The Need for Retreat

I’ve been working with other members of The KaBooM Writing Collective this week, planning a one-day writing retreat that happens tomorrow. It’s exciting to work with the possibilities that a day can hold, and I look forward to what will happen during those hours.

Retreats of any length are all too rare. A week or month is the classic model, and good to aspire to. But it’s not easy, and often not possible, to check out for so long. Shorter retreats are more accessible, though finding even a single hour out of the day’s course can be a challenge. An entire day is a pretty big deal for most of us, and I appreciate those writers willing to set that time aside.

Claiming any time at all requires attention and commitment. Even the intention to retreat is evidence of a change we’re already making.

Once we do that, a retreat unfolds differently from everyday hours. It’s a time entered hopefully, with openness to surprise; it’s lived out expectantly, but without an agenda. Retreat is a time we prepare for, but without planning what will transpire. It’s a time of asking a question and waiting for the response; allowing something new to happen and paying attention to the movement of the spirit.

We need to enter that mindset often to keep our spiritual and creative life nourished. Prayers and practices in everyday life help. But looking back I see important growth, in both my spiritual and artistic life, from the renewal that comes from retreat. Time taken off from “being productive” ends up generating the most productivity of all.

So I see the day as full of possibilities. We’ll enter our writing through the doorway of the senses, bringing life to words by being centered in the body. We’ll ground ourselves in a particular moment through focus on the physical, sensory experience of being alive. The context of a day of retreat adds another element as well: a chance to connect to the spirit that breathes life into our lives and our work.

The question I’m asking is, What new opening will the day bring?

Divine Inspiration and Everyday Incarnation

These days I’m living in the tension between inspiration and productivity; between drawing water from the well and hauling it home to cook and wash. There are so many things I want to do, but the hours and energy of the day are spent before I can see to them all. I love being in touch with the creative spirit, yet I’m overflowing with plans and ideas that I can hardly carry out. It’s hard to bridge the gap between ideal and actuality, vision and incarnation.

I’m also trying to remember that this challenge is a blessing. I’ve had my share of wandering in the wilderness, wondering where the path was leading. Chances are I’ll experience the wilderness again. But for the time being I have meaningful work to do—an assortment of conversations, projects, and explorations. On the surface they seem unconnected, yet together they impart the sense of gathering energy.

It’s good to feel that generative flow—what we call the Holy Spirit at work. It has been moving all along, bringing me to this place, but now it’s easier to see. Gratefully, I’m trying to pay attention to the work I need to do. And I’m trying to go with the flow.

What if we could always remember that we’re being led to the place we need to be? That we are part of the ongoing work of incarnation?

Learning to See

I enjoy taking pictures. It’s a pleasure to look at the world with an eye toward framing a photograph, and in that state of mind I tend to see more. Someday I might take a class or invest in a better camera, but in the meantime I just snap photos of what looks interesting.

So during a recent stay in an eighth floor hotel room I was glad for its view of the city, especially at nightfall. But when I pulled back the curtain with camera in hand, I found the scene obscured by water droplets and condensation. No good. With the window sealed so that it couldn’t be wiped clean, I would have to find another vantage point.

As I gathered my things for a trek down the hall, it seemed a lot of trouble to traipse around in search of a clearer window. But the light at evening had drawn me to look outside, the color and pattern of towers and skies held my attention, and I couldn’t resist trying to capture the image.

In looking for a better view, however, I was rejecting what I had already found beautiful. Photography helps me notice what’s in front of me, but it’s still easy to miss things. In this case I had only seen the foggy window as an obstacle and not part of the scene. I want to open my eyes and pay attention to the world I’m walking through. But that’s hard to accomplish with preconceived ideas about what’s worth looking at.

So I returned to the window and observed how the water on the glass reshaped the light from outside. I considered how the pane of moisture softened my perspective on the city. And I realized that for one evening, in that particular place, I didn’t have to resist the uniquely filtered view.

Is there something in front of you that you might cease resisting?

The Message in a Misquote

I learned from reading at Sacred Miscellany that the popular wisdom rendered as “Music has charms to soothe the savage beast” is actually a misquote of the original, and more interesting, “Musick has Charms to sooth the savage Breast,” from a play by William Congreve.

We learn to fight the beasts “out there,” scarcely acknowledging the struggles taking place within our psyches. No wonder we’ve misread the line. Yet, as Paul knew, the demons within our own breast are always present, and deprive us of peace with far more consistency than the snarling enemies out in the world.

Our culture’s outer directedness has altered the line, but we pass along the misquote because we’ve experienced the truth of the original. Music does have the power to calm and comfort us. It offers courage and inspiration. Music can touch us profoundly in a way that nothing else can. Even if we’ve never faced down a tiger using a stereo speaker, we believe it will soothe the savage beast because we know it has soothed us.

George Winston’s December CD is one I return to again and again for its power to soothe through the clarity and tranquility of his piano. What soothes your savage breast?

The Practice that Yields Spring

Winter seems endless about now. Even as the days grow longer, the snow piles deeper. With no discernable effect on the temperature, the returning light seems powerless over the season.

Yet exactly the right things are happening to bring life to a frozen landscape, even if the wintry scene appears unfazed. The earth continues its cyclical journey, progressing through the incremental changes that carry us into spring and the miracle of a new season.

But if spring were dependent on human motivation, it might be a different story.

If I committed to a vision and faithfully took a small step toward it every single day, I would want to see something happen. If I had begun a practice at the winter solstice, I would want to see some evidence of change by now. I would suspect I was wasting my time unless I could see some tangible result. Without that, I would probably be tempted to quit.

And then how would spring ever arrive?

I’m asking myself what small steps I need to be taking now. What does springtime look like for you, and what kind of steps might carry you towards it?

Small, Gentle Ideas for Observing Lent

The forty days of Lent, a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter, begins next week on Ash Wednesday. So I’m considering a discipline to take up for the next few weeks, though I have to admit that the word “discipline” feels pretty oppressive right now.

Back when I observed Lent by giving up something, such as desserts, I was glad for the reprieve on Sundays—they aren’t counted in the forty days of fasting. One of the best results was that Sunday became particularly joyful. Maybe that’s reason enough to go the route of sacrifice.

But I approach the Lenten season differently now. I see it as a time for study, or service, or entering into a new spiritual practice.

There are many great ideas for Lenten practices available. John Arnold’s ideas for Lent at The Practical Disciple is a good place to start. I especially like his innovative approach of carrying out forty bags of excess stuff in forty days, literally making room for the movement of the spirit in our lives.

But this year, I need a tiny idea. I’m not sure I’m up to anything more. A new project or a new practice simply feels too daunting.

Reading a psalm a day is one possibility. I could keep my bible on the table and read while I have coffee in the morning. It’s simple, not intimidating, and the psalms are rich in imagery, language, and spirit.

Another possibility is a practice I’ve recently encountered in several different places. If you’ve ever heard about a wonderful book from three different friends in the same week, or encountered a new idea that immediately come up in another context, you’ll understand why metta has my attention.

It comes from the Buddhist tradition, and is translated into English as lovingkindness. It’s a simple meditation, connected to the breath.

Breathing in, I cherish myself.

Breathing out, I cherish all beings.

Its practitioners find that metta cultivates acceptance, openness, connection, and charity—lovingkindness. Mary Jaksch at Goodlife Zen teaches about this practice in her post, “Can We Learn to Be Happy?” Jan Lundy at Awake is Good offers encouragement for using this meditation in her Day 25 Meditation Challenge: “Why I Do Metta.”

It can be used at the beginning of prayer or meditation, or while waiting for the tea to brew, the light to change, or the elevator to arrive.

This year, I’m looking for something to slip unobtrusively into my life, as some people carry a pocket cross. How are you thinking of observing Lent?

Honoring the Sacredness of Early Morning

Early morning is sacred time for me, when the day is still pregnant with possibility. Creatively speaking, during the minutes or hours before inevitable demands intrude, anything can happen. The veil of the dream world not yet grown opaque, sometimes I can see through the mist to a consciousness beneath the ordinary.

This receptive frame of mind that fosters a creative life nourishes the spiritual life as well. A day grown from the fertile soil of a quiet morning yields better fruit. For night owls, those rich hours may descend after everyone else is in bed, but I only hear distant hoots from that world.

Years ago a friend encouraged me to rise earlier as a way of cultivating a richer spiritual life. “The world belongs to those who wake early,” she told me. It sounded good, but having my daughter ready to catch the bus at 6:50 a.m. took all the early-morning stamina I had. Dealing calmly with the start of the day was all the practice I could muster, and it was enough.

As children grew more independent and our morning schedule changed, I had more options. But there is a lot of competition for that early morning time!

  • Advice on getting fit says to make exercise part of my routine, ideally first thing in the morning. It energizes the day, and no matter what comes up, exercise is crossed off the list.
  • Many spiritual teachers advocate using the first part of the day to pray. It may be our only uninterrupted time, and the practice helps the day go better.
  • Writers often stress using early morning hours to work. The day will be less angst-ridden if we know our writing is done.
  • And the cat is emphatic that the first task of the morning is filling her food dish. She is charming but increasingly insistent, and her agenda always comes first.

So what is the one thing, the main thing, the most important thing to do? Especially when everything is connected. The strength and health of my body supports everything I do. Writing flows into my spiritual life, and prayer helps me have something positive to offer in all my efforts.

I wish I had many “first hours” of the day. I don’t want to choose. But like it or not, this life requires making choices and setting priorities.

After trying different things, I have settled on a practice that involves pen and paper. It might be writing out a dream from the night before. It might be a journal entry, morning pages, a blog post, or a prayer. I think of my morning writing as a vessel that can contain whatever is needed. Regardless of how it is filled, it helps me listen and respond to the still, small voice heard only in the quiet.

How do you begin your day?

The Storm that Doesn’t Arrive

The forecasters predicted some serious winter weather this weekend. My plans were in question; falling temperatures were expected to ice the wet roads, followed by an accumulation of snow. I went to bed under a winter weather advisory, wondering if an important event the next day would even be held.

The next morning brought a dusting of snow, the roads were wet but not frozen, and the winter storm I was braced for simply didn’t happen. I felt a little silly for spending the previous evening watching out the window and wondering when the freeze would begin.

My point is not to bash forecasters. They do their work the best they can. The thing is, I knew better than to get caught up in weather-watching.

My own experience has taught me that a lot of winter storm advisories, literal and metaphorical, never come to fruition. And while it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for ice and snow, or challenging days, it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

I know now that a better approach was to simply prepare my talk, be aware that I might need to change my plans, and then allow myself to sleep under blankets rather than advisories. It’s a lesson I want to remember.

Do you find yourself watching for events that might happen? Have you found a way to stop worrying about what might be in store?

Susan Christerson Brown

What Good is the Contemplative to a World in Need?

Again and again, in my own mind and through interactions with others, questions arise about the value of a prayerful interior life—both for an individual and a faith community. In this world where people suffer without clean water or shelter, safety or justice, there is work to be done. The need for tangible, material help is clear; the value of what the contemplative has to offer is less apparent. Prayer stirs us to compassion and action, but is it more than a means to that end? Is spiritual practice important in caring for people in need?

I do know that my quality of life, as well as survival, is shaped not only by physical needs being met, but by relationships and environment. Life is fostered in finding meaning, and a sense of connection to the reality beyond mundane existence. All these elements are necessary not only to sustain life, but to allow the flourishing that permits me to have something to offer another person.

But none of us can focus on everything. We need doctors and nutritionists to share their knowledge of the body. We need scientists and knowledge workers to lend their expertise in solving problems. We need business leaders to provide products and services that make life better for their customers as well as jobs that bolster the lives of their employees.

We need teachers and counselors who understand how people learn and grow to help all of us live fuller, healthier lives. We need artists, poets, and visionaries to show us new possibilities. We need all kinds of people with open eyes and generous hearts to lend their strength in meeting the unmet needs that they encounter, and to help others become part of the effort.

In the midst of challenging lives, we also need the guidance of those who tend the soul. We need spiritual practices carried forward from ancient days and adapted to the times in which we live. We need prayers and meditations from writers who dwell closely with the spirit, and models of community from those who reside together with sacred intention.

I saw this recently in conversation with a generous but severely stressed friend. She is committed to raising her children responsibly, working for a non-profit organization she believes in, volunteering within her community of faith, and giving creative expression to her life through her writing. All of these are important, but her mountain of commitments had become an avalanche. Her ability to give with any sense of peace and purpose depended on reconnecting to the source of life.

Like my friend, we all need the strength that spiritual grounding offers. When everyday demands weigh us down, we need the sense of meaning and wider perspective that comes through a connection with the divine. Those more practiced at cultivating their spiritual life can help.

The contemplative aspect of life fosters all our endeavors. It nourishes the body of believers, feeding the spirit as we go forth to do our work. Spiritual practice is one of God’s callings. Sharing it is a way to love others. It yields gifts that soothe a hurting world, and teachings that are a blessing for all.

How are prayer and service related for you?

Susan Christerson Brown

The Spaciousness of Silence

Noise takes up room. Clatter and clamor can make any space feel crowded. Against a sudden onslaught of sound, the body hunches down, closing in to protect itself.

Silence, on the other hand, feels like spaciousness. My body responds to the quiet with an expansion of interior space, where lungs can fill to capacity, drawing a full, deep, calming breath.

A friend accustomed to the crowded city of Hong Kong once told me that sharing small apartments had taught her to create space with silence. Refraining from unnecessary talk or sound helped to ease the stress of tight living quarters.

Why would we refuse the expansiveness that silence offers? With our constant flow of media, we behave like children of the valley, accustomed to narrow views of what lies above and unnerved by the full dome of surrounding sky. In filling our lives with walls of sound, we deny ourselves the chance to experience the exhilarating infinity of creation and the specificity of it that we embody.

Beneath an expanse of stars we experience both our smallness and our place within the infinite universe. In a similar way, when we enter into silence we experience a moment as limitless and ourselves as part of what time cannot measure and space cannot contain.

Silence makes room for the unexpected. It allows us to listen for what we might otherwise miss. Silence is a space in which we can come to see ourselves as belonging, and to know ourselves as loved.

How do you experience silence? Is it stressful or relaxing? What do you notice about your interior life when you find a quiet moment?