A rant on Lutheran theology and contemplation

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

I’m taking a Lutheran theology class on Mondays and my brain is on fire by the end of the three hours.

Maybe it’s partly because I haven’t been in a traditional classroom for 20 years, but it’s also because Lutheranism is known as a ‘bookish’ theology (though, I’m learning that Luther was quite heart-centric in his own flawed way).

Luther was violently prolific. The combination was this:

Passionate and articulate German theologian (and his cronies) + his/their love of beer + the advent of the printing press = Lutheran theology.

As much as it is, I love that it stimulates my brain space.

But then, the other half of my spiritual life is my practice of contemplative prayer which is more mindful and meditative. Unlike theology, contemplative prayer is all about self-emptying and releasing thoughts, not refining them.

So how do I live with both? It seems they’d cancel each other out.

But this is what’s so great about looking at things contemplatively/non-dualistically (as bad as I am at it)…

Contemplation doesn’t cause us to shy away from opposites. Rather, it allows us to embrace both polarities and create a new, third thing.

When it comes to opposites, the small self frantically yearns to pick one or the other. But it’s fascinating what happens when we sit with both for a while.

As for the example I present today, with these two seemingly disparate spiritual premises, here’s what occurred to me…

Lutheran theology (especially before the death of Luther, after which a lot of really ‘smart’ humans and committees of humans got their hands on it) was radically a gospel (grace)-centered theology. His premise went something like this…

Humans are justified (loved, accepted, etc.) from birth through the grace of God. There is no ladder to climb. The only task is to recognize and live in response to this grace.

In contemplative centering prayer, the task is to sit still for 20 minutes and bask in this grace. And it’s really hard. Because I don’t feel I deserve it. My ego feels like it has to do this, this, and this.

Stop sitting, you loser! Get up and perform! Produce!

There’s just so much to do and so much to prove.

But, the task is to let that stuff bubble up and bathe in the grace that Luther banged on about. It takes practice to do this, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be constantly aware of the love God has for me and all of creation.

I’ll take a glimpse every now and then, though. And if I just had a fresh beer and a digital printing press, I might be able to write about it too.

There we go…

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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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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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Stop deciding on things

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger

Not all the time. I mean, I highly suggest you decide to stop when the light turns red.

But just for a little while — 20 minutes in a day — stop deciding on things.

This is contemplation. When we sit and as soon as we notice that decision muscle working, we stop and… Well, we just stop. We rest our decision muscle. And when we do, something magical happens.

Make it a daily practice to consciously rest your decision muscle for a little while.

This is when a certain operating system of sorts shuts off within — the one that only runs programs based on ‘either/or’ commands. It’s binary. On or off. Black or white. Green or red (again, this one is nice when you’re driving). When this operating system is active, we squint through life. We constantly unknowingly parse the world in front of us.

And when that operating is turned off, I notice a new one booting up in its place. One that gives me a wider view. One that’s based on ‘both/and’ commands. It’s an expansive one that opens up and holds opposing things in the same place without having to obliterate one of them.

Like my improv brethren, it says, “Yes, and…”

What you’ll find is, the decision muscle doesn’t know how to rest. We’ve trained it since early childhood to stay flexed and active. As you sit there, if you’re like me, you find yourself deciding on the banalest minutiae of life. Not only that, but it blows these decisions up like they’re life or death.

But, no. This is your sacred space. You’re only here for 20 minutes. This is not the time to make decisions. You have 15 hours and 40 minutes (if you get 8 hours of sleep) to do that. Not now.

Relax that decision muscle. This is the small window of time you’ve set aside for release, not gathering. It’s apophatic, not kataphatic. It’s focus is on surrender, not obtaining.

Let that decision muscle rest and see anew.

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Sinking into life just a couple inches deeper

Photo by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash

This is one of the things that silent contemplative prayer has helped me with during my fairly short time doing it.

I’m still a headcase. But I’m noticing more moments in my daily life where I feel that I’ve (metaphorically speaking) sunk just a couple inches deeper into my life.

It’s a really hard thing to describe with words. I guess I just feel more rooted. Like my nonphysical center of gravity is a little more solid.

In Western culture, we tend to live from the neck-up (totally guilty of this myself) moving through life in our heads as we assign our logical, rational mind the sole job of running the show. This works great in a controlled environment when we have a model of the past to go off of.

But when things start going haywire in life (if even a little), the rational mind has a hard time making connections. We get mentally and emotionally thrown off center.

The news, the job market, the housing market, religion, family dynamics, male/female roles, economics, parenting — so much of life is in upheaval right now. We’re going through a huge paradigm shift and it’s making a lot of us crazy, especially when we grow up believing that this stuff should be black and white.

Binary, baby. Let's keep this stuff simple.

But, life says no (yes, particularly at this historical moment, but I think the only constant throughout history is how in flux it is).

The world is going through profound shifts on both a macro (huge, worldwide events) and micro (like, at your family’s Thanksgiving table) level. And with the internet, we’re plugged into all of it in real time. At the same time that we read on Facebook about your Uncle Henry’s shirtless diatribe at the dinner table, we get a Breaking News alert about a mass killing on the other side of the planet.

The rational mind can’t hang on to this stuff.

But this ancient practice of sitting in silence and releasing my mental mutterings is helping me just… be here. Trust me, I’m off-balance plenty of times throughout my day, but I’m noticing more and more that I’m just a little more rooted.

Instead of constantly trying to play chess with my life (a futile, fruitless exercise), I’m more often just… There.

I have a long way to go, but if two inches deeper is where I am right now, I’ll take it.

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On emptying out your best ideas

It kills me every time…

I’m sitting there in contemplation emptying out my thoughts to god (you know, as ya do), and then it hits me: A great idea. I’m only five minutes into my meditation and suddenly, I’ve figured out that one thing I’ve been wrestling with for weeks.

And so, I break the ‘rule’. I pause my Insight Timer, get up, and write that brilliant idea down.

Then I sit back down, get back into position, itch my nose (always), fart (sorry, it happens), press the ‘play’ button on the timer, close my eyes, and get back in the zone.

Five more minutes go by and — BAM — I remember that one thing I keep forgetting to buy at the store. Mouthwash! Gaaah! So I pause the timer, get up, write that bad boy down, sit back down, scratch my nose, (no farting this time), press play, and get back in the zone.

I’ll stop there… 
You’re starting to see the cycle, right?

When we entertain our underlying frantic anxieties, they become more and more incessant.

Back to the ‘rule’… In centering prayer, the only requirement is to let go of each thought.

This is so hard — especially for someone who makes a living from ideas. Those things are like currency to me, yet there I am, consciously forgetting them! And I’m trying to make a habit of this?! What is this madness?!

Afterward, it never ceases to amaze me how, when/if I remember those ‘ideas’, they’re not so epic after all. And those things I needed to get at the store — they come back to me, hopefully, sooner than later.

But that’s not even the point… The thing I have to remember is,

The value (because we’re so big on ‘value’ out west) of this prayer isn’t to ‘get’ anything. It isn’t to increase my productivity or attract cash and prizes from my living room.

The gift of this prayer is to generously hand over my internal garbage to the divine moment after moment.

This is not the time to brainstorm. It’s a time to release my death grip on getting. To experience what it feels like to not have to be like they told me I needed to be like in school — productive, successful, or even smart — for just twenty short minutes.

Instead, my role in contemplation is to just… be. 
(What a strange concept.)

And so, as the ideas come, 
I’ll continue sitting there as they fly away,
Squirming like crazy (and apparently, very gassy),
Empty,
But with everything I need.

P.S. For a great resource on centering prayer, here’s a PDF that I use that’s fantastic.

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On kenosis and being horrible at meditation

It’s fall, so I’ll be going all-in on fall pictures this season. This one is by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

As I touched on last night, I’m really bad at meditating. I also mentioned that this fact doesn’t keep me from the benefits of my practice.

I get distracted easily. Being a writer, the voice in my head is reeeally adamant. (I mean, I depend on that voice for my livelihood. So there's that...)

But in my centering prayer (meditation) time, my task is to remove my investment from it for a short while. To not get caught up in what that thing is saying. To let those thoughts float right by and ascend back into the ether from which they came.

This is the notion of kenosis. It’s the term mystics use to describe the self-emptying quality of Jesus (read more here if you care to enter the rabbit hole of kenosis).

And so, in centering prayer, the point isn’t necessarily to be in a perfectly clear blissed-out mental state the whole time. (I mean, if you can actually get there, fantastic, but it’s certainly not a requirement — if it was, no one would still be doing it).

The point of contemplative prayer is kenosis — the self-emptying of personal thinking, agenda, and emotional mental attachment.

We cast away our incessant personal yammerings so that we can sit in the quiet, sacred presence of divine action.

Okay, so back to sucking…

The more I get distracted, the more opportunities I have to work my kenotic muscles (no, I promise, I don’t do it on purpose). To let the thoughts go and return to the silence, if ever so temporarily.

It’s this leaving and returning, leaving and returning, latching onto thinking and kenosis that… does something, internally.

I don’t ever notice drastic internal shifts while I’m sitting ass-on-cushion (for lack of a better term). The changes seep in quietly like an editing of my internal coding and show up when least expected (this is the whole ‘divine action’ thing I mentioned earlier).

That’s when the real mystery of this contemplative faith presents itself… When I find myself (occasionally) not getting pissed off to the point of cardiomyopathy in bad traffic. When I (occasionally) let my five-year-old actually be a five-year-old instead of holding her to stricter standards than that of my fellow adults. When (occasionally) I see a headline that would have typically been triggering but has now been rendered emotionally impotent.

Hmmm…. Strange.

It just shows, when we quiet down our mental chatter, we allow the divine to go to work on us.

And so, as horrible I am at it, I’ll keep on with this ancient mystical practice of contemplative prayer. Getting caught up in my head… and then returning to the emptiness that undergirds my very being.

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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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A layman’s introduction to centering prayer

Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with meditation (with the scales tipping much toward the hate side). I’ve tried following my breath, focusing on mantras, visualization, and more.

Every time, it’s the same cycle: Three days of enthusiasm followed by a botched session and then a missed session and finally a feeling of utter failure and the realization of how non-spiritual I am.

I remember getting so frustrated as thoughts consumed my brain space while meditating. Here I was thinking about how much I used to like Hot Pockets when I should have been inching towards nirvana. Get. Out. Of. My. Head. Gaaah!!

But there’s something about quietude that draws me toward it. And being as big of a fanboy of Richard Rohr as I am made me look up Contemplative/Centering Prayer to see what it’s all about.

That’s when I found some videos and books by another likable monk, Thomas Keating, who seems to be the go-to guy when it comes to all things about Centering Prayer.

Now, just to set the tone up front, I don’t intend for this post to be a comprehensive guide but merely my personal introduction and beginner-level account of doing it this last year or so.

So, what is Contemplative Prayer?

According to Keating’s Contemplative Outreach, here’s how they define* Contemplative Prayer…

Centering Prayer is a receptive method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.

I like to put it this way… As for most of us, when we think of prayer, we think about petitionary prayer. This is when we ask for things. We’re doing the talking and God (or whatever you call it — I’ll be using the G-word in this post), we imagine, is doing the listening.

There’s also confessionary prayer where we say out loud all the stuff we feel bad for and ask for forgiveness. Again, we’re doing the talking.

Centering Prayer, on the other hand, is where we do the listening and we invite God to do the talking. This is very hard for us, especially in our westernized culture of Christianity that’s based on thinking, talking, expressing, holy rolling, and pontificating. We don’t do very well just sitting there in long stretches of silence wrestling with layer upon layer of internal chatter waiting to be spoken to by something that we’re not really even sure how to define (it’s not like we get a call or a text or anything).

But this is why I like it. Because it’s hard. In fact, as you’ll soon see, it’s supposed to be hard. If it’s not hard, you’re likely not doing it. I found this encouraging. Unlike the previous types of meditation where I felt like a failure for not ‘doing it right’, with this, I feel like I’m on track due to how bad I suck at it. More on this soon…

Why do Centering Prayer?

After doing it fairly regularly (though not daily as I’d like to) for a year or so, here’s what I’ve gotten out of it:

To tell you the truth, I don’t often feel awesome when I’m doing it. I feel like a stumbling, bumbling westerner trying to meditate (which I am). It’s AFTERWARDS that I notice the ‘effects’ of it during my daily life.

Keating says that what happens is our value systems slowly and silently get replaced with God’s. As crazy as this sounds, it’s exactly what I’m experiencing to be true. I find my values shifting and strengthening in more healthy directions. I find myself doing things that the previous me would have never done. I hold my life more gently. I feel more peaceful and present with people I was previously nervous around.

Essentially, I feel as though something else (God?) is directing my life. Like she’s rewiring things even I didn’t know needed to be rewired. This is so different (and, in my opinion, far more refreshing) than the popular visualization type meditation where we’re trying to make certain things happen.

In Centering Prayer, as you’ll soon see, all we’re doing is giving things up. Letting them go. When something bright and shiny that we want comes into awareness — that new client, new car, new zip code, new golf swing, new bank balance, etc. — we return to the silence (via our ‘sacred word’ as you’ll soon see) and let it go. We give it up to the ‘Lawd (sorry, preaching over here).

So, how do you do Centering Prayer, you may be asking? Well, you can take an hour or so to watch these videos, but since you’re reading this, I’ll describe the bare-bones guidelines below as they’re quite simple (however, with most simple-but-powerful things, there’s a profound underlying depth and complexity to them that can be discussed forever)…

Oh, a quick disclaimer is appropriate here. If you’re wondering if you have to be religious or Christian in order to do this, the answer is no. If you dig mindfulness of any sort and are at least open to a smattering of Christian language and framing, anyone can do this regardless of religion or non-religion. I mean, if you want to.

Guidelines for Centering Prayer

Know that these are called guidelines for a reason. They’re not hard-and-fast rules. Centering prayer is a relationship you’re entering with the divine, not a technique. These guidelines are meant to be held loosely and danced with.

Ready to dance? Okay, here we go…

Before anything: Sit your ass down (for 25 minutes)

If you can get your ass into a sitting position and a timer set for 25 minutes, you’re already winning. I bought a meditation cushion, but your couch, favorite chair, 5-gallon bucket, or park bench is fine. Before I jump into details, here’s a quick outline of how I lay my session out:

  1. First 2 minutes: Get settled, itch my nose a bunch, do some deep breathing, and whatever else I need to do to get mo’ still.
  2. Next 20 minutes: Meditate/pray (which we’ll get into below)
  3. Final 2–3 minutes: Come back into the room and reflect. I say the ‘Our Father’ really slowly for a couple minutes, but you can do whatever.

Guideline 1 (Opening):

Before you start, you’ll want to choose a ‘sacred word’. This word acts as the anchoring symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within you.

Now, this isn’t a chant. We don’t repeat it over and over again. Just when we catch ourselves getting tangled up in our thinking.

When you bring your mind to your sacred word during prayer, you express your intention to be in the presence. You yield to it. We’re becoming conscious of the divine presence that moves in us and has always been doing so as we’ve been focusing on other seemingly more important things (not so much).

Your sacred word should consist of 1 or 2 (or 3) syllables that you feel comfy with and that express your intention to be with God during this time and open to the divine action.

Suggestions: One of the sacred names of God, Jesus, or Mary (Lord, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Jesu, Chira, or Jeshua) are fine. Amen is a good go-to. Even secular words like Love, Yes, or Peace are fine if the more religious words are too loaded for you.

It doesn’t really matter what word it is. You make the word sacred, not its inherent meaning. Your will/intention sacralizes this sound as an appropriate expression of your intention to be open to the movement of the divine within you.

When you settle on a word, stick with it the entire time (it’s even nice to stay with it for days, weeks, or more so it sews itself into your psyche).

Just so you know, if there is a goal here, it’s to stop thinking (which is tricky because if you stay focused on that goal while praying, you’ll thereby be thinking, which defeats your purpose). This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have thoughts. You’ll definitely have thoughts, you just won’t be thinking about them (go ahead and read this sentence again).

Does your brain hurt yet? Mine too. Let’s move on…

Guideline 2: Consent

Sitting comfortably with eyes closed and with your sacred word at the ready, briefly and silently introduce your sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.

You’ll sit comfortably so you won’t have to think about how uncomfortable your body is. You’ll close your eyes (both inner and outer) to let go of your interior/exterior worlds (we’re getting woo-woo here, you still with me?).

Don’t get hung up on the meaning of your sacred word. If it’s too emotionally charged, pick another one. The more neutral, the better.

You’re knocking on the door here, so to speak. But you’re not the one to open it. It’s locked from the inside and you’re on the outside. Your only role is to wait.

Guideline 3: Return

If you’re like me, about 2.765 seconds into your Centering Prayer session, you’ll become distracted and engaged in a thought. This is my favorite part of this form of prayer/meditation. When this happened with the other types of meditation I tried, I’d realize I was doing it wrong. I took on a violent attitude towards my thinking and struggled hard against them so as to keep them from coming up. As you know, this is futile and only leads to more thinking.

But here in Centering Prayer, when we find ourselves engaged in thinking, we see it as a divine opportunity. An opportunity to return to our sacred word and thereby giving consent to the action of the divine presence within.

Take note here that the sacred word isn’t meant to forcefully stop your thinking. It’s not a bulldozer. This is a totally nonviolent prayer. Thoughts are integral to this process because they’re coming from your unconscious. The emergence of them is a necessary part of the healing process. As Keating would put it, by allowing thoughts to surface, they can be healed by the holy spirit. Centering prayer involves the whole of life, not just the blissed-out, enlightened ones. All of it can, will, and should show up while you’re in prayer.

Return to the sacred word with the intention of consenting to the silence within and smile as they wander out of consciousness.

It’s like you’re talking to a friend when you hear a car wreck outside. You head to the window and stare at the wreckage for a minute (it was only a fender bender), and now the appropriate thing to do is turn your attention back to your friend that you’re having a sacred conversation with.

Guideline 4: Closing

At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes. You could say the Our Father really slowly if you’re into that kind of thing — it’s what I do. Or you could recite a favorite poem, quote, or even just sit there as you slowly come back into the room.

Now, try it yourself

Seriously, anyone can do this form of prayer. That’s why I like it so much. It doesn’t depend on me being a super spiritual and mindful person (which I’m truly not even though I seem like it on the internet).

All it depends on is the notion that God (who/whatever this is) swirling around inside you (as well as each and every one of us) and if we continually submit to its presence and action, we soon find that life takes on a new level of softness, quietude, brilliance, and grace that seems foreign to our previous life.

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You’re on the way

You,
the thing I want
that I desire
that I obsess over…

I want to acquire you
so my ego sets out to get you
to fight for you
reach for you
stretch for you.

And along the way
you change.

You morph from a divine pull
into a man-made, forced human object.

From an effortless and infinite starting point
to an impossible goal.

The more I willfully pursue you
and especially when I get you
the less I want you 
and the more frustrated 
and disappointed
I grow.

What if all the forcing I’m doing
is unnecessary?

What if the fact
that I’m drawn to you
is a notice from life
that you’re already here

and if I can just stop striving for you
you’ll effortlessly show up 
and express through me
in a number of beautifully infinite
and spontaneous ways?

What if all the shit
I put myself through
to get to you
only keeps you
buried?

What if the key was to 
fall 
back 
into you…

and let you take me?

Can I surrender enough
for your magic to happen?

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The subtleness of insight

I used to think that insights come as giant-sized, earth shattering, life-altering events.

I thought that, after reaching a certain ‘tipping point’ of spiritual attainment, my entire world would suddenly come into full color, answers would appear brightly before my eyes, and God would emerge from the sky with a golden tablet that provided all of my life’s answers.

But I now see that insight doesn’t work that way…

In the words of Michael Neill, most insight is more of a ‘Homer Simpson insight’ than an epic insight.

Most insight is more, “Duh…” than, “Woah!!”

In my experience of working with people to facilitate insight of their own, when it does show up, it shows up as the overlooked obvious. Like, oh, duh, right?!

This is my favorite part of what I do. When something shows up in the conversation from nowhere, becomes spoken, and there’s a loooong silence… A silence that’s not blank, but full. Like the sound of a gear after it’s solidly clicked into place.

Seconds — sometimes minutes — later, the other person comes back with something like…

“Wow… How did I not see this before?”

This is the Homer Simpson insight. The duh (or ‘doh’, if you’re like Homer) insight.

Insight is almost always subtle.

Meditation

As I settle into the knowingness of spirit, I see that insight is subtle, not epic.

There’s no such thing as a difficult problem for God. If I find myself striving for answers and wrestling over issues, I know that I’ve permitted my ego to run the show.

The only thing that my ego can do is get in the way. The job on my end is ego management. If I can keep my ego in the back seat, I can let my soul do the work. When my soul takes an active role, I become ripe for this insight to happen. When it does, I’ll have the clear vision to accept it.

When I’m in tune with the divine, solutions show up as obvious. I know that it’s not up to me when they show up and that all I can do is remain open to them.

If I can do this, I can catch them.
When I catch them, they can transform me.
If I let them.

And so it is.

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Mental quiet is not silent

Photo by Grant Ritchie

It’s often perceived that meditation is supposed to help us ‘quiet the mind’, right? I mean, that’s often the draw.

I have a noisy mind. So I’m gonna meditate.

And we do.
And it feels cool. 
And sometimes it gets quieter.

But there’s always something going on up there.

Ugh…

It can be frustrating banging our head against a wall trying to get our thinking to quiet down because those voices and images and imagined dragons (no, not the band) just keep… Coming.

But I want to offer you a different way of looking at it. Maybe you’ll be able to let go of this possibly impossible goal of entirely quieting the mind.

What if mental quiet wasn’t supposed to be silent?

Here’s what I gather…

The quiet is the space within which we hear the noise.

Try seeing ‘quiet’ as not being the absence of noise, but as the backdrop to the noise. Rest in that open space that’s aware of the noise. That watches it with a soft, loving gaze knowing that it’s just… noise. It’s just thought. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Meditation

As I enter my meditative state, I surrender the urge to find complete silence of mind. I know that, by doing this, all I do is add noise to the noise. I see now that quiet is the open, loving backdrop to the noise. When I rest in this space, noise comes and goes. I’m serenely settled amidst the most agitating of noises because without me, this noise wouldn’t exist. The noise is just a shimmer on the surface of the water of the mind. Nothing to be afraid of.

I am the quiet behind it all. 
I am. 
And so it is. 
Amen.

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The allness of having nothing on your mind

Photo by Tim Marshall

I was at the local pool the other day with Rory when I had an epiphany (because isn’t that fitting?)…

It was later in the evening on a Saturday. This is significant because Saturdays are usually stress-inducing for me. It’s my wife’s busiest day of the week with students, so it usually means it’s just Rory and I all day long.

Yes, I know you think I’m an evil father, but hanging out with a threenager all day solo is no short task. There’s at least two tantrums and at least one medical incident. My ego would much rather sit here and write to you. If it wasn’t for those special moments of connection and love, it’d most definitely be so.

But, I’ve been trying to drink some of my own medicine and sink into that meditative space where God lives (you know the one I’m talking about, right?) more often than not.

In short, I’m trying to have as little on my mind as possible. Which is really hard for the mind to do. It’s like trying to not think of a purple slipper. But what better way to practice than with my little spiritual guru, Rory.

Anyhow, so I’m doing that in the kiddie play pool as Rory splashes around (yep, I’m the weird dad contemplating my state of mind while wading in 2ft of water and dodging rainbow colored balls the kids are chucking at each other’s faces).

So I’m there finding this internal place and I remember looking up. Right then, it hit me like a damn freight train…

When you have nothing on our mind, it’s all there in front of you. Absence of thought leads to presence of mind.

It’s impossible to have nothing on your mind. It’s a mind. It’s aware and conscious. We’re thought-creating beings. As long as we’re alive in human form, this will be the case. It never goes blank. But by being in the place of having nothing much on it, we open ourselves to the depth and richness of what’s there.

Things came into hypercolor. Rory and I had a blast. We weren’t hurried. And time flew by extremely fast, but I felt like every moment was deeper than usual.

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Permission to go slow

Photo by Seb Creativo

Right now, my wife and I are driving a 26-foot Budget moving truck while towing a car across the country. I have no choice but to go slow.

Everything in my body wants to go 90 like everyone else, but I physically can’t. I max out at about 65 in this thing and even that isn’t permissible unless I want to risk a blowout on the trailer tires.

As frustrating as this is, the thing that’s really cool is I’ve had to give myself permission to go slow. Which is interesting. Because I’m usually in a car and everyone (including me) just... goes fast. It’s the nature of cars.

When you’re not going fast in a car, it’s easy to think that something is wrong with you. Like, why am I not going faster? And most everyone else seems to be thinking the same.

But when you’re in a big ass truck, you have to slow down. And everyone else understands. It’s the nature of big trucks.

There’s something powerful about granting yourself permission to go slow.

I want to start living more like a big truck. I want to take wider turns. I want to sit up higher, see more of the landscape, and cruise. Because when I give myself permission to go slow, life is fuller. Richer. And more free.

Even though, sometimes, it’s nice to get that car off the trailer and floor it.

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Why it’s impossible to ‘let it go’

Photo by Alex Gorham on Unsplash

It’s impossible for the mind to consciously let anything go. It’s like trying not to think of a turquoise zebra. Impossible.

I’m no neuroscientist, but it seems to me that the mind needs something to chew on. It can only do things. It can’t undo them.

Consciousness is.
It can never ‘not be’.

So this is why…

The only way to release something or let it go is to accept it.

I know they used to tell me in meditation class to see the thoughts in your head and let them go. Well, I was fine with the first part of that instruction, but always got stuck on the second. The harder I’d try to let that thought go, the more it hung around. Which lead to frustration. Which lead to an intensity of that thought.

It was a train wreck. Every time. 
But maybe that’s just me.

Anyhow, what I eventually learned is to not try to ‘let a thought go’.

But embrace it. 
See it. 
And accept it.

Look at it. 
Love it. 
Be with it.

Envelop the thought in the warm embrace of your awareness. Remember, there’s nothing too big for awareness. Awareness can handle anything. So look at it. No matter how uncomfortable it might be — the more your awareness graces it without adding any additional personal thought to it — the more it melts away.

Sit comfortably in the cosmic conundrum that you can be comfortable in your discomfort.

As soon as the mind accepts it, it will move on. 
Gone. 
Vanished.

I still can’t get that turquoise zebra out of my head, though. Damn it.


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📸 And say hello on Instagram (the only other social media platform I actually like). 📸

Meditation is a state, not a thing we do

Photo by Rob Bates on Unsplash

In modern culture, meditation has been sold as a thing we do. A ritualistic step-by-step process that leads from inner point A to an inner point B waiting just beyond said ritual.

I’ve tried this so many times. I once thought that, being a ‘spiritual person’ of course, and in affirming my ego’s label, I HAD to meditate. It was a prerequisite.

I tried zen meditation, Japa meditation, breathing meditation, moving meditation, and guided meditations of all shapes and sizes.

As excited as I was to talk about them to people at the time (spiritually humble bragging, of course), I have to say, authentically, I felt meh about them — at best.

I realize now that when I was going about it before, I was trying to meditate from a loud mind. A mind that said things like…

Jonas, dude, you have to meditate.

Hey Jonas, what kind of meditation is best for you?

Hey Jonas, check out this new guru’s way of meditating!

What’s up, you can’t find 10 minutes to do this — seriously?!

Until I started learning a different perspective on meditation.

Meditation isn’t something you have to do — it’s an innate state that we can fall back into at any time throughout our day (and often do without realizing it).

Meditation is where God lives. 
Meditation is where insight lives.
Meditation is where epiphany lives.
Meditation is where hygge lives. 
Meditation is where love lives.
Meditation is where innate wellness lives.

Instead of doing meditation, I like to think rather of living meditatively.

When the mind is quiet, meditation… is.

It’s my belief that the structured rituals of meditation are the results of a meditative moment. When our mind shows even an inkling of quiet, meditative rituals create the space for us to bask and deepen into the silence that’s already there.

If you’re like me and you put that kind of pressure on yourself to meditate, take a step back. Try living meditatively instead of scurrying to block off that twelve minutes before work to meditate.

Don’t see meditation as something that has to live separately from ‘regular’ life. Meditation is life (if you allow it to be).

Do you see how this could be so?

Whether you’re washing the dishes, playing catch, writing that fourteenth draft, or running for your life from evil invaders, meditation is a place you’re infinitely welcome to.


Jonas Ellison is a spiritual writer, teacher, practitioner, and an interfaith minister-in-training. He helps people deepen their lives through applied spirituality while documenting his journey along the way.

To subscribe via email to his updates and exclusive content, click here.

Rumination vs. Reflection

Back in my hardcore ‘Law of Attraction’ days (I’ve made peace with this part of my life), I used to sit and ruminate over the things I wanted...

I wanted that car, that girl, that amount of money, those people fed, that war to end, and a life that looked a certain way.

It was work. It was an effortful endeavor that — looking back, I realize — my ego was running the show on.

This, I believe, is the problem with the LoA (I’ll abbreviate) stuff out there today. It paints the picture of ‘Source’ being a kind of blank slate that I am to impress with the ego-based part of my mind. ‘Source’, then, is to take that impress and bring me whatever I draw up there.

Right?…

But then I realized… Doesn’t this make ‘me’ (the ego-based version of ‘me’) the source?

The problem with most ‘Law of Attraction’ material out there is it puts my ego in the role of source.

Source isn’t something I speak into. 
Source is something that speaks into me.

That said, rumination isn’t only present when I’m doing this type mental/spiritual activity. It’s present when I’m proverbially banging my head against a wall trying to ‘figure out’ a problem. It’s present when I’m trying to rationalize my way through something I know I shouldn’t be doing. It’s present…

You get it…

Any time my brain hurts and I feel out of alignment with Source — I can be pretty sure that I’m ruminating.

But then there’s reflection...

When I discovered a different understanding of the mind that spoke of a universal intelligence that undergirds our every waking moment, I saw that there’s an infinite stream of potentiality that runs beneath thought at all times.

As thoughts float away, I can hear it like a stream in the woods (which is why it usually shows up in the shower, while working out at the gym, or fiddling around in the garage when I’m not ‘ruminating’ over much of anything).

This is when I switched the idea of ‘rumination’ into ‘reflection’.

Reflection is a releasing of thought (as much as possible) in order to see what shows up from Source (or ‘God’, or ‘The Force’, or ‘Mel Gibson’, or whatever you call it).

Reflection is a deep surrendering to the present moment.

Reflection is a release of effort and an embracing of a peaceful, energizing, informative, and fascinating communion with Source.

Reflect on that for a bit…

Warning: Putting one of those waterproof pens and whiteboards in the shower only turns your reflection time back into rumination time. You’re only cheating yourself (and significant others tend not to like those clunky things taking up precious shower space very much).


Jonas writes shortish preachments and meditations on the daily here in Higher Thoughts. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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Shaking the snow globe never brings clarity

The more I live, the more I see that our main job is to stop shaking the snow globe of our minds that clouds us from our pure awareness of the moment.

It’s when we think we need to get and get and get that that snow globe just gets more and more shaken. Soon, we’re in a blizzard of thought. Separated from our innate presence of spirit.

Until we sit down, close our eyes, breathe, and allow our minds to settle. This is when we see the last few snowflakes float across the screen of our minds.

And we realize.
Damn… All is well.

When we can fully sink in to the given moment, we see that all we ever need is right here.

It’s from this place of clear mind that right action, creative exuberance, and the best rap lyrics come out of.

That said, it helps to realize that trying to shake every snowflake to the ground isn’t going to make the snow globe stop snowing.

It’s only when we set it down and enjoy those last few drifting flakes as they settle that clarity finally comes.


Hat tip to Michael Neill for the snow globe analogy.


Jonas Ellison is a spiritual writer, teacher, practitioner, and an interfaith minister-in-training. He helps people deepen their lives through applied spirituality while documenting his journey along the way.

To subscribe via email to his updates and exclusive content, click here.

A vision is not caught by force

It comes through surrender

Image: Sweet Ice Cream Photography

I have a confession. Please don’t hate me. Please don’t report me to the New Age police or come to my house with pitchforks and torches in the form of a glowing mob of meditation mobile apps (I’ve tried them all).

I’m not a big fan of meditation.

There, I said it. Most of it that I’ve tried, I find boring. B-o-r-i-n-g.

But I’m going through training to become a spiritual practitioner in the New Thought tradition (also known as a ‘prayer practitioner’), which means, I’m learning how to sit with someone in duress, listen to them, and then evoke the Godhead within so as to utter a prayer that strikes the chords of the soul and brings about a healing vibe in the room so resonant you can feel it in your bones. Or something like that…

So I’m learning a lot about different modalities of prayer/meditation. This last week, I learned about the Life Visioning Process — a meditative prayer ‘technique’ coined by Michael Beckwith.

There’s way more to this process, but here’s the skinny on the 7 steps of visioning:

  1. Get your mind clear. Meditate a little (I had to force it a bit, but that’s ok).
  2. Get into a loving state of receptivity. Not the human, relative, romantic type of love. The kind of unconditional love that underlies all words. Yeah, that kind.
  3. Mentally place your question before the intuitive faculty of the Higher Self: “What is the highest vision of my life? What seeks to emerge in, through, and as my life?” (Or, for whatever you’re visioning about.) Sit with that for as long as you want.
  4. When ready, move to the next question, which is, “What must I become in order to manifest this vision? What qualities must I cultivate?” Without censorship or judgement, open to what comes through.
  5. Ask: “What must I release to manifest this vision?” (This may include habits, mind-sets, etc.)
  6. Ask: “What talents, skills, gifts, and qualities do I already possess that will serve this vision?”
  7. No matter how clearly your vision came through, close with a resounding inner — ‘yes’ to it.

Pretty nifty, right? There’s two things that I particularly love about this method of preditation (my word for prayer/meditation):

  1. It gives you something to do. I don’t know about you, but I need more than just ‘sit and pay attention to your breath’. Visioning puts you in an open, meditative state while, at the same time, giving the monkey mind something to chew on.
  2. ‘Visioning’ is different than ‘visualization’ in that it’s a modality based on listening, not speaking. I’m trying to kick the habit of genuflecting to some anthropomorphic deity in the clouds. Visioning makes more sense to me in that we’re listening to intuitive knowing rather than speaking our demands to a God designed from ego.

So I’m doing this visioning thing, and it’s really fun because I know I’m a total beginner. I have no shame in that. Like the rookie cop with that itchy trigger finger, I want to — bang — have that vision right away, sarge…

But I’m learning that isn’t how it happens.

The Jedi thing is, not to come up with something awesome to pray for.

There’s nothing to create here. We don’t have to think of some end-goal. We’re mining what’s already there. The key is to get our own nonsense out of the way so the good stuff can come through.

We have to surrender to what’s already there, not force something new to come into existence.

It’s just that our ego gets in the way and puts its demands first (remember, it makes a horrible master but fantastic helper). But our intuition knows better.

This is what’s really interesting. When it clicks, it resembles a feeling of coming home. Not a feeling of going out and getting something.

Which is nice.
If you’re into that type of thing.


Jonas writes short daily stories and preachments on the daily here in Higher Thoughts. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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What spirituality does for me (for now)

Image: Anthony DELANOIX

I was going to title this one, The Meaning of Spirituality, but I had to stop myself…

I’m trying to get out of the habit of seeing spirituality as something to speak about. Instead, here’s what’s important to me right now:

  • What does my spirituality do for/with me?
  • Why spirituality?
  • Who am I in the aftermath of my spirituality?
  • What change do I see — if any — in my world because of my spirituality?

Another thing I’m being cognizant of is to realize that the answers to these questions are ever-changing, merging together, and morphing.

But here’s where I am right now... I think I’ve come up with a nice, simple way to explain what spirituality does for me (for now):

Spirituality is the interior work that leads to a deepening of my human experience, moment to moment.

This is far different than it used to be...

I once saw spirituality as a way to achieve/get things. It started out as a materialistic endeavor. I wanted that opportunity in life or that relationship or that amount of money. Spirituality was a way of bringing me closer to it (or vice-versa).

But that one crashed and burned. Not only did I not get a lot of the shit I wanted (and yes, most of it was shit), but also, I found myself in a low humming state of anxiety driven by a lack of things

Later, spirituality evolved into a way to be happy. That’s pretty much it. Simple enough, right?

Only thing is, it didn’t serve me when I (like we humans do) faced challenges that needed a little… anger. Or passion.

I lost my dad. And a few other natural disasters occurred. When I tried to ‘get happy’ or even ‘find my innate happiness’, I felt this response to life inappropriate — unhuman, in fact. It felt icky. Like after you eat a cake pop. But worse.

Now, spirituality has taken on this new thing. I’m not knocking its prior iterations. They were okay, for the most part, at the time. I’d even say, they’re useful now, in certain areas. And they’ve all lead to where I stand at this moment.

But spirituality used to be very surface-level for me. Like a horizontal line across my life.

Get those things. 
Get over this heartache. 
Smile more. 
That’s about it.

Now, I see that any given moment can light us on fire (in a good way) for no reason at all. The point has gone from getting to the next stage of this horizontal line to digging deeper into the materiality of the eternal now.

I want to take my existing life and make it more vibrant, moment by moment. Not enter an endless struggle for a different one.

(I know, Eckhart Tolle has been saying this shit for a long time, but I’m a slow learner, okay?)

If I’m faced with a situation that angers or saddens me, that’s fine, in a certain sense. I see these as fully appropriate human responses to (even celebrations of) life.

Spirituality isn’t a way of escaping these things, it’s a way of deepening into them so that they can serve as healing and transformative elements in our journey.

I’m not talking about wallowing in my own misery. This is different. Feeling sorry for oneself is often a device of the ego to keep us separate from the present moment. It adds layers of bullshit on top of it that get in the way of us truly experiencing and growing from it.

Deepening into life is a mindful sinking-into with an open heart. Tears are ways of connecting with the present moment, not resisting it. Shaking my fist at the starry sky is a way of Life expressing through me in a very genuinely human way.

Challenges and tests are our biggest blessings if we have the spiritual wherewithal to deepen into them. Problem is, we often use spirituality as a way to hit the eject button and bail. Sure, a little spiritual escapism is perfectly healthy. But right now, where I am, it’s not the point.

This new spiritual deepening not only helps with the tests and challenges of life. It helps with the vast stretch of our experience that seems, on the surface, to be… Meh.

We seem to skim over a large portion of our human existence. When I was heavy in my Law of Attraction phase, I caught myself doing this because I was so busy trying to manifest what wasn’t there.

Now, I see life’s greatest gifts in what’s right within and before me in every waking moment. As I type this, I realize heaven is right here.

This is what spirituality does for me. For now.


Jonas Ellison is a spiritual writer, teacher, practitioner, and an interfaith minister-in-training. He helps people deepen their lives through applied spirituality while documenting his journey along the way.

To subscribe via email to his updates and exclusive content, click here.