Cynthia Bourgeault and Practicing Presence

When Cynthia Bourgeault introduced the contemplative practice of centering prayer at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville last week, she spoke of different practices and traditions as being like colors of the rainbow. Each color is part of the one light, a unique and beautiful aspect that informs our understanding of the light.

I was eager to attend Bourgeault’s talks because her book, The Wisdom Jesus, has been so important in opening my reading of scripture. She is tiny, a package of concentrated energy. Calm and unassuming, with a delightful sense of humor, she bristles with life as she teaches.

Meditation is like putting a stick into the spokes of the monkey mind, she said. It’s all about noticing our thoughts, seeing our patterns of thinking, and letting them go.

Whether we call this practice meditation, centering prayer, or something else, it’s a practice of making ourselves available to a higher mind. It’s an intention to move beyond the machinations of our calculating ego.  As Bourgeault puts it, centering prayer is a practice of returning to God whenever we notice a thought arising. How does one let go of a thought? She demonstrated by standing onstage with her arms outstretched, holding a stick in one hand. She opened her hand and allowed the stick to fall to the floor. Just like that. Let go.

This inner action of letting go becomes the outer action of letting be, she told the audience. It’s hard to value this spiritual practice at first. What can it possibly accomplish? What’s the point when there are so many other things that need doing?

But in this practice of gently releasing the mind’s tyranny, we open ourselves to another way of perceiving. We practice another way of being. For a brief time we allow a higher wisdom to move through us, and slowly learn to permit that flow in more and more aspects of life. We get beyond how the ego thinks things should be, and learn to be present to what is.

Bourgeault describes this as putting the mind in the heart, yielding a new way of perceiving. She calls it the key to practicing compassion. This deep sense of compassion, beyond what she terms ego and activism and do-goodism, is putting on the mind of Christ. From this place true transformation happens.

As we practice this way of being, we place ourselves in the presence of God. As we get out of the way we allow God to flow through us. As we let go of our ego’s agenda we become available to the flow of our authentic life and experience our connection to others.

The energy in the room was palpable as Bourgeault led us in a silent session of centering prayer. I understood for the first time where the phrase “tugged at my heartstring” comes from as I experienced just such a tangible sensation.

Sitting in meditation it looks like nothing is happening. But there’s more to our lives than what meets the eye.

 

Integrating Masculine and Feminine Energies

I’m still humming with the energy of a recent conference entitled Losing Myth: The Price of Losing Feminine Wisdom, hosted by Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Lexington. Joyce Rockwood Hudson and the Rt. Rev. Larry Maze spoke about the vital role of personal and collective myth—eternal truths expressed in symbolic language—in helping us gain perspective on the events of our lives. They also pointed out the urgent need for integrating the feminine with our culture’s primarily masculine perspective in order to find health, meaning, and balance in our world and in our individual lives. I see the church-sponsored discussion of integrating the feminine within the church as sign of life and health, often overlooked in popular media.

Sol and Luna, from the Rosarium philosophorum, reproduced in The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism by Alexander Roob; 2014, Taschen.

What does it mean to integrate masculine and feminine? It’s not as simple as having equal numbers of men and women at the table, because it’s not simply a matter of gender. All of us, men and women, can exhibit characteristics understood as “masculine” or “feminine.” To be receptive is a feminine quality, but not a quality that belongs only to women. To take action is a masculine quality, but not one exhibited only by men. The inner work of self-awareness and spiritual life is feminine; the outer work of problem-solving and attaining goals is masculine. A mature man or woman draws on both masculine and feminine traits. We need both to understand when to be open to a new idea, and when to act on what we know.

Perhaps a clearer way of delineating masculine and feminine aspects is through the Chinese terms yin and yang. Yin energy is hidden from view, as when new life is gestating before being born into the world. It is connected to what is mysterious. It has to do with relationships, intuition, creativity, connection to the natural world, including the body, and with inner growth. Yin is the characteristic of night, the moon, the unconscious, and the sorting out that occurs in darkness. Yang energy is outer-directed and goal-oriented. It is analytical, decisive, and articulate. Yang orientation claims an ideal and works to achieve it. Yang is the quality of day, consciousness, and the sun. It is the light of reason, and clarity of thought. Wholeness comes through integrating the inner wisdom of yin, or feminine, energy and the outer action of yang, or masculine, energy.

We live in a culture that easily recognizes the value of a yang orientation, and tends to be more dismissive, if not downright suspicious, of yin. A patriarchal culture means not just that men are in charge, but that a masculine orientation edges out an appreciation of the feminine. Women can be just as patriarchal as men in their orientation and values. The remedy is not to denigrate the masculine in favor of the feminine, but to create balance between the two. We need both creativity and productivity, clear thought and intuitive perception, problem-solving and relationship-building.

Joyce Rockwood Hudson and Larry Maze spoke of how the church, not unlike Western culture at large, has done a great job of teaching about the masculine aspect of God, but has lost touch with God’s feminine side. Likewise the culture teaches us as individuals to measure our worth in terms of outer accomplishments and measurable achievements, ignoring for the most part our inner life.

But it is the still, small voice within that tells us which actions hold meaning. We need the guidance of inner wisdom to be fully alive. The feminine side of God gives us that, and we need her.

 

 

Glimpsing the Lady Within

I recently made the early morning flight to New York City, leaving Bluegrass Field in the dark and approaching LaGuardia with the sun just high enough in the East to set the city aglow. Passengers on the left-hand side of the plane leaned into their windows as the iconic outline of Manhattan came into view in the distance. Its bristling skyline appeared to rise straight out of the water.

“Do you see it?” the woman behind me asked her traveling companion.

“Not yet.”

I could feel their expectancy. And then, “There she is!”

Standing apart from the mass of gleaming towers was the lady of whom they spoke. Lady Liberty, of course, whose circular island pediment and graceful stance contrasted with the hard lines of the city. Whose form lacked the height of those structures behind her, yet whose singularity made her recognizable, accessible, beloved.

Window shades snapped open along the length of the plane as others claimed the view. Lady Liberty, like nothing else during the flight, enticed passengers away from their phones, their books, their reverie, and their sleep.

She matters. Because of the immigrants she welcomes to this country, yes. But she is more than our ambassador. Our connection with her is deep and visceral because she welcomes each person, including us, to be part of this nation. She invites the weary to take heart, she upholds the dignity of the oppressed, and encourages the heartsick to persevere.

She reminds us that we are strong enough to be compassionate and wise enough to follow her light. She is the best in us, and we rouse ourselves from slumber to catch a glimpse of her because she is how we will meet this day.

Marching and the Labyrinth

While marches were recently going on across the country, I was completing my training as a spiritual director at The Haden Institute. In connection with those marching, essentially, to affirm the value of human dignity and respect, we held a liturgy around a labyrinth.

One at a time, each person taking part in the ritual stood at the entrance of the labyrinth holding a lighted candle. After silently declaring our intention in making this symbolic journey, each passed the flame to the next person and proceeded to walk the labyrinth.

Many of us shared in this ritual of walking the labyrinth, which meant that some were on the way in toward the center as others made their return. We sometimes met another person on the narrow path and needed to yield so that both could continue on the journey.

It was a contemplative version of a march, appropriate for a group committed to doing our inner work and discerning how and where the Spirit is leading. In our training we have faced our own self-delusion, unhealthy patterns, and the hollowness of the ego’s demands. We have also experienced the wisdom and light available when we can get out of our own way and find the true center—the spark of the divine within.

People across the country are considering how best to live up to our civic and moral responsibilities. To choose where to invest ourselves, each of us needs to know more about our values than what we’re against. Outrage and fear are powerful motivators, but not a strong basis for setting a wholesome vision.  To build a better society, it’s important to go beneath our immediate emotional responses and act from a grounded center. We gather strength when we know what we’re working for. Then we can be clear about our vision, goals, and values and share them with others. We can help foster the vital, healthy communities that sustain our lives and work.

Walking the labyrinth is a beautiful meditation on the three-part journey. We go within to become centered and grounded. The circuitous route to the midpoint is full of the bewildering turns that life can take. Its confusing path shows us the need to connect to divine guidance. The still point in the center is a place of restoration and wisdom. In this place we find rest, and are given what we need. Finally, we take that inner peace with us as we navigate the complexity of our path back into the world. We repeat this journey again and again throughout our lives.

A balance of contemplation and action changes the world. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and countless others have been able to generate change through action rooted in their connection to the Divine Center. The vision and work that emanates from this center is what will truly carry us forward.

My work is to help people connect with that same center of wisdom, strength, and peace. I’m grateful for the training that has prepared me to offer spiritual direction. Spiritual companionship is a natural a balm for our fragmented society. Now more than ever we all, regardless of our politics, need the ability to act from our highest and most essential self. We need the ability to make soul-level connections with others to create life-affirming communities. Spiritual direction is a healing force for just such a time as this.

My office is open and I would love to meet with you. Email me at: susan@mildlymystical.com

 

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.”

 

The Wisdom of Gratitude

At the site of a friend’s silent retreat this fall, a ginkgo tree happened to shed its leaves on the same weekend. She was drawn to the gentle drama unfolding over the course of a day, the air so thick with fluttering yellow fans they sounded like rain as they pooled on the ground. Had the retreat not offered the kind of presence that happens through silence, she might have seen them drop but missed the sound, the music, of falling leaves.

Loretto Retreat, et al 071

It’s a mystery how life can hold such beauty at the same time it holds so much pain. The world is hurting. Each of us is injured from violence inflicted far and near. Wrenching scenes repeat on our screens as we attempt to grapple with unfolding events and respond to the world we live in. As the news cycle continues, fear and hate seem quickest to find their voice, filling the world with noise and making it harder to listen for wisdom.

Yet reminders of wisdom rise up like seedlings through concrete. Teachings on compassion become part of the conversation as people share those scriptures that serve as compass points for their lives. Discussions of the values that shape the identity of our nation are held in earnest. People are sharing and responding to heartbreak in a way that compels action for the sake of justice.

I am grateful for those giving voice to generous and searching hearts. I am grateful for models of resolve shaped by wisdom, strength, and love. They remind us of what is good in this world, and help show us the way forward.

Into this milieu, with perfect timing, comes Thanksgiving.

It is literally good for the heart to be thankful. A daily practice of naming two or three things for which we are thankful actually improves our physical health—this report on those findings is not only fascinating, but encouraging. In a previous post I talked about making space in our lives, giving ourselves breathing room by easing up on our expectations and allowing something new. Gratitude helps to do that.

In remembering to be thankful we make space for something more than the worries that beset us. We open ourselves to other possibilities, and perhaps to seeing new ways to meet the concerns and challenges of our world.

Centuries ago the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to wisdom. May we listen from the quiet center of the heart, and rest for a moment in gratitude.

Knowing the River

Every day, I fill a pitcher with water from the tap. I appreciate being able to drink when I’m thirsty, and sometimes remember to be grateful for the rain that fills the river. Water sustains my life. It becomes part of me; I am intimately connected to its source. But sipping from my glass does not allow me to claim the river.

 

Red River Gorge

 

Going to the river is an entirely different experience. In Kentucky there are hundreds, thousands, of places where I might walk along the banks or step among the stones above the water’s surface. Where the water flows clear I can look through to pebbles lining the riverbed and fish darting among them. Where stones are slick with algae there’s always a chance of falling in. I can wade in the shallows or perhaps swim in a few places. The deeper, swifter water requires a vessel and some companions. A guide is helpful where the river churns white.

A close-up look at water’s edge is unlike the changing perspective from a boat, or the wider scene from atop the palisades. Even with a view from the air I can see only part of the whole river. Its long path is too much to take in at once, and yields infinite variations according to time, weather, and season. A blue line labeled on a map is easily found, but tracing the map is not the same as knowing the river.

It’s terrible that many rivers are so polluted we can’t swim or fish in them. Individually and collectively, our hubris has sullied what we need to survive. Yet even these tainted waters remain essential. We filter out the toxins the best we can, reclaiming the water we must have to live.

I can’t simply fill a glass with water as a way to know the river, much less hold the river in my hand. Neither can I quote the Bible and expect a scriptural sound bite to convey its teachings. Discernment is an important aspect of grappling with scripture; it’s not as simple as fishing out a pertinent chapter and verse.

The Bible is not a code of law or a constitution from which we draw off rules as we would draw water from the tap. Scripture is a conversation, an exploration that began thousands of years ago. It contradicts itself. It speaks in different contexts. Scripture is rich and varied, and to engage with it is to create an opening for wisdom.

To wield the Bible as a debate tool is to miss being part of its life-giving flow. Scripture can be experienced in a thousand ways throughout a lifetime, but to use it against others is to waste it. It would be absurd to throw a glass of water in someone’s face and declare that I’m acting on behalf of the river.

A line of scripture can offer hope or inspiration. It can be a reminder of the richness to be found in the entirety of the Bible. But separated from its context the passage eventually becomes a stagnant pool. Water separated from the flow of the river grows foul and breeds pestilence.

I am grateful for a glass of water. I am humbled and in awe of the river from which it flows.

 

 

The Challenge to Become Wise

“Where shall wisdom be found?” is an ancient question that remains as relevant as this week’s New York Times. An interesting article in Sunday’s paper provides a glimpse of how some researchers in our time understand wisdom. The attributes they discuss bolster quality of life in any circumstance. But in particular this article looks at how traits of wisdom foster positive, meaningful lives as people get older, and help in coping with serious physical decline.

Job 28 12

One aspect of wisdom has to do with the ability to accept change, including changes in ourselves. Psychotherapist Isabella S. Bick points out that if we reject our current selves for not remaining the same as we were in the past, we cut off our ability to grow wise. Yet in different ways, and at different levels, this is exactly what we do. We spend a lot of energy trying to argue with what is.

One inevitable change, of course, is aging. In a culture that reveres youth as much as ours does, it’s hard not to feel diminished by age. But deep change happens in many ways, pushing us out of our comfortable places. Activities and relationships that gave life meaning go away. Involvements and priorities that once mattered no longer seem important. We are dealt new challenges.

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965)* calls this “the shaken and devastated surface of [our] former lives and thoughts,” and says that facing it is how we grow. We are meant for a life of greater depth, and greater joy, but “the road runs contrary to the way we formerly lived and thought.” It’s a dismaying thought—all those miles in one direction just to turn around and go the other way.  And who wants to disrupt a life, or a world view, when we’ve worked so hard to get where we are?

Tillich answers by reminding us that too much of the time “we talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. . . We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life.”

People who have looked beneath the surface and “found that they were not what they believed themselves to be” know something of the depth of things. No one wants to endure a painful disruption, but it moves us toward wisdom, something most of us do hope to have in some measure at the end of our lives.

Tillich clarifies what we’re looking for. He says, “the name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, or what you take seriously without any reservation.”

The heart of things lies beneath the potholed surface of our lives. But life’s challenges are real, and we need more than social research to help meet them. We need insight from beyond our current time and culture to help us become wise. Interpreting the spiritual wisdom of the ages is part of what we need from religion, and we stand in great need of theologians like Tillich who could bring a rich intellectual and spiritual life to his ministry.

He challenged his flock from all walks of life to deepen their existence. He told them, “the mark of real depth is its simplicity. If you should say, ‘This is too profound for me; I cannot grasp it’, you are self-deceptive. For you ought to know that nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone. It is not because it is too profound, but rather because it is too uncomfortable, that you shy away from the truth.”

The quality of our existence, individually and collectively, depends on meeting that challenge.

 

*The quotes from Paul Tillich are from “The Depth of Existence,” in his book entitled The Shaking of the Foundations.