Either, or; Both/And

Sometimes, I delude myself into thinking there is this either/or.

One way of expressing this dualism is through the question,  ” Which is best: prayer or meditation?”

A deeper way to view this is to think about positioning myself to hear from a God who is outside of me versus orienting myself to quiet the mind.

The problem is that the prayer road seems rather ignorant of the convoluted workings of my inner landscape, and The meditative path seems to be functionally agnostic.

I began to find a way beyond this either/or when I realized that quieting all the noise that happens in my head (meditation) is the best way to hear from God (prayer.)  But this?  It is just the tip of the iceberg!

Today, I had this realization that an encounter with God is a thing that is so awesome, so holy, so worthy.  It is something like sex, in that it is an interaction which happens on so many levels at once.

More than any other interaction, this is the one that demands the fullest, most authentic ‘me.’  And so, a self-centered act of meditation is a necessary preamble to an other-centered reaching out.  And at the same time, the best way I find God is not by reaching out and out and out, beyond me…   Despite all appearances, the place I really find God, is by an inward journey, finding God at the very most inner place of all!

And so it seems that suddenly, these are not different acts at all, but meditation and prayer live in the same kind of mutually interdependent dance that God and I exist in.

 

I Just Want One More Hug

When my kids were younger,  all 3 of them went through a stage that was equal parts endearing and frustrating.   It was a time of not wanting to go to bed.   A period of inventing countless,  increasingly absurd excuses.

“I need a drink.   I have to go to the bathroom.   I forgot my stuffed animal.”  Children are deeply manipulative creatures.   Eventually they would happen upon reasons that were hard to resist.   “I need a hug.  I need a kiss.   Can I have a back rub?”

I broach this topic here because I am learning that there are parts of me that are like my children.   They don’t want to let go.   They don’t want to release their hold.

People call it the false self.   And the monkey mind.  It is the reason that meditation needs to be learned; because there is a part of us that resists.

It takes the form of needing to move,  wiggle and itch.   Or the thoughts and feelings that just won’t be released,  that keep coming back,  as annoying as the single fly that threatens to ruin the picnic.   Or the desire to shave a few minutes off the end of a meditation session to respond to a facebook notification.

My false self,  my monkey mind, it is no less clever than young kids.   I am a thinker.   And when I’m letting go,  my mind offers me these tantalizing rabbit trails,  fragments of thoughts,  compelling metaphors.   Much like kids,  my mind closes in on my weakness.

I totally understand the value of an approach I associate with  Zen Buddhism:  Ignore every itch.   Sit for the entire time.   Do not compromise anywhere.

I get it just as much as I get parents who draw a line in the sand.  No you may not have another drink,  a stuffed animal,  or even a hug.    Bed time is bed time.   End of story.

I could just never make that work.   Treating my kids that way just created this tornado of ugly emotions and suddenly everybody is wide awake  and feeling unloved. (or maybe that was just me.)

In the same way, when I take that militaristic stance to an intrusive thought,  I get pulled into dualistic experiencing of the world.   When I refuse to scratch an itch,  I grow to hate that itch…   In the words of eminent sage  and theologian Pauly Shore,  I harsh my mellow.

Perhaps my wonderful kids were a bit spoiled.   Maybe my meditation practice suffers.   I can live with those possibilities.

 

Bodies

I drove by this toddler on my way to work this week.  She was standing by the kitchen door, at the end of a driveway.  A school bus door was closing, the flashing lights atop turned off.  The little stop sign, on the driver’s side of the bus, folded inwards.

This little toddler was waving, waving, waving as the bus pulled into the traffic, down the street, and out of sight.  There was another figure there– presumably her mother.  To judge by body language, the mom was probably telling the younger daughter that she could come in, now; she didn’t need to keep waving.  But the little girl did not seem to want to stop until the bus was gone.

There is something so basic using our bodies to work out emotions.  Young kids learn sign language more quickly than they use words.  Happy dogs sometimes wag their whole bodies, not only this tail.  That little girl, this week, wanted to physically act out saying good bye to her older sibling.

We are embodied creatures.  There is wisdom in recognizing this.  Rituals like communion require us to physically eat.  Liturgies call on us to stand, sit, and kneel.  In churches we say prescribed responses; in schools we recite the pledge; in magical systems, participants recite incantations.  In all these cases, we are not saying words to communicate meaning.  We are engaged in talking as a physical act.

Our bodies are important.

I think this is part of why breathing is such an important aspect of contemplative practice.  And so many meditations technique begin with bringing an awareness to our bodies.  Our bodies are good and a fundamental part of who we are.   These reminders are important.

Where the Joy Is.

The Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu inspired me.  When they agreed that joy is at the foundation of who we are, I decided to spend some time sitting with this truth and exploring it.

It seemed like this could be one of truths hiding in plain sight in the Genesis creation story: we are made in God’s image.  He is a creative God, a God that lives in community.  If this is truly more fundamental than the fall, then this joy ought to be waiting for us.

And so I set about looking for it.  In truth, it has only been a week or so of meditation practice that I have been on this hunt.  But Martin Buber says that prayer doesn’t happen in time; time happens in prayer.  Richard Rohr and Madeline L’Engle make much of the distinction between man’s way of measuring time: chronos, and the divine experience of time: Karios.  Perhaps these things all mean that it doesn’t matter that I have only been looking for a week.  Or maybe I am rationalizing.

I did not find an oasis of joy and ecstasy.  I have not had one of those crazy mystical experiences of God entering into my world and blowing it wide open.  I did have a sense about some things, though.

The Big Bang came to mind.  Smarter people than me point out that the big bang was not an explosion that happened an empty universe, with all this time stretching out before it.  Rather, that explosion created the very possibility of space-time.

I find myself wondering if God’s image, that primal joy I am looking for, isn’t confined to a certain location in my inner geography.   It seems the divine image is maybe the very possibility that I have this kingdom within me at all.  God’s joy is built into the very fabric of my own inner spaciousness.

I had this other sense.  In a way this is a counter-point to the last thing.  But it is also a continuation of it.  And also totally separate…  I had this other sense of a man running around and trying to see his own eyes in a world with out mirrors.

Perhaps the joy resides in the part of me that is doing the searching, in the place where all my thoughts and feelings come together.  Perhaps this primal joy is in my soul/psyche/spirit/will/medial posterior parietal cortex.  Perhaps I don’t see it because it is too close.

As my brain started to go in these directions, I found that the meditative state came and went.  There are times it felt like I was not sitting all, just thinking, which is quite the opposite.

I anchored myself to my breath, one of these times.  Tried to return my awareness to just there.  And then I had this third, final thought.  Also this thought is a continutation of that same first thought.

God breathed into the first person.  That’s where he turned them from a handful of dirt into a human being.  In that breath.  I have babbled on, some, on this blog, about the profundity of this first breath.  But it strike me anew, as I was wondering about this primal joy and how I find it.  It is in the breath.

The breath that always brings me back to here and now.  The breath that wipes away my past regrets and my future fears.  The breath that rises and falls like waves through out my whole life, ushering in a fresh new now with every single one.  That is where joy is: It is where the first joy came to us from God, and it lives there now, just waiting for us.

 

The Agnostic Silence

There was this prophet who had an emotional breakdown.  After this series of crazy conflicts and amazing miracles, he fell apart.  First he was filled with fear.  Then he grew suicidal.  

The bible says that the angels took care of him.  He goes through this period of sleeping, then eating, then sleeping and then eating.   After this time, the angel’s food carried him through a forty day pilgrimage to a mountain where he would meet God.

At this mountain, he enters a cave where his world is rocked by a series of special effects.  Mountains break apart, fires erupt, earthquakes commence.  After each of these, comes the phrase: “But the LORD was not in this.”

Then comes a silence.  My meditation-loving, contemplative self wants the bible to say, “And God was there, in that silence.”

But it doesn’t.  

It does say that he talked to God after, though.  He went out of the cave and he heard God.

There are three messages in all this.

The first is that after a trauma, we need some pretty basic things.  Things like food and rest.  If we don’t get these primary needs met, we are not ready to hear God.

The second is that sitting in silence prepares us to hear God.  Despite what I might want silence to be and mean, at least some of the time, silence isn’t the place where God speaks to us.  On one level this is so obvious: the point at which God speaks is the point at which we are no longer in silence at all.

The third thing is the most difficult for me to pin down.  But there is an interesting transition in this story.  Because near the beginning, when all the wild things are happening on the outside, the bible is crystal clear: God is not there.  And at the end of the story, when God is speaking, God, of course, very much is there.

But in that between-time, that time after the fire but before he hears the voice of God…  it is up for debate: Is God there?  Is God present in the silence?

It seems important to me that this is up for debate, ambiguous.  In our times of silence, we simply do not know.  We might believe.  We might hope.  We might have faith.  We might have memories of all the times he has shown up after those profound silences.  But none of these things are quite the same as knowing.  

I have a sense that this journey is universal.  Every time I sit, I must first tend to the immediate wounds and struggles of my life.  Even if things are going pretty well.  Even if it only takes a few seconds.  There is a process of letting go of my fears and concerns.  I don’t see how I could do this alone.  In some sense, the angels nourish me, at this time.  

After this, when I meditate, what comes next is a pilgrimage of my own.  My journey does not take 40 days.  But just as it went in the story: this part can feel the longest and the most uneventful.    The  journey ends in a holy place.  Then the thunder and lightning from my life might attempt to reassert themselves.    I must, with the prophet,  remind myself: God is not in these things.

When it goes well, then next comes this time of silence.  A time of not-knowing where God is, but a time that is precious nonetheless.

And when it goes really well… Sometimes… just sometimes, I hear God’s after.

 

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.

The Battle on the Bridge

There is a story I have heard about one of the greatest swordsman of all time, Miyamoto Musashi.  It went something like this:

Once, there was a bridge too narrow for two men to cross at the same time.   As might be expected,  the lesser samuraii would defer to the greater, and allow him to pass first.  In those cases where it was not clear who was the greater swordsman, a duel would result.

There came a time when Musashi walked over the bridge.  The man approaching from the other side did not defer to him.  It seemed a duel was coming.

The two warriors stood in the middle of the bridge.  They met each other’s gaze.  Then they turned around in unison, both men going back the way they came.  The onlookers were confused.  “I thought you were supposed to fight.”  One said.  “Yet neither of you drew his sword.”

Musashi nodded and pointed to his temple.  “The battle occured here, in our minds.  We both knew we had met the other’s match.   That was enough.”

I began to remember this story when I meditated the other day.  I was thinking about my issues, my challenges, and my struggles.  I was thinking about how I try to let go of my worries and everything else when I sit in silence.

Dismissing all these things felt a bit like being a martial artist.  Saluting, or bowing to my opponents: disruptive thoughts, fears, anxieties.  Recognizing that meditation is not an act of trying to defeat these things.  The whole point is not to solve my problems but to recognize that these things will always be a challenge.

All these terrible things might in the end kill a person.  Fear or anger might drive us to self-destructive behavior.  Stress might lead to a heart attack.  The irony is this: if my fears every killed me, they would go with me…  A bit, I suppose, like a parasite that has killed it’s host.

I am equally matched to all these things I have created.  I will never truly get past them.  And yet they can never destroy me.  Meditation, is, I think, the act of meeting them in the middle of the bridge, taking each other’s measure, and turning away, to walk back the way I came.

As I wrap this observation up, a moment of disclosure and self-effacement.  When I thought up this little metaphor I was proud of myself.  I felt like a pretty deep guy, the way I could come up with a folk tale about a legendary samurai off the top of my head.

But when I researched it, I could only find one place this story ever occurred.  This is where I first heard it: A spin-off comic book in the 1980s, about a couple of the X-Men.  Musashi is a real guy.  But the story above, to the best of my knowledge, was created by the author of that comic book.  I would still like you to think I am a pretty deep guy.  But the truth is, this particular deep thought came out of a comic book I read during my mispent youth.

silence and Silence

You would think silence would be easy…  And if you grabbed a shallow, material definition of the word “silence” you would be right.  Because anybody who is older than 13 has an easy enough time just closing their mouth.  As a result, by some ways of thinking about it, such a person would be silent.

But of course, we all know that we can stop making physical noise and be so far away from silent.  Sometimes, these are the times when our minds and hearts are making the most noise: those times when we are physically silent.

The point of meditation and contemplation is this deeper silence.  I have been thinking about this lately: the idea that we cultivate these Deep Silences.   They seem to be the only appropriate response to many of the mysteries that surround us.

In lots of important ways, we are little, tiny things adrift in an ocean of things way bigger than us.  The Mystery of life, and of death.  The Mystery of suffering, and of injustice.  The Mystery of existence, and of God.

We won’t ever fully grasp these things.  We can’t explain them away, we can’t control them.  There are probably times that it is worth trying to chisel away at little aspects of them that we might wrap our brains around.  But equally, there are times to humbly agnowledge our position to these things.

In some way, my silence becomes a sort-of offering to God.   As I thought about this, I remembered these words of Mother Theresa.  She told an interviewer once, that one of her ways of praying was to listen to God.  When the interviewer asked what God was saying, she said that God was saying nothing; God was listening to her.  Mother Theresa described this process, where she and God listened to each other, listening to each other.  I love that, even though I don’t know exactly what it means.

I kind-of hope it means something like presenting my silence to God as an offering, though.   Other wise thinkers have talked about contemplation as an act of reflecting God’s image back at God’s self.  Being silent is like preparing my inner mirror, cleaning off the accumulated grime of my ego and baggage, so I can more fully reflect God.

God, of course, reflects right back at me in those times.  And there is this little (big?) piece of God, dwelling inside me.  So when I see myself clearly, purely, I see God there, too…   It is as if the reflection then aligns with the image outside of me, that I am looking at…

I think I have just reached the place where words stop making sense.  Seems like a good place to end and be silent.

Breathing In With Adam, Breathing Out to God

This morning, with my in-breaths, I breathed in with Adam.  As God breathed life into him, I felt that breath coming into me.  It comes in as physical nourishment, of course.  But also life itself.  A primal spark I am re-living.

And with the out-breaths, I knew I was saying God’s name: the Hebrew words given to Adam, carrying a nearly impossible-to-translate meaning, sounds without teeth and tongue.  It is a name above other names, in that it is a thing said through out our lives, countless times.  And it is name beyond names in that it is a thing we do.

When I breathe this way, it feels as though God’s primal spark which enters me with an inhalation, leaves me as an act of worship…  As all worship does, it is begun in Him, comes from Him, returns to Him.

And breathing in that intimate space, lips near mine, like some primal mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, like a kiss.

And when I had done this for some time, as I breathed in, my mantra was “Jesus lived.”  With the held breath my mantra was “Jesus died.”  and as I breathed out “Jesus is coming again.”

And after thirty minutes of this, I was such a mess, a wonderful mess.  These strange sobs– not bad things– were coming up from the deepest parts of me.  I felt the space between God in me to be less than nothing.

There was a part of me that knew I would return to the ordinary way of perceiving.   These flood gates that were thrown wide open wood close.  And I had this sense that this was my doing, this was my act of self-defence, that God would have me that close to him, all the time.

I will head to church in a while, and I will then go about my Sunday.  And then I will enter my week.  I am going to try and do with all those doors within wide open.

 

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.