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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.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Ordinary Miracles

We are surrounded by miracles, but we don’t often notice because they seem so ordinary. Consider, there was nothing living on this earth, and now it is teaming with life. Scientists and theologians have many ideas about why and how, but despite centuries of study, there is much we just don’t know. All we know is that we are alive. We see around us an amazing array of life’s creativity. There are millions of species of plants and animals across the face of the earth, and that doesn’t even include the billions of bacteria and virus species. If you’ve ever been to an aquarium or watched a documentary about ocean life you know that stranger things live on this earth than any science fiction writer ever dreamed of.

Even the common plants and animals we see in our neighborhood are a miracle. Birds, for example, can fly. That’s a fact so basic that we’ve stopped marveling at it, but that doesn’t make it any less extraordinary. Children know this. If you’ve ever taken a walk with a toddler, you won’t get very far because they have to stop and be amazed every few minutes. They know that birds are amazing, and dogs are amazing, and sticky things are amazing and dandelions are definitely amazing. But somehow we forget. We see birds fly a few thousand times and it becomes ordinary to us.

Jewish ethicist and mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the importance of awe and wonder in our spiritual life. He wrote: “Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the Divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple, to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.”

Violets in my Back Yard

This season, I encourage you to consider a practice of cultivating awe and wonder. Consider the world as a toddler does -- each tree, each bird, each bit of ice cream a miracle. As adults we are out of practice, so this may take time. Don’t worry if you can’t see it right away. Searching for something awe-inspiring requires patience, curiosity and a willingness to let things reveal themselves to our gaze. Perhaps you are traveling and will see something wonderful as you visit a new city or rest beside the lake. But life is no less miraculous just because you see it every day. The ordinary view out your front door is a miracle; let it fill you with awe and wonder.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

What we can count on

 Sometimes when I hear the news I lose hope. Some days it’s just hard to picture a positive outcome for all the struggles in our own lives or in the world around us. Perhaps that’s why these words “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (from the Christian Scriptures - 1 Corinthians) keep popping into my mind. Hope can be a quixotic thing, it comes and it goes. But the scripture tells us “hope abides” reminding us that even when we lose hope, it still abides. When we cannot hope for ourselves, remember that others are holding hope for us and for the world.

But, I realized, even when hope is hard to find I still have faith --even when I’m discouraged, or even despairing. I know that things change suddenly in ways we can’t expect. I know there is a larger picture I can’t always see. I know that life finds a way. Life was here long before I was born and will keep living long after I am gone. There is something big and old that endures even the great dramas of our time. It is like bedrock under all that moves and changes.

Maybe that’s what the Psalmists were pointing to when they wrote “God is my rock.” Consider the solid things that are holding you up right now- the chair, the floor, the earth. When we are afraid or discouraged, it can be a soothing practice just to notice the solid things and how they hold us up. Just notice the places where your body is being supported right now. Let yourself sink into those places, and give up your weight to them. It’s not hard to have faith in a force as persistent and enduring as gravity.

Love also abides, and in fact, the passage from Corinthians tells us, “the greatest of these is love”. Today as I consider those words, I imagine a love that pervades all things. Love is in rough places and smooth, in solid and the fluid, the changing and the stable. This is not only the love of romance novels, not only in the sweetness of friendship, not only in the parent holding the child, but as the Christian Scriptures tell us “God is Love” and earlier in Corinthians “love never ends.” To imagine a love that never ends, to imagine a love that is big enough for the divine, we might have to change our picture of what love looks like, or feels like. Just as it can be reassuring to notice the solid things in our life that hold our weight, it is an important practice to notice all the faces of love in our life, and to have faith that it is all around us even when we can’t see it. 

Whenever I am feeling disconnected from love, I take a moment to meditate on the center of my chest, to just breathe in and out and remember all the people I love, all the people I care about, because as that verse in the gospel of John says “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Whenever you are feeling hopeless about the world, I encourage you to remember- who do you find easy to love? Who needs your love? Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we are loved, but it can be easier to remember those who need our love. Maybe this is why videos of baby animals are so popular- we are hard wired to feel caring and protective when we see a baby. When I call to mind my son, and how much I love and cherish him, a feeling of love surfaces. Start with something easy and sit with that as long as you need, and then let it grow. Whenever we cultivate this feeling of love, it helps us remember the larger love which holds us all.

In these hard times, remember that even now, “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love”

 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Spiritual Practices for the Grocery Store

 I had just returned from a retreat, and was feeling very peaceful and centered. Then I went to the grocery store during that crowded time of the week when everyone seems to be at the grocery store. Almost immediately I felt impatient. It seemed like everyone was getting in my way- blocking aisles with badly positioned carts or bodies. It’s not uncommon for me to feel grumpy and impatient at the grocery store, but on this occasion, perhaps because I had just come from a retreat, it occurred to me to wonder “why the impatience?” I didn’t, in point of fact, have any place else I needed to be. I had plenty of time to buy my groceries, get home and cook dinner. If I totaled up each time I had to stop and wait for folks to move, it couldn’t possibly add more than 5 minutes, so where was the harm?

I noticed that I was seeing all these people at the store as obstacles to my goal. They were not fellow shoppers, they were objects in my way. I was humbled by the realization.

Two habits of mind contributed to this perception. First, the idea that time spent in the grocery story is wasted, is taking away from my “real life” which can only continue once I get home. From this point of view, any additional moment I spent waiting for the cross traffic of lumbering grocery carts was perceived as taking away from “my time.” But I know this is not the case- my life in the grocery store is still my life. I get to choose whether I spend that time mindfully or whether I treat it as “waste time” that I discard. My dad used to say, once he had us kids loaded in the car for any outing, whether to the bank, the grocery store or the gas station “We’re off—on the greatest adventure of our lives!” This inevitably caused us to groan and roll our eyes. But I wonder; how would my time in the grocery story be different if I thought of it as a great adventure, instead of a waste?

The second habit I noticed was seeing obstacles instead of people. Each and every person in the grocery store is having their own troubles, their own adventures, their own feelings about being stuck in the produce aisle. No person is an object. I asked myself, “how would my visit to the grocery store change if I challenged myself to think of all these people as souls”? It was harder than I thought. I could do the things I would do if I saw them as souls, like slowing down, and being patient and letting other people go first, but it was hard to really feel that they were souls. Perhaps it’s because when we go out shopping, we ourselves act like objects, not souls. We put our protective coating on, and our souls barely leek out. It helped when I started making up stories about my fellow shoppers: “she looks like she had a hard day at work” or “perhaps the man in line at the prescription counter has just gotten some bad news from his doctor.” It also helped to look at people, to really notice them: “look how patient that woman is being with her 2 young children.” Or “look how hard that cashier is working to get people through her line quickly.”

I’ve decided to make this my new spiritual practice everywhere I go, but especially those places where everyone seems like an obstacle or an object: like in traffic, like at the store. What would it take to see the people around me souls? And what difference might it make to my own spirit, and to the spaces we share?

Waiting in line to vote- "The Greatest Adventure of our Lives"


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A Spot for what Feeds our Spirit

We can connect with the spirit any time, any place. Even standing in line at the grocery store or stuck in traffic can be an opportunity for prayer or mindfulness if we choose. But there are benefits to having a special time or place set aside for our spiritual practice.

My husband plays the guitar. When we moved into our new house, he set up all his music equipment in a nook on the second floor, where it mostly gathered dust. Finally he was inspired to hang his guitar on the wall not far from his seat at the dining room table. Now anytime he had a musical idea, his guitar was just a step or two away, and he started making music again. The idea worked so well that before long we moved his mixer and turntables onto a nice piece of furniture we had on that same wall (I was very committed to that point- it had to look nice if it was going to be in the dining room). Now almost every day he spends time making music, and the upstairs nook continues to be a storage area for musical instruments and equipment not currently in use.

I also have a spot for my daily practice. It’s in the office where I do most of my work, literally one step from where I am typing this right now. Our house is quite small, so there’s not a lot of extra space for me to spread out, but there’s room for a meditation cushion and a tiny table just big enough for whatever book I am reading as part of my daily practice. It helps that from my spot I have a view of a windowsill covered with plants, and a tree where sometimes birds and squirrels alight.

It’s amazing what a difference it makes. My desk is a place of busy-ness and problem solving, but when I take that step and seat myself on my meditation cushion I enter a space that is just-right for my practice; It feels like a whole different room. Because I come back to this spot day after day for a single purpose, it’s like the body knows and remembers what is coming, and as soon as I enter my spot, I start to sink into a meditative or prayerful frame of mind.

What kind of spot would you want for your practice? One of my friends has a painting practice, so she has a little bag with everything she needs always ready, a portable spot that comes with her wherever she goes. Another friend loves to sit in her comfy chair in front of a window with a view of a beautiful old tree. Your spot doesn’t have to look any certain way. You don’t need any fancy gear. The idea is to make it easy to slip into your practice whenever you are ready. As you shape your space, allow yourself to be like the puppy who walks in circles getting his bed just-so before he lies down. The more you use this space, the more it will start to take on a quality of sacred space and the easier it will become to slip into your practice like a favorite pair of shoes.

 

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Finding the Present Moment

Let’s try a mindfulness practice right now, as you read this column. Take a breath and arrive fully in this moment. One way to do this is just to start with something small, like your hands. If you put your hands on your legs, you can feel the air across the back of your hands. You can feel the warmth of your legs under your hands. You can feel the reality of your hands, right now in this unique moment. Notice whatever arises with a non-judgmental compassionate awareness… When your mind wanders off, just notice and gently bring it back… back here to this moment…Back here to the lived reality of the moment we are sharing together.

Notice if you have any expectations of yourself or of the moment, and notice how those differ from your actual experience…

Here are a few things I’ve noticed from my own experience of this practice:

First of all, I spend very little time in the present moment. Apparently I focus most of my attention planning for and anticipating the future.

Second, trying harder doesn’t seem to help. If I’m “trying” I’ve created a story about what “should” happen, a goal to strive for. If I’m captured by my expectations, it divides my attention from what is really happening. Instead I can notice what I’m thinking, notice what I’m feeling, and gently allow my attention to come back to this present moment whenever that is available to me. The present moment can seem like a shy kitten who will go hide if it feels pursued, but might come sit near you if you just wait quietly and patiently.

Third, it helps if I start with the premise that I can’t do it wrong. If I notice I have expectations that I SHOULD be able to be in the present moment, and I begin evaluating and judging and analyzing myself, now I’m even further from the present moment than when I started, that kitten is hiding in the attic by now. But if I notice my expectations and feelings and thoughts non-judgmentally, without expectation, without trying to decide if they are right or wrong, if I just notice them with compassion and curiosity, I increase my availability to reality. Because even the thought “this is lame and difficult, this shouldn’t be so hard” is a real thought, if that is indeed what is arising, so noticing it non-judgmentally allows us to stay on the path of reality.

Fourth, reality is pretty interesting. I like to practice paying attention to reality when I’m bored, because I’m always saying I don’t have enough time for my spiritual practice, so why not use some scrap of time I’ve already labeled as boring? Moreover, I’ve found that I sometimes I feel bored because I EXPECT to be bored. I assume waiting in line at the grocery store is boring, that being stuck in traffic will be boring, but if I get curious about this moment, there’s often a lot going on in my body, my mind, my feelings, or in the world around me. That boredom might be a barrier between me and a really interesting moment I might miss. Or it might be a barrier I put up because underneath I was starting to feel something challenging -- a restlessness, a sadness, a frustration. I will leap out of my own experience of lived reality as an escape from feeling something that might be difficult.

As you move through your day today, I invite you to notice, with a non-judgmental compassionate awareness, when expectations and reality diverge. Hold your expectations loosely where you are able, and look for opportunities to be present with reality as it is unfolding, because that is where life is, in this very moment.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Unhooking

 It starts out as a regular conversation, friendly or useful, then without even noticing, our conversation is now an argument. What happened? And more importantly, how do we turn the argument back into a conversation?

Right now, many of us are experiencing COVID-19 fatigue, or the many stressors of 2020, which can make arguments more likely. To compound the already heightened emotions, we don’t have the ordinary reassurance of speaking face to face in a room with those we are communicating with. A one sentence email, or Facebook post can hook us, and now we are either in an argument on our screens, or we are arguing with the person silently in our minds, maybe for days. I’ll be honest with you I’ve spent a lot of time arguing in my head with my meditation teacher, and that family member who posted something that hooked me on Facebook. So today I’d like to take some time to notice what is happening, I’m going to call it “getting hooked” and to give us some tools for “unhooking.”

A hook is a very simple tool. I have them all over my house, they hold hanging plants mugs, curtain ties, bracelets, clothing. I’d encourage you to grab a hook for this part of the service, let’s play with it. Why? Because symbols and metaphors are also helpful tools in understanding ourselves and our world. Getting the body involved, like holding a hook in your hand provides a kinesthetic, embodied style of learning.


Look around your space, what can you hook with your hook? Not everything will hook. Not everything will hook easily. [pause] Our psyches are like this too. We can have many conversations, we can read many social media posts, and they slide off us. Then, something will hook us, hook our attention, our thoughts, our emotions. That can be good or bad.

But sometimes what hooks has emotional charge, some tender spot that touches our history, or a complex of unresolved issues. I’ll tell you one that hooked me recently. In the Enneagram tradition of personality typing, my type is the 9 or “peacemaker” Recently on a Facebook group, someone posted that 9s have trouble making decisions because they “don’t know themselves.” This really hooked me. I spent about a week arguing with that guy in my head. I’m sure many other people read that quote and didn’t get hooked, but it sure got me. That sentence was just the right size for my own personal hook. 

Step 1- I notice that I am hooked. Like if you were walking by a pricker bush and got hooked by a branch, you would need to just stop, look and notice “oh, I’m hooked on that pricker bush.” Often we notice this as an emotional charge- I feel wound up, stuck, agitated, worried, frustrated, angry, and I notice that it is sticking to me, that I am carrying it around with me into my day. For me, noticing and being able to articulate that I am hooked is already a bit of a relief. By noticing there is much better chance we can avoid damage to our favorite shirt, or to the pricker bush.

Step 2 is to stop tugging at it. You can see with this hook, that tugging is not going to help. [show] It’s easy to unhook if it’s still sitting on my desk, but once I pick it up, I am not going to be able to unhook until I set it down. A hook like this is wide open on one side, and only works because of the force of the object. You can put a heavy object on it, and gravity will make it work. I feel trapped, but actually, there is still plenty of space for me to unhook. So before we lash back to that Facebook post, we just pause, unclench our muscles and give ourselves a little compassion that we are now hooked, and that doesn’t feel good.

Step 3 is to investigate with kindness. Just as you would if a bramble had hooked your favorite shirt, and you bent over- very carefully so you don’t rip it- to inspect the hook and where it is snagged on your shirt. We look inside and ask- what feeling am I having, what are those feelings connected to? To me, the important thing here is not to figure out who did what to whom, who is right and who is wrong, but where does the shirt end and the hook begin. What is mine to notice and change, and what belongs to the bramble.

I look at the argument and literally notice where I end and the other person begins. This is called individuation, and it is a really important goal for psychological health. This might take some discernment. It’s one thing to say “that author hurt my feelings” and to be mad at the author, which I did. But another way to look at is “the author said this thing” and “I feel hurt” – those are 2 separate things. I can’t change what the author said, but I do need to take care of myself, and the feelings I have, and what I want to do about them. In my case I carried this Enneagram argument around for a week, looking for a way to set it down, but finally I sat down and wrote in my journal what I DO know about myself- that I love peace. I love it more than I care whether we have sushi or burritos for dinner. Once I remembered what I know about myself, and grounded myself in that self-knowledge, it was easy for me to unhook. That author didn’t even know me. I claimed my own wisdom about myself, and slid right out of that hook.

As I was writing today’s reflection, I realized that it owes a lot to a Buddhist practice called “RAIN” that I’ve been practicing. (Buddhist psychology is a rich tradition that reaches back thousands of years and has some very practical tools and wisdom.) I’ll put some links into the chat and the blog for work by Tara Branch, who is a wonderful teacher, and has a series of meditations about this.

What I am calling “sliding the hook out” she calls this 4th step “non-identification” Once I’ve figured out where I am hooked, which part is me, what I am hooked on, and where there may be space to let go, I can free my hook from whatever has hooked it.

Brach says there’s an important last step which is resting in that place. How lovely to have achieved that state of being unhooked, of knowing that I am not that argument, I am not my feelings, to just enjoy that for a moment and rest into it.

A few months ago, I got an email from an acquaintance who sends out political rants to all his friends and acquaintances. This particular rant was about some terrible thing that liberals do, or had done. I felt a surge of adrenaline as I read it, and immediately began composing a response in my mind. But I had promised myself I wouldn’t respond, because I didn’t want to get into an argument with him, but that email kept writing itself in my mind. I finally turned to my husband Eric and said “Why would he say that when it’s verifiably false?” Eric replied, “that’s called liberal baiting, he’s just trying to get a rise out of you.” Wow, it sure worked, I thought. But suddenly I saw that I was hooked, and I was able to let go.

Now this is a bit harder when you are in an argument with a person you do know, and they are hooked too. People in your household, people in your family or workplace. So if you are sitting near a friend now, you can try that together. If, like me, you don’t’ have a buddy, you can use one hand for each person. You can see that if you are both pulling, you are never going to get unhooked, and you might even hurt each other.

If you are both committed to healthy communication, you could ask, “hey can we talk about this? I feel some intense feelings and I’d like to talk this through because I care about this relationship” and you can work through the process together, like that time my bracelet hooked on a friend’s sweater.

But some people are just not able or willing to do that. So remember, your hook is part of you, that’s what you can control. [hold out hooked finger- hook it to other hooked finger] Once you have spent some time in reflection, figuring out what is your part of the argument (your “contribution” some folks call it) what you need to own, and what is not yours to own, you can choose to soften your hook and let go. That can sometimes be very challenging, so that’s why we do it with kindness to ourselves and to others.

If someone still comes after you with their hook, that’s abusive. That requires a clear boundary that their hook will slide off. You many need friends to help you create and keep that boundary. Boundaries are a talk for another day. That’s why the first step is recognizing- is asking- is this a hook, or is it something else?

Like some of you, I’ve been sheltering at home in a space that feels pretty small some days for 3 large adults. We’ve all been intentionally kind to one other, knowing we are stuck together in a new way. The other day my husband said something, and I snapped back- instantly hooked. He said “I don’t want to have an argument” and I realized I didn’t want to either. And in that moment, I was able to notice the hook, figure out what I was hooked on, unhook and let it go. In this difficult time when tempers are short, the country is divided and we all have the COVID-19 fatigue, remembering to notice when we get hooked, and practicing unhooking may be very useful. It’s a nonviolent way of looking at the tangles of our life and relationships that helps us grow in self knowledge and non-identification, so we can rest in the freedom of who we really are.
 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Mindfulness Alert

If you let it, your phone will alert you for everything. Not only when your friend messages you, or when a package is delivered, but when there’s a chance of rain, when your store has a new coupon, or when someone you don’t even know has a new photo on Instagram. You can turn off most of these alerts, which I keep thinking I have done until an unfamiliar alarm asks me to review the livestream yoga class I just left. Sigh.

Usually, when the alert sounds, I am doing something else. The sound of the alert disrupts my train of thought and sometimes I have trouble getting back on track. But sometimes it disrupts something that really needed disrupting, like playing one more round of that game I can’t put down. One day a meaningless alert came while I was meditating, which made me grumpy, until I realized my mind had wandered far from my meditation, and needed to be brought back anyway. It made me wonder if there was a way I could get those alerts to work for me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the teachers to introduce Americans to the idea of Mindfulness back in the 1970s, suggested that whenever we hear a bell, we might use that as a reminder to come back to mindfulness, to notice where our attention is and bring it back where we want it to be. I very rarely hear a bell in my daily life, but my life is full of “alerts.” What if all those alerts could be used as part of a mindfulness practice?

Neuroscience is proving today what Buddhism has long taught- that there are psychological, mental and physical benefits from practicing mindfulness, the practice of non-judgmental compassionate awareness to the present moment. Benefits range from increased focus and decreased stress, to such surprising outcomes as more satisfaction with relationships and reduced inflammation.  Mindfulness is also an ancient spiritual practice that helps us connect with the One and with our true Self. When we can bring our hearts, minds and spirits to focus on whatever or whoever needs our attention in this present moment, it brings power, wisdom and a vividness to whatever arises.

The mind naturally wanders, and needs help coming back home. Why not use the many alerts our technology happily provides to bring us back? If we are doing some task when the alert goes off, we could use that as an invitation to bring our full attention back to what we are doing; if we are washing the dishes, then the alert invites us to do the dishes mindfully, to really bring our full attention to the feeling of the water and the soap and the plate in our hands. Or we could use the alert as an invitation to bring our attention back to our breath, to just notice the breath as it moves in and out of our body. Alternately, if we have a prayer practice, we could use the alert as an invitation to prayer, to bring our attention to the spiritual dimension of life, to offer a blessing or a prayer wherever we are, right in the middle of whatever we are doing when the alert goes off.

I’ve playfully adopted this practice for about a month now. I’ll admit I often forget, but each time I remember to hear the alert as an invitation I ask “what was it I meant to be doing with my attention right now?” The usually annoying alert can become a welcome disruption to the chattering distracted mind and an invitation to come home to the body, the breath and the spirit.