Spiritual Fruits or Just Nuts?

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down the dulcimer. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground. Let the beauty we love be what we do.   ~~Rumi

I love this picture, taken when the Christ the Redeemer statue was under construction.   One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it was built in Rio di Janiero in the 1920’s and is huge, overlooking the whole city.  It captures how I so often feel on the path and I look at it from time to time to remind me of what it symbolizes to me in my own life….I often think of the words of Jesus telling me that the kingdom of heaven is within, that all is One, that we are safe and all is well.  We are not abandoned here, we are not alone here, all we have to do is plug into that larger place within us that is unobstructed, open, free, full of peace and love.  Pretty easy to say,  much harder to really practice.

A lot of times I feel like that picture…there might be a Christ within, but it is under construction most of the time.  My Buddha Nature is always available to me, say the teachers of the dharma, but I have to practice skillfulness in cultivating those seeds in order to really taste the fruit they bear.   Anyone who has ever really tried to work with this knows there is a reason they call it a practice 😉

I have had enough training from teachers of many paths to have a certain perspective on things, a certain approach, my own beliefs and so on.  I work with a lot of people on a lot of issues; there are a variety of reasons people seek out a coach or healer.  But underneath the presenting reason, I  believe we are all seeking healing which leads to union with God, with our true nature, with our essence.  I wrote about some of this in a few posts on the Blessings Blog, about distance healing and how that works, spiritually and physically.   True healing has evidence of the spiritual fruits and I believe taking daily bites  of our intended fruit just scatters those seeds out into the collective to benefit all.  But we have to be intentional about it in order to fully experience it.

It is my belief that how I feel or remember an experience has little to do with the qualities of the experience itself.  Some people leave our sessions feelings relaxed or energized, feeling happy or crying as grief releases.  I don’t see any of those as good or bad or right or wrong.  It’s just how you feel in the moment.  Healing and growth aren’t always comfortable, but they are always optional and not everyone chooses it.  So how an experience feels in the moment doesn’t tell me a lot about the experience itself–not everything that feels good is good.  Cocaine feels good in the moment and crying often doesn’t.  But that doesn’t mean snorting coke is good and crying is bad.  So we have to look for the fruits of an experience over time.

Buddhism and Christianity approach this in different ways, but work with the same qualities of discernment and fruition over time.  You really can tell a tree by its fruits and pear seeds  won’t grow into apple trees.  Both traditions tell us that if we practice prayer and meditation, working with our own process around seeking that Light, that heaven within, your Buddha Nature, or whatever else you may choose to call it, then you can predict certain fruits.

The Fruits of the Spirit are Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-control…

~~ Galatians 5: 22-23

The limitless qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are your deep-down, ultimate reality,  and those are qualities that can’t be improved upon. If you’re not feeling particularly kind, compassionate, joyful, or equanimous at the moment, take heart: the Four Limitless Ones are there like seeds, waiting to be cultivated through practice—and, being limitless, they’re rich enough to be worked with for a lifetime.

~~Pema Chodron, Dharma Teacher

I find this incredibly encouraging.  I love that in every tradition, the teachers or prophets tell us we are good.  People or bad theology  may try to tell you something different, but that’s their own stuff–take it all with a grain of salt and look for the fruits.   This is why having community and teachers or spiritual directors is so important, why we are meant to grow together in community, rather than just try to figure this all out alone–sometimes our own stuff gets in the way and we either don’t hear valuable feedback to help us grow, we have our own blinds spots,  we can misunderstand something and turn it into a shame spiral.  Other people can provide valuable feedback,  but  it is important to be discerning about those fruits as well.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what someone else says or does, what matters is how I respond to that and what I choose to believe about myself as a result.

Healthy spiritual traditions and practices  tell me that if I am truly on the path, my love and compassion toward myself and others will grow, not diminish.  So how it feels in the moment may be uncomfortable or make me face my deepest fears– and that can be a good thing.  But pay attention to the fruits, because what I’m working with and looking for to discern if choices and experiences are good for me are the spiritual fruits.   I am seeking to cultivate the seeds of spiritual fruits, but honestly sometimes I’m just nuts.  So cocaine may feel good in the moment, but the fruits won’t be sweet over time.  Crying, looking at my own reactions to things or facing some hard truths in life  may be challenging and bring up a lot of grief or old feelings, but over time that can yield a lot of compassion, inner peace and joy.  These things are predictable and proven methods of discernment.

It’s nice to know that on this journey so many have come before me and will come after me.  It’s nice to know there are teachers, books, communities and practices to help me develop skillfulness, cultivate the fruits of the spirit and share that with others.   It’s so nice to know every tradition tells us we are already good and really just expected to be nice, to love, to extend love and kindness, mercy and forgiveness.  The Prophet Micah tells us,

He has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God…

Yogi Bhajan reminds us,

Never compete, never compare and never confuse yourself with everything here. You have come from God. Be with your God and see the glory of God in all, big and small. God shall be with you.

Pema Chodron teaches on the Four Limitless Qualities,  reminding us that our basic goodness, our Buddha Nature, what others might call that Christ within, is always available to us because we already have those seeds planted within, we only have to nourish them.   I have a sign on my desk that reminds me, “Divine Peace and Love surround me and dwell in me.  I am safe and trust the process of  Life.”  I find that when I plug into the Divine Peace which always surrounds me and dwells within me, that I feel safe and can indeed trust the process of life.  But I have to practice it.  I have to decide which fruits I will choose to eat from today, which seeds I will nourish and cultivate over time.

I have a variety of Questions I ask the Blessings Coaching clients.  Here is a set related to these things….

Humans get angry or upset about a variety of things. What is upsetting to me may not be upsetting to you. What’s important to your spouse, boss, friends or family may not be important to you, or you may find a situation presents itself as the other way around.  Hurt feelings and reactions often result from unmet expectations and the fruits can be sweet or bitter.   Getting upset about certain things is human and normal—a full range of emotions is normal and healthy.  It’s when we get triggered and go to extremes in our unmindful reactions that it creates problems for self and others. So as I sit with these Q’s, what comes up in me?

1.  When I’m angry or upset, what do I do? Do I blow up or shut down? Do I just check out and run away—physically or emotionally leave?    Do I make choices or behave in ways I later regret?  Am I willing to take responsibility for this and change?

2. When I experience “negative” emotions about something or someone…anger, envy, jealousy, resentment, and so on, what do I do? Do I injure or harm myself or others?  Do I punish them physically, emotionally or spiritually?   Do I make it all about them? Do I spread gossip about them that is untrue? Do I slander them? Do I suddenly begin to speak ill of or blame someone I once praised? Do I ignore them?   Make snide remarks?  Engage in retaliation with destruction of property or something dear to them?  Do I retaliate with destruction of their reputation?  Do I lie to them in order to avoid them or my feelings about it?  If in a committed relationship, do I run up debt or spend money we don’t have to get even?   Am I willing to take responsibility for this and change?

3. If the uncomfortable feelings or negative emotions come into play and I am around children or animals, do I take it out on them? What about elders, children or people under my care or responsibility—do I abuse my authority and take it out on employees, helpless patients in a nursing home,  students in a classroom or the clerk at the gas station? Do I manage my own energy and emotions well, or does everyone feel my moods change and take cover from the storm?  Am I willing to take responsibility for this and change?

4. When I feel positive emotions like joy, for myself or others, can I celebrate that?  Can I celebrate the good fortunes of another, or does it turn into envy or resentment?  Can I celebrate my own good fortunes and my own life, or do I feel like I don’t deserve it and have to work harder than ever now?  Do I have balance between my ups and downs, or am I dependent on external circumstances for my own moods?  Am I willing to take responsibility for this and change?

5.  What do I do with myself when these things come up in me?   Do I run away, work more, drink more, eat more or less, hide in retail therapy or other addictions?  Can I just sit with the uncomfortable feelings without lashing out or shutting down?  Are the fruits of my experience bringing me to greater wholeness, or do they disintegrate me and create bitter fruit?  Do my reactions and behaviors when I am stressed create problems in my relationships, at work, and result in self-hatred, guilt or  shame for me later?  Am I willing to take responsibility for this and change?

6.  Am I willing to work on this, to take responsibility for myself and my life force?  Am I willing to grow and change?  If so, how?  When?  If not now, when?

These can be frightening questions, and are not meant to be worked through alone.  Find a teacher, a coach, a spiritual director, good therapist or community as you try to work through these things.  We are not meant to be here all alone, just working on these things for ourselves.  We are born into communities and what impacts one impacts all.  So know that working on these things and cultivating sweet fruit in life benefits not just you, but everyone.   If you have questions or would like more info,  feel free to make a comment or contact me directly.

Peace and blessings, have a great day!




The sun shines and warms and lights us and we have no curiosity to know why this is so; but we ask the reason of all evil, of pain, and hunger, and mosquitoes and silly people.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been reflecting lately on changes and illusions and all that happens as we age (even if we don’t grow up), all that happens as we grow and change and how much of life is how we see it.  In the pic above, do you see two old folks,  do you see the vase, do you see the woman coming through the doorway, do you see the young people?   It all changes as your viewpoint changes.  So much of life is like that.  So much of health and relationships are like that.  So much that happens internally is like that.  I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately, especially physical changes and how that impacts relationship changes and all of  life, or at least our viewpoint about it.  I think  Ralphie is right– I ask the reasons for all kinds of things, especially silly people 😉  But then even that changes.

Bodies change for sure.  It’s funny—they probably change more when we are kids, but we don’t notice it.  The adults around us notice it, as in, “I can’t believe how big you are getting!” (fyi, it’s not appropriate to say that to a 40 year old woman no matter what) but I think I am more acutely aware of the changes in my body now, at  40, than ever before…print seems a little smaller, hair a little more silvery at the top, those pounds I gained when I quit smoking still linger,  friends throw out words like peri-menopause and talk about hormones and sick parents and getting older in whole new ways.

My longest, best-est friend and karma sister recently had a lump in her breast.  The same breast that had a pre-cancerous lump in it a few years ago.  A lump I went to the doctor with her to get checked because it was scary and didn’t feel quite right.  A lump that we both assumed would be OK, but a lump nonetheless, considering how many people we both know who have had not-happy lumps.  Her lump turned out to be a cyst, but it got me thinking about all kinds of things, got me feeling all kinds of things, got me pondering all kinds of things.

It’s a certain kind of stress when someone you love is sick or hurting, or might possibly be sick or hurting.  I think it’s harder to deal with a sick loved one than to be sick yourself, thus the literal definition of compassion means, “to suffer with.”   There was a study done a few years ago about caregivers of hospice patients.  Researchers asked hospice patients to rate their pain on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest possible pain.  On average, the patients put their pain at about a 4 on a 10 point scale.  The caregivers of these hospice patients were then asked at what level they would rate the patient’s pain.  Caregivers nearly always rated the patient’s pain at an 8 on a 10 point scale–the caregivers essentially doubled the patient’s pain.  I believe this is because they were experiencing what is known as  caregiver burnout or  compassion fatigue– their own pain plus the patient’s pain.   The weight of care-giving, of feeling the pain of a loved one, can be a heavy burden indeed.  But at the same time, it’s a joy to really care for someone you care for, to be that present to someone you love.  It’s an interesting mixed bag.   It can be exhausting to be on either side of the coin, but I honestly think being the caregiver is harder in some ways.  But then that changes too, as time passes and bodies change.

This sister and I have been through fire together and have been on both sides of that coin.  It’s one that I suspect over time will be flipped again and each time we show up for each other, feel the feelings, face the fears, dive into the deep end holding hands and still find some giggles along the way.  I was thinking about all of this stuff in the last week…sick friends, sick family, sometimes my own sick mind 😉   But how we can all do it together and that always makes it better.  Not always easier, but better.  I just spent an intense weekend with my mother, doing some life review and going through boxes of old stuff in closets, which I will probably write about another time.  But it was deep and intense and sad and interesting and sort of surreal in a way.  Boxes of stuff in closets, pictures, all of it marking the passage of time and changes along the way.  I guess someday someone will do that with some of my stuff.  I hope it’s a little easier for them than it is for me at times, but we all have our own viewpoint, our own places that feel tender or hard, so who knows?

My  friend and karma sister have been through a lot of this together and I know as things change in life, we will just keep walking the path.  We’ve done a lot of this stuff together already and we are both still young.  Both sides of the coin are interesting.  When my mom was in some of her last stages of treatment options for breast cancer,  I ended up with a “mass” on my ovary.  A ginormous, bigger-than-a-baseball size mass on my ovary.  My left one. A mass my primary doc seemed rather in a hurry to put through additional testing. One that made my back hurt and upset my stomach and seemed rather concerning to her. Whoa.

My clinical, I-worked-in-hospice-for-years-and-know-the-signs-and-symptoms-of-ovarian-cancer brain kicked in, and while I understood at a very cognitive level that the signs for a cyst that size and the signs for a tumor that size are …well, pretty damn much the same at that stage of the game, I was still vaguely aware of a anxiety that was far greater than about my own happy female parts.

My mom was still doing chemo and other treatments for a malignancy that is best described as an already untamed breast cancer gone totally wild, with metastases doing the rumba all through her body…the organs and bones, the skull and the chest…it was everywhere by that point. My aunt had just finished her own surgery and treatment for breast cancer, and one of my other very good sister-friends was starting radiation for—you guessed it–breast cancer.  Some of the most beloved people in my life have died from cancer and I suddenly felt surrounded by it, engulfed by it.  Part of the problem when this stuff happens is that I know too much after working in hospice all those years.  It’s great to know what to expect, but at the same time sometimes it’s a real bummer to know what to expect.  I am not afraid of dying and long ago made decisions about what my treatment choices would be if faced with this sort of situation.  I think my friends were more worried than I was, and I tried to not provoke any additional concern (or sisterly wrath, for that matter) by refusing to investigate further.

I was so not in the mood to be doing my own journey down oncology lane, but there I was… getting tests, giving blood and letting people poke and prod me.  Nice people, but pokers and prodders nonetheless.  I am generally not a welcoming recipient of poking and prodding and this was no exception.  But off I went, swept away in a regimen of testing and waiting.  I didn’t tell anyone in my family and shared it with only a few close friends.  I wasn’t trying to be secretive, I just couldn’t talk about it yet.  I simply did not have a vocabulary for how it felt internally….almost non-attached in a surreal way, but with this profound sense of keen interest, curiosity into this unknown journey, one I have observed from the outside hundreds of times as a health-care provider, a daughter, a sister, a friend.  But not one I had ever experienced internally.

It was extraordinary in a way, like crystallized moments caught in time, this very conscious feeling of “don’t lose this, something significant is happening here.”  There was depth to it, like the way it feels to be underwater in the silence, knowing there is sound and movement just above you, knowing you can break through the surface at any time.  It reminded me of the way the first apples taste in the fall, crisp and juicy, tart and sweet, aware summer has passed but the cold is not upon us, trying to let go and hold on at the same time. Time itself took on this very weird quality, and I kept thinking of this mantra from Buddhism,

whatever arises today is fresh, the essence of realization, the source of my awakening.”

I tried to practice really being with it, giving into a direct experience so visceral that I didn’t know how to talk about it, could only sit with and touch lightly.  It was one of those times of feeling all the opposites and knowing it’s all One, this experience of being full and empty, having an experience that was so very personal and yet so very universal.

Two weeks seems longer than normal while waiting for results and then more weird tests.  My primary physician, a very kind and knowledgeable woman whom I see only under duress, sent to me another doctor.  A male doctor.  A not-quite-60 looking male doctor who is an ob-gyn, an oncologist, a lawyer, and a surgeon.  I wanted to ask him if he went to medical school straight out of kindergarten, but I managed to control myself.  A kindly but all-about-business sort of guy, he had more letters behind his name than in his name and a large office staff.  He worked at the end of a very long hallway in a very bright yet somehow drab medical building, the kind that is used to stressed out people wandering through its maze of corridors and signs, aching for news, clutching reports and desperately in need of a cup of decent coffee. The whole thing was decidedly unnerving.  My good friend and karma sister went with me that time, declaring when one is off to see a physician with that many scary initials on his business card, you should not go alone.  So off we went, down the brightly lit, artificial feeling hallway, not really alone but feeling like it anyway.

But I was so glad to have her come.  Because while I was quite certain this was only a cyst, nothing to worry about and nothing I would treat conventionally if it turned out to be worrisome, the whole thing was unsettling and a honestly a bit intimidating. Big words in the halls and on the office door like “Women’s Oncology Center,” and “Cancer Research Center” are scary words.  They just are.  And I found it bringing up grief for all the other women who go through these things, and how, as Lily Tomlin said, we are all in this together, by ourselves.  Honestly the thought of having cancer didn’t scare me as much as what they might want to do about it, and while he was very nice, all the testing is just unpleasant.  More pelvic exams and ultrasounds (for the uninitiated, suffice it to say these should at least come with beer, cigarettes and some small talk.  At one point during the ultrasound I wanted to ask him if he was looking for my ovaries or my tonsils.  Again I restrained myself).  Then more scary words, more medical histories, etc, etc, etc.

And even though all was well, there was still so much grief in me…as a woman, a daughter, a friend, a niece, a soul sister…so much grief for all the women and families who do this every day, alone even when surrounded by friends or family, not wanting to worry anyone else yet needing the support and feeling anxious internally…for all the women who have always had such a capacity for life, for the place in us that is so resilient and has the ability to bounce back, and yet we are also so fragile.  We are all so fragile and all so strong and so resilient, and I am in awe of those among us who are aware of how much we always walk a thin line between life and death, always doing both at the same time, always making choices in one direction or another, somehow trusting the process of life to just take us to the next right thing, the next right place, the next step in the journey.  Bless those walking it, and those who walk with them, those who light the path and blaze the trails.

And bless us all, and all the changes we all go through every day…

Night Moon.

Night Stars….

🙂 peace

Deserts, Loneliness and the Happy Night

The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness.

~~Norma Cousins

Happy Saturday! 🙂

This morning I’m thinking of deserts, demons and coming home to the self, about all of the folks out there plagued or harassed by some sort of sickness or inner demon….  These things are on my mind for lots of reasons, but primarily because  I just spent the last week literally sicker than I have ever been.  Because my core spiritual training is native with some Buddhist and Christian thrown in for seasoning, my assumption is that I just had the  equivalent of a flu shot; that my immunity and understanding of what to do with this bug will be useful in the coming fall and winter as I work with clients who will come in with a similar illness.   I think of it as on the job training… I know what worked and what didn’t,  what to give clients who come seeking healing with that particular funk.

I used the week as a time of rest, prayer and for sitting with some of  the feelings that came up as I was so sick, unable to do much but lay around and sweat out a high fever.  Even though friends came and fed me and brought essentials like panang curry and chocolate ice cream (strictly for medicinal purposes of course),  a time still came when the stir crazy loneliness hit, when I had to sit and look at some of the demons that come up in times of physical exhaustion or weakness.  It was a good week for that, for sitting with what can come in a time like this if I let it.  It was a week of meditation, contemplation, acupuncture and herbs, homeopathics and people coming and going to love me up.  For this I am extremely grateful–I am a blessed, abundant woman indeed.

I am a big believer that if we allow ourselves balance, rest and a gentle lifestyle, we will be healthier in general, in every sense of what health can mean.   I also know  matter has limitation,  so sometimes bodies get sick or tired.  The kindest thing we can do for ourselves in those times is to be tender with that direct experience as well, touching it lightly and finding the gifts in it, inviting it in like a wise teacher.  No need for judgment or harshness, just gently being with it as I would a sick child.  Such was this week for me. The few times this week I was able to string a few thoughts together, I thought about deserts, demons and how many people out there face sickness and a soul-sucking loneliness every single day.  All we can do in those times is touch that knowing lightly as well, perhaps engage in a metta practice and offer loving-kindness to all the others having such a personal yet universal experience.

The word “lonely” traces back its original meaning to the word “desolate,” which traces back to the 14th century word meaning “the desert.”  The word “desert” literally means “to abandon,” and is also the root of the word “hermit.”  In ancient times the desert was seen as the place demons inhabited, the place where one would face uncertainty, a place we would certainly face life and death.  All of the religions of the book show prophets, teachers, healers and later seekers of every tradition entering the desert to seek God.  In ancient times it was understood that demons were not evil spirits existing outside of us, but rather our inner demons, our inner struggles, our attachments, addictions and fears.  A true seeker entered the desert to face his own demons and in doing so would find God there, dwelling within and among him.

There are currently about seven billion people on the planet. We are wired 24/7 and would be hard pressed to find many places on earth that are totally inaccessible or uninhabited.  Backpacker magazine recently reported that even in what is now generously termed  “the back country,” one can still hear the drone of a plane or the hum of a car, can use a cell phone or GPS and can generally reach some form of civilization within about 20 miles.  There is a certain paradox in knowing we are around more people than ever, are wired and talking to someone nearly constantly,  yet are seemingly less connected in our hearts and souls.   Many people describe feeling a sense of isolation, speak of the dryness of a desert within and ache with a deep sense of separation.  If we can feel lonely in a crowd—in fact feel more lonely in a crowd, there must be more to this sense of inner desolation than just the presence or absence of other humans.

We are born into families, into communities, into social groups and as adults still crave this connection.   While I believe it is meaningful connection we seek, even in the most dysfunctional of families it is painful to force a separation from them.  Being somehow bonded to a group is programmed into us as part of an enduring survival instinct and we yearn for it from cradle to grave.  We are communal creatures and for centuries we lived as members of tribes, as beings in cultures and in clusters that provided identity, protection and provision.  The Industrial Revolution changed all of that and we are no longer an agriculturally based society  which requires us to stay in one place with the same group of people to survive.  Some suggest this has created a sense of ecological grief, a sense of separateness from the earth, from our community and from ourselves.  Families are scattered and most of us now belong to a tribe we create, rather than the one into which we are born.  There is a certain starkness in acknowledging it might be somehow easier to talk to someone in Australia via email or chat than to walk across the street to speak to a neighbor. It seems the more connected we are electronically the less connected we feel personally.

Babies who are not touched or held, nurtured or cared for emotionally will shrivel up and die.  Adults who experience this sense of loneliness or desolation often label it “depression” and seek out better living through chemistry.  According to a recent government study, which can be found on the CDC website,

Antidepressants have become the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. They’re prescribed more than drugs to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, or headaches. Adult use of antidepressants almost tripled between the periods 1988-1994 and 1999-2000. Between 1995 and 2002 the use of these drugs rose 48 percent.

This staggering stat makes me curious about a few things.  First, is some of what we now label “depression” actually a deeper spiritual or existential pain?  Is it the ache of loneliness that comes from lack of meaningful relationships and understanding?  I also wonder, of those who truly are clinical depressed, if this sense of loneliness or lack of meaningful connection leads to depression, which leads to more loneliness and so on.  It also appears as though there is more to depression and loneliness than just being “alone.”  Tillich said that we use the world “solitude” to express the joy of being alone, and “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone.  Yet there is something underneath all of this, a fundamental need for connection to others, but to ourselves as well.

I believe the sense of desolation most people describe as loneliness is deeply primal and spiritual in nature.  If the mere presence of other human beings was enough to cure loneliness and depression we would all be happy, joyous and skipping through the day, eternally fulfilled and content.  Yet there is something more, a deeper need we have for connection, an existential pain that cannot be cured solely through interaction with others.  In fact, feeling a lack of understanding from others and a sense of separation from God can be one of the most painful forms of loneliness.  Even Jesus cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” when he experienced feeling abandoned by God. The deep experience of loneliness that comes from a feeling of spiritual separation is what John of the Cross termed the Dark Night of the Soul.

John describes the spiritual quest and a constant unfolding and surrendering to a radical leap of faith, totally abandoning oneself to the process. I have found this same template in every tradition and religion, almost like an initiation into deeper spiritual realms.  John says the first stages of the spiritual journey are often marked by a sense of excitement, enjoyment and childlike contentment, an inner realization of our built in connection to God.  The path appears to be straight and clear and allows one’s faith practice to deepen.   Over time the sense of connection and joy that come from spiritual practice begins to dry up and we enter a spiritual desert.  As the soul begins to feel the dryness, the previous experiences of God seem as intangible as vapor evaporating and the soul begins to doubt.  John says this is when God begins the purification process for even greater love and Union, in which the deepest longings of the soul are fulfilled.  This time is what the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes as “a crisis moment in the life of prayer,” and says that if we give into the doubt or stop our spiritual practice (whatever it may be), the desolation will seem permanent.  We are encouraged to keep going, even in the dryness.  The way out is through.  Keep showing up at the well of the Spirit, even if it seems as though rain will never come again.

The deepest and most profound loneliness I have ever experienced is in this sense of separation from the God.  Sometimes I think the Dark Night of the Soul sounds a bit melodramatic, but at the very least it feels like a Cloudy Morning of the Soul.  It is a God-shaped hole, a feeling of desolation and loneliness so deep, so acute and so raw it takes my breath away.  John also helpfully points out that there is no earthly pleasure to take its place, only a restless, consuming, longing ache for the Divine.   The things in which one used to find pleasure just seem empty, tasteless and arid.  The heart and soul ache for God again, long for the Beloved,  miss the sense of Oneness like the desert misses rain.  Everything within the soul is in agony,  the created longing for the Creator.   It feels like going from nights of ecstasy and ardor to being frozen by the winter of the soul, like being burned alive and frozen to death at the same time.  There is no language to explain the experience, no words to describe the indescribable  loneliness that is simply excruciating.  This experience is not clinical depression, but a purification of the soul.  God is still there, coaxing, loving, drawing the soul out the way a loving adult coaxes a trusting toddler to take first steps.

All of the spiritual traditions and religions of the book describe these experiences.   They describe a deep understanding that the Divine wishes a relationship and communion with us, as much as our souls long for communion with God.  The Koran, the Torah, the Psalms and parables of Jesus describe many of these experiences of coming and going, of longing and pain, of union and separation, of things being lost and found.  These were desert people and understood the life and death nature of the dryness of the desert,  so God is often described as a form of “water,” as a lover wanting to seek relationship, of enduring friendship and provision.  And while the desert may be the image of separation from God, it is also where one goes to seek God.  If  you trace the words Heaven or Paradise back to their original meaning, they  literally translate as “a garden.”

Every tradition tries to convey an understanding of the reciprocal need and nature of this connection to the Divine, of this deeper understanding that we are not isolated and forgotten.  Genesis says we “should not be alone.”   Jesus wanted his friends with him and was forever going off in boats to fish and hang out with them.  The Torah and Old Testament are full of stories of God continually reaching out to the chosen people.   The Hindus speak of the Atman, the “Eternal Self,” and of ashrams, teachers and methods for spiritual union.   The Buddhists speak of your Buddha Nature and of opening one’s heart to hold all sentient beings, being as gentle and consistent in your kindness as a loving mother is to her only child.  Kabir described it as “the breath inside the breath.”  One of my favorites, from the sayings of Mohammed, says

The One to whom you pray is closer to you than the neck of your camel…

For centuries we have needed, craved and sought these connections.  If we seek to fill the God-shaped hole with just anything or anyone we will still feel lonely because it is not a hole that can be filled with a substance or even a human lover.  Much of our economy runs on and is based on the belief that something outside of us will make us happy.  The ads tell us that if we have the right car, the right mate, drink the right beer, are the right size/shape/color, have more/less hair, the right phone, have the right clothes, work harder/smarter/faster, then you can rest, then you can be happy.  Yet we are a nation of people longing for more connection, aching inside with a cavernous emptiness, eating antidepressants and antacids, stuffing our grief and loneliness with work, retail therapy or countless other addictions, smiling through the pain and existing or surviving instead of really living.

I am not suggesting that if you just do more therapy, pray harder, go to more yoga classes, eat raw or think happy thoughts all of these things will resolve overnight.  In fact, just the opposite. It is important to discern if the sense of loneliness, isolation and lack of pleasure is truly depression,  or if it is a deeper existential pain no pill can cure.  A true Dark Night will leave you functioning fully and will at some point resolve as mysteriously as it appeared.  You will find that you suddenly feel God again and the sense of peace, joy and connection to the Divine is even stronger than it was before.

It does appear as though there is an ancient, universal need for connection and the path is similar in each tradition and culture.  While in the moment it can feel exceedingly uncomfortable or even grievous, the path appears to open only as much as we can or will give ourselves to it.  This path inevitably involves forgiveness, seeing things in a new way, letting go of resentments and finding a loving face of the Divine.  For those who do not feel comfortable with a concept of a deity, there is still a need for gentleness and compassion toward self and others, what the Buddhists might call metta.  All of these things lead to a deeper sense of connection to the Self, to God, to community, and the loneliness becomes less and less, while the peace and joy become more and more.  I can personally  attest that the experience of the pain and loneliness does in fact hollow out a space for better things to come and has the potential to be filled with bliss and equanimity.

The key to cracking the lock that houses loneliness is taking the time to get to know yourself,  to really prioritize what is most important to you. Meaningful connection with others is important and encouraged, as is living congruently with your values, hopes and dreams.  But until you make the time and commit to sitting with yourself, to entering into the desert to face your demons, they will always plague you.  Carl Jung said  if you don’t do this deeper work these things in your unconscious will “rise up to you as your life and you will call it your fate.”   Even though I have found it painful at times, I have truly come to believe that healing comes most easily through the door of an open heart, especially in these times when we are so tired and weakened by pain or sickness.

There is a piece of Buddhist wisdom which says,

Death is certain.  The time of death is uncertain.  Knowing this, what is the most important thing?

For many of us, finding a sense of peace and joy again is the most important thing; truly living life to the fullest and being connected to family and friends is the most important thing.  The key  is to do less and be more.  The key is to slow down enough to hear the inner Voice of Love, to get in touch with the places inside of  you that already hold all you need.  The key is to be indiscriminately loving and gentle with yourself;  to explore what the still, small voice may be saying to you.  The key is to allow yourself to be plunged into the darkness to find the Light, to know on the other side you once again melt into God, or the Atman, or your Buddha Nature…whatever you call it, you can again return to your true home.

John of the Cross ends his explanation this way,

Although as it journeys it is supported by no particular interior light of understanding, nor by any exterior guide, that it may receive satisfaction there from on this lofty road—it is completely deprived of all this by this thick darkness—yet its love alone, which burns at this time, and makes its heart to long for the Beloved, is that which now moves and guides it, and makes it to soar upward to its God along the road of solitude, without its knowing how or in what manner.

There follows this line:

In the happy night.

Wishing everyone happy days and nights, a great weekend and the wisdom of a few dark times as well…

Peace and blessings,

T 🙂

The Practice of Loving-Kindness

A few people have asked me lately about metta, also known in some circles as maitri.   Metta is a practice of loving kindness toward self and others.  There are volumes written about metta, it is a basic Buddhist practice in all traditions.  Pema Chodron is a well known teacher of this practice and has written many books on the subject.

The basic practice is to first practice loving kindness toward the self, to truly make friends with yourself.   When you find peace within, you can more readily practice it toward others.  The Judeo-Christian version of this is “to love your neighbor as yourself.”   It is truly a practice to be gentle and kind with yourself,  practicing this with a boundless, open heart.   It requires finding the balance between healthy and unhealthy cravings, understanding healthy desires and boundaries,  then putting them into practice with self and others.

A strong suggestion~~don’t start this with someone with whom you have a lot of negative energy or anger.  Don’t start with someone who hurt you.  Start with yourself and if that is just too hard, take gentle note of that.  Then visualize those you find it easy to love and let your body and mind relax into that.  Imagine them with you, feel the love, feel the smile, feel the way you expand and open in that love.  Include yourself in the way that feels, and invite the fear and anxiety into that circle of love.

If you have a tradition that is helpful to you, imagine that…if it is Christian, then see the love in the eyes of Jesus, feel Him look at you and melt away the fear.  If it is another tradition or there is an icon or certain image that speaks to you, allow it to fill you and feed you.  Hold yourself as gently and patiently as you would a small, frightened child.  Be kind to yourself.  Allow this to take as long as it takes, even if it takes years or lifetimes.  I cannot think of a kinder, more gentle prayer practice in any tradition than this practice.  It truly is about being the body of Christ, or getting in touch with your Buddha nature.  It is about practicing peace and allowing that to radiate out into your life, into the lives of those whom you love.

So many people have asked me about this lately I wanted to at least post the basic metta practice chant.  The practice is simple, although not always easy 😉     Give yourself some time to practice this, don’t expect yourself to master this in the immediate western way.  Simply allow the practice to transform you.  It might be helpful to find a teacher, or listen to Pema Chodron, to find a local dharma center or practice group, or even read more about this if you find it resonates with you.  If you google “metta chant,” you will find a number of audio files, youtube videos, etc.    Feel free to contact me directly or post a question or comment if you want more info.

Metta Chant

May I be free from anger and hatred.

May I be free from greed and selfishness.

May I be free from fears and anxiety.

May I be free from all pain and suffering.

May I be free from ignorance and delusion.

May I be free from all negative states of mind.

May I be happy and peaceful.

May I be liberated from bondages.

May I experience peace and tranquility within.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from anger and hatred.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from greed and selfishness.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from fears and anxiety.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from all pain and suffering.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from ignorance and delusion.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from all negative states of mind.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be happy and peaceful.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be liberated from bondages.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me experience peace and tranquility within.

May all beings be free from anger and hatred.

May all beings be free from greed and selfishness.

May all beings be free from fears and anxiety.

May all beings be free from all pain and suffering.

May all beings be free from ignorance and delusion.

May all beings be free from all negative states of mind.

May all beings be happy and peaceful.

May all beings be liberated from bondages.

May all beings experience peace and tranquility within.

Peace and blessings,


The Mountain Remains…

I am always with all beings, I abandon no one.  And however great your inner darkness, you are never separate from Me.   Let your thoughts flow past you calmly.  Keep Me near, at every moment.  Trust Me with your life, because I Am you, more than you yourself are…

~~~Bhagavad Gita

I spent the last few days with my parental units, in a little town in Southeast Missouri.  This is an area I blogged about last week when I was thinking of my grandmother and my memories of smells, heaven and so on.  Lest I sound too romantic, the other reality is that this area located in the buckle of the bible belt boasts some pretty startling stats:  Highest illiteracy rates in the state.  Nearly 30% of children and seniors live below the poverty line.  A neighboring county claims the state prize for the most arrests for operating meth labs  and is rampant with child abuse and domestic violence, drug abuse and alcoholism.  It is literally in the middle of nowhere, a dot on a state road map  in the foothills of the Ozark mountains.  My cell phone doesn’t work because it is so far from civilization and if there is ever an emergency, there is no ambulance service.  You buy into a 911 package that allows a helicopter to transport you to a hospital about 50 miles away.

This is an area about an hour from a hospital, an hour from a major grocery store or movie theater, an area settled centuries ago by native mound builders and which later experienced some fierce fighting and plundering during the Civil War.  The Trail of Tears was prominent all through this area and various Indian tribes lived there for centuries before the Europeans arrived.  Much of my ancestry can be traced to the Irish  who settled there then married Cherokees who managed to escape from the Trail and find a new life in those rugged hills.  An old Civil War road runs along a ridge toward the back of their property, a heavily wooded area full of deer and other game, birds and bugs and snakes of all stripes.  In the cemetery where my father’s mother is buried, about two miles back on a dirt road, there is a large hand carved stone, noting only that it is at the head of a mass grave of slaves and Indian mound builders.  No one seems to have other information, but it has always fascinated me.  So it’s not exactly Heaven on paper, but I actually believe Heaven is within, regardless of where I may or may not be.  And besides– God I love it there.  It’s nature at its best;  the people, landscape and its inhabitants wild and untamed, with rolling hills and valleys, which in this part of the world are referred to as “hollers.”

During this trip, we made pickles and tomato juice with ingredients straight from the garden, ran a few errands and I worked in the yard some.  This is my favorite part, the garden and cutting acres of grass.  My father has some big lawn mower things that are nicer than one of the cars I owned in college, a ratty old 4-speed copper colored Datsun  my friend Tom affectionately referred to as “The Turd.”   I learned pretty quickly as a child that if you are cutting grass or doing dishes, people just leave you alone to do your own thing.  This remains true even now. So I like to cut the grass.

Going to their place is always an adventure.  The drive down takes close to 3 hours and rolls through some gorgeous country, through little towns and hamlets named after characters and areas from the Bible, after people long forgotten other than a passing through their creeks or farms.   Yet these mountains and valleys remain, solid witnesses to the passage of time.   I thought of my grandmother a lot on the way down and her uncanny ability to predict the weather, among other things.  She swore that if the cows were laying down (which they were on Thursday) it was a sign of  “falling weather,” and to expect rain or snow or whatever seasonal precipitation falls that time of year.  For the record, the cattle were all sprawled out like college kids after a drinking binge, but the skies were sunny and  earth-bound blue, with no rain in sight.

So these are things you can’t help but notice on the way down.  Part of what I like about going is that I’m never sure what I might end up doing while I’m there.  My mother is not in good health  but is in this Energizer Bunny Holding Pattern, just sort of plugging along.  My clinical brain knows that one of these days, probably sooner rather than later, the batteries in the Bunny will stop working and she’ll sign into hospice.  When that time comes, I’ll go down there for the duration, but for now I just come and go and do what I can.   And when I can, I cut the grass and admire the rolling hills, these foothills of the Ozark mountains.

So I tooled around on the Cadillac of lawn mowers, very Zen-like.  Well, Zen-like other than being lost in thought.   But at least Buddhist in the sense of mostly being really present to the moment.  I love watching the birds dive into areas I just cut, scooping up the bugs that bounce around like kids in bumper cars, scattering wildly to escape the whirring blades.  I love watching the clouds come and go, love hearing the cicadas sing their bluesy summer songs, love the heat and sun, love the ways the earth seems to stand still and move so  steadily at the same time.  The snakes really will leave you alone if you return the same courtesy and they provide the valuable service of keeping the mice and bugs away, so there is a general sense of “live and let live,” which is fine with me.

So I cut grass and soak up sun and sometimes I’m so present to the moment that it aches.  So many people I know are feeling apart from the Divine right now, so apart from who they believe themselves to be, so soul-weary.  I watch my own mother and remember the hundreds of people I worked with in hospice, knowing that you can hold onto life for a long time, but eventually you just become a weary traveler wanting to get home.   I was thinking of the verse from the Gita I listed above and many others, just letting the blades whir around and letting the sun melt some of my own thoughts away.  The Gita is part of the Hindu Scriptures and translates as “The Song of God.”  I love the passage that says God is more me than I am.   I love thinking that I am One with the Divine and those mountains, with all that is happening, all that is so big and small, so real and so surreal.

Later, as one storm after another brought the most ominous looking clouds and dark skies, pounding rain, thunder and lightening vibrating the house and illuminating the mouth of the George Ward Holler (I have no idea who George Ward was, but the storms always come through the valley of his old farm) near their home,  I thought of my grandmother and of how the storms in our own lives just roll through like that.  Some sun, some rain, and usually some warnings for dark skies if we are paying attention, even if that is cows laying down on a hot afternoon.   But then that passes through too, dripping with much needed nourishment for the soils of our souls, lit up, maybe even shaken or stirred a bit. This weekend reminded me of all of these things, and I thought about it a lot.   Mostly the skies in this life are clear, but clouds pass through, that’s just part of it too.  But doing this inner process in deep communion with the Earth makes it more do-able for me and reminds me of a passage from the Prophet Isaiah,

You shall go out in joy, and be led forward in peace; the mountains and hills will break forth before you in singing, and all the trees of the fields will clap their hands…

So I thought about all of that while I mowed and cleaned and made sweet pickles and tomato juice, trying to soak up time like a sponge, feeling it slipping through the hourglass, knowing you can’t hold onto anything or it just cuts as you try to grasp it, feeling time pass with a sense of Amazing Grace.  I find the only way to do this time (or any time, for that matter) is to be present as much as possible– so present that it aches a little…but there is also so much joy there, and that grabs you too.  The Buddhist word for that place is Bodhicitta, which the Dharma teacher Pema Chodron describes as “the soft spot.”   Volumes have been written about this, but it’s basically that soft place inside all of us that holds some pain, some joy, some tenderness, like an old scar that never fully heals.  And all you can do is touch it lightly, like painting a prayer on a cobweb, holding it all in the tenderness of a mother with a sick child, knowing that you are the mother and child all at once.

There is something powerful about that soft spot, knowing it is as eternal as the mountains and valleys, knowing that mountain remains in spite of its own soft spots and pounding rains.  There is something really comforting about the eternal yet so very temporal nature of time and the passage of it, something so very comforting about the deeply personal nature of this time and the universal nature of it as well.    At some point we all experience death–hopefully we all experience a life.  That’s really my primary aspiration with all of this, to be so present to all of my life that it aches, but to take this life, as shaken and stirred as it may feel at times, and really live it.

The poet Li Po pondered these same things, as we all have throughout lifetimes and the ages.  Yet the mountains remain, a witness to our grief and joys, to knowing no matter how dark it feels, we are One.  Nearly 1300 years ago in China Li Po wrote, possibly on a weekend like this one,

The birds have vanished into the sky

And now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,

Until only the mountain remains…

So tonight I sit, honoring mountains and time, watching the clouds drain away.  And like clouds in the sky,  we all  pass through, changing forms and moods like the weather, always changing, always eternal, always One with All That Is.   And the mountain remains.

Night moon.

Night stars.

Peace 🙂

%d bloggers like this: