The Blessing is Outside your Comfort Zone

“The blessing is outside your comfort zone.”  I recently heard this quote on a podcast about the spiritual practice of running.  But this truth extends beyond the topic of physical exercise.

A month ago, I was escorted to a classroom in the men’s maximum-security prison twenty minutes from my home. I was there to teach a class to fourteen inmates on the meaning and importance of empathy for healthy, human relationships.  The class was part of a research program funded by New York University to offer support and resources to the incarcerated and hopefully reduce the rate of recidivism.  Ten of us at my college have volunteered to develop and teach a liberal arts, literature-based curriculum as part of this program.

As I prepared for the class, I felt anxious about the teaching and about how I would be received.  From the volunteer training, I expected to meet murderers and sex offenders as well as men serving unreasonable, unjust sentences for minor drug charges.  I expected the men to come from lives and backgrounds vastly different than my own.  I expected the majority of the inmates to be black and brown—because these are the people we incarcerate in America today.  (I was right, there was only one white man in the class of fourteen.)  I expected that I would have to win them over and earn their respect, in spite of what seemed like huge relationship obstacles.

But when I arrived, early, they were already in the classroom at their desks.  I decided not to sit behind the large teacher’s desk at the front of the room, but rather sit at a student’s desk in a circle among them.  One of the inmates didn’t like the rickety desk I had chosen to sit in, so he stood up and insisted I take his because, as he told me, it was better.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and I asked them to share why they were interested in the class.  Their answers varied a little, but every man shared that he wanted to better himself, wanted to learn, and wanted to give back to his family, his community and his society.

The men devoured the literature I had given them to read.  I asked them to read one chapter of a book and instead they read the whole book.  And when the class was over, every single inmate, before leaving, took a moment to shake my hand, look me in the eye, and say, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for teaching us.” Clearly, I had an amazing experience teaching this class full of engaged, thoughtful, respectful men who, I discovered, defied many of my expectations and assumptions.

I’ve been back to the prison many times now to teach.  It’s never comfortable going there.  I have to leave my cell phone in the car, cutting me off from communication with the outside world. (This is terrifying.) To get to the classroom I have to walk through multiple large metal doors that open as I approach, then close and lock behind me. (Prison is no place for the claustrophobic.) But the men I meet there, the stories I hear, the meaningful conversations we have and the pain I feel when the class is over, knowing they will go back to a small shared cell with paint peeling off the walls, is worth traveling twenty minutes down the road where the blessing lies outside my comfort zone.

[Feature Image: Mitchell Haindfield]

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God as an annihilating silence

Annihilate (verb): destroy utterly; obliterate; defeat

Christian Wiman describes God as an “annihilating silence” in My Bright Abyss.

What does Wiman mean by this?  That God is a soundless, destructive force?  That God is an unapprehensible energy moving among us?  Or, that God is a SILENCE that can destroy all the NOISE of our life, all the CHAOS and CACOPHONY that exists in our world and turns us from God?

As I sit here, pen to clean pad of paper, writing what I think and thinking as I write, SILENCE focuses me, SILENCE guides me, SILENCE destroys the doubt and distraction that inevitably rise but cannot flourish within the absence of noise.  God is in this annihilating SILENCE and I am in God.

[Feature Image: “Silence” by Giulia van Pelt]

 

In the Valley of the Creative Process

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I am in the middle of writing my sermon for our upcoming Baccalaureate service. I have a great beginning, a muddled mess for a middle and no conclusion. Yet the day is fast approaching when I must deliver this creative work. So I am feeling anxious.

Last week I listened to a podcast on “Overcoming Creative Roadblocks” that hit home. During this podcast, Todd Henry talked about the creative process as having a U shape. Any sort of work you have to do, or project you want to complete is like a hike down into a valley. You start out on one side and looking across you can see the other side clearly. You can see your objective. Over there across the valley the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. It sure is going to be great when you get there. So you set off with all the momentum inspiration brings in the beginning.

ImageThen you get to the bottom of the valley and here your objective is obscured. Things get confusing. You can’t see as well. Maybe the trees are thicker here, the path becomes treacherous and you’re approaching the uphill climb. You start to hear scary animal noises and you wonder if you’re going to make it out of this valley alive. You start to question yourself, your sense of direction, your intuition. Should I have even started this journey to begin with? Things don’t look good right now.

According to Henry, we often tell ourselves that the most difficult part of a creative project is getting started—all I have to do is get started and then the rest will just come, we think. Or we tell ourselves that the hardest part is finishing the project, getting to that place of completion. But, Henry asserts, the truth is that the hardest part of any worthwhile endeavor is when you are right in the middle. Because here, in the middle, is where fear and self-doubt arise. You start telling yourself things like: I can’t do this. This is impossible. I suck at preaching. Things that are, in reality, only minor obstacles appear to us here, in the valley, as huge and disastrous. My outline isn’t working. I’m doomed! My printer is jammed. God has cursed me!

So what we need here is motivation to keep going, to keep pushing ourselves forward. We need narratives in our head that aren’t based in fear or self-doubt. We need a way to positively confront the hurdles we meet when we get to this place.

It is here, in this valley of the creative process, where I find myself relying most on my faith. In fact, if I did not have faith when I got to this valley, then I think I would probably quit. Instead, I have come to trust that if I give the Spirit enough space and time, if I work hard and open myself to where the Spirit is leading me, then eventually God will guide me up and out of this valley.

A friend introduced me to a poem called “The Woodcarver” written by Chuang Tzu and translated by Thomas Merton. It has become one of my favorites. I keep a few lines of it taped over my desk so I can see it whenever I find myself discouraged or in need of inspiration. The poem tells the story of a master woodcarver who was asked by a Prince to carve a bell stand. The bell stand he produced was beautiful, so beautiful that everyone who saw it said it must have been made by spirits. When the Prince asked the Woodcarver to tell him how he produced something so beautiful, this is what he said:

I am a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

Then I went to the forest
to see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

At this point in my sermon writing process there are lots of dangerous distractions, intimidating thoughts, self-defeating messages swirling around. The Woodcarver reminds me to guard my spirit, to stay true to the task of preaching God’s Word, to open myself to the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and meditation, so I can climb out of this valley with a worthwhile, meaningful message for our graduating class. It will be two more weeks until this Baccalaureate pilgrimage comes to its conclusion. May God guide you in all the creative work to which you have been called, as I pray the Spirit guides me in mine.

 

[Feature Image:  Jeff Turner]

 

The Mindful Life

3870006964_57d04d9c95_oLast week I taught a class about “The Mindful Life” at my college.  Mindfulness is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy that only the present moment exists.  The future does not yet exist.  The past no longer exists.  Therefore, we should focus our energy and attention on that which is real, the present moment.

Personally, I think Jesus would approve.  “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  (Matthew 6:34) Jesus was incredibly present to the people he loved and served.

I had a good turnout for my class.  Lots of people are interested in meditation these days as a way to help them cope with anxiety and stress.  But mindfulness meditation offers more than a sense of calm.  New research is coming out about how meditation actually changes the way your brain performs.

A recent study by Harvard University revealed that meditation rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in eight weeks.  An article on this new research states:

Previous studies found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.  Until now, that is.  The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.  Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”

Did you catch all those benefits of meditation?  Let’s run through them again:

  • Better Attention
  • Emotional Integration
  • Self-Awareness
  • Compassion
  • Introspection
  • Reduced anxiety and stress

5691277643_ae020b36e2_oOf all these benefits, I most value the self-awareness I have gained from the time I have spent practicing mindfulness meditation.  I have learned a lot by sitting with myself in meditation.  I think of it as time spent observing, even honoring, the thoughts and emotions that pull me away from the present moment.  This new awareness, or self-knowledge, helps me control those thoughts and emotions better, rather than allowing them to control me.  Knowledge definitely is power.

At the end of my class I led the group in the following meditation.  I invite you to find a quiet spot and a comfortable place to sit and practice it yourself.    More books and meditation resources are listed at the bottom of this post.

Awareness Meditation

Sit comfortably.  Sit up straight with your shoulders back.  Open your chest area and heart space. Close your eyes.

Notice the sounds in the room.  What do you hear?

Notice the smells in the room?  What do you smell?

Feel the clothes on your body.  Feel the fabric stretching along your arms, back, chest, legs.  Feel the socks on your feet.  Feel the warmth your clothes hold close to your body.  Feel the way your clothes shelter you from the chill of the room.  Are your clothes comfortable?  Feel this comfort.  Do your clothes pinch?  Feel this discomfort.

Feel the weight of your body on the floor (or in your chair.) Feel yourself on the earth.  Feel the gravity pulling you down.  Feel your stability.   Feel grounded.

Notice your breathing.  Pay attention to your inhale and your exhale.  Notice how the air is cool on way in and warm on way out. Picture the air moving in and out of your lungs.

Focus your mind on your breathing for the next few minutes.  If you get distracted, that’s okay.  Just notice the distraction.  Smile at it in your mind.  Acknowledge it. Then return your mind’s focus to your breathing.

Conclude your meditation at any time.

More Good Resources on Meditation:

 Books:

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with your Mind by Pema Chodron

Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience by Sally Kempton

Online Resources:

Insight Timer Guided Meditations

The Freedom to Choose Something Different Online Class by Pema Chodron

Headspace by Andy Puddicombe

[Feature Images: Mitchell Joyce and Keoni Cabral]

I find you spiritually attractive.

2708943201_d085338809_oI recently told a male rabbi about my age that I find him spiritually attractive. Actually, I didn’t tell him. I posted it to his Facebook page. Immediately before adding this message to his feed, though, I hesitated over the following inner monologue:

Is this creepy? Am I over-complimenting? Will this be misconstrued as some sort of strange clergy come on? Should I run this by my husband?

I was in the mood to be bold, though. I wanted to share this compliment because it was true! I hit POST.

Then, I spent the next few hours scrolling, repeatedly (some may say obsessively) through my Facebook feed. I watched my comment linger and hang at the end of his post without one person validating it by hitting the cherished “Like.” Uh oh. I thought to myself in a hot flash of regret.  Maybe I need to explain.

So what makes a person spiritually attractive? Well, for me, a spiritually attractive person manifests a quiet confidence. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention and would never put himself there, but others do because they want what he has. She gives off the sense (or maybe even the scent) that she is at peace within, she is comfortable in her own skin, and this translates into people feeling comfortable and at peace in her presence. He owns his wisdom that he communicates by the way he moves through the world. It’s a kind of charisma, but it’s NOT about her. In fact, it clearly comes from something / someone wholly other than her. All the spiritual greats have it.

Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa all come to mind as people who possessed this quality—people who we could not get enough of because they had that special spiritual something. But even us “ordinary folks” can have our moments.

About a month ago I wrote a post about feeling magnetic through the practice of meditation. Here at my college, I’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. The group never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own practice. It fascinates me how the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel, attracting ten to fifteen college students every Friday to this time of attentive stillness.

There are a number of religious groups here on my college campus clamoring for the attention of generation “None” (a.k.a. no designated religious affiliation.) These groups seek to attract students through all kinds of methods: invitations to free ice cream socials, volleyball tournaments, camps and retreats; miniature New Testaments pressed in students’ hands as they enter or exit the dining hall; adults who dress and act as if they are eighteen. Honestly, I’ve tried a few of these approaches myself—it’s hard not to believe that free stuff wins in such a consumer driven culture. How good for me to remember, then, that a deepening, personal meditation practice is attractive food for the hungry. Perhaps it is the spiritual authenticity of the practice; the understanding that it flows from my own time of ‘mind-wrestling’ on the mat, that others feel like they can trust.

I felt this way when I met this rabbi—he was spiritually authentic; a person whose experience I felt I could trust. He sought me out later, by the way, to say thank you for my complimentary post.  I was so relieved.  I was also grateful for his ability to receive and own a genuine compliment–another trait of the spiritually attractive to which we all might aspire.

 

[Feature Image: Bill Selak]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to Say: Master Class with Marie Howe

0001-37193920“We have nothing to say.” This was how Marie Howe began her Master Class at the writing conference I am attending this week. Her point was that words come to us, words write us, if we can open ourselves to receiving them. Marie, in her kind, encouraging manner, was determined to teach us something she believed we could all do—radical receptivity. “It’s kind of a relief,” she continued, “to know that you have nothing to say. Because it means you don’t have to be smart or interesting, or holy, or high. You just have to wait and see what comes out of your pen. Just pay attention and let go.”

When my favorite poet told me I had nothing to say, I’ll admit, it was kind of a blow. I mean, my blog is called Something to Say. But I received her point well because my process involves writing myself into what I think. I, oftentimes, have no idea what I am writing about until draft after draft has been scribbled off and I finally discover where the effort is leading me. “Look for the energy in your writing,” advised Marie. “Don’t look for ideas. Run your hand over the page. Where is the heat?” The whole process is, of course, incredibly spiritual.

She had us writing during most of the class. You could easily do the exercises on your own. Free write for two to three minutes on the following prompts:

I could not tell

I could not tell

Today I saw

Today I heard

From what you have written in these prompts, pull out the words and phrases that contain the most energy, the most heat, the most interesting combination of words and sounds. Then rearrange them on a separate sheet of paper. If you’re not surprised by what is pieced together, do it again.

Here are the words I received through this exercise:

I could not tell what my heart wants or needs

or how I feel without her beside me

voices of frustration, my inability to share

I had made for myself and filled my own cup

how could she stop

[adapted feature image: Darren Hester ]