Embrace the Return

Embrace the return

On any particular day, if you looked at the minutes of my mind on a bar chart, you would be startled.

Much of the day, my mind is absorbed with meandering thoughts about tasks, details, to-do lists, whether to check email (again), and other minutia. When I stop to look, I see that a lot of my thoughts are a list of worries, real and imagined. My worry list creates a background radiation of low-grade anxiety that colors my day.

I don’t spend much time in the present.

I have moments of recognition when I pull my attention out of the chattering thought-stream and remember the larger context – remember that I started the day with an intention to remain conscious and open, or that my list of tasks is not as important as my state of being, or simply that I am connected to Spirit.

My attention oscillates back and forth throughout the day between attending to details and expanding into the larger context. We could call these two states worry mind and big mind. When I look at the daily bar chart of time spent in both, I can easily become aghast, but judging it as wrong is a mistake (it would just give my worry mind something new to worry about). My worry mind is only doing what it has been trained to do. I can train it to do something different, but not by scolding.

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Life Is Not a Problem to Be Hacked

Like everyone, I want things to be easy. There’s no need to make life hard if there’s a smarter way to do things.

I’m always looking for tips, like Hints from Heloise:  freeing a sticky zipper with a graphite pencil, or putting newspaper at the bottom of a trash bag to collect the drippings (do people still use pencils, or newspapers, or read Hints from Heloise?)

But modern life has made things so convenient, we’ve come to expect that every frustration must have a secret tip that would sweep it away. We’ve been trained to expect our lives to be frictionless, an expectation that magnifies each irritation as a surprising anomaly. So many things are so easy, we have become addicted to convenience, despite the fact that life is often inherently inconvenient.

A whole industry has dedicated itself to providing life hacks, those quick and easy steps that let us jump the line over the daily toils of living. Don’t want to eat healthy and move your body? Take this supplement that burns belly fat. Don’t want to discipline your spending habits? Download this easy plan for growing rich.

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Spiritual Practice Is an Exercise in Surrender

Spiritual practice is an exercise in surrender

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Viktor Frankl

I want to grow.

I want to progress on my path of spiritual development. I want to be a better person. I want to connect more deeply with Spirit. And I want to prove that I am up to the challenge, that I am worthy of such noble goals.

But I have a nagging feeling that something about my desire is getting in the way. My effort has a quality of striving, an overreaching that feels out of balance.

Through my life experience, I’ve trained myself to pursue my goals with perseverance. I see something I want, I make a plan, and I take actions that move me toward my goal. When things get tough, I don’t stop, I push harder. And for many aspects of my life, this works. I am able to get the things I want and I feel good.

But spiritual growth doesn’t work like that because it’s not about achieving something I don’t have. It doesn’t make me worthy. It isn’t what connects me to Spirit. It reveals what is already present:  my inherent goodness, my radiant beauty, my ever-drenching immersion with the Cosmos.

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From Unity to Separation to Unity

The spiritual journey goes from unity to separation to unity

I want to let the false narratives, the tired stories I’ve told myself about myself, to fall away. I want to touch my true nature, the core that holds my inherent goodness and connects me to the Cosmos, and let it shine.

That’s what the spiritual journey does. And when it hits the sweet spot, it takes me to a mountaintop where I can see farther and feel deeper. I am changed for having walked the miles below.

But if it’s so good, why is this journey so hard? If my spiritual desire is so strong, why am I constantly knocked off the path by the problems, challenges, and distractions of daily life?

Maybe it’s because the spiritual journey is embedded in the physical journey. Maybe we don’t walk the path to escape the woes of the physical world, maybe the physical and the spiritual are woven into the path together, interdependent vehicles that enhance each other so that our walking takes us naturally from unity, through separation, and back to unity.

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The Promise of Practice

The Proven Value of Contemplative Practice

My day is full. And so is my mind.

I’m occupied with tasks, activities, frustrations, conversations, appointments, phone calls, and all the thoughts, feelings, speculations, and memories that come along for the ride. I handle these with a normal, everyday level of awareness that seems to do just fine. But the pressured pace of skimming from item to item can leave me feeling scattered and brittle.  

A contemplative practice offers me a chance to step off the hamster wheel, reflect, and build capacities that reconnect me to the depth of who I am and what I care about.

There are proven benefits to slowing down and learning to direct and sustain my attention. The list of enduring traits linked to a regular meditation practice include lower blood pressure, decreased inflammation, a healthier immune response, optimized telomere function (which slows aging), a stronger ability to focus, less reactivity, reduced anxiety and depression, more empathy for others, and an increased sense of well-being. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson review this remarkable body of research in their book, “Altered States, Altered Traits.”

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Living Life With an Open Window

I spend too much energy trying to curate my experience, as if I could choreograph my days to linger over the pleasures and hurry past the disappointments.

This is perfectly understandable. Our human tendency to shy away from discomfort and gravitate toward pleasure is universal. But blindly following this instinctual drive has a cost.

It lessens my contact with the world by building a shell between me and the throb and pulse of life. It decreases my sensitivity to the full reality of the objects, events and people that show up around me. It fosters a false belief that I can distance myself from what I don’t like and embrace only the sweetness of things.

Over time, it distorts my perception, stunting my perspective like a sapling bent by the wind. It programs my antennae to look for threats and predisposes me to judge each experience according to my preferences, directing me to approach or avoid.

There is a different way to be.

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Stumbling Mystic Podcast – The Inner Dimensions of Spiritual Practice

It seems like the demands of work and the pace of technology are ever-increasing, adding pressure to accomplish more, process faster, and run madly just to stay ahead of the game.

A spiritual practice with a contemplative component slows the pace of daily living. If we can lift our awareness out of the fog and flailing of activity, we can attune to the dimensions of life that are resting just below the surface. The key to practice is to make it a habit so that its qualities can permeate.

Choosing spiritual practices that work for us is a personal decision. My conversations in this week’s episode show a variety of approaches to practice, including:

  • Differing views on whether meditation is “mandatory” for modern mystics;

  • How to use the body as the grounding vehicle for practice;

  • Use of a tantric sexual practice to circulate energy within the body;

  • Practicing in nature as a way to restore strength and balance;

  • Service as a spiritual practice;

  • Songwriting as a spiritual practice.

You can listen below to Episode 5 of the Stumbling Mystic Podcast, “The Inner Dimensions of Spiritual Practice.” Or, visit the podcast page, or listen on your favorite podcast platform.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Wise Words – We Are All Creators

As spiritual seekers, we are all creators.

“The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”

Robert Henri

It’s funny, but I don’t think this quote is about art. It’s about the larger container that holds art but holds everything else as well.

When I sit down to write, I try to settle into a relaxed state that is connected to Spirit and open to guidance. If I don’t drop into this space, I am writing from a part of my brain that feels like the thin outer shell of who I am. The words might be organized, articulate, well-informed, they might even sound good, but the writing isn’t coming from the truth. At some level, it isn’t honest.

To drop into this state, I have to let go of my expectations about what my writing should be. I have to face and walk through the fear that my writing will expose me as idealistic, deluded, ego-inflated, or just plain silly. When I can do that, my consciousness shifts, and I enter the “wonderful state” Robert Henri is talking about. And then I can write.

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Cultivate a Calm and Healing Presence

I know people who can walk into a room and bring a sense of calm. Others might be nervous or upset, but these people seem to bring a peaceful presence just by showing up. 

I want to be more like them.

If I’m agitated, other people pick can up on my emotions and become agitated too. We humans tend to do that because we are socially attuned to each other’s moods. Likewise, if I can center myself, others can sense that and become more grounded.

When I’m open enough to listen deeply to someone without agenda or needing to counterpoint or defend, I create a space where they can feel heard, and they are more able to release their need for agenda or counterpoint or defense. Creating a space of deep listening brings the healing quality of connection, but it is not easy to do in stressful conversations.

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Momentary Awakenings

I have momentary awakenings throughout the day. These are not dramatic bolts of enlightenment; they are small moments of expanded awareness when I lift my head from the daily details that absorb my attention and see the world from a broader perspective. I become a witness to my experience as well as the actor in my experience.

These awakenings happen in planned and unplanned ways. When I sit to meditate or pray, I am intentional about settling into my body and opening to my inner and outer surroundings. At other times, the expansion happens spontaneously, when my attention is pulled from the fog of ordinary consciousness by something I hear or notice or remember.

The shift to expanded consciousness brings me into a more intimate contact with the juice, texture, and vibrancy of life. Things feel more intensely real, an intensity that is dimmed when I operate in the fog of ordinary consciousness. This intimacy can be peaceful, a sensation of breathing and merging with direct experience in an exquisite beauty of stillness. But it can also be uncomfortable, bringing up the urge to flee.

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