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"...
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.
Becoming yourself is.
I knew a brilliant young woman who needed to leave professional ministry to become herself.
Her life was on track to eventually earn the title of "Reverend" in a mainstream denomination along with its retirement benefits. The problem was that this denomination was neither a fit nor was the position of senior pastor. After a long season together in spiritual direction, it became clear that while she had given it a valiant effort,
she was living a story that was someone else's, not hers.
When I was in college, there were para-church ministries who planted the idea in students' minds that if you really loved Jesus you would let go of your secular job pursuits and come on staff with them after college.
As an adult, I watch how some believe leaving a "secular" job to go into professional ministry proves how much one loves and is devoted to God and/or the Church. And it's lauded by many, especially when a big pay-cut is involved.
So many gifted scientists, lawyers, business men & women, machinists, musicians, and others have left their "secular" callings because they thought loving Jesus and the Church meant to do so. And it is true, sometimes Jesus does call us to leave one job for another, as he did his ragtag group of fishermen and tax collectors turned disciples. Although notice if he or Paul called the folks who financially supported them to leave their jobs!
The problem lies in labeling jobs "sacred" or "secular," elevating one over the other, and allowing that to become our primary lens for discernment. Guess what happens? People end up in full-time ministry jobs that are an ill-fit (for them and for those around them).
Ever had a pastor who you could tell had a different calling? I once worked for a senior pastor who was a very gifted naturalist. I learned so much about reptiles and plants from him and watched how his face lit up when he talked about creation that every time I listened to him preach or sat in staff meeting, I wished he'd followed his God-given giftings instead!
Remember 16th century Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther? Well after the word "vocation" had been institutionalized to mean full-time church work, he broke it out of the box again by reminding people that since all are called to the "priesthood of believers," all jobs are ministry! Loving Jesus doesn't mean you must leave your job and become a professional missionary or monk. You can be both right where you are!
Read what Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
"...the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks...all are measured before God by faith alone."
...the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks...all are measured before God by faith alone. -Martin Luther, 16th century
Ever witness someone operating out of their giftings? It's as natural and stunning as a sunrise. One year my daughter hated math and the next year she loved it. The difference? She had a teacher gifted in math! Said Saint Basil of Caesarea, "God the Creator has arranged things so that we need each other." Isn't that the truth?! We need creative and compassionate electricians, inventors, counselors, accountants, nurses, yoga instructors, athletes, social workers, childcare providers...their presence changes the world, no matter how big or small.
So how can you begin to identify your vocation? Author Frederick Buechner writes, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Am I ever glad that math teacher didn't go into full-time ministry! Instead she's living out the presence of Christ in the classroom, where so many, like my daughter, need her.
By the way, that young woman I mentioned at the beginning is now in a vocation she loves which has nothing to do with professional ministry. It's a better fit for her (and for this world)!
Glory be to God.
Like a blazing sun your light shines...
my fears flee from your sight,
your fire consumes them.
Yesterday was my daughter's birthday.
An eclipse-chasing friend of ours in Seattle has been reminding us of this epic birthday since we first announced we were moving to Tennessee.
He's most certainly an eclipse prophet, for it absolutely lived up to all the hype he continually forecasted for 9 1/2 years!
Given it's the day after, you've already proclaimed, heard, or read the descriptions like unbelievable, beautiful, incredible, amazing, epic...
And having a birthday fall on the eclipse was a once-in-a-life-time event. But the scene I want to recall isn't about my daughter's "totality" cool birthday, but my 7-year-old son's experience of totality.
During the partial eclipse we sat on our porch, watching my 11-year-old open some gifts and taking "moon bites" out of cucumber slices then checking the moon's progress to see who guessed correctly. We also read Psalm 21 in Nan Merrill's Psalms for Praying. We couldn't help but laugh as we read verse nine...perfect, even the Psalms were in alignment.
My son was super excited, describing how big of a bite the moon had taken out of the sun, checking NASA's website and announcing when we could see the sun's corona in Oregon. Then 7 minutes away from totality here in the Nashville-area, he melted down in absolute terror.
With the shift in temperature and light, overwhelming fear descended upon him as he became aware that he was about to experience for himself what he had only read or talked about or experienced through the stories of others.
Being in total darkness during the daytime and seeing the diamond ring effect in-person sank into his little mind. He was nearly inconsolable as we all laid down on a blanket in our front yard to look up into the sky through eclipse glasses. All of us were trying to pay attention to the moon while at the same time reassure him. Even as he was being held tightly by his daddy, he was still yelling, "I'm scared, I'm scared!" as the sun and moon approached perfect alignment.
Then totality happened.
We took off our glasses and gazed at a sight so other-worldly that we sat bolt upright. At that very instant, his fears fled just like the Psalmist said they would!
He then proceeded to melt down because after seeing it, he wanted more than a taste (just as the Psalmist said he would)!
As a spiritual director, I witness a similar scene with silent retreats.
People sign up for a silent retreat full of anticipation. It is something unique they have never done before and in this culture it's also very rare (even among Christians). They tell friends and family who laugh or scratch their heads not knowing why someone would pay to go be in silence!
Then the day comes. It's about to become real.
Some are nearly hyperventilating due to anxiety (that's no exaggeration). Getting ready to head into extended silence for the first time brings all kinds of fears to the surface.
Yet at some point, as they slowly sink into the Silence, they begin to align with the Spirit of God within them (who has been there the whole time, holding them even as they've inwardly screamed, "I'm scared! I'm scared!").
Then totality happens.
And this indescribable union with the Beloved sends their fears fleeing.
At the end of the retreat, the very people who were so full of panic at the beginning are now in tears because they want the experience to last longer. They find themselves fumbling to find the words to describe what their tears are already saying...that was epic.
Do you really think
more thinking is
needed right now?
Especially when what
we're dealing with is a
sickness of the mind!
With sad eyes
the soul whispers
“Stop” (as it always has)
Did Saint Paul not say
the same to the good folks
With a humble heart
(admitting the -ism
existing in yourself)
sit in Silence
Without mistaking such
Silence for absence
or worse, indifference!
The soul knows
how to wait
for salvation from
And do you remember
Jesus speaking to his disciples--
What does it take for some
demonic powers to leave?
Prayer and fasting.
then close your lips and listen.
Until clenched fists open
until anxiety and anger
slip through your fingers
Until you receive
in your now-ready head,
heart, and hands
that which you are to give
for the healing of this,
What would you call a man who shovels his driveway in a blizzard?
How often I am like that man!
Any season of the year, I can be caught with my proverbial shovel in hand.
This morning I'm thinking back to another man.
A farmer who was also a pastor of one church and a handyman for another.
Keep this fact in mind.
He used to begin his mornings sitting in the dark, seated at a table in silence (or I began my mornings seeing him seated in the dark at a table in silence).
Only a coffee mug close at hand.
The first time he startled me. Six in the morning. I was in the building earlier than any other staff member (I had thought). Certainly not expecting to see the shadow of
someone in the side room!
But soon I became accustomed to him sipping his coffee with the lights out. Not moving until the sun came through the window. I came early with an armload and head-full of work to get to, I had no time to sit and stare.
Rumor among our large staff was that he was lazy. They, too, would see him sitting while they rushed in and out of their daily blizzard of ministry activity. Who had time for such an outlandish thing?
One day I stopped and asked him what he did in the silent darkness of the church basement.
He smiled and after taking a sip said,
"I wait and let the pieces fall into place for the day."
It's the first day of middle school for my daughter.
In June, a handful of 6th grade girls met in my living room for their first summer prayer group. The practice I had picked out for them was a prayer inviting them to receive God's love through the person who loves them most (I wrote about the practice in an earlier post).
When they closed their eyes, I told them to bring a person who loves them most to mind and consider what special gift that person offers them. Then after they silently expressed gratitude for that person, I asked them if they could receive that this person is a "face of God." And the way this person loves them is the very way God was offering them love right that moment! After a few more moments in silence, they spent some time journaling and then we opened the time for sharing.
Guess what? The special gift of the people that came to each of their minds was the same!
This should offer us some insight.
What was the gift? How was God wanting to love them? Through playfulness and humor!
Was this your image of God in middle school? Is this part of your image of God now?
Yet it is the very image that God, the Originator of Playfulness and Creator of Humor, wanted to share with them. It makes sense too, doesn't it? They (and their parents) will need tons of playfulness and a life-giving sense of humor as they enter and seek to survive middle school!
And on this morning, God has not disappointed. The person my daughter brought to mind in June, her little brother, had her giggling with his silliness and the way he accidentally swapped words around when he said, "The mow looks perfectly yarded!" She laughed all the way to the bus stop.
I could not have asked for a better way to begin her first day of middle school.
It was the perfect reminder to her nervous parents that the playful, humorous God was near.
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.