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"...
Who are you not being or what are you not doing because you fear how you will appear in the eyes of others?
What reputation are you trying to uphold?
I've spent tons of energy on my good, Christian girl image for as long as I can remember.
And being in ministry my whole adult life has not provided relief. At times, this has intensified the inner critic that reminds me that I have a reputation as a Christian leader and spiritual guide to uphold.
Quite frankly, I've given way too much thought as to how things like changing my theological stances to not-every-Sunday-church-attendance affect my reputation (case in point, I just gave way too much thought in writing this sentence!).
I have often chosen rule-following over following my heart. And the many times I have boldly followed the still, small voice within, my inner critic who abides there as well, has often stolen, killed, and destroyed the freedom found in the following. Fearing outer criticism causes such unnecessary inner turmoil!
Some say we begin to care what other people think in middle school.
My daughter started middle school this year. She told my husband and I that she wanted us both to be at the bus stop with her. I thought after the first day or two she would probably like us to remain at a safe distance. I was wrong.
She wants us there everyday and even wants a hug before she climbs into the bus! Part of me loves this. And I have to admit, even though she feels not a hint of embarrassment, a part of me feels a twinge of it for her as I see the other middle schoolers looking out the window of a full bus. Maybe I'm feeling over-protective (if she won't protect her image, I will!) or maybe it's the middle school girl in me still caring what others think. Why risk it?
One morning last week I sat at the kitchen table after an all-night headache with little sleep. I told her, "Your dad will have to go with you to the bus stop, I don't think you'll want me along." She said, "Why not?" I said, "Look at me, I'm still in my pajamas!" She replied, "You had a hard night, of course you are, but I don't care, it's not like I have a reputation I need to defend!"
I looked at her bewildered. Have I ever not thought I had a reputation I needed to defend?!
Then I held up my hand and said, "You need a high-five because you'll be good to go if you can keep that sentiment through middle school." She laughed. Oh the freedom to authentically be who you are and do what your heart desires no matter what others think!
We both walked her to the bus stop (although I did change out of my pajamas).
After she climbed on the bus, I looked at my husband and said, "Who is that child?" Then I told him how her response immediately ambushed my weary heart, speaking into my own life of places where I've been overly concerned about how I appear in the eyes of others.
If a middle school girl can wholeheartedly choose what is inside over what others think of her on the outside, then perhaps I can, too. Oh the freedom! God knows it's time.
By the way, the next morning she pointed to us and said, "I may not have a reputation to defend, but let's not do this again!" We had unknowingly put on matching t-shirts to walk her to the bus stop! I appreciated her authenticity. Both of us cringed as the bus drove past.
More than I thought.
In 2009 I had emergency back surgery for a ruptured disc that caused the worst nerve pain I have ever felt...paralyzing lightning down my leg and out my right toes leaving me screaming.
After the surgery, I'd hoped the muscle pain and sciatica I had experienced on and off since high school would finally be gone...it wasn't. I did physical therapy (having already done chiropractic). Again I was hopeful...it didn't help.
Whenever the pain would hit, I'd chalk it up to accidentally bending or twisting and tweaking an old basketball injury. It would have me either in bed or on the floor with my feet up on the couch for days. I thought my active life of hiking and carrying stuff (like my own little girl) was over. I (& those around me) started treating my back gingerly, making sure I did not lift or do anything that could trigger that familiar shooting pain. You can imagine what I looked like whenever I walked and sat down or did anything that included my back (amazing how much does!).
One night at a breathwork class, after observing me, the instructor told me to read John Sarno's The Mindbody Prescription, saying it would help. I thought this was laughable. I'd undergone the knife and physical therapy, how could a book help? Undeterred she told me how it had helped a friend with my kind of pain. At the end of our time she said, "You're so young, I just don't want you to be in pain the rest of your life." What did I have to lose? I read it.
I haven't been on the floor or in bed due to back pain since. Seriously. That was 8 years ago!
Over the past eight years, beginning with that book, I've learned three things:
My physical self is interconnected with all other parts of myself. How I am spiritually affects how I am emotionally which affects how I am physically and all can affect how I am relationally. What's happening relationally can affect how I am mentally and emotionally and physically and so on. If we choose to dissect and isolate any of these when we have dis-ease or pain in any given area, we miss ways of healing that come when we consider the whole of us.
A lifetime of being a "good girl" coupled with perfectionism affected my body. It led to the suppression of anger and other unwanted feelings which finally erupted in physical pain. My unconscious thought physical pain a better choice than emotional pain. Locating an old area of injury and a socially acceptable place of pain (back pain is what ulcers used to be!), that's what it chose. It's interesting the games our minds can play (thinking that they're helping us)!
Seeing God as a Divine Task-Master perpetuated my good girl-perfectionist cycle. Since we become like the God we adore (as I mentioned in last week's post), my inner critics had no problem replicating this God-like perpetual drivenness to accomplish and improve. Be better. Try harder. Be (or at least act) perfect. And it's no surprise that snippets of Scripture would often run through my mind to back up these "commands"! Anytime I fell short, which of course I did since I'm human, I took the feelings of anger and shame and stuffed them. Eventually my body would no longer "play these reindeer games" (it began warning me in junior high but it took me a long time before I would or knew how to listen!).
Now my body is my friend. I view it as part of the whole. It tells me the truth. When I feel nerve pain begin in my toe, I know that if I don't tend to what feelings are running under the surface, it will soon start in my back. My God-created body has invited me to not only reflect on my God-created emotions but even my image of God. As my image of God has undergone healing and transformation, guess what? It's affected my mind, emotions, relationships, and yes, my body. Thank God for that gift of back pain.
This week's post, Trading Daily Quiet Time Guilt for Pots & Pans somehow posted last week. Now normally this would cause me to scurry to find a way to fix it or beat myself up for it happening at all.
Is it it even a big deal? No. But my internal critic doesn't differentiate.
However, I surprised myself. After an initial, "Oh, that's not what I wanted to happen," I let it be. Hallelujah! I think that response deserves it's own post.
I'm in the midst of trading perfection for serenity. Small step by small step. One day at a time.
There's a little phrase in the extended well-known Serenity Prayer that I spent a lot of time with last year at the suggestion of my spiritual director who noticed my constant pursuit (and exhaustion) of doing/being better. See, my internal critics (or rather my whole family of internal critics) think they're helping me by constantly bombarding my mind with their own version of the Lowe's motto, "Never Stop Improving."
Here's the thing: these critical parts want me to be happy. So they tirelessly work to search, compare, and judge to find the perfect standard then work tirelessly to reach it. They think that if/when I reach that standard, I'll be happy. Here's the problem: Perfection in this world isn't possible.
Now being over forty and a spiritual director, you'd think I would've figured out by now how to give up the pursuit. But just as it is in the life of those I work with in spirtiual direction, it continues to be a step-by-step, part-by-part journey of transformation for me as well.
"How about being reasonably happy?" asked Sister Maria one morning last year, "Are you?"
I briefly thought before answering this Sister of Mercy, "Yes, I am!" Both of us smiling she said, "Well how about trying that instead? Read the extended Serenity Prayer," she counseled. So I spent the better part of a year with it.
As I've prayerfully introduced the extended prayer and its whole "reasonably happy" idea, s-l-o-w-l-y my inner critics have started to give up their former jobs and trust that being "reasonably happy" is all that is needed (and expected). So now whenever I'm upset about the way something has turned/is turning out and I'm in a perfectionistic snit, I say to myself, "It's not perfect but are you reasonably happy with it?" The answer has always been "yes" and the moment I surrender perfection, I immediately feel relaxed in body and mind.
As a spiritual director I cannot help but invite people to befriend their humanity and extend grace to themselves during times of "failure," both large and small. I watch and listen, just waiting with them to see how the Holy Spirit is working/will work in and through all the mess and imperfection for their good (as Saint Paul reminds us in Romans 8:28).
How grateful I am that my blog post didn't go as planned! I was offered yet another reminder of serenity. AND the bonus of an invitation to you. If you happen to see me flailing, drowning in perfectionism, don't hesitate to say these two words: "reasonably happy." My inner critics and I will thank you.
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.