Making a U-turn

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Last weekend I spent Saturday at a retreat/lecture with one of my Christian Mystic teachers, Jim Finley. He’s amazing. Wise and profound. But what moved me more than his godly insight was the presence of several other teachers I saw there. My very first ever, spiritual director, Ravi. A woman named Carolyn who counseled me during a challenging post-seminary transition. And my current spiritual director, Greta. They were all thrilled to see me. They are the kind of teachers I’ve always been blessed with throughout my life. The ones who look at me and think I’m just amazing, and see my future as so big and bright. I cherish their vision of me, especially at times when seeing my own potential is clouded by doubts and fear.

During a break, I chatted with Carolyn about how things were going in my life. I told her I’m still on the journey. For a moment as I talked with her, I looked around the room, at a sea of mostly Caucasian faces, mostly 50 years old and up, and I found myself telling Carolyn, that sometimes I feel like an outcast. But it’s not here at events like these that I feel like I don’t belong, here where it may seem obvious I was out of place. No, I told her. It’s out there…amongst my peers, my friends in their thirties, living life, working jobs, starting families, having fun. Out there, this spiritual life isn’t a popular course of life to undertake. “Maybe, to be fair,” I ask her, “it’s not an easy undertaking any age?” Carolyn listened, and when she spoke she told me, “Remember what Jim said at the beginning of the day…the mystic way is like making a U-turn on the freeway in the middle of rush hour.” “Yes,” I told her, “I remember.”

I am one of those wild ones who dared enough to make the U-turn on the freeway…but now I’m sitting here, facing traffic head on, thinking I’m now actually going to get somewhere.

The foolishness of it all. The audacity to believe.

When doubt sets in, you need something to stand on. You need to remember that you’ve made moves like this before and you did in fact get somewhere. You need vision. You need to be able to look back, and look ahead all the while staying present to the now.

One month away from my 35th birthday I find myself excited. Sitting in rush hour traffic, excited. Now I’m five years closer to the big 4-0, which I know many women dread, but I have always had this strange fascination with turning 40. Because when I look ahead, I can see myself there. The same me, just a little wiser, a bit more content, a lot less concerned with what others think of me. I can see her there. Stronger, more convinced that this path she’s chosen is actually trustworthy.

Because I’ll be honest, even as I write and share, the more I write and share, the more people encourage me and thank me for sharing, the more convinced I am I know nothing! Nothing at all. Some days, to be honest, I’m not even sure there is a God, truly. And on those days the peace and the joy that are the promised fruits of the spiritual life, elude me.

So that’s when I look back.

25 was real, wasn’t it? I was just getting set to move to California. I had no idea what was ahead of me, but I had enough money saved to drive cross-country and pay a little rent. I entered seminary, graduated 3 years later with NO MONEY. But I kept following whispers. God kept favoring me. Every turn I took there was a teacher, a minister, a wise counselor. My whole life people have committed themselves to helping me make it through, seen something special in me, walked with me for a season, taught me the way. Taught me to notice God. So now I notice my life seems to follow a pattern. This isn’t my first U-turn on the freeway, and it won’t be my last. Taught me to pay attention to the unfolding. Taught me to embrace my becoming. Taught me to see that if here is good, next is better. Taught me to trust, that I’ve never gone backwards and I won’t go backwards now.

But believe me, when you make that first U-turn…it certainly feels like you’re going nowhere slow. Just breathe. Remember where you’re going, and remember where you’ve come from.

Be fruitful people

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I was on a fast track. Everybody was telling me that I was a really talented TV producer. I can be really good at a lot of things, so I believed them. But this time (perhaps because being good at producing a TV show actually counted for something trackable on IMDB, and accumulated to real dollars in my bank account), I noticed I was also becoming really easily influenced by other people’s perceptions of me. I was getting too comfortable being what other people wanted me to be.

It’s a human thing. We need acceptance. And as children being accepted by family, and schoolmates, peers is how we develop our self-image and a healthy sense of self-esteem. Especially in our rewards-based educational system. When we do good, we are rewarded and consequently accepted. It’s how we learn to do life in our formative years.

But as you mature in the spiritual life, formation takes on a slightly different form. You begin to notice a distinction between Doing and Being. You may begin to sense that what you are good at doing is not quite the same as who you were created to be. And at a certain point along the road to spiritual self-discovery, you find yourself asking not, “What am I doing?” but, “Who am I being?” And God is drawing you to that question because our perceived ideas about who we are that are based on what we do, the role we play in this world, hinder our ability to become who God intends us to be.

This does not mean you can’t enjoy what you do. I enjoy producing. I enjoy the role I play on set, directing talent, developing stories. It’s good, mostly clean, fun. So when I started to ask myself, “Who am I being?”, I was very aware that I was good at what I was doing, and set no intention to never do what I do as a producer again.  I wasn’t leaving behind a life, I was just letting it go for a moment. It wasn’t a “Bye Felicia”, it was an act of surrender in response to the invitation of God I felt impressing itself upon my heart.

The aim of the spiritual life is to be released from an overattachment, or overidentification with our roles (ie. what I do); and free to identify with who we are in the Spirit. And when God has a vision and purpose for your life, from time to time, he may stop the clock, slow us down…giving us the opportunity to realign ourselves with the truth of who we are in God. And I trust this process.  So much so that I’m starting to envision what I will produce when I get back in the game. I imagine it may somehow be more authentic, more honest, more brave.

Jesus said, we will be known by our fruits. Which implies that first, we must know our roots.

He also once shared a parable to his disciples…it was about a barren fig tree. And I love this parable because it shows us how we can still be alive, with dried up fruit…or alive and not bearing any fruit at all…

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.  And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure.  Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” Luke 13:6-9

This is the spiritual life. You begin to notice a dryness. You ignore it. Until one day, someone comes looking for your fruit. And you remember what you were created for. And you begin to pay attention to the tree. You remember, there’s still life in you. You start to dig around inside, you begin to excavate your soul. It is not easy work. But with every diligent and intentional act of care and kindness you offer yourself, the truth of who you are is revealed. With persistence and courage, you find the joy, you find the fruitful life you were determined to rediscover. Then you begin to produce what you were created to produce.

Be determined

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Confidence is a static state. Determination is active. Determination allows for doubt and for humility – both of which are critical in the world today. There is so much that we don’t know, and so much that we know we don’t know. To be overly confident or without doubt seems silly to me. Determination, on the other hand, is a commitment to win, a commitment to fight the good fight.

Anna Deveare Smith, Letters to a young artist

 

 

Go where the peace is

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There’s a misconception about peace. We tend to believe that being at peace means the absence of discomfort, but it’s actually quite the opposite. Our inclination towards being comfortable can mislead us. In reality, God most often leads us to places fraught with challenges because this is how we grow in love.  And what God wants most for us is to be equal to God in Love.

The spiritual life is a journey. We’re all headed somewhere. And like any journey, along the way, there will be danger, doubt, confusion, feelings of being alone, mixed with moments of sheer joy. It is easy to become consumed by what happens to us along the way and distracted from seeing instead, what is happening within us, and what God is becoming for us.

Seeing life through a spiritual lens involves changing our perception of who we are and who God is for us.  And it takes work. Mostly because the first thing we see clearly when we put on our spiritual glasses are the false truths we tell ourselves. We see how we actually prefer the distractions because the way we are accustomed to seeing is more comforting to us than the hard work and discomfort of transformation. Yet it is in this way, that we also begin to see that the peace that God desires for us, offers us a different sort of freedom. Not freedom from trouble or discomfort, but freedom from our own illusions –  that God is not present, at work within us, walking before us, whispering behind us. The greatest illusion is that we are alone, that we could actually drift beyond God’s reach.

This is not an easy shift in perception. But the shift does comes about slowly through a practiced, intentional effort to align ourselves with seeing through a spiritual lens. Contemplative prayer (or meditation) helps to re-align the way we see. As we sit, the mind shows us all kinds of thoughts and worries, even bright ideas. These thoughts will never go away…and that is not the goal of quiet prayer. Resting in Presence teaches you that while everything goes on around you, within you there is a place that is still and quiet, a place that exists beyond our thought world, a place where peace exists within us, regardless of what’s going on around us. We may only access that peace for a few seconds here or there when we first begin to practice. But over time, we will learn to find our way to that place with more frequency, not through any effort or will of our own, but by gently responding to God’s invitation to come and stay a little longer this time.

What it means to be contemplative

I call myself a contemplative.  And lately, as I take rest to reconnect with my spiritual practice, I realize not only had I lost touch with the core of my contemplative self, but that many others do not understand the nature of contemplation or what it means to be a contemplative.

I’ve always been a thinker, even a self-confessed over-thinker. It’s kind of a pre-requisite for being a writer. Always ideas, always an active imagination, always an ongoing dialogue in my head, always a propensity to being still, because after all, you must be still enough to capture an idea when it comes.  But being a contemplative doesn’t just suggest that one spends hours on end mulling over the meaning of life. Contemplation is a practice of cultivating an attitude of listening and responding to the movement of God in our lives. William J. Barry, who has written a lot about the practice of spiritual direction and contemplation says that, contemplation begins “when a person stops being totally preoccupied with his own concerns and lets another person, event, or object take his attention.” Contemplation then means a movement away from self-absorption towards becoming absorbed in a Being beyond oneself.

Contemplative prayer, more recognizably known as meditation, is the practice of going beyond oneself. And it is very challenging. As I sat in meditation this morning, my thoughts were going a mile a minute. The goal of contemplative prayer is not having no thoughts, rather it is allowing thoughts to come and pass, without latching onto them and being carried away by the stream of thoughts that pass constantly. That’s what makes the practice of meditation so difficult. Training the mind not follow its every whim is daily exercise and it can be a frustrating, never-ending journey. But this is the spiritual life. And at its core, a commitment to the spiritual life is a commitment to the work of freeing oneself from self-absorption and self-preoccupation. And when we are free from our self-determined ideas about who we are and what we must do, we are open to the movement of God and able to hear more clearly the activity to which God invites us to.

It’s easy to be busy doing, not so easy to get busy being. But the truth we all confront at some point in our lives, and the source of most all discontent is coming to terms with the reality that what we are doing does not wholly satisfy us. The question of the contemplative is always, “Who am I being?” And the answer to that question lay not in the doing, but always in the being. It can be a scary place to live, in the being of who we are, and we will always come up with every good reason not to stop and rest there.

Accepting Loss

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I’m oiled up…wearing my acceptance oils today – Cypress, Frankincense, and Myrrh – because I’m going through a major transition, experiencing a blend of losses that are very real to me. And with any transition and loss comes a grieving period.

Grieving is uncommon nowadays. We associate grief primarily with death, but the death of a person is not the only kind of loss we experience in life. We lose jobs, we lose status, we lose lovers, we lose dreams. And in suffering these kinds of losses, when you share the pain or heartbreak associated with it, you may find a few moments of sincere understanding followed by a quick prescription to get over it – “Let it go” and “move on” are the most familiar approaches. We have a ‘buck up’ approach to grief in dealing with these seemingly less important losses which concerns me on many levels.  One, because it doesn’t offer real compassion for the person suffering the loss, but perhaps even more importantly, simply “moving on” doesn’t leave space for the growth, healing and transformation that comes from first accepting that you are indeed losing something that was valuable to you.

Despite casual advice, I’ve chosen to allow myself to settle into the process of grieving. As a trained spiritual director, it is my duty to be able to sit with my own feelings of pain and loss so I can hold those feelings for another person. What I run from in myself, I will run from in others. You have no idea how badly I just want to move on…replace this grief with work, or television, or any sort of noise or busy-ness. I want to exchange this weakness for Power. Instead, I let the weakness overcome me like a wave…let it lead me to a place of transformation.

A proper grieving experience actually invites us to become something new. When loss and pain confront us, our first instinct is to sweep it under a rug. We can cry later. We don’t have time to be sad, or angry or resentful or whatever feeling may arise in the holding of our pain. So we just turn that channel off. We are hard-wired to resist any kind of suffering. But what we fail to understand that great contemplatives know as truth is that burying our own anger, resentment, pain or loss actually steals our joy. We carry the opposing energy we refuse to give to the other. And it builds up in us like a toxin.

What makes the spiritual life such an inconvenient commitment is, that it calls for an acceptance of all things. All things. Not just good things, like blessings and prosperity, but all things. Even sad, suffering things like loss and hurt and pain. We accept that they are present in our lives so we can accept that they are present in others lives. And in the acceptance of our losses, we come to know a deeper, more compassionate, present even in darkness kind of God. This is the God of the Psalms. This is the vulnerable God. This is the God who transforms and makes us whole. And this is the God who desires to dwell comfortably within us, and it is our suffering that makes room for Her. Suffering makes way for Grace…that grace, we might extend to others.

The un-welcomed truth about the spiritual life is that whatever we resist, persists in us. Still, we have become a people very adept at covering up our wounds. Social media affords us the luxury of presenting only the parts of ourselves we find, and believe others will receive as desirable. Nobody wants sadness, nobody wants weakness. We call that “bad energy.” But look to any great spiritual teacher and practice their way. The truly courageous spiritual person possesses the willingness to actually look suffering in the face, go to hell, war with themselves and return home anew – stronger, more truthful…shining because they’ve walked through fire.

Practice saying Yes to yourself

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I just took a big risk and forfeited a great paying job…two of them actually. Although I have a decent amount of money saved, choosing not to work right now is totally illogical.

But I have dreams. And in some downtime between a job that ended and another that was to begin, those dreams began to recur. Rest realigns your purpose. And that rest in between jobs gave me the space to remember what makes me happy, remember who I am, remember what I was born to do, who I was created to be. And all of that rest and remembering served me well. I remembered so well, and so vividly, that saying yes to another well paying job became more and more difficult.

What struck me most as I was making my decision, was how difficult it was for me to actually act on what I knew I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to take the jobs, I knew I had the financial freedom to say no to them, but the paralyzing crisis of freedom perplexed me. Why is it so difficult to actually do what you want, to say yes to yourself?

Trusting yourself is one of life’s greatest challenges. It takes practice. It requires a daily commitment to affirming yourself. Trusting yourself forces you to ask yourself everyday – Do I believe my potential? Are my dreams supported by the universe, God? Am I determined enough to make what exists in my imagination a reality?

Saying yes to yourself demands courage. You have to be daring enough to take a risk. Wild enough to follow your heart. Audacious enough to believe it is possible. And as I get older, my fearlessness in the face of the unknown is threatened with every obligation, every financial commitment, every idea that I must be, do, or have this or that, and everybody else’s better idea of who I am supposed to be according to them.

In the end, it all came down to a matter of the heart. When I lived out of my heart in the reality of working those jobs, I felt anxious. When I lived out of my heart in the reality of having the freedom to take time for myself and work towards executing my ideas and my vision, I felt peace. So, I chose peace. But I also learned that choosing peace doesn’t always mean you won’t be uncomfortable. There is always discomfort in the gray…in the space between black and white…that certainty of knowing, there is always discomfort. We prefer to be certain, we prefer to have answers, we prefer to have a plan clearly outlined, to follow a map. But there is also a map of the heart. And the only way to follow it is to rest in the peace of knowing that our hearts desires will in fact lead us somewhere. To some place where freedom and joy meet. Some place far off in the distance that even with perfect vision we can barely see. But it is there. We can glimpse it. And it can be felt, deep in our soul. It can be heard in the quietest of moments. It is a God whisper, saying to our soul…Yes. And we have to listen for that whisper of a feeling every day. We have to practice hearing it, practice saying yes to the unknown. Like a child who jumps in a pool for the first time, or takes her first ride on a bike. Children see other people do what they cannot yet and trust and believe they too will be able to swim and ride and be free. It just takes practice.

#NoPeaceNoJustice

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I struggle to be outraged or shocked at the events shaking our nation over the past year. I always prefer to see truth come to light. The current and recurring events reveal who we are as a nation, and that revelation gives me more comfort than any pretense of good or better than.

I have never believed the glorification of the foundation of our great nation America. At our core, we are a country born out of resentment and discontent. The founding fathers left a system of government that didn’t serve them, revolted and set sail for new land, stumbled upon America and stole her from native people through intentional acts of genocide, violently went to war against their brethren for their rights, formed a new government that better served their own interests, and build our nation’s economy on the backs of injustice.
This is our country. And it’s not a judgment, just a reality. I am American too, and suffer her freedoms and her wounds just the same.

The truth is, we are a proud and entitled people. We fight for what we feel we deserve. We look out for our own. We fashion our own truths to reflect what benefits us the most. (This is how our great Declaration of Independence could be written, signed, and still celebrated despite originating amidst all manner of immorality and wrongdoing.) We form our own beliefs, and with our freedom to create whatever philosophy or religion that serves us best and makes us the least uncomfortable, we have a created a world for ourselves that makes Justice impossible to be upheld. Justice fails to be a reality when we see the world through a self-serving and self-protective lens. If the very essence of justice is fairness, to stand for it requires a seeing beyond your Self.

The self-evident truths our nation are founded on infect us all and need to be replaced with the only Truth that will set us free… that we are all ONE. Our neighbor is our sister, and our enemy is our brother. The oppressed and the oppressors are one. The cops and the criminals are one. The news reporters and the activists are one. The murderers and the victims are one. The government and the people are one. The rich and the poor are one. The prosecutors and the defendants are one. The young and the old are one. You. And. I. Are. One.

But we cannot see this truth, and there will be no justice and there will be no peace…until we experience a revolution of the heart and the way we see.

So when we cry for Justice, what we are really crying for is Revolution. Because a people whose nation’s founding principles are rooted in self-interest, can never be rightly concerned with equity, fairness…Justice. And that is why there will be no justice until there is peace. Because there can never be justice without, until there is peace within.

Anais Nin on the torment of awareness

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“I have a ferocious lucidity…I am aware that my gift is my curse-for I see into others lives abnormally with such keen insight, it sometimes gives me an inhuman role to play-the wise man’s role, so hateful, so difficult. At times some depend on my guidance, but at other times they hate it and rebel against it…And yet at other times, they ignore it, and then, because my feelings are involved, I suffer more from their blindness than they do…I utter truths which hurt…because I am accurate. I hate my own lucidity-I suffer as a god must suffer when he looks down and commits a murder committed in a moment of blindness. Sometimes I feel so desperate I cry out that I will kill myself and put and end to this seeing. Oh, the torture of eyes forever open! Close my eyes, oh god, that I may rest from suffering. I can no longer bear my awareness. How clearly I see!”

-Anais Nin, Mirages

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