Why should you care about transformation?

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.
The tools that have followed us down the ages are here for us, for transformation. Let’s use them.

Renunciation

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.

 

The Practice of Love

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.

Welcoming Shame

Shame is such a common feature of many of our emotional landscapes. It can lay hidden for a long time, and it can stop us in myriad ways from expressing our true natures. I imagine you heard this as a child: “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Many of us grow up learning to be ashamed, and we keep that shame with us even when we’ve know as adults that the childhood shaming wasn’t about us – children truly have nothing to be ashamed about. Many of us grew up learning to be ashamed of our bodies–whether it was that they were too big, or too small, or just perceived as somehow not right. We learned to be ashamed when we made mistakes. Maybe we’re ashamed of our financial situation,  what we do for a living,  who we love, or failed relationships. We can hold on to shame for a long time.

But shame has no usefulness. It does us no good to live in that place of shame – it only keeps us back, hinders us from growing, and keeps us from joy. This is not about not acknowledging when we’ve made mistakes, whether they be small or big, or hurt only ourselves, or others. Taking responsibility for what we have done is not at all the same as being ashamed.

Like many difficult emotions, shame can be hard to accept. But accept it we must, just like any other difficult emotion. It is only by accepting it that we can release it, and let it stop hindering us.

There is a practice I’ve recently learned that can be helpful with shame, as well as other difficult feelings. It’s called the “Welcoming Prayer.” It is a practice that is related to Centering Prayer, and comes from Contemplative Outreach. The practice is pretty simple, and quite powerful.

Welcoming prayer is: “a method of consenting to God’s presence and action in our physical and emotional reactions to events and situations in daily life.” It’s purpose is to “deepen our relationship with God through consenting in ordinary activities. The Welcoming Prayer helps to … heal the wounds of a lifetime by addressing them where they are stored — in the body.”

It is related in nature to Metta and Karuna, the Buddhist lovingkindness/compassion meditations. It is also similar to awareness practices in that it cultivates our willingness to be present to whatever is, in the moment. It does have a uniquely Christian origin, however. It’s based on the writings of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who wrote “Abandonment to Divine Providence.” (A book that has been on my reading list for a while now.)

The practice is as follows (here using shame as an example, but it can be used for anger, sadness, pain, etc.)

When shame comes up, feel the feeling in your body. Notice, and focus on that feeling.

Welcome the presence of the Spirit, the Divine indwelling in that feeling, say “Welcome shame.”

Then, let go of the shame, saying: “I let go of the desire to change this feeling/sensation. I let go of the desire for security, affection, control.”

It might be fine for you to do this only once. Or you might want to repeat any of that multiple times. You can do it briefly whenever the feeling comes up. It’s a powerful practice, one I am just getting to know. It’s a combination of being present with what is, and allowing God to help us let go of those things that are hindering us.

Here is a recent teaching I recorded on Welcoming Prayer:

God’s “Will” and Listening to a Call

One evening, at a party just a week or so before I was to leave the town I had lived in for 16 years, and move across the country to go to seminary, an acquaintance of mine asked me why I was going. I said that I felt called to go. Later in the evening, he said, “You feel called? By whom? Ma Bell?” I laughed, but not so heartily. Obviously, he couldn’t even relate to what a calling meant. A lot of people can’t, until they can.

As I have said before, I’m a panentheist. I don’t believe in a micro-managing God. I don’t think that God is “up there” looking at me directly, and sending me messages about what to do. That said, there are things I have felt called to do in my life. I have felt very clearly the pull of things that seemed unavoidable. Decisions that had to be made in the way they were made. Things I just had to do. I felt like I had no choice.

But that isn’t really true. I have always had the freedom to choose differently. But once I jumped into the stream, as it were, once I decided to align myself with the great flow of Spirit that can lead us all to our best nature, and follow the teachings of the man from Nazareth, I choose to follow that stream. I’m not getting out. And so the stream takes me where it will take me. I don’t always know where I will end up.

My favorite quote about God’s will is from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

From my perspective, God’s will is simply the pull of that stream that leads us where we can best fulfill the two greatest commandments: “Love God with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” There are so many things that within those commandments. Of course, at its heart, it’s about love and compassion, and our ability to express that freely, not only to God, but to our neighbor, too. This is not only everyone we meet, but in these days of instantaneous communication with the world – literally every single person is our neighbor. And we are called to love each one as we love ourselves. Sometimes I can’t even get my mind around how hard this is. And how hard it is to fulfill in this time of alienation and separation.

Jesus didn’t choose the Samaritan for the parable randomly, of course. He chose someone of a group of people who were outcasts of the time. Considered unclean and unworthy. It is a commandment that we love those even we would consider unclean and unworthy as we would love ourselves.

The only way I know how to get to that place of love and compassion is by actively cultivating it. That cultivation allows us to see our fears, and reactions, and the things that get in the way of that love. Some would argue that idea is “corrupted” by eastern philosophical notions of meditative practice. But it’s not, not by a longshot. Way before the Buddha’s teaching made it to the west, mystics like Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, as well as many Eastern Orthodox monks from a thousand years ago, have talked about the active cultivation of inner quiet – the quiet that allows us to listen to the still, small voice of God–that ever flowing stream.

Magical Thinking

The world is replete with people and groups that promise big. Whether it be promises of enlightenment, or of abundance if you just “believe” or pray for it, or promises that if you just think positively, good will come to you. If you’d just follow these steps, or say these affirmations, or pray these prayers, you will be enlightened, or rich, or have everything you want. There are, of course, nuggets of truth in all of these, but they don’t paint the full picture, nor can they deliver what they promise.

One of the things that I find most disturbing about these is that they make people feel as if it is their fault if their life is not going according to plan. These kinds of ideas, whether it be prosperity gospel, or new age enlightenment thinking, completely ignores the reality of people’s lives, and the hurdles they face through the situations they have been dealt with at birth. We each have a path to trod, some are much steeper than others, through no fault of their own.

Julian of Norwich, a 15th century mystic once said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The context is really important. She was thinking of evil and suffering, and asking God about it, and that was God’s answer. All will be well. It’s mysterious, isn’t it? We can’t always know what “all being well” might mean. I’m sure you remember a situation in which you thought things would turn out badly, only to find things turning out quite alright, even unexpectedly. And sometimes, that quite alright was just a willingness to really be with what is, and perhaps surrender.

No matter what the hand we are dealt with, we can find true joy in life. But it takes effort, and not everyone will get there in exactly the same way, because not everyone is the same. But there are some tried and true methodologies, paths laid down for us by the mystics of all time.

Theresa of Avila talks of the process of going deeper and deeper inside ourselves, to finally find God there, waiting. And we can only do that by cultivating quiet and compassion for ourselves and others. It’s hard work, it takes time, and it is magic only in the sense that the further we go, the more in touch with ourselves and the Holy Spirit we become.

Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Determination

three-legged_stoolIn 2005 (or 2006 – I don’t quite remember) I went to a retreat/conference for UU Buddhists. It was a wonderful gathering. John Daido Loori, who was the Abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, gave a talk in which he described this triad, or three legs to the stool of practice: great faith, great doubt, and great determination.

Being the Buddhist/Christian hybrid that I am, I think of these three a little differently than he did. And I would argue that these three are critical to a truly spiritual life, whatever one’s particular tradition.

For faith, I’ll just let Abraham Joshua Heschel speak for me:

Faith is sensitiveness to what transcends nature, knowledge, and will, awareness of the ultimate, alertness to the holy dimension of all reality… To have faith is not to infer the beyond from the wretched here, but to perceive the wonder that is here and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of living. It is not a deduction but an intuition, not a form of knowledge, of being convinced without proof, but the attitude of mind toward ideas whose scope is wider than its own capacity to grasp.

Faith is not some one-dimensional wholesale adoption of someone else’s truth. That isn’t really faith, that’s delusion. Faith is also a practice and a process. It changes over time, and over a lifetime.So why is doubt important? Doubt is something to notice, to pay attention to, and sometimes to wrestle with. We doubt our practice will lead to joy. We doubt God is listening. We doubt things will change. We doubt our own abilities. Doubt is not only OK, but necessary, because without doubt, we’d not progress, we’d not find the holes to fall into, then crawl out of. We wouldn’t deepen our practice or grow.Then, there is determination, because sometimes there is only doubt, and no faith. This life as practice path isn’t always easy. Sometimes we’d rather sit and eat bon-bons, or watch television, or get lost in a good movie than practice. It’s not that any of those things in themselves are problematic, of course. We need rest and enjoyment. But it’s too easy in this society to completely lose the track, completely stray from the path. There are too many reasons in this world to not want to be present and aware to what is going on.With great determination we learn new kinds of ways to be in the world with awareness, love and compassion.

Flirting With Despair

16452374_s-200x200Despair is a common emotion, and a very familiar one to me. It’s one of those strong ones – the ones that carry you away, in this case, downward into a place that feels impossible to get out of. Despair is an emotion that saps your energy and strength, and makes everything seem completely impossible.

Despair sometimes comes because of grief and loss. Sometimes it comes because we really are in a place of desperation – our life feels somehow unlivable. And sometimes, it just comes, for no good reason at all it seems, to visit with us.

The good news is that suffering because of despair is unnecessary. Yeah, I know – especially if you feel despair, that sentence seems completely… well, completely unbelievable. And there are many times when I would agree. But I do know differently.

Despair comes from the belief that nothing we can do will change how we feel, or the situation we’re in.

First, we can’t just change how we feel by force of will. That’s not how it works. How it works is that instead of plunging in, and being despair, we need to know the despair, and accept it for what it is. Don’t try to change it, or put it away, or fight it. Let it be what it is. Oddly, that is when the despair can shift.

There is always something we can do to change our situation, even though it might seem impossible. Sometimes, that thing is just to learn to be with the situation. Learn to not be averse to it, to not want it to change, also accept it for what it is. And sometimes, we need to change the situation – but getting distance from our despair is a necessary step.

And getting distance from despair requires practice – the practice of awareness, of noticing, and accepting what is.

So what about prayer? I happen not to believe in a micro-managing God. I don’t actually think that God is “looking down” at me, and is going to magically make things better (for me or for anyone else) if I pray about it. But that doesn’t take away from the power of prayer. The amazing, creative, compassionate, loving force called God moves us in the direction of our best, highest selves, and prayer is like oars or paddles for that stream. And like oars take you further down the stream in a real river, prayer transforms us, and takes us, and the people we love, further down the divine stream.

 

Piety

19271121_lI’ve been thinking about the concept of “piety” lately. What is piety, and what is it to me?

I don’t think of myself as a pious Christian. That is because I don’t do many of the things that I imagine most pious Christians do. Piety is, I think, a concept familiar to those of us who are “People of the Book” (that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims) than those (of us) who are Buddhist.

And also, I thought of piety as empty – an attention to ritual or observance that lead to a “holier than thou” sort of perspective, but was empty of meaning.

Then I started to read Abraham Joshua Heschel:

Piety gives rise to reverence, which sees the “dignity of every human being” and “the spiritual value which even inanimate things inalienably possess.” Exploitation and domination are utterly foreign to genuine piety, and possession of things leads only to loneliness.

He speaks so eloquently of the deepness of a genuinely pious life. The ways in which it opens us to the divine, shapes us, and helps us tap into meaning. And I began to re-arrange my concept of piety, to open it up to be more expansive.

Is piety simply a way of living where we are really just paying attention? I’ve often translated the concept from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing”, to mean that I pay attention to the present moment, and listen for God’s voice in it. Is being pious, which for some mean very specific observances, just that? And how do I bring that to my life, as someone who does not have that framework of observance?

At least, for now, perhaps I’ll be reframing my ideas about piety, thanks to Heschel. I’ll probably have more to say about what I’ve learned from him in later posts.

 

Past, Present and Future

Most Buddhist traditions focus a lot on training you to pay attention to what’s happening at this present moment. It’s a really important practice. Being able to be present in each moment to whatever is happening, whether it is your breath sitting, or being with a loved one, or working, or whatever it is, is the beginning of being able to be equanimous with whatever is–whether it is joyful or difficult.

And, of course, we all know that now is all there really is. The past is past, the future is yet to come, and living in them, dwelling in them, keeps us from the present moment.

The problem is, that in order to live our daily lives, we need to attend to both past and future. What do I need to accomplish today? Where did I leave my keys? We need to dip into both past and present with some regularity. So how do we do this without losing the present?

Part of the question is: are you clear, and in the present when you are attending to the future or past, or are you lost in the future or past? Are you constricted when you consider, for example, what you have to do tomorrow, or what happened yesterday? Are you dwelling on it, perseverating, feeling stressed about either the past or the future? Being present to those feelings is key.

I have two examples of practices I use that help me in this regard. First, is cooking practice. I love to cook, particularly for other people. And I love cooking for retreats – it’s a kind of container that helps me with this practice.

Cooking requires thought about present and future, particularly. You want everything to be cooked approximately at the same time, and, especially if you are cooking for 30 or more (yes, I’ve done that) it requires a lot of coordination. What I find really interesting is how I deal with the stress of trying to make sure that everything worked well, was seasoned correctly, is cooked, and arrives basically together, on time, when people are ready to eat. In a sense, it’s attending to both the future (how everything is going to come together) and the present (how am I feeling about it all.)

Christians contemplatives have some great practices to look at the past. My favorite is the Prayer of Examen (I mentioned it in a past post.) This prayer has its origin in Ignatian spirituality – the spirituality of the Jesuits. The basic idea of the prayer is to look back on your day with mindfulness, and notice what happened during the day, with an openness to the presence of God.

I came up with a version that is kind of a mix of traditions, and I think it is one that someone who doesn’t identify as Christian can use.

First, sit and be present to how you are feeling in this moment about the day. Is there anxiety about what happened, joy, pain, and/or anger? Be open to those feelings, and have compassion for yourself. If you wish, be open to the presence of the Divine, however you define it.

Be willing to look at the days events with gentleness for yourself and others. And if you find yourself unwilling, notice that, and let yourself admit that you don’t have that willingness. It’s all OK.

Then, look at the events of the day, one by one. Notice what feelings come up when a particular event occurred. Notice when there is sadness, or anger, or joy, or pain. Let gentleness and compassion wash over those feelings, if they are difficult for you. Notice what you might have done differently, or said differently, and forgive yourself if you feel shame or anger at yourself. Let the grace that is present in the Universe bathe you with love.

Notice if you can’t remember much of the day. Notice what might have allowed you to be more present in the day. Think about what you might do tomorrow to be more present for the day.

End the Examen with gratefulness for your efforts during the day to stay present, and gratefulness for whatever the day has brought to your practice.