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.

Part 4: Breath, Spirit, and God’s Name

I love the bible.  A part of the journey  though, is learning how to use it, and when to use it.  I think for lots of us, that is one of the earlier steps in the process as we begin to look for something more in our lives, as we realize these places that have spiritally nurtured us are only a first step.

When this stage goes well, we can learn to love the bible more than we ever did.  When we are using it the ways it was intended, when we are not having to stretch and rationalize, we can relax and be influenced in deeper ways than we ever were before.

I don’t look to the bible for scientific facts, for example.  I don’t expect an objective account of history, either.  This mind-blowing collection of stories is incredibly rich in detailing the subjective experience, the inner life of countless people across thousands of years and tens of thousands of miles.

I have found the bible so helpful during this stage of my life.  One of the biggest mistakes I was tempted to make, through this whole thing, was to leave the bible in the churches that are no longer leading me into growth.  I am so glad I brought it with me.

As I have been learning about contemplation, about meditation, about wordless prayer, I have been so excited to find that scripture speaks to these concerns.  There are whole books written about this topic.  I will certainly have some more to say later.  But today, I would like to begin at the beginning.

Last post, I wrote a little bit about the experience of simply sitting.  A powerful thing to do while sitting is bringing the attention to the breath.  Putting attention on the breath helps take attention away from the foolish things that don’t matter.  Putting attention on the breath sends signals to the body about what we are doing.  But maybe the most important thing: putting attention on the breath lines us up with God himself.

According to the book of Genesis, God made the land and then he created rivers.  These rivers flowed through the land, and nourished.  God reached down and  scooped up mud, and breathed into that mud to make the first person.  One of the things I love about this creation story is the way that it speaks to the idea that we are both material and spiritual: We are made up dirt, water and breath.  

In many languages, including Hebrew, (which the Old Testament is written in) there is overlap between words like “spirit” “breath” and “wind.”  The fact that we have divorced the meanings of these words in English separates us from what the original readers of the bible would have known: there is this connection between breath and spirit; they are almost the same thing.

Many Rabbis have made a further connection.  They say that the original sounds in the words which make the name of God are ones which imitate the breath itself.  We capture some of this when we translate this word with the sounds “Yah-way.”  There is no work done with the teeth are tongue on this word; they are sounds we simply make with the breath itself.

The idea is that we come into this world, and the first thing we say when we are taken from our mothers’ wombs is God’s name: we breathe.  And we begin a process of repeating God’s name over and over, millions of times in this life.  And the last thing we do, as we leave this life?  We say God’s name one last time.

What a beautiful and tragic irony.  We spend our lives thinking that we don’t know God’s name.  We have ended other’s lives because we thought we had different names for God.  But all the time, we were saying God’s name, and regardless of our religious affiliation, we were saying the same name for God: it was our breath itself.

The use of a repeated word, a mantra, is a common thing in meditation practice.  Some people choose a name or other word that has meaning.  Others choose one specifically choosen for it’s lack of meaning.

Today, maybe you would like to meditate with a sort-of spin on this idea.  Today, perhaps your mantra to be your breath itself.  With each inhale, with each exhale, realize that you are saying God’s name.  You always have been saying his name.  You always will be saying his name.  Perhaps you will something amazing in the awareness of this fact, as you use God’s name to dismiss the thoughts, and feelings, and distractions that will arise.

1: Towers

The whole first half of my life might be characterized by building.

I spent a long time building lots of different things: a career, a family, an  identitiy.  This identity was built up largely by building up my place within easily defined groups: liberal, teacher, parent.  

My beliefs were built up, too.  I might begin with a certain idea… Perhaps the idea that there is A God.  When I look around, I realize that this idea needs some support.  If there is a God, then evil must exist because of…  (Fill in the explanation here.  I am sure you’ve heard all the arguments, regardless of whether any of them work for you.)  Eventually, in order to make this explanation for the presence of evil work, I will add something else on.

Building is hard-wired into us, I guess.  There is this symbolic building that is the task of the first half of our lives.  And then, there is the literal building:   I am remembering playing with blocks as a toddler.    I would build these structures up.  

With both kinds of building, there seems to be a pattern.   In the beginning, it is easy to make a tower stronger and bigger at the same time.  But there comes this point when our structures are as solid as they are going to get.  The more we add, the weaker they become.

Freud said we have this death urge: sometimes we go charging straight at our own certain demise.  I wonder if this is connected to the idea that we just keep building our towers after we know we should stop.  Little kids are not so different than the architects of the tower of babel, I suspect.  Somewhere, deep inside I knew that these towers of  belief I was constructing were getting pretty unstable.  But still  we say “Bigger!  More!”

The idea that it would come crashing down was as terrifying as it was inevitable.  I lived in such stark denial.  So many towers came down, smashing into each other like so many giant dominoes.  I am stilling walking in the wreckage.  But I kind of like it down here.

It is quiet, here.  It is calm.  It is peaceful.  On a good day.  

I am realizing how very noisy my life was.  It was noisy because some of that building required efficiency, and multi-tasking, and trying to do lots of things at once.  It was noisy because there was some part of me that new what was coming.  Busyness and noise blocked it all out.

Have you ever fallen in love with the silence?  That is where I am now.

It begins with eliminating unnecesary and artificial sounds.  Turning off the music, podcasts, and movies, sometimes.  Cutting off the chatter sometimes.  

It is about the schedule.  Simplifying.  Realizing that there is a universe of difference between loving people and feeling like I have to please them.

It is about having the courage to sit.  Standing up to the fears that I have been trying to run away from.  Staring down the idea that I am required to justify myself through productivity.  Conquering the fear that I am missing out.

I think that you ought to do that, right now:  Just go somewhere and sit.  Grab yourself a drink of something cool, while you do it.  Close your eyes if you want to.

My life is better than it used to be.  And this is the biggest reason why.  Because I have learned a thing that my ancestors knew so well: it is important to stop, sometimes.  It is important to sit.

There are things that make this easier, in some ways.  Things like watching the breath.  Things like calmly naming fears, distractions, and thoughts.  There lots of good things to be said about these bells and whistles.  

But I would like to challenge you to put these aside, for now.  If you know a little something about meditation, or a lot about meditation, would you put it aside?  Just go somewhere and sit.  Sit for longer than you’d want to.  Sit for longer than makes sense.  

It may be miserable at first.  It might not even seem worth it the first several times you do it.  But in the same way that you might do it for longer than you’d want to, I want to challenge you to do it more often than you’d want to.  There will come a point that it becomes it’s own reward, it becomes a self sustaining thing…  Unless, of course it doesn’t.  And then, what do you have to lose?  The time?  I am starting to think all the things you would have done in that time aren’t as important as you were telling yourself anyway.

 

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.

3. Chain Reactions

If I am not careful my mind runs away from me.

I might, for example, feel like I need to tell somebody something that they won’t want to hear.  Then, I begin to focus on times that confrontation has gone poorly in the past and people have been hurt.  And I might have this label in my brain, that I am barely aware.  I label myself a critic.  Or I might label the other person, lumping them in with all the other people who do this thing.  Or this whole thing  might give a feeling I don’t like very much, and now my mind is on the last time I felt this way.  This group of connections carries with it their own set of negative connotations, emotions, and assumptions.  And so it grows, like a wildfire or a nuclear chain reaction.

After a couple desperate and difficult years, I ended up with a pretty big problem.  I was often scared and miserable.  There were times I would be in the middle of everyday sorts of things– doing the laundry, for example– and my brain would just get so full with this avalanche of judgement, association, and assumptions.

I ended up with a psychiatrist, a therapist, and medications.  They got me through some tough times.  I suspect I would have needed them less if I’d had some options I could have tried on my own.  I wish I could travel back in time and tell the person I was about the things I would be doing some years from that difficult time.

Sitting quietly brings me face to face with the reality that I am living.  That first step isn’t easy.  But the thing is, I was always kidding myself.  I never was fully in denial about my reality.  I was in just enough denial to prevent myself from solving these issues.

The act of sitting in silence is one that calls me to recognize that my current moment is totally unique.  There isn’t any reason to think the past is going to repeat itself.  There isn’t any reason to assume the future outcome is determined.

 Meditation time is like running drills to get better at sports.  Specific skills are identified and practiced in isolation, but the hope is that these abilities generalize outward.  When I meditate I approach the world in ways that hopefully I can bring out of those quiet times and into my everyday life.

This anxiety-busting aspect of meditation is closely related to a thing called non-dualistic thinking.  But non dualistic thinking deserves it’s own post, so we will explore this next time.

Today, though:

I think you ought to begin where you are.

Spend some time sitting, and breathing.  Perhaps you would like to set a timer for fifteen minutes.   Try and sit up straight and sit still.

Breathe slowly.  In through the nose and out from the mouth.  

Be in this moment.   This is the first time you have experienced this moment, ever.   And you will never live in this moment again.  

Drink in the uniqueness of each moment as you sit.  When thoughts or feelings arise that might pull you into a connection with the past, dismiss it.  When fears about the futute arise, dismiss them.  Let them go.

Let them go by continuing to do what you are doing: breathe in, and breathe out, and sit in this single moment.  Be present to this present moment.

My experience has been that each time I do this, I carry just a little bit of it with me, out of the meditation.  I get a little better at facing the world one moment at a time.  My hope is that you experience this, too.