What We Learn and What We Perceive

One of the intriguing ideas I encountered at the recent Dream & Spirituality Conference is that we are able to perceive only what we have learned. The more I think about this idea, the more I find it to be true.

Physicist Doug Bennett offered the example of bird watching to make the point. I don’t know much about birds. For me, a walk through the woods might mean seeing a few indistinct brown birds, and that’s if I’m paying attention. But a birder who has learned to recognize and identify details of shape, size, color, and behavior will notice distinct species that I simply do not perceive.  I would have to learn a lot more about birds even to see them.

Similarly, until I’ve learned to identify types of trees, the woods are simply an undifferentiated expanse of foliage. Insects are just bugs, stones are only rocks, and a foreign tongue is merely babble if I haven’t learned to discern the meaning in the details.

Certainly we are able to learn, and we do this by relating new things to what we already know. Is a new bird bigger or smaller than a robin? Is the leaf of a new tree pointed like a maple, or rounded like a sassafras?

When new learning breaks into our consciousness, it wraps itself in the form of what we already know so that we can take it in. That’s why Mr. Miyagi gave the Karate Kid his tiresome “wax on” and “wax off” chores when he first asked for lessons. The familiarity of that task readied him to counter a punch with a martial arts move like the circular motion of waxing a car.

For any of us to recognize a new possibility, it has to show up connected to something we’re familiar with. Einstein’s mind-bending ideas of space and time began with his imagining himself riding on a beam of light. Facebook was conceived as something like an electronic version of a class yearbook.

Likewise, if we’re able to recognize the suffering of another person, it’s because we can connect something about their experience to what we know. Whether it’s from hurts we’ve experienced, or from taking in another person’s story, what we’ve learned is part of what prepares us to be compassionate.

Our learning predisposes us to see, or to not see. What we learn matters. What we don’t learn has consequences. The information and ideas we take in have a direct effect not just on what we think about the world around us, but on what we are actually able to see of the world. Our choices of media have moral consequences.

If we can’t see what we haven’t learned, then there is all the more reason to look at the world together and share our perceptions. I need to know what I’ve missed, and the only way that is possible is if you’ll share with me what you see.

When we put our two perspectives together, perhaps we can both acquire a more three-dimensional view of reality. If we can see the world more clearly, perhaps a way to tackle its challenges will become more clear as well.

 

 

Encountering the Tarot

I recently took part in a Tarot workshop called “Exploring the Tarot – A Tool for Insight and Contemplation,” led by Brian Relph. I expected it to be an interesting intellectual exercise. The images on the cards have spoken to people for hundreds of years, and I looked forward to delving into their symbolic meanings. But the workshop turned out to be an experience not primarily of the head, but of the heart.

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

 

The images came to life as they addressed the ongoing concerns of the workshop participants. We considered the feelings that arose from looking at a card in response to questions such as “What phase of life am I in now, and what awareness would be helpful to me?” or “What supports me in meeting this particular challenge?” Wisdom and insight emerged from considering how the energy and meaning of a card intersected with a particular aspect of life.

Having worked extensively with dreams, exploring images from the Tarot felt somewhat familiar to me. It was noticing that these images sometimes turn up in dream work that inspired me to learn more about the Tarot. These shared archetypal images represent universal patterns of human existence across time and throughout the world. We manifest these archetypes in our individual lives, but each of us lives them out in our own unique ways. The meaning of a dream element, like the meaning of a Tarot image, comes from the intersection of the universal and the particular.

There is ancient Judeo-Christian precedent for seeing dreams as messages from the divine. In both the Old and New Testament, dreams are a way of receiving heavenly insight and guidance. While it may not be common these days for Christians to work dreams as part of their spiritual life, it is part of our spiritual lineage. Tarot, however, is an unfamiliar tool in the Christian theological world view. We may believe that divine wisdom is available all the time through prayer, but if that wisdom arrives in an unfamiliar way it is often seen as suspect. It’s simpler and easier to reject the unfamiliar.

Yet people of faith find many different ways of becoming ever more aware of and attuned to the divine. We rely on the spiritual structures we put in place to encounter the help and guidance that are available to us all the time. Some look for insight conveyed through scripture or in worship. Some invoke the help and protection of the saints, carrying a St. Christopher medal when traveling, for example. Wisdom visits us through signs in the natural world, or a book that suddenly calls for attention, or the sudden resonance within a conversation.

Working with the Tarot is another way of paying attention. It’s not about fortune-telling. This misconception about (or misuse of) the Tarot as if it were for predicting events is similar to a common misunderstanding about the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah and others were not trying to foretell events that would occur hundreds of years into the future. They were speaking clearly and directly about Israel’s current situation. The prophets were able to do this because they were deeply connected to the wisdom of the divine, able to anticipate the outcome of Israel’s ongoing actions. Yet when later generations look back at their divinely inspired words for guidance, their insights are so keen they offer a lens for interpreting current-day experience and seem to anticipate future events.

In processing my experience of the Tarot with my spiritual director, he asked where I thought the wisdom was coming from, or what it was I encountered through working with the images. The best answer I have for the time being is that the archetypes depicted on the cards open the door to a wisdom that comes from deep within. Yet this insight originates beyond my individual experience; it taps into the universal experience that connects us all. It’s what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, or what is recognized in the greeting Namaste—the divine in me acknowledging the divine in you. It is the Source of all life, available in every moment, offering itself to us if we will just pay attention.

The Better Part

I have long wrestled with the story of Mary and Martha* in the gospel of Luke. In my reading, Martha is a worker; Mary is a listener. Martha is active; Mary is contemplative. As the two sisters host Jesus in their home, Martha is busy with the tasks of running a household while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet absorbing his teaching. Martha is angry about doing all the work herself, and insists that Jesus have Mary help out with the chores.

Mary and Martha with Jesus, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

I understand Martha. It takes work to keep a household or anything else running smoothly. Martha wants to offer the finest hospitality to this amazing teacher. Perhaps she would have liked to sit and listen, but it takes work to provide a clean bed and a good meal.

Jesus responds by speaking kindly to her, noticing that she is worried by many things, and offering a different perspective. He points out that the work she thinks is necessary is actually distracting her from what is most important. Whatever standard Martha is trying to meet, it isn’t set by Jesus. He wants her to know that she is made for more than the treadmill she has put herself on. Jesus didn’t show up just to add to her chores.

I understand Mary. She is drawn to the wisdom of this new teacher and the power of his presence. She sets aside her normal activities, recognizing that this is no ordinary guest, and gives him her full attention. Yet following her heart means not living up to others’ expectations for what she should be doing. It’s not easy to disappoint Martha, who doesn’t share Mary’s priorities, and lets Mary know that she’s not doing her part.

Mary and Martha in stained glass, St. Patrick's, Dublin

I have long wished the story would show Jesus inviting Martha to sit down and listen, then have everyone pitch in with the chores.

We all have mundane tasks to do. But it’s important to recognize what merits setting them aside. Jesus refuses to send Mary back to her usual tasks just as she is beginning to hear his life-changing teaching. Mary has chosen the better part, he tells Martha. Jesus doesn’t want us doing more chores, he wants us to be transformed.

Mary and Martha both live inside me. There’s nothing wrong with Martha wanting to get the job done. The world is in need of a great deal of work. But the world needs Martha to lend her strength and skill to the most important tasks. In a world of “shoulds,” how to discern what truly is the better part is a question always before us. We need Mary and her ability to recognize what is genuinely life-giving.

Carl Jung offers an insight regarding his patients’ growth that applies to the tension between Mary and Martha:

All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble . . . They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. (as quoted by Matthew Fox in Original Blessing)

We need both Mary and Martha, not in opposition but in a complementary partnership. We need a higher level of awareness that incorporates them both. I like to think of Martha spinning a cocoon, Mary yielding to the transformation that happens within it, and through the work of the Spirit, a new creation emerging into the world.

 

*The text of the story is brief, found in Luke 10:38-42. Here it is, in its entirety:

Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

Impermanence

As part of the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville, April 14-17, 2015, these monks from the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion  and the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour created a sand mandala for the sake of wisdom, compassion, and healing.

 

The monks lean across lines and arcs

like the funnels they wield,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 1

as if tilting a column of sand

up the spine

to pour from a third eye.

 

The grains trickle in rivulets

between skeletal lines

penciled onto a blue field.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 2

This gold, this red,

in precisely this place—

the design takes flesh

in lavish detail.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 3

 

This work is prayer

begun with chant

from which the air yet hums.

Tibetan Chant Ritual

Ringing metal, rubbed like a firestarter,

sings as it coaxes sand

from the tiny mouth of a ribbed silver cone.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

For days the sand pours,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 4

the chants rise,

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

the mandala widens.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Nearly Complete

 

Each morning a ritual:

with one hand the leader rings a bell,

with the other he holds a blade.

Tibetan Ritual Table

Beside the completed design

sits a white flower

in a silver bowl.

Tibetan Sand Mandala with Lotus

Atop the lotus of sand

in the mandala’s center,

the bowl becomes a mirror.

Now the blade, ever-present

through all the days of creation,

cuts from the points of the compass

to the center—

destruction from every direction.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Silver Bowl

A brush sweeps the careful work

into swirls of muddied color—

Sweeping Away the Sand Mandala

a heart-sob—

for all the careful tending vanished,


Sweeping the Sand Mandala

for every thing of beauty gone.

 

Tibetan Sand Mandala Brushed Away

 

 

 

Tibetan Monks in Headdress

 

Behind four monks clad in gold,

Tibetan Monks Walking to the Ohio River

a quiet crowd walks to the river.

As if in tribute,

four golden planes fly

in formation overhead.

Golden Eagles Flyover

 

Standing in the current,

the silver-haired leader

tilts a vessel,

Tibetan Ceremony Pouring Sand

yielding to the river

the sand,

the work,

the prayers,

the loss,

the acceptance.

Tibetan Monk at the River

The river carries this embodiment

of compassionate understanding

out into the world.

Tibetan Monks at the River

 

Returning,

the four walk with ease,

smiling, their shoulders relaxed,

Tibetan Monks

while I keep taking

photographs to keep.

Lotus After Sand Mandala Ceremony

 

Susan Christerson Brown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where is God Hiding Out?

Over the weekend I attended a talk by Ann Belford Ulanov, sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Friends of Jung. I’m still absorbing and processing the ideas she shared in her presentation, which shared the same title as her latest book, Madness and Creativity. She also drew from a previous book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, as well as unpublished work in progress. I can’t begin to summarize what she had to say, but following are some of the points she made, and some of the questions she asked, that remain with me.

Spring is Coming

Spring is Coming

Ulanov spoke about the difficulty and the rewards of being fully alive, when we risk “living with openness and engagement, bringing a sense of expectancy to our days, paying attention to our lives, and appreciating the ways we are touched by kindness.” A Buddhist might call this a state of being awake. “Our living fully alive makes oxygen for other people,” Ulanov said. “We make something of our experiences and let them make something of us.”

In this state of wakefulness we find the clarity to engage with the important questions. “To what do we all belong?” is the question of our century in Ulanov’s view. Perhaps by this she meant the question of what we truly share in common, or what is most important about human life and identity, or what is the nature of this universe in which we find ourselves. Neither the church nor the state can answer it for us, and the question permeates our lives at different levels.

It occurs to me that during this tournament season we answer it at one level by wearing the colors of our favorite teams, enjoying a sense of identity with a school or a region. The passion of sports fans shows how relevant the question of belonging is. But when we consider what we might all belong to, the inquiry is more difficult.

As we look around at the world in which we live, and look within to wonder at what we are and what our lives mean, we often find more questions than answers. Ulanov condenses those questions to “What are we living for, and what is worth dying for?” “What is the something more?”

Perhaps an alternate way of considering where we might find the “something more” is in yet another question posed by Ulanov: “Where is God hiding out?”

She suggests that our answer to where we might find God comes through the clues that the psyche offers. If we pay attention to what’s happening in both our inner and outer life, we find instances of resonance and meaning. From beyond the borders of the small version of our lives come new ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Growing beyond our old habits of thought we experience the renewing of our minds, and a renewal of life in accord with what really matters. The spark of life we sense in a conversation, in the spirit of a particular group of people, in the power of a certain image, or in the energy surrounding a certain kind of work, can be an arrow pointing us in the right direction.

We are looking for where we can “plug in,” Ulanov said. How can we access the energy of engagement with life? We miss living with a sense of aliveness and wonder. When we feel exhausted, deadened, cut off from our creativity, we know life can be more than this. “Where is the ignition switch?”

Ulanov posits that we find aliveness, and find God, “in the tiny scintilla that appear in the darkness; the dots of light, bright and hopeful; in the scraps, in the small.”

In this way the deadness, or even the “madness,” that burdens our lives has a positive side. It drives us to find and cling to those scraps of aliveness, to connect the tiny points of light. Even the bleak times come to us in service to the fullness of life and point us toward wholeness. Deadness can point to aliveness, and madness can burst into creativity. The desolation that spurs us to investigate and address its cause takes us to a place Ulanov likens “to the edge of the map of the known world, looking for a connection to the monsters beyond. Crossing this bridge between the known and the unknown is aliveness.” At its best, religion can serve to stabilize this bridge.

Following our own path as wholeheartedly as we can, noticing the places where we feel most alive, is how we find the “something more”—the small places of encouragement where, for us, God may be hiding out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Stealth Version of Lent

The season of Lent slipped in quietly last week while folks around here were distracted by monumental snows and plummeting temperatures. Ash Wednesday was cancelled—the whole week was cancelled. Snow and ice along the streets are now the color of the ashes we didn’t wear. Surviving the weather felt like enough of a Lenten practice, and people joked about wanting to give up winter for Lent. This week the snow has melted enough to reveal the tips of daffodil fronds, but Easter still feels a long way away.

 

Maple Shadow and Robin on Snow 2015-02-28

 

But in spite of this stealth version of Lent, somehow a Lenten practice found me. Or rather, a constellation of practices both inner- and outer-directed. They balance each other. Some fill the well for me. Some are ways for me bring water to others.

I’ve been reading some excellent books, practicing meditation and doing “morning pages.” Complementing those inward disciplines are some outer commitments I’ve made. Through them I’ve been meeting some wonderful people, doing meaningful work at my church, and leading a group through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

I can’t take credit for arranging this rare balance; I’m simply grateful for it. Lately I’ve been trying to notice and respond to what life/God/the universe is putting in front of me, and what is arising within. “Synchronicity” is another way of describing this sense of things coming together. I think Paul refers to the same experience in Romans, when he talks about all things working together for good. Being open to the question of how God is working in and through my life seems to be leading to a place of balance and wholeness. At least for now.

There is much to be concerned about in the wider world. But in the midst of it all, my hope is to continue paying attention to the work that is mine to do.

What are you noticing these days?

 

 

 

Memento from a Retreat

Something within us knows the value of a new perspective. It comes through when we get the sense that it’s time to get away. One person’s restorative weekend might be another’s tedium, but whether it’s a shopping excursion, a sports event, a hike in the woods, a visit to a gallery, a hobby convention, a mission trip, or simply being any place but here, sometimes a change of scenery is exactly what we need.

A retreat is another kind of getaway. It isn’t about activities or entertainment, but comes from the desire both to find rest and to be awakened through quiet time in peaceful surroundings away from everyday life.

Recently a friend and I spent a couple of days on retreat at the Sisters of Loretto campus near Bardstown, Kentucky. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have made it happen. Unlike so many other events and commitments, a retreat doesn’t clamor for its place on the calendar. But once we started talking about the idea, we created enough momentum to make a plan and see it through. I’m glad about that, because the effort resulted in a lovely experience that is all too rare.

The tricky part of going on retreat is that the mindset that puts it in place—the planning and packing and logistics of getting there—is exactly what needs to be set aside once we arrive. A to-do list pretty much defeats the purpose of relaxing and spending time away from our schedules. So I tried to go without an agenda, and with the idea of listening for whatever it was I needed to hear. But I also tried to be ready for anything. I took books and writing paper, my computer and journal, good walking shoes and my camera, along with the scarf I was knitting. Maybe someday I’ll master the art of traveling light.

The sisters have a library available to guests, where I found a book by Richard Rohr that turned out to be perfect for reading during my time there. Everything Belongs is a meditation on God’s presence. (Below is a note that one of the sisters left about the rearrangement of their shelves.)

But the ideas I encountered in Rohr’s book found their most eloquent expression after a storm on the first night. Through hours of darkness I had heard the wind tearing through trees and battering the brick and old wood outside my window. Yet the next morning broke chilly and clear. The night seemed almost a bad dream, except that the wind had brought down thousands of pecans from trees all across the grounds. Along the walkway to the guest house, on the path to the pond, among the stations of the cross, around the cemetery, they were everywhere.

“Take some with you,” the sisters urged. And I did. Like a chipmunk stuffing its cheeks, I filled the pockets of my jacket until the fleece could stretch no further. Abundance. Enough for the woman I met, kneeling on the ground, filling her bag as she remembered the shelled pecans that were her grandfather’s gift of love and work at Christmastime. Enough for the two who filled the hood of a third friend’s sweatshirt, worn like a bulging backpack. Enough for others who would stroll the grounds after we left.

Now that I’m back home, the pecans I gathered remind me to breathe and remember that God is present. They remind me of abundance—gifts stumbled upon in the wake of the storm, a harvest to crack open and enjoy through winter days to come.

Feeding the Dark Hole

Recently I had a lesson in paying attention, something that turns up for all of us from time to time–without too much pain, if we’re lucky.

I had taken the time to fill my thermos before leaving home, planning to have an organized, have-it-all-together kind of day. Unfortunately, I didn’t take time to be sure it was sealed.

The good news was that my laptop in the same bag was unharmed, but that was because my papers soaked up the spilled coffee. Handwritten pages bled through most of the notebooks, leaving an ever more ghostly imprint on each leaf. It was a stupid mess, made by no one but me, and there was nothing to do but pull everything out and clean it up.

I wiped the cover of my computer and set out the waterlogged paper to dry. I used a paper towel to soak up the liquid remaining in the bottom, all the while appreciating the excellent design decision to make the lining black.

But as I dried the interior I felt something beneath the lining—actually several somethings crowded together under there. I checked the inside pocket and sure enough, found a hole. It was an opening in the bottom corner, hardly noticeable but plenty big enough for a pen to work through. I made the opening a little bigger until I could get my fingers around a pen that had fallen behind the lining, then another one, and another. Suddenly I knew why a whole package of my Pilot fine-point gels had disappeared.

 

 

But there was more—a bottle of lotion from the Hampton Inn, a package of Kleenex, two tubes of lip balm, and a card from Laudanum Printing that I kept as a reminder to check their Etsy site. There were several paper clips, Riccola cough drops, plus a Hall’s, a couple of Dove dark chocolates, a Luna bar, a shoe shine mitt from the Inter-Continental in Seoul, and a sealed bag of Bigelow’s English Teatime.

All these important items I had squirreled away, thinking they might be necessary, only to have them disappear into a black hole in my bag. Who knows how long I hauled this stuff around, completely inaccessible but crowding my space and weighing me down. If these things were so important, how could they disappear without my noticing?

I can’t help wondering what other long-forgotten necessities are crowding my life, or what else I’m lugging around in my metaphorical baggage. What’s really essential, right now? What would happen if I could pay attention, fix the hole, and stop feeding the bag?

Abundance in the Ordinary

Last weekend was my daughter’s college graduation—a festive, joyous, exhausting two days of observing the rituals, celebrating the accomplishments, savoring the moments, and packing up the contents of her dorm room as she leaves college behind.

In the midst of it all was a baccalaureate service with remarks by Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport, who also happened to be another proud parent of a graduating senior. One of the things he spoke about in his address was the power of simple events to deeply affect our lives, and how sharing ourselves in ordinary ways can profoundly affect the lives of others.

He spoke on a quiet story from Genesis where Joseph, the dreamer, sent by his father to find his brothers, is wandering through a field on his search. When a man appears and asks where he is going, Joseph describes his task and asks if the man can help. Indeed he does know where the brothers are and directs Joseph to them. It’s not a dramatic story in itself, but it leads to the events on which a nation’s survival depends and a history in which its identity is forged.

This turning of events on such an unremarkable occurrence reminds me of the familiar poem by William Carlos Williams:

So much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

A person’s life can pivot on events that seem small at the time, on a moment as simple as receiving directions, on a tool as humble as a wheel barrow, or even the wheel on which it balances.

The rabbi reminded us that we’re walking around like jigsaw puzzles, with everyone missing some pieces and also holding parts that belong to someone else. These extras usually don’t seem worth much to us, they’re just something we carry around. But when we offer them to the right person their value is extraordinary.

It may not seem life-changing to tell a friend we believe in her when she feels defeated, or to talk to a student about our chosen field, or to offer some direction when we know the way. But we never know what might be the point on which someone else’s life turns. If we pay attention, we might see we’re in a position to help.

Acts of generosity help to heal the world in the only way it can be healed—one heart at a time. So we offer what we have and let the abundance of creation multiply those gifts.

To use a New Testament illustration, each of us carries around loaves and fishes that can go a long way.

Something Old, Something New

Lately I’ve been perusing local antique markets, flea markets, estate sales, garage sales, and second hand shops, looking at vintage costume jewelry. I’ve been having a great time exploring local places that have been in business for years, but hidden in plain sight from me until the antique bug bit. It’s a whole new world of old things.

The variety of beads and stones, charms and chains, colors and designs, are endlessly compelling. Some connect me to the past, reminding me of a pin I remember my grandmother wearing or beads for playing dress-up from my mother’s jewelry box. A cluster of beads on a clip earring or an elaborate rhinestone brooch evoke another era, while a strand of glowing pearls holds timeless allure.

Many of these pieces, separated from the women who once owned and wore them, are too lovely to be abandoned. So I find myself looking for ways to recreate and place them into the stream of life once again. They usually need cleaning up, and sometimes more—beads restrung, stones replaced. Some of the pieces ask to be worn as is, but more often they need re-visioning. The link from a bracelet can become an interesting element on its own, a single earring can be incorporated into a unique necklace, a pin can become part of a pendant. The amazing designs in these old pieces can find new life when they’re separated and combined in new ways. A worthwhile element from the past retains a sense of that era, even as it is fitted to live on in a new context.

One of the things I love about costume jewelry is its accessibility. I would hesitate to alter a valuable piece of jewelry, even if it were something I wouldn’t want to wear in its original state. The sense that what is valuable is untouchable is strong, like the childhood admonition to look but don’t touch. But such items, when they are no longer relevant, tend to be set aside. When objects or designs fall out of favor or use, they’re put away and may or may not be found again. The pieces that remain relevant to the lives we lead are ultimately the ones we’re able to keep track of.

The best of our ideas are like this. Our values, our faith, our commitments are not rarified notions kept apart from everyday life, untouched by our experiences. They are rather the things we take up every day, acquiring the patina of time and use, occasionally refitted to remain relevant to the life we currently live.

Fine jewelry, like a fine idea, enhances life only if we wear it. Those things we actually wear are part of how we’re remembered, and become part of who we are.

What kind of jewelry do you like to wear?