No happy ending necessary

Photo by Artem Sapegin

False hope is a huge industry. Like any narcotic, it provides a temporary high as one is consuming it and shortly thereafter. But then sobriety returns and crashes the party.

This is the brand of optimism that bypasses reality. It holds to the miracle while turning a blind eye to the suffering under its nose.

And we eat it up. Because as vulnerable beings, we can’t bear to face that stuff. Nope.

Blind optimism puts God in the business of producing happy endings.

[Note: As with any case, you can substitute ‘God’ with ‘life’. So blind optimism puts life in the business of producing happy endings. The happy ending becomes the thing we hold our lives hostage to — namely our relationships to self, others, and the world around us.]

Meanwhile, we’re alone with the mess of the world.

This way of looking at the world conflicts with lived experience. Happy endings come so naturally in television and movies, but human life is much more complex.

False hope bypasses reality. True hope acknowledges and transcends it.

Pure hope doesn’t override pain. It acknowledges and transcends it. Its focus is more on sustaining than escaping. It says, Lord, sustain me through these times. If I’m in pain, I pray this ends, but I need you with me in this mess. If I’m not in pain, bring vibrancy and color to the mundane moments.

True hope invites the divine in no matter how far from our ego ideal our lives have gotten. And when we invite God in — in time — we’re healed and restored.

No happy ending necessary.

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So many past lives

Photo by alexandra munoz

I’m 39. So I’m not incredibly old (in human years), but I’m also no spring chicken.

The other day, I was thinking back to a point in my life about 12 years ago. I’d first met Alex (my wife). I was a golf professional living in rural Nevada who was politically conservative (though starting to have reservations), day-trading FOREX on the side, and training heavily in the Japanese martial art of Aikido working towards my black belt with the hopes of one day opening a studio of my own.

Being a dad wasn’t even a thought in my mind. Living in Chicago wasn’t on my radar. And if I told that person that he would someday consider the seminary or blogging about contemplative matters, he’d think I was insane.

When I close my eyes and put myself in that person’s skin, I feel like an intruder. I’m not that person anymore. Sure, there’s a resemblance of him at my core, but it’s really like a past life.

I can rewind even further to when I was a Junior in high school. My mom had passed the year before and I was mostly living with my heroin-addicted aunt (unbeknownst to me at the time) who was doing her best to support me when my dad was out of state working for weeks at a time.

Totally. Different. Life.

I’ll go even further back to when I was five. It was the first birthday party I have a recollection of. I remember eating the cake batter my mom was making in our kitchen on River Road in Modesto, CA. My friends were coming over soon and we were going to have my party at the neighbor’s house (they were a retired couple who had a huge swimming pool and my birthday is in August, so that worked nicely).

Waaaay. Different. Life

Life seems to be about constant deaths and resurrections. We have so many past lives…

Which ones lay ahead for us to live?

It’s amazing how little (and how much) control of that we actually have.

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Contemplative unmasking

Photo by Finan Akbar on Unsplash

There’s a certain kind of despair when we do something hurtful to someone we love.

We’ve done it. 
We’ve said the thing. 
We’ve made the remark. 
Maybe we’ve slammed our hand down on a hard surface.
We’ve messed things up. 
(And we can’t take it back.)

So what do we do?…

I don’t know about you, but my first reaction is to flee. To go hide under a rock somewhere so as to keep myself from doing any further damage.

Things get blurry in that space. Vision gets foggy. Emotions smear together. You’ve been there…

This happened to me fairly recently and something dawned on me as to why I was reacting this way. What came up was fascinating…

The reason I wanted to flee wasn’t to escape them, but because I couldn’t stand to look back at myself from their eyes.

The mask of my surface personality had been shattered. And I was terrified that they could see the person I’d been trying to conceal since childhood: an insecure kid who feels like a disappointment and has zero options.

This is where contemplative practice comes into play.

Contemplative spirituality helps us pry ourselves away from ourselves in order to reveal and heal the toxic dynamics of the human ego in the light of God’s love.

I had a false premise (that I am inherently unsafe and powerless) covered up by a false persona (that I have everything under control, so no worries). When that mask was shattered, I saw my false self reflected back at me in the eyes of someone I love.

Contemplative spirituality is an invitation to wake up and die so you can truly live.
 — Phileena Heuertz

And so, the work continues. Consciously and repeatedly removing the mask and letting the false self peel away under the radiant love of the divine.

Because this is our true nature. This is the Christ essence inside of us. We are deeply loved in the eyes of God no matter how much we believe our false selves or how many masks we place over them. God sees right underneath all of it.

This is who I want to see looking back at me in the eyes of others.

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Which voice is which?

Photo by Nathan Queloz

I’m a big believer that God is hearable, not seeable. I can loosely rationalize this notion by referring to John 1:1 (even though that translation is blurry — but whatever, it works for me).

In the form of centering prayer I study and practice, it’s all about listening for God. The question is — out of all the voices in my head, which one is God’s?!

Is it the really hangry one that just wants Chipotle and won’t let me get anything done until guacamole gets in my stomach? Is it the one that judges others and how different they are to me (yes, that one is up there too)? Is it the voice of my late father (that one won’t go away, damn it)?

Which voice is it? Is any given voice from my ego or from spirit?

I’ve recently heard it put a certain way, which I quite like (and I paraphrase, from Fr. Richard Rohr)…

God’s voice is a deeper voice than your own that will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it’s challenging you.

[I don’t read ‘deeper’ as ‘more masculine’ but rather ‘coming from a deeper place within’ than our day-to-day human voice.]

God’s voice isn’t always nice and comforting. It often pushes us into uncomfortable territory. It challenges us to run contrary to our human survival-based egos, but it never shames, bemoans, or ‘frightens’ us on a core level (though the direction it calls us can seem terrifying, the intent is never to frighten).

God doesn’t seem to speak English (very stubborn, I know). I may translate God that way, but the voice (if we can even call it that) originates as something deeper and more primal. God’s voice seems to come as a heard magnetic pull rather than literal words that can be logically parsed and understood through language comprehension.

Listening to the ‘right’ voice is easier at certain times than others. It’s a lifelong practice and one we may never get totally right. But if we remain open and work on heightening our receptivity, we get more glimpses.

Okay, time to go grab some Chipotle, stat…

God’s presence and action within

Photo by Nathan Ansell

This is what contemplative prayer lends itself to.

When we sit with the intention of connecting to our indwelling spirit, we quiet the analytical mind, turn our inner ear towards the divine, and come into contact with a certain kind of inner stirring.

Mystics call this stirring of sorts God’s presence and action within. It’s swirling around right now in your belly underneath the human-made amygdala-triggered tension that may be there.

God speaks with no words and yearns not for your mental approval, but for the acknowledgement of your heart and the raw action of your feet, hands, and voice.

Can you feel it swirling around in there? What is God whispering to you right now?

No need to try putting language to it. But it might be worth your while to sit down and at least have a listen…

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Give yourself space to sit with it

My wife and I just did something tough. Don’t worry, it’s not detrimental or fatal— everyone’s fine healthy, and together. It was regarding our daughter and her school and possibly having to switch schools mid-year as a kindergartner.

Ugh… The anxiety of a parent is unceasing.

We really thought she was in the right place. During her short five years on this planet, we’ve moved her so much from town to town and from school to school. We wanted this school to be the one she could stay at for a long time. We saw her growing roots and finding friends and all the good things.

And we really like the people there. The founder’s heart is in the right place. But it just hasn’t been a great fit. It’s a great school, just maybe not… for her. And so, here we go, looking to uproot her again.

She’s resilient. She’s kinda looking forward to a move (though it’s hard to say). But were we throwing in the towel too soon? Should she (and us) learn resilience by sticking it out? Was this decision fear-based or faith-based?

Right when I pressed ‘send’ on a very pivotal email in the process, all the emotions rolled in.

As good as we felt about this decision to make a switch, I also felt… Sad. And nervous. And guilty. And confused.

I hate change. I hate conflict. And this move brought an intensity of both.

Immediately, I wanted to distract myself.

Reach for the phone. Jump into those emails that have been sitting there. Check the Instagram feed. Anything but feel this…

(And my story here is mild — think about the really heavy stuff that befalls us in life. The temptation to distract ourselves from our emotions are all the more present in the midst of great external turmoil and upheaval.)

I had to be with this as it moved through. I had to head into the inner desert and sit there for a while.

I resisted the urge to grab the phone and instead, I laid on the sofa and tried to let go of trying to figure it out. Instead, I just let it all show up — any emotion was welcome.

It was so uncomfortable, but oh so necessary.

How often do we do this? I sure don’t do it enough. Our modern world is wrought with so many distractions.

That thing in your pocket has an endless number of seemingly urgent things to easily address and resolve rather than tending to the swirling energies of your emotional landscape in the moment.

We don’t give ourselves time to just… sit. To rewind through our day — through our week or year — and process what we’ve been too distracted and busy to process. To tie up whatever loose ends lie unattended to and release to God what needs to be released.

Please, give that time to yourself. Yes, you’ll want to fill it instead with screen time or addressing the extraneous drama of the moment that fills your need to be busy. So be kind to yourself if you give in to these temptations. But it’s worth the emotional labor to resist checking off those boxes and tending to those notifications so you can just sit with the stuff swirling around in your belly.

On the other end is a nice, deep breath that cleanses the soul and brings new life.

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When your inner eyes focus

Photo by Quentin Kemmel on Unsplash

So, before you think I’m virtue signaling, let me just tell you that I’m one of the worst, most distracted meditators you’ll ever know.

I’ve written about this before, but I don’t particularly enjoy meditation. It’s not a blissful stretch of time for me. I’d rather be thinking or grilling or reading or sleeping rather than meditating.

So it’s interesting that I’ve somehow fallen in love with my contemplative/centering prayer practice. Because every time, I lucidly realize how horrible I am at it.

This is the beauty of the practice. The point isn’t to achieve some kind of perfectly serene state the whole time through. The point is to return back to the silence (to god, if you will) when you feel caught up in personal thinking. If you can do it once or twice in that 20-minute period, well, you got your money’s worth.

For me, the first 10 minutes is rough. I’m up in my head the entire time. Like, waaaay up there. And then, right around the 10-minute mark, things start to shift. This shifting can’t be rushed, it just… happens (sometimes).

The best way I can describe it is you know how, when you turn the lights off, your eyes take some time to adjust. In that first however-many minutes, all you see is darkness — maybe even some shapes and shadows from when the room was illumined.

But then, suddenly, the room starts opening up to you. And before long, it’s like you’re sitting in a well-lit room, but you’re actually in the dark.

That’s exactly how contemplative prayer is for me (and how I’ve heard it described by others).

When your inner eye softens and relaxes its gaze, you find yourself in the luminous interior space of the divine.

It’s indescribable in nature, but you’re floating in the presence of something… more. Something numinous.

As for me, I still shift back and forth into thinking about my grocery list and my email inbox and the numerous other urgent-yet-unimportant things that strive for my attention.

But I’m in the midst of a psycho-spiritual atmosphere that’s easier to sink back into than it was 10 minutes or so before.

As fleeting as those moments of non-thinking are, what a peaceful place to be.

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