The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 2)

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Fear 1On a bright summer morning, I dropped my 5-year-old daughter off at day camp placing her in the care of counselors who all appeared to be in high school. Looking at Ella’s counselors I remembered myself at their age, and the parents who entrusted their children to me. I didn’t take the same precautions with those children as I do now, with my own. I suspected the same was true of these teenagers. But I was too busy with Ella’s transfer–lunchbox (check), bathing suit and towel (check), water bottle (check), sunblock and bugspray (check)—to give my worry much attention. The camp counselors were busy too, loading my daughter up in a 15-passenger van. They were taking the kids on a trip to the lake.

Driving away from the drop-off, the image of my tiny, tow-headed daughter, climbing into the camp van stayed with me. Arriving at my office, unlocking the door, arranging my desk to tackle my long list of to-do’s, my mind kept returning to my daughter in the van.

Then, a premonition overcame me; a feeling, a knowing. My mind pictured the tragedy—a van overturned with my daughter’s body inside it.

The urge to go and get her—to chase down that van, find my daughter, pull her into my arms and keep her with me for the rest of the day—swelled. Fear flooded my nervous system and I broke into a sweat.

Am I crazy? Or is this a sign? Will I regret this forever if I don’t go and get her? How could this possibly be true? I was suffering terribly and almost succumbed. My car keys were in my hand when I remembered my practice.

So I took my suffering to the mat and sat with it. This was a tough one because the fear was like violence within me. It was beating me up inside, clubbing my heart, contracting my lungs, scorching me with its heat from the inside out. It was almost unbearable. But I sat with it and breathed. I leaned into my suffering instead of running away from it, or running immediately to resolve it. And, like my anger previously, I eventually felt the urgency of my fear dissipate. The oxygen calmed my nerves and restored my reason. I was still afraid, but not overwhelmed. And in this new state I realized that I had to let Ella go…and keep letting her go…because her life and mine could not be ruled by fear.

Our suffering has much to teach us, and yet we do everything possible to avoid it or get rid of it. I am becoming much more aware of my suffering now and my power to sit with it. This, in turn, has led me to become more aware of the suffering of others. The faces of humanity rise in my mind as I sit on my mat. I hold each in my heart, just as I hold my own fragile self. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, believes that the world would be a more peaceful and compassionate place if we all practiced meditation. As I stop to imagine this—a world that could learn from its own suffering and not be ruled by fear—I give thanks for the profound gifts of a simple practice.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 1)

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AngryDo all funeral directors believe death takes precedence over life? Or just the ones I have to work with? I got “the call” from our local funeral director informing me that there had been a death in our community. The family (whom I did not know and do not serve as pastor) had requested that I do the service…that Saturday at 2:00pm. I was not available that Saturday at 2:00pm. When I told the funeral director this, he balked. Clearly I was not here “to serve the people” like he was. Clearly I did not understand that it was my duty as a pastor to drop everything in my life to serve the dead.

His attempt to shame me was infuriating. After I hung up the phone, the conversation clung to me like a wet spider web. I couldn’t get rid of his voice in my head, the words he used against me, and the anger roiling my insides. I hopped hyperactively around our house, unable to focus on my work and the looming deadline of my next writing project. This man had powerfully leapt into my day and threatened to monopolize my mind if I didn’t do something quick.

So I took the funeral director to the mat and meditated with my suffering. I breathed in, feeling my lungs expand, and breathed out, feeling my lungs contract. My shoulders rose and fell. My anger burned in my chest like a hot piece of coal as I sat for ten minutes, feeling the burn. In doing so, the funeral director’s hold on me began to break into tiny little pieces. When I finished, he wasn’t entirely gone, but my anger was diffused and I was able to get back to my work.

Typically, when I get this hot, I pass my emotions on to my husband in an angry, spiteful rant. My husband loves me so he receives my rant and oftentimes shoulders my anger in solidarity. This, I realize, isn’t particularly fair to my husband. Why should he bear the anger I can’t rid myself of? Also, sharing my anger with my husband just seems to make it grow and expand in the universe. We don’t need any more anger in the world. So before I rant or vent or allow any emotion to distract me from the present moment, I’m going to try to take it to the mat. I’m going to practice sitting with my suffering.

 

Heschel’s Words

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shapeimage_2I am grateful for my husband who puts words like these in my hands when I am writing a sermon. How does one adequately speak of God? Ask Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“God is a challenge rather than a notion. We do not think Him; we are stirred by Him. We can never describe Him; we can only return to Him. We may address ourselves to Him; we cannot comprehend Him. We can sense His presence; we cannot grasp His essence.”

And this:

“God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other, in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. There may come a moment like thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on forever: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on forever.”[1]

 My favorite phrase here, “A moment like thunder in the soul.” I’ve felt that. Have you?

 

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2011), pgs. 93-95.

 

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Introduction to Meditation

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My meditation practice began with the purchase of a new, maroon zafu and zabuton—fancy names for the pillows I learned were a must for those who suffer empty-handswhile sitting cross-legged on the floor. The cushions feel good under my sit-bones, keep my back straight and my anklebones comfortable. I sit in a dark room near my office at the college where gray light filters in through venetian blinds. Behind me is a green chalkboard since this used to be a classroom, turned conference room, now cleared out as a space for prayer and meditation. Our college has welcomed a new group of Muslim students who needed a quiet place to pray. So we created this space in which I find myself meditating each morning.

Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock wryly cracked, “Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.” And I might agree, except that French is a beautiful language and kissing speaks of love—especially when it’s not required, or expected. This is the beauty of meditation for me. Out of the nothingness of it, out of this waste of time, comes beauty and knowledge I never expected.

For instance, one day I sat, focused on my breathing, and came to the knowledge that my body is not happy unless it is in constant motion. I itched to go and do while I sat. It was a pulling within me towards activity like the addict is pulled to her dope. The same was true of my mind that was not content unless it was leaping, forward or backward, to any moment but the present. After my practice I wondered how I could be happy if my body and mind never wanted to be where I actually was? I didn’t know of this discontent—of my unrest and addiction to motion—until I practiced doing nothing.

Meditation, then, is a clearing of space for me, an emptying ritual of only ten to twelve minutes. My desire is to open myself through this practice so I can receive whatever comes. Sometimes nothing comes. But that’s okay. Who am I to judge the nothingness? More often, though, I am given something out of the nothing—an epiphany (such as the discontent to which my mind and body lure me) a knowing humility that the world moves on as I sit, or a simple and subtle diffusing of the urgency of my emotions. These are gifts I never would have received had I not engaged myself in the practice of doing nothing, had I not stopped for a few minutes to sit cross-legged, in a dark room on a maroon zafu and zabuton.

 

 

Simile Love

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Sim•Ÿi•Ÿle

Noun

A figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox).

I’ve fallen in love with the simile. A friend suggested I use one in an article I was writing. I had so much fun trying to comeo'connor1 up with the perfect simile that I have been hunting them down in everything I read. This summer I’ve been immersing myself in the stories of Flannery O’Connor who—hands down—is the QUEEN of similes! Just for fun–here are a few of my favorites:

  • His heart began to grip him like a little ape clutching the bars of its cage.
  • Rayber felt as if he were fighting his way out of a net.
  • His khaki trousers reached just to his hipbones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt.
  • Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.
  • She could hear the wind move through the treetops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.
  • The graduates in their heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them.
  • He heard the words drag out. He felt them pull out of his mouth like freight cars, jangling, backing up on each other, grating to a halt, sliding, clinching back, jarring, and then suddenly stopping as roughly as they had begun.

They Don’t Know

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DSCN4355

They don’t know

Leaping, squealing, delighting in the mud

between their toes, how

Downstream from us it swirled in a thick,

black surliness

Their heads turned away from me

and the panic in my eyes

They thrilled in the surprise of the mudslide

made perfect for play and pleasure

While, not far from us, the black-as-tar earth

consumed houses, poured through windows,

sweated through floorboards

Mommy! Mommy! They screamed

in play as my son threw a handful

at my daughter

They don’t know

and I can’t tell them

that the blue sky ahead is for all of us

When I know it is not


This is an ekphrasis poem (written off of visual art) that I wrote during the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival.

Image: Nikki McClure, 2009, Chronicle Books

Summer Pilgrimage into Poetry

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photoIowa City is a place of poets and aspiring writers of novels, memoirs, flash-fiction, and sermons.  It’s a place of independent book stores, all-you-can-eat Indian buffets and Hawkeyes—everywhere—Hawkeyes.  I hope to post some of the writing that has bubbled up for me at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival.  But for now a simple note of gratitude.

First, I am grateful for my class, Poetry for Beginners (A Short Course in Attention) and for my teacher, Michael Morse, who taught me that, “More than intending, the poet ATTENDS!”[1]  How true this is (or should be) for pastors and preachers as well.

Michael introduced me to the Pantoum, the Ghazal, and the Sestina, specific kinds of poetry that I might have assumed were wild safari animals before taking this class.  We discussed voice, image, metaphor, sound, and structure—the “ways in” to poetry.  And we read poetry to each other—slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully.  The reader of poetry, as James Tate describes, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks of the prayerful, haunted silence between the words, phrases, images, ideas and lines.[2]  This is what I’ve been doing all week and loving the luxury of it—because in between those lines of poetry lay observations of life I deeply appreciate.

I am constantly in awe of the ability certain poets have to name the mysteries of the universe, or call forth a beautiful, insightful philosophy, in a few, perfectly chosen words.  The power of poetic language astounds me.  For example, this poem by Nazim Hikmet blows me away.

It’s This Way

I stand in the advancing light,

my hands hungry, the world beautiful

My hand can’t get enough of the trees—

they’re so hopeful, so green

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,

I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.

I can’t smell the medicines—

carnations must be blooming nearby.

It’s this way:

being captured is beside the point,

the point is not to surrender.

photoHikmet, a revered poet from Turkey often imprisoned for his socialist views, speaks deeply to me even though my life in no way compares to his.  His point, though, of never surrendering to that which oppresses, or captures, or negates the beautiful, is universally insightful and helpful. What an astonishing poet!  I’m so glad his poetry now graces my bookshelf.

Other new poets have found their way to my shelf as well: Bob Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz.  After learning that Marie Howe (still my favorite poet) studied with Stanley Kunitz, I quickly ran to buy his book. (And yes, my husband will roll his eyes at me when he sees my credit card statement from Prairie Light Books.) Kunitz had me at “hello,” though, or, the words of his brief foreword entitled, “Speaking of Poetry.”  Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.

If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.  The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay.  Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence.  What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?

Does one live, therefore for the sake of poetry?  No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of life.[3]

Thank you, to the poets, for another nourishing, contemplative, inspiring week in Iowa City—the land of my spiritual, summer pilgrimages.Image


[1] Dean Young

[2] James Tate, Introduction to the Best American Poetry, 1997.

[3] Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through, (W.W. Norton and & Company, New York, 1995), pgs. 11-12.