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Home as Sacred Space: Why and How to Do It

Homes are important. Even if you feel that you spend most of your time at work or school, home is the place where we should be able to wind down and be ourselves. It is where we eat, sleep, and love. Home is where we experience our emotions and thoughts away from the public eye. However, it is easy to take this miniature landscape for granted – using it as a waiting place before going on to the next thing. Or perhaps home is an overwhelming space, full of anxiety, quarrels, or coldness? There is a way to transform that space into your own sacred ground, even if that space includes only your personal area.

What I suggest below does not speak to interpersonal relationships, how to communicate with your family or housemates, or even how to decorate your space. Rather, these are practical and simple measures that will set a foundation – an environment, actually – to cultivate peace.

It is not my intention to give “rules” of housekeeping. Creating a sacred space does not depend on the color of the walls, what kind of embellishments fill the house, or how often one has company. All of these things are an individual’s prerogative. Certainly, there are people who will insist on particulars regarding these details, but I believe they are less important than the few points I list below. Think of them as the wide outer circle that encompasses the variety that can make a home, supporting the decisions made by the people who live in it.

Before moving on, it is important to define the word “sacred” and to discuss the reason for its use in this context. Sacred space can come with loads of meaning – good and not so good, depending on an individual’s experience with religion and spirituality. Here, I use “sacred” not to define a specific tradition, but to refer to the peaceful and revered space within the walls of a home. People who do not have a permanent “home” talk about the kind of stability that having one creates in a person’s life. Living in a space of one’s own creates a sense of individuality, but also community, since the person living in a home experiences pride in being a part of larger social structure. These are some of the most common refrains of those living in shelters. It is also one of the things to most easily take for granted. Comparison and desire run rampant among those who have permanent homes.

When talking about a sacred home, the most useful definition is to “regard with great respect and reverence.” This is why: wherever you live is your home, regardless who owns the property, if it is a rental, or how many people live in that space. There is a common adage that goes something like, “You are responsible for your own life [happiness, health, etc.]” Even if the suggestions below only apply partially to your current living situation, they are still doable to some extent.

All of the points I make are practiced in my own home, so are offered with the knowledge that they truly work. Each are elements that we had to transition to over time and we certainly did not always live this way. However, we have a home that I truly feel is sacredand it is my deep desire to share this realization with you.

 

1. Make a decision to leave shoes at the door.

This may be difficult for some. It is much more convenient to keep shoes on throughout the day and while walking in and out of the house. But let me give you some reasons to reconsider. On a practical level, the home stays cleaner and there is less wear and tear on the carpets, rugs, and floors. Additionally, regardless of how “clean” the shoes look, footwear contains toxins (like gasoline and other chemicals) that we cannot see.

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Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

If these chemicals had color, I’m sure we would never want them where we live! Even beyond the “clean” factor, taking shoes off before walking through the home is the number one rule to a sacred space. Cultures around the world remove shoes before entering homes for this very reason. Have you ever attended a religious building where the custom is to take off shoes when entering sacred areas? When we remove the surfaces from which we gather debris and chemicals, it exhibits respect and honor for the space we enter. This is step one for creating a sacred space.

*If it is not practical to establish this the guideline for your entire home, consider it for particular parts of the house – the bedroom or living room are perfect places to begin.

 

2. Hold regular periods of quiet by turning off the television, radio, and digital devices.

No, this does not need to be a 24-7 decision, but it is a common idea that we are overstimulated in this modern era. Certainly, television, music, and other digital entertainment has a valuable place in life. What is important, though, is to acknowledge our need for quiet – something that can be a little scary if one is not used to it.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So, instead of waking up and turning on the television, or keeping it on throughout the day, or connecting through digital devices the whole evening after school or work, perhaps designate a time when the house would be free of extra “noise.” Quiet gives us a chance to hear and see and be with each other. Quiet gives us opportunities to be with ourselves. Quiet also lets us dial it back a bit to refresh – and this does not even require a one-hour yoga session or that bubble bath that you wished to take for weeks! It is easy self-care for the senses.

 

3. Bring life into the home.

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Photo by Cassidy Phillips on Unsplash

No matter how strong or weak your green thumb, there is a plant for you. By bringing life to our living spaces in the form of houseplants, we connect ourselves to nature even in the depths of winter (or heat of summer when everything is dry and brown!) Studies show that the human brain and body respond keenly to imagesof nature, let alone actual, physical nature. By taking home something green we can stimulate a sense of wellbeing. Also, taking care of something that is alive can be a sacred act in itself, requiring patience, love, and dedication.

 

 

 

4. Designate an area in your home that is specifically used for contemplation, prayer, meditation, or sitting quietly without distraction.

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Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

This is incredibly important for finalizing the home as sacred, especially for children. No matter the personality, it is imperative to have space that one can go to for contemplative activities. So many of us grow into adulthood without learning to enjoy time without distraction. We even need breaks from regular interaction with others. Children, in particular, crave moments to themselves. Adults and children alike can learn to meditate, pray, or to steal away from the commotion of the world. The space does not need to be large. Simply a corner with a cushion, bean bag, or chair would do. Contemplative coloring is currently popular with people of all ages. A small table and chair would do the trick. The “rule” of the space would be simple: have respect for the person, whatever the age, who decides to use that space by leaving them alone! The Quiet Space can be the center of the sacred home and whatever positive energy and renewal is cultivated there will extend out through the rest of the building.

 

Hopefully some of these suggestions peak your interest. I encourage you to try one at a time to see if they work for you. Alter them as needed for your family personality and home life. Blessings to you as you cultivate your sacred space.

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How to Find Ease and Transform Your Life Through Letting Go

The mornings are always cold, but my body eventually emerges from the cradle of blankets. In the darkness, I quiet the alarm and stumble into the bathroom. The warm wall lights strike against any remaining intention to crawl back to bed next to my husband who dreams, deeply. I remind myself that this is what I love to do, and within moments I feel by body waking to an inner joy that only comes when something real is about to happen. I slip into a sweatshirt, brush my teeth, pull hair away from my eyes, and walk to the corner of the house that became my personal sanctuary. It is so simple, I think to myself. This is it.

Recently, I experienced a transformation in my meditation practice and I want to share it with you. I aspired to write about it for so long but did not have the words to fully convey it. Before I dive into some of the key insights that emerged to the surface, I must tell you that the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn – as the old saying goes. The more I “take a seat” in meditation, the more clarity I have, but words continue to fail me. This does not mean, though, that I have some kind of remarkable triumph. Rather, I feel so strongly that if it is something that I can encounter, I know with every ounce of my being that it can be experienced by everyone else.

Of key importance to this topic is the idea of “letting go.” There are many who believe that meditation is not an option for them because of different expectationsand assumptions of the practice. When one presupposes that meditation should happen in a specific way, with a very specific goal in mind, it becomes a set up for struggle. Therefore, I state a caveat: I truly believe that what I am about to write doeshappen, but the individual should not wait for it. In other words, do not walk into meditation practice with an image of what accomplishment looks like already set in the mind.

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Photo by Saffu on Unsplash

Over the last few months, I felt like I arrived at meditation with a level of anxiety and stress that I had not previously experienced. [Note: I write “arrived” because I literally arrive at a certain place in my home, an important thing to have if it is available to you, and I arrive into a particular emotional, mental, and spiritual space in meditation.] I held the stress in the area of my eyes the most, like the bones around my eyes were made of steel. There was no softness or calm and I noticed it most keenly when I closed my eyes for meditation. It was distracting. Yet, I continued on and each morning I sat on the cushion, believing that the only resolution was found in this exact action. Slowly – in fractions of seconds, spread out over days and days – I let go of whatever I held on to. The work of simply showing up resulted in greater ease as I waited and held the space in meditation.

I am letting go of something that my hands clutch so tightly: a perception of the self that is conjured, created, protected, and deeply rooted. It is the Mess of All Things, heaped together over time by others and our own self-attention, that gives us the answer to the question, “Who am I?” It is not bad to have an answer. The bulk of our society functions on the fact that we have personal identities that flow into responsibilities, relationships, and fulfilling experiences. However, it is not the same as knowing the True Self. Who we are is not an accumulation of relationships or tasks, but it is extraordinarily deeper and more profound. Even statements like “I am a child of God” do not provide a full sense of the truth. Suffering occurs when we hold on to this false sense of self, as many spiritual traditions explain (clarified particularly well in Buddhism.)

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Photo by Natalia Figueredo on Unsplash

Letting go is the opposite of striving. In the Christian medieval text, The Cloud of Unknowing, the author describes the process of contemplation – what we now call centering prayer, a form of meditation originating from the Christian mystic tradition – as a process of letting go of all the things that God as made. He writes, “Forget everything God made and everybody who exists and everything that’s going on in the world, until your thoughts and emotions aren’t focused on or reaching toward anything, not in a general way and not in a particular way. Let them be. For the moment, don’t care about anything.”[1]How is this possible? It seems profoundly difficult, but it is quite possibly the simplest thing that one could ever do.

We spend so much time forming identities – our own and that of others. We connect, connect, connect, and create, create, create. Most of our mental and emotional energy is expended over these actions. Letting go, in the sense of the Cloud writer’s definition, is to discontinue this process. It is more than simply “not thinking” about the day’s tasks or yesterday’s conversation. It is suspending the process of evaluating the world. In addition, it is ceasing to create the image of God that is perched on the high shelf in our mind.

Say what?

No matter your religious tradition (or lack thereof) we all have a particular image of God: benevolent or vengeful, male or female, close or distant – all of these create an image of God that is based upon experiences we have here on earth. In meditation, we can release these assumptions. It is an attempt at no effort. There is no striving.

Personally, I have been striving my whole life. I look back upon my years: I strive as a mother, since the birth of my son two years ago; I strive professionally and educationally to succeed in my career; I strive in my social life to acquire and maintain relationships; I remember striving in my youth for the attention and affection of those who were in charge of my wellbeing. Meditation, regardless of tradition, is about releasing ourselves from the act of striving.

“Striving” has little to do with personality types. We all strive. We all try. We all endeavor. We all create identities, even if “not creating” is part of one’s identity. Even the most laid-back individual partakes in the formation of identity and striving.

This is important to understand because an awareness of the reality of striving is the thing that distinguishes real rest from anything else. The true letting go of all things is simultaneously desired and terrifying. If we let go completely, what will we have left? The answer is: true identity. Even if we experience it for a millisecond, a profound change occurs in our sense of self. No, it will not turn you into a disconnected flake. Rather, it makes one capable to sense the apparatus that is built around the true self and know that certain things do not matter so much. The way we present ourselves to the world, the ways we interact with people – all of these become disconnected, even if only a little, from the act of striving and we can live with greater ease. One can also sense this apparatus around others and begin to see people for who they are. When we let go of the overt and the subtle (worries, concerns, thoughts, pleasures, memories, etc.), we can release into true rest. Momentary suspension of these burdens creates day-to-day ease. This is true surrender.

Meditation is not always pretty. More often than not it is messy, and even a little difficult, particularly if one approaches it with expectation. It is also a bit scary because we all have an emotional connection to our sense of self. Who am I, if I am no longer these things? Am I able to sit without concern over my body, emotions, and experiences?

I am still learning how to do this, of course, but one thing I do know is that sitting in rest is the only true rest that one can know. It is rest in God, because it is sincerely letting go of all the things we hold on to that we have conjured up, created, and formed by our own will. It is a rest that goes beyond body and mind. It is also locating our real self, though I do not know how to define it just yet. What I do know is this: meditation is the place where none of my preconceived notions of myself can tag along to tell God who I am.

 

 

[1]The Cloud of Unknowing, translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2009), 11.

A Reading List for Those Perplexed by Black Activism

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Why is it a big deal that two black men were removed by force from a Starbuck’s in Philadelphia? Perhaps you listened to the news reports and thought, “Why are the protestors so angry?” Perhaps you consider yourself to be an open-minded, progressive thinker about race. Perhaps, even, you claim to “see no color” when interacting with people you meet. It is not my intention to argue about the reality of these assertions. I do not wish to dive into paragraph after paragraph covering all the details of recent race relations in the United States. Instead, I want to provide a list of further reading – authors and scholars that describe the history of forceful removal of black men and women from public spaces, from the black American perspective. Numerous thinkers and authors beautifully – and sometimes painfully – hash out the long history of complicated human relationships, and the space (or no space) that black Americans held and hold today. The books are in forms of nonfiction and fiction.

I want to be perfectly clear that I am writing this primarily for those who do not understand black activism today. Namely, white people.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. The hand that holds the pen is never tired. It could go on and on. In fact, I am fully aware that a few major authors and publications that did not make it on this list yet. Over the months I will continue to add to it, and suggestions are welcome.

It is imperative that we educate ourselves. Do not be guilty of living in ignorance. It is our responsibility to live in such a way that our humanity drives us to learn about our brothers and sisters. The first step is to turn toward understanding and empathy.

The books are in no particular order.

 

Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

Douglass’s memoir recounts his life in slavery and is an argument against the slave system. Published well before the abolition of slavery in the United States (though twelve years after its abolition in Great Britain), Douglass then embarked a life of social justice and was a well-known, revered as an orator on the subject. It is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand slavery from a first-hand perspective.

 

Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery (1901)

Washington was born into slavery shortly before the American Civil War, was educated and eventually established one of the most influential systems of education of African Americans in the Reconstruction South. This book is his memoir of that history and an argument for his method of education. He was a prominent black spokesman, very much influenced by Douglass. Scholars believe this is a highly selective account of his life, but aren’t all memoirs selective? It is very much an American “up from the bootstraps” story in the vein of Franklin and Ragged Dick novels.

 

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

If you ever heard the phrase, “double consciousness,” you know a little about Du Bois’s remarkable work about race in America. In it, one of the arguments he makes is that the black population, as a result of slavery and racism (made official in Jim Crow laws, especially), have the experience of holding several identities in one – and the two are never unified. As a result of the historic (read: hundreds of years) devaluing of people of African heritage by whites, black people have two identity perspectives: how they view themselves and how white people view them. Why? In order to function in society – survive, even, because of indiscriminate violence – blacks needed to conform to the traits expected of them by the white population: week, dependent, and passive. By writing about this idea, Du Bois put language to a problem felt by the black population that did not have a name.
I should note that Washington and Du Bois had very different ideas for solving the problem of race in America. To read them together is wise and useful.

 

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

This incredible story follows Janie Crawford through about three and a half decades of her life: youthful blooming, three marriages, poverty, and community all through perspective of a black woman living in the south (Florida.) It is powerful. It is beautiful.

 

Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is probably best known by the current generation in its film form, starring Oprah Winfry and Whoppi Goldberg. However, the book is one of my personal favorites. The first time I read it I cried and laughed through the entire thing. It is heartbreakingly beautiful and illuminating. One of the problems it confronts is the idea of intersectionality: that race, gender, class, and sexuality are all equally relevant. The story centers on Celie, who writes letters to God and her sister Nettie, and a good portion of the book is comprised of Nettie’s letters to Celie. It is a book that is about the passage of time, along with the things mentioned above. The voices of black women are often silenced, and Walker writes to show us why and how this happens. It is particularly evident in the story of Sofia, a strong-willed and strong-bodied woman who comes against blow after blow from men (and white women) seeking to take her down a peg. This is a story that is in celebration of black women and their resilience. It is not a story for white entertainment, though, and it is not necessarily “feel good.” Resilienceis the best word to describe it.

It is 100% necessary to read this book if you want to understand the black American experience.

 

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (1996)

Since we are on the subject of women, I will continue it with the next few books. Gilmore brings a thorough analysis of the impact of intersectionality in historical circumstance. After 1900, when black men were disenfranchised from the political system (had the right to vote taken away), she describes the political actions women engaged in to re-establish agency, politically and socially, while facing the dangers of violence against both black men and women at the hands of the white population.

 

Ruth Feldstein, Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965 (2000)

The relationship, both culturally and politically, between the working class black woman (often thought of as the “mammy” figure) and stay-at-home middle/upper-middle class white woman is examined in this book. Feldstein recognizes that the tropes are interrelated and often dependant on each other. She writes that to understand concept of motherhood in America, one needs to understand race and gender. Throughout the history of America, motherhood has been upheld as the foundation for the success of the nation. She tackles mother-blaming and what this means for race relations and society. It is important to read because it may reveal assumptions that we hold without knowing it, explaining origins (always a good thing to discover.)

 

Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse, and Barbara Woods, editors. Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (1990)

Contains essays by scholars and activists recalling the early years of the Civil Rights. Some essays are written as first-hand accounts.

 

Noliwe M. Rooks, Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women (1996)

Did you know that the way we present ourselves to the world is embedded with political and social meaning? Remember Du Bois’s “double consciousness.” These are every day issues that everybody encounters. Read this book to learn about the black perspective and why outward presentation matters so much.

 

Nathan Irvin Huggins, Black Odyssey: The Afro-American Ordeal in Slavery (1977)

While not directly related to the original subject I listed, it is essential reading for anyone who wants to know about the history of race in America. Huggins describes the forceful removal of Africans across the oceans to the New World, to serve as labor for the growing economic system and foundation of the new nation. In it he depicts the resilience of the men and women captured. It is an important book.

 

Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945)

This novel tells of Robert “Bob” Jones, a black man who travels from Ohio to Los Angeles to find work during WWII. Though the story spans only four days, it places the reader into the lived experience of a man who cannot emerge from the struggles of racism in America. Read to learn empathy.

 

Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1974)

This is another Pulitzer Prize winning novel – and it is ginormous. It is also so remarkable that they created a television series around it. A lot of people know the story of Kunta Kinte because of Haley’s popularity and the television series, but if you have not read the book it is completely worth it. Scholars may doubt Haley’s accuracy in researching his family for this story, but it does not undermine the validity of the ideas and problems surrounding the family chronicle. It seems like a lot of current Americans do not fully understand the weight of the slave trade through American history into the twenty-first century. The situations are not disconnected, but form and inform the way we understand the world today. It is difficult to provide a blurb about this book because of its depth, so I just suggest you put it on your list.

 

Anything by Langston Hughes, but to start: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Classics, 1995)

Hughes is a poet and novelist, and notable member of the Harlem Renaissance. It is impossible to list here all the reasons one should read his work. Primarily, he is able to illuminate about the black experience, from the perspective of one who is educated, a creative, and trying to live in the “white world.”*

*What do I mean by “white world?” Simply, white American culture (those who have European ancestry) are the dominant force in society. It is often easy to think of white culture as the “only” cultural system in place – that everyone must conform to it. If not, the individual will be labeled as “deviant.” White world calls to mind Du Bois’s “double consciousness” because it is the space in which black Americans needed to adjust their speech, expressions, actions, and outward appearance in order to function safely in society. This does not mean that there was passive acceptance, though. This whole list is full of stories of agency and resilience.

 

Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (1994)

All I am going to say about this one is that if you are thoroughly perplexed about the current mode of resistance by black Americans (Black Lives Matter, for instance), and you read all the above books, then go to this one. Black members of society, even through the violence of slavery, racism, and Jim Crow, have agency and continue to press for equality. Perhaps taking a historical perspective on the ways working class African Americans resisted racism will help.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

This book is formed as a letter to Coates’s infant son about living in the world in a black body. Eloquent writer and thinker for our generation, he speaks intimately and we have the privilege of sitting in on this conversation. One will come away (depending on your race) with either recognition or deep awareness.

 

William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom (1981)

This is one of the first books to discuss the Civil Rights Movement starting with the grassroots efforts. Chafe also places the activism in historic context of black resistance.

 

Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2007)

The Black Power movement is very much misunderstood by the white community in America. Tag on this book to learn more.

 

…to be continued.

Deep Rest

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Finding space to rest is an essential part of our wellbeing. In modern life there are many things beckoning for our attention that distract from this basic need, so much that a considerable number of adults do not get a full night’s sleep. Yet, real rest goes beyond counting the hours lying prone beneath the sheets and it is vital for finding balance and fulfilment.

While many regard religion as inherently flawed, even baleful, spiritual thinkers encompassing all traditions are revered for relaying remarkable wisdom that guides us through the most basic questions in life. These teachers provide practical advice to us, threaded with the idea that there is something bigger that we can tap into, creating clarity and purpose. “Rest” is a noticeable theme in scores of mystical narratives and songs. It is this rest that brings fullness of strength – to connect with our family, engage our community, or simply be with our own emotions and thoughts.

Reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu scripted:

Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no talking.
The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.[1] (2)

Letting go is one of the most powerful actions a person can take because it rids us of unnecessary distractions in order to continually move forward. Ten thousand things may seem incredibly important at the time they individually pass before us. We must deal with them appropriately, but holding on to each for too long stalls the creative process that sustains life. Every spiritual tradition holds the basic understanding that the great mystery is one that is essentially creative – we are at the center of a complex process, created and creating. Lao Tsu lets us know that the decision to let go can seem like a big “not doing,” but in fact it sustains the most significant aspects of our being.

__________

Rumi, the celebrated thirteenth-century Sufi poet wrote,
Silence is the language of god,
All else is a poor translation.

 We sometimes feel as if we cannot handle silence, that our thoughts have a death grip on our minds, and to sit with them could be torturous. The flood of images, words, and emotions assails like a tsunami, sometimes louder than the real sounds entering our ears. Thoughts activate physical pain as well, creating knots in our stomachs, tension in our necks, and turning legs to jelly. It is no wonder we do not want to enter the quiet space! Sometimes we avoid it at all costs. If we plan to find “rest,” very often it is with television or computer screen for company or over a glass of wine and delicious meal – all to create distraction from thoughts, though none of these actions are inherently wrong. Rather, when we regularly seek distraction within the time of rest as a way out of real stillness we are only partially fulfilled.

__________

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the foundation for modern yoga traditions. The ultimate goal of a yoga practice is to reach a new state of awareness and oneness with Divine Love. Yoga Sutra 18 states:

viramapratyayabhyasapoorvah sanskarashesho anyah
There is another Samadhi which is attained by the constant practice of cessation of all mental activity, in which the Chitta retains only the unmanifested impressions.[2]

Essentially, this sutra is talking about deep rest, in the body and mind. Early spiritual teachers insist that it is not through our own efforts that we transform, but through a surrendering rest that allows for deep changes. Anyone who is familiar with yoga will see this sutra revealed in savasana, the final resting post of a practice. Here the individual lies on the mat with as little effort as possible, letting thoughts pass like clouds floating by.

__________

Austrian-German mystical poet Rainer Maria Rilke composed a work that pulses deep within my spirit and over the years its meaning shifts and changes for me as I read it. Sometimes it is a call to love. At other times it is a map to awakening. Here we can read it as an example of deep rest.

I am, you anxious one.

 Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings.
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in stillness?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?

I am the dream you are dreaming.

When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.[3]
(from Book of Hours 1,19)

It is the stillness that allows us to open and receive whatever it is we need to receive. It requires moments of silence, in whatever form you can take it.

__________

There is a passage in the gospel of Mark that can serve as an example of necessary rest and how it is challenged by real life. Regardless of one’s religious tradition, we realize, through this story, it is rest that sustains us. Jesus feeding the 5,000 is an oft-cited passage that is a call to faith in miracles and to believe that Jesus is authentic. It is also an invitation to avoid the complaining and worry the disciples exhibit as they suggest to Jesus that the crowd should disperse at dinner time. If we look at the conditions that bookend the miracle, we see it is also a story of finding rest.

After coming together again, the apostles reported to Jesus the things that they were doing (for an unknown period of time. Days? Weeks? Months? We do not know.) His first instructions to them are to, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:31) Apparently, people from all over were desperately trying to come close to them, and after traveling in the boat “to a secluded place” Jesus and the apostles were surrounded by 5,000 people! (That’s a lot of people.) Jesus – being Jesus – “felt compassion for them” and so pressed the pause button on their spiritual leadership retreat to speak to the crowd. Mealtime rolled around and the people were hungry, but they did not want to leave. The disciples (probably hangry and tired as well) implored Jesus to send the people away so the leadership can get much-needed rest. It was the original goal, after all. This is the moment when Jesus says: Well, we have food. “You give them something to eat.” (emphasis added, Mark 6:37) Each of the apostles were instructed to go to a smaller group of about 50 to 100 and distribute the food, and “They all ate and were satisfied.” (Mark 6:42)

First, it is important to note the very obvious reference of communion between the Jesus (the teacher), the apostles (teachers in training), and the 5,000 people (the students/those in need). They ate together. They were all satisfied. This happened when the apostles were wearied in both body and mind, and probably desperately hungry as well. It is what we often call around my house, “running on fumes.” Where is that promised rest?

Directly after the great meal, when everyone ate the food and was satisfied, it continues, “Immediately, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of Bethesda, while he himself was sending the crowd away. After bidding them farewell, he left for the mountain to pray.” (Mark 6: 45-46) The rest came after a delay of many hours, but it is clear: of utmost importance is a time of rest. It is important to recognize the moments that he takes away from engagement with others in order to rest. It was key to his spiritual wellbeing. After he spends a few precious moments on the mountain, the astonishing Walking on Water event occurs.

It is not important that you believe in Jesus or claim to be a Christian to benefit from the story hidden between the lines in Mark. Just like the previous examples from other spiritaul traditions listed above, the importance of finding rest in the midst of daily activities is at the center of it all. Jesus – who for all accounts, lived a very busy schedule in his last years walking the earth – made space to rest deeply and this supported his physical, emotional, and spiritual life.

Find rest. Find rest. Find rest.

Perhaps for you it is simply difficult to find the time? What does one do when the time is revealed? It seems odd to just sit, but this is really the key. Find a place to just be.  It can be anywhere and at any time (except, maybe, while operating heavy machinery.) Here are some suggestions to get the ball rolling:

  • Sit in a chair and follow your breath, listen to the noises around without judgement, or take in your surroundings without judgement (even that pile of laundry in the corner.)
  • Guided Meditation
  • Yoga Nidra (this is one of my favorite forms of productive rest)
  • Centering Prayer

This helpful article contains a list of suggestions: Different Types of Rest You Need + How to Get Them

 

Sources:

[1] Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (New York: Vintage Books, 1972)

[2] Patanjali Yoga Sutras, commentary by Swami Vivekananda (p. 24): http://www.yogaincentro.it/uploads/file/PatanjaliYogaSutraSwamiVivekanandaSanEng.pdf

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996): 66.

Spiritual Parenting: The Gateway to Your Child’s Heart

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

What does it mean to parent “spiritually?”

Parenting on the spiritual plane exists whether we know it or not. If one chooses to ignore, or does not know of, this aspect of parenting, it does not mean spiritual parenting does not exist. It is not an “opt in” experience, but rather, is always there. The spiritual lives of our children exist in forms that are both evident and opaque to us. The first step is to recognize the reality of our child’s spiritual self, know that it is already in its full form. In other words, while we may take care of our child’s body and emotions – guiding her, feeding, clothing, protecting – her spiritual being is exactly like ours, in its full form. We are on the same level of spiritual existence. The child spirit is not half-formed. The adult spirit and the child spirit are the same. The only difference is the level of emotional weight a person takes on over years of living. Eckhart Tolle calls this the “pain body:” an invisible part of ourselves where the history of our existence is layered around our spirit, affecting mental, emotional, and physical health. [cite Tolle]

What does this have to do with spiritual parenting? When we start to view our children as fully formed spiritual beings, the way we interact with them changes.

There is often a manner of engaging children that is influenced by our physical or emotional state. We are tired. The toddler is “pushing our buttons.” The teenager stayed out past curfew. We may respond in exasperation, and at the center of our response is the idea that the adult is ranked higher on the proverbial ladder. This is not to say we should stop instructing our children! Oh no. An understanding of his fully-formed spiritual body gives even more reason to do so. Rather, this changes the way we welcome and love the person reliant on us for guidance. Physically, we are stronger than our children (until they grow, of course.) Intellectually, we are superior because of our educational experience. We are not spiritually superior, though, and this is an important distinction to make.

When we recognize that the child’s spirit is just as capable as our spirit to understand metaphysical depths, the behaviors of interaction change. We can look into his eyes and know that we have a similar spirit, even if the child’s emotional capacities are not matured. This recognition brings generosity from our spirit to the child’s spirit – no longer treating him as a second-rate, less developed person.

We may not think we do this, but it is often true. Some relish over the “sweetness” apparent in the church children’s choir, the memorized passage from a holy text, or the gosh-darn cute thing the child rattled off in line at the grocery store that was “well beyond her years.” Each of these situations have to do with physical or emotional restrictions, but not spiritual. The difficulty is that the full spirit is not easily evident to us on the physical plane because of the limitations of the childhood body and mind. We must trust that it is true.

The result of identifying a child’s full spirit is real unity with the child. We can connect with our babies and children on a level that may not require much “action” at all. A mother can sing a spiritual song while holding the baby in her arms. A father can recite a meaningful poem to the child. The grandparent could talk to the child about kindness and ways to love the world. Or, put more simply, one can recognize the existence of Divine Love in the relationship that connects us to each other – and see if first in our children. This kind of relationship is drastically different than familial connection. It is the relationship that changes the world.

Children have the capacity to understand the spiritual in a deep way, just like adults. Fortunately, they are often less self-conscious than we are and can engage it easily. This is what Jesus mean when he told us to “become like little children.” It is not ignorance – that is engaging mentally with the spirit. It is not weakness – that is attempting to grasp the spirit with our physical strength. Jesus means that we must find the central part of our spirit under the layers of history and memory.

One small aspect of spiritual parenting – if not the first step – is to recognize the existence of the child’s fully formed spirit. When we chose to engage it, we can have a positive influence on the child’s spiritual identity. If we ignore it we still have an impact, but with much less spiritual intelligence.

Advent and a Lesson in Waiting

Photo by Josh Boot on Unsplash

The waiting is the hardest part. We never like to do it. Studies have been conducted that show people would rather self-inflect electric shock than endure a period of quiet waiting. A pause in the busy day is both deeply desired and feared because the actual act of waiting – what happens when we have an unplanned pause – feels like torture. It requires us to face the reality of what is, which is nearly never in our minds as wonderful as what we are waiting to come around the bend. Or, perhaps, it is the waiting on a terrible thing that makes the waiting so torturous. Our minds are consumed with thoughts of the Bad Thing to come. Specific inventions were created to distract us from waiting: mobile devices, the Internet, social media. However, one could argue that consumer culture itself exists as a method to avoid waiting.

This is no more evident in American culture than during the holiday season when consumer habits are amplified. The irony lies in the fact that it correlates with the Advent season, the waiting period before the ceremonial arrival of Jesus-as-baby into the physical world, apparently the “reason for the season.”

Recently I heard someone say that Charles Dickens had more influence over the Christmas holiday season than the Christian Bible. Before we begin to lament this reality as a problem, consider that it may not be a problem. What is wrong with a selfish heart turning outward to express the love that Jesus taught? Nothing. But to declare, “Jesus is the reason for the season” in the face of heightened consumerism, the proliferation of oversized men in red suits, or the strange cultural turn to “Jingle Bells” on demand,  might only distracts us even further from the most important task at hand.

I propose that Jesus is not the reason for the season, but we are. Advent is not Christmas. Advent is the waiting period. Advent is the pause before the celebration. Advent is the act of preparation – finding a room at the inn, so to speak. Everyone who has the experience of waiting for the arrival of a baby – child, grandchild, niece or nephew, sister or brother, or friend – knows that the period before the baby actually arrives into the world is full of preparation, quiet, waiting and waiting, and restlessness. It is a time to check in to see if everything is in order to welcome new life. So while, yes, this period ultimately culminates with the baby, the focus is most directly on those who wait.

What do we do during the waiting period? When we wait we are confronted with the reality of time and must engage our current life situation, whether waiting for a baby or to check out at the grocery store. Many have a difficult time simply being in the moment and we reach for cell phones, newspapers, or we chat away with the person nearest to us, uneasy with silence. We believe our children also cannot handle waiting, handing the cell phone into their little hands before they know how to speak. In this same way, we engage the holiday flood of shopping opportunities, constant flow of high fidelity entertainment, and busy our schedules with family, friends, and church activities.

I do not mean that any of this is wrong. Spending time with loved ones, giving gifts from our hearts, and joyfully moving about our lives are wonderful ways to celebrate the season, but we must not forget that we are waiting. We must continue to prepare.

There is a reoccurring joke (with a heavy dose of truth contained in it) about how decorations make an appearance in our shopping centers and holiday music streams through loud-speaker radios earlier and earlier every year. Poor Thanksgiving! It really gets the short shrift. Halloween (another consumer-driven holiday) ends and – BAM! – it is time for Christmas! Cue the music! Get into “the holiday spirit.” Unfortunately, the holiday spirit is typically defined by outward expressions of joy: singing, gift giving, and smiles all around.

There is only so much energy one has to sustain the constant flow of exuberance expected of us. Even the most Christmas-y have moments of struggle as nerves wear thin, bank accounts droop, and smiles harden. It is time to remember and reengage the waiting period.

Perhaps we feel that turning inward is too selfish an act at a time when we are told to think more about those around us? This is a fair concern. However, new parents are often told to take time for themselves before the baby’s arrival. They must rejuvenate. Of course, it is odd to think of us “caring” for Jesus like Mary and Joseph, but there is an element of rejuvenation that is important in order to approach the next season of our lives. Consider the trees during the cold Win. An “inward turn” of dormancy allows for blooming, rebuilding, and transformation in the spring.

The waiting period does not need to be like staring into the abyss of quiet. It does not require confronting the dark corners of our mind – the fears, pains, and anxieties that dwell deeply there. Though, quieting our minds allows us to handle these emotions with greater ease. Sometimes we remark that this is a difficult time of year for some, but forget that many of us mask our own difficulties with bright colors and sounds, busy schedules, and shiny new treasures. Instead of ignoring it, we can guide our waiting with a few principles that make it a productive time in our lives:

  • Establish a few minutes in the morning or evening (or both) to “check in” with yourself. Ask: How am I today? What is the state of my body/mind/emotions? Do this without placing judgement on the answer. Just take assessment.
  • Say “no” to some of the more hectic activities and use the time to enjoy a peaceful activity: reading, writing in a journal, sitting quietly, write letters, listen to peaceful music, eat a meal with your immediate family at the table, bake cookies. Any quiet, comforting thing you like will do the trick!
  • Learn to meditate
  • Practice yoga or some other mindful activity.
  • Go for a walk by yourself without music or the radio. Listen to the sounds around you. Pay attention to what it feels like for your feet to touch the ground.
  • Hygge (Here’s an article in the New Yorker to explain it to you.)
  • Enjoy an Advent book or any other daily reflection/meditation text. Consider something by a writer or theologian you normally do not read in order to bring a new perspective to your life.
  • Read a favorite novel or writer that uplifts your spirit. (I enjoy books about nature by Terry Tempest Williams, for instance.)

Basically, do anything that allows your mind, body, and spirit to enter a place of rest in the midst of constant movement and busyness. We still have a few days before the official Christmas season begins. Take time to prepare your heart for the celebration.

Ease in the Difficulty: Finding Opportunity in Autumn’s Transition

Photo by Bruno Ramos Lara on Unsplash

It finally feels like autumn in Pennsylvania. The wind is caressing the edges of our home, making the warmth inside seem like a cozy little pod in which to hunker down. Our flannels and chunky socks are out, the coffee pot is warm, and our noses are filled with spicy scents of our last meal. The fall is coming to me with messages of rest. For some reason, the weeks leading out of summer were hectic, strained, and defined by busyness – all of which I will readily give up. In order to combat the anxious spirits, I made a decision to wake up each morning at 5:45 A.M. (!!!) and settle deeply into a morning yoga and meditation practice. When this thought first flashed through my brain, I will admit that I (internally) shouted to my inner voice, “Are you kidding me? This will never work! I am not disciplined enough.” To my surprise, after a few weeks, I find myself eager to take the time to welcome the sun each morning with movement, breath, and meditation.

Two thoughts came to me today:

Find a sense of ease in the difficulty.

and

Our purpose on this earth is to reduce the suffering.

The first was a statement by the yoga instructor as we held standing postures for long periods of time. Of course, she was speaking about the extended side angle we engaged in, but it entered into my spirit in a profound way. So often we fight against the flurry of activity around us, becoming victims (often self-inflicted) of the actions by others (often a result of something that has nothing to do with us, personally.) Take, for instance, anger. It is an ugly, ugly characteristic that can cause deep pain in both the holder of the anger and the person on the receiving end. That anger is rooted in a problem totally unrelated to the recipient of the jealous feelings. When I am in this situation, I will automatically take it to heart, imagining that it is something about me that is causing such anger in the other. I am not locating a sense of ease in the difficulty. My choices are: 1. respond, 2. do not respond. Having no response is not a hateful reaction, but in fact a very loving response to the other person. It requires understanding that the other is acting out of anger/jealousy/etc. because of a pain of which she is unable to let go.

Regardless of what the difficulty is, finding a sense of ease in it allows us to train ourselves to become unresponsive – nonreactive – in the absolute best way. Not only do we resist the development of pain in our own minds and spirits, but we discontinue the cycle of pain that transfers out of ourselves to others.

This leads me to the second statement… conjured out of thin air this morning. Let me give a little bit of background to its significance. I am coming to the end of my years in graduate school and, almost daily, I ask myself, “What should I do next?” Over the months, this evolved to, “What is my purpose?” While I do not think that my answer this morning is the specific one I was looking for, it hit me like a proverbial truck. Perhaps I heard this before? Perhaps. The point is that it was revealed to me after a period of serious introspection into the question. Regardless of occupation, of economic status, of age, gender, race, religion, or abilities, every person’s purpose is to reduce the suffering in the world. Try to argue me away from this one. You cannot do it. Any action that relies on a moral compass – regardless of the spiritual system that one utilizes – points back to this truth.

So what does this have to do with autumn?

While it is easy to make the statements like the ones above (or, maybe it is not so easy), it can be very difficult to live in a way that supports them. The transition into autumn is a metaphor and a reality, and it is not just for the trees. In contemporary society we want to live in a perpetual summer, avoiding at all costs the drying and falling of the leaves, cooler temperatures, and dark hours. We brighten our surroundings with celebratory decorations and twinkling lights. There is nothing wrong with wishing for light! But the summer must end. Autumn brings a necessary coolness that causes us to turn inward for rejuvenation. Sometimes this is masked by the visible signs of withering all around us and it is easy to forget that it is in service of new life to come in spring. We require periods of quiet and fading and drying up to pass through the seasons of our lives. It is necessary in order to take on the new eyes that come with spring after the deep cold of winter. This prepares us for a new summer.

My sister had serious health challenges this year that impacted her body in profound ways. As a result, the human body has a different meaning to me. My relationship with my husband underwent incredible changes as the result of having a beautiful little boy, but it has established in me the firm belief in the stability of our family core. I am about to transition out of the official role of student to a new professional identity, after a radical, life-changing experience (that I never, ever want to repeat.) It challenged my ideals, my character, and my sense of self. I come out of it a new person, confident in my abilities.

I write this to illustrate that, though one may view each difficulty as a test and a winter in itself, it is my belief that these require the acceptance of an inward turn – a cool autumn that leads to a quiescent winter. It will come regardless, but the key is to not resist it.

Find ease in the difficulty. Do not let the cold brittle your bones, but recognize the interior workings of growth.

“Women, Food, and God” and Start of Real Transformation

Photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash

Months and months ago I placed a compelling little book in my Amazon shopping cart. It caught my eye after purchasing Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I was on an empowerment book-buying kick. Yet, this other text sat on my shelf for a very long time before I had a window of opportunity to pry it open to see why I felt so drawn to it. Titled, Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything (Scribner, 2011), I found myself trying to conceptually connect the three subjects as I leafed through its pages. I thought to myself, “I am a woman. I like food. I am interested in God…” I simultaneously felt pulled into this text and repelled. “Repelled” because of an aversion to diets and anything that resembles a diet. (I hoped so much that it was not a “diet book.”) I thought, the way I think about (obsess over, mourn over, stress over) food dictates my life and I want real change.
I also believe strongly that I am not the only one who feels this way.

The author of the book, Geneen Roth, uses remarkably personal stories to guide the reader through a process of realization and on to a path to healing. It is similar to the process she facilitates at her regular weekend retreats on the topic. Roth is a writer and speaker on the subject of compulsive eating, dieting, self realization, and wholeness. At the start, she declares that this book is for anyone who eats food – and I chuckled a bit. What author doesn’t want every person to read her book? After finishing it, I, too, can assert: everyone who eats food should read this book.

Here’s why:
The way you think about food is guided by your perceptions of self – not just self worth, but where you are in the great chain of being. How you treat food, and how you approach it, is guided by the values you hold of yourself. Your relationship with God/Divine Love, or simply just your spiritual centeredness, stems from the health of your relationship with food.

The stereotype is that American women are perpetually obsessed with food. One could argue that men are as well, but it takes a different form. The diet industry is strong, to say the least, and it offers many solutions. Lately, the trend is non-diet dieting, clean eating, and vitamin-packing meal plans, but all this is still a regulation of what goes in your body. Roth’s criticism is not with the methods, it is toward the mindset with which we approach these methods. “If you think that your job is to fix what is broken, you keep finding more broken places to mend,” she writes (73).

Roth is full of transformative statements that have the power to shock us awake from our stupor. She gently tells us to become aware of the dynamic power of our bodies. “When you ignore your belly,” she writes, “you become homeless. You spend your life trying to erase your own existence.” (113) The desire to whittle ourselves down to a body that takes up the least amount of space is not only strange (if you really think about it) but remarkably uncanny. In many traditions, the belly is the source of power (often, female specific.) It is where energy churns inside of us. To wish this area greater and great smallness is to subconsciously wish for erasure of power. Leading to this statement is a passage about meditation and breathing techniques used to calm the mind. She asks her students to “belly breathe” and pay attention to the up and down movement of the area. For most women – and maybe a lot of men – the act of extending one’s stomach is sacrilegious! At least for me, a lot of thought goes into the amount of space my torso consumes. It must be small here, but larger there… even the act of breathing can spur the mind to regret the previous day’s meal choices.

Roth helps us realize that the desire to change our bodies (whatever that means) often masks underlying issues and pain we wish to ignore. Summarizing many of her students she writes, “If I fix myself so that I am no longer myself, then everything will be fine. My feelings will be manageable.” (31) She points out that many of us are in a constant state of desiring change – as if that change will actually bring happiness.
____________________________________________________________________________________________

My internal compass led me to Roth’s guidance and I finally recognized that I needed to release myself from a thought process that became too burdensome.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Of course, she speaks most directly to those who having issues relating to obesity or eating disorders. Many of her students come from extreme health circumstances. To this, she tells them that it is absolutely important to make sure your the supports the life and happiness one strives for. In that case, a health plan that takes one to that goal is important. She also speaks to a different group, as well: those who carry the constant dialogue of negativity around the food they eat – how much, what kind, how often – settle into a half-formed life under a proverbial haze that clouds awareness.

My internal compass led me to Roth’s guidance and I finally recognized that I needed to release myself from a thought process that became too burdensome.

In order to tell you about this book, I must tell you why it impacted me in such a remarkable way. What I write is not a criticism of my parents. To hold on to blame is to hold on to burdensome negativity. It is worthless, just like that empty-calorie donut (keeping with the food theme.) It is simply what happened. It is what it is.

The revelation I had when reading Women, Food, and God is that I obsess over everything I eat (hours and hours afterward – lamenting the chips and salsa, the cheese stick, the five pieces of candy pumpkins) and rarely enjoy the process of eating food. I worry that I made the wrong decision. I hate the feeling of being full. I get discouraged if I have a “bad eating day,” to the point that it changes my mood and I become frustrated, lash out, and eventually get incredibly miserable. To tell you this takes a great amount of strength, because it is something I hid for years. Since it is not a direct eating disorder, or because I do not actually “struggle” with my weight, I never thought to question the constant inner chatter. Yet, it is exhausting. Here is the catch: I eat a very, very healthy diet. No matter how “healthy” it is, though, I find myself bemoaning nearly every bite after the meal.

Through Roth’s gentle guidance, I realized that I drew myself into a habit of criticism that permeates my current thought process. I taught myself to severely self-criticize as a child within the circumstances of a complicated family life. I thought: If I could only be “better,” maybe things will actually be better? Perhaps my real self is not good enough? Perhaps I should change…

This dialogue ran through my head so many times that it became habitual, fully and finally entering in to the way I approach food. It thus became a manner of self-regulation, self-criticism, and self-hate, when eating food should be an act of self-love. It should nourish the body, soul, and mind. I never gave myself permission to calm down and enjoy the process of being alive.
_______________________________________________________________________________________

I needed to give myself permission to expand,
fill my space, and be, without apologies.

______________________________________________________________________________________

Eating is arguably the most intimate act that you do for yourself and the wellbeing of your body. What you put into it directly affects your livelihood. Additionally, the narrative you tell yourself as you eat impacts your wellbeing. Roth explains this ever-present narration of life as The Voice – who is notoriously vicious and unstable – yet we listen as if it is a source of reason! Sometimes The Voice is helpful, but for those who struggle in their relationship to food, The Voice says things that we would never hear from any other human being. Roth explains that it “supposedly offers: clarity and intelligence and true discernment. Strength and value and joy. Compassion. Curiosity. Love. Nothing is wrong because there is no right with which to compare it. When you stop responding to the continual comments on your thighs, your value, your very existence, when you no longer believe that anyone, especially The Voice, knows what’s supposed to be happening, simple facts remain.” (136) And later in the chapter, “When you decide that you need to lose twenty pounds because you are disgusting at this weight or that you need to meditate every day or go to church on Sundays because you will go to hell if you don’t, you are making life decisions while you are being whipped with chains…[these decisions] do not last because they are based on fear of consequences instead of longing for truth.” (141)

The realization for my own life is this: it is O.K. to be who I am and it is O.K. to eat how I eat. There is no need to constantly question and assess in order to guarantee that all is well and good. I am not in need of repairs. I am complete, as is.

It feels empowering to simply write these statements in a concrete form.

I needed to give myself permission to expand, fill my space, and be, without apologies.

One last word:
Through the book I wondered when she would start talking more about God, proper. She does not speak heavily on spirituality. Yet, I felt more and more drawn to the place of my spirit as I found space to move, getting rid of what is unnecessary. I remembered at the very beginning she writes:
And in the space of not-knowing that remains, perhaps you will discover what I have experienced directly: that understanding the relationship with food is a direct path to coming home after a lifetime of being exiled. Perhaps that home is what God is always meant to be. (26)
I also feel this is the place of God. It goes beyond religion and sacred acts. It is beyond language. The place where you can live as a free being is the place that God – in whatever form you believe it to be – intended you to rest.

The People’s Meditation, A Series: Ed On Running as Mindfulness

Photo by Jennifer Birdie Shawker on Unsplash

When I first sought volunteers for this series, my friend Ed came to me about his experience of running as mindfulness practice. And I said, “Hey! That is perfect!” I am so glad he offered his thoughts to this series. While I practice yoga as my entry into mindfulness, I want to stress in this series that there are numerous ways for one to find a meditative center. As I shared in the previous entry of this series, the Radiance Sutras propose 112 different practices! There are many modes of entry into a meditative state. All of the world religions – at least the ones with which I am familiar – utilize meditation as a way to clear the proverbial mental, spiritual, and emotional (even physical) road in order to experience truth. Simply through their cultural difference, variety in meditation emerged.

I  was thrilled when Ed said he wanted to talk about running! A lot of Americans might not realize that running is a wonderful entry point for mindfulness. As a reminder, mindfulness meditation is simply the practice of developing concentration: on the breath, physical sensations, sound, a mantra… in order to develop the skill of mindfulness during other parts of one’s life. Most seasoned meditators will tell you that they still have both difficult practice sessions right along with the moments that are easy and second nature. The reminder is always: meditation is a practice.

Running, or any repetitive activity, can absolutely get the mind into a meditative state. This might be the perfect solution for someone who has difficulty sitting still for long periods of time. Teachers of mindfulness meditation and Zen meditation utilize walking meditation as a way to quiet the mind, and this will be a topic for further discussion on Oak Tree Notebook. As a runner (though not as much these days), I can attest to Ed’s insights on movement meditation. The thump, thump, thump, thump of your feet on the ground, rhythmic breathing, and ability to soften the gaze to a point (what yogis call “drishti”) slight in front of you creates an environment that cultivates mindfulness.

Thanks to Ed for giving a unique perspective on mindfulness, and please see the list of resources at the end of this article for further reading on the subject.

 

How long have you practiced meditation?

On-and-off, since 1985. Began with TM [transcendental meditation]; later, in the 1990s, did more Zen meditation. I’ve changed much since then. In about 2000, I began working out and running. For me, running alone is my best meditation. It helps me to completely empty my mind and be conscious without thinking.

 

How often and for how long do you try to meditate?

I run about 3 times a week and do other aerobic and weight-lifting workouts another 3-4 times a week.

What inspired you to begin meditating? Ed, Meditation article

Originally, I was just seeking to clear my mind and read a book on TM. After I began working out and started to feel the peace that I sought by physically exerting myself, it seemed that these workouts helped me, not only physically, but mentally.


What does meditation mean to you?

Liberating the mind from thinking and focusing, instead, on being present.


What does your practice “look like?” What kind of meditation do you like best (e.g. following breath, walking meditation)?

Running and other kinds of physical exertion.


Do you have a special place you go to meditate? Describe it, please. If not, what are the most welcoming spaces for you to practice meditation?

Running different routes.


How does meditation impact your life?

Provides me with peace of mind; intellectually stimulating and physically relaxing (This is running/working out as meditation.)
What kind of struggles do you face in maintaining a meditation practice?

None.
What are the benefits you see in your life from meditation?

Calm and rejuvenated mind and spirit as well as physical benefits.
Are there particular teachers or books (or other resources) you found that help you?

No.
What would you say to someone who is interested in meditation but is nervous about starting a regular practice?

Find what works for what you seek. I would have never thought that physical exertion would be my route to finding the peace that I sought. TM and Zen meditation were definitely helpful. Running/lifting/other aerobic workouts took it to the next level for me.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to add about how meditation affects your life?

Again, physical health benefits.

 

 

Further reading:

Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training the Mind and Body by Sakyong Mipham

“Running as Meditation” by the Chopra Center

“Meditation in Action: How to Turn Running into a Mindfulness Practice” by Huffington Post

“The Zen of Running, and 10 Ways to Make it Work for You” by Leo Babauta

 

 

Locating Truth in a Time of Darkness: Rilke’s “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”

I have a lot of work to do before the start of the fall semester. I teach a new course this year: American art to Penn State juniors and seniors. I am thrilled at the opportunity, but I am also in deep contemplation this week as the nation discusses the relationship between patriotism, free speech, racism, and public images. It is the latter that is most on my mind as I prepare to spend the next four months talking with young adults about the meaning of images in American society. I argue images have incredible impact upon the way we function in our world.

So, my thoughts are on images. Most of us were not in Charlottesville this weekend, but we are affected by what happened there in very deep ways. We see film footage and photographs on social media. We hear the arguments and calls for justice on the news. We make personal cries of despair in our own homes as our heart breaks – a festering national wound has opened once again. The phrase that comes to mind is, “We cannot look away.” It is not “We cannot stop listening.” In fact, it is our eyes that see evidence of the hate and violence we dread.

I am concerned with this semester not because I am afraid to talk to my students. In fact, I have all confidence that they will have profound insights into current events. I feel the weight of this course bearing down on my shoulders because I want it to be what they need it to be: a place to learn the tools necessary to make sense of the world around them.

With this in mind, my heart keeps drifting to a poem that has always lingered with me, though I do not feel like I understood its meaning until now. I want to share it with you.

 

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower
by Rainer Maria Rilke
(From Sonnets to Orpheus II, Translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)

 Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself into wine. 

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there. 

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Follow this link to hear audio of this poem at OnBeing.

Who is the speaker?
Who is the friend? Is it you?
The most difficult line for me to work out is: be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses, the meaning discovered there. I believe the solution is not something to know/figure out with our minds, but with our spirit. To me, it suggests the meditative mind and finding the place beyond distraction to locate the answer to the problem posed to us. At its essence, the poem implores us to take the burden that weighs so heavily upon our shoulders and turn it into something constructive. We will determine what that is by locating the truth that lies at the core of our being. This truth will propel us to right action and will be the moral compass we need to confront the thing that has caused such pain. We, in fact, are the bell that rings beyond the view of the bell tower.