Ora et Labora

In the wider context of Wisdom training, Benedictine spirituality, with its emphasis on ora et labora (prayer and work), is a good way to bring balance and harmony into your day and to make sure that all three centers are being exercised. If balanced heart perception is your goal, it’s a good idea to spend an intentional part of each day doing some simple physical labor. It doesn’t have to be backbreaking, but it helps if it’s rhythmic. Folding the laundry, chopping vegetables, raking leaves, and trimming houseplants are all simple yet wonderful ways to come back in touch with the physical earth around you and inside of you. – The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming An Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart by Cynthia Bourgeault

I am starting a new habit. Every morning (except my sabbath, which is Friday), after I sit, I take 45 minutes or so to do a physical chore. My most common physical chore is to sweep our patio, which is one of those sisyphean tasks – because of a lot of live oaks, every day there are many leaves on the patio.

For many people, this is a normal thing. But not for me. Somehow, over the years, I’ve become exceedingly physically lazy when it comes to chores. Sure, I’ll spend 30 minutes on my stationary bike, or swim laps, or what have you, but I never really enjoyed physical labor.  And what’s been surprising to me is that I have not only come to enjoy it, but I’ve come to see it as an essential part of my practice – my practice of ora et labora – prayer and work. And, of course, many teachers over the years have known this to be true.

In our modern world, so many of us don’t have to (or, often, don’t have time to) do manual labor tasks, like chopping wood, carrying water, etc. I guess my one exception has always been washing dishes – I’ve never wanted a dishwasher – I’ve always used washing dishes as a way to practice presence. And what I’ve found in working outside is a pleasure in my natural environment that I didn’t really know that I could have – it’s been a new found joy.


Prayer of Examen

The Prayer of Examen is part of the Igatian Spiritual Exercises, originated with St. Igatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. It is a powerful practice, allowing you to observe your day from a place of openness to what happened, what is, and God’s presence during the day. I have some slight adaptations to the Examen to make it a bit more expansive and inclusive of different perspectives.

First, the most important thing about this is that you approach this with a sense of compassion and forgiveness for yourself and others, and a willingness to allow the Spirit to speak to you and work in your heart. This prayer is done at the end of the day, just before you are ready to sleep. Find a comfortable place to sit. This can also be done lying down, although you may risk falling asleep during it.

  1. Be open to God’s presence as you begin. For this moment, let your thoughts go, and relax. 
  2. Think back on the events of the day with gratitude. Think about the people you encountered, what nourished you, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Look on those events with a spirit of gratitude.
  3. Notice the events that were emotional. What were your emotions? How did they effect the day, or what happened during the day? Where might have you fallen short, or where could you have done better. Where could you have brought in love and compassion? Remember to approach these with compassion for yourself and others. Allow yourself and others to make mistakes. Forgive.
  4. If there is something in the day that needs more attention, spend it here. Pray about it. Ask God for help with it.
  5. Then, let the day go. Notice how you feel, and accept it, then let that go. Wrap up by re-dedication to your practice and spiritual growth.

Here is an audio teaching on the Prayer of Examen.

The Power of Concentration

If you’d spent a fair bit of time engaged in Buddhist meditation practice, you would have likely been introduced to concentration practice. Concentration is considered an important part of awakening. It is a different kind of training the mind than awareness meditation. Some Buddhist teachers call it “thinning of the me,” which is a good way of thinking of it.

Concentration practice is another way to allow us to let go of the things that hinder us in our work to cultivate quiet, compassion and openness to the presence of the Spirit. Buddhists aren’t the only folks who have skin in this game. Christians have been doing concentration practice for a very long time.

One of these practices is common in Eastern Orthodox settings. It is the repetitive saying of the Jesus Prayer (often “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” or just “Jesus have mercy.”)  The repetition of the Jesus prayer was a method used by early Christians to open the heart to bring about the “Prayer of the Heart” – Paul’s unceasing prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17). From St. Hesychios the Priest (from the Philokalia):

Continuity of attention produces inner stability; inner stability produces a natural intensification of watchfulness; and this intensification gradually and in due measure gives contemplative insight into spiritual warfare. This in its turn is succeeded by persistence in the Jesus Prayer and by the state that Jesus confers in which the intellect, free from all images, enjoys complete quietude.

In Catholic settings, the Jesus Prayer is most often said while praying the Rosary. Having never been a Catholic, and having never really been introduced to Catholic contemplative practices during my life before discovering them in seminary, I was introduced to the Rosary by an unlikely fellow, named Gordon Atkinson, who used to have a blog called “Real Live Preacher.” He’s a Baptist, and he prays the Rosary.

I first started my rosary practice about 10 years ago. There are two things I like about this practice. First, it really does “thin the me.” In focusing my mind on the prayers I’m saying, there is a kind of attention I’m paying to those prayers, and lots of other things just fall away. Second, I get to determine what prayer I use for the beads. Most often, I pray a modified Lord’s prayer for the large beads, and say the beatitudes for the small beads. But I can change this up, depending on how I’m feeling, but it still basically has the same effect.

I also have added making the rosaries as a practice. They are actually pretty easy to make, and it can be a powerful process to prayerfully make your own Rosary, then use them for prayer.  (Just google “rosary kits” it’s amazing what you’ll find.)

The physicality of the rosary practice is so different than other practices, and it is very powerful in helping us to let things go. When I am praying the rosary, there really isn’t much else there besides the beads and God.


The Wisdom Project

As I described on my other blog today, I’ll be posting here, at least once a week, a specific spiritual practice, from a variety of traditions, and practicing it myself. I welcome conversation and reflections.

If you would like to join me on this journey, there is a slack channel (if you don’t know slack – it’s a great tool for collaboration and conversation.)

Advent Season

November 20, 2015

As an adult, I’ve never really been a fan of Christmas. There are a variety of personal reasons, but at the core, in terms of spirituality, I think for me, the big Christian focus on the birth of Jesus has felt a little too triumphant. I like to focus on Jesus as person, as my spiritual teacher. Certainly his birth is to be celebrated, but I’ve always wanted something much more low-key. And, of course, our culture’s excess around this time has always felt not only unsettling, but in some ways, kinda opposite of what Jesus was all about.

For me, winter is a time of introspection and contemplation. And this year, I’ve decided to use the shorter Advent season in some of the same ways as I’ve used Lent in the past. A time to focus on contemplative practice. And, I think what I’ll lean toward this year is gratitude in the midst of the suffering of the world.

I’ll be posting here a blog entry for each Sunday of Advent, with some readings and practices that I’ll be working on during the week. I’m intrigued to see what arises for me during this time of short days and long nights.

Responsibility and Reconciliation

October 14, 2013

One of the things that is really hard to do is own up to one’s own mistakes. It’s not at all fun, and the bigger the mistake is, the less fun it is. It’s hard to admit that we are fallible human beings, and that there are times, even with the best intentions (or we think are the best intentions) our actions can be harmful to others. Every time someone tells me that an action (or inaction) on my part feels in some way hurtful to them, the first thing I want to do is justify it. It’s because of this, or that. I intended this thing, or that other thing. I didn’t mean to hurt them. Those are always the first things out of my mouth. It’s a habit, one that I would like to fully break from.

It’s really hard to just stop those rationales in their tracks, especially in our own minds. It’s hard to listen to other people, and just simply say we messed up, we accept responsibility, and we’re sorry. The truth is, the reasons behind what we did aren’t all that important anymore – what’s relevant and important is accepting responsibility for our mistakes. Unless we do that – unless we vocally and clearly say that we understand the other person’s pain, and we accept that what we did was hurtful in some way, and that we accept full responsibility for it, true reconciliation isn’t possible. What happens is that things get glossed over, but that never stays glossy. It wears quickly, and what’s left is resentment.

We fear accepting responsibility for our mistakes because we fear losing love and connection with other people because of them. But the truth is that not being willing to accept our mistakes is what keeps us from that love and connection. And it keeps us from loving ourselves. We can’t really love ourselves without fully accepting our own faults and weaknesses.

A prayer: May God allow us to be fully human, and to make mistakes. And may God give us strength to be willing to take responsibility for those mistakes, even when it’s really hard, and know that we are loved, no matter what.


What is “practice,” anyway?

September 9, 2013

I was thinking about what we call “practice.” We generally think of that as the time spent in silence, in meditation or prayer. And I do know that most people who have a contemplative practice are practicing not just for the fun of it, or even for the goal of some sort of relaxing or blissful experience during practice or on retreat, or even to be in greater contact with God. They are practicing because they have noticed that things are different when they are not practicing.

But really, where the rubber meets the road is what happens when you walk down the street and pass by someone with their hand out? What goes through your mind when a co-worker (one who might actually annoy you) comes up to your desk? What do you feel at the end of a long work day? What happens when you have gotten angry at someone, or what are you going through when you flip the switch on the election machine? What thoughts are in your mind when you look at yourself in a mirror, or hear something critical?

I almost might argue that we should reframe what “practice” is. Unless one is an incredibly extraordinary person, we are not going to be perfect. We are not going to approach ourselves, or others, with compassion or approach situations with equanimity each and every time. We’ll make mistakes, we’ll falter. It’s almost as if that everyday stuff – that’s the practice. The sitting in silence stuff is almost like preparation for the practice.

I started a new contemplative practice over the past week. For months now, I’ve struggled with a lot of restlessness when I sit in silent prayer or meditation. It’s kind of like my legs have a life of their own. Sometimes, I can be equanimous about it, and just go along with the restlessness. But mostly, I resist it, and wish it would go away. Now, instead of my time sitting in silence, I spend at least 15 minutes in contemplative, mindful movement. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out that was what my body was telling me to do all this time! I’ve done contemplative dance/authentic movement in the past, and loved it, but somehow it took until now for me to figure out that I should add it to what I do each day.

Practice comes in all forms, and opportunities for practice come at us fast and furious. The challenge is our willingness. Are we willing to be as diligent in looking at what happens in our daily moments as we are in our contemplative practice each day? Can we look at them as all part of the same whole?


Life is Practice

September 4, 2013

I’ve never really been a musician. Oh, I’ve dabbled. I played guitar as a kid and teenager for about 8 years or so, but then dropped it. I picked up the drums when I was 40, then kind of stupidly sold them to make room for a partner to move into my place at 41. (She moved out when I was 42, but I never did get another set of drums.) I do have a guitar mostly collecting dust in a corner of our living room, and a couple of small African drums in my study. Like I said, I’ve never been a musician.

But I know a lot about practicing. Practicing life is a lot like practicing playing an instrument. It takes a lot of work and attention. And sometimes you’ll make a horrible racket, and other times you’ll come out with a beautiful symphony. And the cool part is just like playing an instrument, the more you practice, the better you get. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the practice isn’t work.

This is the great thing: whether you are making a horrible racket or are coming out with a symphonic masterpiece, you can still have joy. In fact, it doesn’t even matter. Right now, I feel like I am in a moment of cacophony – the horn section is out of sync with the strings, and the timpani – oy – it’s an unholy mess. I’m re-assessing recent decisions, re-evaluating priorities, and it’s messy, and the future feels uncertain. But I’m happy anyway.  I know, it’s kind of strange. It’s even surprising me.

The reason I’m happy is because I don’t have to identify with the cacophony I am creating of my life. It’s just the racket that comes with along practicing. None of us has to. Making mistakes in life means learning and growth. It’s all good to be a student of life. And I know that somehow, there is a symphonic masterpiece happening right now, even amid the cacophony and mess.

And underneath it all is a truth – like the musical essence of a guitar, or a drum, there is an underlying foundation for us to find – our true life’s purpose.

For a while, I thought that I must have some specific life’s purpose. Some specific vocation, or specific set of tasks to accomplish before I leave this planet. But the recent racket I’ve been making has taught me is that my purpose is a lot simpler, and a lot more difficult. My life’s purpose is to simply to live my life, in every moment, with compassion and generosity. It doesn’t even matter what I do, as long as I do what I’m doing with compassion and generosity. It’s both mind-bogglingly simple, and mind-bogglingly difficult.

That out of tune timpani you are hearing in the background? That’s me. I’m tuning. Just wait for a bit.


To be watchful…

August 13, 2013

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. ~~ Matthew 25:1-13.

Like all parables, the Parable of the Bridesmaids has many interpretations. When I read this passage, my focus is always on “what does Jesus really mean about being awake?” Jesus talks at times about watchfulness, and being awake – this is far from the only time that this comes up. St. Hesychios the Priest (from the Philokalia) has some interesting thoughts on watchfulness:

Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us: with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It enables us to fulfill every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart, a state blessed by Christ when He says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8); … Because this is its nature, watchfulness is to be bought only at a great price. But once established in us, it guides us to a true and holy way of life.

So what does this mean in our lives? What does it mean to be watchful? What is this “method” St. Hesychios speaks of? Watchfulness isn’t staying awake all night, or isn’t really about making sure your lamps have oil (or your smartphone’s battery is charged, which is the modern equivalent, perhaps.) Watchfulness is cultivating that state of wakefulness and awareness. And that state of wakefulness is when your inner observer is awake, the one who can notice and be aware of your emotions, but not be attached or identified with them. It’s when you can act from compassion, or through the Spirit, instead of acting out of fear or greed. This is the state when we are most open to God’s wisdom, when we can see clearly, speak clearly, and act clearly.

I talk a lot about cultivation when I talk about practice, and here it is again. Watchfulness is cultivating our minds and hearts through practice, to prepare our own ground, so that God’s seeds of compassion and joy can grow and flower.

Cultivating Room for Grace

Yesterday, when I got up in the morning, I was stressed out and grumpy. And I spent 10 or 15 minutes explaining to myself why I shouldn’t be grumpy. I should be thankful that this thing is true, or that other thing is true, that I don’t have to do that thing, or that other thing. And as I was watching myself justify to myself all of the myriad ways my life could be worse, and thinking about all of the myriad problems that I didn’t have, I realized something important: I was crowding out grace.

So first, what kind of grace am I talking about? I’m talking about that miraculous quality of the Holy, allowing us to see more clearly the reality of the moment, and the power to allow what is to just be. And then, just when you don’t expect it, joy comes around the corner, right after grace has been by.

But allowing room for grace has to be cultivated, because there are all sorts of things that can get in our way. Just like I did yesterday, even things that might seem helpful at first – finding ways to be thankful for what we have, can be counterproductive. I was so busy telling myself that I shouldn’t feel grumpy and stressed, that I stayed grumpy and stressed until I just let myself feel grumpy and stressed. Because its totally OK to feel grumpy and stressed, or sad, or angry, or anxious. And when we allow ourselves to just feel how we feel, when we get rid of all of that stuff that tells us how we shouldn’t feel, we allow room for grace. What’s important about this is that allowing ourselves to feel how we are feeling means that we’re actually better at dealing with it. We’re better at acknowledging what’s real, but not acting out of it.

So now to the cultivation part – how do we cultivate room for grace? I know one way, although I know there are others. Cultivating room for grace involves a number of things. It involves cultivating our ability to notice – cultivating our awareness. It also involves cultivating our willingness to let the Spirit work within us. We can do this through silent prayer, or other practices. Those practices help us to quiet our minds, they open the door to God, and they allow us, over time, to get better and better at leaving room for grace.

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