You may not be ready to go on a silent retreat or sit in 20 minutes of meditation, but how about trying a taste? It's easy.
And since it's the season of pumpkin everything, let's try tasting silence through a slice of pumpkin pie!
If you're not a fan of pumpkin pie, think of another food or drink you really enjoy. Now if you have a real slice of pie, great! If not, imagine tasting that first bite. Notice the flavors, texture, and temperature on your tongue.
Allow yourself to savor the next few bites without rushing. What do you notice about the pie (or whatever you're savoring) that you may have missed if you had hurried through each forkful? Food and drink can rarely be savored when speed is involved, the same is true with silence. How do we taste and savor silence? With our ears.
Ready to give it a try?
What do you notice now that you did not notice before you stopped and listened?
Where did certain sounds come from, which ear did you hear them through?
What sound most grabbed your attention?
If in a quiet place, did you notice the sound of your own breathing?
What was it like to do nothing but listen?
How did your mind and the rest of your body respond?
This is being present. It's a meditation practice. And yes, it counts.
True, it's a great way to enter into a silent retreat or centering prayer meditation but if it happens to be the only spiritual practice you consistently engage this week or this month, that's fine! Just taste and see how pausing to listen and savor the sounds around you affect your soul.
You never know, the next time you stop and savor the silence, you, like the prophet Elijah, may hear God's voice in a gentle whisper!
A poem I wrote right after a time of listening prayer six years ago. It recently came to mind as I was thinking about meditation. Meditation can calm the mind. In doing so, perhaps it offers an opportunity for the soul to remind us of what it's known & trusted since we were ages five and one!
God, I pray that Lainey
and Alex come to know
They already do.
Okay God, then I pray they
come to trust
They already do.
help them not to
A poem written in 2013 about what led me to meditation & other contemplative practices years ago.
All my old ways of
finding God kept failing
And one rage-filled
day I stopped trying
Sat down wondering
if I was worth finding
Let go of seeking
and began trusting
Many are the ways
seeming right to a man
I started recalling
My ways kept putting
me in charge of
who the Psalmist
found futile escaping.
After a conversation with a man who said he was only interested in meditation if it led to levitation, I went home and wrote this short poem in the fall of 2013.
A man once asked me
Will meditation lead to levitation?
“I don't think so,” I said,
“I've been trying to rise above
my faults and weaknesses for years!”
One day in silent prayer
on my quest toward the clouds
to touch the face of God
I looked down.
There I saw Jesus
with rolled up shirt-sleeves,
mud up to his elbows
standing in the place I'd just left.
I don't know about levitation
but meditation led me back to the sod,
for in the place of fault and weakness
I saw the face of God.
If the image of traffic was too stressful for you last week, here's a gentler way of viewing the distractions that arise during our time of meditation. You'll especially like this image if you are a fan of fall (like I am)!
Picture each distraction, whether it's an external noise or an internal thought, feeling, memory, image, or bodily sensation, as leaves floating down your stream of consciousness.
As we close or lower our eyes in meditation, we turn our attention from engaging what is going on outside of ourselves to an awareness of what is going on inside of ourselves. And guess what? There's usually plenty going on! Should we be surprised?! Besides the movie reel of images, here's a peek at what floats down the stream of my consciousness:
This quiet is so nice!
Is that a leaf-blower?
I need to figure out how to...
I need to email ____, ____, and ____ as soon as I'm done with meditation.
I forgot to drop that card in the mail!
Yes, that's what I'm going to fix for dinner.
Oh, that's how I can do...
Am I breathing deeply?
Why do I feel anxiety right now?
I need to get that event on the calendar.
Should I scratch that itch on my face or wait until it goes away?
I am still angry about what happened last week!
I wonder what they thought about what I said.
He had such a great idea, I'd never thought of that before!
Here's an idea as to how to open that class...perfect.
Why didn't I think of that last week?
That author's theology is way off...
This theological issue is a tough one...
I need to get snacks for the baseball game tonight.
I need to use the restroom, should I just wait or pause the meditation timer?
I'm really enjoying the changing shadows and light from the sun through the trees.
She's really hurting, how can I help her more?
Why didn't she text me back?
My hands feel hot, wonder what that means.
I'm still laughing about what he said.
Why can't I be more peaceful today?
I'm not good at meditation at all!
I should be better at meditation given I'm a teacher of it!
I just felt completely calm for a minute there.
Why can't I have more than a minute of my mind at rest?
And that's just a peek at one 20-minute session of Centering Prayer!
Now some days I let those thoughts, feelings, images, and bodily sensations just float on down the stream of consciousness.
But other days I lean over and pick a leaf out of the stream and begin examining it! Pretty soon, I've left the present moment of calm awareness and am meditating on and mulling over whatever that particular thought or feeling presented.
In that moment, instead of consenting to God's presence and action in my life, I've picked up control again! I'm running back to the past or into the future. My ego mind does not believe I have time for meditation. It does not trust I can survive (or perhaps the deeper issue is it doesn't feel I will be loved) without doing, planning, figuring out, being hyper-vigilant about, actively seeking a solution to, or at least evaluating how I am doing with something...even if it's meditation!
When I become aware that I've left the time of calm awareness and consent (sometimes it takes a few moments before I notice), the noticing itself acts as a release. Setting that leaf back down in the stream, I often "come home" to being with God by gently saying a sacred word. This sacred word or phrase might be Love, Jesus, Peace, Breathe, Thank You, Be Still... For me, my sacred word happens to be Home. This word grew out of a year of reflecting on the Prodigal Son and my own mind's tendency to run away. Other times I "come home" by listening to the sounds in the room or even my own breathing.
My practice looks different every day. The stream may be pretty crowded with leaves while other times I am aware of just a few floating gently by. Some days I find myself leaning over and picking up leaf after leaf. Other days I find there are only a couple of leaves grabbing my attention.
No matter! The leaves and what I do or don't do with them don't represent success or failure (such evaluation is an ego/conceptual mind game!). This is just how my practice looked on a particular day. I may have had forty-seven opportunities to come home again...what a grace! Or, I may have received the gift of contemplation. Resting in front of the deep hearth within, gazing out the window at the beautiful fall leaves floating downstream.
Once you close or lower your eyes during your time of meditation, you're bound to deal with inner traffic! What are you to do?
Do you yell at it for existing?
Just as you wouldn't literally stand on a sidewalk and yell at traffic for existing (although sometimes it's tempting), there's no need to yell at the traffic within you for being there! It's simply doing what it normally does. Having inner noise with it's plethora of racing and honking is part of being human.
Do you run out into it?
We tell kids not to! However, sometimes in meditation it may indeed feel like we're caught up in a dizzying array of thoughts and feelings whizzing past us or we're trapped in the middle of a traffic jam with no way out!
Whether it feels like there's no way out or you've got internal vertigo, allow yourself to come back to center through your body. You might gently return your attention to your breath, listen to the sounds in the room, relax your eyes, or ever-so-lightly correct your posture by dropping your shoulders or straightening your slumped spine. Very simple body awareness can return us to a state of noticing the traffic rather than being one with it!
Do you try to jump in one of the cars or climb on the bus?
If it's moving, it can be especially dangerous! Whether parked or already in motion, during meditation this is what is called "finding yourself engaged in a thought or feeling". At this point you've not just noticed the cars moving across the highway of your consciousness, someone yelled out the window inviting you to hop on in and the next thing you know, you're in the passenger's seat! You may have even taken the wheel!
No worries, though. You're not being forced to go anywhere against your will! Simply return to your sacred word (if engaging Centering Prayer), your calming/meditative image, your breath, or what you hear in the room. You may find yourself doing this again and again, during your time of meditation, especially when traffic is heavy! That's okay. Each time you do, you freely choose the way of life by coming back to the present moment rather than speeding off into the future or heading back to the past.
When it comes to inner traffic, meditation invites us to simply be aware of it.
Let each taxi, moped, jeep, and minivan come and go. Know that some days or times of day you may be in the middle of rush hour. Other days may be lighter traffic. Some vehicles may take longer to drive by than others. No need to lose heart. God's love is boundless, encompassing you and every thought, feeling and bodily sensation that arises, endures, and passes away. And there is nowhere these cars, trucks, vans or buses can take you that God is not!
One day last week, I had just begun my twenty minutes of silent meditation, known as Centering Prayer, when I began to hear the sound of a synthesizer from 1986.
Not long after, I heard the voice of El DeBarge sing out, "Who's Johnny? she said and smiled in her special way..."
I was not smiling.
I couldn't even remember the last time I heard this song. Maybe you can't either. For a refresher, I've posted the video below so you can better imagine this scene with me...go ahead, have it playing while you continue to read. I certainly didn't expect to hear it during my time of Centering Prayer!
My husband had no idea I was downstairs in silent meditation. I had no idea why he was listening to El DeBarge in the room beside me (especially early in the morning)! I was just about to yell, "Hey, what in the world are you doing? I'm in the middle of centering prayer!" when suddenly I remembered some words from author and former Trappist monk, James Finley.
I had been reading his book, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God and he repeatedly addresses external and internal distractions that occur during silent meditation. When they come (as they always have and always will because we're human), Finley advises that we:
Here was an excellent opportunity to enter more deeply into Finley's words and into my meditation practice! So I internally gave El DeBarge permission to endure and returned to an inner meditative awareness. What was I aware of inside? It certainly wasn't a peaceful calm! It was anger and annoyance!
I wanted to yell out, "Hey! Enough of El DeBarge already!" Perhaps a deeper, inner curiosity won out because rather than resist them, I decided to allow my feelings of anger and annoyance to arise, endure, and pass away. They endured a long time.
When the feelings did pass, a thought took their place. This thought pointed out how much I want (even demand) things to go my way...or else! I expected silence with no distractions for 20 minutes and the moment I did not get what I wanted, my anger surged to the surface!
I don't know about you, but when I have an expectation, I tend to expect it to turn out like I envisioned (perfectly). And if it doesn't, I just know it will be ruined (or at least that's how my thinking goes). Have you ever considered how much you internally (or externally) demand things go your way? One of the benefits of meditation is one becomes more aware of things like this!
Though insightful, this thought wanted me to cling to it and spend time mulling it over, perhaps devise a plan for transformation or soak in shame. Instead my time of meditation was inviting me to let ALL arise, endure, and pass away. In specific Centering Prayer language, the moment I notice I'm engaged with (clinging to) the thought, I gently return to my sacred word, the symbol of my intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
Entrusting all of my responses and reactions (and plans for transformation) into God's hands, I allowed myself to return to the deepest truth offered in the present moment--I am fully loved by God just as I am. The humbling thought about my expectations eventually passed away and there was a brief calm (but even that is not to be clung to!).
I would like to say I continued to neither cling to nor resist any distraction, that I allowed every external sound and internal feeling, thought, memory and bodily sensation to arise, endure, and pass away. BUT, half-way through Scritti Politti singing their 1985 hit, "Perfect Way"...
Can you recall a moment of synchronicity?
"Meaningful coincidences" or moments connected by meaning and means not of your own making? When it happens (or at least when I notice), I cannot help but sense that Something is seeing me and something is being communicated. A word, image, or subject matter is repeatedly offered in a variety of ways (unexpected conversations, dreams, nature, ordinary events, extraordinary events, etc.). When synchronicity occurs, I take it as an invitation from God to pay attention. In my own life, it's often a call to grow (consciously) or a signal that growth is occurring (unconsciously).
I had a moment of synchronicity last week.
On Tuesday, I mentioned Fowler's Stages of Faith Development in relation to listening to the Holy Spirit, so it was fresh on my mind a day later when I headed to Congregation Ohabai Sholom with a friend for a 4-week class on The Heart of Jewish Meditation & Spirituality taught by Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Although we had missed the first week, unbeknownst to me, the discussion for the second week was mystical Judaism's 5 Levels of Consciousness! These levels are based on the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and walk one through the deepening levels of relationship with/to God...the exact subject material of my latest blog!
Clearly I was to step further into the stages of spiritual growth! So I'm paying attention, perhaps you're beckoned to pay attention, too.
Just as I briefly shared about Fowler's stages, I'll briefly go over the Levels of Consciousness as I understood them in class.
The 5 (Ascending) Levels of Consciousness:
5. Yechida (Spirit) Singularity, pure Soul/God, no barriers between "I-Thou"
4. Chayah (Soul) "Spacious mind," connected to everyone/everything in the Universe, Truth is beyond ideology, more justice & humility expecting nothing in return, no self-seeking, Higher Self, non-dualism, "I and Thou"
3. Neshamah (Mind) "Narrow mind," ego, survival, intellectual comprehension, identity, spirituality reflects back ego/tribalism, "What's in it for me or my group?", dualism, "I-it"
2. Ruach (Heart) Emotions and "spirit" of person, personality
1. Nefesh (Body) Animal existence- breathing, eating, sleeping, walking around
Just as each of Fowler's stages of faith development are necessary, so too, are the 5 levels of consciousness. While the level of Nefesh or body-consciousness is the lowest level, that does not mean it is to be denigrated. After all, we need a body! Rabbi Rami asks us to consider, "Which [level] is calling right now?" If it's the body level, please tend to the body!
The point of the levels is to remind us that we're beckoned to grow beyond simple existence and emotions. At some point in time, we're also beckoned to grow beyond our own ego and tribe. In fact, authentic spiritual practice will always seek to move us from Neshamah to Chayah or from "narrow mind" to "spacious mind." Rabbi Rami describes narrow mind as "seeing the self as separate from and often in conflict with the world and God." And spacious mind he describes as "seeing the self and other as part of a greater wholeness we call God."
In my Christian experience, a lot of Christian reading, teaching and preaching tends to keep people in the Neshamah level or the realm of ego and tribal identity. This can be seen in viewing Christianity as the one right religion (or even narrower, one denomination as the truest or most orthodox) and celebrating being on the "winning side." It's the belief that Christian music is the only music a Christian should listen to. It can also be seen in people's image of God, often a masculine Being resembling the Greek god, Zeus. Remember, such concrete, dualistic thinking whether described by Neshamah or Fowler's "Mythic-Literal or "Conventional-Synthetic," is a necessary stage or level, but it's not the ending point.
Confused? Wondering what spiritual practices can help you shift from Neshamah to Chayah (or move from narrow mind to spacious mind)? Well, they will not look the same for everyone! This is why a spiritual director can be such a helpful companion on your journey. Plus our ego-minds are masters at using religious language to trap us in Neshamah when it's time for us to grow (we are not apt to see it on our own). This is why I have my own spiritual director!
By the way, Rabbi Rami says there are no ways or practices to move from Chayah to Yechida, it is simply pure grace. I'm not surprised, Chayah gets us out of our own way, preparing the way for Yechida, the highest level of consciousness characterized by non-dualism and Union with the Divine. This should resonate with those who practice Centering Prayer, the silent prayer of consent which prepares one for the gift of contemplative prayer or resting in God. If/when one ever gets to taste Yechida, can you guess what the earmark is? Pure Love. Of God and neighbor. Sound familiar?
Next week: More Synchronicity to Share & The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) as a Breath Prayer
It's your turn. You step up to the plate and get ready for the pitch.
How do you hold the bat? Are you gripping it tightly?
My son's first season of Little League just ended and I watched the kids step up to the plate one by one with bat in hand. Most clutched it with all of their might, hoping to get a hit. And isn't it easy to see why a death grip might translate into a better chance to make contact with the ball?
The truth is, it doesn't.
Don't believe me? Watch the below video by Don Mattingly, MLB player, coach and manager. In holding the bat loosely, a batter has a better opportunity to not only hit the ball, but increase their bat speed. In other words, with less effort, they hit it harder and farther! Isn't that a paradox?!
We tend to have a death grip on all of life.
Harder equals better, so we think. This is especially true of the spiritual life...so much efforting. For many of us, we try really hard. If we don't get the results we want, we try harder. Our tendency can be to believe the more Scripture we read or the more we pray, the better Christians we'll be or the more God will love us. Instead we just add spiritual practices to our list of compulsions. We white-knuckle spiritual disciplines like we do people and other parts of our lives, hoping that in doing so we'll have more control and favorable outcomes.
Thomas Keating once said, "When we do less, God can act." He wasn't advocating lack of practice (it's still important for 6-year-olds to practice baseball skills!). The difference is in how and what we are practicing. Are we stepping up to the plate and squeezing the life out of the bat over and over again hoping for a different outcome? Or are we holding the bat loosely trusting that when the ball comes, we'll have the strength and power we need? Keating was inviting people into Centering Prayer, a way of prayer that seems counter to our way of life...being still in silence.
What if we relaxed our grip a bit? What if we practiced holding all things (and people) loosely? This kind of paradox-holding may be the spiritual exercise you need today. So whatever the practices are that help you release your stranglehold on life, those are the spiritual practices for you right now.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.