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.

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”

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Making Home a Sacred Space

All of us who don’t work at hospitals or grocery stores or such are spending a LOT more time at home right now than usual. Thank you to all of you who are working to keep life going, and thank you to all of you who are staying home to keep us safe.

When we are at home so much our home space has to somehow do all the things; it is a restaurant, playground, library, school, gym and office. These days I am leading worship from my home, and the congregation is gathering by Zoom from their homes. Whenever we do that, it becomes our sacred space -- just by our coming together, just by our intention to make it so. “Sacred” means set aside. It means finding a time and place to remember what is most important to us, to remember the spirit, to remember our deepest self.

When the same space is also your office, hangout and guest room, I find it helps to prepare my space to help me remember that it is sacred. When I lead worship from my home I clear all my bills and other work off my desk, and I light a candle to help cultivate that quality of set aside time.

I find that it also helps me to have a set-aside space for my spiritual practice as well. Right next to my desk, I have a little cushion and a table- piled with all my books of meditation and poetry. Behind it is our guest bed which I threw a bedspread over to help my meditation spot feel special. It takes up just a couple feet of space, but as soon as I go to that spot, my body and mind immediately start to unwind, start to get ready to meditate or read or journal or just be quiet.

One of the books on that table is “Meditations” by Thomas Moore, who was a monk for many years. He helped me realize that we could imagine “sheltering at home” as our own private monastery. He wrote:
“withdrawal from the world is something we can, and perhaps should, do every day. It completes the movement of which entering fully into life is only one part, just as a loaf of bread needs air in order to rise, Everything we do needs an empty place in its interior. I especially enjoy such ordinary retreats form the active life as shaving, showering, reading, doing nothing, walking, listening to the radio, driving the car. All of these activities can turn off one’s attention inward to ward contemplation. Mundane withdrawal from the busyness of an active life can create a spirituality without walls, a spiritual practice ... At the sight of nothing, the soul rejoices” [p. l 4]
Do you have a space in your home that could be your sacred space? A place where you go to remember the sacred, to hear the still small voice within? Perhaps it could be a space that comes and goes as you need it- you could light a candle, or spread out a pretty cloth, or gather all your stuffed animals, to prepare your space in a way that says to you “this is a special time.” Whether we are in our church building, in a monastery or in our own room at home, the way we create sacred space, the most important way, is by setting aside some space in our minds and hearts. Make space for the spirit wherever you are sheltering today.


An Extroverted Spiritual Practice

Finally the growing season is in full swing. The long winter is over, and the trees are green again. I’m running into neighbors I haven’t seen since fall. The season invites us to turn from the inward contemplative focus back out into the world. Here in the North East, where our growing period is limited, the spring into summer is a sprint as plants grow and bloom and fruit. Your friends, your neighbors, the trees, the irises, the birds all have emerged from their winter dormant period, and lured out into the world by the long, warm days.

This season invites more extroverted spiritual practices. For most of the summer I move my meditation spot out onto the porch. Before I close my eyes and draw inward, I spend some time just gazing out at the world around me- at the breeze moving through the leaves in the trees, the squirrels hopping from branch to branch, the insects buzzing about, even the neighbors walking their dogs. At first I was frustrated by all the noise- the lawn mowers revving and buzzing, the cars zooming, the friends arguing as they walked by. Then I remembered a practice I had learned in a meditation workshop years ago- to open up my awareness and allow all the sounds to drift in and then let them drift out. In this practice I meet myself, just as I am, in the neighborhood just as it is.

Another favorite summer practice is a walking meditation. For years I have walked my dog on pretty much the same route each day. Instead of impatiently waiting for him to sniff every tree, I decided to engage the walk with openness and curiosity. I watch the mysterious circles he traces with his nose on the ground, and wonder what critters have been there before us. As I walked and observed the same path day after day, I have begun to know my neighborhood in a deeper way. It was exciting to see the Bleeding Heart in my neighbor’s yard that shot up over a few hot days burst into bloom, and now I notice that the blooms are waning. I remember the tree where the woodpecker came last year, and wonder if he’ll be back. I watch the neighbor kids running for the school bus, and marvel how they’ve grown. I love the special green of the moss on trees after a rain, and notice the dry wilt of plants when there is no rain.

This summer I encourage you to experiment with an extroverted practice. Begin with curiosity, and open your senses to whatever appears- flowers or bugs, sun or rain, the chirping of birds or the rumble of construction. As you reach the end of each period of practice, let go even of the curiosity, end with just gratitude- gratitude for all we meet exactly as it is.