

In the end, I decided I wanted to share.

I think that in truth a part of my motivation to meditate is related to seeking after these experiences.  Despite some folks being tight lipped, you hear about them from others.  And it sounded pretty awesome.  And my experiences were pretty awesome.    I am thankful for them.  I decided to share partially because I wanted, on the one hand to just throw this out there, in case you are waiting, wanting them, or just curious:

Yeah, this stuff happens.

But the other reason I wanted to share these experiences is to share the idea that  these things bring with them their own set of challenges/  Possibilities/ difficulties/  Pains in the ass.

Though I was eager to meditate after they happened, I didn’t find the sessions afterword very fruitful.  I was, I think, doing it for the wrong reasons.  Though I did my best to remind myself that these experiences were not the point, I didn’t do a very good job of listening to myself on this.  In some way, I was seeking after a repeat performance because the pleasure was quite pleasurable, and the sense of going beyond myself was so refreshing, and frankly, because it made me feel special.

I am growing to suspect that this experience– getting past all those surface things– there is growth in that.  There is growth in the act of getting past these sorts of distractions.  It is, I think, one more place where I can practice calm acceptance, learning to open my hands to whatever comes my way, resisting the urge to close my hands, once they are filled with things I want to hold on to.

As we engage in our meditative practice today, maybe you and I can agree to work on this.  Maybe both of us can come at contemplation of something we do just to do it, not for any extrinsic benefits.  And when they come up?  Well, we can take them for what they are and enjoy them while they last.

Please feel free to drop a comment below and share some thoughts.  I would love to hear from you.

 

 

 

 

Through the Night

I hear smart, holy people talking about the desert fathers and mothers.  They were some of the original Christ-following contemplatives.  And our situation today is a strange echo of the reality they lived.

My understanding is that when Christianity became the religion of the empire, some people didn’t like what they saw happening to it.  They left the empire, and continued to live out their faith.

I suspect that this isn’t too different than the state we find ourselves in now.  Christianity has become the faith of our American empire.  And so we have watered things down and shifted the focus.

I believe that following Jesus is as an act that is subversive.  It comes up from powerlessness and erupts suddenly.  I don’t actually know what it would look like, for an authentic Christianity to be enmeshed with the majority, with the powerful.

But I digress.  The desert fathers:

Despite the fact that I hear all this stuff about them, I don’t have much experience with them directly.    There is a work called ‘The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.’  It is a collection of brief anecdotes about these folks.  It is sometimes like reading the bible itself; equal parts strange and familiar, surprising and expected.  There are parts that make me want to cheer, and parts that make me want to weep.  I suspect that some of the spiritual work in reading and applying this stuff is balancing being discerning with not just skimming for the things I want it to say.

And so, I proceed with a little bit of caution.  But I am going to proceed.  I am going to share the sayings that strike me as relevant, and ponder a bit about the meaning of all this.

Here is the saying I am thinking about today:

“It was also said of him (Abba Arsenius) that on Saturday evenings, preparing
for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his
hands in prayer  towards the  heavens, till once   again the sun shone on  his
face. Then he would sit down.”

There is, of course, a literal meaning to that little paragraph.  But I was struck by a symbolic one.

It is easy to want to bask in the sunlight.  People have actually worshipped the sun for as long as they have worshipped anything.  The idea that you might turn your back on the sun seems like rejecting the easy and false sources of happiness we can find in life.  Stretching out the hands to heavens, instead, is I think, an act of faith and courage.  It is a recognition that the home of God is not in this earthly place, it is far away from us.

If he kept going until the sun shone on his face, he literally prayed through the night.  I love the idea of symbolically praying through the night…  Doing it with out stopping, doing it with out reassurances.

That’s my prayer for us today: May we all pray through the darknesses that face us, and may we sit, with satisfaction, when the sun rises on a glorious Sunday.

 

 

 

Waking Up

I am experiencing this transformation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I can still be a jerk.  I am often scatterbrained and disorganized.  Many of the the things I have always struggled with, I continue to struggle with.

And yet: things are getting better.

They are not easier.  But they are better.

That’s what moved me to begin collecting these experiences here at The Contemplace.  I began experiencing this transformation.  Things have been getting better.  Some of these changes are connected with this stage I of life I am in.  I am moving into the second half of my life, and it can be awesome.  Some of these changes are connected with stepping out of worn out understandings, faith communities that don’t fit me anymore.  Much of it is connected with my practice of simply sitting, every day.  Meditating and contemplating and spending time in wordless prayer with God.

I think the thing that is most surprising about this all is that I sometimes feel more pain and loss and sorrow than I did.  A few years ago, if I could have wished for anything, it would have been to short-circuit the process of feeling hurts.  I would have wanted to skip out on feeling lost, sad, alone, incompetent, depressed, inadequate.

Somewhere, somehow, I had even picked up the idea that this was actually the end game for me spiritually: if I simply could get my thinking just exactly right about Jesus, I would experience this life of happiness.  My external circumstances would match up with my internal contentment.  I would live this life where there was no doubt or despair.

Apparently, this isn’t how it works.

I am finding that I am simply increasing my capacity to withstand suffering.

I guess my time of sitting is a sort-of practice.  When I spend these chunks of time meditating, I am avoiding my normal defences and escapes.  I begin to find myself using these skills when hard things happen in the rest of my life.

Also, I have this assurance, this experience: lousy feelings won’t break me.  Embracing hard things won’t be my end.  I am learning that pain never killed anybody.

I have been thinking a lot about Jesus.

He kept talking about how his end was coming.  And when his friends and followers tried to minimize this, when they tried to change the subject and escape this incoming reality, Jesus had some pretty harsh words for them.  The night before the beginning of the end, he went out to pray, and all he asked them was to be awake with him.

There is a metaphor lurking around all this.  This is the first time in my life I have been awake to my pain.  When the people around me are hurting, I am finding that I am awake to theirs, too.

In my life, almost every time of growth, maturity and change have been different than I expected.  I expect flashing lights, buzzers, easily visible things that transform everything in these obvious ways.  Inevitably, what I find is that life change is marked by this subtle shift that ends up changing everything.  Each time I expect a change that is like a Summer blockbuster, and I end up experieincing a shfit that is more like some brilliantly executed, quiet and brilliant independent drama.

My current experiences are not different.  And I am finding that I quite like those little independent dramas.

I began The Contemplace out of a desire to share what is going on with me.  I figure that there are lots of folks on this same journey with me, and also lots of others who are feeling an itch, standing at the beginning of the path and wondering if they ought to head down it.

I hope today that you’ll leave a comment from where ever you are on whatever path you are on.  It would be nice to hear from you.

And if you are looking for a little inspiration in your own meditative practice… well, let’s keep it simple today.  Perhaps we can sit, and breathe, and know that we are learning to take Jesus’ path into pain and death, and we can be aware that this practice will come with rewards that we will carry with us, far beyond the time we spend sitting.

Five Important Words, And Two More

It is all very simple.

I used to believe this in a hundred different ways, for a hundred different reasons.  In a way that is hard to describe, I still believe it.  With at least as much intensity as I used to have for it.  But all the reasons I believe it now, are very different than the reasons I believed it then.  

When I say it is all very simple now, it means something so very different than it used to.

Before, I had these ways of experiencing the world.  These filters.

Some of them were based on past experience.  Whenever X comes up, Y inevitably follows.

Some of them were based on ways of understanding the world.  People told me (and I listened!) A means B.  And it will always lead to C.

Much of it was connected to living with a multiple choice mentality.  Things are either this or they are that.  I didn’t have much room for ambiguity.  For both/and.  For embracing the fact that everything that happens is unqiue.

Maybe it began to change when I learned  from my breath.  I must inhale AND exhale.  This is not an either/or proposition.  Further, I suspect that I get past my defenses and rationilizations when I am calm.  Perhaps, most importantly,  I suspect that I can hear God better when I quiet down the chatter in my head.

There is something in the midst all this connected to experiencing each moment as something wholly new and unique  Every moment that has ever happened has never happened before.  Even if it appeared identical, down to the smallest little piece of it, that second moment has a difference from the first: it comes later, it comes after, it has accumulated something new and different as a result of all the things that occured before it.

When I make the decision to experience each moment as something new, when I reject the desire to categorize it with things that have gone on in the past, I am finding some redemption, even in those hard moments.  Often this is something that comes in through my senses.  When I live in the moment I am in, I might notice a scent I would have missed.  I might see a beautiful interplay of the sunlight and the cloud forms.  I might taste the apple I would have been tempted to devour with out even noticing.  Other times it comes from a recognition that it is not as bad as it initially seemed, and it not as black-and-white as it appears to be.

It is all very simple.

I am only in this moment.  My only responsibility is to live there.  I don’t have to align myself with this side or that side.  I don’t need to wholly embrace this idea and thoroughly reject that one.  It is very simple to hold them both.  

It is very simple to say ‘I don’t know.’  It is very simple to validate wisdom where ever it lives.  It is very simple to recognize that loving is the most important thing, and choosing which side to be on is usually the way to despair.

There is lots of power in five words, “It is very simple.”

There is also lots of power in two words, “Just this.”

As you meditate, or pray, or play video games, or wash the dishes, or hug your kids, let this be the chorus of the song you are singing by living your life, “Just this.”  Let it be your mantra, let it be your fall back, let it be your focus: “Just this.”

When you breathe, or eat, or play chess, or reach a cheesy science fiction novel as you drink a great beer, those two words, “Just this” Are a powerful anchor into living in only this one and single moment.  This is all there is, this is all that there needs to be, this is where you are, right here and right now.

Every Breath You Take

I used to think that the pattern of life-death-resurrection was powerful because it only happened once.

I am learning that the reason it is powerful is because it never stops happening.

The life of summer, and the death of fall and winter, leading back to the rebirth of spring.  The life of the day, leading into the death of night, back into the resurrection of dawn.  The life of our hopes, leading to the death of our dreams, and somehow, after a dark time, we begin to hope again.  The life as the Greek City States, and then their defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars, and then a sort-of resurrection of their beliefs in ideas in the Roman Empire.  The life of the a person, inevitably leading to their death, and yet the person lives on.  In an afterlife, I suspect, but regardless of all that, they live in the people they impacted, they live in because when they die the people who they once supported now take the roles that they had.

And perhaps more of all:

The life of inhaling.  The Death of exhalation.  And the resurrection because then it all begins again.  There is such power in our breathing!  Not only is our every breath an act of saying the unsayable name of God: also, every breathe is a reenactment of life, death, and resurrection; it points to the countless cycles that occur everywhere look, but most of all, it points at the cross of Jesus.

I have asthma.  And I hate it and it sucks.  But asthma is a teacher.  If I had never desperately fought for a breath, I think I wouldn’t know to value them so much.  If you have never had to fight to breathe in this way, I bet you can remember some time in your life when somebody got you just right, hit you perfectally in the solar plexus.  Do you remember the abject terror of having the air forced out of you, the terrifying fear that your lungs will never work again?

I think this all puts me in touch with something.  There is this moment, between the inhale and exhale.  Between every inhale and exhale.  It is a moment of death and terror.  It is a moment of emptiness.  It is a moment for me to hang dead on the cross.  I experience it hundreds of times a day.  And I think mostly I repress just how horrible it is.

But when we bring our attention to our breath, we are fighting this repression.  When we bring our attention to our breathe, we are being born, and dying, and then being reborn in evey single breath.  We are being crucified, killed, and reborn with Jesus, with every single breath.

Today, perhaps you would like to sit and meditate and breathe.  Some people find it helpful to touch a finger with a thumb with each breath: that tactile stimulation, of breathing and touching the pointer finger, then breathing again and touching the middle finger, and breathing again and touching the ring finger, and breathing again and touching the pinkie, and then going to the other hand…  Maybe you would like to give that a try today.

As you breathe, perhaps it is best if you think of nothing at all.  But perhaps you will think of Jesus: living, dying, and being reborn, with each breath you take.

 

Some Relevant Lessons from a Dead Language

There are some things I was struggling with tonight.

My first instinct was to get up and past it.  This is a fine thing to do.  In me, this instinct takes the shape of finding words to describe my struggles and prescribe a solution.  This is the way of well-lit paths, the way of finding the paths that had been taken before.  This is all connected to this tradition in spirituality called kataphatic.

But I checked this first instinct.  

And I decided that I might embrace the fact that the reality of my situation, just like every situation, is wider, weirder, and more nuanced than any of the words that I might use to describe it.  Rather than navigating a straight line through my struggles, so that I might efficiently head to the outside, I decided that I might spend some time in this place.

This tradition is called the apophatic.  

At the most basic, this distinction is about words.  Will we pray using words?  Will we describe God using them?  Will we find them worthy signposts of all the things going on?  If the answer is yes, then we are planting ourselves in the kataphatic tradition.  

The modern church is pretty good, I think, in this area.  America is rather Kataphatic.  I think maybe this is all our inheritance from the enlightenment.  If my experience is reliable snapshot of the big picture, then it’s probably a little too good.  

My journey into contemplative practices has been about an embrace of apophatic practices.  Before, I would have given lip service to the idea that God is bigger than our words and categories.  Now, I try to live this truth by recognizing that even smaller, finite things are not so easily catalouged, named, and explained.  

As I live this reality, embracing the full complexity of things, I come to reject the simple prescriptions and the suggested remedies to things.   I want transformation more than solutions for myself, and I value solidarity over answers from those that I love.

There is an ancient practice that I think straddles the divide between the kataphatic and the apophatic.  This practice is called Lectio Divina.  (That’s the last Latin today.  I promise.)

A perhaps oversimplified way to approach Lectio:

  1. Spend some time clearing your mind.  Watch your breath.  Make use of a mantra if that’s your thing.  Maybe ask God to ready you and speak to you.
  2. Read a chapter of the bible slowly.  Luxuriate in it.   Take it slowly.
  3. Read the chapter again.  This time, look for something that seems relevant to where you are; words that God wants to speak to you.   I find that a passage of ten syllables or less is ideal.
  4. Draw your attention to that phrase, now.  Let that verse/sentence/etc. Be your mantra, as you continue your breathing practice.
  5. Put the verse away in your mind.  Return to something like the practice you used in step 1, clearing your mind and looking after a deeper-than-words union with God.

 

You know what’s been awesome?  People reading stuff at The Contemplace has been awesome.  Thank you for that.  

You know what would be even more awesome?  A comment.  Leave one below, will you?  A check in, a reaction, a thought, disagreement…   Let me know what you’re thinking about.