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Finding Simplicity

 Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29

We live in complex times. We enter the world simply enough, needing only food, sleep, shelter, and love. We leave the world simply enough, taking nothing of the earth with us (although sometimes the hours, days, and weeks leading up to death may be among the most complex and expensive of our lives – but that is a topic for a future Life Note). In between birth and death, however, our lives become complicated well beyond any reasonable need.

Certainly, raising children ratchets up the complexity meter as parents provide for the needs of the child through various stages of growth. As we go through life, we tend to accumulate stuff that was useful at one time, but has set dormant for years. Unless we are obsessive about purging on a regular basis, our unused stuff can overtake our living space, further complicating our lives. We forget that there are costs to hoarding. The physical and financial cost comes from having to store, move, and care for our possessions. The human cost is borne by those who could use what we hoard.

Our possessions are only one area of life’s complexity, however. In fact, our possessions are both a result of and a cause of unnecessary complexity. Something I have noticed in my limited experience in third-world countries is the comparative lack of complexity. Many people do not have cars, televisions, access to the internet, big homes, or multiple sets of shoes and clothes for different seasons and occasions. While they would be considered underprivileged in the West, it is considered the norm for them because it is a common state of being in their culture. And many of them live happy, fulfilled lives without the necessities of the West. Another difference is that friends, family, and God seem to be real and present parts of their everyday lives – much more so than in the West.

A simple life, in my view, is one where there is freedom to do what calls to us in the moment. Granted, most lives are too busy to drop everything to answer to the whims of the moment, but a simple life has the ability to do so at least part of the time. That could be an intimate visit with a dear friend, taking a long drive, going for a contemplative walk, curling up with a good book, or writing a letter to a shut-in.

Even this Life Note on simplicity is overly complicated. I only wanted to encourage us to enjoy uncomplicated time with friends, family, and God. Spending unhurried, unpressured time with friends is one of life’s richest blessings. To rest in God’s presence without feeling the need to prepare in a particular way, be in a particular place, or come up with only eloquent words to say is a sure-fire way to remain centered.

One of the simplest ways to encounter God is by paying attention to our breath. Our first and final act in this world is to take a breath. Most breaths in between are done unconsciously. In the Genesis creation story, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[1] The Hebrew word for wind is rauch, which also means breath. It also means spirit. Every breath we take is a renewal of God’s original and on-going breath of creation. It is God’s spirit flowing through us. Focusing on our breath necessarily calls forth God’s presence in a completely natural and simple way.

The Hebrew word translated as Lord in the Bible is YHWH, which in English is pronounced Yahweh. The Israelites believed this holy name was not to be spoken. Some believe the reason it was not to be spoken is that it was to be breathed: Yah (as an inhale) – weh (as an exhale). In fact, this is a contemplative practice called the Yahweh Prayer – breathing the name of God. Seen in this way, calling the name of God is our first and final act on earth, as well as every act in between.

Paying attention to our breath is a simple and accessible way to open ourselves to God’s presence, even when we only have a minute. Building simplicity into our lives is a way to ease our burdens and find rest for our souls.

This is the 10th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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[1] Genesis 1:2

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Finding Solitude

 For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. Psalm 52:1,5

To be in solitude is to be alone – really alone. Solitude may happen by a personal choice, or it may be forced upon us. Either way, we find ourselves alone. Aloneness can have a couple of different manifestations, too. We can be alone because there are no other persons around. We can also be alone because we do not speak the same language as or have little in common with those around us.

For most of us, being in extended solitude is an uncomfortable experience because it is unfamiliar. We are used to being around other people – spouses, family, roommates, co-workers, neighbors, or fellow students. It could be the noise of a television, music, feet shuffling across the floor, or a muffled conversation from the other side of a wall, but we get used to the constant din of having others nearby. The downside of being around others, although it mostly floats beneath our conscious awareness, is that we often judge ourselves when others are near – am I dressed appropriately? Am I contributing appropriately to the conversation? Is my music too loud? Do others find me as dull as I sometimes find myself? Our internal dialogue measures our current state of being against some imagined expectation of others. There is tremendous pressure in being around others, most of it extremely self-critical, making it nearly impossible to relax and just be. When was the last time we felt secluded enough to dance naked without fear of anyone seeing or judging us for it? Maybe not since I was one have I felt that uninhibited and free.

Being in solitude means being free of forced distractions. For example, some of the clatter around us is too loud or too engaging to ignore. In solitude, however, our only distractions are self-created. Our minds may still wander to the flippant remark we unthinkingly made last week, but by an act of will we can bring ourselves back into the moment. Solitude provides a perfect setting for entering the moment, wherever we happen to be. The reason many of us feel so far from God is that we live in a perennial state of out-of-the-momentness. In other words, we have our attention focused in the past, future, or otherwise away from where we are right now. God, however, is only accessible in the present. Jesus told us many times and in many ways that the kingdom of God/heaven is near.[1] We cannot enter it when we are outside of the moment.

Being mindful of our moments is not easy. We, particularly in the West, have too many distractions and too many earthly obligations. Making the time and finding a place to sit in solitude, being silent and still, is hard. The first and most important requirement is to get our attention out of our heads – to stop thinking, judging, assessing, planning, and regretting. Most of our regular mental activity focuses our awareness to the past or future and draws us out of the moment. When we are in the moment, we experience the information coming through our senses in real time. The saying, Stop and smell the roses, is an invitation into the present. Just pausing for a quick whiff before going about our business, however, accomplishes little – that is another form of praying with one eye open. We need to engage our noses, yes, but we also need to gaze intently at the detail in the petals, leaves, and stems. See how they reach to the sun, and listen for the breeze singing within them. With a finger, trace the veins of the petals and leaves. By appreciating and acknowledging its unique features, we get to know this being called Rose. This is a moment with another of God’s amazing creations, and we share it without judgement, without condemnation, and without assessing the need to trim the rose.

Whether we chose it or not, solitude provides an opportunity to experience the moment with God, whenever and wherever that moment occurs. It allows God to experience God’s creation through us while allowing us to connect with God in us.

Clearing[2] (Martha Postlewaite)

Do not try to save

the whole world

or do anything grandiose.

Instead, create

a clearing

in the dense forest

of your life

and wait there patiently,

until the song

that is your life

falls into your own cupped hands

and you recognize and greet it.

Only then will you know

how to give yourself

to this world

so worthy of rescue.

 

This is the 9th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7; Mark 1:5; Luke 10:9, 10:11, 21:31.

[2]https://wildandpreciouslife0.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/clearing-by-by-martha-postlewaite/

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Keeping Silence

 Then Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Keep silence and hear, O Israel! This very day you have become the people of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 27:9

The late Father Thomas Keating, a pillar in contemporary contemplative life, wrote, “God’s first language is silence.”1 In the creation story told in the first verses of Genesis, the author describes God as speaking creation into being: “And God said, ‘Let there be…’”. This is the Word of God, the originating impulse for everything that is, and this Word continues to be spoken in absolute silence. And so we must be silent to hear it. I daresay the most common experience we have of God is silence. We ask a question in prayer and receive silence. We cry out in desperation and hear silence. We climb a mountain in order to connect with the divine and hear only a deep, vast silence. While there are some who occasionally report receiving an auditory message from God, for the vast majority of us, God is silent.

Silence, however, is far from a non-answer, nor is it evidence of being ignored. If life grows out of silence, we know there is an awesome power residing within it. When a response to an inquiry of the divine is silence, it is an invitation to delve into a deep reflection on the question. Focused meditation is one way to receive insight. Sometimes, however, the formation of the response occurs subconsciously, as if in silence. I often find that insights come when I am not actively seeking them, as I go about my daily activities.

My third grade teacher, Mrs. Everett, told the class that we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen more and speak less. It is trivial and cliché, perhaps, but important. One of the hardest lessons in a committed relationship is the inestimable value of strategically keeping one’s mouth shut and listening. Obviously, to do so requires our willingness to be silent. The same is true in our relationship with God. Does our constant internal chatter combine with the drone of the world around us to separate us from a genuine experience of others, including God, in silence? I believe it does.

In general, we are uncomfortable with silence. Indeed, it is hard to find a quiet place in which to engage with silence because we live in a noisy world. Extended periods of silence may seem like missed opportunities to catch up on the latest gossip, activities of friends and family, or entertainment. Most of us fear silence because of the uncomfortable vacuum it creates. Awkward pauses in conversation send our minds into overdrive, searching for something to say. Receiving the silent treatment from a partner can be agonizing. Silence is uncomfortable because it puts us in a situation of not knowing – not knowing what the other is thinking, not knowing what to say, not knowing what we do not know. It creates internal tension with its unusual auditory void. The tension comes from our unfamiliarity with silence. We are forever describing our life experience in words, both to others and to ourselves, and those very descriptions separate us from the silence within which the experiences arise.

We often confuse the silence of inactivity with the deep silence from which God creates. In other words, we cannot simply turn off the television and our mobile devices and expect to find silence. Silencing the noise from our external world is one thing; silencing our internal world is the greater challenge. Striving only for external silence is like praying with one eye open – we are not fully committing ourselves to the depth of silence from which God works in and through us. It is through the latter type of silence that we find entry into the rich moments of our lives, being present to the creative potential and creating reality happening at all times and in all places. True silence provides a blank slate from which to co-create our lives with God, which is both frightening and exhilarating.

Entering a state of internal silence is a skill we can develop with practice. A foundational tool is Centering Prayer,2 which is a method of praying silently. By keeping silence, as the author of Deuteronomy writes, we have the opportunity to experience God. Jesus referred to this as entering the kingdom of God.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

  • Thomas Keating, Intimacy With God. Crossroad Publishing, New York. 1994, p. 175.
  • See my Life Note from December 20, 2018 for an overview of the practice of Centering Prayer. Resources are also available at ContemplativeOutreach.org.

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