Friday, December 28, 2012

Losing an I; Finding my Raisin d'Etre

The list of books I'm part way through or 'spozed to read (e.g. for my book group or because I'm still borrowing that book... Sorry, Penny) seems to grow daily. The last thing I needed was to start another, but this one was short and called to me; it promised to satisfy a craving. It was also a 99 p download for my kindle, so what the heck?

The book was The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness by Timothy Keller. The Amazon blurb that tempted me:
...the Apostle Paul calls us to find true rest in blessed self forgetfulness. In this short and punchy book, best selling author Timothy Keller, shows that gospel humility means we can stop connecting every experience, every conversation with ourselves and can thus be free from self condemnation. A truly gospel humble person is not a self hating person or a self loving person, but a self forgetful person.
Now, I'm no great fan of Paul. And I'm no great fan of prescriptions for 21st Century life based on 1st Century sensibilities. But being self-forgetful sounds appealing. Probably like everyone else, at times in my life I have felt my world to be populated with self-preoccupied people. Children and teenagers, for example. Complainers. Egotists. Braggarts. The depressed--I know it's brain chemistry and the depressed can't help it--but what's most irritating about depression is its total self-preoccupation.

But enough about everyone else. My real beef is with my own self-preoccupation.

I long to shuck off self-focus in favor of the fuller, happier life that both spiritual experts and psychological experts say comes from caring less about self and more about the world and other people in it. I want to stop being status-conscious; stop fretting about whether I am wasting my life. I want to end my sulking and worry over perceived slights.  I would gladly give up comparison of myself with others in favor of vulnerable, honest friendship and understanding. So that was why I had high hopes for  The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness.

I would summarize Keller's essay -- or maybe long sermon: it's too short to be called a book, really -- with this quote from it:
the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.
Keller draws upon Apostle Paul's admonition about boasting and worrying about what others think of you or even what you think of yourself. Keller refers to the neverending, unsatisfying pursuit of success, wealth, prestige, beauty, popularity, etc.  as you try to fulfil the expectations of parents, family,  spouse, boss, society, or even yourself. He quotes Madonna's ongoing feeling that she's just one lazy day away from being a failure. He says that in Paul's times, people stressed the error of thinking too highly of themselves. In contrast, today society stresses the problem of low self-esteem.

Keller goes on to say that because Jesus came to Earth and died for us, however, we can give up both of the related problems--inflated self-esteem and low self-esteem. Christian believers have already been judged by God and found worthy of His love, thanks to Jesus' death on the cross. This means we can all stop being self-preoccupied and just get on with forgetting ourselves and giving up inflated egos, low self-esteem, and unhealthy responses to ever-rising expectations for the enhancement of our curriculum vitae.

Leaving aside my general incomprehension of how Jesus' death purchased God's love for believers, there's a problem with the book: Keller doesn't actually say how you go about forgetting yourself. It's like not thinking about a purple elephant. Keep telling yourself not to think about that elephant or yourself, and those are precisely the things you will stay focused on! The bottom line is that Keller's essay was not helpful to me. I already knew what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to do it, just not how to do it.

This blog retraces some of my thoughts from my June blog entry. I say there that it is understandable why it's so hard and so rare to forget yourself. I think it's our natural state, our animal nature. In the "Way of Nature vs Way of Grace" dichotomy that I wrote about on the first page of this blog, this would be the Way of Nature--human striving to maintain a place in the pecking order. Is there anything that pumps out the happy-brain neurotransmitters like respect from people we admire? Is there anything that makes us feel worse than being treated like dogdirt by people who count?

Research published last summer by Cameron Anderson of the Haas School of Business and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley supports this. Their abstract summarizes:
Using correlational, experimental, and longitudinal methodologies, four studies found consistent evidence for a local-ladder effect: Sociometric status [i.e. respect and admiration in your face-to-face groups, such as your friendship network, your neighborhood, your co-workers, or your athletic team] significantly predicted satisfaction with life and the experience of positive and negative emotions. Longitudinally, as sociometric status rose or fell, subjective well-being rose or fell accordingly. Furthermore, these effects were driven by feelings of power and social acceptance. Overall, individuals’ sociometric status matters more to their subjective well-being than does their socioeconomic status.

With happiness and satisfaction in life strongly linked to our social standing, how can we possibly forget ourselves, stop craving approval, stop caring about what others think of us? Keller doesn't tell us.

Years ago my partiality to Macintosh computers led to my being branded a "MacEvangelist." Now the world is coming around to Apples and I've moved on to a new cause: My Dear Husband accuses me of becoming a Mindfulness Evangelist. He says it seems like I prescribe Mindfulness as the cure-all for every problem and every person. I don't think I'm quite that bad, but I do think Mindfulness has been helpful to me and have seen the studies showing how it has helped others with a variety of problems (insomnia, PTSD, depression, and anxiety, for example.)

So if Keller's book can't tell me how to forget myself, could Mindfulness? Does it say how to replace concern over one's own status with a focus on the world from other people's perspectives?

Unfortunately my 8-week mindfulness course didn't specifically give any instruction on relationships. We covered dealing with stressful situations. And we learned techniques for reining in a rampaging, worried, anxious brain. This typically involves bringing your attention to heel over and over again, focusing and refocusing on the here and now -- on your breathing for example, or on observation of your thoughts in a gentle and compassionate way. "Those are just thoughts," you tell yourself as you imagine your thoughts drifting past like clouds.

I think these sorts of techniques could help in a general way -- for example, recovering from an upsetting encounter. But mindfulness at my beginner's level seems too clunky and indirect to help much in real-time relationships. In the midst of an intense face-to-face conversation, you can't really stop and say, "Excuse me while I do a 20 minute body scan meditation."

I expect the experts would say that with time and disciplined practice, the focus and compassion from  mindfulness spill over from Self to the rest of the world. Perhaps the best mindfulness exercise toward this end is the Raisin. As I described earlier in my blog, one of our first mindfulness exercises was focusing our attention on one raisin for maybe 10 minutes... how it looked, how it felt, what it sounded like when you squish it in your fingers, how it felt in your mouth, how it tasted...

With practice, could I start treating the people I meet like that raisin -- bringing "gentle, compassionate attention" to each encounter? Could that help me be more fully present to others, just as it helps me put my thoughts and feelings in perspective?

The roots of Mindfulness lie in ancient Buddhist practices, but I can see how Jesus' prescription -- the Way of Grace-- would tie in here. He said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." If the Mindful way to love myself is to via focused, compassionate attention, perhaps that would also be the way to love my neighbor. My image of Jesus is of a man with extraordinary -- maybe supernatural -- powers of perception of others. The Bible says he seemed to know everything about people he encountered, before they uttered a word.

What would life be like if I could forget my self in favor of  compassionate focus like that? Would it be the end of fun and games (as the zen-ish meme I found on facebook said)?

I'm not sure I'm yet ready, able, or willing to part permanently and completely with an I, but compassionate attention balanced between neighbor and self might be just the ticket.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I have to admit that I have never fully comprehended the concept of sin. But two disparate sources have enlightened me. These are a young, Buddhist-flavored self-improvement guru and Francis Spufford, author of a recently published book, "Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense."

Possibly my problem comprehending sin was, as Spufford describes, reliance on the conventional  everyday-parlance version of "sin," conveyed hilariously in this Creme d'Or ice cream ad. Fussing about delicious naughtiness trivializes and prissifies. With so many other conspicuous sources of evil in the world, how could anyone, any institution worth attention, waste its time on peccadillo?

And then there's the judgmental side of sin, as  David Cain writes in his Raptitude blog:
The word got a bit loaded somewhere along the line though, and the S-word became a word to use almost exclusively in indictments of other people.... Sinners!
In more recent years, I tried on a definition of sin as referring to anything that separates us from God. But when you struggle to find God at all, this definition becomes pretty useless. And hidden within it is an assumed knowledge of realms that are "of God" versus remote from the Almighty. If you acknowledge that God is beyond human comprehension -- or, for that matter, if you start by saying that God is in all things, as far as the farthest corners of the universe and as close as your next breath--how can one ever be separated from God -- or actually know that this is the case?

Both Spufford and Cain, reject the conventional versions of sin and simply consider it as "the human propensity to fuck things up" (HPtFtu as Francis Spofford writes) or, as Cain raises (sorry):
...the word sin derives from a word that meant “to miss the mark.” Not to do something bad per se, but to make a mistake. In modern terms, maybe the closest phrase to the original meaning of sin is “to fuck up.”
From this redefined version of sin, Cain finds a footing for self-improvement:
once we drop all of its religious baggage, we can use the concept of sin in our own lives to recognize those instants when we’re about to do the dumb thing, the bad thing, the lazy thing, the self-defeating thing, and do something else instead.
Spufford does something a bit complex, but ultimately finds in the HPtFtu one (of several) emotional grounds compelling his belief in a God of unconditional love, as well as a foundation for his affiliation with the universally broken, defective companions who call themselves Christians.

I haven't finished Spufford's book yet, so I don't know whether I will buy his case for God based on human emotional needs. But I certainly can see in myself (and everyone I've ever known closely) the HPtFtu. I see the value in reflecting on and acknowledging one's individual HPtFtu -- both single acts of Ftu and our larger personal Ftu- tendencies. These have the potential to plague us with guilt, steal life and joy from our lives,  poison our relationships, cause us to lose face, undermine our communities -- and send dark ripples out from there to our society and the wider world.

I am also powerfully attracted to Spufford's concept of Christians as a society that confesses to its HPtFtu. It's kind of the opposite to the cartoon Christians -- self-righteous holier-than-thou's (thinking here of Ned Flanders on The Simpsons). It's more like a Dirty Dozen or Imperfects Anonymous. Hi. My name's Celia and I have a tendency to fuck things up.

One of the quotes that first got me back to church as an adult was: “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” (attributed to "Dear Abby," Abigail Van Buren). Anthropologists say forming groups is woven into our nature as a species. Even if the affiliative group is what  Spufford calls "a league of the guilty," I expect it can serve all the useful functions of a welcoming tribe.  And credentials for belonging to this hive are universal.

There's a pool of much-disputed, murky atonement theology surrounding Jesus' death and how he reconciled humankind to God through his crucifixion, death, and resurrection. All that arm-waving and windy philosophy are wasted on me. But I do appreciate, as Spufford argues, that the Christian faith has at its core the concept that humans are all flawed, all doomed to Ftu, but that there is a way to repent, or turn things around, wipe the slate clean, and start again on the path to a fuller, more joyous life. There's real hope, and probably some very good psychology, in that.

Spufford makes an interesting distinction between Christianity, on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam on the other. The latter he says, attempt to define a good, moral life through a series of rules laid down in sacred texts and updated by teachers and Talmudic rulings. Live by those rules and you'll be at one with God.

 Christianity's new Jesus-based approach is more pragmatic. Acknowledging the impossibility of rule-making to cover all human error (much less actually following such a complex, self-contradictory compendium of transgression in a changing world), Christianity indicates broad general areas of what to do (love God; love your neighbor as yourself) and not do. But it also sets an inhumanly high standard for us -- give up worldly goods and love our enemy, for example -- and says that messing-up begins in one's heart and mind. Even impulses can have dire consequences. Vile instincts are part of our animal nature.

But -- returning to the wonderful opening lines from Tree of Life-- beyond the way of Nature is the way of Grace. While I may never embrace philosophical atonement theology, I do believe -- yes, emotionally HAVE to believe -- that we can change course, wipe the slate clean, move on, repent and be "at-one" (atoned) with grace. That is the heart of Christianity.

In "How to be a Bad Christian... and a Better Human Being," Dave Tomlinson gives an upbeat description of what can be a very painful process of purging guilt and resuming the way of grace. The steps he lists are: 1.) Identify specifically what you feel guilty about. 2.) Accept responsibility by confessing or admitting your error, be it to priest, therapist, or friend, and, without self-justification, apologize to the person you have wronged. 3.) Take proportionate, appropriate steps to right the wrong. 4.) Accept God's forgiveness, forgive yourself, and move on. Tomlinson stresses the importance of fully forgiving ourselves, opening ourselves to God's love, and internalizing every day the gift of God's forgiveness. This is vital to returning to full life in the here and now, rather than continuing to be preoccupied with feelings of guilt.

So, the gem of a quote I will end with ultimately speaks to the guilty as well those they've hurt:
Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible,
hurtful behavior. Nor is it a superficial turning of the other cheek
that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred. Rather it is the
finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present,
free of contamination from the past.  (
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., neuroimmunologist)
Update: This is a lovely column on sin by Rob Bell:
Bell defines sin as disrupting the shalom -- the peace, health, wholeness and blessing -- that God intends for the world. He argues that this puts sin in a wider context of the harmony of God. It's maybe not so helpful for people who struggle with belief in God, but I think almost everyone has a sense of a wider goodness and peace that we know are just right -- inherently good -- for our immediate community and the world beyond. Think of the last time you said "It just felt right."

Bell says there's a tripartite Christian story to sin that starts with humans being born in God's image, with goodness, glory, and honor. Sin is the bit in the middle where, as imperfect beings, all of us disrupt the shalom of the universe in ways great and small. But being the bulls in God's china shop is not the end of the story. Part 3 says that the crucifixion of Christ "restored, redeemed, reconciled, and renewed. We are invited to live as if this is actually true, letting it shape us and mold us and transform us into grounded, centered people who increase the shalom in the world."

I still don't really get how that all works, but I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of living "as if this is actually true." I'm not sure I'd be able to face the mirror each morning if I didn't.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Voice of the Dollhouse God

It was "Listening to God," Class 2, and things moved into the garish pink zone on the weirdness scale. Thanksgiving and other obligations mean we won't be going back to the class, so it's time for summing up. The bottom line: I can't personally buy into the tiny, human-sized God the class has offered. But it has been very enlightening. Characterizing a God I can't believe in has helped me to start imagining a more astounding God that I could believe in.

The second class followed the same format as the first, beginning with singing. Couldn't help but recall the social psychology studies showing that activities performed in unison (think Marine boot-camp) subconsciously encourage people to form a cooperative group. Not to mention the endorphin-promotion from singing or the subtle suggestive influence of the lyrics: "I'm giving you my heart... I surrender all to you..." We had a few folks raising their opened hands.

This was followed by the sharing of "homework" -- to think about what God said to us during the week. Several people got up to describe how God had spoken to them, but no one described anything that had happened during the preceding week. One man said he'd once prayed to God for a job, and an hour later received a phone call, out of the blue, offering him a job he hadn't applied for. A woman discerned God's will in the fact that she had a smooth relocation to the UK from South Africa. "I prayed that if God didn't want us to move he would stop me," she said.

Another woman found comfort in her faith during her husband's cancer. Another testified she heard the voice of God in September, 1999, tell her to stop praying for her severely ill brother-in-law on October 1, when all would be well. That proved to be the date of his death. Rev Keith told us of a horrible abscessed tooth that had caused him great pain over a weekend when no dentist was available. "I asked the Lord to heal it." He did.

Then we were on to angels and other Signs. Rev Keith has never seen angels and was quite jealous that his son had seen one angel; his daughter-in-law saw TWO flying above his car. He recited a pile of Bible verses -- talking donkeys, burning bushes, and visions. "Our God can use any way to get our attention," Rev Keith said.

Rev Keith admitted he had not personally "heard the audible voice of God," but had received lots of messages from God. For example, a large dragonfly had flown through his house and into a bedroom THREE TIMES on the very day his grand-daughter showed him a picture of a dragonfly in her children's Bible notes book. A buzzard had appeared in Rev Keith's garden on two consecutive mornings, just before he relocated. As he was leaving the old place, he drove by buzzards perched on THREE CONSECUTIVE TELEPHONE POLES. As if that weren't enough, three buzzards again appeared when he was sworn in at his new church.

Dear Husband bravely raised his hand and said that at the Naval chaplaincy where he worked, he saw God revealed all the time in the lives of the young soldiers who came in to chat. DH said he worried that if people spent their time listening for the earth-shaking, jaw-dropping testimony-inspiring signs and wonders, they might well miss the amazing everyday reflections of God.

The duo of teachers were somewhat dismissive of DH's observation but gave us their own caveats. They reminded us again that as we start to listen for God, there are three possible voices we might hear: our own, God's, or The Enemy's. But not to worry, the Bible, and the Living Word (the Holy Spirit), would see us through. Later we were urged not to spend time trying to figure out good vs. evil, but just to accept that the Lord is with us. We shouldn't argue with the message. "If the Lord wants to tell you something, he'll go on. Relax and trust that the spirit will guide you." Rev Nigel also advised us to be judicious in repeating God experiences. "Repeat it over and over and it loses its power, really, REALLY. Don't tell these stories lightly, as it leads to disillusion."

(Somewhat snarky question in the proof-texting sort of way: Was this why Jesus told his followers to tell no one of the signs and wonders they'd observed? And, come to think of it, just why would our teachers be sharing, and encouraging us to share, stories of signs and wonders if Jesus himself advised against it? Especially after their own experience showed it saps the power from the stories and leads to disillusionment???)

Rev Nigel added that whilst he loved hearing people's stories, he was leery of testimony-escalation, where each story exceeds the last one in amazing signs. Audience members may feel let down if they haven't experienced such miracles. But he quickly reassured us, "If you haven't heard the Lord speak, you just haven't realized it." Near the end of the evening there was another step back: "We're not claiming the high ground, but rather say all are being confirmed into being the people God intends us to be, if we're integrous and authentic."

Tips for increasing hearing of God's voice included: Asking God to speak to you; expecting God to speak to you; writing down remembered dreams; praying with other people; praying to God to protect the space you are in from the Devil; tuning out your own problems; limiting your own talking; listening to beautiful music; listening to silence; fasting; journaling anything you think God has said;  and persevering.
What I hear from Revs Nigel and Keith is a version of God who, despite being the Almighty Creator, is still in a donnybrook with the Devil for the chance to manipulate us humans to play the role he has planned for us. If you're having trouble hearing this type of God--they recommend typical procedures (paragraph above) that psychiatrists would probably agree tend to encourage a change (at least to some extent and in the direction you are fervently seeking).

I still really don't understand the difference between "God Speaking To Us" and ordinary good ideas, insight, inspiration, keen observation, sense of well-being, psychological phenomena, etc. Maybe I just haven't been one of the ones chosen to hear the voice of Keith and Nigel's God. Maybe I haven't been listening right. Maybe not believing in that version of God makes it impossible.

Be it my blessing or my curse, and with thanks to discussions with DH, the only kind of God I can start to imagine is a Creator far beyond human imagining. More wonderful than a God who runs his Earth and its inhabitants like an elaborate dollhouse, I would see a God who made the Ultimate Awesome: Creation that keeps on creating through cosmic and atomic forces (increasingly understood by physics); geologic processes; evolution; human discovery, growth, societal change...  Made in His image, we humans have choices each day as to how we will play our creative role in life, for better or worse. We can choose what and how we will create; what words and sounds and patterns we'll notice, and what significance we'll attach to them. He gave us amazing brains that can discover, remember, learn, and convey information to others.

I do believe there are destructive forces and evil in the world--some that are part of creation (perhaps even necessary for the universe and life to exist) and some that stem from human choices and actions. I believe that all humans are born with "the human propensity to fuck things up"(HPtFtu as Francis Spofford says). But we also have help with that -- the lives of Jesus and others that can inspire us to better ways to live through love; the sense of a comforting, all-knowing, all-loving God; and the ordinary human love of friends and family, for example.

This God-Beyond-Imagining might well infuse every bit of the world. Between the Ultimate Awesome of creation and our neurons that perceive it, there is no end of "messages" we could be getting from God every minute, every place we look, every sound we hear, every breath we take. The only question is which messages, which signs, which instincts, which input we're going to take in, which we're going to ignore, and what significance we attach to them. This is the pallet from which we create our lives.

The sheer size and complexity of a Creation filled with ongoing creating and change means that it is  statistically likely that astonishing, odds-defying things -- seeming miracles -- will happen all the time. These become one's Testimony -- or just stories you dine out on. The unlikely events are fascinating -- our brains are evolved to detect patterns, strive to find meaning, and latch on to rewarding discoveries and thoughts. Sociobiologists say that pattern-recognition, making predictions and discoveries is part of humankind's evolutionary inheritance. This has informed and shaped our behavior since the dawn of history, fostering reproductive fitness (i.e. leaving more grandchildren) and survival. Amazing observations, inspiration, and "messages" are out there for everyone, everywhere, always, no matter what their beliefs in God or His powers of speech. They might be "of God" but probably not in the sense that he directly arranged them for you personally.

I don't think any particular caveats are needed for tuning in to a world full of potentially wonderful, every-day thoughts,  observations, and encounters that each of us use to create the opus that is our lives. No one is favored and anyone could be afflicted or blessed with an odds-defying event. Even without factoring in sharpening of skills to encourage detection of happy findings, by sheer force of statistics alone, some people will have disproportionate luck or misfortune. I suppose retelling your "miracle" might make it seem a little less amazing each time but that's just the way human minds desensitize -- the first bite of cupcake is always the tastiest. (I wonder if this is the reason our repertoire of amazing stories has a propensity for turning into fish-tales. Does the prize catch get bigger with each re-telling to compensate for desensitization?)

I see the opportunity for dishonesty, manipulation of others, a conceited sense of "chosen-ness,"  as well as the disillusionment Keith mentioned, when messages, signs, wonders, etc. are attributed directly to the Creator. If, instead, we appreciate the awesome but attribute it to everyday functioning of Creation -- including humans, and our own senses and brains -- we may avoid potentially harmful side-effects, yet still enjoy the best things about "Listening to God."

As Freud probably didn't say, sometimes three dragonflies in the bedroom are just three dragonflies in the bedroom -- amazing, wonderful, likely to make you pay attention to dragonflies -- but no more and no less a "message from God" than every other human observation.
Bonus quote that just popped up on FaceBook, proving that when you're tuned in to looking for certain things, you're going to find them -- as if by magic or the work of God's hand, but more likely just because that's what your brain is locked into:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle. -- Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, November 2, 2012

God's Saying the Same Old Thing?

I missed the church service when the notice for an upcoming course was distributed, but a neighbor -- whom I love to bits -- kindly brought it over. She and her husband, in their seventh and eighth decades of life, have watched sadly as the village church declines. They are devout and long to see the church as it once was. They long to see young people flocking back to the church as they have always known it. They pray. They believe.

Looking at the notice, I could tell this course would come from a very different perspective than mine. But aren't I striving for Equipoise here?  So I decided I would go just to listen, to see what these other folks are really saying. "Don't bother," said Dear Husband, "I can tell you already, from the notice, what it's about. You just need to decode it." Here's the meeting notice:
The Listening to God Course Nov 1st, 8th, 15th, and 22nd -- 7:30 p.m. 
Have you ever wondered what people mean when they say "I heard God say" or "I felt God told me"? If so then you may be interested in attending a course set over 4 weeks. This is one of a number of courses available and offered to support the renewing of the Christian church in this country. It is founded on the teaching of Jesus, that God loves, accepts and forgives us when we ask in His name. This country is facing many developing problems. We believe that God is calling out to us in UK to return to him, and that the Holy Spirit is moving amongst the people in this land.The "Listening to God course" covers the following:
  • We have a God who speaks. Are we listening?
  • How does God Speak?
  • What hinders or helps our ability to listen? 
  • What happens next? 
  • Speaking out what God has said.
The course runs over 4 weekday eveinings and is delivered in an informal style with a mix of worship, teaching, story, discussion and prayer. It is interactive in a gentle and inclusive way. It is led and guided by the Holy Sprit, and there is time set apart to know His presence. 
Revd Keith Powell is Rector in Othery, is the Diocesan renewal advisor and has a prophetic, healing, and teaching ministry. Revd Nigel Rawlinson is a doctor, in self-supporting minstry and has a teaching, healing and evangelistic ministry. Both are members of the Bath and Wells Diocesan Renewal Group, committed to the encouragement of others in the Power of the Spirit and to the Glory of God. This course is open to everyone from any parish and any denomination. For more information please call...

DH predicted the meeting would be a charismatic thing, calling us to renew charismatic practices -- songs out of a certain hymn book, hands raised in praise during the singing, prayers made up on the spot, maybe a little speaking in tongues, righteous MMMmmmmm'ing and trembling hands thrown in, and pews thrown out for good measure.

Armed with these and other prejudices, we set out for the meeting. As it turned out, there was a bit of righteous Mmmm'ing, especially when prayers called on renewal of this troubled nation by the Holy Spirit. But by and large, the session was not wildly charismatic. The hymns were unfamiliar to me but had the standard lyrics... "My God's Great and He's more powerful than all those others..."

One thing that didn't sink in beforehand was that the presenters were the diocesan experts on church renewal. These are the guys who are supposed to reboot the church--handle the "Wicked Problem" of a dying church-- the problem my dear neighbor prays so much about; a problem I care a lot about, think a lot about, and am pretty sure requires different thinking, innovation, and the application of all human gifts -- adding to ancient knowledge and wisdom the latest discoveries and tools emerging from science, psychology, and economics, in hopes of gaining insight into the new forces, ideas, and cultural and social phenomena that touch our lives -- for better and for worse -- in 2012.

But we definitely didn't get anything different. It was the same, tired old evangelical message, expressed in the same old religionspeak. They basically just want to get people back to the Church-centered Church, circa 1900, I would guess. A large part of the evening consisted of the two Anglican priests' testimonies on how God had spoken to them.

Not too astonishingly, the Good Lord had told one or the other of them--very much to their surprise and inconvenience--that they should confess Jesus was their saviour, go to church, go to a home group, host a home group, become a church warden, come forward for an altar call, quit their job, leave their farm, take medical odd-jobs to pay the bills if necessary, become Anglican priests, and tell people the Good News.

They did start their preaching at the beginning of the Bible (as Rob Bell recommends) -- but only to point out that "God Speaks" numerous times in the first 22 verses of the Bible--proof that we have a God who speaks! They preached that there are three significant voices in our heads -- God's, our own, and the Devil's. But fortunately, we're given the gift of discernment, they said.

Rev Keith shared a poem about Adam and Eve blaming one another and discounting the voice of God. For him, this was not one of several "creation myths" in the Bible. This was the way it really is. Adam, Eve, the Devil... who is still at work in the world, subtle and sneaky. Mmmmmmmmm. (We were quite surprised to hear that there could actually be such a crafty devil left in the universe, given that the praise hymns we sang claimed an all-powerful God and King of Glory.)

At one point Rev Keith said "God calls us to be ourselves ... as we are... as he finds us." But the only examples that they gave of God's calling were their own. Evidently, Keith and Nigel have discerned that the way God speaks is by planting an idea in your head that you should pursue churchy things. Maybe they were just delivering the message that they thought the mostly-elderly audience of mostly evangelicals would understand and find inspiring. I do think my neighbor would have liked it. The concept of God's speaking to humans in the familiar way is comfortably straightforward to these priests -- and probably the other members of the audience. You just need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with God, Keith advised.

But as one who cannot claim to know with any certainty the sound of God's voice or what his will is for me (much less anyone else), the presentation was superficial, nothing new, and unresponsive to any of the profound challenges to being a person of faith in 2012. DH found the presentation simplistic to the point of condescension. The clincher was a skit the two vicars performed as "Jesus" and "a Traveller" laden with his life's baggage (good and bad), unsure of where he was going. Jesus told him he was on the easy route to Death. But if Traveller gave up his baggage and let Jesus be his guide and be responsible for everything needed for life's journey, he would carry it all and take him on the road to everlasting life. Cute dramatization of a metaphore. But how does it actually translate into real life?

DH was also quite grumpy that the course-- billed as an interactive discussion, and despite the speakers' avowed desire for dialogue, didn't really include any. The speakers were preachin' to the choir. I sort of expected that.

Revs Keith and Nigel evidently don't see a need to start with very basic questions like, "How do you know it's God speaking in the first place, and not just your own thoughts?" Or, "If God has this specific plan for us and is going to nag and boss us around, why did he bother giving us free will?" Or, "if God gives different messages to two people, how do you know which He really means?" Or, "if God is still speaking, why does the Anglican Church claim a 'closed canon'?" Revs Keith and Nigel -- and the sympathetic audience they attracted -- somehow have no trouble "hearing God." And they know confidently that His message is the standard evangelical revival stuff.

 It seems a particular waste that Nigel, the doctor, is not drawing on one of the great gifts in his life -- namely his medical education. Was God not speaking to him in that? Doesn't the way the brain works have some bearing on how God does (or doesn't) speak to us? Doesn't his medical training give him provocation to explore how objectivity and science challenge our understanding of religion today?

Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps Revs Nigel and Keith will get around to these and other basic questions in the three remaining classes. Having given this extended introduction of themselves, perhaps the weeks ahead will afford time for genuine discussion and permit them to address their subject in greater depth, detail, and with novel insight.

But sadly, if this is what the renewal experts have to offer, I don't think there's much hope for the church. There's no "new" in this renewal. It's more like the library book you're "renewing" for the umpteenth time. You do that for books you really love -- or maybe have misplaced but don't yet want to admit are gone.
Update: One of the things Evangelicals insist God says when He -- and the Bible -- speak to them is that human life begins at conception, and therefore all abortion is murder. Thus I was quite interested to read this article which documents that this reading of the Bible -- this version of what God's saying when he speaks -- is less than 30 years old, i.e. younger than the McDonald's Happy Meal!

Update #2: Another example of a conservative evangelical, Pat Robertson, mis-hearing a message from God:
In January of this year, televangelist Pat Robertson informed his “700 Club” audience that God had revealed the results of the 2012 election to him in a vision, implying broadly at the time that the Almighty was less than pleased with President Barack Obama. According to Right Wing Watch, Robertson recanted on Wednesday, responding to a viewer question about his false prediction, saying he “missed” God’s message about the election result.
“So many of us miss God, I won’t get into great detail about elections but I sure did miss it, I thought I heard from God, I thought I had heard clearly from God, what happened? What intervenes? Why?” Robertson said. “You ask God, how did I miss it? Well, we all do and I’ve had a lot of practice.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Good Book for Bad Christians

I've been taking my time reading Dave Tomlinson's "How to be a Bad Christian...And Better Human Being. It's worth the effort, and evidently quite a few people agree with me. It came out just a few weeks ago, but is already near the top of Amazon's sales of books in the "Christian Living" category.

The author, Dave Tomlinson, is an Anglican vicar at a church in West Holloway in the suburbs of London. He has written some other interesting-sounding books, but, full disclosure, I've not read them. I actually sort of stumbled upon the book in the first place, reading over my Dear Husband's shoulder one Sunday morning when I wasn't getting ready for church.

My take on "Bad Christian" is that it is a gentle, user-friendly book aimed at people who've been put off by the church -- good folks and "spiritual but not religious" who are happy enough to stay that way. It supports them in doing the right stuff -- Jesus stuff and just generally taking care of mind, body, and spirit. It says some of the trappings of the church and the Bible are extraneous; God, like a loving parent, isn't going to inflict dire punishment for not adhering to picky procedural details or a church's club membership rules. It suggests some practices that can help people be better -- at least happier -- human beings, inside or outside of church practices.

There is a longish discussion on the "Ship of Fools" website about the book, but it didn't shed much light, in my opinion, and perhaps not coincidently, seems to have been posted before the book was actually published. The more informed comments seem to be based on talks by the author while the book was a work-in-progress. One person commented,
"Still not sure what to make of this bloke [Tomlinson]. But Giles Fraser has called him one of his gods. And as Giles Fraser is one of my gods I should probably give it a go."

The main complaints seem to be that Tomlinson covers old ground and that he is simplistic. But that was not my reaction, nor the reaction of friends who've read it. Tomlinson acknowledges his passion for bridging the gap between academia and popular culture. People in the former camp might indeed find this book simplistic. But my immediate reaction was, "Wow. I want everyone in the church around here to see this." I've felt for a long time that I was a lone voice in my community, arguing that the church didn't read, listen to, or understand people outside the church -- and those leaving the church or discontent within it. The information might well be out there, but lots of people don't know about it.

So, if you are content and find yourself in a happy benefice, that isn't hemorrhaging members, closing churches, and is actually facing and effectively dealing with difficult, probing, heart-felt questions and conflicts -- this book isn't for you. Yes, these things have been said before and if you read progressive theology or live amidst such a community, you probably know all this. Similarly, if your faith (or lack of it) has already provided all the answers you need -- again, this book isn't for you.

But if you find yourself at odds with the church, the Bible, God, life, and/or pat answers you've received from them, "How to be a Bad Christian" might be reassuring. You're not alone. Here is an actual ordained priest who confesses that churches often crush spiritual development. Here's another soul who thinks you might bump into God anywhere--who says the church is hardly the only place to encounter
"...this incredibly benevolent force in the universe, a God who is intimate, intense, and immanent -- ingrained in the very substance of the world ... a radical presence in everything ... the mystery at the core of ordinary reality. God is everywhere and in everything; or to be more precise, everything is in God. So we don't need to ask God to draw near ... God is already there."
This might sound like a confident assertion of the nature of God, but Tomlinson also writes, "We are all blind when it comes to comprehending the Divine." Here is a Christian who acknowledges that aspects of his religion may be "guff" -- and there is much to be gained by listening to the wisdom of other faiths, and even the wisdom of neuroscience and psychological practices (such as the enneagram and mindfulness).

Tomlinson's approach in many chapters is to introduce readers to the holy people he's encountered outside the church who were living exemplars of aspects of Christian faith. This is similar to things Rob Bell and others have written and preached about -- the idea that amazing, heavenly things are going on out in the world. The church doesn't have to march out and proclaim the glory of God to the heathen world; instead it needs to keep its eyes and ears open out there to see what He's up to -- how little bits of heaven -- "Kingdom" -- are at hand.... Easter eggs out there to be found.
"The Church would do far better to stop trying to pump the gospel into people's lives, and recognize that God is already there -- named or unnamed."
If this idea of kingdom-spotting sounds like old hat to you, I'm sorry to say it hasn't made it to all quarters of the church yet. I know a remarkable candidate for the ministry who went up for selection by the Church of England a few years ago and was subject to derision by the selector-priests for being a "Reverse Evangelist" -- espousing the idea that God's love and Jesus' ways can be found, affirmed, and encouraged out there in the world, beyond the churchyard walls, and then even brought back to the churched to encourage them to join in.

This book was also right up my alley in its suggestions of basic, helpful approaches to a happier life, drawn from a variety of sources and expressed in terms that even non-believers can buy. For example, Tomlinson encourages the cultivation of "spiritual intelligence," including self-awareness, spontaneity, empathy, humility, curiosity, flexibility, resilience, and receptivity.  Many of these notions are promulgated by the nonsectarian Happiness movement and positive psychology.

Other recommended directions are to cultivate contentment and compassion; purge guilt; laugh; wake up intensely to life and enjoy. Even if you're not sure about God, prayer is useful as
 "a way of connecting with the profound, the deepest part of us ... that yearns, hopes, delights, hungers...[rather than just] skat[ing] over the surface of life."
 Tomlinson extends the concept of prayer beyond words to include "almost any human gesture or activity" -- such as a cup of tea, an arm on a shoulder, or an email.
"...when the surgeon feels compassion for his patient before inserting the knife, that is a prayer."
The chapter on the Bible urges it be read "both critically and receptively." Tomlinson admits to mixed feelings about what sometimes can hardly be called The Good Book. It should never be read as a book of instructions or "straightforward guidelines on complex contemporary ethical issues that never arose in the 1st Century" A.D., he writes.

In his chapter on church, Tomlinson doesn't solve the "Wicked Problem" of how to reboot or rebuild the church in the 21st Century. Maybe that's in one of his previous books or will be his next book. In Bad Christian, Tomlinson points out that Jesus never set out to create a church, but rather sought God's will in the world -- justice and fairness, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, replacing conflict with reconciliation and hatred and revenge with love.

Ideally, churches would lead the way in such efforts, replete with "table fellowship" -- sharing meals with the outcasts, poor, marginalized, and sinners--reframing lives in the context of God's love. Tomlinson says the church should offer refuge, hope, laughter, rebirth, acceptance, friendship, support, and healing for every category of person you can name. He finds immense satisfaction pursuing these in the context of his church community and issues the invitation to readers to "have a go" -- but, perhaps knowing that many people won't find these things in their local church, he doesn't peddle church any harder than his non-church suggestions.

In the last chapters and appendix, Tomlinson offers tools, tips, links, and encouragement to help people be true to themselves and to pay close attention to their inner selves and the surrounding world--for it is in that space where Tomlinson's God is to be found, along with love, awe, grace, and acceptance; where you can reinvent yourself, find vocation, and initiate small acts of compassion (alone or in concert with others) that give life meaning--and may ultimately change the world.

Tomlinson's confession that he is a "Bad Christian" acknowledges his ever-growing list of difficult questions in life, his faltering faith, frequent doubts, despair over the state of the Church and Christianity, and horror at the thought of being viewed as a member of an exclusive club of the righteous. "I feel more at home in a pub with honest 'pagans' than I do in many churches," Tomlinson writes. What keeps him coming back, he says, is the figure of Jesus--what he shows about the nature and love of God, and the shape and meaning this brings to his world through its vision of justice, love, reconciliation, hope, and freedom.

If I had any criticism of the book, it would be that it could use tighter editing, an index, and better referencing. As befits a book that is not intended for a scholarly audience, footnotes are kept to a minimum. But there are a few precious ones. I was happy to see my all-time favorite book (The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck) brought back to light. And I was delighted to finally learn the source of one of the great pieces of wisdom I was given long ago -- "You can never get enough of the things you don't really need." Well, that was the way I learned it. Tomlinson quotes philosopher Sam Keen:
"We always discover that what we were blindly running after was love, and that all we ever caught was a poor substitute. And it didn't satisfy us because we can never get enough of what we didn't want in the first place."
In the smattering of instances where Tomlinson sticks a toe into science, I wasn't entirely confident that he appreciates the potential shortcomings of psychology and neuroscience as fully as he comprehends the limitations of religion. But he does the latter extremely well, and that is what makes the book worth the effort for anyone who has ever felt that becoming a better human being is at odds with being a "good" Christian.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Poems: Mindfulness in a Nutshell

At the end of our Mindfulness class, our teacher, Miranda Bevis, would read a poem. These convey succinctly and powerfully what Mindfulness is about. 

  • This first section of this web page provides copies or links to the Mindfulness poems from my 8-week mindfulness class and retreat day.  These are very popular--dare I say "standard fare" in mindfulness courses.
  • The second section has links to other websites with Mindfulness poems. 
  • The last section includes poems from ongoing "Keep Your Mindfulness Alive" refresher courses, and mindful poems I've come across more recently.  

Are you a Returning Reader? Scroll to bottom of page for newly added Mindfulness poems. Note: I have posted interpretations of some of the poems on this:  web page
Wow! Great Discovery!  "A Year of Being Here" -- Three years of one-a-day mindfulness poems curated by Phyllis Cole Dai
I welcome your suggestions via the comments box. One of these days I'll get around to reorganizing this poem collection, sigh. Cheers and best wishes!
Photo credits:  Celia Kozlowski.

Eight Weeks of Mindful Poems

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
With your one wild and precious life?


Autobiography in Five Chapters By Portia Nelson, from Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
1) I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault
It takes forever to find a way out.
2) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
3) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.\I see it is there.
I still fall in... it's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.
4) I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it.
5) I walk down another Street

Another  by Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.
  The Guest House
Jelaluddin Rumi,  translation by Coleman Barks

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
 The last part of Little Gidding, one of T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets. Perhaps the most famous lines:
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
 Lost by David Waggoner
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
The birds have vanished  by Li Po
The birds have vanished in the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away. 
We sit together, the mountain and I, 
until only the mountain remains.
Love After Love by Derek Walcott, Collected Poems 1948-1984, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986.
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 
 Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye --

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

(This link will take you to the poem as featured on Garrison Keillor's daily radio snippet, Writer's Almanac. Here you can read the poem, but also hear Keillor's excellent reciting of it (if you have RealPlayer--You do have to listen through the lengthy almanac entries for that day before he gets to the poem.) This powerful, emotional poem is very difficult to read well. I think Keillor nails it. I was hoping to find a YouTube video of Ms. Nye reading her poem. I found her reading other poems, but not this one. If you could use a laugh, here is a link to a  video of the poet reading another of her poems,  Boy and Mom at the Nutcracker Ballet.)

Other Mindful Poetry Web Pages

Mindful Poems from  Refresher Sessions and Elsewhere

Keeping Quiet -- by Pablo Neruda from Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, Translated by Stephen Mitchell
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
This one time upon the earth,
let's not speak any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be a delicious moment,
without hurry, without locomotives,
all of us would be together
in a sudden uneasiness.
The fishermen in the cold sea
would do no harm to the whales
and the peasant gathering salt
would look at his torn hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars of gas, wars of fire,
victories without survivors,
would put on clean clothing
and would walk alongside their brothers
in the shade, without doing a thing.
What I want shouldn't be confused
with final inactivity:
life alone is what matters,
I want nothing to do with death.
If we weren't unanimous
about keeping our lives so much in motion,
if we could do nothing for once,
perhaps a great silence would
interrupt this sadness,
this never understanding ourselves
and threatening ourselves with death,
perhaps the earth is teaching us
when everything seems to be dead
and then everything is alive.
Now I will count to twelve
and you keep quiet and I'll go.

From The Kabir Book: Forty Four of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir, Translation by Robert Bly. Beacon Press, Boston, 1993
I said to the wanting-creature inside me:
What is this river you want to cross?
There are no travelers on the river-road, and no road.
Do you see anyone moving about on that bank, or resting?

There is no river at all, and no boat, and no boatman.
There is no towrope either, and no one to pull it.
There is no ground, no sky, no time, no bank, no ford!

And there is no body, and no mind!
Do you believe there is some place that will make the Soul less thirsty?
In that great absence, you will find nothing.

Be strong then, and enter into your own body;
There you have a solid place for your feet.
Think about it carefully!
Don’t go off somewhere else!

Kabir says this: just throw away all thoughts of Imaginary things,
And stand firm in that which you are.
A favorite author, Rob Bell, posted this mindful meditation on his tumbler/facebook pages on Feb 8, 2013:
Q: If you could give any advice for the day, what would it be?
Walk, don’t run.
That’s it.
Walk, don’t run. Slow down, breathe
deeply, and open your eyes because there’s
a whole world right here within this one. The
bush doesn’t suddenly catch on fire, it’s been
burning the whole time. Moses is simply moving
slowly enough to see it. And when he
does, he takes off his sandals. Not because
the ground has suddenly become holy, but
because he’s just now becoming aware that
the ground has been holy the whole time.
Efficiency is not God’s highest goal for your life,
neither is busyness,
or how many things you can get done in one day,
or speed,
or even success.
But walking-
which leads to seeing-
now that’s something.
That’s the invitation for every one of us today
and every day, in every conversation, interaction,
event, and moment: to walk, not run. And in doing
so, to see a whole world right here within this one.
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935).  from: Pessoa’s Alberto Caeiro: Complete Poems


I’m a keeper of flocks.
The flock is my thoughts
And my thoughts are all sensations.
I think with my eyes and with my ears
And with my hands and feet
And with my nose and mouth.

Thinking about a flower is seeing and smelling it
And eating a piece of fruit is knowing its meaning.

That’s why when on a hot day
I feel sad from liking it so much,
And I throw myself lengthwise on the grass
And shut my hot eyes,
And feeling my whole body lying on reality,
I know the truth and I’m happy.
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life  —
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
One of my own (with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson):

Analgesic Meditation -- by Celia Kozlowski

I am too old
to lose myself 
amidst a tableau of toys
sprung to life upon the duvet

So I listen intently
to the sound of blood
coursing through my ears.
I explore the contours
of my headache
like a blind man 
feeling the face 
of his beloved 
after being long apart.
I observe minute details
of each passing breath
like a careful scholar.

In this way the comforter
becomes my counterpane,
a garden of versus,
and the groaning ache
which takes my life
Prelude to the Dance -- by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
(quoting just the last two lines. Please see the poem in full):
What if you knew that the impulse to move in a way that creates beauty in the world will arise from deep within and guide you every time you simply pay attention and wait?
How would this shape your stillness, your movement, your willingness to follow this impulse, to just let go and dance?
Happy the Man -- John Dryden's  Imitation of Horace

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine,
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
Found poem from Lecture to a Book of the Month Club by Frederick Buechner

"Maybe it’s all utterly meaningless.
Maybe it’s all unutterably meaningful.

If you want to know which,
pay attention to    
what it means to be truly human     
in a world that half the time               
we’re in love with               
and half the time               
scares the hell out of us...  
The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips. 
The good dream.  
The strange coincidence.   
The moment that brings tears to your eyes.  
The person who brings life to your life.
Even the smallest events hold the greatest clues."

Big Hourglass

I remember back in college
It was sometime in the fall
I was walking by a Maple tree
Flaming red and tall

And as I passed beneath it
One leaf out of that flame
Fell right into my breast pocket
And I haven't been the same

It was like the whole world
Was a big hourglass
Top is like the future, bottom like the past
And at that narrow middle part
Where only one grain can pass
Is the ever-living moment
And I want to understand
That simple grain of sand

It was somewhere in Nebraska
We'd been driving quite awhile
When I glanced over at my daughter
She had this very special smile

It had this extra little wrinkle
Like my grandma's used to do
And for a moment it was real hard
To tell the difference 'tween the two

It was like my family
Was a big hourglass
My daughter, like the future
Grandma, like the past
And at that little moment
Where only one smile can pass
The two were joined together
And I want to understand
This simple grain of sand

Spring is coming on here
There's moisture in the breeze
The river is running higher
Buds are popping in the trees

So I picked up my guitar today
I didn't really have a plan
And this song just kind of jumped right out
Buds were popping in my hands

And it's like the whole world
Is a big hourglass
Top is like the future, bottom like the past
And at that narrow middle part
Where only one grain can pass
Is the ever-living moment
And I want to understand
That simple grain of sand
Like my daughters's smile
Like that Maple leaf
I will give to you this moment
Because it's my belief
That the middle of the hourglass
Is this place where I now stand
So I'll do my best to sing
And try to understand
This simple grain of sand.

A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted

--by John O'Donohue, from "A Book of Blessings"
found on "Daily Good" webpage for

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

Thanking a Monkey
Kaveri Patel

There’s a monkey in my mind
swinging on a trapeze,
reaching back to the past
or leaning into the future,
never standing still.

Sometimes I want to kill 
that monkey, shoot it square
between the eyes so I won’t
have to think anymore
or feel the pain of worry.

But today I thanked her 
and she jumped down
straight into my lap,
trapeze still swinging

as we sat still.
Ich Glaube an Alles noch nie Gesagte
 ~ Ranier Maria Rilke

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

I want to free what waits within me
so that what no one has dared to wish for

may for once spring clear
without my contriving.

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,
but this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river,
no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,
these deepening tides moving out, returning,
I will sing you as no one ever has,

streaming through widening channels
into the open sea.

Walking Meditation 

by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh
© Parallax Press, 1999.
Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Walk peacefully.
Walk happily.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.

Then we learn
that there is no peace walk;
that peace is the walk;
that there is no happiness walk;
that happiness is the walk.
We walk for ourselves.
We walk for everyone
always hand in hand.

Walk and touch peace every moment.
Walk and touch happiness every moment.
Each step brings a fresh breeze.
Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet.
Kiss the Earth with your feet.
Print on Earth your love and happiness.

Earth will be safe
when we feel in us enough safety.


by Dan Gerber
from Sailing through Cassiopeia, © Copper Canyon Press, 2012

You know how, after it rains, 
my father told me one August afternoon 
when I struggled with something 
hurtful my best friend had said, 
how worms come out and 
crawl all over the sidewalk 
and it stays a big mess 
a long time after it’s over 
if you step on them? 

Leave them alone, 
he went on to say, 
after clearing his throat, 
and when the rain stops, 
they crawl back into the ground. 

Hold Out Your Hand

by Julia Fehrenbacher
Posted September 5, 2014 on "A Year of Being Here daily mindfulness poetry" website 

Let's forget the world for a while
fall back and back
into the hush and holy
of now

are you listening? This breath
invites you
to write the first word
of your new story

your new story begins with this: 
You matter

you are needed—empty
and naked
willing to say yes
and yes and yes

Do you see
the sun shines, day after day
whether you have faith
or not
the sparrows continue
to sing their song
even when you forget to sing

stop asking: Am I good enough?
Ask only
Am I showing up
with love?

Life is not a straight line
it's a downpour of gifts, please—
hold out your hand
Landscape Survey 

by John Brehm

From Sea of Faith (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)
*Link to another John Brehm poem at the bottom of this page

And what about this boulder,
knocked off the mountaintop and
tumbled down a thousand years ago
Kakabika Falls, Michigan. Photo by C. Kozlowski

to lodge against the streambank,
does it waste itself with worry
about how things are going

to turn out? Does the current
slicing around it stop itself mid-
stream because it can’t get past

all it’s left behind back at
the source or up in the clouds
where its waters first fell

to earth? And these trees,
would they double over and
clutch themselves or lash out

furiously if they were to discover
what the other trees really
thought of them? Would the wind

reascend into the sky forever,
like an in-drawn breath,
if it knew it was fated simply

to sweep the earth of windlessness,
to touch everything and keep
nothing and be beheld by no one?

What Now is Like
by Tamara Madison
Posted Feb 21, 2015 on A Year of Being Here website

Let’s go see what Now 
is like outside. 
Let’s open the door 
look up at the sky 
feel the cold night air 
on our noses. 
Let’s look at our breath 
as we walk out 
to the street. 
Let’s look at how Now
holds the moon 
in black branches, 
how stars shine down 
with a Now from long 
long ago, how 
they stare down 
on our Now which 
has coaxed them 
to wink at us. 
Let’s listen 
to the night sounds 
that rove the dark Now 
beneath the traffic. 
Let’s stop, look back 
into the Now at the end 
of the street; there 
is something there
but I know it is behind us
in a place called Then
where our footprints
have forgotten
we ever made them.

Any Morning

by William Stafford, from Ohio Review (Volume 50, 1993).
Text as posted on The Writer's Almanac (11/26/2012) and
A Year of Being Here 21 April 2015

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can't
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won't even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.

maggie and milly and molly and may

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befreiended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.


Nuptial Song

by Susana Thénon Posted on A Year of Being Here website, 9 June 2015

i got married
i got married to myself
i said yes
a yes that took years to arrive
years of unspeakable suffering
crying with the rain
locking myself up in my room
because i—the great love of my existence—
was not calling myself up
was not writing to myself
was not visiting myself
and sometimes
when i dared call myself
to say: hello, am i OK?
I would deny myself

i even managed to write my name in a list of bores
i did not really want to join
because they babbled too much
because they’d not leave me alone
because they’d fence me in
because i could not stand them

at the end I did not even pretend
when I needed myself

i intimated to myself
that i was fed up 

and once i stopped calling myself
and stopped calling myself

and so much time went by that I missed myself
so i said
how long has it been since my last call?
must have been ages
and i called myself up and i answered and could not believe it
because even if it seems incredible
i had not healed
i had only shed blood

then i told myself: hello, is it me?
it’s me, i told myself, and added:
such a long time no see
me from myself myself from me

do i want to come home?

yes, i said

and we got together again

i felt good together with myself
just like me
i felt good together with myself
and so
from one day to the next
i got married and i got married
and am together
and not even death can separate me

from The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman (Oxford University Press, 2009). Translated from the original Spanish by Renata Treitel. 


by Naomi Shihab Nye Posted on A Year of Being Here website 31 December 2015

It is a good word, rolling off the tongue;
no matter what language you were born with
use it. Learn where it begins,
the small alphabet of departure,
how long it takes to think of it,
then say it, then be heard.

Marry it. More than any golden ring,
it shines, it shines.
Wear it on every finger
till your hands dance,
touching everything easily,
letting everything, easily, go.

Strap it to your back like wings.
Or a kite-tail. The stream of air behind a jet.
If you are known for anything,
let it be the way you rise out of sight
when your work is finished.

Think of things that linger: leaves,
cartons and napkins, the damp smell of mold.

Think of things that disappear.

Think of what you love best,
what brings tears into your eyes.

Something that said adios to you
before you knew what it meant
or how long it was for.

Explain little, the word explains itself.
Later perhaps. Lessons following lessons,
like silence following sound.

Let Evening Come

By Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come

from the January 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

Surfeit of distance and the wracked mind waiting, 
nipping at itself, snarling inwardly at strangers. 
If I had a car in this town I'd 
rig it up with a rear bumper horn, 
something to blast back at the jackasses 
who honk the second the light turns green. 
If you could gather up all the hornhonks 
of just one day in New York City, 
tie them together in a big brassy knot 
high above the city and honk 
them all at once it would shiver 
the skyscrapers to nothingness, as if 
they were made of sand, and usher 
in the Second Coming. Christ would descend 
from the sky wincing with his fingers 
in his ears and judge us all 
insane. Who'd want people like us 
up there yelling at each other, trashing 
the cloudy, angelic streets with our 
candywrappers and newspapers and coffeecups? 
Besides, we'd still be waiting for   
the next thing to happen in Heaven, 
the next violin concerto or cotton candy 
festival or breathtaking vista to open 
beneath our feet, and thinking this place 
isn't quite what it's cracked up to be, 
and why in hell does everybody 
want to get here? We'd still be 
waiting for someone else to come 
and make us happy, staring 
through whatever's in front of us, 
cursing the light that never seems to change.

Extract from Childhood Friends

by Rumi
Translated by Coleman Barks/John Moyne

Hear a reading presented on BBC Radio 4 at 26:30
From The Essential Rumi, Published by HarperCollins.
. . .
What is the mirror of being?


Always bring a mirror of non-existence
as a gift. Any other present is foolish.

Let the poor man look deep into
generosity. Let the bread see a hungry
man. Let kindling behold a spark from
the flint.

An empty mirror and your worst
destructive habits, when they are held
up to each other,
that's when the real making begins.
That's what art and crafting are.

A tailor needs a torn garment to
practice his expertise. The trunks of
trees must be cut and cut again
so they can be used for fine carpentry.

Your doctor must have a broken leg to
doctor. Your defects are the ways that
glory gets manifested. Whoever sees
clearly what's diseased in himself
begins to gallop on the Way.

There is nothing worse
than thinking you are well enough.
More than anything, self-complacency
blocks the workmanship.

Put your vileness up to a mirror and
weep. Get that self-satisfaction flowing
out of you! Satan thought, "I am better
than Adam," and that *better than* is
still strongly in us.

Your stream-water may look clean,
but there's unstirred matter on the
bottom. Your Sheikh can dig a side
channel that will drain that waste off.

Trust your wound to a Teacher's surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting
feelings, your love for what you think
is yours.

Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.

Don't turn your head. Keep looking at
the bandaged place. That's where the
light enters you.

And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself.