Holy Listening with Stephen Colbert

stephen-colbert-1-800I am a fan of Stephen Colbert.  I am even more of a fan after watching his interview with DeRay McKesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and the new Campaign Zero, this past Monday on The Late Show.  Colbert introduced himself to McKesson as possibly “the whitest person you’ve ever met.”  Then, after a brief discussion of white privilege, Colbert offered to switch seats with McKesson, putting his guest in the role of host.

Throughout this interview and with this simple gesture of switching seats, Stephen Colbert was practicing what I would call “holy listening.”  Holy listening is honoring another by giving him or her our full attention.  It is a practice of recognizing the sacred in others, as well as the dynamics of power and privilege at play between human beings.  I remember reading about how difficult it is for those who are not in a position of power to find a way to be heard.  Hearing these minority voices really depends on the listener coming to the conversation free of his or her own agenda.  It also depends upon the listener being open to the validity of the other person’s experience.  In other words, holy listening is difficult–especially since we are not trained to listen well.  We have been trained to be distracted.  We have been trained to be loud, assertive, and confident.  We have been trained to get our point across.  Rarely are we trained in the art of listening.  But we sure could use more people practicing this fine art.  Stephen Colbert modeled a great way to begin.  Switch seats.  Stop talking.  Honor the person sitting across from you enough to be fully present with him–especially if that person’s human experience is different than your own.

 

 

Three Lessons from a Productive Summer

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Lesson #1: Pay attention to baby sparrows.

A newborn sparrow surprised me last spring, unballing himself at the end of my driveway as I was heading out for a run. I had mistaken him for a leftover clump of dead grass. His feet, each with three long, hooked toes were bigger than his whole body. He stood and cocked his thimble-sized head—a shock of feathers on top like a scruffy cowlick—to get a good look at me looking at him.

This summer, during a creative nonfiction writing class, that newborn sparrow worked himself into a piece I wrote about my son as an infant. As I wrote, I was thankful I had paused at the end of my driveway long enough so I could write about the sparrow in detail. Afterwards, I promised to pay more attention to the “baby sparrows” of life, the intricate, intimate life moments that lead us to the best creative fodder.

Lesson #2: Ugliness reveals ugliness.

Another article of mine was published in The Christian Century this past June. In this article I revealed a lot about my preaching anxiety. At the end I even quipped about needing the occasional Xanax to get me through my preaching nerves. I got lots of positive feedback for the article. A number of people specifically noted, with appreciation for my honesty, the line about taking Xanax. Not everyone was so kind, though. One woman apparently felt like I needed a little lecture about addictive prescription drugs. Publishing her comment on the Christian Century’s website, she concluded that if I needed Xanax just to get through a sermon, then clearly I had a problem.

I won’t lie. Her comment stung—it stung so much it made me wonder if I wanted to write so honestly again. Then, Christine, my awesome friend and writing coach, helped me see this woman’s comment for what it really was; an ugly response that made her look ugly, not me. Ugliness reveals ugliness. Thanks for this timely lesson, Christine.

Lesson #3: Encourage others, as you have been encouraged.

Blogging can be discouraging. Sometimes you feel like you are putting your words out there for all the world to read and nobody notices; nobody clicks your link, leaves any comments or gives you any blog love. No matter how many times you check your site’s stats (and yes, some of us check obsessively) that beautiful blue bar graph of “hits” never rises as high as you would like.

I blog for a variety of reasons. I blog as a spiritual practice, as a way to develop my thoughts and my writing, and as a reminder to myself that I have something to say. So it’s not just about the number of hits or likes, I receive. (I don’t think I would have kept at it this long, if that were the case.) But it sure does feel great to get a little encouragement. A few people, in particular, have encouraged me through my blogging, by offering me more opportunities to write. For these people, I am extremely grateful.

So when I found myself at a conference this summer where a number of clergy were starting new blogs, suddenly I was in the happy position of being able to encourage others. I have been having so much fun since this conference, following my new blog friends, leaving comments, and sharing many of the opportunities that were shared with me. Most of these new blogs are written by clergy who are privileged with (what I call) “life encounter” stories— stories like “Bitch Wings” by my new blogging friend Melissa Earley, a pastor in the United Methodist Church. (Seriously, read that post of Melissa’s. You won’t regret it. Then follow her blog. She’s got something to say.)

Some might say that I need to have more of a competitive spirit about all this—that there are millions of blogs out there and I need to market myself and promote myself. But honestly, that feels self-centered and smarmy. I’d much rather encourage others, as I have been encouraged and share the blog love.

[Feature Image: Angelo Di Blasio]

The Practice of Doing Nothing: A Magnetic Experience

magnet-strength-magnet-on-clipsI’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. It never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own meditation practice. It’s fascinated me to witness more and more students who have been drawn to sit with me in silence each Friday. Honestly, it seems like exactly the thing this techno-addicted generation would avoid. So I can’t really explain it, but the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel—attracting students to this time and space of attentive stillness.

The whole experience of leading this group has been life-giving for me. It’s exciting to feel how the students are drawn to the group. It’s incredibly easy for me to prepare—all I have to do is maintain my practice and inspiration about how to lead the next group always comes. Also, the feedback I get oftentimes validates what I am learning.

For instance, a few weeks ago, following one of our meditations, I shared an observation.   I had been noticing that as I meditated and focused on my breath, the thoughts that interrupted me that were thoughts of the future (things I needed to do, conversations I imagined having, dreams of what might come) always entered my mind from the right side. On the other hand, thoughts of the past (events I relived and replayed, memories, past hurts) entered my mind from the left. So the phrase “staying centered” took on literal meaning as I sought to focus my mind in its center, on what is right in front of me and in the present moment. This has been helpful to my practice, so I shared it with my students. As I did, one of them gasped, “Oh my gosh! That’s exactly what happens to me!” Others affirmed a similar experience so we paused to contemplate and marvel over the way our minds work and what we can learn when we pay attention.

I recently heard someone describe how his practice of meditation has “softened” him. This rang true of my practice as well. I’ve been surprised to discover meditation softening me to others—not just those who irritate me, but everyone: the colleagues I work with, my students, people I see on the news. At first, meditation felt like a very me-centered, self-absorbed practice. But by diving deeply into myself and paying careful attention to all that is inside of me, I’m finding that I not only learn about myself but about what it means to be human and what we all hold in common. It’s a gift I keep going back to for more and more and more. It’s magnetic.

 

 

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Introduction to Meditation

My meditation practice began with the purchase of a new, maroon zafu and zabuton—fancy names for the pillows I learned were a must for those who suffer empty-handswhile sitting cross-legged on the floor. The cushions feel good under my sit-bones, keep my back straight and my anklebones comfortable. I sit in a dark room near my office at the college where gray light filters in through venetian blinds. Behind me is a green chalkboard since this used to be a classroom, turned conference room, now cleared out as a space for prayer and meditation. Our college has welcomed a new group of Muslim students who needed a quiet place to pray. So we created this space in which I find myself meditating each morning.

Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock wryly cracked, “Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.” And I might agree, except that French is a beautiful language and kissing speaks of love—especially when it’s not required, or expected. This is the beauty of meditation for me. Out of the nothingness of it, out of this waste of time, comes beauty and knowledge I never expected.

For instance, one day I sat, focused on my breathing, and came to the knowledge that my body is not happy unless it is in constant motion. I itched to go and do while I sat. It was a pulling within me towards activity like the addict is pulled to her dope. The same was true of my mind that was not content unless it was leaping, forward or backward, to any moment but the present. After my practice I wondered how I could be happy if my body and mind never wanted to be where I actually was? I didn’t know of this discontent—of my unrest and addiction to motion—until I practiced doing nothing.

Meditation, then, is a clearing of space for me, an emptying ritual of only ten to twelve minutes. My desire is to open myself through this practice so I can receive whatever comes. Sometimes nothing comes. But that’s okay. Who am I to judge the nothingness? More often, though, I am given something out of the nothing—an epiphany (such as the discontent to which my mind and body lure me) a knowing humility that the world moves on as I sit, or a simple and subtle diffusing of the urgency of my emotions. These are gifts I never would have received had I not engaged myself in the practice of doing nothing, had I not stopped for a few minutes to sit cross-legged, in a dark room on a maroon zafu and zabuton.