Thursday, January 28, 2010

To No Longer Feel the Solid Ground

The Swan

This laboring through what is still undone,

As though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,

Is like the awkward walking of the swan.

And dying—to let go, no longer feel

The solid ground we stand on every day—

Is like his anxious letting himself fall

Into the water, which receives him gently

And which, as though with reverence and joy,

Drawback past him in streams of either side;

While, infinitely silent and aware,

In his full majesty and ever more

Indifferent, he condescends to glide.

Ranier Maria Rilke

Immediately after posting my blog on Monday, this beautiful poem from Rilke found me again. I am so grateful that there are people in the world who can express so exquisitely an experience that we all recognize on some level. It is what I wish for on the ski slopes, in my relationships, and in my deepest self. And it is happening. As we all learn to let go of fear, let go of control, we will also learn to glide. Effortlessly. Beautifully.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Slippery Slopes

A few years ago, our family went together with good friends to purchase a cabin in the little ski resort town just south of Anchorage. At that point, I didn’t know how to ski at all. I grew up in Kansas where people don’t go around slapping blades or boards to their feet and then locating treacherous surfaces to move about on or launch yourself off of. I envisioned long snowy days in the cabin alone, curled up in front of the fire with a book and a cup of cocoa while everyone else braved the slopes and the elements. It sounded like heaven!

But, our first season in the cabin, Mark presented me with a request. He hoped that skiing could be an outdoor activity that we could do as a family.

He wanted me to learn to ski. And he had already scoped out a program, Women’s Midweek Clinic. He was asking me to take Wednesdays off, drive to Girdwood, ski with an instructor and a group of women at my ski level (beginner) for 2 ½ hours and then partake in a lavish luncheon at the resort hotel. Very posh.

I didn’t want to do it. Several years before, I had let Mark convince me to get off the green runs (there’s essentially only two of them) and go up the mountain to try blue or intermediate runs. (There’s no other way down except “blues”.) I cannot tell you how terrified I was up there. I was convinced that I was going to die. Really. Highly unpleasant. When I got down, I hung up my skis (well, I turned in my rentals) and that was that.

But now, Mark said, “I am asking you to try this. It’s just four weeks. And if you hate it, I will never bring it up again.” Hmmm…sounded fair enough. I was back to imagining the fire and the book when the lessons didn’t work out.

Our instructor was a 23 year old guy who had been skiing since he was three. Skiing was as natural to him as walking. He was a good enough teacher but he just couldn’t quite understand our fear. We did our few runs down the easy green trail and then he was ready to get us on the blues. (Because really, if you can’t ski blues at Mt. Alyeska, there’s almost nothing else to do.) He was attempting to teach and coax seven or eight trembling women down a short (and icy!) intermediate run.

He said, “Just do this.” He lifted his arms parallel to the ground, his poles dangling from his arms, pointed his skis down that slope , and let go. His skis carried him down ten or fifteen feet at which point he made the tiniest little adjustment to the angle of his body allowing his skis to turn and carry him across the mountain in an arc as graceful as any ballet dancer. Effortless. Beautiful.

Something inside me shifted, ached, broke open. I longed for that ease, that grace and that fearlessness. I am sure you see the spiritual corollary here and my heart felt it immediately.

I would love to end this part of my story by telling you that I lifted my arms and glided down that slope as beautifully as he did. Nope. No way. I inched down, forcing my skis into a wedge, sliding down the icy incline, falling a couple of times and near tears. But then, I got back on the lift and tried again. And kept trying again.

By the end of my four weeks, I had been down many blue runs, mostly terrified and sometimes still near tears, but also in equal measure, exhilarated. It wasn’t quite “fun” yet and it was still a constant challenge for me, but I was in. I was a skier. A very bad skier, true, but getting down the mountain none the less.

Sometimes I still feel like a very bad pilgrim on the spiritual journey. I feel like I should be further down the road or have more figured out. But, I’m in. I am a pilgrim and I will be until the day that I die. There’s no turning back. I can’t help but respond to the constant drawing of the loving spirit of God, calling me to the next possibility or the next slippery slope. Sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes it’s effortless. There are still some tears. But, oh, what an awesome ride it’s been and will be.

**I probably don't have to tell you, but, that's not me in the picture.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Blessed Animal Beings

In recent days I have begun exploring the art of blessing. I am forming my prayers in the shape of blessing rather than as petitions or requests as is more familiar in the religious tradition in which I was raised. One of my mentors and guides in this experience is John O’Donohue and his book, To Bless the Space Between Us. (A true gem!)

Stories and posts about the four legged and furry (or two legged and feathered? Or no legged and smooth?) spiritual teachers with whom many of us live abound on the blogs that I follow. So, I offer this blessing for all of you. And for those who may not have live-in animal gurus, may you have the opportunity to look into nature and the wild (or your neighbor’s back yard) to have your own private teaching session.

To Learn From Animal Being

Nearer to the earth’s heart,

Deeper within its silence:

Animals know this world

In a way we never will.

We who are ever

Distanced and distracted

By the parade of bright

Windows thought opens:

Their seamless presence

Is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time

Gone and time emerging,

We manage seldom

To be where we are:

Whereas they are always

Looking out from

The here and now.

May we learn to return

And rest in the beauty

Of animal being,

Learn to lean low,

Leave our locked mind,

And with freed senses

Feel the earth

Breathing with us.

May we enter

Into lightness of spirit,

And slip frequently into

The feel of the wild.

Let the clear silence

Of our animal being

Cleanse our heart

Of corrosive words.

May we learn to walk

Upon the earth

With all their confidence

And clear-eyed stillness

So that our minds

Might be baptized

In the name of the wind

And the light and the rain.

John O’Dononhue

The picture above is my animal guide, Zeke. One of Zeke’s greatest qualities is his patience and his focus. He is always OK with waiting. Isn’t it interesting that these are not two of my greatest virtues? Zeke has much to teach me. He is such a gentle teacher, always leading by example. What do the animal beings in your life have to teach you?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Being the Witness

“Life really sucks here” she says.

“I am so sorry”, I say.

She says, “I cry every day and I spend the rest of my time trying not to cry.”

I say, “It sounds so hard.”

Our lives are so far apart. Hers full of regret and pain. Struggling every day to breathe in a single molecule of hope, grateful for the smallest ray of light.

Mine is the happiest that I have ever been.

It’s not fair and I try to make sense of it. Why can’t I just give her some of my happiness? A little piece of my hope?

Once, I sat at the bedside of my Granny, watching her die. She had slipped off into some in between place deep inside herself to do the work of dying. There was some sort of process that she had to navigate before she could leave. It was a painful struggle. As she cried out and fought with an unseen enemy, I was her witness. I sat by her bed day and night for 3 days, holding vigil, experiencing some of the deepest pain in my life, because I was helpless to save her from this journey. She had to walk this dark way and I couldn’t go with her. I stood just off of the path, watching.

I stroked her hand. I combed her hair. I sang sweet songs into her ear. I accepted the fact that it was her journey. But being the witness to that journey hurt. It hurt like hell. Watching the suffering of someone that you truly love is often worse than doing the suffering yourself.

In the end, I knew that my presence and my witness mattered. Somehow I had been a midwife for my Granny's death. Standing witness to her journey was one of the most sacred acts of my life. Not so different from watching a life enter the world rather than leave it.

Today, I watch my friend live the darkest time of her life. And I long to wrap my arms around her and fend off everything that is hurtful and ugly. To bring blessing, abundance and happiness back into her life. And if there is anything at all that I can do, I will do it in a moment. But, it seems that in this situation as in that other one, I am called to be a witness. To not look away if things don’t get better for a while. To keep inviting her to tell the same old story, even though she is sick of it. To participate in the glorious act of observing a sacred journey, even when it is through the valley of the shadow of death.

**I wrote this a few days ago, but didn’t post it. I see how much it also sums up the helpless feeling that I feel in the face of horrible disasters such as Haiti.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Help for Haiti

As we read, listen to and watch the news that is coming out of Haiti in the past few days, our hearts are broken, our spirits are moved and we are stirred to help in some way. Many of us may wish that we could jump on a plane right now and go to where we could truly help relieve some of this suffering. Or we begin dreaming of a future day when our lives might allow us to train as a Red Cross volunteer or work with Doctors Without Borders. But today, the administrators for the aid agencies are telling us that they are unable to send people to Haiti because of the impossibility of transportation. (Though I did hear just a snippet of a report on NPR about how some of the very first volunteers to arrive were from China. For some reason I felt so proud of us as a world for a moment. Hurrah for these Chinese who we don't tend to think of as humanitarian.)

What we can do is to make a monetary donation.I just posted a widget at the top of my blog which will allow you to easily click and make a contribution to the Red Cross right now. Consider making any size of donation and offering a prayer for those who are in crisis.

If you want to post the widget on your own blog, you can go to Blogger Buzz to quickly download it.

Country Parson has a great blog from yesterday about being "agents of God's grace" in the suffering of the world. I encourage you to go look.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Good news!?

The Lion's Roar is the fearless proclamation that any state of mind, including the emotions, is a workable situation, a reminder in the practice of mediation. We realize that chaotic situations must not be rejected. Nor should we regard them as regressive, as a return to confusion. We must respect whatever happens in our state of mind. Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.
Chogyam Trungpa

When I open my my little Dharma book, I often return to the passage above and every time I reread it, that last line makes me smile or even laugh out loud. He could have said that there is something to value even in chaos or that it has much to teach us . But to say that it is extremely good news just seems to tickle my funny bone every single time. Good news? Yeah, right. Considering chaos good news is just so Buddhist.

But wait a minute. It was the apostle Paul who said that all things work together for good for those that love God. And then there's this poem by Macrina Wiederkehr, a Benedictine, that enters my thoughts frequently,

Lord, I beg you for a storm tonight,
the wildest that you own!
Oh let your winds awaken me
And shake me to the bone.
Lord, do not calm these seas tonight
just be present in the storm.
Sweep across my desert places
and leave them moist with you.
Disturb me with a storm tonight
so I'll be born anew.

Maybe one day I will be brave enough to actually pray that prayer rather than just read it.

In the meantime, I am going to be on the look out for some extremely good news in my life today. I hope you find some, too. (Wishing you some nice little chaos?)

Hey! Look at this nice little piece of good news that I found behind my son's bedroom door!

I swear. That's really what it looked like.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Will it change my life?

In my previous post I wrote about simplifying my life and my mind by becoming aware of the extraneous activities and preoccupations that, instead of enhancing my life, have actually become a burden to my mind, body and spirit. How do I determine what is extraneous? How do I know what is essential and needful and what is not? The example from my previous post is rather obvious. The story that my mind was telling me was a total waste of my time and energy. But, as I look around my life -- and when I say life I mean my home, my activities, my work, my parenting, my partnering, my prayer life, my church, my relationships, my thoughts, my struggles, all of my life –it becomes very difficult to know what is essential and needful and what is not.

I used to think that anything that was good could not be extraneous. Anything that brings more light into the world must be extremely necessary. And yet, what if even what is good in my life has become a burden to my spirit? I don’t just mean a burden because the schedule is pretty full or I would prefer to curl up on the couch with a book. I mean that my life feels too heavy. So what needs to go?

I begin with the externals. I go around my house sorting out drawers, cupboards and closets picking up one thing after the other and asking, Is it needful? Can I live without it? When was the last time that I used it? Will I even miss it when it is gone? And here’s a question that I read a long time ago in a book about simplifying: If I keep it, will it change my life? If I let it go, will it change my life? I think that I should also add, will it change someone else’s life? It may seem silly to ask whether a sweater or a pair of earrings changes one’s life, but it really works. Because, of course, sometimes a sweater really can change your life.

I have a jewelry tree that sits on my dresser. Fifteen or twenty pairs of earrings hang on it. There are several small bowls that sit scattered across the dresser top holding at least that many more. For weeks now, as I walk past those various receptacles, I have felt encumbered by them. For me, it’s no longer fun to try to choose a pair of earrings out of that vast array every morning. I want to have just a few pairs that I can wear with pretty much everything. So, I gave many of them away, and put the rest away in a cupboard, not quite ready to actually put them out of my life forever. I will go back in another 6 months or so and see what else I can part with.

That little jewelry tree holding beautiful earrings is a metaphor for all of my inner life and for my activities and ministries. There are so many dazzling possibilities out there and in here. But, I cannot hold them all and I feel that right now in my life I am being called to particularly scale back, paring things down to the bare essentials. There are dreams and desires that are calling to be birthed in me. There is still some healing that needs to be done. And they require spaciousness. Spaciousness on the outside and on the inside.

Will these dreams, desires and healing change my life. I KNOW that they will. Will they change someone else’s life? Will it change the world?

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Peaceful State

Though I am decidedly Christian (I have this thing for Jesus that I just don’t think is going to go away), much of the spiritual or devotional type reading that I do is Buddhist. I am currently using Ocean of Dharma, 365 Teachings on Living Life with Courage and Compassion, The Everyday Wisdom of Chogyam Trungpa. It’s one of those little books with just one paragraph on each page, something that even I can read, digest (and maybe even put into action!) on a daily basis.

In one teaching on meditation, Trungpa uses the common metaphor of the “crazy monkey mind”. The mind that is continually jumping from one thought to the next to the next when we sit down to meditate or to pray contemplatively. If you were to spend some time with me, you would probably consider me a fairly mellow person, but I can tell you that I have a bad case of the monkey mind. Trungpa talks about meditation training and practice being the “development of peace”. Ah…which one of us doesn’t long for that? But then he goes on to say that he doesn’t mean a “peaceful state”. Rather he is talking about the development of simplicity. Simplicity of life, simplicity of mind.

Simplicity is another one of my favorite words. It’s why I keep thinking that I need to subscribe to that magazine Real Simple, even though there is nothing simple about it. Simplicity is not necessarily stark or ascetic. I feel a great abundance and spaciousness when I enter the word and ideal of simplicity. Simplicity is about knowing what is essential and what is not.

Trungpa writes, “Discipline is the process of simplifying one’s general life and eliminating unnecessary complications. In order to develop a genuine mental discipline, it is first necessary for us to see how we continually burden ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations.”

I feel that burden. Frequently. I feel it about having too much stuff. Being disorganized. Having too many things on my calendar. Too many things in my refrigerator. And then there are all of the preoccupations of my inner life and my mind. They are probably especially burdensome, for they are with me all of the time.

I hardly ever stop to think that I’ve placed these burdens upon myself. I brought home most of that stuff that is in the pantry and I am certainly feeding and entertaining all of those thoughts that are rattling around in my head.

Yesterday afternoon I was coming from a wonderful worship time of movement, music and silence. The parking lot that I was pulling out of had two exits, a north and a south exit. I chose to go to the north. The traffic was very heavy on that side, it was snowing and the streets were slick so there had to be a really big gap for me to take the chance of pulling out. I waited and waited and waited. Finally, I got my chance just in time to pull up to the left turn signal as it turned red. So, I waited some more. After I finally was able to turn left, I was two or three blocks down the road when the old brain started in. “Why in the world did you decide to go out the north exit? You had to have known better than that. That’s one of the busiest intersections in town. Gee whiz, if you had come out the other direction than you could have pulled into that little turn lane and then merged really easily with the traffic and breezed right through that traffic light.” I could go on and on because I was going on and on in my head. But something disrupted it and it was the thought, “This is SOOOOO extraneous.” And that was it. All that monkey mind was done. It just needed a tiny little flash of awareness.

Meditation, mindfulness and awareness are all key ingredients to bringing simplicity into my life. I will write more about this soon.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

To Show, To Make Known

Happy Epiphany! I’m not sure that is the proper way to acknowledge this day and it does feel a little secular. Perhaps Blessed Epiphany?

I was not raised in a tradition that followed the liturgical year and so it has only been in the past few years that I have been aware of these special days (other than Christmas and Easter) throughout the year. Almost ten years ago the feast of Epiphany fell during a silent women’s retreat that I was attending. That retreat was a crossroads in my life and I have never forgotten January 6 since. I cannot say that I understand the liturgical or theological importance of this day, I can only say that it feels important to me personally.

I love the word ephiphany. I love the way it sounds and the way it feels in my mouth as I speak it. I love all of the meaning wrapped up in it, so full of surprise and possibility. The possibility that a new insight or a new way of seeing could forever change our lives. The word literally means appearance or manifestation. So for me, it means all of those times God bursts onto my scene. And sometimes that means the proverbial light bulb going off over my head and the aha(!) escaping from my lips. But it also means the times that I have a quiet knowing, a sureness that comes from some place deeper than just myself.

Having the aha moment or the great epiphany can be very exciting. Having all of the puzzle pieces fall into place after a long discernment or just receiving the grace of an understanding from seemingly nowhere can be a spiritual and emotional thrill. But, it seems to me that most of my epiphanies have brought with them an invitation to change and to transform. They come for my benefit and for the benefit of the world, and so I am asked to act. That action usually requires courage, integrity and discipline.

I recall one particular epiphany that was so powerful it was almost miraculous. (OK, it wasn’t almost, it was miraculous.) I witnessed a whole scene unfold before me and then I immediately knew that it had to do with a very painful confrontation that I needed to make. In that moment, I not only knew what I was supposed to do, but exactly how I was supposed to do it. But then as I set about acting upon my knowing, waves and waves of fear and anxiety set in. Somehow, I waded my way through all of it, did exactly what I knew I needed to do and the result was a beautiful reconciliation that has lead to true forgiveness and new relationship.

Not all epiphanies require work, of course. Sometimes my knowing is that I must surrender my control, let go, fall back into the loving hands of God, rest, and wait.

I am grateful for all of the epiphanies in my life, both small and great. They come way more than once a year and if I am awake enough I will see and know them. May all of your epiphanies be truly blessed.