The Alchemist, Omens, and a Praying Mantis

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Since Wednesday, I’ve been reading (well listening) to The Alchemist. It’s Paulo Coelho’s beautiful tale about the shepherd boy Santiago who after having a significant dream, meets a mysterious wise king and goes on a journey to discover his personal legend.

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This morning (Friday) I woke up and realized that I was being “stalked” by a praying mantis. Now, last night the same bug had found its way into my apartment. This bug is very big, and quite elegant looking…so much so that as much as bugs completely freak me out I had obvious reservations about just smashing it with the back of my shoe. I didn’t want to kill it. Luckily for it (and me!) it was resting on a shirt hanging in my wardrobe. So after a failed attempt to dislodge it by throwing a kitchen cloth at it, I grabbed the hanger and shirt and ran it outside and shook the bug off.

But last night wasn’t the first time I saw this creature. It was the day before, the same day I started reading the Alchemist that I first noticed this mysterious creature on my patio. Throughout that day, I’d noticed as it crept closer and closer towards the sliding patio door, as though it wanted to come inside. And lo and behold, 24 hours later, it had succeeded. Even after shaking it loose from my garments and returning it to its proper place outdoors, I even spotted it AGAIN, on my way out to dinner, it was resting in a different place, all the way downstairs by the entrance to my apartment complex. 

So this morning, to awake to see the praying mantis BACK on my patio, I freaked. And still not wanting to kill it, but to “move” it, I threw water at it which to my devastation seemed to injure it significantly. And as I watched and processed the damage I had caused to this uncomfortably large and persistent bug, that’s when the Alchemist, and the omens, and the realization that this creature may have been appearing to me all came together. And I began to wonder what it was, and what it had to show me.

I google image searched giant green bugs and quickly found that this was indeed a Praying Mantis and they are known to be symbols of luck in some cultures, but more profoundly, the word “Mantis” in the Greek is translated as “prophet, soothsayer or diviner.” They are believed to be spiritual symbols and one resource said if found in your home may mean that angels are watching over you. Another said, the praying mantis symbolism also includes calmness, still, focus and concentration. And they are NOT dangerous or venomous or in any way harmful to humans.

Needless to say, I wish I had read all of this prior to dousing this poor, powerful spiritual creature in water. As I sat there realizing my actions and their source – how fear of the unknown can lead us to injure our own angel guides, how fear can lead us to altogether miss the signs and wonders by which at times, God chooses to communicate with us…I burst into tears. What a coward I am?! I was watching this creature fight for its life, dying slowly as a result of my own ignorance and fear. Minutes went by, tears flowed, yet still, I didn’t have the courage to touch it or pick it up. Slowly, slowly, it seemed to recover as I watched, praying through now ridiculous seeming tears that Nature would restore this creature to fullness of life. I’m remiss to say that one of its legs looked badly injured; (I read that their limbs are most fragile) and then I left. I left the fate of this creature of God and possible spirit guide in the hands of Luisella who was coming to clean my apartment. I pray she is more comfortable with nature and less fearful of buggy creatures than I. It’s in God’s hands now…

It was a surprisingly painful lesson for me to learn. I will be looking more carefully for ways Spirit wants to teach me here. If the meaning of the praying mantis is stillness of mind, then it had come to tell me I am indeed in the right path. Or perhaps my emotional devastation at what I’ve done to this creature is the lesson. Perhaps this divine therapy of centering prayer – of setting the intention each day to practice stillness is indeed doing its strange work of connecting me to the Source of all creation. That I am becoming more attuned to this mystery of Oneness….

Here now – the difficult art of being still (part 1)

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Week three here now in Mexico and feeling like I actually just arrived.

Last week was messy!  All about coming to terms with how far I’d wandered away from the contemplative path that has grounded me spiritually for the last decade or so. And in that process of necessary confrontational love and honesty, I had to accept how crucial it is to my actual creative goals here to first restore and reestablish my spiritual practice of contemplative meditation.

Before I can DO, I must BE.

It was jarring (to say the least) for me to confront how uncomfortable I was feeling being here with no one I know and nothing to do. I’m what most people would consider an extremely chill person who is completely comfortable spending time alone. I don’t strive to be busy and I am not at all impressed by people who always feel the need to be doing something. I do not bore easily. I do not need to be out and about a lot. I do not see the sun out and think, “Oh my gosh. What a beautiful day, I need to get out and enjoy it.” Nope. Not me. I am not outdoorsy. I’m indoorsy. And I’ve been this way since I was a child.

So then, you could imagine the discomfort I was experiencing in coming to terms with how badly I was lying to myself about myself :/  But it’s not easy to hide from yourself in the powerful light of a full moon 😉  …and in this waxing and waning fullness, I came to acknowledge a truth that I’d been conveniently avoiding in LA – that while I do spent a significant amount of time either at home or alone, I have not in fact been practicing true solitude.

There’s a difference, I have learned, between the art of solitude and the counterfeit art of ESCAPE. Solitude allows for experiences of aloneness that open us up to a greater awareness of a deep abiding Presence within us and in those around us. Escapism, on the other hand, opens us up to the darker emotions – like the pain of loneliness that can often lead to or resemble depression; or even more worrisome, avoidance and denial of emotion entirely (often manifest is various forms of addiction, -isms, and co-dependancy.)

Here now, in returning to my own practice of meditation known as Centering Prayer, I am accepting an invitation to enter into this solitude and to be met in my aloneness by this deep abiding, loving Presence. And this practice is in turn giving me an unspoken permission to resist the constant urges to go do something. (In fact, the few times I have actually left my cozy neighborhood here, I’ve been less than impressed. What the locals say about Coyoacan I am finding to be completely true. Here, I am in an oasis of peace and charm in an otherwise very hectic city that is honestly, in my opinion, both overwhelming and underwhelming at once. But I digress…)

This invitation and unspoken permission to Be Still is also crucial to my creative process because well, I am a writer and in all practicality, writing requires stillness – a lot of inactivity. Being a writer AND a contemplative, I can’t accomplish my goals, neither creative nor spiritual, by running around all day, constantly looking for someone to hang out with, or something to do or see. It’s pretty cut and dry – if I’m out being busy, I’m not doing what I really want to do which is write.

When I accepted this reality last week, and 1) shut down all of the self-imposed pressure to wake up everyday and do something or see something, and 2) cut lamenting the lack of friends I have or don’t have here, I actually found a flow and a contentment with being still and being alone. And as a result I was able to productively engage in my writing projects AND enjoy my moments of solitary wanderlusting for necessary inspiration.

Now I have a rhythm and it’s my own.  Now I accept the best part of not having anything to do, is doing whatever I want to do. When I wake up, when I get to work, when I leave my house, when I get back home…it’s all up to flow. I am free to be as still as I want to be, whenever I want to be.

HOWEVER…the one consistent, non-negotiable part of my day that I am being super intentional about is how it begins. The first thing I do when I wake up is SIT STILL. I get out of bed, I sit in a little chair in my studio, I set the timer on my Centering Prayer app for 30 minutes and I just sit there silently and practice the art of being “present, open and awake” as my teacher James Finley says.

In a later post I will share some more insight from this powerfully transformational audio teaching journey I’m on with Jim. Trying my best to keep these posts to a shorter length. And it’s about that time for my midday stroll through my barrio to find some food. But trust…Hasta pronto 😉

Namaste.

 

Lost in Mexico City – the lost art of getting lost

Feeling lost and confused here. This isn’t catching me entirely by surprise considering that I’m fully aware that I basically “ran away from home” to avoid feeling lost in a life that had somehow become mine. So make no mistake about it – it is true the saying, “Wherever you go, YOU go.”

Moses ran way from home too, ya know. His awareness of who he was becoming – a discontented soul with a confused sense of identity – drove him to a degree of anger resulting in murder. (I bet thats not how your Sunday school teacher interpreted his story!) Nonetheless, this all ultimately coalesced into his flight from Egypt, the only home he ever knew. And around the age of 40 Torah scholars say, he found himself in the land of Midian, which in Hebrew means “strife.”  He spent years there. He married and settled down – until one day while tending the flock of his father-in-law, he had the famous encounter with Yahweh at Horeb (aka. the burning bush experience). His life would never be the same again.

We don’t do well in religious circles with feelings of strife or discontent. And understandably so. Who in their right mind wants to feel angry, lost, confused…broken?

I’m re-acclimating yet again to Mexico City – a new, much bigger city after having a short but charmed experience in Oaxaca – the kind of place where everybody knows your name, or at least wants to. If I let my emotions get the best of me, I could crumble up into a thousand tiny little pieces. And trust me, the last couple days here in the big city have been rather teary-eyed. But seeing through a spiritual lens, this sense of being lost is actually quite the prerequisite for transformation.

The past few days I’ve been listening to an audio lecture entitled Christian Meditation: Entering the Mind of Christ by one of my other favorite contemplative teachers, Jim Finley. In it, he speaks about the art of contemplative meditation as a transforming and deepening realization of oneness with Christ. I had the gift of being an actual student of Jim’s, both in my spiritual direction training courses, and as a participant in his mediation groups in Santa Monica.  Jim is what you call a mystic Christian. He himself a student of Thomas Merton, had lived as a monk for years before re-entering the known world, marrying, and starting a clinical psychology practice. And in spending time in his company and with other students of his, I came to embrace that I am also what you may call a mystic Christian. And we practice our faith a different Way. I’m not into what I consider performance driven church or worship. It’s how I grew up and I’ve tried despite myself to “hold onto it” but it just no longer works for me. When I show up to the presence of God I don’t want to be intellectually or emotionally moved. I’m looking for the opposite…for the Spirit to move me OUT of my head AND my emotions. This is the contemplative way, you see. We contemplatives seek not to avoid thoughts and feelings, but to be unhinged from them. To not rely on those faculties to stir us up into any temporary state of rest or satisfaction or prosperity of soul.

To be blunt, this way can be pretty unsettling. Which is why understandably, most won’t journey along it. This Way refuses to do what we’ve come to expect religion and church and self-help groups to do, which is make us feel “better” – shifting us out of one emotional state and into another. The contemplative way just lets you hang out wherever you are – lost, confused, broken – until you come to know (in the very Hebrew sense of the word knowing, meaning intimately knowing) that 1) You are not any one of those thoughts or feelings and 2) You. Are. Not. Alone.

In Jim Finley’s teaching that I referenced earlier he speaks of a “critical juncture in a formative turn of events within the Christian life” and quotes St. John of the Cross, a 15th century Spanish mystic.  What follows is an excerpt from Jim’s teaching that I have been reflecting on during these past few days of quiet confusion –

“Saint John speaks of the awakening of the call to meditative contemplative prayer as a realization that one can no longer draw out from discursive meditation [aka. logical reasoning and thinking-oriented reflection] the satisfaction that one is accustomed to experiencing. That is, where previously one was nourished by reflecting on the things of God, one is no longer nourished. What is more, he says, is one who is no longer nourished in thinking of the things of God, one begins to discover that simultaneously one is no longer nourished in thinking about anything else either. And in the very midst of this perplexing nowhere, this perplexing horizonless place of powerlessness, John of the Cross says we begin to experience within ourselves a general loving awareness. What is more, we begin to realize that we are interiorly drawn to rest in this awareness, to quietly give ourselves over to it as a path of self-transformation that opens out onto God who is the infinite love that has awakened this transformation within us.”

So what else can I do here but welcome myself to this “perplexing nowhere“…and join in the company of countless others who have traveled this narrow path before me. It is indeed the road less traveled…and I am praying that for me too, it will make all the difference.

Namaste.

Getting out of my head

This is my last full day in Oaxaca. I have barely scratched the surface of what this city has to offer in terms of culture, art, mystery, etc. I hope I will return here before I leave Mexico. It’s so charming, and I’m surrounded by so much love and family vibes at my little cafe B&B that I am now actually feeling a little hesitant about returning to Mexico City tomorrow…a much bigger place in size and pace, but also a place where I will again be starting over. I know no one in Mexico City and my apartment there is not nestled above a bustling cafe, so I have some relative concerns about connecting with folks there in a similar, easy way. But perhaps that’s not what I need.

While Oaxaca has been a total delight to my senses, I haven’t done any “work” here.  A primary “practical” goal of mine is to actually write while I’m here – to put words onto pages and to finish something. And not in this familiar prose-like way, but by way of screenwriting. I have been a storyteller since childhood, and a lover of movies – characters, action, sound.  So for years, it’s been a known desire amongst those I’m closest to, to write a movie. The last two years I’ve been taking screenwriting courses back in LA and received some encouraging feedback from really good teachers, and also other students. I’ve also learned that writing for film or TV is nothing like writing a blog, or a journal entry, or even a short poem or song lyrics. I’ve done all of that. Ironically, in my courses I have also learned that the actual technique of script writing does not come naturally to me – a self-acknowledged poetic over-thinker/talker/sharer. So this style of writing does and will require practice and discipline. But it also requires getting out of my head and “On the Page” (as my last teacher Pilar Alessandra so brilliantly taught me how to do).

One thing I’m certain of from my quiet conversations with God is that I have the tendency to do what I know I can do in my own strength. I’m really good at doing what I know I can’t fail at. If I can will it to be, by my own intellect, by my own knowledge of a process…if I’ve done it before or feel confident that I can figure it out even if I’ve never done it, I have no problem signing up for the “challenge.” But if I’m truly out of my depth, and wading through unfamiliar territory where one needs to rely on the flow of the Spirit to lead the way, I won’t entirely quite before I start, but I won’t get far! I believe all great artists are led by Spirit. That all great art is accomplished by opening oneself to something greater, by being a vessel or container for the “Muse” or whatever you like to call Her.

To be more honest with myself, I guess what I’m dreading about Mexico City more than not having any friends, or, the city not being as enchanting, is actually having to confront this stubborn beast in me that just refuses to submit to this Something Greater. Showing up every day to the Spirit is half the battle. When I sit before a blank page in Final Draft on my screen I want the story to tell me what it wants to say.

So this weekend begins the real process of surrender. Will I show up everyday to be present to the Presence of Creativity within me that wants to teach me something, reveal something…show me what I am actually capable of if I get out of my own head?

I pray for the grace to have what I truly desire but am afraid to accept.

Un-Lent-ing

 

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Despite my natural inclination to be contemplative, learning to flow with Spirit is a real challenge to my nature. I have the gift of HEARING the Spirit, but that doesn’t mean I always DO what I hear. In fact, prior to my departure for Mexico, I recognized God telling me more specifically – “Colleen, you have Simon Peter faith. You are willing to jump out of the boat, but when you start to walk on water…”

Do you know how the rest of that story goes…” Look it up. Gospel of Matthew 14:28-33.

I’m hesitant to say too much about Lent. I was all ready to dig in to it – because I love this season of introspection and believe it’s critical to growing in faith. And until today, I had every intention of continuing in the tradition.

But I woke up feeling extremely heavy and burdened post my day of solitude and rest. I tried listening to my Lent teachings (Pray-as-you-go has their usual, beautiful and faith-provoking daily journey available on-line) and I just felt so much resistance. Praying through it, I came to an understanding that as much as I admire the tradition of Lent, especially not having grown up with this practice, I’ve the last decade of my adult life – through seminary, and spiritual direction training – examining myself and looking for God in everything, and everyone…except myself.

Last year, I listed to an AMAZING audio teaching by two of my all-time favorite spiritual teachers – Richard Rohr and Fr. Thomas Keating (rest in peace). Healing Our Violence Through the Practice of Centering Prayer is a profound series of lectures given at a retreat some years ago. It’s about healing our wounds essentially and coming to terms with our own emotional patterns. One session I listened to over and over. Fr. Keating gave a life altering definition of repentance framing it this way – “Repentance means , Will you kindly change the direction in which you are looking for happiness?” 

While this question will likely evoke different responses for each of us…I have a deep abiding sense of God inviting me to consider what this change of direction means for me. Is it possible that after all these years of seeking God apart from myself, if I simply seek after my own true self – what brings her joy? what makes her happy? – I will inevitably come face to face with God. I will come to know (in the deepest sense of the word “know”) at last what Jesus meant in his farewell prayer for his disciples in the Gospel of John 17 – “that they would all be one, just as you and I are one.”

So I ended the Lent audio recordings, fighting through the dense fog of a pre-menstrual depression slowly rolling in and showered. On my quiet day before, I’d prayed for “divine encounters” to guide me to what to do in this foreign city. And then, my Airbnb host Rene appeared to direct me on the more ideal journey…

Following his instructions, I walked quite a distance to what is called here the Parade of Taxis, and locating the taxi with the sign displaying – SAN AGUSTIN ETLA, I climbed in the back seat of a non-air car, joining another women already waiting. Soon we were joined in the backseat by another woman, then another woman with her young son climbed into the front seat, and we were off – all 6 of us including driver in a four-seater sedan! A few minutes into the drive, the woman to my right (I lucked out and got the middle seat 😉 pulled out her rosary and booklet and silently prayed her prayers while I rode along unfamiliar roadways until after 25 minutes or so, the driver took a right turn and then up we went into the mountains, entering a small town where at the top stood a magnificent church and old mansion overlooking the valley of San Agustin Etla. I was told this place was an arts center, but I quickly discovered there was no art on display anywhere inside this massive structure! Instead to my delight, I was surrounded by stunning views, natural landscapes, colonial architecture, intricately constructed pools and waterfalls, a blazing sun tempered by a cool breeze.

Turns out Spirit had invited me to see what natural beauty is made of.  And as usual I heard the invitation…but I’m so happy I said Yes.

Enough for me

“Today, I release the urgency of outer events. I listen to the inner rhythm of God. I set my pace by divine guidance. The world and its busy agendas do not control my soul. My soul rests in God: good, orderly, direction.” —Julia Cameron

 

Resisted temptation to be a tourist today. It’s been a whirlwind 2 weeks leading up to my arrival here in Mexico. And a challenging month before that embracing my truth that I was in a job that no longer served me, and that I was completely unhappy. So I did something about it!

Dislodging yourself from comfort, and taking a risk is never easy. And I can’t lie and say I did it gracefully at all, even if it appeared so from the outside. I had my bold face on but inside I was freaking out.  Leaving a stable job and good money without another job lined up isn’t logical, and hardly anyone (except my mother, ha!) will encourage you to do it.  But wow…does it gives your soul a boost.

We are enamored by this idea of fearlessness which, to be blunt, I reject entirely. I fear everything. And I also have an extremely low tolerance for pain of any kind – emotional or physical. But I embrace my fears, and pray for grace and strength to move through them. Because it isn’t I who move, it is I who allows myself to BE MOVED.

And things moved FAST. One Friday I was at work…two Fridays later, I was on a plane to Mexico. Now here I am…and after a sleep deprived two days of travel from LA to Mexico City to Oaxaca…I arrived here to Oaxaca starved and exhausted. If there’s such a thing as a “fear hangover”….that would describe my current emotional state…

Needless to say, today felt like my first day of real rest in about two months. And while a whole new city to explore waits outside my door, I decided I can see all that tomorrow…or not. I’m not here to be a tourist. I’m here to learn how to walk on water…

So my inner monk and contemplative diva was in her element today in my simple but cozy B&B. Listening to the laughter and activity downstairs from the kitchen, enjoying fresh and delicious meals, chatting in my broken Spanish with the lovely staff here who are full of hospitality and joy.

That is enough for me.

My 2018 Reading List

2018 Book List

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle

Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor

What to Remember When waking, David Whyte

Women, Food, and God, Geneen Roth

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton

Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

The Book of Joy, Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Adams

Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown

Everyday Supernatural, Mike Pilavachi

Bipolar Faith, Monica Coleman

Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Spinster, Kate Bollick

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

Swing Time, Zadie Smith

The Good Girl, Mary Kubica

Sweet Bitter, Stephanie Danler

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

The Aviator’s Wife, Melanie Benjamin

In the Midst of Winter, Isabel Allende

wounded ambition

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Rhonda Gray

Our wounds can come to shape our ambitions. If you’ve suffered abuse, rejection, or neglect; when your worth and your identity has been threatened, you may be driven by a desire to prove your worth to yourself and others.

But “success” for approvals sake is a dangerous, arduous, and ultimately fruitless undertaking. The desire for approval is a deceptive motivator because by its energy you may in fact accomplish much, while never arriving at true fulfillment, inner peace or joy. For those on a healing journey, as inner trauma is released, we may notice our desires and ambitions begin to shift. Our definitions of success change. Let them.

The path of healing for the wounded ambition is the way of humility. And for the very wounded, who by nature of their trauma become the very proud, the journey can be hard and long.

So begin. And begin again.

Be gentle and patient with yourself.

Pride is stubborn and tough, like snake skin. But it sheds. Layer by layer.

What causes it to shed? Surrender, surrender, surrender. And submission. Submitting to a Power great than oneself. Because contrary to the wounded cry of selfish-ambition, You are not in this alone… You are not the master of your own fate. You are not the sole arbiter of your destiny.

You are one in the company of many, in the fellowship of a great I AM.

You are not even YOU at all.

 

Dalai Lama on stress and ambition (from The Book of Joy)

Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition. Then when we don’t fulfill that expectation or achieve that ambition we experience frustration. Right from the beginning it is a self-centered attitude – I want this, I want that. Often we are not being realistic about our own ability or about objective reality. When we have a clear picture about our own capacity we can be realistic about our effort then there is a much greater chance of achieving our goals. But unrealistic effort only brings disaster. So in many cases our stress is caused by our expectations and our ambition.

Prayer for Mercy 

 

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God of Love and Mercy,

Give us your heart. Let us be overwhelmed by compassion for ourselves as we move throughout our week, doing for ourselves what we might more easily do for others. Let us be gentle and nurturing, and loving and kind to ourselves that in doing so, we are able to extend the same loving kindness to all those we encounter.

God keep your promises, and hear our prayer.

Give us a generous measure of grace to truthfully examine our own hearts, and the courage to confront our own beauty, to encounter our deep worthiness, to embrace our divine inheritance that we would fulfill this deep call in our hearts to be lights in a dark and dying world.

God keep your promises, and hear our prayer.

Give us your mind so that we can know the truth. Let us weigh every word spoken – every news report, every Facebook post, every bit of gossip shared – against your words of Life. Teach us your thoughts, show us your ways, set us free.

God keep your promises, and hear our prayer.

Give us your eyes and let judgment be far from us. Let us see ourselves and others through the same lens by which you see. Show us just a glimpse of your vision of us, for even a small preview would be enough to radically change our view of ourselves, and our view of others. And we want to change how we see.

God keep your promises, and hear our prayer.

And God…Give us a break. We confess we carry burdens you have already invited us to unload. But we like our bags, they comfort us, so we ignore your invitation and suffer in vain. Teach us how to let go. We give you permission to take our loads. Teach us the meaning of mercy and grace. Teach us more of this radical love you have for us. Undo everything we know, unravel us, and when we find ourselves overwhelmed by this new uncertainty, this daunting cloud of unknowing…help us not to be afraid.

God keep your promises, and hear our prayer.

Amen.