a blog for 21st century Seekers
There are times when the natural Wisdom within us arises to meet the moment in ways we never could have orchestrated if we were lost in thought, lost in thinking about right and wrong, "shoulds" and "should-nots." In these moments, our head, heart, and body are aligned. They are in the same place.
Before I'm tempted to wax poetic about something that can't actually be explained, let's just stop and have an illustrative story.
The last time I visited my brother and his family in Washington DC, I took a solo day trip to Georgetown. While there are hundreds of fancy restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries in this gentrified neighborhood, I was attracted to Georgetown's Waterfront Park along the Potomac River because I discovered it had a large public labyrinth.
Now, you must understand that I LOVE labyrinths. I've had so many powerful prayer experiences using this ancient tool, so I immediately hyped up my upcoming labyrinth walk in my mind, hoping (expecting?) that it would be deep and soul shaking. But would I be able to find an intimate experience with my spirit, with The Spirit, in a public park? Would people be staring at me while I slowly walked round and round, wondering if I'm mentally ill? Doesn't matter. Gotta give it a try anyway.
When I arrived at the park on a Tuesday morning, it was fairly quiet. Whew, just what I needed. I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth, took three deep breaths, asked the Spirit to join me, and began my walk. While it was a nice meditation, and I was aware of my movements, of my self consciousness, and of my thoughts, nothing profound was happening. I determined that when I got to the middle, I would sit down and meditate and pray until some insight was gained. (For those who have never walked a labyrinth, it is not a maze, but a winding and unpredictable path that inevitably leads you into the center. This center represents the deepest part of ourself, our Essence, and the path can represent the twists and turns of our life that eventually lead us to God, to Love, to Freedom.)
I arrived at the center and sat down, lotus style, and prepared myself for my message. Waited. Nothing was happening. Or so I thought. What had happened, unnoticed by my ego which had an agenda, was that a spacious clarity had opened up inside of me and was ready to greet whatever reality arrived with an open mind and heart.
Then it came. Or more, accurately they came. 30 little humans, ages one to three, were unleashed by their daycare provider to run amok inside the labyrinth. My first split second reaction was mortification. How could those adults see someone who is obviously meditating and then purposely surround them with the most distracting thing possible: adorable children!? But immediately following that was an inner gentleness toward my anger. "It's ok. This is the message. Be Here Now. Meet the moment with gladness, no matter how it presents itself." When this Wisdom arose in me, I didn't feel I controlled it, conjured it, or had any choice in the matter. It was just time to live this moment with love.
Suddenly the joyous squeals of the children chasing each other was music to my ears. I opened my eyes and the smile radiating from my face was genuine and unstoppable. A few of the tykes waddled up to me and began chatting in indistinguishable toddler language. Some gave me high fives with no words exchanged. My heart felt like it was exploding with love and gratitude. I continued sitting, swirling in a sea of innocence. Eventually, they toddled on in a line after their teacher and I was left alone to marvel at the surprise gift God had in store for me.
Before the kiddos arrived, what I perceived as "nothing" happening was actually the beautiful emptiness of a non-judging mind and heart. I was being prepped to receive a moment of spontaneity, in going with the flow, and finding ease and peace in having my plans interrupted. In the Buddhist tradition, this is known as Buddha knowing Dhamma, expressing Sangha. In other words, this is when that open, non-judging spaciousness inside of us that is always available (Buddha) meets the present moment as it is (Dhamma), and then is able to, from this enlightened space, take right and action (Sangha). When we are fully alive and awake, we see reality (whether it is the pain of the world or the joy of the world) and intuitively know the appropriate response.
We know when we are in this space, and we recognize when others are acting from this space. Some people these days call it being "in the flow." It's that moment when, without effort, we respond wisely to whatever arises, and it feels and looks beautiful. When we know how much to let up, let go, or lean in. When we speak truth to power, when we have the right words to solve conflict with our parents or partner. The key thing to notice about these moments is that they are pure Grace. We don't need to try to do the right thing, and yet the right thing flows naturally from that deep place of Presence. Our Essence already knows how to be wise. We would do well to stop striving toward self improvement, and instead let go and let our natural, innate Wisdom take the reins. Giddyup!
When have you noticed a moment of easeful Wisdom in action from yourself?
When have you witnessed this kind action flowing from others?
Are there places or activities that frequently foster this deep Knowing in you?
Share a quick story in the comments below!
I don't know about ya'll, but I have never felt so justified in hating others as I have in the last 6 months. The things being done to and said about fellow human beings in the name of "security" and "free speech" are appalling.
So naturally, when NeoNazis, Klan members, and other white supremacist hate groups gather in Charlottesville, it is our civic and human duty to gather and show them that we can meet their hate with more hate, their ignorance with self righteous indignation!
*Record scratch* Wait, hold up.
Of course there is a call, a rallying cry to stand up for justice, equality, and equal rights for all! Of course we must show up when hatred rears its ugly head and we must say "NO." But is meeting the "enemy" with hatred and scorn necessary for effective action? Is shouting and name-calling and swinging a bigger stick the missing ingredient for the recipe toward peace?
Obviously, the question is rhetorical. So why is it so hard to remove ourselves from the cycle of violence?
For me, the answer is slowing gaining clarity. We do not yet fully trust that love and compassion can be an equally strong force in this world. Anger is motivating. It gives us a charge of energy that can be felt coursing through the body. Our heart rate accelerates, body temperature rises, adrenaline surges. On the surface, it seems the perfect activist fuel to fight the powers that be, to stick it to the Man! How could piddly ol' Love possibly compare to the motivating power of anger and hate, of being against something?
If you're anything like me, this is where the line of reasoning usually stops, and we just go on with our thoughts, comments, and actions as usual (e.g. they suck, you're stupid, the world is f---ed). Thankfully, on my good days, I can recall the higher truths from the great Teachers. Let's start with the Buddha, when he says,
"In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible."
Never?? C'mon Mr. Buddha, isn't that hyperbole? Surely hatred has some role to play in our collective human evolution. Besides, anger just feels good, so it must be good....right?
The point here is that meeting hatred with hatred (a.k.a. revenge) sets us into motion in an ongoing cycle of suffering. If we closely examine our lives, this becomes obvious. When I spend most of my interior energy on reliving the hurt and pain inflicted upon me and imagining the ways my oppressor will suffer, I immediately enter the cycle of suffering. The truth that is often missed here is that even if I don't ever verbalize or act on my anger, I still enter the cycle of suffering because in my angry rumination, I become miserable. I feel trapped and on fire. It's not pleasant. There is no value added to my life or the lives of those around me.
Luckily, there is an alternative. That is solution-based thinking. Thinking, speaking, and acting with love. Love can also be a very motivating force. Consider for a moment a parent's fierce and protective love for their child. Consider the way they understand where their child's pain is coming from, even when the child is hurting them. This love is consistent, persistent, and undying. It is strong and filled with compassion. We all have access to this type of motivating love for others, if we can slow down enough to understand the "other."
This is a perfect time to consider another amazing teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. He says,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,
turn to them the other cheek also."
Let's imagine for a moment that Homeboy was being literal. Someone, in an impulsive and angry fit, slaps you across the face. If you were to slap them back, we all know what would happen: at worst, a full-out brawl ending in death, or, at best, an angry exchange of words ending in the two of you storming off in a huff, likely never to speak to each other again.
Now let's re-live the scene. Someone, in an impulsive and angry fit, slaps you across the face. You remain silent and wait for them to hit you again. At worst, the person is still seeing red and slaps you again. At best, they hesitate because this pause has given them the time to think, to feel guilty, to notice your humanity. They don't hit you again. (If they did slap you twice, they would naturally pause after the second hit if they were met with silence).
Of course, this metaphor of the other cheek works on a personal level as well as a societal one. Jesus understood on a deep level that ancient and inexhaustible law that hate has never yet dispelled hate. It's just never worth it to hit back. It only makes things worse. This is why he didn't defend himself as he was being mocked, whipped, and eventually executed. He knew that only love dispels hate.
Might this inexhaustible law also apply to us in 21st century America? Love need not be silent. Love need not roll over and just "take it." Love, in all its wisdom and creativity, can speak Truth to power. Love can unite the masses. Love can connect us across borders, political boundaries, racial lines, and religions. So as the world rages on and ramps up, may we take pause to reflect on our anger. But only as long as is needed before we act in Love and in Power! For here is our final vision:
"They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
How will we ever get there, if not by Love?
I've been reflecting on why I love Spiritual Direction so much, in both the giving and receiving.
What could possibly be so special about repeatedly sitting across from another person and sharing the inner workings of our heart and mind? How can slow conversation, interrupted by periods of silence, be exciting? Can meeting with someone for one hour a month actually be transformative and healing? Isn't intimate, vulnerable sharing awkward and dangerous?
These are questions that may come up after hearing a description of spiritual direction (click here if you don't know what spiritual direction is).
At the core of my answers to all of these legitimate questions is the experience that this relational spiritual practice is subversive and life changing. It is subversive in that:
Spiritual Direction is not tied to a particular institution, theology, or religion.
Spiritual Direction can be traced back to some badass characters who came to be known as the "Desert Fathers and Mothers." These were early Christians interested in actually practicing the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth. When the church became The Church of the Roman Empire, tied to hierarchical systems of power, oppression, and control, these women and men ditched the now "official" religion. They set up tents in the desert where they prayed, meditated, fasted, and studied. Eventually, people started coming to them with spiritual questions and concerns because, as it turns out, sitting in silent prayer and meditation has a tendency to cultivate wisdom. (Go figure!)
The beauty of the practice of spiritual direction is that the "directee" (a.k.a. the client/seeker) gets to guide the conversation, using their own terms for God/Mystery/Spirit/Universe, and approach whichever topics they choose. This is not limited to "spiritual" things such as concepts of God or religious topics, but instead can be any issue in a person's life (e.g. relationships, doubts and questions, trauma, career discernment, grief, family estrangement, body image, sexuality, gender identity, etc!) The directee need not worry about the director imposing their beliefs or theology on them because the director's role is actually NON-directive. (Say WHAT? Come again?) Yes, a Spiritual Director does not actually direct another person's spiritual path. There's a word for that. It's called manipulation. Instead, the director points the other person toward the real director in their life: That Mysterious Spirit that can only be felt and experienced, never fully explained.
Now that's subversive -Being given permission to experience your Higher Power instead of being given a set of dogma, rules, or concepts of God that don't work for you!
Insert personal anecdote: When I started meeting with my spiritual director 9 years ago, I trusted her because I could tell she was not married to a limited version of God or traditional spiritual practices. She was quirky and out-of-the-box, to say the least. Many of my struggles at that time were related to the church. I now have a term for my experience: religious trauma. For this reason, I would never have sought out a pastor to talk to. I needed someone whose experience and training was from outside the seminary so that I could feel safe.
Spiritual Direction includes and honors the body as part of spiritual practice.
In the west, we have a tendency to get locked into our thoughts, disregarding the messages sent by the body. Spiritual direction values all parts of us: Mind, spirit, emotions, and body. It all matters. It's all connected. Wholistic spiritual health cannot be achieved when we neglect such a large portion of the human experience.
Insert personal anecdote: I sought out my spiritual director because she was the first person I'd ever encountered who used the words "spirituality and sexuality" in the same sentence, and in a positive way! The first several years of our work together were largely about unlocking the trauma lodged in my body and mind around issues of sexuality. I learned how to listen to the messages my body was sending me about captivity and liberation, self respect and self love and self expression. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to my spiritual director for providing the loving, nonjudgmental, non-anxious, and encouraging environment in which I could undergo this healing process!
Spiritual Direction subverts our habits that lead to suffering.
Self-criticism, resentment, revenge, anxiety, restlessness, anger, fear, shame, doubt, laziness, numbing out...these are all habits with which most humans can relate. Oftentimes we just settle for these states of being because we don't actually believe we can change, aren't willing to put in the footwork, or are not even aware when we are stuck in them. The practice of sitting with a spiritual director is a great opportunity to "zoom in" on our patterns. In what ways are these habits benefitting me? (They must be beneficial in some way if I keep coming back to them). Together we question if these patterns of operating are actually adding value to my life and the life of others. Through deep and persistent soul searching, we can find our underlying motivations, and discover healthy alternatives and freedoms we never imagined were available to us. This difficult yet rewarding work is truly counter-cultural. Just take a look at the people in prominent positions of politics and entertainment, or puruse social media for a few minutes to discover that self awareness, reflection, and compassion are undervalued in our society.
Insert personal anecdote: I am a perfectionistic personality. While this has served me in some ways (creating great art work, getting all A's in classes) it has also harmed me and others in many ways. My high expectations can lead to intense self criticism, self righteousness, procrastination, resentment, and disappointment. When I've taken the time to recognize and deeply examine this personality trait, at some point I became sick of it instead of indulging in it. I could see that the costs outweighed the benefits. While this tendency still arises in me, I now have the awareness to notice it in the moment, pause and reflect, surrender my impossible expectations and will to my Higher Power, and choose to act from a more realistic and compassionate place. This is but one example of the inner shifts that have come to fruition as a result of my time spent in spiritual direction. As a result, I feel much more happy, whole, and free to be my beautiful/imperfect self!
So there you have it. Spiritual Direction is a subversive underground movement, carried through the centuries by Christian monastics, which is now breaking into the mainstream. It's time has come. It is my hope that this practice spreads into all corners of our culture, both inside formal religions and out.
The Peaceful Rebellion has arrived!!
I'm a Spiritual Director, Enneagram Educator, and Liberationist-Buddhist-Universalist-Mystic-12 step-Queer-Christian. Playing with questions, answers, and surrender.