May 18, 2011

Free at Last!

The other day I watched a PBS American Experience episode called Soundtrack for a Revolution. I saw television footage in that segment that I remember seeing while I was in high school. I didn't really understand what I was seeing back then: police dogs attacking nonviolent protesters, freedom riders pulled off buses that were then torched, people being clubbed by police, dragged by their hair, set upon by fire hoses, turning up missing, killed. Seeing those clips again resurrected the horror of the violent sixties for me, when John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were all assassinated, over one million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were killed in the war, and untold numbers were killed, injured, or maimed in the nonviolent movement for civil rights.

A portion of Dr. King's I Have a Dream
speech was also included in the episode, made all the more poignant by the contrast with the violence of the television clips: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" I wept, seeing that speech again all these years later, after countless viewings during Black History month. I watched it again today on YouTube, and wept again. You have to remember the violence to appreciate the full power of his words.

On Saturday I practiced telling the story of the Ten Best Ways (a/k/a the Ten Commandments) in a Godly Play/Faith and Play training. The background of the story is this: The Hebrews, enslaved in Egypt, have escaped on foot. They are following Moses and are being chased by the Pharaoh and his soldiers, who have horses, chariots and weapons. The Hebrews are afraid. They come to the Red Sea, an inland sea that is about twice the size of Lake Superior. They believe they are trapped, and they think they are going to be killed or enslaved again, with the punishment that comes following escape. Then God tells Moses to hold his staff out over the sea. And the water is parted so the people can cross.

The Ten Best Ways lesson begins at this point. The story is told in a "desert box" or sandtray, using small human figures and a tall mountain. I began: "The people came through the water to freedom! They were so happy they danced!" As I moved the figures over the edge of the blue tray into the desert, it felt very real to me. My own body's joy joined with the joy of the people as they leaped to their freedom. I could feel the rush of adrenalin, the bubbling up elation, the anticipation of being "free at last!"

Freedom is such a precious thing. I never knew freedom as a child or teenager, except inside of myself. I could create worlds with my imagination, read stories, watch movies, and I could feel free for awhile. But the reality of my physical life was not an experience of freedom. I didn't realize it then, of course. It was many years later when, as an adult in a therapy session, I could feel the relief of escape. And the burden of it.

Because it takes courage to be free. Rollo May, the American existential psychologist, once wrote, "The opposite of courage … is not cowardice, it is conformity." Conformity means that you go along with the crowd, you don't follow your inward leading. In order to resist going along with the crowd, it seems to me, one has to practice doing the things that help you be free. In my language, this is a "discipline" or a spiritual practice.

The people of the Civil Rights Movement practiced the spiritual discipline of nonviolence. They received the physical blows and attacks, the spitting and harassment. They fought back with music, words, and prayer, not with violence. Occasionally someone may have lost the discipline. Perhaps they bit the policeman who was dragging them by the collar, or yelled an insult at someone who had insulted them. But the Civil Rights Movement achieved freedom under the law for African-Americans because they had the courage to deeply practice the discipline of nonviolence.

When the Hebrews were marching across the desert to God-knows-(literally)-where, they began to complain. They were tired and hungry and scared. The first time Moses went up Mt. Sinai, he was gone for awhile. The people became even more anxious. They longed for the certainty of their enslavement, they longed for a God they could touch, a God they could see. They longed to conform to the life their captors had created for them! So they melted all their gold and made a golden Baal, a God of Egypt. Everyone there had presumably heard Moses tell them that if they committed to Yahweh, Yahweh would commit to them and lead them to the Promised Land. And probably not every last one of them felt at ease with dancing for the God Baal. But they did it anyway. So there was another level of conformity when those who were not led to dance conformed to the prevailing mood of the crowd. The people lost their courage, and their commitment to the discipline of monotheism. They made a graven image, and returned to the ways of their captors.

Personally, I like graven images. I have several in my home: Isis, Innana, Kuan Yin, Kali, Nut, Ix Chel, Brigid, Ganesha. My God doesn't require that I forsake these aspects of myself in order to worship with the Unity. My disciplines are different, but I must practice them in order to experience the freedom I seek. I must practice breathing, singing, drumming, and inward worship. I must practice physical movement, and healthy eating. My disciplines set me apart in some ways, since I avoid foods that are commonly eaten, and engage in some practices that are uncommon among Friends. Sometimes I feel an internal pressure to conform to what I perceive to be others' ideas about what is socially comfortable or Quakerly. I lose courage and I let go of my disciplines. When I do that, I am unfaithful to my freedom. I conform to my perception of what other people, not God, want for me. And then we all lose. Everyone loses my power, and my authentic, sovereign self, including me. Everyone loses what I could offer, if I were courageous enough to be free.

Quakers can also lose their freedom and leak their power through rituals of conformity. When we don't practice our discipline of mindful listening for the will of God in our Meetings for Business, we lose our freedom to discern creative ways forward. When we focus only on our own comfort without attending to the needs of the different, the poor, and the disadvantaged, we lose our freedom to live in harmony with the whole complement of humanity. When we allow ourselves to vent our frustrations about others in our meetings, rather than approaching the offending Friend personally, in kindness, we lose our freedom to be in unity. Every time we fail our discipline, every time we expect other Friends to conform to the prevailing Quakerly political attitude of the day, every time we recognize the "heavy" Friends of our meeting but slight the "light" ones, we are like the Hebrews, building our golden Baal of social and political correctness around which to dance.

It takes courage to be free. And when we have the courage, "… when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children … will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"


May 11, 2011

The Gathered Meeting

All my life I have yearned for a deep experience of community. Perhaps this grew from my yearning to have a family in which I felt I belonged, and in which there was an experience of being heartfully present to each other. I was a pretty resilient kid, though. I made fine use of even a little bit of goodness. So I found my community in a Catholic school, and I knew just how to fit in: follow the rules, don't talk out of turn, and make sure you write JMJ (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) in the right hand corner of your paper, under your name. I fit in so well that in the eighth grade, I was asked to consider a vocation as a nun.

But, as I got older and got interested in boys, the charm of becoming a nun lost its luster. I went to high school, then to college and on into the professional world, and I was really lost for awhile in terms of community. I had my friends. I eventually had a husband and two wonderful boy children. Their father and I experimented with a community of renegade Catholic families who set up a house church and held our own liturgies. That was very satisfying for awhile, because this community was grounded in a shared experience of worship, social justice and peacemaking. Many of us had young children so there was a sense of shared community in childrearing. But there was inevitable conflict among us, and we had no good way of coping with that. We eventually split up.

When I attended my first Quaker meeting I sat in the silence with 30 other people, only a few with whom I had any acquaintance, and I felt at home. I don't think it was only because I was familiar with and opened by the Quaker style of worship. I think I felt at home because I sensed and felt included in the gathered meeting of that particular First Day.

Here is what it felt like. It was as if everyone in the room had been scooped up by the Hand of God, and that we were all being held tenderly, lovingly, peacefully. It was as if all fear, hopelessness, agitation, and concern had been drawn off without fuss, leaving only sweet calm. And what's more, it felt very different than how the peace that surpasses understanding feels when it comes to me alone. This was all of us, bundled up together, as if our individual lights had become one Light held at the center of the Sun. It made me weep.

I was soon to learn, however, that not every meeting for worship would be a gathered meeting, and that the community that existed outside of worship had a whole different feel. As I became more involved with Friends I tried to push the river, so to speak – to create a gathered meeting. I researched and talked, and tried to convince the Friends of my meeting to let go and let God so that we could experience more gathered meetings. But that really was just arrogance. The experience of God grows from a hunger of the soul; it is not a goal that can be achieved.

So eventually, I just let it be. Now I wait, expecting God to make herself known. I try to be faithful, to keep silence when the Inward Teacher silences me, and to give ministry when she gives me the words. I support the Friends of my meeting in following their bliss – to participate in spiritual formation groups, work with spiritual directors, meditate, do the inward work of healing and integrating, discern developing ministry, cooperate in service projects, eat together, teach our children, help each other. Everyone in my meeting is growing, including me, so I think we are doing something right.

And sometimes the grace of a gathered meeting is given. Thomas Kelly says the conditions for a gathered meeting include a number of Friends who come prepared in mind and heart to enter deeply into worship; and deep vocal ministry that continues, but does not break, the silence. I don't know if those are requirements. I've been in situations where the gathered meeting was sprung on us, even though we were all unprepared, and even after there was a vocal offering that broke the silence.

I just know that the gathered meeting is a grace, given not earned. I just know that it is the gathered meeting – and nothing else – that feeds my communal hunger so deeply that I am content to wait patiently for the gift of it. It is the only collective food that satisfies me.

May 7, 2011

The Spiritual Power of Three Percent

My two sons, now grown, have always been unlike each other in some significant ways. As a shamanic practitioner and therapist I have worked with many clients and have learned that strategies need to be tailored to the individual; the same size does not fit all in healing work. So I have often wondered about the nature of temperament and how it relates to personal growth.

Temperament may include things like energy level when healthy, whether you are more extroverted or introverted, your preferred way of emotionally protecting yourself, some innate talents like musicality or dexterity. Twin studies indicate that temperament is largely determined by heredity (nature), rather than environment (nurture). An Indian swami I knew once claimed that we only have choice over roughly 3% of our lives, that the rest is determined by karma from past lives and social and familial cultures. So science and yoga seem to agree that most of what we are comes in with us at birth.

I have also thought about this as it applies to my own life. I’ve come such a long way. I was once a lost, unformed, traumatized person. I didn’t know my own likes and dislikes, fell into relationships based on other people’s desires rather than my own, lived without much conscious awareness of other beings, was completely unconnected from my body and Nature, experienced God as a stern taskmaster. And while I had many strengths, including intelligence, intuition, and empathy, my ability to use these strengths was limited by the numbing effects of unhealed trauma. Today, following years of psychotherapy, spiritual direction, shamanic intervention, energy work, and a personal commitment to honesty, authenticity, and the willingness to be vulnerable, I am significantly different. I am more conscious of my inner workings, I feel deeply connected to a God of Love and to the Earth, I am tender toward my body, and my consciousness continues to grow. I appear to be “a whole different person,” largely as a result of choices I made that shifted the trajectory of my life.

Could the difference really be explained by three percent? Can three percent of my life shift the other 97%?

I guess it depends on where you place the fulcrum.

Say you have a field you want to plow. And say there is a great granite boulder sitting in the middle of it. The boulder is heavy. It’s been sitting there for a very long time. It’s become part of the scenery of the landscape. Willing it to move doesn’t move it. Using the brute force of your body doesn’t move it. Using the brute force of your friends’ bodies doesn’t even move it. You need a lever, you need a team, and you need the right conditions. It’s going to be harder to move in the winter, for example, when the ground is frozen and the ice and snow are stuck fast to the base of the boulder. But in the spring, when the ground is thawed and heaving, or in the fall after the harvest, it might be easier. If you dig up the ground around the boulder, it will help. And if you then apply a lever, resting on a fulcrum, to the right place – perhaps a point representing 3% of the boulder’s surface – you can move that boulder all right, if it isn’t buried too deeply. Whether and how far you can move it may depend on some factors over which you have no control: the lay of the land, how deeply embedded it is, the size and weight of the boulder. It may also be affected by factors over which you have enormous control: your willingness to stick with working the earth around the boulder before you try to shift it, for example, or your willingness to allow friends to help you operate the lever.

But one thing I know. We all have plenty of boulders in the fields of our lives. And the point is not to get rid of the boulders. The point is to shift them, if we can, to more appropriate places so that we can plow our fields. Some we are actually able to shift to the side of the field. Some we will be able to shift into the low lying areas that collect water and aren’t very good for planting. Others we have to learn to live with, and we just plow around them. In those cases, it does no good each spring when we go out to plow and plant to fling ourselves at the massive boulder. We accept the boulder, understand that it is there to stay, and plow around it.

The goal is not to have a field that is 100% clear of stones and boulders. The goal is to have a field that produces a good yield, a yield that can feed and sustain us, and perhaps others. We can enjoy this work. It produces a good feeling. The good feeling of using our labor, wits, and inner strengths to shape the life we are inwardly led to live. The good feeling of nurturing the soil, and seeing it become, as we age, full of the rich humus in which life can grow. The good feeling of planting the crops we want to tend and eventually reap. The good feeling of living the Good Life, no matter the quality of the field we’ve inherited. In fact, I think the ultimate goal of the spiritual life is to tend the fields we’ve been given and, when they are yielding well, to assist others in their fields.

So, yes, there may only be three percent of our lives over which we have choice. Thanks be to God that it is a powerful three percent.

May 1, 2011

Breathing In, Breathing Out

I remember reading somewhere for a developmental psychology class a description of how a baby learns language. Picture the little one sitting in her crib on a summer morning, experiencing the sunlight dappling the walls, the feel of the breeze coming in the open window on her skin, the pressure of the mattress under her bottom, feel and smell of her forearm resting against her chubby thigh. Maybe there is the sound of birdsong also coming through the window, the sound of the curtain fluttering gently. There is the temperature in the room, warm but refreshing. And there are the smells of sunlight on wood, grass freshly mown in its green-ness, smell of roses perhaps just coming into bloom. And all the human smells of a baby’s room. Meanwhile she is feeling pleasure, perhaps anticipation as a bird approaches the window, perhaps delight in the movement of the dappled shadows on her bedroom wall. Baby is having a multidimensional, multisensory experience, rich in color and texture, sound, smell, depth, shape, feeling; rich in ways we can no longer even imagine.

Then mother comes in, sees the baby looking at the window. She delights in her baby and this opportunity to teach. “See the sun? That’s the sunlight coming in. Yellow sun.” In order to learn the language of her mother, in order to join the human race as a socialized, communicative being, the baby must divorce herself from the richness of the experience of the current moment, and focus her attention on the more limited visual concepts of “yellow sun.” There is no choice for the baby, as there was no choice for the mother, or her mother before her, or the many mothers before them. It is how we learn to communicate – by separating ourselves from our sensory and internal reality and incorporating words to describe those experiences so that others can understand us.

We all have experienced this separation from the garden of Eden. There is an inward remembrance of what it was like to live in this incredibly rich, multidimensional world in which we experienced all that is. We hold that remembrance under layers of words, concepts, intellectual schema, belief systems, cultural mores, social constructs, and intentional learning. If we are blessed to have a spiritual awareness, we may seek the experience of intimate knowing in nonphysical ways, through experience of Spirit, God, or Universe. And yet, there continues to be this rich, physical world of which we are only infinitesimally aware. And because we are physical creatures, with bodies that sense, we are lonely for that experience of intimate physical knowing.

We spend the rest of our lives trying to regain it. But we get confused about what it is we want. We thrill our senses with extreme sports, drugs, sex, driving too fast; and for some of us, this even becomes removed from our personal physical experience through the use of telecommunications and the entertainment industry. Yet while it thrills, the thrill doesn’t seem to satisfy for long. Perhaps, if we are spiritually inclined, we come to believe that the world of spirit is superior to the world of body, that what we seek can only be gained through connecting to the world of the unseen.

But that is a false solution, a partial truth. The world of the unseen is important and precious and transcendent. We should cherish the life of the Spirit, and reverence it, and open our hearts and minds to it, be stilled by it, led by it, taught by it, and prodded to action by it. But we are not yet living wholly in the world of Spirit. Our spirits are living in bodies right now, in a three-dimensional reality. We are not only transcendent beings, but immanent ones. And I believe we have these sensing bodies for a reason. There is something critical about learning to love and be present to the physical reality of the senses.

Mindfulness helps me learn to reclaim that rich sensory experience of the prelingual baby. Mindfulness practice, breathing in and noticing, breathing out and noticing, is helping me learn to be fully present to the physical reality of the moment I find myself in. It is my hope that it is helping me learn to love better.

Breathing in, I notice the green of the spring grass. Breathing out, I feel the grass between my toes. Breathing in, I feel the moisture of the grass, the slightly sharp edges of its texture. Breathing out, I feel tender love for the tender grass. Breathing in, I notice the pain on a stranger’s face. Breathing out, I pray for her. Breathing in, I feel the sun on my arm. Breathing out, I notice the sun is my relation.

Brother Lawrence called it practicing the presence of God. The Zen Buddhists and the therapy models call it mindfulness. Whatever we call it, it can help us regain the garden of Eden – now, here, in this life, and in this body. It can help us become as little children again. Blessed be.