Monday, June 30, 2008

Playing With God

Folks take God quite seriously. Or rather, we take seriously our versions of God. We work diligently to shrink this vast Mystery into a box we can hold in our hand, and mistake the box for the Essence itself. But we don’t stop there. We obsessively begin to embellish this box with designs of our own nature, and before we know it, even the box~a poor substitute itself~ becomes obscured by our ornamentation. This time, we confuse our artwork for the real thing. And yet another layer stands between us and the Divine.

This predilection to reduce the irreducible is simply the way we humans are wired. Our brains, well-suited to the demands of human life, have a penchant to make everything simple and understandable. This tendency is often quite helpful and necessary. Where God is concerned, however, the results are often problematic. At the very least, this process can close us off from the experience of the Mystery. For those with a compulsion to convince others that their vision is the only true one, the results can be disastrous. As I see it, most of the damage done by religions over the eons has been promulgated by people who take their version of God too darn seriously~and insist others do, as well.

My own particular bent encourages me~and you!~to have a bit of fun. To play with God. I begin with acceptance that the Divine is much grander than any box I can construct to contain It. Spirit is larger than I am, larger than I can conceive. With this as my starting point, it becomes easier to relax and to allow into my God experience a sense of play, of fun, of joy.

When I accept that I will never grasp God, it’s easier to hold my beliefs more lightly. It’s natural to honor all faith traditions for the beauty they contain and the face of God they reflect, without needing to prove them true or false. When I'm in this state of mind, the contradictions inherent in life don’t frazzle me as much, because I don’t expect life to conform to my expectations, to reflect my human sensibilities. My own doubts are more easily tolerated. I can experiment with faiths, ideas, and practices, seeking to distill from them something that feels true without the need to explain it all with my rational mind. And I don’t need to take everything, especially my own thoughts, so seriously. Yes, I can play with God.

Years ago, I heard the Indian fable* concerning the reactions of a group of blind folks when a heretofore unknown animal~an elephant~wandered into their midst. The one whose hand ran the length of the animal’s trunk concluded that an elephant was long and tubular, like a snake. A young child who felt one of the massive legs believed an elephant to be upright and sturdy like a tree. A woman, touching the broad expanse of the animal’s side knew an elephant to be large and flat, like a massive wall. Another, stroking a tusk, assumed an elephant was like a spear. A tall man noticing a slight movement of air, reached out to touch an ear and determined an elephant was very much like a fan. And the last, grabbing hold the tail, presumed an elephant to be like a rope.

I’ve always loved this story. Not only does each individual in the fable accept their version of the elephant as true, they are~each one of them~blind even within their own experience! They can’t even totally know their own version!

This fable is used to explain the futility of any of us being able to accurately know God, and as a cautionary tale to not get too carried away with our own beliefs. It certainly helps rein me in when I become full of myself. However, theories and beliefs don’t tend to engage me. I find myself becoming bored and impatient with prolonged discussions of God. My search is not for knowledge about God, but experience of God. This is where play comes in. Whatever brings me an experience of the Divine is fair game, a meaningful play. This approach keeps my spirituality fresh and alive. 

I realize that I am, ultimately, merely describing another piece of the elephant~~my own perception of God. If I were to embellish this fable with my own designs, I’d say that I care not what the elephant looks like. I want to know how it moves.  I yearn to know the thrill of its flank beneath my hand, to I inhale the scent of its leathery skin. I want to be wrapped round by that mighty trunk. And I wish to topple headlong into the abyss hidden within one wise and fathomless elephant eye.

May your own elephant play bring you riches galore!


Loanne Marie

*For a poem based on this fable see Blindmen.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Worry, Epilogue

When I left for vacation, I thought I’d finished my exploration of worry and the anxiety that fuels it. I was wrong. At the very start of my journey, I realized I was merely takin’ it on the road...or to the airways, in this case.

The tiny prop plane I had boarded a few minutes earlier was now buffeted by strong winds zipping down the mountains to our west. There was to be no beverage service on this leg of the journey due to the turbulence. The flight attendant, strapped into her facing seat, sat with her eyes closed; I suspected she was praying. My fellow passengers were eerily quiet.

Although I no longer mind traveling by air, this flight was quite a challenge. I didn’t really believe we’d drop to the ground and burst into flames; other than the occasional stray thought, my attention wasn’t consumed by such pictures. My anxiety, however, was being tossed around with the rest of me.

I knew my emotions were responding to the signals of danger sent by a body and primitive brain structure that had no frame of reference for being bounced about like this a few thousand feet above the ground. I recognized I had a choice~~I could give my panic full sway, or I could opt for a more helpful focus. I chose the latter. I elected to trust in my safety and in the guidance available to me. I also chose to trust that there was a richness offered by this experience I was finding so unpleasant, if only I could meet it halfway. Meet it I did. I asked for help.

Immediately, my mind filled with an impression of a hurricane with its calm center. Not a particularly fresh metaphor, but exactly the one I needed at that moment. I got the message. This image was reminding me that my personal storm could best be dealt with by retreating into its eye.

So I withdrew into the undisturbed midpoint of this inner hurricane, and recognized it as the same spot I find in meditation and other such experiences. For a few seconds, I breathed within a place of stillness and watched the anxiety retreat. Very quickly, though, my balance wavered only slightly, centrifugal force kicked in, and I was thrown back into the tempest again.

But the metaphor continued to serve. I needed only to recall the image to know where I wanted to be. Imagery does that~~it communicates instantaneously, bypassing the slower, and often more entrenched and disagreeable, rational mind. I didn’t need to reason with myself or talk myself into anything. I just knew, and that knowledge seemed to shorten the path back to center. Once safely there again, the stage was set for the process to repeat, as it did many times~~calm, slip, zip, panic, imagine, traverse the path, calm.

Luckily, this was a short flight! Its lesson, however, remains with me. Not all my turbulence is so fierce; the challenge may be as innocuous as a busy brain or attention that meanders. But whether amid a taxing incident or within the quiet of my meditation, the image of the storm with its tranquil eye, continues to speak to me. While this metaphor has three components~~the storm, the eye, and the pathways that connect them~~ I am most cognizant these days of those connecting avenues.

Slipping back into the tempest is such an effortless thing~~that centrifugal force is mighty powerful! I know this is evidence that my balance is still quite precarious~~ one infinitesimal move away from absolute center, and I’m tossed out of Eden, swept into the winds once more.

Returning to the eye takes more finesse. First, I must see that I’ve again been pulled into the storm’s strong currents. This isn’t as easy as one might think~~ I am often zipping about in those blustery winds for quite awhile before I even notice my spinning! Once I’ve got that, I need to also recognize that an eye exists, as well as the pathway to get there. Then, I focus my eye on the eye, knit my intentions together, and choose to be there.

This metaphor both describes a familiar process and gives me a picture that helps me return to center when I’ve strayed. My consciousness relates holistically, and since this is the part of me that needs to catch what’s happening and decide a proper course of action, an image becomes effective shorthand. “Oh, it’s a hurricane! Get to the eye!”

Now, as is true of all things my mind can grasp, this metaphor is not perfect.  All is holy, whether it be the eye, the storm, or the paths between them.  And such divisions, too, are illusory.  However, this image does provide a shorthand clarification of my current task~~to choose to live in harmony rather than in discord.

So I wish you all smooth flying in the coming week. But if you do find yourself circling within your own storm, get ye to the eye!


Loanne Marie

Monday, June 9, 2008

Worry, Part IV

There’s an old truism that says we’re not given challenges without the tools to meet them. I certainly think that most of us most of the time have effective tools at our disposal. But just like the condom left in the drawer, the best techniques are only good when used.

Although I’ll give some specific suggestions for developing those tools, I suspect you already know what’s needed. If you carried out the anxiety assessment suggested in Part III of this series, however cursorily, you’ve likely become aware of things that need to be handled differently; you also may well have received impressions of how to go about making those needed changes. 

So with the caveat that you likely already know what you need to do, I offer the following. I’ve somewhat arbitrarily divided these suggestions into physical, psychological, and spiritual interventions, although there is, of course, much overlap.

Physical: There’s just no substitute for a healthy body. A body that has been treated lovingly will be better able to manage stress with less depletion. The following are particularly helpful in regards to anxiety:
  • Aerobic exercise is one of the most effective ways to discharge the adrenaline build-up of modern life. You don’t need to run marathons; any sustained activity~~such as brisk walking~~which keeps your heart rate in working range will do.  Exercise restores the innate stress-relieving mechanism our bodies are designed to use.
  • Alternatively, you can pursue activities that promote a peaceful disposition~~yoga, gardening, knitting, deep breathing, specific relaxation techniques. Any calming activity, done with presence and intention, will calm the body, and likely the rest of you will follow.
  • Avoid or limit your use of caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants. Ya can’t blame a revved up body that’s being fed a diet designed for revving! Even substances designed to calm often lead to a rebounding anxiety.
  • Eat well and choose wholesome foods; get plenty of rest.
Psychological: Two people can have totally different responses to the same event. This underscores the fact that our experience of life is quite subjective. If you want a different experience, you could begin by altering your outlook in the following ways:
  • Become aware of the running commentary you give to your life and commit to making your story line a positive, nurturing one. When a child under your care is frightened, you wouldn’t amplify their uneasiness through suggesting even worse outcomes than they’d already imagined. Yet this is precisely what we often do to ourselves. Let your self-talk be as you would speak to a nervous youngster~~soothing and reassuring.
  • Perhaps your anxiety is suggesting that your life is out of balance in some way. Are you engaging in harmful relationships, spreading yourself too thinly, not allowing needed time for self-care, attending to everything and everyone else before yourself? Decide on a change you’re ready to make in one area, beginning in some small way.
  • Since worry is at heart a creative act, choosing another creative expression might do wonders. If you have known artistic outlets, use them. If you haven’t discovered one yet, commit to finding it. It would be helpful to leave aside your assumptions about what counts as creativity. Creativity is your birthright~~it comes with being a human being~~and you can be creative in any number of ways.  Don't let worry be your main one!
  • Listen to what your anxiety might be communicating about the issues that underlie it. You know, life will always give us excuses to be anxious, but often our anxiety exists independently and we simply glom onto some external difficulty to justify it. Perhaps it’s time to heal issues stemming from a childhood that taught you to be on edge, an emotional wound that is using anxiety to get your attention, or a perfectionistic, pessimistic, or over-functioning style that needs to be softened. Journaling and talking with loved ones may be all that’s needed. There are some wounds, though, that reach deeper and require additional help for safe and complete resolution; don’t hesitate to give yourself this gift through self-help books, support groups, or formal psychotherapy.
Spiritual: I believe worry is essentially a spiritual issue. Therefore, spiritual responses will likely be needed to ease it. You may want to:
  • Develop or strengthen your spiritual practice. Experiment with new approaches. Do some research on-line, at your favorite bookstore, or through classes. Meditation and prayer have long been known to ease tension and change an anxious approach to life.
  • Review the list of negative spiritual beliefs detailed in Part II of this series. Develop a few affirmations that embody the positive beliefs you would most like to adopt; commit to consciously employing them frequently throughout your day. Stop worry as it occurs, replacing it with a life-affirming statement.
  • Practice offering up your anxiety, as I related in Part I of this series, and choose to fill the space thus vacated with Spirit.
  • Review the Sacred Space technique discussed in an earlier essay (Creating Sacred Space Internally), and develop your own internal refuge. Go there frequently.
As I said, these are simply suggestions to add to those you’re already called to pursue. Although anxiety causes various degrees of difficulty for us all, I believe ultimately it is a friend, come to tell help us clear a space that will deepen and enrich our experience of living.

May you find the friend embedded within your own anxiety and begin today the process of healing.


Loanne Marie

PS. I’ll be taking the next week off for vacation, so I won’t be posting again until the end of June. See ya then!

Monday, June 2, 2008

Worry, Part III

In Part I and II of this series, I shared some thoughts on anxiety. I promised that this week I’d explore what can be done about this very human inclination which so effectively saps our energy reserves. But before moving on to solutions, I realized it would be helpful to look at the particulars of your unique brand of anxiety. So, this week’s blog will focus on how stress manifests in your life.

To this end, I suggest taking several days to simply observe your anxiety. During this assessment phase, don’t work toward making any specific changes. Simply notice. Allow yourself all your usual responses and watch how they each play out. Discern the behaviors you use to discharge or ease your agitation, as well as their effectiveness. Ask for feedback from others who know you well. It may be helpful to keep a mood journal, tracking each day’s observations.

Some particulars to note are:
  • Physical cues. Be aware of the ways in which your body reacts. Does stress appear in the form of muscle tension, knots in your stomach, jumpy legs, hand twitching? Is your breathing shallow, quick, incomplete?
  • Behavioral responses. Notice what behaviors you engage in. Do you fiddle with clothing or other objects when anxious? Do you talk more or withdraw? Do you become easily irritated and discharge your anxiety through anger? Do you eat more or less, use mood altering substances, zone out in front of the TV? Do these responses actually ease tension overall?
  • Speech. Listen for evidence of an agitated or obsessive approach within the words you choose . Do you find yourself frequently beginning sentences with words such as, ‘I worry that...’? Do you find yourself often quoting Murphy’s Law and demonstrating in your speech that you expect problems to occur? Do you let loose with an expletive when you spill or drop something, or when things are not going as you think they ought?
  • Mental Focus. Watch your thoughts. Do you play out specific scenarios, rehearsing future trials or replaying previous ones? Are you hyperaware of potential difficulties? Is energy wasted figuring out solutions for problems that have yet to occur--and likely won’t? Do you listen well to others and give your full attention to your activities, or is your mind repeatedly pulled back to upset?
  • Psychological and spiritual perspectives. Become conscious of how a likely unconscious outlook colors your experience. What are your expectations of life, of this day before you? Do you have an approach that makes living more of a project or chore than an unfolding process? How much do you secretly believe that nothing can be done to decrease your stress level or improve your experience of life? Do you view life as a bitch or a beach? Review the psychological and spiritual components of anxiety detailed in Worry, Part II, and see which ones apply to you.
  • Situational factors. Notice how you are affected by external realities. Are there certain situations in which you tighten up? Certain people who bring out this response? Is your anxiety affected by being hungry, rushed, tired, or overworked?
  • External demands: Size up the realities of your stress. How urgent are the current claims on your energy? Are these real and unavoidable? Would someone looking in on your life from the outside agree that these demands cannot be minimized or managed a bit more effectively?
  • Scheduling: Observe your use of time. How much of each day is spent in soothing activities? Do you make specific choices to care for yourself, or does self-care come only after everything on your to-do list is finished (that is, never!)? Do you unconsciously follow the desires of those around you in this way, adopting a passive approach to your own life?
With clarity on how anxiety makes its presence known and your response to it, we’ll be able to move into problem-solving mode next week. Until then, watch your anxiety and your responses to it.


Loanne Marie