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Contemplative Practices, Part 1

Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 1 Timothy 4:15

I frequently make references to contemplative practices without describing what they are. I will describe a few of the practices that are a part of my daily routine. Before I do so, however, I need to issue two cautions:
1. While most contemplative practices are relatively simple and can be self-taught, I     recommend learning them from a teacher or experienced practitioner. There are nuances to the practices that are easily overlooked in self-teaching, resulting in an ineffective practice.
2. One of the ways contemplative practices aid in spiritual growth is by opening a channel from our subconscious levels of being to our consciousness awareness. While this is subtle and slow enough for most of us to process without difficulty, for some people a flood of difficult memories and unresolved experiences may ensue. If this happens, discontinue the practice and seek professional assistance.

Several years ago I felt a deep need to experience the presence of God in my life instead of just reading another book about it. Contemplative practices are a way to integrate our bodies, our physical being, into our spiritual work. These practices are not about adding more stuff to our days or reading more books faster. They are about slowing down and going deep, entering a moment or a narrative and experiencing what it has to offer. One of my teachers suggests that if we spend 10 hours a week reading, we should spend one of those hours on a single page, paragraph, line, or thought.

I utilize the two practices I describe below every day. One is a form of prayer — Centering Prayer, and one is a method of study – Lectio Divina (pronounced Lex’-ee-oh Dah-vee’-na). Many other practices are available and useful, and I will describe a couple more next week. These include (but are not limited to) walking meditation, yoga, certain forms of exercise, meditation, sacred dance, chanting, and many variations of prayer.

Centering Prayer. This is a form of silent prayer, where we seek to quiet the internal dialogue that runs non-stop in our minds. The sole purpose is to sit in the presence of God. We are not seeking answers, enlightenment, or comfort. We do not submit our petitions to God. We simply consent to be in God’s presence. Here is the process:
1. Select a “sacred word” of one or two syllables that will symbolize your consent to God’s presence and action within you. I often use “Be still.” Use whatever word seems appropriate to you to symbolize your willingness to consent to God’s presence.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, take a few deep breaths and silently introduce your sacred word.
3. When thoughts arise, as they will, repeat your sacred word to renew your intent to consent quietly to God’s presence. Allow the thoughts to pass away as you say your sacred word.
Two, twenty-minute sessions of centering prayer each day are recommended, although shorter periods can be helpful, too.

Lectio Divina. This is a four-step method for studying sacred texts, like the Bible. The intent is not to see how much of the text one can get through and how quickly, but to see how deeply one can enter and experience one section of the text. I often select a book of the Bible, reading it from beginning to end, one paragraph at a time, one day at a time. Here is the process:
1. Read the selected passage slowly and aloud. This allows one’s body to hear the words instead of just thinking the words. Listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you.
2. Read the passage a second time and reflect on what touches you about it. Enter one or more of the characters – what are they thinking, feeling, or experiencing? Consider journaling your thoughts.
3. Read the passage a third time and respond with a prayer or expression of what you have experienced and/or what it calls you to do. This step is a call to action – what action in my life is this passage calling me to?
4. Read the passage a fourth time and rest in silence.
Additional information and resources for these and other practices is at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.com.

Contemplative practices are not about getting from here to there but are about delving more deeply into the here and now – wherever we are, whatever our situation, at this very moment. Next week I will provide an overview for a couple of additional practices.

This is the 11th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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The Certainty of Uncertainty

 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! Romans 11:33

What does it take to feel confident in or comfortable with our life in this world? If God loves us; indeed, if God is love, why is life so unpredictable? Why all the violence, sickness, injustice, insecurity, and misery? Why does the earth seem to be falling apart from earthquakes, fires, climate change, glacier melt, species extinction, and other incomprehensible disasters? Everyone I know suffers in some way, consistent with their cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic status. No one gets out of here alive. Can we ever be certain about anything in life? The answer is an emphatic YES! We can always be certain that life will remain uncertain.

A portion of our uncertainty centers around the concept of fairness. One absolute truth about life is that life is not fair. Another truth is that life is absolutely fair. How can both be true? Can life be fairer to some than others? There seems to be ample evidence of that possibility. Unfortunately, we are poorly equipped to determine what is and is not fair. Our human perspective is too limited. Being human is about experiencing life’s nuances in excruciating detail. We lose ourselves so deeply into the forest that all we see are trees. We cannot conceive of a larger picture or a unifying purpose.

When we lack the ability to judge what should or should not happen in the grand scheme of events, then our perception of fairness is always out of kilter, making life appear uncertain. In the scope of the eternal life of the soul, our life on earth is but a grain of sand on a vast beach; but we cannot view the beach. What can we possibly know about fairness, about justice, about love in the eternal scheme of God’s creation? What if a particular soul – a specific manifestation of God – chooses to embody in a third world country in order to experience starvation or apartheid or a brutal civil war? That possibility puts fairness in a completely different context. If God experiences in and through all of creation, why would God not want to experience the good, bad, and ugly of creation? Certainly, every stage of human creation has painful parts of the process required for completion – childbirth, for instance. Our problem is that we judge the pain of the contractions as separate from the life of the person.

Even if a soul does choose to manifest in a certain time and space in order to experience a particular stage of creation, that does not relieve the rest of us from the obligation to do what we can about the injustice, the oppression, or the unfortunate circumstance. Part of the grace, perhaps the only grace in being a victim of unspeakable tragedy is to have another child of God notice and do whatever he or she can to ease that suffering. We need to realize that the disadvantaged provide opportunities to allow God’s grace to flow through us. One soul suffers, another soul relieves suffering – all is part of the experience of God through us.

One additional certainty, aside from the certainty of uncertainty, is that we cannot fall out of God’s love and care. God did not spare Jesus from his ghastly earthly suffering, so why would we expect God to spare ours? God did not leave Jesus alone on the cross, nor will God leave us alone on ours. God did not allow the pain of the cross to last forever, nor will God allow our pain to last forever. God took the pain of the crucifixion and birthed something good for humankind, just as God will transform our suffering into good. Of course, none of this happens according to our desires or our timeline. We are not in a position to make those judgments.

Our world is full of uncertainty because we are incapable of perceiving or fully trusting the fairness of God’s unfolding plan. Yes, we should absolutely make every effort to do all the good we can in every situation we can, but we cannot tie our willingness to work to the results we believe should immediately follow. That is God’s business, not ours. The ultimate success of God’s ceaseless workings will seem uncertain to us. Contemplative practices help us accept the certainty of uncertainty, release our attachment to results, and free us to live, move, and have our being in and as the part of God’s greater life we were created to manifest.

This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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The Contemplative Symbolism of the Cross

 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

To Christians, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is a sign of pain and suffering, yes, but it is also a sign of hope. God, in the person of Jesus, endured a horrific persecution, humiliation, and death on a cross. Because God has been there, God understands and empathizes with our persecutions, humiliations, and suffering. There are countless innocent victims of human and natural violence, and the cross reminds us that God knows the futility of senseless suffering better than anyone does. Many believe Jesus died as payment for our sins, ending the bloody sacrificial system of atonement that had been in place for countless generations. All of this and more comes to mind when reflecting on the cross.

The cross is also a contemplative mandala for a mindful life. The horizontal line represents the time continuum of our physical existence on earth, stretching from past to present to future. Every point along that time-line is a moment, and we can chose to go deep into any moment. Doing so brings a vertical line into our awareness, symbolizing our spiritual life. The vertical line stretches endlessly above and below our earth-time awareness, opening access to another dimension of experience. The spiritual dimension exists outside of time, so whenever we decide to become present to a moment, time loses its sequential nature and becomes largely irrelevant. We may choose to go deeply into the moment of smelling a rose, closing our eyes and entering the sweet fragrance. It may transport us back to a time in childhood when our father gave our mother a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day. We may remember a walk through a rose garden, holding hands with the one we loved. We may enter  springtime, with the soft green grass and the rebirth and flowering of God’s creation. All of these possibilities exist within that single moment of smelling the rose, but they exist outside of the time continuum in which we bring the petals to our nose. Here is another example: When reading a passage that moves me, I can continue reading, or I can enter into that which moves me. I can become a character in the story and place myself in the scene. Being present to a moment is experiencing the moment on a level deeper than simply reading about it. It is taking an experiential detour along the vertical dimension of the cross as opposed to floating along the horizontal in surface-consciousness. We cannot enter the moment without committing our awareness to it, whatever it may be.

Lest I paint an inaccurately restricted image, entering the moment is not about lamenting the past, projecting the future, or losing ourselves in daydreams. Rather, it is about entering a deeper dimension of our life experience and understanding that we are always at the crossroads of infinite possibilities, symbolized by the cross. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, he was held at the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. When he invites us to take up our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34), Jesus invites us to meet him at that intersection. When he says he goes to prepare a place for us (John 14:3), the doorway into that place is at this intersection. It leads to heaven on earth, or as Jesus calls it, the Kingdom of God.

The cross not only symbolizes a passage into a deeper experience of the moments of our lives, but it also illustrates how to get past the trying times of our lives. When Jesus was on the cross, he was held at the intersection of body and spirit by the nails. Just as he did not seek to be removed from his anguish, so we cannot ignore or seek shortcuts around our suffering – it will only return to us in new form. We must go through our suffering as if nailed to it, symbolized by Jesus’ crucifixion, in order for transformation to occur, symbolized by Jesus’ resurrection.

This, then, is one reading of the contemplative symbolism of the cross. All of our opportunities for growth and transformation exist in the moment. When we make ourselves vulnerable enough to fully enter a moment, new possibilities arise and unimaginable depths of experience open to us. Contemplative practices help us to enter and experience the intersection of matter and spirit in a way that opens us to the presence of God.

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Dying Before We Die, Part 2

 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… Ecclesiastes 3:1-2a

Nature has no edges. Sharp, straight edges and clear lines of demarcation are human, not divine inventions. In my former work as a landscape designer, much of my work was to soften the edges created by the human need for distinct lines of separation. As such, it should come as no surprise that dying is not a precise occurrence. The medical definition of physical death is the cessation of all vital bodily functions. Sometimes, however, people come back to life after having been pronounced dead. Some have quite interesting stories to tell of the experience. I was told after my father’s death that some bodily functions would continue for some time, like hair growth. I had the opportunity to spend considerable time with my mother and grandmother as they passed from this life. Both transitioned over a period of weeks as they gradually withdrew from their material interests. Awakening and finding themselves still in this reality was not always a pleasant experience for either of them. They were becoming familiar with their new destination and were ready to move on.

We all are dying all of the time, even though our final, physical death may be many years away. Death is an on-going process. An estimated 50-70 million cells in our bodies die each day through a natural process called apoptosis. The inescapable cycle for all earthly life is birth, growth, decline, and death. Each stage is its own wonderful process and occurs in its own time. And the stages overlap. We see and accept the pattern all around us, but we have difficulty seeing or accepting it within ourselves. Each new day births with a sunrise, matures its way to sunset, and dies into night. The passing of a single day does not diminish the number of days. Seasons move deliberately from spring to summer to fall to winter – birth, growth, decline, death – only to repeat the cycle over and over again. What we know from nature but deny in ourselves is that death is not the end of life. Rather, death moves life to its next phase. Death is transformational, not terminal. The cellular and structural combinations forming everything around us must decline and die in order for its elements to be reborn as something new.

Our souls draw physical elements from the earth in order to embody themselves for a time. When that time is complete, the soul releases the physical elements back to the earth and both soul and elements move on to a new adventure. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. We cannot stop the sun from rising any more than we can prevent our own maturation. All things happen in their own sovereign time. When we let an unhealthy addiction die, when we move beyond an emotional wound, when we cease clinging to the tyranny of a painful injustice, we die before we die. We take control of something that has been controlling us. We recycle the energy that was required for the maintenance of the old and free it for something new. The season for that is over; now is the season for this. It is all part of the beautifully relentless cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and rebirth. Our life is an endless series of second chances. All are glorious gifts from our Creator.

A contemplative life tunes itself to the natural rhythms of our physical and spiritual being through contemplative practices. We assess the parts of our lives that are no longer useful, and in the spirit of dying before we die, we allow those parts to be recycled as their season passes. In this progressive and eternal context, there is no good or evil because, together, all things move us toward the perfection of God’s creation. In the Revelation to John (21:5), Christ says, “See, I am making all things new.” Our pain, our suffering, the injustices of the world all work to set the course upon which our collective life is relentlessly heading. Those combinations that move us toward a more inclusive and just existence are strengthened, and those working in the other direction are recycled. Nothing is wasted or lost. It seems a slow process, but in the context of eternity, there is no rush. Rather, for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

This is the 8th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Dying Before We Die, Part 1

 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  Romans 8:13-14

Many people fear death more than anything else, including spiders and snakes. This is understandable since the life we perceive through our senses is the only life we know with any certainty. Whenever a loved one dies, our senses no longer receive evidence of their presence, so we assume they either no longer exist or they have traveled somewhere far away from us. We do not know, and not knowing makes us uneasy. When someone dies, he or she is just gone, leaving us with grief and questions. We feel sorrow for those who die young and celebrate those who live into their 90’s and beyond, as if our physical existence were more about the quantity of days than the quality. We cannot get a logical handle on death because it defies logic, and that makes us squirm.

Christian mystics talk about death regularly. So did Jesus. Scientific, irreversible, physical death occurs once for us, and most of us go to great lengths to deny its nearness and delay its arrival. We are not anxious to come to the end of the only life we know. And that is exactly the problem with the education most of us receive – the life we know is but a small part of the life we are. The apostle Paul names two aspects of existence. In his letter to the Romans, as well as in other writings in the New Testament, Paul distinguishes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” making clear that both were present there and then, just as they continue to be present here and now. The word flesh is Paul’s code word for our ego’s interpretation of the concrete world of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. It is easy to read Paul in a way that assumes he condemns the world of flesh, but that understanding is incomplete. Paul wants us to know that our ego’s view of the world of the flesh is only one part of our life. It is the impermanent, temporary part. It is also a beautiful, seductive part that can tempt us into actions that are inconsistent with and antagonistic to the larger, immortal, and invisible part of life, which is the realm of Spirit. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” This is the death we know is coming, the death of the flesh. If we identify solely with our ego’s experience of the flesh, our physical death will be the end of the little we know ourselves to be

On the other hand, according to Paul, if we live by the Spirit, we will live. This poses a difficult dilemma to reconcile – the tangible pull of the flesh vs the ethereal speculation about the Spirit. In fact, the dilemma cannot be reconciled; it can only be accepted, embraced, and lived. Fortunately for us, dying to “the flesh” does not have to mean physical death. Paul encourages us to live in the flesh, tempered with the knowledge and perspective of the Spirit. Our physical existence is a tangible manifestation of the Spirit, so the two are not separate. The flesh is not evil, nor is our ego, but they can be misleading and the cause of much unnecessary pain and suffering, both to ourselves and to others. Paul says, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (emphasis added).

Dying before we die does not mean ending our life in the flesh before its time. Rather, it means letting go of our attachment to and identification with that which has no permanence. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Dying before we die is resetting our priorities, being intentional about what we choose to treasure, and saying “Goodbye” to that which serves no eternal purpose. In this way, our lives are made whole – body and spirit as one – and we become children of God. Both body and Spirit are beautiful and together create the fullness we long to experience in this phase of life.

A contemplative life seeks an inclusive balance between the flesh and the Spirit, experiencing and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh within the context and under the guidance of the Spirit.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 2

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Last week I began contrasting two aspects of every self: the ego and the essence. Our ego is also referred to as our false self or small self, indicating something less than whole. Our essence is also called our true self or nondual self, indicating something in its wholeness. In contrasting our ego and our essence I describe two extremes of a vertical continuum that extends infinitely in either direction, although the essence is inclusive of the entire spectrum. As human beings we are incapable of manifesting either pure ego or pure essence; rather, we manifest varying degrees of each. In addition, we may act more from our ego in certain circumstances and more from our essence in others. I only characterize the two as separate in order to describe the ends. In reality they only vary by degrees. Our ego manifests a part of our essence; our essence includes but transcends the ego. Our true self is the developmental direction toward which the Spirit invites and encourages us. Our false self resists the urgings of the Spirit, mostly for fear of losing or tarnishing what it mistakenly perceives to be its unique nature.

At the heart of our dilemma is that the world seems to confirm and support the partial truths our ego tells – that the life our senses detect is all there is, that we must live for ourselves and accumulate as much material wealth as we can with the limited time we have on earth. The common wisdom of our world tells us to deny the weaker parts of ourselves, hide our vulnerabilities, and put on a good face for those around us. Ultimately, our ego leads us into a lifestyle that is not true to who we are.  The person we pretend to be cannot exist in any sustainable way.

This dilemma is a problem that is exclusive to humans. Plants and trees make no discernible effort to be something they are not. The same is true for rocks, streams, and clouds. Animals do not make false pretenses about who they are. In his book, Falling Upward1, Richard Rohr identifies two halves of our lives. Our egoic or false self dominates the first half as we strive to build a name for ourselves, establish a profession, start a family, or otherwise enter adulthood. As we age we realize there is something missing in the self-image that has carried us to that point in life. This is when our true self may begin to assert itself, and the ego’s influence over us begins to lessen. As we did in infancy, we identify with our support system, although now we recognize God, working through those around us, as our ultimate support system. We celebrate our interconnectedness and recognize that we build ourselves up by building others up, not by tearing them down. We understand in our deepest being that salvation is communal, not individual – that we are all in this together. We strive to be increasingly genuine and true to who God created us to become.

When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to releasing our ego’s hold over the direction of our life. It can feel like dying; indeed, it is a death. We need to allow that small, selfish, and insecure part of ourselves to diminish in order to make room for our true self to grow. Our essence was never born, nor will it ever die. It is our eternal self. It is where our perfectly unique expression of God resides. Getting in touch with this aspect of our being is especially important as we approach physical death, as our true self is what will survive our passage out of material existence. Contemplative practices help us awaken to our essence. Such practices also assist in seeing the essence in others, even when it is invisible to them. God in us sees and affirms God in others. Namaste. This is true love and is a prerequisite to achieving equanimity within, not to mention peace on earth.

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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1          Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, Hoboken, NJ, 2011.

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