A Lenten Offering from the Tabletop of My Body

PEI Sunrise, MGGMy knowledge of Lent has not progressed very far since I once gave up chocolate until a trail of shiny wrapped candy lead my sister and I to our Easter baskets. This year, I intend to spend some time understanding the real significance of this season starting with Andrew Harvey’s Son of Man. In the meantime, I have tried to focus less on abstention and more on creating the life I want to lead for a set period of forty days. How many days is it that you have to engage in an activity before it becomes habit? I am making an attempt to wake up early enough to write or meditate every morning and to practice some form of yoga each day.

At class tonight I was able to move deeply enough into my breath, beyond the soreness of muscles that took me through a vigorous class yesterday to a place closer to my spirit. After a series of postures that brought to my core what instructors sweetly refer to as “heat” and what I bet many part time yogis like me know as screaming sinews, the teacher guided us into reverse tabletop position (I can’t seem to find the Sanskrit term – any ideas?). It is a relatively simple pose: hands and feet planted on the mat; stomach flat, facing the ceiling; head and neck relaxed back towards the floor.

In this moment when a position I would never adopt in everyday life seemed comfortable and effortless in comparison to the the other things I was asking my body to do, I was able to feel my heart open to the Universal. An circle like a great bowl that was without color or weight, merely marked by a sense of space, glowed from my chest. I felt as if my being was offering itself to the Divine. I was a table upon which a feast of worship was spread.

An unorthodox to begin to understand what it is to surrender to God in this season of Lent? Perhaps. But I know in that moment I shone with the purest sense of my true self.

Definitions, Categories, and Other Roadblocks on the Way to God

A couple of years ago I sat in a colleague’s office in the midst of yet another existential crisis (as you might surmise by the fact that I was sharing such a dilemma with a coworker, she is also a good friend). I was agonizing over whether I should enroll in a graduate program to get a master’s in library science. There were loads of good reasons to do it: my experience would set me up well for a job in academia; I hadn’t been to school in a few years and was starting to miss my student status; there seemed to be a general feeling of “what are you going to do next?” and this seemed a logical answer. Of course, the main reason I could cite in opposition to committing the next two or three years to my life to this pursuit was that I really didn’t want to be a librarian. At the time, that did not seem like a compelling enough answer to give up the idea.

My friend sagely observed that I was just wanted to be able to tell people: “I am a… something.” My currently ambiguous job title could be traded for a recognized profession and I could rest assured that I had secured a stable identity. When I was too scared to present myself as a writer, or it felt too new and strange to call myself a wife, or when calling myself a feminist or a redhead or a Cape Codder or a spiritual seeker felt too limiting or unacceptable or broad, I could cheerily fight the stereotype of a geriatric creature in a bun with a habit of shushing people as a declared a librarian.

Fully realizing that this quest for a title is practically a caricature of my need to construct and cling to my fragile false self, I can laugh at this misbegotten bid for a prepackaged mask. This is not to say that I no longer cling to my ego, but at least my need for it is slightly less transparent these days.

This episode belies my addiction categorization, even as my right-brained literature studying being seems to shun such logic. I think part of that came from feeling lost in the free flowing waters of fiction and poetry; I required some vocabulary to help me structure my education, a few rocks to cling to in that eddy of words and expression. Part of it, of course, must be human nature as well. Even now, I refuse to cleave to any specific religion but I still seek to build a framework of earthly logic upon which to hang my experience of the Divine in my life. I dance with definition – longing for it even as I endlessly dart away from its comforting grasp.

Of course, as I unpack this box of thoughts by seeing them sprawl across the screen, I realize that all spiritual writing and even thinking is produced against the backdrop of this essential paradox: we write and read to understand and describe that which can never be captured on the page or even by the mind. Another elementary epiphany, I realize, but something that I need to remember as I repeatedly make the mistake of choosing theory over practice, reading that book about meditation opposed to, well, you know.

All of this comes to mind specifically after reading about the difference between Celtic spirituality and mysticism at The Website of Unknowing. I was presented with so many new terms in that post, and the ersatz librarian in me longed to start researching words like “apophatic” and “cataphatic.” While such knowledge has its place however, and I recognize the site’s writer to be incredibly learned, I am going to make a conscious effort to avoid discovering the tenets of such dichotomies for a while and experiment with trusting experience and the wisdom of the body rather than trying to cultivate further encyclopedic book smarts.

Surely all of this is a delicate balance as we gain insights from great thinkers and mystics even as we risk using their quotes and vignettes as crutches that allow us to hobble ever away from the sacred.

Our Adventurous Vision For the New Year

New Year's roses

Blessed be the road that does not end
Blessed be each minute that borrows us
To witness its eternity

We are old: a species gone to seed,
Run wild under the stars;
And our talk is old talk

While we watch our brazen children
Clutch at memory of when the land
Was waking to a young and lusty sun.

– Paula Meehan
The Man Who Was Marked By Winter, Epigraph

Perhaps this poem is a bittersweet way to begin 2008, but there must be worth in looking at a new year with a broad perspective strong enough to bear all of the hope that will poured into its freshness while still acknowledging the strains of fear that accompanies any beginning. Even as we look to the glow of a fresh calendar we must bear witness to all that we have been and all that we will carry into this infant January.

I feel as if I am one given to Meehan’s old talk since I look at a new year with a whisper of trepidation, glancing at past Decembers that have melted into Januarys only to reveal another December lying in wait. But despite this wisdom, or perhaps because of it, I still cling to the brazenness of a child and seek the waking earth, the waking consciousness. All of us who know hope in this time that can seem a desperate age must know what it is to be worn thin by a scorching sun, but remain willing to forget the burns as we long to dance in the glow of noon.

Last night, my husband and I celebrated the holiday at our favorite restaurant with a toast to “adventurous vision.” We shall make this phrase our guide and our strategy in the new year and look for what blessings we can on the road that does not end. Undoubtedly there are tremendous changes ahead for us in 2008 – where will we live, what will constitute our livelihood, how will we structure our living. I can only pray that we move through it with the wide-eyed intelligence and well-intentioned good sense so that we are present for every precious minute we are granted in our little piece of eternity.

Blessings for the new year – may the seeds you plant in the coming months grow wild and beautiful under the stars.

Believing, Questioning, Knowing

PEI goldI risk echoing Edie Brickell and getting choked by shallow waters before I get too deep on this post, but I was struck by what must be a rather elementary epiphany.

The only way I can get through house cleaning is with some podcast or another blasting louder than the sounds of running water in the sink; last night I was listening to James Finley talk about Meister Eckhart on Caroline Myss’s website. Finley was once a Trappist Monk who studied with Thomas Merton and is now a psychotherapist; Meister Eckhardt was a 13th century mystic and theologian.

The problem with cleaning with a spiritual soundtrack is that I can only really absorb 15% of what is being said, but the rest of the time is generally spent getting inspired by one particular idea and then running with it. This time, I was taken by the fact that I was listening to quotes from a medieval scholar while chopping vegetables, opposed to singing off key to an Alison Krauss song or catching up with the NPR news I have been ignoring lately. One of the most fascinating things about my fascination with matters of the spirit is the fascination itself (get that?). I am constantly left to wonder what draws me to meditate and study these discourses on the soul when it would be so much simpler to stick with fiction and watch a little more tv. Part of me is perfectly contented to know that faith is an integral part of me, in the same way that I have red hair and love animals. But the aspect of me that is never quiet, that must interrogate everything around her needs a response to those who cannot comprehend “because I just believe, that’s why.” And frankly, there are times when I need an explanation of sorts for my own questioning heart.

Certainly atheism seems to be a bit of a fad right now, and I have to admit I have read none of the best sellers on the topic; there is too much to read about what people actually believe to spend time on what they do not at this point (I’m sick of all this definition by negation these days anyway: “we’re the good people because we are not like them, the bad people”). So this is just the first breath of an epiphany that might stand as a response to those who seem to imply that faith in a Universal Being is mark of weakness, of a lack of self reliance or reason. This little revelation of mine is not informed by any systematic knowledge of theology, so it might be painfully obvious and been said a million times, but it is something that has suddenly become clear to me.

Countless multitudes believe in a higher power, in a universal being, in a creator. Even if, on the off chance, this faith held across so many traditions is just a ubiquitous myth, a global bedtime story that keeps us from panicking in the face of the void, couldn’t it be that this collective belief, this shared essence, is the Divine itself? “God” as we call her could just be the unity of all beings that springs from the very act of contemplating the sacred, in seeking a higher power. Shared belief (across creed and country) and the energy it creates is in itself something to believe in.

But beyond all of these examinations, “I just know” is both the final answer and the beginning of endless questions.

Just Three Breaths – My Practice

“Like milk and its whiteness, the diamond and its lustre… [the] Divine Mother and Brahman are one.” (full passage)

When Andrew Harvey first quoted this bit of wisdom from the nineteenth century Indian saint Ramakrishna I had my first introduction to the intertwined nature of transcendence and immanence. I began to realize that the adoration of the Goddess did not preclude God and that, in fact, the two faces of the divine are inextricably bound to one another.

For whatever reason, these metaphors made sense to me almost immediately, as if they were elucidating something I had always known but never understood. Brahman is the supreme spirit in Hinduism, the unchanging heavenly power associated with the transcendent Father God. The Mother is the energy that dances through us and all of creation, the universal love of the heavens in action upon the earth. All that we know is the union of these two aspects of God.

At the conference at which I first heard these ideas everyone was high on potential spiritual power (both real and imagined), yet there was a palpable sense of worry because people did not know how these feelings would translate back at home in reality. I think this little practice that I cobbled together from the ideas I gathered that weekend is my response to the concern that I would forget the resonance of such words. It is informed both by Harvey’s description of the divine and Caroline Myss’s journey into the soul, Saint Teresa of Avila’s interior castle.

* * *

After closing my eyes I search around to find my center for a little while until I remember yet again that only in stillness can one find that peaceful place of silence within. When I have stopped struggling with my own mind, I can just experience what it is to be for a few moments until a breath that seems to come from the earth itself begins to fill me. It is the power of the Mother, the earthy glory of the Goddess that I have identified with for so long, but here there are no rules or separations, just the wash of creation and growth itself. It is green, it is gold, it is the rich black of fertile soil. I pull this breath up and all the way through my body, filling with the Mother’s love and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

The second breath comes from above, the transcendent essence that arches over us all. It is the peace that lifts me out of my body to a place of complete freedom. There all human definitions of God might fade away so that the power that is the Absolute can wash the ego away. It is white and silver, it is cool and warm all at once. I pull this breath down through mind and heart, down and down to root the heavenly in my feet, and then release it, letting this energy flow back into the universe.

Finally there is the breath of synthesis that pulls every facet of creation into my own soul. It comes from every side, it is the very air around me. It is every color, texture, scent, taste. The beautiful mixes even with the horrible because to be truly present is to recognize all threads in the tapestry of this life. With this inhalation I realize my place in this incredible universe, this constant interplay of the divine with itself, of the sacred with the material. Rather than retreating from the world because I find solace in the spirit, I am driven to delight in all that is so that I can see the spiritual in everything.

Om Tat Sat

A Longing Deeper than Tradition’s Divide

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So I have heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why do you stop praising?”
“Because I never hear anything back.”
“This longing you express is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

-Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks)

Rumi’s love dogs howled to me while I read an article by James Martin about Mother Teresa‘s decades long crisis of faith during which she admitted “my soul is just like [an] ice block.” I understand just enough of this unearthly longing to know that I have never been able to approach the divine so honestly and fully as to risk such unbridled need.

This poem, like so much of Rumi, thrills and terrifies me as I wonder at the exquisite madness of giving oneself completely to God. I think of all of the comfort and routine that I have allowed to define me and cherish the trappings of this life even as part of me recognizes them as so many illusions and poorly designed stage props. When Rumi’s words have bent my brain into fits of beautiful distraction, spinning between exhilaration and despair, I return to another line “he who knows himself knows his Lord.” I know that this is one of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammed and that I cannot really understand the inherent resonance of those words, but they give me great solace. Of course, one can read the phrase to mean that Teresa’s dark night was instigated by a sense of separation from her true self, and that is cold comfort to be sure. Likening it to my own experience, however, I feel like I am stepping into an eternity full of promise when I can believe that some trace of God dwells within and that journeying into myself, and thus into the sacred, is always possible.

Imagining Sacred Activism While Sitting Still

God has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours,
No feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which she is to look out God’s compassion to the world;
Yours are the feet with which she is to go out doing good;
Yours are the hands with which she is to bless all now.

– Teresa of Avila

When I first discovered this prayer a few months ago I was newly alight with passions that would surely change the world simply because they burned brightly in my heart. Here was a piece of poetry that authentically spoke of God and expressed thoughts that I just had begun to realize were crying out from within my own being. I was left to wonder at how a sixteenth century Catholic saint could have written something that spoke directly to me and also to wrestle with what the content itself could mean: the eternal presence of the Divine; the sense of the sacred expressed in every shred of life, even my own; and the great responsibility inherent in such a realization. In studying Andrew Harvey‘s work I have come to know this imperative to be called sacred activism.

For a while, this was a simple phrase to throw around since it combined two terms with which I was reasonably familiar. I had co-opted “spiritual” for my own devices long ago and enjoyed the label. “Activism” was a bit more difficult since I associated it with people who quoted Chomsky over breakfast and would ask if your shoes were vegan; I respected much of what they struggled for, but found such devotion exhausting – and feared it was hypocrisy waiting to blossom. To combine the two, however, grounded the spiritual in a sense of purpose and rounded the most strident edges of activism. Having struggled to find a title for my journey for as long as I could remember, I was pleasantly surprised to find something so clever and simple.

Of course, it is the naming that is simple; inevitable challenges arise when you realize that what you do is more important than how you describe it.

“Still” is used consciously in the title of this post because it describes aspects of my current state and stands in stark opposition to the sense of “stillness” that remains elusive. The cultivation of stillness is essential if one intends to move beyond the confines of the seemingly intrinsic narcissism that marks the modern character and work effectively to help others and this planet- or so I have read. I remain frozen in the face of all that there is to “solve,” unable to dedicate myself to any cause in particular because my heartstrings will inevitably be tugged in a different direction momentarily.

I am still alight with the passion that fueled me when I first read Teresa’s words, but that passion is tinged with all of the realism that is possible when one declares herself to be something so fanciful as a creature prone to epiphanies. Through my writing and reaching out to the wisdom of others I hope to begin the task of cultivating stillness and begin this work of even imagining walking with the feet of God.