Ancient Paths, New Journeys


“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls…”

~~Jeremiah 6:16

Hello all :)

A friend and I just returned from Santa Fe, where we did some hiking, some writing and a lot of playing.  We are working on a book about Spirituality and Grief, and I cannot think of a better place to ponder such things than the desert.

I snapped this picture near Skull Bridge, at the Continental Divide Trail (CDT)  near Abiquiu, New Mexico.  The Trail head is just over that bridge and heads south into the Rio Chamas Wilderness area, a gorgeous place no matter what time of year.  I wrote about another trip here in a post titled Smile at Fear if you are interested, you can read that entry from the Blessings Blog here.

It’s funny to me how small the world seems when I sit at my desk and type, when I can instantly communicate with someone in New Mexico or Australia, when I can click a few buttons and pretty much anything I want is at my fingertips.  But the world takes on whole new dimensions when you are actually out in it.  I am often filled with wonder and a deep sense of unease that it is easier to speak with someone hundreds of miles away via text  than it is to walk across the street to talk to a neighbor.   I have a house full of things  my grandmother’s generation was told would save time and make life easier and I suppose in some ways they do.  But time for what?  More work?  TV?   Stress?  Family and friends?  What do we do with this supposed extra time and ease we were granted?  We live in a world moving so fast that when something takes mere seconds I say it is moving slowly. But that’s when I’m inside, dealing with the non-human, unnatural world.   Traipsing around on a trail that literally runs from Mexico to Canada makes the whole thing suddenly come into a more realistic perspective.

One of the reasons I love hiking is that the planet truly takes on a whole new dimension when you are walking through it– deserts and woods are not like other places.   For one thing, they are huge, but more than that they are full of wonder and scenery, challenge and  solitude, hope and a sense that we are not alone.  Interestingly, when I get away from all the stuff that is supposed to save me time, I have all the time in the world.  When I get way from the hustle of the millions of people on the planet, the less alone I feel.  Wilderness trails  offer  a chance to reconnect to myself and in doing so I reconnect to my God as well. I love the water, but put me on a trail anywhere, especially in the mountains or the desert, and  I have found my bliss.  A path simply takes you from one civilized place to another, but a trail…Ah, a trail takes you from what we like to call civilization into the unknown.   I believe the further we travel into the Unknown, the more we travel the path the ancients knew led to the Heart.  By doing so, we allow the soul to take the ancient paths which lead to peace and rest.  I think of Augustine’s line,

My soul is restless, O God, until it finds rest in You…

There is something so comforting about knowing that just as this area on the CDT was traveled for centuries before Europeans “discovered” America, so too has the Path of Life has been journeyed for generations before me.  The Prophet Jeremiah wrote those words about ancient paths  sometime around 600 B.C.E.  We really haven’t changed that much in all of the years we’ve roamed this planet…we’ve always been restless, we’ve always sought rest for our weary souls.  Leaders and subjects come and go, tides ebb and flow, children are born and someday die in old age, relationships are complicated and endure, money is made and lost and on and on.  Cravings have always been with us, as has emotional pain and bliss, but time marches on and the search for meaning transcends generations.  This has always been the nature of humans and  I assume this will continue on long after I am gone from this body.  Our technology has changed, but deep down we all want the same things we’ve always wanted…health, love, safety, joy, freedom from suffering, the chance to live and love and enjoy those with whom we live and love.  These are the ancient paths we all walk, and while the details may change, the human story is pretty much the same over time.

The ancient paths are the ones I think we all long for in our depths…we all long to connect to ourselves and loved ones, to something greater than ourselves and to all Life can offer.   Tillich said the word “solitude” reflects the joy of being alone, while the word “lonely” reflects the pain of being alone.  We all need to have time alone to walk the path, to feel the pain and the joy of that “alone-ness” at times.  And while it is comforting to know others have gone before me and I am never alone, the truth is that it is still my path to walk and the choice is mine to walk it.  Growth is optional and not everyone chooses it, but that is also an ancient path.   Buddha said, “You cannot travel the path until you become the path itself,”  and I realize more and more how true that is.   As they say in Zen, the obstacle is the path, and we can only truly travel that path with an open heart.  What fascinates me is that we all have teachers and endless opportunities to open to the path, but we can only apply the lessons within if we choose to do so with an open heart and mind.  So we all travel the path, but our choices can lead to a path of heartache or one of joy.  As usual, discernment is the key.

What the ancients knew, that we all must learn, is that the good path will only open to us as much as we can or will give ourselves to it, without judgment of ourselves or others.  In doing so, eventually we find what all the mystics tell us over and over about the path…such as, we are not punished for our anger, but we can be harmed by our anger.  We are not rewarded for our good deeds, we are rewarded by them, including the ways in which our  immunity and our cellular structure becomes stronger and more resilient as we practice compassion and joy.  The deeper we go, the more love and humility and compassion we find,  thus the more rest we find for our weary souls, which leads to more compassion and humility.   I’ve come to believe essence of true humility is knowing I am neither too much nor too little, and that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone—even me.  But that was one of the lessons of my path, I didn’t come in with that understanding at all.  Like all of us, I grew into it and hopefully will learn to walk this path with a wise  heart.

Just as Jesus said to love one’s neighbor as self, and Buddha said there is no one more deserving of your love than you, we all have to walk the path of embracing our own goodness.  We have all faced demons and struggled on the path.  We have all embraced the path or run from it, not realizing it was all still the same path.  We have all had conflicts with parents or children, friends or bosses, teachers, lovers and maybe even someone we called an enemy.  But choosing the good path leads to rest, and a rested soul is a wise soul, and wise souls usually come to understand the conflict is within, not outside of us somewhere. Thus they seek the wise path of peace.

We all walk these ancient paths, and the paths often diverge into addictions and an experience of suffering.  The path always eventually leads to the same place of Home,  but not everyone knows to ask up front, “Which one is the good one?”  But the Universe, in all of its gracious abundance,  always lights the path before us until we know to ask, until the answers become clear.  Because this too is the nature of the path, leading us from one civilized place to another, ever offering the Light yet another day.  Gautama Buddha addressed this hundreds of years ago with his own disciples, hoping to shed a light on the path for them, yet hoping they would also take responsibility for illuminating it themselves.  He said to them,

All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

But do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

So today, for all of us standing  at the crossroads and asking, ‘Which one is the good way?’   I wish you peace and clarity, and rest for your souls.

peace :)

The Power of Words


It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it…

This will take less than 2 minutes of your time, I promise you’ll be glad you watched!  🙂

Have a great day!

Whole Hearted Courage


Courage is the power to let go of the familiar…

~~Raymond Lundquist

Hello all 🙂  Blogger Slacker returns…

I took this pic a few weeks ago in  a remote place called Cathedral Canyon, in The Middle Of Nowhere, Missouri.  To reach this place, you have to leave all that is familiar, drive 2 hours from a major city, then hike  even further  into the more-middle-of-nowhere.  I must say~~ it was totally worth it.  The pic doesn’t do it justice.  I spent a few days in that part of the world, totally off the grid and reconnecting with myself.  It was lovely in a million different ways.  During that time, I pondered why it is that I often have to leave all that is familiar on the outside to reconnect to what I love that is familiar on the inside.  But that is another blog post for another day.

I was thinking today about all of the horror in Japan, reflecting on the impermanence of everything we think is familiar, all we hold dear.  The funny thing is that as things change or become unfamiliar, the human tendency is to engage in our familiar patterns that often don’t serve us….old patterns of shutting up or down, lashing out or in, running away instead of running toward the change.  Yet there  is so much change happening all the time and that’s what we call life.  When we like the changes we say things are going well, when we don’t like the changes we say they aren’t.  But that’s familiar too.  I think it takes real courage to go with all the flows of life, to swim through what might feel like a tsunami with an open heart.  I’m amazed by how many people are able to do just that and I’m grateful when I can do it myself.

This is a time of Lent for some…fasting, prayer and reflection.  This is a time of loss and horror for others…unprecedented, horrible loss on a scale I can’t even begin to comprehend.  This is a time of joy for others…birth, new jobs, new homes, dreams coming true.  This is a time of death and illness for others  and on and on the list of changes goes.  No matter what the circumstance, it takes courage to face it and walk through it with an open mind and heart. And in the middle of it all, in the middle of all the magic and all the tragic, we all crave connection with others.  I have come to believe with my whole heart that the only way I can have a connection with you is if I have a connection with myself first.  And, at least for myself, I feel most connected in a helpful way to myself if I feel connected to the Divine and all of the ways in which God moves within.

All of this  made me think of Brene Brown and her work.  Brene has done some very interesting research in the fields of courage, compassion, shame and how to live with a whole heart.  She speaks of the original meaning of the word “courage,” meaning to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.  Her research is very interesting and beautiful, I’ll post a clip at the end of one of her TED talks.   It’s well worth the 20 minutes or so it takes to watch.

As you ponder courage and living life with a whole heart…If you are so inclined, please remember those for whom this is a hard or tragic time.  If you are further inclined, perhaps you could hold yourself and others in the gentle and loving space of a whole heart, or at least hold the aspiration that you can do so, for yourself and others.  We are all we’ve got, sweet friends.  And I think it’s important to remember we are all enough.  YOU are enough.   Yes, you. May you go forth with that knowing and the courage of a whole heart of peace and kindness toward yourself and others.

With that, I leave you with Dr. Brene Brown, her bio and video.

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Brené spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy, and is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness. She poses the questions:

How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?

What Love Is


Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres….And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

~~1 Corinthians 13

 

Today’s post is a direct cut and paste from What Love Is, by Ayya Khema, a Dharma Teacher.  Born in Berlin of Jewish parents in 1923, Ayya Khema escaped Nazi Germany in 1938  to Glasgow. She joined her parents two years later in Shanghai, where the family was put into a Japanese POW camp  in which her father died.  Four years after her camp was liberated, Ayya Khema emigrated to the United States where she married and had two children. While traveling in Asia from 1960 to 1964, she learned meditation and in 1975, began to teach. Three years later she established Wat Buddha Dhamma, a forest monastery in the Theravada tradition near Sydney, Australia. In 1979 she was ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka. She is currently the spiritual director of BuddhaHaus in Oy-Mittleberg, Germany, which she established. She has written numerous books in English and German, including Being Nobody, Going Nowhere and When the Iron Eagle Flies.

I’ve thought a lot about “love” lately and what it means to really love and love well.  I wrote some thoughts on this a few months ago in a post entitled Love is Kind.  You can find that here if you are interested.  More and more I realize it is only middle and upper class people who demand to pray or meditate in clean, “spiritual” places.  People have prayed and felt love in concentration camps, mine shafts, wide open prairies, ghettos and slums since the beginning of time.  Love has always been with us and can always be if we choose it.  I find a great deal of inspiration from Jesus, Buddha, Mother Theresa and many other teachers, but honestly at times they seem very removed from my daily life, perhaps “not understanding” what I might be up against.   Reading teachings by Ayya Khema and others who have come through experiences like hers somehow makes distant teachings seem more present, accessible and real.  There is no real new information here…all of the great teachers and sages tell us the same things again and again.  But today, when our country spends millions of dollars on cheap chocolate and Hallmark, I thought I might pass along a wonderful reading on What Love Is.  Enjoy!

~~~~~

MOST PEOPLE are under the impression that they can think out their lives. But that’s a misconception. We are subject to our emotions and think in ways based on our emotions. So it’s extremely important to do something about our emotions. In the same way as the Buddha gave us the Four Supreme Efforts for the mind, he also outlined the Four Emotions for the heart.  The Four Emotions–lovingkindness (metta), compassion (karuna), joy with others (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha)–are called the “divine abodes.” When we have perfected these four, we have heaven on earth, paradise in our own heart.

I think everybody knows that above us is the sky and not heaven. We have heaven and hell within us and can experience this quite easily. So even without having complete concentration in meditation and profound insights, the Four Divine Abodes enable us to live on a level of truth and lovingness, security, and certainty, which gives life a totally different quality. When we are able to arouse love in our hearts without any cause, just because love is the heart’s quality, we feel secure. It is impossible to buy security, even though many people would like to do so. Insurance companies have the largest buildings because people try to buy security. But when we create certainty within, through a loving heart, we feel assured that our reactions and feelings are not going to be detrimental to our own or other people’s happiness. Many fears will vanish.

Metta–the first of the Supreme Emotions–is usually translated as “loving kindness.” But loving-kindness doesn’t have the same impact in English that the word love has, which carries a lot of meaning for us. We have many ideas about love. The most profound thought we have about love, which is propagated in novels, movies, and billboards, is the idea that love exists between two people who are utterly compatible, usually young and pretty, and who for some odd reason have a chemical attraction toward each other-none of which can last. Most people find out during the course of their lifetime that this is a myth, that it doesn’t work that way. Most people then think it’s their own fault or the other person’s fault or the fault of both, and they try a new relationship. After the third, fourth, or fifth try, they might know better; but a lot of people are still trying. That’s usually what’s called love in our society.

In reality, love is a quality of our heart. The heart has no other function. If we were aware that we all contain love within us, and that we can foster and develop it, we would certainly give that far more attention than we do. In all developed societies there are institutions to foster the expansion of the mind, from the age of three until death. But we don’t have any institutions to develop the heart, so we have to do it ourselves. Most people are either waiting for or relating to the one person who makes it possible for them to feel love at last. But that kind of love is beset with fear, and fear is part of hate. What we hate is the idea that this special person may die, walk away, have other feelings and thoughts-in other words, the fear that love may end, because we believe that love is situated strictly in that one person. Since there are six billion people on this planet, this is rather absurd. Yet most people think that our love-ability is dependent upon one person and having that one person near us. That creates the fear of loss, and love beset by fear cannot be pure. We create a dependency upon that person, and on his or her ideas and emotions. There is no freedom in that, no freedom to love.

If we see quite clearly that love is a quality that we all have, then we can start developing that ability. Any skill that we have, we have developed through practice. If we’ve learned to type, we’ve had to practice. We can practice love and eventually we’ll have that skill. Love has nothing to do with finding somebody who is worth loving, or checking out people to see whether they are truly lovable. If we investigate ourselves honestly enough, we find that we’re not all that lovable either, so why do we expect somebody else to be totally lovable? It has nothing to do with the qualities of the other person, or whether he or she wants to be loved, is going to love us back, or needs love. Everyone needs love. Because we know our own faults, when somebody loves us we think, Oh, that’s great, this person loves me and doesn’t even know I have all these problems. We’re looking for somebody to love us to support a certain image of ourselves. If we can’t find anybody, we feel bereft. People even get depressed or search for escape routes. These are wrong ways of going at it.

IN THE spiritual path, there’s nothing to get, and everything to get rid of. The  first thing to let go of is trying to “get” love, and instead to give it. That’s the secret of the spiritual path. One has to give oneself wholeheartedly. Whatever we do half heartedly, brings halfhearted results. How can we give ourselves? By not holding back.  By not wanting for ourselves. If we want to be loved, we are looking for a support system. If we want to love, we are looking for spiritual growth.  Disliking others is far too easy. Anybody can do it and justify it because, of course, people are often not very bright and don’t act the way we’d like them to act. Disliking makes grooves in the heart, and it becomes easier and easier to fall into these grooves. We not only dislike others, but also ourselves. If one likes or loves oneself, it’s easier to love others, which is why we always start loving-kindness meditations with the focus on ourselves. That’s not egocentricity. If we don’t like ourselves because we have faults, or have made mistakes, we will transfer that dislike to others and judge them accordingly. We are not here to be judge and jury. First of all, we don’t even have the qualifications. It’s also a very unsatisfactory job, doesn’t pay, and just makes people unhappy.

PEOPLE OFTEN feel that it’s necessary to be that way to protect themselves. But what do we need to protect ourselves from? We have to protect our bodies from injury. Do we have to protect ourselves from love? We are all in this together, living on this planet at the same time, breathing the same air. We all have the same limbs, thoughts, and emotions. The idea that we are separate beings is an illusion. If we practice meditation diligently with perseverance, then one day we’ll get over this illusion of separation. Meditation makes it possible to see the totality of all manifestation. There is one creation and we are all part of it. What can we be afraid of? We are afraid to love ourselves, afraid to love creation, afraid to love others because we know negative things about ourselves. Knowing that we do things wrong, that we have unhappy or unwholesome thoughts, is no reason not to love. A mother who loves her children doesn’t stop loving them when they act silly or unpleasant. Small children have hundreds of unwholesome thoughts a day and give voice to them quite loudly. We have them too, but we do not express them all.

So, if a mother can love a child who is making difficulties for her, why can’t we love ourselves? Loving oneself and knowing oneself are not the same thing. Love is the warmth of the heart, the connectedness, the protection, the caring, the concern, the embrace that comes from acceptance and understanding for oneself. Having practiced that, we are in a much better position to practice love toward others. They are just as unlovable as we are, and they have just as many unwholesome thoughts. But that doesn’t matter. We are not judge and jury. When we realize that we can actually love ourselves, there is a feeling of being at ease. We don’t constantly have to become or pretend, or strive to be somebody. We can just be. It’s nice to just be, and not be “somebody.” Love makes that possible. By the same token, when we relate to other people, we can let them just be and love them. We all have daily opportunities to practice this. It’s a skill, like any other.

….I hope this finds everyone resting in Big Love today!!!! 🙂

 

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,

T

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