Getting Past What We Think We See

I’m fascinated by this optical illusion.

I’m so sure of what I’m seeing here—a gray and white checkerboard—I can hardly believe the demonstration showing how it’s not that simple. Certainty encourages me to dismiss any new information. It limits what I am able to perceive. I can barely take in the information that challenges my understanding because I “know” what I saw. But it turns out I was wrong.

Hmmmm.

I wouldn’t want to go through life never trusting my sense of how things are. I need to rely on my perceptions to get through the day. But I also know from experience that certainty can be misplaced. Past choices that seemed perfectly clear at the time had far more room for questioning than I was able to see. I know now that I knew less than I thought I did back then, if you can follow that convoluted sentence.

But I was generally doing the best I could with what I had. Who can do more than that? It’s what we all do. But it would have been better to ask if there were more to know than what meets the eye. I might have made better decisions if I had been willing to test my assumptions.

Yet even in our lack of wisdom and experience we are given an inner sense of when things are out of balance. When our misperceptions matter, life provides indications that we need to pay closer attention. They accrue until we finally notice.

Within us is a life force, a holy spirit, urging us forward and helping us to transcend illusion. Often it speaks with a still, small voice that helps us know what we need to know, even when thoughts and perceptions are confused. Occasionally it jolts us into waking up to what is going on around us.

Could it be that this clever video is speaking to us of such things, even now?

And if you still don’t believe the squares are the same color, check out this demonstration:
The Checker-Shadow Illusion

The Spiritual Practice of Changing the Filter

Today I’m drinking a glass of water that tastes much better than the one I had yesterday. Not that I noticed anything wrong with yesterday’s water, but I did notice that it was time to change the filter I use. The difference is dramatic, the taste softer on the tongue—something like cashmere vs. leather.

The water filter works beautifully when it’s fresh. It removes minerals and chemicals, yielding the clear, sweet essence of water. It accomplishes this by absorbing the unwanted elements, but after a time it simply cannot take in any more. The filter’s loss of function is subtle, incremental, and at first it’s hardly noticeable. But eventually the filter stops working, and will actually introduce impurities into the water if it isn’t changed. The water tastes bad.

All of which has me thinking about the psyche’s filters.

Messages, images, and information are everywhere, more than we can ever process. The needs, demands, requests, and unthinking effects of other people’s actions continually challenge our ability to respond. We cannot let everything in; there’s too much. But determining how to filter our experience requires effort.

When the air is thick with frustration and anger, callousness and mindlessness, that’s what we most easily absorb. Without a conscious effort to resist them, negative mindsets permeate our way of being. It’s important to see the world around us as clearly as possible, but to live compassionately requires being careful of what we allow to become part of us.

Yet even when we are mindful about the ways we sort and learn from our experience, eventually the filter becomes too saturated to do its work. The anxiety we encounter begins to color our own emotional life. Thoughts become infused with the taint of fear or resentment in the air around us. It’s time to change the filter.

The upper portion of my Brita pitcher is designed to hold the cylindrical filter securely and allow it to be changed easily. I just lift the lid and drop the new one in. Sometimes I wish I could do that with my mind, but our filters are more complex. It’s through spiritual practice that they become clean again.

The hardest part about cleaning or changing a water filter is remembering to do it. That may be the case with our psyche’s filters as well. The means of restoring spiritual strength and resiliency are as different as people are varied. But we all need our spiritual health to live fully and well. We need the ability to cleanse our thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and motivations. We need a way to experience the pure, sweet essence of life that will nurture and sustain us.

Cleaning the filter might happen through prayer or meditation. It might mean a walk in the woods, yoga, or an exercise routine. It can occur in the experience of music or poetry. It could result from our own means of artistic expression. It may grow out of our relationships or from doing our best work.

Spiritual practice restores us and enhances our ability to take in what we need for health and wholeness. In whatever way we find effective, it’s important to keep up with those practices that cleanse the filter. It changes our way of being in the world, and that changes the world.

What helps you to cleanse the filter?

If you’d like to read more, I’ve posted a reflection on the recent talk by Diane Ackerman as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference over at the KaBooM Writers Notebook. It’s called Paying Attention, and offers a look at one way of changing filters by closely observing the natural world.

Clearing a Path to the Spring

When Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” he could be talking about church leaders. In entirely different contexts over the past few days, I’ve happened upon articles and presentations about clergy burnout, and I know the same thing happens to lay leaders of the church. There’s something wrong with this picture, and the solution goes beyond recruiting more workers.

Photo by Laura C. Brown

The church is a busy place. There’s a lot of work to do, people to serve, and programs to fulfill. We do our best to educate the young, comfort the sick, and reach out to those in need. Hopefully we also find meaning and create community as we carry out the work.

But do we find God?

We need the sustenance provided by a spiritual life. It strengthens us for all this work we’re doing, but more importantly our spiritual life helps us gain perspective on what we most need to be doing. Prayer and discernment help us to see clearly, to respond effectively, and to spend our strength wisely. Individuals need the strength and stability of a deeply rooted spiritual life, and the church community needs it as well. Yet even though it’s the basis of health, we don’t spend much time on nurturing individual spiritual practice at church.

We act as if participation in a church constitutes a spiritual life. We assume that church members have their relationship with God covered. But is that true? When people show up at church looking for God, how can we help? We can put them to work and make them feel part of the community, but is that enough?

Participation in a loving community may be what many people are looking for. But how can we show those with a spiritual thirst the way to the spring they seek? And how can we refresh those who have grown weary?

The Christian tradition offers centuries of wisdom and experience from those earnestly seeking God. Yet many seekers never find their way to this richness of the Christian faith. Many feel they must carry on their search elsewhere.

As a church and as individuals within it, we need to know our way to the spring that waters our community, our ministries, and our lives. It’s the same spring that Jesus visited when he went out early in the morning to pray, and where he spent the hours before he was arrested.

The pathways to that spring become overgrown when we focus solely on ministry, cut off from the spirit that sustains it. We need help finding our way to the source and keeping it clear of debris. Something within us thirsts for the living water there that brings wholeness. It’s a spring we need to visit again and again, and the world will benefit if the church can show the way.

Is there something the church could do to help clear that path for you?

Seeing Those We Meet as an Expression of the Divine

A friend recently shared with me her sense that everyone we meet is an expression of the divine. Maybe that’s what is implied in saying that we’re all children of God, but her way of stating it captured my attention.

A day later I was on a plane for New York City, and her words remained with me while I was traveling. As other passengers claimed their seats, I considered the greater connection we shared. In that light, the aircraft seemed a container of sacred space.

In the city, among rivers of pedestrians filling the sidewalks, the press of engines and car horns through the streets, and the whoosh of full subway cars gliding by, I moved in close proximity to thousands of other people in a single day. So many souls; I was one among many. It changes everything to remember that each one is a way of seeing God. When the light changed at the street corner, I joined the wave of people washing across the avenue, part of the ocean of humanity in that city, upon this earth.

Thinking of other people as expressions of the divine lets everyone in. It shows that adopting tunnel vision regarding what I want is to choose a kind of blindness. All these people line the walls of that tunnel, each with their own ways of manifesting life. Each one matters. When I open my eyes, I see that every place where our lives intersect is holy.

Yet sometimes it’s too much, letting in all that humanity. Their energy clashes. Their oblivion is painful. They make such a mess, leaving chaos behind wherever they go. Like the trash blown up against the curb early on Sunday morning. Like the young woman dropping a gum wrapper on the stairs of the subway in front of the old man sweeping up and spitting a round of Spanish in response. There are reasons why we block out the press of life around us.

But if people are the diverse expressions of a divine commonality, we inherit a connection to all of them. Other people are the sea we’re moving through, whether we’re fighting the water or swimming in it. We, too, make up this sea of life. We’re part of a miraculously varied and endlessly energetic creation. The diversity we see out there is within us as well, and the expression we give to it makes us an integral part of the whole.

We really are all in this together. Why is it hard to learn a truth so old and so familiar?

The Real Fight

The hate spilling into public spaces and political discourse in this country feels to me like a flash flood these days. I knew that river was there, but as long as it kept within its banks I could approach warily and life continued as usual. But now bridges are washed out and the angry torrents are sweeping through all kinds of communities.

It’s frightening to see.

All that anger, all that fear, directed at some evil “other,” is a horrendous force. When some other person, or institution, or ideology comes to stand for everything we detest, we lose the ability to think rationally about the dynamic we’re engaged in.

Things become artificially simple when we disregard the humanity of the other person. It unleashes the darkness within us. When that happens, we lose our own humanity and evil prevails. Jesus was truly looking after us, speaking out of love and concern, when he said “Love your enemies.”

We all need to be asking: What’s behind all the anger? What are we really afraid of? When someone in the media really pushes my buttons and I feel the swelling tide that wants to drown them out, what exactly is going on?

The true answers are not the huge concepts, not the vague generalities, but the specific and deeper things. Personal ones. What am I personally afraid of? What is the source of the anger that is mine?

If the enemy is painted large enough to be an easy target, we don’t have to be specific about what we’re fighting, or clear about what we stand for. To really know our enemy we have to understand who we are, and face what lies within us. That is the first fight, and the one that’s necessary for peace.

The Taste of Chartreuse

In this season of almost spring (a time described beautifully by Amy Oscar at her blog: Story, Spirit, Seed), I find myself thinking about the taste of Chartreuse. The flavor suggests the greening of the earth, the scent of mown grass and fresh herbs, the return of the sun in spring. Even its luminous yellow-green color speaks of new life.

It’s still a bit early to retrieve the bottle from the dark recesses of the kitchen cabinet. But for the first time in months I remember it’s there, waiting. Its distillation of past growing seasons holds the memory and anticipation of spring.

Chartreuse and its secret recipe have a fascinating history, which lends a delicious mystique to the experience of drinking it. I first tasted the liqueur in the company of dear friends after we watched Into Great Silence together. The film shows the passing of a year in the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, where Chartreuse has been made for centuries.

To watch the film is to experience something of the monastic life, with its beauty and tradition, as well as its constriction and mundaneity. The film evokes both yearning for the spare beauty of the monastery and claustrophobia at its repeated routines. It has no speaking, no soundtrack, only a few frames containing a word or two of French. Sounds such as the creak of a monk’s kneeling bench are heightened, enveloped in profound silence. It’s a beautiful film of changing light and unchanging ritual. I was glad to share its silence with friends, and also glad to speak with them about it afterwards.

The elixir made by the monks is lovely to sip on its own. Mixing it with the clear, cold effervescence of club soda makes a wonderful drink as well, something like the taste of winter giving way to spring.

That transition is a process happening now, at least for those of us in the Northern hemisphere. But how do we know when to celebrate?

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?

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