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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
‘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.
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.
Transformation is a word that gets bandied about a lot, especially in New Age circles. And you might have filed it away as “woo woo” or not applicable to you, or even, perhaps heretical. The kind of transformation that I am talking about is relevant to you – it’s especially relevant to anyone who takes following the words of Jesus seriously. If you want to find joy, live a life full of love and compassion, or really follow Jesus, you need transformation.
OK, so now I’ve convinced you to at least read a while longer. How is it that I am defining transformation? Here it is, in less than 140 characters: Transformation is a process, and it allows us to increasingly live in the moment in the presence of the Holy. You can’t be a real peacemaker without transformation. You can’t love God with all of your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself without transformation.
So what gets in the way? Why is it that we need transformation? Some might call it ego, others call it the “false self”, some might invoke Satan (I won’t, though.) There are a lot of ways to talk about the things that get in the way. Living in the past, and worrying about the future. Identifying with our emotions, so we act out of them, instead of acting out of love and compassion. What the Buddhists call the “Three Poisons” which will be familiar to anyone as obstacles to living with love: greed, hatred and delusion.
Transformation is possible. It takes determination, it takes faith, and it even takes doubt. And there are many ways to put yourself on the path to transformation. Just about every spiritual tradition has a path you can trod. But, of course, I’m all about just one of the many – the contemplative path. That’s what everything here is about, really. Tools in the Christian contemplative tradition to help you transform, and live a life with love and in the presence of God.
From the introduction to the Philokalia:
[T]his path is open to all to follow, each to the best of his or her ability and whatever the circumstances under which he or she lives. Indeed, in this respect the distinction between the monastic life and life ‘in the world’ is but relative: every human being, by virtue of the fact that he or she is created in the image of God, is summoned to be perfect, is summoned to love God with all his or her heart, soul and mind. In this sense all have the same vocation and all must follow the same spiritual path. Some no doubt will follow it further than others: and again for some the intensity of the desire with which they pursue it may well lead them to embrace a pattern of life more in harmony with its demands, and this pattern may well be provided by the monastic life. But the path with its goal is one and the same whether followed within or outside a monastic environment.
For a long time, I’ve been aware that my habits with the internet and media are not always entirely healthy for me. For the last few years, when Lent comes around, what arises as a practice is almost always related to use of electronic media of varied sorts (the internet and social media, video games, etc.) And I have learned that regular breaks, sabbaths, as it were, are really important to my spiritual health, even though they can be uncomfortable sometimes. Now, every week, on Friday late afternoon, I turn off all my devices (because my kindle is most of my library, it gets a pass) for about 30 hours.
I just finished reading a very interesting work. It’s called the Philokalia, which is Greek for “Love of the good” (or the beautiful.) It is a compilation of writings of Eastern Orthodox monks and abbots, from the 4th and 5th century, written primarily for other monks about the monastic life. Many of the writings speak clearly about what the path to achieve stillness might involve. For example:
“Be like an astute business [person]: make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything, and choose always what contributes to it.” (Evagrios the Solitary)
Many of these writers were not only monastics – they were ascetics, and advocated such things as fasts, vigils (not sleeping,) and sleeping on the floor and such. As an advocate of the middle way, I think that’s going too far, but I do think that we need to find those things in our life that get in the way. Like St. John Cassian said in the Philokalia:
“What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination; for it is this virtue that teaches a [person] to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity.”
I am not a monk (and I could write a long essay about why that is) but a life of stillness, awareness, and openness to God in my every moment is the desire of my life. I don’t think its impossible to do for those of us that don’t get to just sit in our cells and pray all day, but like choosing a monastic life, it does require renunciation. It means we have to give up some things.
And what I give up may well be very different than what you need to give up. The most important question to ask is: “what keeps you from God?” What activity or habit do you use to escape from what you are feeling? What do you use to comfort yourself – not in an aware way, but in a way that just simply muffles the feelings under the soft blanket you’ve placed on them by doing a certain thing?
Those are the things to look at, to see what you could do to maybe give those a break for a while, and let yourself feel what’s happening, let yourself be still, and hear God’s still, small voice in your heart.
I was thinking about current events, and how it is so clear that some people have a hard time hearing other people’s fears and pain. It is easy to not hear the pain felt by those we consider “others.” But what if you are willing to cross that gap, and hear what other people have to say, but they can’t, or won’t even meet halfway?
This is when we need the practice of love. It’s what Jesus taught and many other traditions hold this to be important. The practice of love means that you show love for everyone, even for those who hate you. And usually, that means you get nothing in return. Sometimes all you get in return is more hatred.
The practice of love is not easy. I find myself often in dismay at the way some people think about people who are like me. And it is so easy to return the derision and hatred–that’s almost what feels appropriate. It certainly feels natural. But that’s not the Way. The Way is to love, no matter what. The way is to express love and compassion, to act out of love and compassion, no matter what we are facing in the moment. For me, the Way of love is more important that anything else. And the Way of love is the only thing that will change the world.
And just like when we sit in silent prayer or meditation, and our minds are running amok, and we have to keep coming back to our awareness or surrender, the practice of love means that we have to keep coming back, over and over again to the knowledge that Love is Divine, and being love is our path. It’s OK if we falter. That’s human. But just like in practice, have no self-judgement, allow mistakes, forgive ourselves (and others) and come back to love.