Saturday, December 25, 2010

Love, Love, and Love Some More!

And the angel said unto them, “Be not afraid; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people…And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God by saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.” Luke: 2:10, 13.
* * * * * *

In a lowly stable, an infant lay in a manger. His very birth shook the powers that held sway at that time and set off rumblings that traveled to wise men in the east and shepherds tending their flocks in the field. As a man grown, though, Jesus changed the world.

For some, he was a prophet or wise rabbi. For others, Jesus was a man who fanned that divine spark~~the one that lies within us all~~until it completely consumed him, obliterating divisions between self and other, spirit and matter, above and below. And for many, he was the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, Savior, the Son of God.

Regardless of the view you hold, there is no doubt that Christ’s walk among us changed everything. And while there are variations among the canonical gospels, the theme that resounds most frequently is Jesus’s message of love.

In John 13:34, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” The gospels are an articulation of this as they weave together parables and events that show what the living of this 11th commandment looks like.

Jesus reminds us to be gentle with one another. Judge not, that ye be not judged. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Consider the beam in your own eye before focusing on the mote in the eye of another.

He identifies the favored ones~~the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst for what is right and just, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted~~and the children, always the children.

He urges us to social action. Tend my sheep. Feed my lambs. Give to the poor. As you have done unto the least of my brethren, you have done unto me. Invite to your banquet the poor, crippled, lame and blind.

He implores us to relate generously to our companions on this journey, be they friend or foe. Turn the other cheek. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Love your enemies. Forgive seventy times seven. Go in peace.

Quite a tall order, indeed! Surely we fail. Yet, as we turn this light of love on ourselves, we honor our fledging and faltering efforts and, in faith, rise up to try again.

As we celebrate today the birth of Jesus, we can recommit ourselves to enacting his message of love. In the stable of our own lives, within the manger of our own hearts, we can greet this impulse to love and vow to nurture it, day in and day out.

Martin Luther gave us one of the sweetest prayers ever. “Ah! dearest Jesus, holy Child, Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled, Within my heart , that it may be A quiet chamber kept for Thee."

Let us make a quiet chamber for thee in our hearts. And what springs forth from that chamber will surely sing thy name.

Amen. Hallelujah! And a Merry Christmas to you all!

Loanne Marie

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Loving Speech

A long time ago or just the other day, in a sprawling town or a small village, a gossiping man or a tale~telling woman goes to see the rabbi. “On a day when the wind howls,” directs the rabbi, “take a feather pillow to the top of the highest hill. Once there, slice the pillow through, shake it until all its feathers have blown away, and come see me again.”

The individual does as directed and returns to the rabbi. “Now go find every feather,” instructs the rabbi, “and gather them together once more.” “But that’s impossible!” the person protests. “I doubt I can find even one feather, let alone all of them, for the wind has flung them far and wide.”

“Your words, too, are feathers in the wind,” replies the wise teacher. “Once spoken, they are released in many directions and you can never pull them back again.”

* * * * * *

This traditional wisdom tale speaks to the Jewish teaching on lashon hara, which translates as “evil tongue”, and refers to speaking unconsciously or with ill intent.

“Lashon hara is a very complex phenomenon,” explains Rabbi Birdie Becker of Pueblo’s Temple Emanuel. “It doesn’t simply refer to speaking ill of others. It’s also about not being party to such talk by listening to it.” Jewish teachings are quite clear on this point. In listening to disparaging speech, we offer ourselves as the necessary platform for its manifestation and are, thus, implicated as much as the speaker.

Lashon hara doesn’t only refer to speech about others,” Rabbi Becker continues, “Denigrating oneself is not acceptable either.”

Proverbs, that most pithy of all the books of the Tanakh, the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament, puts it this way: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Just like the babbling person in this tale, we often open our mouths without discernment, and what flies out can enliven or destroy. But just as the person in today's tale, we can turn toward wisdom by choosing our words with care, aware of their possible consequences.

This is not an easy task. Living in community with others gives rise to conflict~~both within us and around us~~which must be addressed for resolution to occur. But true peace cannot come or be sustained without respect. Our charge, Rabbi Becker reminds us, is “to keep the level of conversation moving always upward.”

I love that line! In the days since I first heard it, I've seen words spiraling upward, scented smoke swirling from a lit stick of incense.

We can interact with our fellows civilly, even during periods of strife, by holding a compassionate awareness of our essential kinship. Not only are we each trying to negotiate this perplexing human journey, but the very flaw we recognize so readily in another likely lies within us as well, though perhaps in a slightly different form.

If every human being carries a spark of the Divine, then to defame, belittle or disregard someone also defames, belittles and disregards the Divine. In speaking unconsciously or with malicious intent, we also actively reject our own true potential and, in the process, do a disservice to the gift that is our life.

We bear responsibility for these pillows of ours. They contain all that we are, all that we can be. Our every word and deed become feathers on the wind, the gift of ourselves to the world. What shall we offer, and what will become of these feathers of ours?

As another Jewish sage put it, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Speak well, listen well, be well!

Loanne Marie

PS. This essay had an interesting developmental process. A couple of months ago, reader Giselle Massi, sent me a link to an article she had published in the online magazine, The Edge. In it, she referred to the concept of lashon hara, without naming it. I was intrigued and spoke with a Jewish friend of mine, Judi, who supplied me the name along with her thoughts on the subject. Thus began a flurry of research, leading me at last to Rabbi Becker. Thanks to all of you!

PPS. For a Buddhist spin on lashon hara, see Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourth Mindfulness Training, in which he expands on the Buddha's fourth precept which prohibits lying.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Flow of Thanks

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. For most of us, the holiday brought more than enough food, with leftovers perhaps still tumbling from the fridge.

As we sat down last Thursday to a table crowded with delectable fare, we might have paused for a few moments to appreciate and give thanks for all that we have. But Thanksgiving needn’t be merely a day set aside for gratitude. It can be a day set aside to remind us to be grateful always. A day to practice gratitude.

Everywhere we look, reasons for thankfulness abound. Indeed, our very existence rests upon the offerings of others. At the most basic level, a variety of life forms sustains us. Whether eating turkey or sweet potato, wild rice or pumpkin pie, cranberry or crescent roll, we absorb the vitality housed in these edibles and use that essence to fuel our own bodies and extend ourselves into the world.

We carry provisions into our kitchens in sacks of cloth, paper or plastic. Then, often using the remains of ancient living beings suspended as fossil fuel, we cook those raw ingredients, transforming them further with a sampling of spices and herbs gathered from around the world.

But the gifts~~and the sacrifices~~begin long before our kitchen preparations. Animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered, often in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, to provide us ready protein. Farm workers toil long hours, with pay frequently insufficient to purchase the very food they grow. Drivers bring trucks full of bounty into our neighborhoods, while store owners, shelf stockers and cashiers allow us to exchange cash for food.

And, then, we cook, and we eat. We quite literally ingest life. The sheer number of beings represented in a typical Thanksgiving meal~~or within a simple bowl of rice and beans, for that matter~~is beyond comprehension. An outpouring of deeply~felt gratitude with every meal seems the only appropriate response to this reality.

For gratitude to be truly authentic, however, it must be enacted. We must use the energy received from our food in a manner worthy of the gift we know it to be.

This living is a grand relay event. We receive from others, and we pass that energy forward through each thought and every action we undertake. We get to choose, though, the shape of the baton we hand off to the next fellow.

Will we use this gift of life energy to speak harshly to someone, or will we choose words that soothe and encourage? Will we fritter ourselves away in mindless activities, or consciously open to that which is good, to that which is God, and allow that Essence to pass through us to another?

A framed quote from A Course In Miracles hangs on my friend’s wall. “What if the only voice you listened to was the voice of love?” If we did listen only to that voice, we would recognize and open to the love streaming toward us in each moment, unfooled by its various guises. We would then recycle that love, transforming it in our own unique way before passing it on to the next participant in this magnificent relay.

Our days offer gifts aplenty. We can receive these gifts with a thankful heart, and with that same gratitude, we can give them away again. And again. And yet again.

Thanksgiving every day. Give thanks and, with thanks, give.

And a heart~felt thank you to everyone who reads these words I write. You are a gift to me!

Loanne Marie

PS. For other Thanksgiving thoughts, here's a previous post, Of Lotuses and Muddy Water.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

All Jewels Glittering

Recently, an old friend paid me a warm and heart~felt compliment. I watched as her words swept me across continents, funneled me into the rich spiritual heritage of the East, and dropped me right into Indra’s net!

Indra began as one of the most powerful gods of the Hindu pantheon. By the 3rd century A.D., however, in a delightful example of religious cross~
pollination, he appears in a sacred Buddhist text, the Avatamsaka Sutra. Here, though, it is the metaphor of his unique and marvelous net that takes center stage.

Infinite in size and stretching in all directions, Indra’s net is woven through with an untold number of glittering jewels. The true beauty of this image, however, lies in the interplay between these gems, for in the polished and glittering surface of one is reflected every other jewel in the never~ending web. And as author Francis Harold Cook writes, “each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.”

This image serves as an elegant illustration of several interrelated concepts central to Buddhist thought~~emptiness, interpenetration, and dependent origination. These rather dry~sounding terms refer to the interconnectedness of all phenomena, and the notion that nothing in this universe comes into existence on its own or has an enduring identity separate from all else.

Sun, rain, air, and the very minerals of our earthly home create and sustain our bodies. Our personalities and ways of perceiving the world blend the inheritance of our ancestors with the particulars of our own history, including every individual who has touched us in ways kind or hurtful, and each event we experience. Every shred of knowledge or wisdom we hold true has been directly or indirectly given us by others, or has been teased out from the rich interplay of our daily encounters throughout life.

The complexity of it all is truly beyond comprehension. Just as jewels in Indra’s net, we stand as a reflection of all that is.

This awareness came to me when Monica offered her compliment. I recognized at least a bit of what she was truly seeing~~my mother, father and ancestors reaching back through time, every person who has shared the beauty of her soul or the pain in his heart, all the joy and hurt I have known, and each of my wise and not~so~wise teachers. And of course, recognized or not, Monica also witnessed her own reflection, for she has been part of my shaping. And shining, too, were all the jewels that she mirrors from within her own life.

My friend’s words did feel good. We are social creatures, and feedback from kindred spirits lets us measure where we stand on the path of our intentions. But her words also pulled me out of myself by enlarging my awareness so I was able to recognize all those non~self elements that comprise me.

I thank Monica for her compliment, but I also savor a sweet gratitude for all the jewels shimmering in my firmament, gracing me with their reflected light. It’s good to remember that none of us stand alone. We are but tiny specks in a vast fabric of reflection. But tiny though we may be, we are, indeed, precious jewels in Indra’s net. Let’s shine our little hearts out!

Shine on!

Loanne Marie

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Unmask!

Ghosts, ghouls, and goblins. Tricks or treats on our doorstep. Yes, Halloween is here!

This holiday has its origins in the ancient Celtic observance of Samhain (pronounced SAH~win), a festival celebrated to this day by Pagans of every hue in honor of the turning of the seasons. As Christianity spread into northwest Europe, Samhain became entwined with Roman Catholic traditions. Those who’ve passed from this world into the next are remembered on All Saints’ Day, November 1st, and All Souls’ Day, November 2nd. La Dia de Los Muertos~~The Day of the Dead~~arrives this week, also, a gift from the Aztecs of more than a thousand years ago. Deceased loved ones are honored with much fanfare over the course of several days.

Similar observances are found throughout the world, whenever autumn dances with full abandon. Like now. Trees glow in radiant colors, while the sun slips a bit lower in the southern sky each day. The last of the apples, squash, and assorted greens have been harvested just ahead of a hard frost. And as my father recently commented, “It sure is getting late a lot earlier these days.”

What is it about this time of year that stirs us so, that elicits a response so visceral that it sparks festivals across cultures and religions? We watch as life around us withdraws into cooling soil, nestled snug within root or seed. Leaves drift to the ground~~or are blown by a biting wind~~with more branches bared each day. Long gone, it seems, are the days of flowering plenty. We feel winter’s chill in the air. Death, it seems, is everywhere.

The wisdom of the earth, as these seasonal festivals and observances remind us, can help enlarge our vision. Writing of La Dia de Los Muertos, journalist Carlos Miller notes that, “unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it.”

Our small human lives reflect the universal cycle of birth, maturation, death and rebirth. As the earth faithfully and endlessly teaches, nothing truly dies, but only changes form. Garden becomes compost and compost becomes garden. Cloud becomes rain, and rain becomes plant or river. Plant bears life~giving fruit, while river transforms into lake or ocean to rise as vapor and become cloud once again. Nothing ends. Nothing is lost. Remembering this allows for a gentler letting go than does the view of death as endpoint.

Indian~born philosopher, writer and spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti, tells us that, “to live every day as if it were a new loveliness, there must be a dying to everything of yesterday. Otherwise,” he writes, “you live mechanically, and a mechanical mind can never know what love is or what freedom is.”

Living everyday as if it were a new loveliness? Sign me up!

Yet to live poised in this moment and no other requires practice. Opening to the lessons of this season can assist us. As we watch leaves drift to the ground, we can, tree~like ourselves, release that which has served its function in our lives. As the natural world slows, we can turn inward and rest as well, nestled in our own nurturing soil~~that Consciousness that supports us all~~while new seed germinate within us and our roots do the silent prep work for the new fruit that will appear with the continued turning of the Great Wheel.

And as costumed children grace our doorsteps, we can see through the costumes we all wear, and the illusions that separate life from death, one living being from another, and this very moment from the next and the one that went before.

It is all Now, all a web of interconnectedness. And we are part of it. Each moment is, indeed, a new loveliness. We need only remove the masks from our own faces and see.

I wish you a new loveliness, this day and always!

Loanne Marie

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Habit of Joy

My father began walking the Appalachian Trail after retirement. He learned to play tennis in his seventies and cleared noxious plants from State Parks into his eighties. He traveled by bike, car, train, boat and plane until a series of falls confined him to a wheelchair and a life so much smaller than it once was. He is now consumed by what he has lost and has difficulty recognizing the good that does remain.

What can I learn from my father’s suffering? Many things, but a prime lesson concerns the importance of cultivating the habit of joy. I like that phrase~~the habit of joy.

Our attention is a sun warming and enlivening whatever it falls upon. We can choose to shine this light on our capacity for happiness, thus growing the tendency into a steady habit. Why not do so now, while things are so much easier than they might one day be?

Certainly every life has its challenges, with some seeming to contain more than is fair or reasonable. Still, most of us live lives of luxury compared with our ancestors of even a few generations ago or with the majority of the world’s population today. Even on our worst day, there are many who would trade places with us in a New York minute. No, make that a Darfur, Laotian, or Afghani minute.

We have no bombs exploding around us and most of us are not scavenging for food. If our days were filled with such grim realities, how we would rejoice simply to wake one morning to their absence! And yet this very experience greets us daily, though we seldom notice.

In addition to such good fortune, we also are given quieter, more subtle pleasures. Like this very moment. Perhaps a loved one is nearby as you read this, or sunlight streams through the window to fall across a hardwood floor. Maybe you’ve just finished a satisfying meal or bathed in heated water that came from just a turn of the faucet. Or perhaps simply breathing life~giving air on a small blue planet is miracle enough for today.

I can’t know what delights surround you, but you do~~or can discover them with just a bit of effort. Perhaps you can stop right here, right now~~yes, in mid~blog~~to recognize the sweetness of what is. And if you find little to brighten your day, please look again.

As we strengthen our capacity to open to joys, large and small, each moment becomes enchanted. We also grow in our ability to consciously choose where to invest our precious energy, thus reducing negativity’s hold on us. By choosing wisely again and again~~throughout this day and the next, and the one that follows that~~joy and gratitude can become habitual. We then more consistently carry this perspective with us out into the world, hopefully softening the way for others.

As for my father, a weary man who seems unable to cultivate such a habit at this stage of his life, I make this promise. I will do it for you, Dad. I will gratefully accept the genes you have passed on to me, and I will regularly bathe them in joy. In your honor, I will grow this habit and weave it throughout the life you have given me, nurturing it consistently while transforming my own negativity.

And I will not wait another minute~~New York, Darfur, Laotian, or Afghani~~to begin.

May we all cultivate, like good little gardeners, this habit of joy!

Be well,

Loanne Marie

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Night Sky

I’m in the midst of one of those hectic times~~lots to do at work and at home, while readying myself for a trip back east to spend time with my 91~year~old father. Near~constant motion has been my mode for days, with a to~do list reminiscent of horror films in which every downed beast is promptly replaced by two others.

Thankfully, the items on my list are not monsters nor are they the slightest bit bothersome. They are all things I want to do, things I do gladly. They just look to be in boundless supply. Writing this essay is on that list. But this is a crafty item that morphed into two without my ever having had the satisfaction of crossing it out first.

Before the writing, you see, one needs an idea. I had none.

Most of the time, potential topics tumble over themselves vying for my attention. Like eager first graders, they jump up and down, shouting “Pick me! Pick me!” This week, however, it seemed that I was the one doing all the hopping about. Ideas might be there, but I couldn’t catch one with a first baseman’s mitt. Obviously, I needed to quiet myself. Be still. Listen.

And with that realization, my friends, an idea appeared. Yep, a theme nosedived right into that mitt o’ mine.

I waited until the sun set on this gorgeous autumn day. With a waning moon and no clouds sidling in to mar my view, I knew I would be gifted a ring~side seat at one of the most spectacular of mountain skies. So with my husband as my willing companion, we set out for a high spot beyond the reach of artificial lights. We wanted only the luminous glow of stars amid galaxies and the glimmer of our own small sun reflected off nearby planets. Finding the perfect place, we spread a blanket over the rapidly cooling ground. We stretched out, earth below, infinity unfurled above.

Ahhhhhhhh!!!

When I look up into the inkiness of a Colorado night sky filled with untold points of dazzling light, everything stops. Small thoughts and plans and worries and, yes, to~do lists all evaporate with a single upward glance. The sky fills me and I surrender into it. I’m instantly brought into balance with the cosmos and my place in it.

I’ve heard others describe how such a scene makes them aware of their teensy smallness, and I guess the same is true for me. But what seems truer is that all distinctions drop away. The boundaries between me and everything else vanish or, more accurately, are recognized as mere illusion after all. The notion of a separate self dissolves. All is immeasurable spaciousness, including the galaxies swirling within the neurons and molecules of my own body.

So, we rested within a sweeping Milky Way and gazed into stars light years beyond ours. We bid a silent greeting to Jupiter, and gasped three times as shooting stars graced the sky. As we stood to fold the blanket, the first radiance of a rising moon streamed out from the east.

I’m back home now. As I peck out these pleasing but wholly insufficient words, I’m reminded of a quote, author unknown, that I saw on a piece by Colorado fiber artist, Robin Richards. “The soul needs a daily dose of Vastness.”

Pencil in hand, I reach out now and check three things from my to~do list: an idea for a column, the column itself, and my soul’s daily dose of Vastness.

Wishing you each your own daily dose!

Namaste!

Loanne Marie


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Transforming Habit Energy

Recently, I wrote about the ways in which we’re regularly carried off by our habitual responses (Hold Your Horses, 9/4/10). Whether the external event is dramatic or mundane, something is touched within us and we react.

While the particulars vary from person to person, we all have ingrained patterns that shape our experience of living. One’s spirituality, though, can be a tremendous resource for transforming these recurring themes. At the very least, a consistent spiritual practice allows us a calm starting point from which to venture into the world.

Meditation is especially helpful in bolstering a steady center, a claim now verified by decades of research. Meditation can go a step further, however, providing a method for directly refining our unhelpful tendencies. We can do this by embracing them with awareness.

Embrace fear, anger and despair?!! I gotta be kidding, right? Nope! For eons, folks have successfully worked in just this way with the full range of bothersome human impulses.

To begin, we simply observe our responses as they occur, naming them accurately and noticing their quality. We refrain from acting and, instead, simply breathe through our physical, emotional or mental reactions. A minute or two of this kind of attentive awareness will often do much to soothe us. Understanding then has the opportunity to arise, perhaps bringing with it a more helpful response.

However, sometimes our reactions are not so compliant. Deeper work may be needed. If so, we must assess our situation honestly. Some issues require a friend’s presence or the assistance of a professional. Others are less taxing, though we may not have the time or energy to grapple with them in that moment. If either is the case, it’s still best not to fuel our upset. We would do well to “change the CD” by exchanging our current experience for a more pleasurable and quieting activity or thought process, recognizing that we can address our difficulty at another time.

If the moment is ripe, however, it would be wise to first calm ourselves through some sitting or walking meditation. This is when a steady practice comes in handy. By learning to regularly move into a peaceful state, it becomes more accessible to us when needed. After all, if a bicycle was your only mode of transportation, ya wouldn't want to wait for a crisis to learn to ride, would ya?!!

Once an inner stillness has been reached, we invite our upset into our awareness and simply continue with a mindful embrace, noting minute shifts in our experience. “I keep following it in the present moment and recognize and name whatever it is right now,” Buddhist monk, Brother Phap Thanh, explains. “A seed manifests, I observe it and I notice that at some point it changes. I just keep following it and naming it.”

When we invite anxiety, for example, to sit with us, we simply notice as it grows stronger, weakens or subtly shifts into another emotion. We welcome, without judgment, whatever arises through employing what Phap Thanh terms “a radical openness”.

In this way, we tend our painful places as a mother cradles her infant or as a big brother cares for a younger sibling. Calming occurs and a friendly relationship begins to replace an adversarial one. Over time, our rough places soften and we grow more adept at ascertaining the true impetus for our discomfort. Our developing skills can then move deeper, transforming our wounds closer to their root.

When we sit with ourselves like this, we touch a spaciousness our internal whirlwinds usually obscure. Before, our upset consumed us. Now, as we tenderly hold our distress, we realize we are so much larger. This expanded awareness gradually becomes our steady ground, allowing us to notice sooner when we’re being carried away by our reactions.

As we continue to cleanse our inner experience, we grow too in our ability to rest deeply within that unfathomable vastness that embraces and sustains us all.

I wish you well returning to your calm center, no matter the winds that blow.

Blessings!

Loanne Marie



Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hold Your Horses!

In an old Zen tale, a man on horseback streaks through a village at breakneck speed. “Hey, Mister!” a child calls out as he races by. “Where ya goin’?” “I don’t know,” the man yells over his shoulder as he disappears from view. “Ask the horse!”

As with most parables, this one can be read on various levels. So often, life seems to carry us in directions not of our choosing. Whether in relationships, careers, or the particulars of a given day, we often view ourselves as passive participants, shuttled here and there without conscious choice. While there is much to be said for giving ourselves over to the flow of what is, this story reminds us that, ultimately, we bear responsibility for how we fashion this precious life of ours.

This allegory also calls attention to how we are repeatedly carried off by our accustomed ways of thinking and reacting. Perhaps anger, sadness or hopelessness automatically arise when things don’t go as we wish. Maybe anxiety is our frequent companion, accompanying us into the unknown. We might slide easily into well~worn mental grooves of mistrust, negativity, reverie or busyness. Perhaps we display a quickness to judge others or to find ourselves lacking or slighted.

Whatever the habitual responses might be, they color our perceptions. They also lead us to make certain choices and, thus, their effect streams out into the world, further influencing our experience and affecting others through our demeanor and actions. In Buddhist psychology, these phenomena~~these horses that rapidly carry us away~~are term habit energies. We are encouraged to transform them through the shining light of our awareness.

To do so, we must first increase our capacity to identify these responses as they occur. Changes in the rate or quality of our breathing are the surest, most immediate indicators that we’ve been hauled off by one horse or another. By then following our breath~~attending to it and nothing else~~we begin to slow down. Depending on the nature of our upset, this process can take a few moments or much longer.

But sooner or later, our mad gallop becomes a canter, and then a slow walk. If we stay with it, we eventually arrive at a poised stillness that offers an opportunity to look deeply into our reaction and see what really caused it. Since not everyone responds the same, external events cannot truly be the origin of our agitation.

By delving deeply into our pattern of responses, we can often detect the influence of a past set of experiences or a dispositional makeup we’ve inherited through our bloodline. These conditioned reactions, reinforced with each passing year, seem to most often trigger our disturbances. Rather than continuing to respond unconsciously, however, increased clarity brings the possibility of fresh responses. We also begin to take profound responsibility for how we are in the world and become freer to ripen into the person we wish to be.

Scheduling time for structured meditation and prayer is enormously helpful in this regard. Such a proactive approach allows us to work with this material on a regular basis, rather than waiting for difficulties to occur. It also helps us grow in our ability to return, again and again, to a simple, open delight in the present moment, our true home.

These horses of ours are frisky creatures. However, they will slow down if we provide consistent soothing opportunities~~regular watering holes, so to speak, on this path of life.

Happy trails, ya'll, and namaste!

Loanne Marie

PS. For more on this, see Transforming Habit Energy, 9/18/10.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Doing The LegWork

Linda believed until the very end that she would be cured.

When breast cancer first arrived, my friend returned to the mainstream religion of her childhood. By the time both breasts had been removed and her hair had grown back, Linda’s Christianity had grown more conservative. With the third and final recurrence, a metastasis to the brain, Linda was certain that if she surrendered to God in all things and believed wholeheartedly, a cure would follow. She knew enough to label such an outcome a miracle, but claimed never to doubt that she would be able to parent her three young children into adulthood.

Others subscribe to the “make your own reality” perspective. While their belief system differs from Linda’s, they share a certainty that one’s intent and actions will turn around seemingly bleak situations.

Most of us would agree that the human mind, heart, and spirit are amazingly vigorous, endowed with resources not fully realized. Most of us, too, believe in unseen sources of assistance, though our words and conceptual frameworks vary greatly.

However, we humans seem partial to the illusion that we are in charge of this wild and wooly thing called life. How can we tell when we’re using lofty terms and valid theories to simply maintain a sense of control? We can’t. Our small wills are crafty things and regularly don guises~~egos in spirit’s clothing, so to speak.

When we believe, for example, that we will achieve our desired outcome if we pray faithfully or think only wholesome, life~enhancing thoughts, we make this world much simpler than it is and ourselves more powerful. We ratchet down our fear of the unknown to be sure, but at the cost of opening the door to self~blame. An intractable illness or a string of difficult experiences becomes our fault. We not only feel bad, but have managed now to feel bad about feeling bad. Counterproductive, at best, when we’re already reeling.

This approach also ignores the fact that our destinies are not independent, but entwined with others. We are not lone passengers on separate ships sailing partitioned seas. We are part of an integrated whole and are moved by many currents. In Linda’s case, these included a problematic medical system, a particularly virulent form of cancer, and an environment replete with toxins. Hers was not the only will involved.

Importantly, though, the cure she sought was not the only one out there either. Though Linda didn’t get the particular healing she wanted, I trust that when she died~~nearly 7 years ago now~~her unique and twisting path of surrender had mended her in ways I cannot conceive.

A clergy friend of mine suggested that folks often place God in the role of cosmic vending machine. You know, we pull the knob for the Snickers bar and become miffed when a bag of Doritos drops off the peg instead. As we age, our spiritual philosophies need to mature beyond such notions. Of course a positive and prayerful attitude affects reality and has far~reaching effects on health and happiness. But we can’t always choose the outcome. Our job is to do our part~~“the leg work” as Alyson, another old friend of mine, used to say~~and greet what comes with grace.

It’s also wise to trust that the cure coming our way might be just the one we need, even if we aren’t fond of its packaging. We can then commit to making it so. Now there’s a job that’ll keep us busy!

May you each have a productive time greeting with grace your own cures, no matter their packaging.

Loanne Marie



Sunday, August 8, 2010

Altars

Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and seminary professor, begins her beautiful book, An Altar in the World, with the story of Jacob. In Genesis 28:12~18, Jacob dreams a ladder reaching into the heavens, with angels climbing up and down its rungs. After God speaks directly to him, Jacob awakens but refuses to brush this off as a mere dream. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” Jacob exclaims, “and I did not know it.” He proclaims that very spot holy ground, a “gate of heaven”, and sets a stone to mark it as such.

The author shared this story while telling of coming upon another stone arrangement beside a secluded tidal pool in Hawaii. Noting the palpable sense of the Sacred in that lush place, Taylor recognized an altar in the upright arrangement of three stones, the color of humpback whales, left by someone long ago.

While my dictionary defines an altar as “an elevated place or structure…at which religious rites are performed,” it can be so much more than that. An altar can signify our awareness of God’s presence, wherever we discern it.

In the Catholic tradition, an altar is a place where solid matter becomes infused with Spirit, as ordinary bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Yet if God is omnipresent, couldn’t such sacraments serve as reminders that matter is already infused with Spirit, though often we know it not? As the 12th century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg put it, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things.”

For most of us mortals, such awareness does not come easily or remain for very long. We need to train our eyes to see. In her lovely book, Taylor offers practices for cultivating an appreciation of the Holy in the world around us. She urges us to create metaphoric altars within our own hearts to, “flag one more gate to heaven—one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it—where divine traffic is heavy,” whether we recognize it always or not.

Each moment, fully felt in this way, becomes hallowed. Whether amid nature or rush hour traffic, while eating or walking, at work or in play, alone or in conversation, the Divine can be recognized and honored. We can, to paraphrase the title of one of Taylor’s chapters, wake up to God. Whichever ordinary event we are engaged in thus becomes Spirit~infused and, in the terminology we’re using here, an altar is created.

For example, each time we smile at a stranger or a loved one, we can do so in recognition of the divinity imbedded within that exchange, of the God present there. And another altar comes into being.

As we grow in this ability, we begin to offer ourselves as altars, as places where matter~~in this sense, one’s body, ego, thoughts, feelings, etc.~~becomes imbued with Spirit. A place where God finds a ready home, welcome mat out in front. Our lives grow richer, the experience of living more vibrant. We begin also to instinctively respond to the many and varied altars that bless this world of ours.

Most of us are not mystics who live this awareness always. Without a doubt, though, we can expand our ability to live it a bit here and a bit there. Part~time mystics, all.

Oh, how this world will change!

And my gratitude goes out to each of you for the altars you create, the altars that you are, in this world! Namaste!

Loanne Marie



Monday, July 26, 2010

Apology

In the late 1700s, poet Alexander Pope wrote the now famous line, “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” But where, I wonder, does apologizing fit in?

Being human, we each make mistakes frequently. No matter how diligent or intentional, we miss the mark time and time again. How we respond to our errors, though, shows us just what we’re made of. This is where we can shine out~~or not.

When we deny or excuse, avoid or minimize, the armor of our ego does more than just remain intact. An ego in defense mode runs amok, crazed with the need to defend against the truth of its failings. When we authentically admit our imperfections, however~~whether or not such acknowledgements are expected or accepted~~the opposite occurs. A chink appears in that armor.

And it is through openings such as this that Light can enter.

When we let go our incessant efforts at damage control and image maintenance, we can touch what author Eckhart Tolle describes as “the formless inner dimension of consciousness or spirit.” When we accept that we are insufficient, even deficient in many ways, we are poised to access at least a smidgeon of all our small selves are not.

Sometimes, when I realize I’ve hurt someone or behaved badly in some way, I notice myself begin to harden against the admission of my error. Excuses and counterarguments swirl around my brain. If I sit with these reactions awhile, though, I settle down. Blaming and justifications fall away, and I come to recognize that there truly is nothing to resist after all.

I am human, a work in progress. In the dance I do with my companions on this journey, less than graceful collisions often occur. Sometimes the missteps are mine, sometimes the other person’s. Often, we stumble over each other so quickly, it’s impossible to tell one foot from the other.

My blunders, though, are always mine to admit and to remedy. When I’ve moved in ways that are unkind or unhelpful, an apology is in order. The interesting thing about such an experience is how much better it feels to let go and relax into the truth of my fallibility. It is a long, soul-cleansing sigh. An apology becomes, then, an enactment of this process and its completion.

Being human is a lesson in humility. Yet, as we release into an acceptance of our limitations, something special can occur. “When you live in surrender,” Tolle writes, “something comes through you…that is not of this world.”

If it is human to err and divine to forgive, might a well~phrased apology form a bridge, a link between that which is of this world and that which is not? I think so.

When we acknowledge our flaws~~not in the safety of the abstract, but in the muck of the here and now~~we soften, and the shield of ego drops a bit. With that shield lowered, we become more accessible, not only to our fellow humans, but to that which is so much larger. In relaxing our rigid stance, we are better able to welcome the touch of the Divine.

We also just might come to question the whole idea of mistake. If, through admitting an error, I learn something, am opened further, and make peace with a fellow traveler, was it truly a mistake at all?

I’m not sure. The idea of living in surrender, though, is rather enticing, is it not?

Namaste, you perfectly imperfect human being, you!

Loanne Marie

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reclaiming Oneself

I ended a recent essay with these words from St. Francis of Assisi: “Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” These words seemed appropriate, since I was writing about my need to loosen a tendency toward willfulness. Yet, I hesitated before I included that quote.

I’ve known too many people whose sense of self was painfully fragile. When we humans are subjected to repeated abuse or to challenges that feel far beyond our ability to cope, a shaky identity often develops. Urging an overcoming of self in these situations seems exactly the wrong advice.

Sometimes, folks just might need to move in the opposite direction. Like a plant growing in rocky soil or beneath an unrelenting sun with little water, sometimes a person is taxed to the extreme. The life force remains, but the vessel itself is wobbly. In these situations, tender loving care is called for. Nurture is needed, not a further weakening.

Many religious traditions, both east and west, encourage the relinquishment of self. I can accept that this is where we are all ultimately headed. Our tiny drops of individual identity will eventually merge into the immeasurable stream of Infinity. And with that merging, we’re told, will come the supreme realization that we were never separate at all.

But, hey, I’m talkin’ about you and me on this earth, housed in these clay bodies, with our sometimes perplexing personalities. Whether our lives have been unduly harsh or not, I think most of us might do well to first claim the small drop that is ours and live that life to the fullest.

In 1 Corinthians 6:19 we are asked, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” If this is true of the body, would it not also be true of our personal identities?

We are each unique jewels, specialized facets in the unfathomable design of the cosmos. Every one of us has a singular part to play in that overall design. Discovering who we are and deeply embodying our role seems one of the most important tasks of our lives.

A quote from another Francis comes to mind. “Do not wish to be anything but what you are,” St. Francis De Sales urges, “and try to be that perfectly.”

So, how do we discover who we are, and by what means do we grow in our ability to more perfectly express it in the world? The particulars of that answer are likely as diverse as we are. Yet, if we begin with the idea that it is Spirit that animates us, then strengthening our connection to Spirit would be an essential first step.

Saints and sages live united with the Divine, and act from this awareness with apparent ease. The rest of us, though, must consciously and diligently build that relationship and renew it regularly.

As we touch this Essence more consistently, our individual selves will be brought into better balance. Those of us who need to let go, will be better able to let go. Those who need to strengthen will find greater stamina within their reach.

Whichever direction this process takes us, the world will be more fully blessed by our presence. With Spirit as our steady and true guide, we’ll shine out more vividly as the unique jewels we were intended to be.

Shine on!

Loanne Marie



Monday, June 28, 2010

Meditation and the Brain

My meditation practice has become a bit sporadic the past month or so, due to a variety of other activities clamoring for my time. Believing it is the quality of awareness in all the moments of our lives that's most important, I’d amped up my efforts to maintain a meditative focus throughout my days.

Although I was somewhat successful, after a few weeks I began to notice a subtle shift in the quality of my overall experience. Nothing extreme occurred. I didn’t become depressed or cranky. However, I did find myself a bit less present to the here and now. My inner calm was more precarious, and my sense of wonder and joy a bit less palpable than before.

Coincidentally, the June issue of The Yoga Journal shed some light on this topic. In an article entitled Your Brain On Meditation, author and educator, Kelly McGonigal, explored the recent technological advances that are increasing our understanding of the effects of meditation on the brain.

It’s long been known that meditation can enhance one’s subjective experience of joy, equanimity, and interconnectedness. Researchers had also demonstrated meditation’s link to overall physical health, immune system functioning, and pain management.

But science has moved into new areas recently. Using MRIs, EEGs and fMRIs, researchers have begun to track actual changes in the structure and function of the brains of folks who meditate.
Recent findings include:
  • Increased gray matter in regions of the brain important for attention, emotional regulation and mental flexibility. Increased gray matter is thought to make an area of the brain more responsive and efficient.
  • Decreased density in the amygdala, a brain region activated by stress. It had already been established that the amygdala could grow larger and more reactive through the experience of chronic stress and trauma, but research has now begun to show that changes can go the other way, as well.
  • Greater activity in portions of the brain critical for the particular method of meditation employed. This responsiveness continues beyond the meditation session, as the brain becomes better able to do what it's asked to do.
It seems that our brains are not fixed in adulthood after all, but open to change. As Eileen Luders, a researcher in the Department of Neurology at UCLA School of Medicine puts it, “everything we do, and every experience we have, actually changes the brain.”

Folks who meditate using concentrative techniques fire up the brain centers involved in attention, thereby developing a greater ability to focus. Likewise, an emphasis on compassion, joy, or tranquility encourages activity and responsiveness in the portions of the brain that govern these functions, with a corresponding increase in proficiency.

The really exciting news is that such changes can occur relatively quickly. Many of these studies focused on beginning meditators, who had engaged in as little as a 7 or 8 week course. Benefits increased with experience.

“It’s a simple matter of training,” writes McGonigal. “Like anything that requires practice, meditation is a training program for the brain.”

I am in training. Those experiences and attitudes I reinforce grow stronger, more resilient. Though I continue to feel that what happens outside specific meditation periods is most important, I’ve learned once again that, for me, structured meditation time is invaluable.

I’ve now resumed my regular meditation practice. I set aside time specifically to open to joy, to wonder, and to the Divine. What’s not to love about that?!!

Here's to us all finding ways to sculpt a brain that helps us live the life we want to live, open to Spirit and joy.

Loanne Marie

P.S. There are many misconceptions about meditation. Folks often give it a try, only to abandon the process due to the busyness of their minds. They conclude, “I just can’t meditate”. Untrue. While there are some approaches that fit an individual’s temperament better than others, everyone can meditate.

I’ll be offering a free, one-time class to help beginning meditators get started. If this idea appeals to you, please send me an email.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Bearing Solemn Witness

I’ve been avoiding it for weeks. I walk out of the room during the news, don’t read the paper, keep the radio off while driving. Most telling of all, I distance myself when my husband tries to share his reactions.

I avert my eyes, and my spirit, from the harsh reality. I tell myself I don’t need to see it. I’m well aware of the damage to fragile ecosystems that will come from an oil spill of this magnitude. I know, too, given the interconnectedness of life, that this devastation will extend far beyond a limited set of contours.

But who am I kidding? It is not that I don’t need to see it. It is that I don’t want to see it.

I’m in the throes once more of a misguided belief that I can protect myself from pain. Defending against sorrow cannot happen, though, unless I close down, harden my heart, resist life. If I do that, I merely add another layer to this catastrophe. The oil spill~~though hemorrhage seems the more appropriate term~~would then claim another victim, and this casualty would come with my full participation.

Despite my efforts, grief remains, just beyond my vision. Slowly, undiminished, it moves closer. It’s as though this visceral sense of destruction is the oil slick and I, a coastal marshland full of tender life I wish to protect, but know I cannot.

Finally, I turn to face it. Images rush toward me...

An oil-drenched brown pelican struggling to stretch its soiled wings...
A baby sea turtle coated in black slime...
Dark pools of oiled water...
A young egret stuck in thick sludge under a mangrove, white feathers blackened...
Tar balls washed up on stained sand...
A dragonfly perched atop oil-slick marsh grass, inky bits clinging to delicate wings.

Devastation washes over me. Tears run down my cheeks as my heart, finally, breaks open.

In a recent letter, my friend, Claire, reminded me that the word vulnerable comes from the Latin vulnerare, meaning “to wound”. To be alive, fully alive in a world in which terrible things happen, requires our hearts to remain open in the face of pain. We must be vulnerable. Woundable.

There’s a saying that goes, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” An appropriate modification would be, “If you’re not filled with anguish, you’re not paying attention.”

Not everything is pain, of course. Life is a grand mix of all elements. It is equally true that the joys of this world enthrall us when we allow ourselves to deeply experience them. In the face of suffering, however, what is called for is compassion—again, from the Latin, meaning “to feel with”.

Author, religious scholar and mystic, Andrew Harvey, writes that a heart “is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever more wonders.”

There is, indeed, something about a heart’s breaking that brings the possibility for growth. Like a snake shedding skin that has grown too tight, when the boundaries of a heart are shattered, an opportunity is created for that heart to grow beyond its previous borders. To accomplish this, though, we must have the courage to feel.

Val, another friend, shares that the spewing of oil feels to her like a wounded earth bleeding. The metaphor fits. Our precious earth, teeming with life and infused with the divine, bleeds. Bearing solemn witness to this reality is our task.

To do otherwise seems uncaring. Disrespectful. Sacrilegious.

May all of our hearts break and enlarge and break and enlarge, again and again and again. Perhaps then our collective heart will grow large enough that we'll treat our Earth and all its inhabitants more lovingly.

Loanne Marie

PS. Of course, we need to do more than simply grieve. We need to act.

For an encouraging story about one community's success in breaking their oil addiction~~yes, it is possible~~click on this story that ran recently on PBS's Need to Know.

And for another form of action, a meditative one, I pass on this link, so you can decide if this approach fits for you.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Letting Go

I tend to be rather purposeful. I recognize a need, quickly devise a plan to address it, and move into action.

Therein lies the problem. Life appears not always to agree with my assessment of a situation nor, it would seem, my proposed intervention. Roadblocks often appear. And then I have a choice~~to doggedly push forward, or to pull back and reorient myself, accepting guidance from things as they are.

I’m currently receiving this lesson in spades. I’m recovering from my second knee surgery, which requires several weeks on crutches with my leg locked straight in a brace. Freedom of movement is severely curtailed. There is no longer a seamless connection between my wishes and my actions, as even the simplest activity becomes now a process. Dressing, bathing, getting something from the fridge, moving between rooms, climbing into and out of the car, even repositioning myself on the sofa~~none are the mindless endeavors they were two weeks ago.

This recovery will be lengthy, and there’s just no hurrying it. No matter how diligently I undertake my physical therapy, bones need a certain amount of time to knit together, and tissue heals at its speed, not mine. It’s all rather sobering. Humbling, actually. And if I’m wise, I just might learn a thing or two.

I quickly recognized that while I continue to benefit from specific periods of meditation, now more than ever, each moment is improved upon and made more manageable through a continuous meditative focus. Every movement brings a lesson, an opportunity to allow, even welcome, feedback from the world around me.

When a crutch drops to the floor, or an object is two inches beyond my reach, I need to simply be with what is~~without judgment or upset~~and choose a fitting response. The times I’ve struggled emotionally have all come when I insisted that my plan prevail, despite the fact that it didn’t seem in accordance with what was happening in real time.

I’m not always so bull~headed, though. Often, I’ve held my preferences lightly. At these times, I’ve been able to bow to the moment, abandon my plan, and be guided into my next move. It feels good to flow with things as they are. It’s actually quite freeing.

And into the midst of this steep learning curve, another gift arrived. Amid the stack of DVDs checked out of our local library was Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1972 biopic of St. Francis of Assisi. While likely of questionable historic accuracy, I gained a needed perspective as I watched this fictionalized Francesco coming to recognize the world surrounding him as imbued by God.

Yes, I need to accept each moment as it is. If I appreciate the holiness that infuses each of those moments, though, I will also greet them gracefully and with joy. For where else would God be, after all, if not in this moment, right here, right now?

So, I seek to embrace each experience, even those my small self may not be particularly fond of, as a manifestation of the sacred. I shall also use this long recovery process to loosen a pesky inclination toward willfulness.

In the words of the real~life St. Francis, “Above all the grace and the gifts that Christ gives to his beloved is that of overcoming self.” Overcoming self. Yes, it’s good for what ails me, now and for the rest of my life. Amen.

Be well yourselves. And here's to us all seeing the divine in even the most mundane~~or annoying~~of moments!

Loanne Marie

For an essay that addresses this issue in a different way, please click here for one of my very first posts.

And for an essay detailing the quite different lessons that arrived in December with the surgery to my other knee~~amazing to me how different the two experiences were!~~click here.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Softening the Heart

My day began with the discovery that three people had not done something each had separately agreed to do. These oversights cost me a bit of time and some inconvenience. Nothing terrible in the overall scheme of things, but they did mess with my plans for the morning.

An old tendency of mine returned. I began to stew. When someone’s lack of follow~through costs me, I often feel completely justified in grumbling. Depending on the particulars of the incident, I’ve even been known to fume.

While I took the appropriate action in each case today without behaving badly, my internal grousing continued. A waste of energy, to be sure. So as I waited for the corrections I’d put in motion to materialize, I decided instead to work on this essay. I opened my laptop, retrieved the page on which I’d made some preliminary notes, and burst out laughing.

I’d planned to explore a quote my sister~in~law, Martha, had placed on her wall. The words of the Buddhist nun and author, Pema Chodron, urged me to “Soften what is rigid in your heart.” And those words arrived now, just when I’d closed down around perceived slights.

There are many ways in which we harden our hearts~~anger, self~righteousness, a tangled knot of fear, being judgmental, perfectionistic, or willful. What good do any of these bring us? None, of course.

While taking action when things go awry is often necessary, I suspect that the tone underlying our actions may count the most. I can “do the right thing”, but if I do so with an attitude that bleeds negativity into the world, my right action seems, at the very least, diminished.

So how do we deal with our heart’s rigidity when it arises? First, we stop feeding our upset. I’d been fueling mine through my choice of thoughts. No matter another’s actions, my response is solely my responsibility.

Second, while distracting ourselves might work temporarily, if this issue is a recurrent pattern in our lives, more will be needed. At some point, rather than avoiding this tendency of ours, we must turn toward it. We do this, though, in a very specific way. We neither abandon ourselves to the disturbance through giving it full sway, nor do we attempt to beat it into submission. Neither choice is effective long~term.

In his book, Anger, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that we tend our discomfort by calmly holding it in our awareness. Just like a parent soothing a distraught infant, a gentle and kindly attitude will begin to transform our distress. While the effect is not always immediate, with the clear and focused attention of our wisest self, our difficulty will ease.

Once quieted, we can unearth the true basis of our upset. “The main cause of our misery,” writes Nhat Hanh, “is not the other person~~it is the seed of anger (or other emotion) in us.” Some folks, for example, would not have become agitated as I had earlier today. The morning’s events merely activated something that already existed within me.

With my upset soothed, I was able to learn more about the inner workings of my psyche. This increased understanding allowed me to deepen a bit and to become more conscious of how I am~~and how I wish to be~~in the world.

In other words, I softened a bit more what was rigid in my heart. Not bad for a morning’s work, eh?

Peace!

Loanne Marie


Monday, May 3, 2010

In what will you clothe your spirit today?

I’m not the world’s most focused meditator.

Today, for example. I was sitting with my weekly meditation group, eyes closed, posture upright, body still. Internally, though, I was critiquing a movie I’d recently seen.

Of course, when I realized I’d strayed, I brought my awareness back to the present moment.

Soon, though, I found myself amused that I’d fallen under the illusion that I was a movie critic, behaving as though an audience awaited my cogent analysis of character and plot development.

Oops! Back to stillness.

Next thing I knew, I was ruminating on how this is the human way. So often, we undertake one activity while imagining ourselves engaged in another. Driving alone, we play out an anticipated conversation with our partner. Washing dishes, we travel back in time to relive an experience from last week or a year ago, perhaps playing out other possible scenarios.

Or while meditating, we begin work on an essay about how attention wanders while meditating! I quieted my rambling mind once more.

The act of returning, again and again, to simple and open awareness, or to a specific focus point, is the practice of meditation. Slowly we drop into a deeper reality, an experience which teaches us to place within a larger context those stories woven by mind and heart. Gradually, the experience of that Essence begins to infuse the rest of our lives. We may come to hold our views more lightly, and question the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Many spiritual traditions teach that the concept of an individual self, separate and distinct from all else, is an illusion. Certainly, we each have a disposition, a personality created in large part by a combination of genetics and life experience. But aren’t each one of us also an expression of that unfathomable force that vivifies and shines through us, just as light filters through panes of colored glass?

I don various guises to clothe my spirit, yet often mistake my current outfit for who I truly am. There are the roles I claim in this life—woman, family member, friend, psychotherapist, neighbor, citizen. But there are also more transitory costumes.

On any given day, I might shine out as angry, kind, tired, playful, petty, enthusiastic, sarcastic, loving, pessimistic, generous, worried, clever, tearful, or joyous. None of these is me. They are each merely a form, a casing I create for the energy that is given me.

At the heart of spiritual practice is the recognition that we are individually responsible for the forms we create. Although it may not always feel this way, it is ours to determine the expression our energy will take, ours to choose the color of glass through which our spirit will stream forth. With conscious intent and much practice, we can learn to choose more wisely.

During my meditation period today, I did eventually settle down. By the time the bell chimed to conclude our hour together, I had nestled into that peace “which passeth all understanding”. That peace, which exists in its purest and most accessible form in the here and now, spoke to me again of what is true and enduring.

And I vowed once again to remember that as my ground of being and to choose wisely how to express it in my world.

May we all shine out with a richness and vibrancy worthy of that which is given us.

Loanne Marie

Monday, April 19, 2010

Silence

Entering a church~~grand cathedral or tiny chapel, it makes little difference~~immediately reorients me. Places of worship exude a palpable sense of the holy. Vaulted ceilings, the lingering scent of candle wax and incense, sunlight filtering through windows of stained glass, all are evocative of the spiritual dimension.

There is also, though, a sacred hush in these places. There is silence. Quietude fills every corner. Coughs, the swish of clothing, the fall of footsteps seem only to magnify the stillness.

German theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart, wrote that, “there is nothing in the world that resembles God so much as silence.” And yet, we often have so little of it in our daily lives. Television, traffic noise, shallow conversation are just a few examples of the omnipresent and intrusive sounds of modern culture.

In Anam Cara: Wisdom from the Celtic World, Irish poet and former priest, John O’Donohue, speaks of an impoverishment of the soul that comes from such a pervading racket. “People’s lives are being taken outwards all the time,” he notes. “The inner world of the soul is suffering a great kind of eviction.” He goes on to add that, “one of the reason that so many people are so stressed in modern life is not that they’re doing very stressful things, but that they allow so little space for the silence.”

There does seem to be a correlation between outer noise and inner unrest. Fortunately, though, by consciously adding periods of quiet into our lives, we create opportunities for inner stillness to grow and our souls to be replenished.

We may have to work at it a bit, though. After being inundated with noise over an extended period of time, the experience of silence can be somewhat unnerving. We then seem all too ready to substitute an internal babel to continue the agitation.

It often takes a while to settle into an inner calm. But settle we shall, if we regularly make room for silence in our lives. Whether sitting in a church, walking in the woods, or coming to rest in a quiet corner of our own homes, we nurture an inclination toward stillness.

The rewards are great. “In the attitudes of silence,” Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.” In precious moments of meditation, we touch the Great Silence. It opens and stretches out around us, and we find ourselves relaxing into its embrace.

Then, to use O’Donohue’s words, “that which is deep and lives in the silence” within us is allowed to bloom. And with that blossom in place, we return to our everyday world more fully awakened to life.

A Quaker proverb comes to mind. “Don’t speak unless you can improve the silence.” After deep contact with that silence, we are more apt to make contributions, spoken or otherwise, that are worthy, ones that enhance the greater good.

As the attitude of silence Gandhi referred to deepens, we also become better able to maintain a conscious connection to that pristine reservoir of tranquility~~the font at the heart of our being~~no matter the din that may surround us.

May you experience the embrace of the Great Silence in the days ahead.

Be well!

Loanne Marie

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Easter Story

Easter arrives again tomorrow. In honor of this occasion, I’ve spent the morning re~reading the Easter story as told in each of the canonical gospels.

Once again, I join Mary Magdalene and her sisters before an empty tomb from which the stone has been rolled away. I share anew in the women’s awe as they find themselves conversing with angels. And I stand once more beside my fellow humans as they prove themselves incapable of recognizing their beloved Jesus, risen now and returned to them in the flesh.

In my own life, I may never have the opportunity to speak with angels or to bear witness to an event that will figure so prominently in a spiritual tradition. But in these stories, I clearly recognize my own daily inability to know the sacred, even while my eyes are gazing directly upon it.

The mystics tell us that every aspect of our world is imbued with the holy. To them, all of creation inspires the deepest reverence. We walk among miracles every day of our lives, and yet most of us seldom notice. Just like the disciples, our vision is limited, and we see only what we expect to see.

I look out my window to a snow~covered mountain. While often I respond to the beauty of the view, seldom do I perceive the dazzling truths it contains. I see a mountain and I see snow, and that is all.

I am largely unaware of the eons of natural forces that have sculpted the unique shape of this mountain, and I am oblivious to the minerals that comprise it and the vast array of plants and animals that reside now within its folds. Likewise, I am blind to the stunning path that each speck of snow has traveled from oceans and streams far away~~rising first as vapor, swirling with its fellow molecules amid shifting cloud formations~~to arrive at this place to fall and nurture new generations of vegetation and living creatures.

The mystery of life, with its intricate and unfathomable processes, surrounds us whether or not we have eyes to see, and continues day after day, year after year, requiring nothing from us. The earth revolves around the sun without our aid. Photosynthesis needs not one iota of assistance from us.

I return now to the Easter story and am carried forward to John 21: 15~17. In this passage, the risen Jesus urges Simon Peter to demonstrate his love and fidelity by caring for others.

“Feed my lambs,” Christ exhorts. “Tend my sheep.”

By far, most of the miracles of life on this planet do not require our involvement in the least. But the triumph of love over pain and hatred and indifference? That miracle craves our efforts, fledging and imperfect though they may be. Caring for Christ’s sheep, in all their varied forms, is something only we can do.

And in this, the wonder of it all continues. For in each loving act, we are invited to participate in the heart of God, allowed to be a small part of the expression of the sacred in this world. Through sowing and tending the seeds of compassion, we are brought closer to the essence of all that is holy and are given the opportunity to partake of the miraculous.

An amazing honor, indeed, and one that enriches us beyond measure.

Have a lovely Easter~~and feed a lamb or two, while you’re at it!

Loanne Marie

To read last year's Easter essay, click here.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spring Dawns Again!

Today is the Vernal Equinox. At precisely 11:32 a.m. MDT, the sun hovers directly above the equator, and light and dark are said to reside in perfect balance. While night and day are not exactly equal in length for many of us, we’re darn close. And from here on, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, light wins out.

Cultures throughout the world have, therefore, celebrated this event as a time of rebirth. Today, though, I find myself thinking of teeter~ totters. Bear with me.

When I was quite young, I was fascinated by a special clock which sat atop a table in my grandmother’s parlor. Below the clock face, a piece of glass offered a view into a three~dimensional outdoor scene housed in the structure’s base. There, a boy and girl sat upon a seesaw, endlessly moving up and down in rhythm to the ticking clock. I could watch this pair for hours, especially at night when a small bulb lit the scene from within. Sitting in the darkened parlor, I felt I was truly looking into another world.

Perhaps this is where my love of real life teeter~totters was born. I could ride them forever. This “sport” is all about balance. My playmate and I would often adjust our positions on the board~~the heavier child scooting toward the center, the lighter one inching nearer the outer edge~~until the wooden plank came to rest in its horizontal and still position.

Once equilibrium was achieved, however, we rarely remained there for more than a few seconds. Sometimes gravity got the better of us. Most of the time, though, one of us would purposely tip the scale, just for the sheer fun of moving again.

I’m thinking there might be a lesson in this. Balance is a precarious thing and we are not meant to be poised there always. We are meant to be moved by life, now up, now down.

Yet amid the fluctuations, there’s another type of balance that is ours to cultivate long~term. On the teeter~totter, we’d seldom sit serenely as we moved up and down. No, we’d let go of the handle, stand on the seat, ride backwards, whirl around. Anything to spice it up. Such antics required a dynamic internal equilibrium, one that spontaneously adjusted to meet our changing needs. We were, of course, propelled by a sense of daring as well.

Internal equilibrium and daring~~a nice combination for encountering life’s challenges.

On each of the two yearly equinoxes, the stasis point is fleeting. The rest of the year, either day or night predominates. This is true, too, in our own lives. Things may be a bit lighter or a bit darker. We may be going up, or we may be coming down. Yet amid these permutations, a balance point can be found within our own souls.

As a child, I loved the up and down rhythm I saw inside my grandmother’s clock. In my real world seesawing, though, I discovered a personal balance point within that steady rhythm. We can metaphorically do the same in our lives now. By cultivating an agile steadiness within, we can find novel ways to keep our seat during both the rising and the falling that comes our way.

We can, also, dare to relish the ride itself~~and we can do so whether one hand waves free, or both are holding on for dear life.

Happy spring to you all! And enjoy the ride!

Loanne Marie

Monday, March 8, 2010

Personal Calling

I’ve recently read two separate accounts of persons who fought courageously against the unspeakable brutality of the Nazi system. Working quietly and at great personal risk, these individuals were responsible for saving hundreds, even thousands, of lives.

I find stories of such heroism truly inspiring. However, they often leave me wondering about the rest of us. Ordinary mortals like you and me might not have been given, as of yet anyway, such dramatic roles to play in this world. What, then, is asked of us?

In Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, Franciscan priest, author, and lecturer, Richard Rohr, urges us not to be sidetracked by comparing ourselves to those who have reached great heights. He encourages us instead to seek our own personal calling.

“When we see that the world is enchanted, we see the revelation of God in each individual as an individual,” he writes. “Our job is not to be Mother Teresa, our job is not to be St. Frances~~it is to do what is ours to do.” He reminds us that St. Frances of Assisi’s final words as he lay dying were, “I have done what was mine to do; now you must do what is yours to do.”

We each arrive in this world with certain capabilities. This raw material is then shaped in various ways as our interactions with others are filtered through the culture in which we live and the peculiarities of what might be called fortune. We are not passive in this process. Particularly as we mature, many of us find that we can, that we must, choose our personal response to the undertaking that is life.

Because of the sheer variety of all these components, each one of us is truly a singular and evolving expression of the divine energy that imbues all creation.

“There is a unique truth that our lives alone can reflect,” writes Rohr. Our task, then, is to live from that divinely~inspired place that is ours alone, allowing it to shine out into the world.

Our calling may arise within a vocation or through a talent diligently refined over the course of a lifetime. We might be drawn to nurture others in their journey through the grand cycle of life and death. Or perhaps we are called simply (hah!) to be a kind and good person in every situation we come upon.

There are, indeed, an untold number of expressions of this quest to authentically be the person one is, as purely and as clearly as possible. “We must find out what part of the mystery is ours to reflect, “writes Rohr. “The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality. That is everybody’s greatest cross.”

In my work as a psychotherapist, I have the honor of witnessing folks engaging in the hard work of deeply experiencing their wounds. As they make peace with these hurt places, it is as though a lens is cleansed of debris and an essence is freed to radiate out with increasing brilliance. They grow larger, stronger and more radiant before my eyes.

It seems oftentimes that, in entering and healing our hurt places, we can come into ourselves more wholly and find our greatest gifts revealed. But these gifts arise through engaging our strengths, passions and delights as well.

To become fully oneself, within the context of a greater wisdom, seems indeed our personal calling, our cross to bear~~though this experience often arrives with more joyousness than that phrase readily conveys.

And besides, what other choice is there, really, than to be who we are. As Oscar Wilde puts it, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

May we each come more fully to reflect the part of the Mystery that is ours alone to express.

Blessings!

Loanne Marie

Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter’s Guidance

Snow falls outside my window. Black bean soup simmers on the stove, and a fire is laid in the grate. As the last of the light slips from this gray day, we’ll pull chairs close to the hearth and eat our simple meal bathed in the soft light of a warming fire.

Winter is here, and I find myself settling into this cold day like a long sigh. It feels so good to be still.

Our lives seem way too busy these days. Nearly every moment is filled with a hustle and a bustle~~a do, do, doing with a compulsive flair. Few of us keep the Sabbath anymore. We allow not one day a week for true rest and reflection. On days like today, I find myself wondering about that.

The world outside my window teaches me, any time of the year, about natural cycles and rhythms. And today it highlights the value of repose.

The vines in my courtyard are mostly bare wood beneath their coating of snow. They waste no energy trying to produce leaves or fiery trumpets of orange during the short days of winter. The trees are likewise bare~limbed, their energy withdrawn into roots nestled deep in the earth. And our vegetable garden lies dormant, with nothing reaching from the soil but last summer’s tomato cages and bean poles.

Outdoors, all is hunkered down and silent. Yet in this quietude, much is spoken of the importance of stillness, about the need for respite. The natural world does not repeatedly urge production. No, times of activity alternate with periods of rest. This is as it should be.

But oh, we humans~~and particularly we modern westerners~~have such difficulty with this concept! It makes me wonder if this might be one reason for some of the imbalance we find in our world and in ourselves.

While serious depressions can come from the diminished light of this time of year, could the milder winter blues stem from an expectation that we operate at summer capacity all year long? If we took our cues from the bears and the snakes, the yucca and the lilac, we just might make it through winter a bit more easily.

So today, I’ll sit by my window and be still. I’ll absorb the beauty of bare branches silhouetted against a leaden sky. And later, we’ll pull chairs near a warming fire and eat a hearty soup, thankful for the hush that surrounds us.

Today, this is my spiritual practice~~not action, but receptivity. Not seeking out, but opening to. Not effort, but repose. Ahhhh.

May you, too, be filled with the hush of winter.

Namaste!

Loanne Marie


Monday, February 8, 2010

Grace and Grit

I’ve just finished reading Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber, a memoir of his wife, Treya Killam Wilber’s life with, and eventual death from, a particularly virulent form of cancer. Told through his own reflections and excerpts from Treya’s journals and letters, this is a frank and inspiring tale of one woman’s quest to deal honorably with a harrowing disease.

I value this book on many levels. First, it is a real~life love story, taking us deep into the effects a chronic and life~threatening illness can have on a couple, in this case nearly destroying yet ultimately enlivening that relationship. The book also directly confronts the complexities of illness and healing, providing no easy answers but raising important questions about both traditional and alternative treatments and the philosophies behind them.

This story is also, though, an intimate portrayal of one woman’s choice to use her experience with cancer for psychological and spiritual growth. We see her heal that all~too~human wound of assumed separateness as she becomes more deeply and lovingly connected to life even as her illness progresses toward death.

One of Treya’s central challenges was to balance the urgency of doing everything she could to foster healing, with acknowledging the limits of her control and the need to accept what is and will be. On a spiritual level, as she grappled with blending these two seemingly opposites imperatives, she took cues from the passion inherent in western mystical traditions as well as the equanimity stressed in eastern schools, particularly Buddhism.

“I thought of those moments in meditation,” she writes, “when I’ve felt my heart open, a painfully wonderful sensation, a passionate feeling but without clinging.” And suddenly two words, which had seemed in conflict, coupled in her mind to form a new concept, one that was to support her throughout the rest of her life~~passionate equanimity.

She understood this to mean being “fully passionate about all aspects of life, about one’s relationship with spirit, to care to the depths of one’s being but with no trace of clinging or holding.” Passionate equanimity. I don’t know about you, but that phrase calls my name.

To live this concept would have me do what’s mine to do~~with my whole being and my best effort~~but without expectation or attempt to control outcomes. In other words, to do what I do simply for the love of it, for the love in it.

But how does one pull this off exactly? How do we, in Treya’s words, “work passionately for life, without attachment to the results?”

I think it requires a primary allegiance to something greater than our small selves. With this in place, we can fully engage in the experience of the moment, while holding that experience within the larger context that includes yet surpasses it. That broad vision helps to moderate our ego’s understandable desire for a particular outcome. We begin to cultivate the ability to hold our wishes lightly and to let go the delusion that the world ought to conform to those wishes.

As Treya’s spiritual practice swells with an intimate and intricate awareness of this larger reality, we stand beside her as she negotiates the challenges brought by her illness while, at the same time, more wholly expressing her unique gifts in the world. Increasingly, Treya fully engages in what is truly hers to do, while wasting less energy attempting to control what is not.

And if Treya could do that, so can we all.

Namaste!

Loanne Marie