Fear

I bet I have spent more time, energy, and head space on avoiding pain than on any other single thing in my whole life.

In a way, this isn’t a bad thing.  There is no particular reason that I ought to seek out pain.  But my avoidance of hurt…  I have made this an idol.  The center of my existence, sometimes.  I am pretty sure I am not alone.

We have these distractions that are almost too numerous to mention.  Music and movies.  Junk food.  Books.  Television.  Drugs.  Sex.  Much of the self help movement.  Sports.  Games.  Work.  Play.

None of these are bad things.  Except that all of them are bad things.  At least, they are bad when we engage them as a way of disengaging.

I have, so often, engaged all of those things as a way of disengaging.  A way of running away.

This is why it so important, and so hard, just to sit.  Just to be.

When I am sitting, and meditating, there are one hundred things I want to do.  There are a hundred things I want to think about.  If you are like me, even these mental trips, these thought experiments, even these are attempts to get away from right here and right now.

When I put on my big boy pants, and face up to the things that hurt me, to the things that cause fear, to the things that cause pain, there is a sort of exhilaration.  Because I find out a couple important things, quite quickly.

The first thing I find out is that I am not actually going to collapse under the weight of the things that weigh me down.  There is this great quote in the bible: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”  

As long as I run away from the things that hurt me, I am sure I will be crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, destroyed.    But when I sit in silence, I realize that I am “only” afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down.  None of these things are fun.  And yet…  They are not as bad as they seemed to be.

When I sit through the hard things, when I face them head-on, I suddenly find that there is room in my life for more than this.  Each moment, — this very moment– is filled with more than just the hard stuff.  It has joy and glory and peace.  I never would have seen these if I had kept running.

I don’t completely understand the end of the verse I quoted above.  But I know that you have to get through death to find rebirth.  We carry deaths of so many different sizes and shapes within us.  When we face these down, that is how we get to a new life.  I guess this is what it means, to manifest Jesus’ life in our bodies; our willingness to die opens up the possibility of rebirth.

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.

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.

 

2: Boredom, Death, and Other Things We’d Rather Not Think About

Before I could sit patiently, I wasn’t ready for death.  And as a result, I did a terrible job walking my grandmother, and my mother, through this transition.  I wish somebody had told me about this before we got there.  If they did, I wish I had done a better job of listening.

At the most basic level, so much of contemplation is about sitting patiently, sitting quietly.  I hadn’t meaningfully practiced this quiet before those two wonderful and important women died.  And as a result, I wasn’t there.

Sometimes, physically, I was.  I spent my time with them.  But when I was there, I was watching the clock.  I would make a deal with myself about how long I expected myself to be there.  This is such a cliche: even when I was there, I wasn’t there.

And now I wish I had more time with them.  There is a part of me that is beginning to grasp the idea that not only did I lose that time with them.  I lost the opportunity to try something new with them, to enter into a new kind-of relationship with them, as they took their walk toward death.  That possibility, that the season of death holds the possibility of a new frontier in a relationship…  I know that to be as morbid as it is true.

When I sit in meditation, or contemplation, or wordless prayer…  I get myself ready for death.  I am getting ready because I am facing my own death.  It is a little like death, that state.  Dwelling in a quiet, dwelling in tranquility, dwelling like peace.  This little death comes before a ressurection.  This is one of the ways I die to my flesh, that I die to the world, that I die to myself.  That embrace of death is an agnowlodgement of my own someday death.

With out that first step in facing my death, I am not sure how I will ever take a second step.  That second step is watching literal, physical death happen to somebody I care about.  If meditation is a subtle recognition that someday I will die, watching my mother die was this Death screaming right in my face, “This, someday, will happen to you.”  If I had faced the subtle reconition, I might have been able to respond calmly to that scream, “Yes.  I know.”

But there is a more general preperation  happening here.  It is not only directly about death.  It is also about how I handle those things which distress me.  It is my about my over-riding rules of engagement for facing the world itself.  Will I run from the things that I don’t like?  Or will I recognize that discomfort is is just discomfort?  

There is something about labelling mental events.  “This is a thought.”  “This is a feeling.”  “This is a distraction.”  I realize that thoughts, feelings, and distractions don’t have to sit in the driver seat.  So much of my time and energy doesn’t need to be spent avoiding them.  

I am learning to tolerate suckiness.  I wish I could have done that better before.

Deaths of all sorts lead to this narrowing.  Things shrink down, and down, and down.  The whole universe of my dying mother became her hospital room.  The whole vast universe outside of her window was irrelevant to her in those last few weeks.

More symbolic deaths mirror this.  Right before the end of a relationship, it can feel like that is the only thing in the universe that their is.  The broken-ness of this connection renders all the good things in the world pointless.  The fight to keep a job going that is about to be lost, or the energy spent holding onto a belief that isn’t working any more…  These things crowd out the whole rest of everything.  At these times, nothing else seems to matter.

There are spiritual practices that confine the practioner to a small physical space: the area of a prayer mat, the sparse footage of a monk’s cell, a meager few feet of outside space while awaiting a visionquest.

The thing I am learning is that claustrophobia and boredom are these profound and universal experiences.  They don’t seem as noble, some how, as fear, depression, and lonliness.  But being confined, being taken from distractions, somehow, lead us inevitably to fear, depression and lonliness.  

When my mother and grandmother died, they had no choice but to face this spiritual claustrophobia.  There was no alternative to this boredom.  It came from the brutal truth that all the other distractions they had ever chased were just pointless.

I would have been there, with them, if I had chosen to experience them.  Choice is such a powerful thing.  It would have demonstrated solidarity with the literally, physically dying.  It would have taught me the reality of rebirth after then death, the truth that I can be bigger than the thing that seems like the end.

I wish I had learned all that before.  When it comes again, I will hate it, I will rail against it, I will probably find my thoughts here hopeless sentimental and romanticized.  And yet, I have this hope that I will do better, next time.

 

Did you read the previous post?  Did you follow along with my suggestion and sit for a while after you did?

I think you ought to do that again today.  Sit quietly.  Recognize that their will be boredom.  And there will be fear.  Sit for a while longer today than you did yesterday.

When you’re done, leave some comments.  I would love to hear about how it went.