Time Suspended

Paging through the WSJ Magazine today, I happened upon this charming piece. It seems that the people at Hermès have been thinking about time and longing, expressed in a limited edition watch design celebrating the company’s 174th anniversary. Part of the Arceau collection, it’s called Le Temps Suspendu, or “Time Suspended.”

The slant of the numerals suggests the ceaseless motion of hours and minutes on the watch face, but these 174 specially made timepieces offer something to counter that momentum. They include a feature designed to evoke the sense of stepping outside of time. Press a button and the hands stop their motion to strike an impossible pose (from a timekeeping perspective), holding the “12” between them. Something like prayer position, perhaps. The date pointer hides away beneath a raised level of the face.

Voilá. If time hasn’t actually stopped, it has at least become irrelevant for the time being, which is much the same thing.

And since the time we can allow for not measuring time is limited, the wearer is reassured that a hidden timekeeper within continues to keep track. Press the button again and the watch returns to the correct time. There’s no mention of an alarm to remind you when to rejoin the scheduled world, but perhaps that would defeat the purpose.

I love the idea of a symbolic act that suspends time, shedding the schedule-driven concerns that clutter the mind and crowd the spirit. We’re at our best when we’re fully present, focusing all our skill and intuition on the thing that engages us. That timeless and exhilarating state is described beautifully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A ritual that invites that state of mind is invaluable.

When we reach it, time’s movement and measures fall away. The passing of time neither forces nor impedes; we move effortlessly through it. Later, once again inhabiting everyday consciousness, we look around blinking, wondering how long we spent in that heightened state. When was I last aware of the time? What time is it now? How long was time stopped? Only after the fact do we realize that we experienced an escape from time.

For those of us who don’t have $36,200 to spend on a not-watch, or who aren’t among the first 174 people in line to get one, there are more pictures and musings about the watch here. But we’ll need a different ritual for setting aside time.

Simply taking off a watch is one way to have such a ritual. It’s a sign of inhabiting a different mental space, outside of ordinary time. Another way might be to turn off the phones that claim so much of our attention. They’re a door to a wonderful world, but left open all the time they invite too much interruption.

Entering a ritualized process is another possibility: making a cup of tea, digging in a garden, participating in worship, engaging the imagination. We benefit from anything we can do to set aside time in a way that allows us to live well—to enjoy a meal or a conversation, to take a walk, to lose ourselves in something we enjoy, to create something new.

What kind of ritual helps you to suspend time?


How to Welcome the New Year

I love the fresh start of the New Year. It’s usually a time of introspection for me, a chance to look back at events and changes in the previous year, and to dream and plan for the new one.

Lots of people are doing a great job of sharing their approach to that work this year. Christine Kane lays out a promising technique for using a single word as a beacon for the year. You can find the link to her free download describing the process here. Bradley J. Moore at Shrinking the Camel has a great post on setting goals that spur growth here. If you’re interested in specific, entirely do-able actions to take now to help in reaching goals for the year, Marelisa Fabrega has a wealth of ideas here.

This year I find myself less able to dwell in the dreaming and visioning space that I associate with year’s end. I miss it, but what I’m drawn to instead is the physical task of clearing out all kinds of work spaces throughout the house.

I’ve filed months of papers and notes accumulated from the year’s various projects, tossed old files, taken bags of donations to Goodwill, and I’m about to get to the bottom of a very old pile of ironing. Yes, it’s tedious and exhausting. But it needs to be done and it’s satisfying enough that I keep going.

I do have in mind work I want to accomplish in the coming year. At the very least I’m clearing space to do that work. On another level, I’m purging the clutter that encroaches not only on my house but on my self. Clear space, perhaps, will help with clear thinking. Room to work, perhaps, will make room for action.

So this is another way—a workmanlike way—of preparing to welcome the New Year. Not with resolutions, but with a certain kind of resolve.

Happy New Year!

How is the spirit moving you to greet this New Year?

The Moment of Creation

Lately I’ve been immersed in creation stories. These tales of the world’s beginning offer delightful images–from the universe on the back of a turtle to a spider’s weaving the world–unique and meaningful to the culture from which they emerge. They speak poetically of the meaning and value of life on earth, through the way they describe its origins.

Surprisingly often, they also share elements in common. Many stories begin with the loneliness and longing of the creator, and often involve wresting order out of chaos. Sound familiar? These themes echo through creation of any kind.

The ancient accounts of how the world was created hint at humanity’s deepest understanding of how something new comes into being. These rich stories offer brief sketches of the mystery of the creative process, and connect creativity to the source of life.

The story below is an example from the Hindu tradition. It’s part of the Nasadiya, or “There Was Nothing” hymn from the Rig Veda.

There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water bottomlessly deep? There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night, nor of day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.*

Creation is the work of the gods in these stories. When we echo this process in our own endeavors, we find that the human work of “little c” creation is also a monumental undertaking, if on a smaller scale. To bring something new into the world, we must transform the raw material we find within ourselves and in the world around us. Great effort and imagination is needed for the alchemy that changes experience into art. We need an infusion of divine energy to carry it out.

Beginning next week, I’ll be leading a workshop designed to gently lead artists of all kinds into their own creative process. Over a period of four weeks, we’ll look at how creation stories can inform the way we approach our work and encourage us in our creative efforts. We’ll allow the elements of the stories to move us into the work we long to do. The workshop is called Archetypes of Creation, and is offered through the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Kentucky.  I’d love for you to join us.

What in you is asking to be brought into the world?

*This story is quoted by J. F. Bierlein in Parallel Myths, p. 37-38. Ballantine Books, New York, 1994.

Asking for What We Want

I’ll soon be leading a class exploring different ways to pray, which brings up the question of how to begin—for both a class and a prayer. One possibility is to begin as Ignatius taught, by asking God for what we want our prayer to yield. Asking for what I want is not something I’m good at; maybe looking at that is a good place to start.

When Jesus teaches about prayer in the gospel of Luke, he gives us more than the model of the Lord’s Prayer. He also tells the story of a man who receives what he needs because of his persistence in asking for it.  Then Jesus offers this assurance to his followers:

Ask, and it will be given; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.

I love this passage, its comfort and encouragement, but it raises questions, too. Earlier in my life I assumed there were limits on what I could ask for, and that the possibilities for asking were on the other side of a high wall. Janis Joplin’s song made me smile, but I didn’t want to be guilty of praying “Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes-Benz.” I didn’t know what to ask of God, and didn’t trust myself, or God, enough to find out.

It took me far too long to learn that it’s ok to ask for whatever I need. The mindset of not asking is a stew with many ingredients; and I simmered in it for a long time.

Now I don’t worry about asking too much; I wonder if I ask too little. There may be no limit to the possibilities if we trust that our asking, seeking, and knocking will all be answered. The potential for change is actually unnerving.

Now I think we can ask freely for what we deeply want. We can expect God to meet the longing beneath the things that we desire. And if our vision is not clear, and we pray for a surface need that we mistake for the deeper one, we may find our prayers answered in ways we didn’t expect. God will meet the hidden and genuine need beneath our wishes, even if we do not know how to ask.

Opening and Closing Rituals

With the closing ceremony of the Olympics complete, we’re now released from the 2010 games. We take the stories with us, but it’s time to move on.  A closing ritual helps us go forward when something good is over. The games are declared closed, but the ceremony also points toward the next host city, and the gathering four years distant.

The pair of opening and closing ceremonies marks a container for the experience, elevating the events they frame. We need a moment at the beginning to say, “Let the games begin.” It helps us see the undertaking as part of something larger. We need closure at the end, a way to hold together the diverse events in a unified experience, making them part of us before we let them go.

Our lives hold many small rituals for beginnings and endings: lighting the Christmas tree, the last night of vacation, baseball’s opening pitch, a minister’s benediction, housewarmings, graduations, groundbreakings, memorials. We set those times apart because we know they’re important. At the same time, we are reminded they’re important because we set them apart.

Even our simple routines at the day’s opening and closing matter. These rituals reassure us as we gather strength in the morning. In the evening, looking back on our efforts for better or worse, they help us put the day to rest. Sunrise and sunset, though they rarely delineate our waking and sleeping, nonetheless offer a relevant ceremony. They form a vessel that contains our lives—a day—to lift up for a blessing, or healing, in grief or gratitude.

A day has meaning. It’s what a life is made of. So I’m considering ways to mark the day’s opening and closing with a small, sustainable, and meaningful ritual.

Does it work to make one up or does it need to evolve naturally? How does a ritual become meaningful?

In the Beginning is the Breath

The search for meaning begins exactly where we are. If we want to seek connection with ourselves, with others, and with the divine, there’s nowhere else to work from. We don’t have to cross the distance between where we are and where we want to be in order to begin our journey. It starts from here.

It’s easy for me to wander off, feeling overwhelmed at all I don’t know and all I haven’t done. It’s easy to get stuck thinking there must be catching up to do before I can start. But on a good day, I can remember that I already have what’s most essential.

“For I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” and something within me urges me always toward wholeness. I believe it’s a spark of the divine that exists in everyone. My task is to wake up to that life force and pay attention to what’s happening now, without being distracted by what I have or haven’t done in the past or what I might do in the future.

Ok. Sure. But how?

The best way I know to begin being present to what is unfolding in my life, is through the breath. Our breathing is another way we are wonderfully made. Without a thought we bring into our bodies the air that sustains life, and exhale what we do not need to make room for the next breath. Our breath requires no attention, but it is with us every moment. When we are mindful of the breath, it gives us a way to find our balance, clear our minds, and pay attention. When we notice the act of breathing we have the chance to relax body and mind, and become grounded in the present moment.

Even the story of creation in Genesis begins with breath. The Hebrew word ruah, translated as the “spirit” of God moving across the waters at the beginning of creation can also be translated as “wind” or “breath.” Ruah is also the breath of life breathed into humanity by God. Creation begins with ruah; life begins with ruah. It seems fitting that our journey to God would begin with the breath, as well.

Our breath is always available as a starting place, which is good, as starting is something we must do over and over again. No matter how many mornings we wake up, we have to start each day anew. It’s the same with our practice and prayers. Every day we begin again. It helps to have a routine for beginning, and a focus on the breath is elegant in its simplicity. Our breath is where we are. It’s a start.

What helps you to begin again?