Opportunities for spiritual practice in every day life.

"Living in Spirit" appears monthly in the Daily Review.
Here you can find an archive of past columns.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

On Being Alone

 This column was written in the fall of 2019 before we were sheltering at home. I thought this was an important time for a contemplative look at our time alone.

Sometimes being alone is a wonderful break from the noise of crowds, from the expectations of others. We all need time alone, and it nourishes us like food or water or sleep. But sometimes being alone is uncomfortable. Sometimes it feels lonely. Remember-- every human feels that, from time to time. The next time you feel lonely, try this:

First, feel whatever feelings arise. Sometimes we had feelings simmering unnoticed just beneath our consciousness, and they are rising to the surface now that we have a moment alone. Sigh. So we do the practice of just feeling them. Not clinging to them, not pushing them away. Just letting the feelings rise and then letting them go. If there were a lot of feelings, this might take a while, but somehow taking time to feel helps.

Sometimes we feel “lonely” instead of just “alone.” Loneliness is a survival drive like hunger or thirst that reminds us that humans need one another. For mammals our need for others is hard wired. We are pack animals and need our pack. We need them for safety and support. Loneliness sometimes says “do you know where your pack is?” Take a moment to remember your pack- your family, your friends, the neighbors who would feed your cat if you asked, the firemen and police who would come if you needed help. Type “Volunteer” and the name of your town into your favorite search engine, and see all the folks who give their time to support your community. Perhaps your loneliness is reminding you to connect to and strengthen your pack.

Loneliness also sometimes says “I need companionship.” And like being thirsty when your water bottle is empty, being alone when you want companionship is uncomfortable, and can be scary when you are not sure where your next drop is coming from. Loneliness is asking you to make a plan to find companionship. Just as it might take time to walk to the next water fountain, it may take time to find your companions. I have noticed in the past that if I start texting and calling and reaching out, it may take time for things to come together, but most of those efforts yield companionship sooner or later.

Sometimes, even when I’m with other people, I feel lonely. But sometimes I feel something really joyful and sweet even though I am alone in a crowd of strangers. Recently I went to see live music on the town square, and though I was alone I didn’t feel lonely. I felt proud of the great town I live in. I felt the joy of all the folks listening to the jubilant music. I was moved by  the musicians, working so hard, and all the people supporting them. Sometimes I feel my connection to everyone, and sometimes I don’t. The connection is real either way.
When you think about it, being alone is just an illusion, just a feeling. In fact we can never actually be alone. Even when there are no humans nearby there are birds and trees and bugs and a crazy network of fungus and microbes linking all to all. We are part of an interconnected web of life from before we are born until after we die. Know that you are never alone.

Please remember that even though we may not be able to hug right now, there are still many ways to connect. Please reach out, keep reaching out. You are never alone.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Out of Your Comfort Zone?

The great thing about being an adult is that you know how to do a lot of stuff. Walking, talking, balancing your checkbook, doing laundry, cooking a meal- we have so many skills we take for granted. We know our favorite brand of dish soap, what time we like to eat lunch, and whether we like roller coasters. This is also the spiritual challenge of being an adult; if you know what you like, if you know what you are good at, it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone.

Just a few months ago I realized that I was stuck in my comfort zone. At this moment in life when I’ve been in ministry over 20 years, and have a yoga practice even older, it’s easy to fall into the habit of doing the things I know how to do, the things I’m used to doing. It’s easy to lose the beginner’s mind that looks at the world with fresh eyes. It’s hard to step out into a world of unexplored territory. As a spiritual practice, I challenged myself to try things I suspected I’m not very good at. I took up drawing, having given it up at age 7 or so. It’s been a practice in humility (and sometimes frustration) to  be so far out of my comfort zone, to stumble and grow in that way that is natural for children, but antithetical to our adult sense of self.

Then the Pandemic reached our area, and we began to shelter at home. We realized with humility that are all now adult learners. Not only were the stores out of our favorite dish soap, they were out of many of the products we counted on, many of the ingredients for the meals we knew how to make. When our churches began worshiping online, I met with a group of very experienced colleagues who agreed “it’s like we are first year ministers again- everything is new.” The learning curve is very steep for all of us. One colleague shared her mantra for this time: “there is no perfection in a pandemic.”

As our community began its phased reopening, we headed (some of us tentatively, some of us like students on the last day of school) out into the world, and we realized what essential works have been living for months- that everything was new there too. I so admire these business owners who have had to rethink everything. A favorite restaurant just reopened and I was so impressed with how they had rearranged their space to increase safety, how carefully they had created new processes for the new world we are living in, and how the food was just as delicious as ever. And when I visit a business where things are confusing, where the staff are overwhelmed I just repeat to myself “there is no perfection n a pandemic.”

My friend Mr. B learning to teach 2nd grade online 

We are all out of our comfort zone now. There is no avoiding learning new things; we stumble, we scratch our heads as things we thought would never change have changed. These are not changes that any of us would have chosen, but we can choose to listen for the spirit as we navigate this new world. These challenges have shaken us from our usual ways of being, have shaken our sense of security, our sense that we know what to expect from this world.

It is humbling as an adult to have to re-learn basic things; it is humbling acknowledge how much we don’t know. But the religious traditions of the world remind us that a humble heart is the beginning of wisdom. When we are certain of the world and our place in it,  we often rest in that certainty instead of listening for  the Spirit.  Honor yourself whenever you feel the discomfort of facing a changed world. Let that discomfort soften your sense of what you know about the world, about yourself. Let your humble heart open to the spirit as you step out into this changing evolving world.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Practice of the Contemplative Gardener

My lawn is growing so fast I can barely keep up. Everywhere I look I see a chore that needs to be done- the dead branch that needs pruning, the garden that needs weeding, and of course the lawn that needs mowing. This can be exhausting.

The contemplative path calls us to a different way of looking at the world. Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt described contemplation as taking a “long, loving look at the real”. Instead of seeing the world around us as a to do list, the contemplative path invites us to be present with what is, exactly as it is.

So during this time of abundant growth, I have adopted a spiritual practice of gazing out from my front porch with a long, loving look at all I see. My practice is to just observe. I live right downtown, so what I see each day is the same few trees, my neighbors houses, some parked cars, and strips of lawn in varying states of growth. But the longer I look with that loving gaze, the more deeply I know this place. That dead branch shows me something about the hard winter the tree had, and I become curious about the patterns of which branches die and which live. The dead branches on a tree represent an important part of the cycle of life. In fact, scientists are leaning more every day about the important role death plays in the eco-system of which that tree is a part. If the branch poses no immanent risk to passers-by or power lines, I accept the challenge to gaze at it just as it is without leaping up to get the clippers. .

The same practice came in handy when I noticed myself looking with judgement at the lawn of my neighbor who never did mow. Day after day I watched the spring grass grow into an unruly lawn. My judgmental gaze softened, and I began to look at it not as a neglected action item, but just as the reality of the moment. Then the wildflowers appeared – I’d never seen daisies growing in the city before. Butterflies came. It became a little patch of meadow. Each day my gaze lingered I began to love it just as it was.

Sometimes this long, loving gaze does call me to action. As I write this, we have gone too long without rain, and the soil has become parched and dry in places. It is because of that long loving gaze that I learned what a thirsty plant looks like, and what a plant in danger looks like. But, you might say, every gardener knows that, every farmer knows that. Yes! That is why gardening is a spiritual practice for so many people- because gardeners watch with love and concern as each plant they tend grows and thrives or struggles. So it is with the nature lovers, hikers and bird watchers who take time to let their ears and eyes linger with a long loving attention to whatever is around them.

Even when leave our stillness to pick up a piece of trash, water a thirsty plant or rev up the mower, the work can still be done with a contemplative gaze. We can notice the muscles we use as we move into action, we can observe our thoughts and feelings as we do our work, we can notice the effect of our work on the world around us, and when the work is done, remember to take time to look lovingly, deeply at the ever changing world we are part of tending and transforming every day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Morning Watch

I am not a morning person, but I was having trouble sleeping at the retreat center where I was staying, so I figured I might as well get up and see the sun rise from that first sliver of light on the horizon, when you can still see the starry sky above. In the following days I woke each morning to see what the new sunrise would bring; when conditions are just right there is a beautiful progression of colors until that bright orange egg yolk pops over the horizon. I found this practice, called “morning watch” to be a beautiful time for meditation and prayer. I was, at the time, grieving the recent death of my father, and so it was often a tearful time, but the beauty and peace of early morning and the transition to day was comforting, something I looked forward to each day.

One morning, though it was cold and damp, I woke up in the grey light, and walked to the top of a hill with my blanket. I waited, and waited and all that happened was that the sky changed from one shade of grey to another. The hills were cloaked in fog, and not a glimpse of color or sun could be seen. It was a no-sun sunrise. Still I took the time to mediate and pray, lingering, gazing at the horizon even longer that I might have if the bright sun had made it uncomfortable to watch. I sat with my disappointment and sadness -- not only for the missed sunrise, but for other losses in my life. I had grown to depend on that touchstone, a practice that had always rewarded patience with comfort and beauty and light.

I grumbled to my reflection group later that day about the “no-sun sunrise”. A friend pointed out that actually “the sun still rose” whether we could see it or not, which I grudgingly had to agree was factually correct.

My friend Sophie Marie, class of 2020
The no-sun sunrise came to mind as we enter graduation season. Graduates and their families are sad from the loss of pomp and circumstance, of ceremonies and parties -- the rites of passage that seemed inevitable and universal. We assume after you put in that hard work, when you are finally done, beauty and light, festivities and family and friends would mark the occasion. Perhaps there is a milestone in your own life that you had expected to celebrate with friends and family -- the birth or birthday of a grandchild, an anniversary or retirement. Perhaps this feels like a no-sun sunrise.

I woke one morning recently at a place that normally has a beautiful view of the sunrise, and wondered if the grey skies portended a grey and sun-less sunrise. Should I stay in bed, or have my morning watch? I got up, and sat in my favorite chair to wait. I meditated, and prayed, and watched the subtle changes in the shades of grey. No peek of color or sun. Nevertheless I sat and watched; I didn’t want to miss the sunrise, whether it was showy and pink, or quiet and grey.

To all you marking transitions this year, I grieve with you that they are not glowing with joy as they have in other years. The loss of that is real. At the same time, however this transition unfolds for you, that is real too, and it is yours. It is just as precious and unique as any other. The sun is still rising. You have still accomplished something real and important. Blessings to you in this tender and challenging time. It is still full of beauty and light, just behind the clouds.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Spiritual Freedom

When I was training to be a spiritual director we talked a lot about freedom. We talked about how we might avoid limiting the freedom for those who came to us for direction. It’s funny how subtle those limits can be. A casual comment like “you must feel very sad” can put your directee in a bind- you’re the authority, if you say they must feel sad, they might look at their inner experience through that lens. But what if that’s not quite what they are feeling? What if they are actually feeling angry, or ashamed? Then they have to choose between disagreeing with you or putting aside their own experience to follow your suggestion. So we were advised to mostly ask questions- “how do you feel” or “do you feel sad?” so that our directees felt free to respond out of their own inner truth.

It turns out I am particularly susceptible to such things. I really want to give the right answer, I really want to be agreeable, to be easy to work with. I feel a sense of constriction trying to make the right choice, the perfect choice and agonize about whether I am “going the right way.” I was agonizing over one such choice when I heard an interview with Kiran Trace who proposed that our true nature is freedom, that in fact we have “oceans of freedom.” I really liked the sound of that -- “oceans of freedom.” I felt better just hearing her say it. But what did she mean? I think she was pointing us toward a spaciousness that is available in us and all around us if we open ourselves to it.

Once, on retreat, we were given an assignment to write in our journals, and some starter questions to answer. Ugh. I thought, “I literally write about my spiritual reflections for a living. I love my work, but I’m on retreat.” I was filled with a rebellious spirit, determined to claim my freedom. I noticed there was a craft room right off our meeting space. I boldly went right in a signed out a box of colored pencils, and did much of my journaling for the remainder of the retreat in doodle form. I had seen that assignment as a narrow box and had resisted wedging myself into it. But that was my projection, my assumption. In truth, none of the facilitators were bothered by my choice. I noticed that other retreatants began to visit the craft room -- most likely that is what it was there for.

A full set of colored pencils as we "shelter at home"
Some of the images I doodled in my journal during that retreat turned out to be powerful and useful in my process -- transformative even. I think some of the freedom I found to express what needed to be expressed came from the fact that I never draw. I have no confidence or expectations of my drawing. Whereas I’ve come to expect my words to be measured and thoughtful and grammatically correct; with my colored pencils I had escaped expectations of form or technique. Such a small rebellion led to a huge opening of inner gates and locks. There was freedom available to me when I went looking for it. And the greater part of that freedom was not the freedom to choose colored pencils, it was an inner spaciousness.

In his wonderful book Everything Belongs Richard Rohr puts it this way “We have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences. That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even tertiary freedom. The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances.” That primal freedom is not contingent on anything external. That is a way of being in the world, a way of being in our own hearts and minds.

It may be hard to believe in oceans of freedom, but no matter how tightly we squeeze our fingers together water will always find a way to trickle out of our cupped hands. Could we believe at least in a trickle of freedom? Could we see the gaps and spaces where freedom flows all around us? Every living being is limited by our biology, by our community, by the times we live in. And yet filling every gap like a river flowing in its bed, surrounding us, permeating us, like the air we breathe, freedom is there too. All around us are oceans of freedom, the freedom to think what we think, the freedom to love what we love, the freedom “to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances”