Aug 18 2016

Rhythms of Grace

As we begin a new school year at UDTS, I made a short video exploring rhythms of grace for our incoming students: holistic ways to think about our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits, in the midst of the busyness of life. This is first video I’ve made, with the lovely Sinsinawa Dominican Convent as the backdrop. While it is addressed to our incoming cohort, I believe there is much that can speak to people in different contexts.  May it provide a moment of retreat and encouragement in your week!

(Before playing, I invite you to pause the Music for Dreaming in the right column >>)


May 22 2012

Your Brain on Stress

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking at the Bethany Presbyterian Church’s Women’s Retreat on spiritual practices, the brain, and living in the unforced rhythms of grace.

One of the main practices I encouraged was breathing deeply.

Little did I know that my own practice would get a serious testing just a few days later.

Recent advances in neuroscience and brain imaging has radically expanded our understanding of how the brain works.

God has fashioned our brain with two important systems, the one we are most familiar with, fight or flight, and the second lesser known companion, pause and plan.

We know what fight or flight feels like. Historically, the saber-toothed tiger would give chase and the much slower human would call upon an instinctive burst of energy to run like hell or stand her ground and fight.

The brain in fight or flight mode suspends all future considerations in favor of immediate escape from death. No planning is necessary unless it’s the instantaneous calculations for running to a safe tree or cave, or taking good aim on the attacker.  Immediate gratification options that would dispel the threat and fear are valued, as well as risk-taking behavior that might increase chances of escape.

Fight or flight narrows the world to a pin-point of focus: survival.

The problem is that the brain cannot tell the difference between a physical life or death threat from a hungry tiger, or a metaphorical threat in a  stressful work situation, family conflict, gridlock traffic, overwhelming to-do lists, or worries about finances, health, or family members.

And even more challenging: these stresses are not dependent on the hungry tiger losing the scent or getting tired of the chase. The human brain was built to jump into fight or flight mode for brief periods. Now, we are a nation constantly running or fighting.

A person under constant stress finds it incredibly difficult to plan for the future, because the brain is focused on the present perceived danger. Instant gratification–choosing anything that promises to dissipate the stress– will win out over choices toward long term goals.  Willpower becomes non-existent. Risky behavior becomes the norm.

The other, lessor known system, pause and plan, is the brain’s long-range vision. It encourages and supports choices toward future goals. It says no to instant gratification and strengthens willpower.

How can we move from fight or flight into pause and plan?

Take a few deep breaths.

It may seem simple but breathing deeply and slowly for a few minutes will shift the brain into the pause and plan system. The stressor will still be there, but the brain will be able to move from a focus on surviving a predator’s attack to figuring out longer term strategies for dealing with the situation.

A few months ago, I realized I needed to move from my lovely apartment into a less expensive living situation. Jobs are scarce these days and I decided I’d rather start living creatively now, than get into a difficult position down the road. I’ve been incredibly blessed to find a room with a family from my church.

Leaving the Contemplative Cottage (at least, this incarnation of it) has been painful.  Just after the women’s retreat and  a few days before a wonderful bunch of friends came to help me move, I paced my half-packed apartment fearfully and couldn’t decide what to do next. My brain had taken off-line any ability to plan or make long-range decisions, and all I wanted to do was hide under the covers. The moving tiger was in full chase.

Once I became aware of what was happening, I sat down and spent ten minutes just breathing, slowly and deeply. The shift was striking. Suddenly, I could plan again. The future didn’t seem like a black hole. My heart rate slowed. My anxiety lifted. There was still sadness that I needed to move and concern over not having a job, but it was coupled with a feeling of confidence that I could face it and whatever comes next.

I was also able to feel connected to my community and to God’s presence.  In fight or flight mode, I often find the world becomes very lonely, narrow, and small.  Whatever is chasing me seems bigger than God. Shifting into pause and plan opens up the world, reminds me I’m a friend, well-loved daughter, and member of the Body of Christ, and helps me trust God’s provision and redemption of my circumstances.

The next time you find yourself chased by a metaphorical tiger, stop and breathe deeply and slowly for ten minutes. At first, you will probably think it will do no good, but that is just the fight or flight system at work, negating long-term strategies. Give it time, and the tiger will slowly fade back into the jungle.

For more about the brain, willpower, and the challenges of living under constant stress, read The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal.

 


Jan 18 2012

The Child of Tomorrow

When I was seven, I walked into an empty church and was struck by the silence and peacefulness. There was a Presence in that silence I longed to know. A few years later, my family moved to Germany and the rich silences of the ancient churches and monasteries fed my young spirit.

Today I read a poignant New York Times article called The Joy of Quiet.  It both disturbed me and encouraged me to think about how Christ might respond.

The author began with describing an advertising conference whose focus was on how to market to the children of tomorrow.

I was horrified, though not surprised.

What did surprise me was what the marketers decided would be the needs of tomorrow’s child:

Stillness. Silence. The ability to unplug from ubiquitous virtual connection.

The article described “black hole” resorts where people paid for the privilege of no TV, no internet, to go off-grid and disappear, then went further and discussed internet Sabbaths and monastic retreats. One story was about the  author seeking out a Benedictine monastery to walk and think and unplug.

As a student of both monasticism and contemplative living, the article reminded me of something I first considered a few months ago:

The next wave of desert monasticism will be a technological one.

Rather than thousands leaving the cities to seek God and prayerful community in the desert, as Christians did in the 3rd and 4th centuries, I think that we will begin to see thousands unplug for similar reasons from all but the most critical connective technology.

I’m not judging technology as evil, or denigrating it’s ability to connect people across the miles. I am fully enamored with the latest and greatest apps and productivity tools. I facebook and tweet and blog and skype and pin. But I also feel the seepage of energy and a lessened ability to focus and pray after too long in front of a screen. I feel the compulsive thrill of connection when the reward centers of my brain see a “like”–yet must question whether that is a mark of relationship or simply marketing. I feel ambivalence when I try to reconcile my on-line presence and the call toward a contemplative life.

Connective technology is not only all pervasive, but like the root system of bamboo, it’s nearly impossible to curtail, let alone dig up. It often grows over and around any boundaries against it, and cannot be eradicated.

I find, even living alone, that silence, solitude, and stillness is not a foregone conclusion. I have to actively choose it or every moment can be spent listening, watching, surfing, connecting, doing.

The article also pushed me to ask a question:

How might the children of tomorrow be introduced to the stillness and silence of contemplative life, even monastic life?

I’m reminded of my own childhood experience, encouraged and supported by my parents. How often they took me into the churches and let me wander, unhurried, and soak up the prayerful peace.

I’m reminded of Seattle’s St Mark’s Cathedral Compline service, every Sunday night at 9:30pm. Thirty minutes of ancient sung prayer, the service gathers hundreds of people of all ages,  armed with pillows and blankets, to lie in the aisles and up around the altar. Oh, I would have loved it as a kid.

I’m reminded of Godly Play, a liturgical Sunday school curriculum which invites children into prayer, story, and silence for reflection.

I’m reminded of the awe I’ve see on a young girl’s face during the Eucharist at St Paul’s–when Mother Melissa, in her beautiful robes, lifts the bread and breaks it, pausing for a holy and rich moment of silence.

Here is Mystery. Here is the presence of God.

Children need to run and laugh and play.  Children need to bang on pots and yell and impact their environment. But in a culture that offers non-stop visual and auditory engagement through activities, virtual worlds, TV, radio, music–

How can we balance the noisy and fun running around times with dedicated spaces and experiences of stillness and silence?

How can we give them an experience of a different rhythm, a different decibel level, a different way of spending time, a different way of seeking and experiencing Christ?

Monasteries are not commonly known for being a place of retreat for the whole family–I’ve only visited one which embraced that vision. But I would love more such places to open their doors wide and provide child-friendly experiences alongside their adult-centered retreat offerings.

Have you found child-welcoming contemplative or monastic centers where silence and stillness is part of the experience? I would love to hear about them, and your own thoughts about this topic.


Oct 27 2011

{Day 27} Vegging Out and other Habits of Distraction

Over the past month of considering contemplative living, I’ve invited you to reflect on your activities and start to make cause and effect connections. I would imagine that you’ve discovered that some activities encourage your intention to pay attention to the present moment, and some distract, escape, or numb you–heart, mind or spirit–to now.

Anything can be used as a distraction to contemplative attention. As I suggested in an earlier post, sometimes the present moment is simply too much and we have a desire to take shelter, to feel safe or “get our mind off” something. It’s an understandable response and often a self-protective skill.

Today, I’d like for you to consider that response without judgment.

When used occasionally, sheltering activities are often enjoyable and allow us to relax. But they can over time and practice, become habits of distraction. Then, whenever the troublesome feeling or weariness or need to escape arises, we distract ourselves. Rather than exploring, gently and patiently, what may be the cause of the unpleasant emotions or thoughts or physical feeling, we choose to focus attention elsewhere.  I have a theory that people who are drawn to contemplative living often face stronger temptations to escape the present moment.

Let me offer an example from my own life of how a common activity can easily become a distraction from the present moment.

I’ve always loved stories–I easily get caught up in them. I’m also an introvert. For me, screen media offers the enjoyment of adventure, people, places, ideas, and relationships, all from the safety of my own desk. I need only watch.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a growing conviction of mine that screen media had encroached upon my ability to pay attention to reading, academic study, and people around me. I had given away my TV years ago, but found that the time I was spending via the internet, involved in the story lives of so many characters were taking a toll. I was no longer simply enjoying the experience, but using the screen stories to distract myself from dealing with my own life. At one point, I asked God about some of my struggles with living a contemplative life and his response was clearly, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”

What it took, initially, was a 40 day fast from all screen media. I told my dear friend Kimberlee and asked her to hold me accountable. For good measure, I put internet blocks on websites like Hulu and cancelled my Netflix account.

The first week was difficult, especially when I was tired. At one point, I found myself pacing my apartment, wanting to escape the silence, wanting desperately to get lost in a story.

What God showed me is that these stories were only a substitute to deeply paying attention to my own.

By the second week, I found my thinking clearer and the sense of resistance that I’d always felt, but could never figure out its cause, disappeared. Everything seemed more real. I had more mental and emotional energy.

Rather than getting lost in a story, I sat with what I was feeling or thinking. Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

Or I simply rested, since most often the desire to watch a show or movie came when I was weary.

After the initial 40 days, I completed two more 40 day periods.  It didn’t become a permanent change in my life, but I did learn to stay in the moment more often than escaping. I’m currently allowing myself some screen media each week, but very aware that (for me) it is just shy of becoming a distracting activity again. I will most likely be doing another fast for the 40 days of (Celtic) Advent.

What is important about paying attention to our distractions is that, while anything can become a distraction, nothing really is. Just by paying attention to the coping mechanisms you’re using, just by noticing, “Oh, I check my email when I’m craving human interaction,” or “I click over to Facebook when my work starts to bore me,” transforms the distraction into food for contemplative reflection.

Sit with the craving. Sit with the boredom. Let it share its wisdom. Let God meet you exactly where you are.

While the distraction can take you out of the present moment, paying attention to the distraction (and the vulnerability it is masking) brings you right back in.

And, whenever we begin to pay attention, we can asked the question, “Where is God with me right now?”

Practice: You probably already have some ideas about an activity that has become a distraction for you–TV, movies, internet, social network, exercise, shopping, cell phone use, work, a relationship, the list could hold anything.

Choose the one that you are most likely to do when you are tired–the “vegging out” activity.

I invite you to let it go for a time. Instead, sit with your weariness, frustration, sadness, loneliness, whatever it is you’re wanting to leave behind.  Listen to it, don’t leave.

Bring how you are feeling into your conversation with God.


Oct 26 2011

{Day 26} The Contemplative Body, Part 3

The third challenge I find to contemplative awareness and the body (mind, heart, spirit) is that we often continue to do things that we know from past experience will lead to discomfort, pain, or other signs that an activity or behavior is hurtful.

This behavior, often called a besetting sin, is something that we feel powerless to fight against, even with awareness of its consequences.

We know it causes ill-being or dis-ease, but we can’t seem to stop.

And often, too, there is a lot of guilt built up over the years. Lots of should and ought and self-contempt, visions of perfection crumbling into the dust.

Guilt is a terrible motivation for transformation.

Transformation will only happen with love.

And it isn’t your love that’s going to do it.

One of my favorite passages of scripture–a passage that stirs my blood (oh, I can feel it stirring even as I type!) is Revelation 12:10-11:

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.

(I invite you to read it aloud.)

While I’m normally not a person to talk much about an incarnate evil, I have no doubt it exists when I hear the horrible accusations that often fill my thoughts, or hear the stories from so many men and women of their own accusing voices.

There is an Accuser and it’s sole intent is the dismantling of our hope, beauty,  love, and trust. The voice tells us we are failures, not good enough, not lovable, not capable, powerless, ugly, empty, lacking, and worthless. You probably have your own word that the accuser uses at the worst possible moment.

And I think that often our besetting sins are our way of drowning out that voice. We look for some way, any way, to escape.

But let’s look at the rest of this amazing promise:

The Accuser has been hurled down.

And what did it was not the latest self-improvement project or some act of willpower. Willpower has its place, but only when the focus is off ourselves and the besetting sin.

What hurled the Accuser down was the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ who loved us so much that he walked the path of death to life for us. The first love is not our love, but God’s love for us, and experiencing this love, even in the smallest way, changes everything.

The word of our testimony is our response to this Love: small, ordinary stories about how we’ve experienced the Lamb-who-Loves told to our sisters and brothers, friends, parents, co-workers, neighbors, children, spouses. And especially to ourselves. We tell about the Love who, while the Accuser was hurling its accusations to the throne of God, was willing to become human. We tell about the Love who, while we were yet sinners, was willing to die and be raised to Life for us.

And I bring you to the Love of which all other loves speak, the Love which is joy and beauty, and which you have sought in a thousand streets and for which you have wept and clawed your pillow. –Thomas Howard.

Practice: Extend your contemplative attention to your body–heart, mind, and spirit. What are the accusations you hear? What are your besetting behaviors you know are not life-giving? How might they be connected to the accusations?

I invite and encourage you to set them aside and turn your attention elsewhere. I’m sure that you have confessed them over and over.

How and where do you experience love? Soul-sustaining, creative, hope-full love, without any shoulds or oughts. Follow that feeling in your body–feelings, thoughts, memories, and spirit, and bring it into conversation with Jesus Christ. How is God present in your experience of Love?

I invite you to tell a loved one about one small, ordinary experience you’ve had of Jesus’ love.

Artwork by Sieger Koder

 


Oct 25 2011

{Day 25} The Contemplative Body, Part 2

Silent All These Years – Susan Forshey, 2000

In my last post exploring the importance of the body in contemplative living, I suggested that there are three challenges to paying attention to the well-being or ill-being of the body:

  • We are unaware.
  • We are aware, but believe it won’t change; or,
  • We are aware, but feel powerless to change our behavior, even knowing the consequences

In exploring the first challenge, I hope that in the past few days you’ve had an opportunity to notice the ordinary day-to-day sensations surrounding sleeping, eating, working, etc., and are beginning to bring into awareness moments where there is a deeper connection between head, heart, and body; those moments where the disconnect is wide and dizzying; or those moments of waking-up after a period of numbing through media, internet, task surfing, or some other activity done not for itself, but as a distraction.

In each of these cases, the practice is about paying closer attention, but not making huge shifts in your schedule or activities. Just notice.

Even as you sit, reading this blog post, extend your contemplative attention: What is happening in this moment? How does my body feel? How does my spirit feel?

And then ask, Where is God with me in this moment?

We are embodied. Our feelings, thoughts, and the experience of our spiritual aspect are all tied together. While we often split body and spirit, or mind and feelings, in truth, what we are doing, thinking, feeling, and our experience of God in this moment are all filtered through our bodies.

Simply notice the information your body is providing–feelings, thoughts, pain, memories, a sense of well- or ill-being, energy, weariness–and let the Holy Spirit use this information to help you make connections.

The second challenge is more difficult because, while there is awareness, there is also a belief that “this is the new normal.”

The irony of this post is that it’s four days late because of my own wrestling with this challenge. For the past year and half, I’ve gotten cold or flu viruses nearly every month. This past week, the new normal knocked again on my door, forcing me to bed with a fever. But finally, thanks to reflecting on contemplative living and the body, it was a wake-up call to take some action.

I’m fairly slow to give the signals my body sends me any real credence.

The last time I was in the position of listening, dealing with migraines, it took me way too long to seek a solution. I’d adapted as best I could on my own, but finally reached a morning where I said, “God, get me out of the pit I’ve fallen in.” And he did, through the advice of a kind neurologist who also suffered from migraines, I embarked on a new life, never believing that life could change so rapidly for the better.

Before accepting that nothing can change, it’s important to listen.

Of course, the tension in this practice is that the ill-being we’re experiencing might be the new circumstances of our life.

If that is the case, even then, contemplative attention to the body and to God’s presence with us in our embodiment, can help us deal with the circumstances with care and wisdom.

Practice: So, what is your “new normal?” What are the signals of ill-being that your body is communicating? Bring your experience into conversation with God. We often say that we are to be like “little children” in faith. The little persons I know bring their ouwies to a trusted adult for comfort and a kiss. I think God longs for us to do the same.

While discomfort may be overwhelming any other signals, stay with your awareness and see if there is any sense of well-being, joy, anticipation, or hope in other areas of your experience or body.

Is there a possibility of expanding that sense of well-being?

Sometimes discomfort is not simply discomfort. Discomfort can be married to the disappointment, frustration, anger, or exhaustion that comes with it. Being able to sort out the discomfort from everything else can often bring a renewed sense of well-being even in pain.

Is there a possibility of relaxing your body’s tension around your sense of ill-being?

And, finally, are there some possible cause and effect connections?

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