Have you ever gotten caught up in the drama of the day – maybe yours or your partner’s? Or a media story? Perhaps one of your least favored characters momentarily escaped the guardians of your sub-conscious to wreak havoc on your playing field.

Whatever their source, dramas happen to each of us. Life-threatening catastrophes are certainly in a category all their own. However, too often we rise to the bait of more mundane melodramatic triggers.

When that happens, having a talisman to ground us is important. I found one of these touchstones this week in some centering words of John O’Donohue that arrived with my subscription to Panhala.

The words provide a perspective that may refocus each of us on our essence in life and mitigate the unnecessary dramas we either create or participate in. Let us focus on the quiet miracle that we exist at all.

For Presence

Awaken to the mystery of being here and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.

Have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.

Receive encouragement when new frontiers beckon.

Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path.

Let the flame of anger free you of all falsity.

May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame.

May anxiety never linger about you.

May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.

Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.

Be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.

May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.

~ John O’Donohue ~ (To Bless the Space Between Us)

 

Sometimes, when adversity threatens to overwhelm the spirit, focusing on a simple task can bring us back to center.

There is much to weigh us down in life, from personal challenges to the daily bombardment of media images and commentary. The devastation from recent wildfires and flooding is a case in point.

How do we bring ourselves back to center? One dramatic example occurred in the outpouring of assistance in the wake of Harvey. It was an inspiring glimpse of our better angels transcending the demons that normally divide us.

Most of us regain our footing through the routines of nurturing our families, caring for our animals, volunteering for causes we believe in, pursuing hobbies or practicing yoga. I have found another form of meditation.

We heat with wood, and I split most of it by hand, a little each day. One of the storms last winter brought down some trees in our forest. Before the black flies arrived in May I bucked up the trunks and limbs into stove length rounds. Last week I began retrieving them to split and stack on the woodpile. The tractor access stopped 45 yards short. This meant carrying the rounds and returning the same distance for the next load. Viewed from one lens, it was a highly inefficient process.

Earlier in life impatience would have led me to desist. Last week I slowed my pace and coordinated it with my breathing. I lifted only manageable loads. I used the many return trips to appreciate how much joy I felt walking among the trees. I have the time to do this now. The woods nourish me aesthetically, and they feed my provider persona.

Maybe the reset boils down to this: pay attention and be grateful for the abundance in the moment.

 

As the events linked to Charlottesville continue to unfold, three references come to mind.

The first is a mural in one of the library reading rooms of the college I attended. It is titled An Epic of American Civilization. Painted between 1932-34 by Jose Clemente Orozco, the mural depicts the influence of indigenous people and European colonists on North America and the impact of wars and rapid industrialization on the human spirit. It is a dark picture, indeed, and reminds me of the deeply embedded roots of our human dispositions. Those of you with interest can learn more from a critical article written by Erin Harding in 1999.

The second source is Colin Woodard’s book American Nations in which he describes the motivations and distinctive values of the waves of those who came to populate this country. One of his conclusions is that the dominant values each group brought with them persist today and account for many of our regional differences.

The third source comes from the oft-referenced and aspirational words of Lincoln’s first inaugural (March 4, 1861) at the outbreak of the civil war.

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

As with many today, I wonder whether the better angels of our nature will prevail and how each of us can find the courage to bring forth the best in ourselves to meet the tasks at hand.

Anger abounds these days in relationships, households, our communities and our nation. What if we viewed our anger as a messenger and paused to explore the lessons it may be raising for us?

Anger can signal that our values have been violated, reminding us of what we care most about. To the extent that it is a clip of preset responses that is loaded and ready for firing, it can be destructive. To the extent that it festers inside us without resolution, it undermines our health and happiness.

In the appendix section of The Book of Joy, co-author Douglas Abrams suggests some questions that may be helpful. In applying these, focus on an area in your life where the embers of wrath wait only for an external spark to release them into a conflagration.

Anger often involves some disappointment or frustrated expectation. Ask yourself, “What was my expectation? Can I release it and accept what is or how others are rather than how I think they should be? Can I also acknowledge my part in the conflict? Can I see my part in contributing to the situation I am angry about? If I am angry about what has been said, can I see that these are just words that no longer exist, that, like all things, they are impermanent? Will my anger benefit anyone, including me?”

You could also reflect on how, if not contained, anger can lead to destructive action – from saying hurtful things to outright violence – that we later regret. Contemplate how anger can destroy relationships, alienate others, and rob you of your peace of mind. (p. 318)

Examining the messages delivered by our anger can lead us to different ways of being with ourselves and each other.

In the early days of map making cartographers designated unexplored regions with images of threatening beasts. “Here be dragons.” The image serves us today. How do we face the demons that lie within us?

A first step in confronting our dragons is to see them for what they are. My profession has taught me to pay attention to projection – the unconscious tendency to transfer our personal dynamics on to others whom we then blame (or bless). Becoming aware of our fears begins to defuse them.

A second step is to explore what our demons tell us about ourselves. Why are they there? In one of his letters written to a young poet Rainer Marie Rilke writes:

We have no reason to distrust our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors. If it has an abyss, it is ours… And if we would live with faith in the value of what is challenging, then what now appears to us as most alien will become our truest, most trustworthy friend.  (July 11th, p. 192) 

Lastly, when we befriend our fears by acknowledging their truth, we often find they hold a jewel. Rilke continues:

Let us not forget the ancient myths … about dragons that at the last moment transform into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps every terror is, in its deepest essence, something that needs our recognition or help.

If our demons are powers that call out for our recognition or help, what is one of yours? What is its truth? Who is it calling you to be? What is it calling you to do?

 

Have you found your place in the world? A home for your values? A harbor for treasured relationships? Pursuits that quicken your passions?

A few of us know early in life where we belong. The route of others is more circuitous. Count me among those whose paths have taken longer but who now know and embrace the destination.

This week I began the season’s first mowing of our front field, a sloping acre of rough grasses, ferns, and half buried boulders. Exacerbated by recent rains, much of it is also wet, requiring me to trade the tractor for a weed whacker. These days the chore, once viewed as nuisance, affords time to reflect.

Revisiting the past, I realized that each chapter of life fed only some elements of my being. That is, until the last decade, when, as much as they ever will, all the pieces have come together. Up the drive from the mowing field stands the home of our dreams with views of the surrounding hills. Gardens yield food and flowers, and stacks of drying wood stand ready to fuel the fires of winter.

David Whyte’s poem The House of Belonging connects with me here. The images range far beyond his residence. May the closing lines inspire you to read the whole and celebrate your own awakening to your place in the world.

…This is the bright home in which I live,

this is where I ask my friends to come,

this is where I want to love all the things

it has taken me so long to learn to love.

 

This is the temple of my adult aloneness

and I belong to that aloneness

as I belong to my life.

 

There is no house like the house of belonging.

 

Whatever our personal circumstances, there is a way to experience life more fully. Whatever we conclude about external events that buffet us each day, there is a simple step we can take to stay positive. Make time to be grateful.

Gratitude is a key attitude. When we stop long enough to pay attention, we find there are many “little” things in our lives that, while appearing small, add up to a lot. In our busy-ness or self-absorption, we tend to overlook them.

In The Book of Joy, which distills five days of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the two religious leaders describe gratitude as one of the pillars of joy.

A key point in the discussion for me was that making time for gratitude can alter our point of view.

[Gratitude] allows us to shift our perspective…toward all we have been given and all that we have. It moves us away from the narrow-minded focus on fault and lack and to the wider perspective of benefit and abundance. (p. 242)

The ability to shift our outlook from scarcity or blame to the expectation of benefit is a huge fulcrum for leveraging all that is positive in our lives.

What are some ways we can do this? A favorite line from Kahlil Gibran comes to mind: “In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

  • Pause before eating to thank all those responsible for providing our food.
  • Celebrate the gift of a friendship by a word, hug or email.
  • Acknowledge the tasks that tap and convey our passions and talents.

What is one of your blessings and how can you express your gratitude for it today?

 

 

Have you been neglecting something important about who you are? If so, this post is a nudge to bring it back into the light.

A few days ago I picked up my guitar. Abandoned in a corner for far too long, it has been with me since 1960. The years of use have chipped its finish but its action is still smooth, its sound resonant. It embodies the gift of music that our parents passed on to my sister and me.

Our family’s means were lower middle modest, but there was always music. A post-war memory still holds my parents dancing to jazz and swing on the radio. I sang in the church choir, the school chorus and the high school’s annual musical. My adolescence accompanied the birth and rise of rock & roll, and I love to dance.

It began when I bought a plastic ukulele for 25 cents (!) and learned to play and sing a pretty good rendition of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. It got my parents’ attention. I came home from school one day to discover a Guild guitar on my bed. Knowing our limited resources, that gift meant mounds of affirmation.

I learned to play. There was plenty to emulate with the popularization of folk music in the ‘60s. I sang at family gatherings and hootenannies and to a special girl. In seminary, I wrote and recorded a folk mass that engaged congregations more actively in worship.

Best of all, the genes have made their way to our children and granddaughter, each of whom enjoys music and dance in their lives too. And so, I return to my guitar and the songs of my soul.

What is one of your neglected gifts? Is it time for you to sing that song again too?

 

Obstacles in our lives come from two sources, and each can define us. Powerful weather events – violent storms, floods, wildfires – inflict change that is outside our control. Less obvious but perhaps more influential are the constraints we impose on ourselves from within.

The stories we tell ourselves are one example of a self-imposed limit. Many of those stories originate with hurtful events that have scarred us or messages of inadequacy that we have adopted and reinforced by repetition – not smart enough, not attractive enough, not good enough. Many of us have carried these stories around for years. What if we could remove those obstacles and tell a new story?

Fear is the second obstruction that most of us face. Who hasn’t worried about being abandoned or embarrassed or failing at something important? Often, our fears block us from stepping out, up or in to our fullness. What if we could move through our fears to acknowledge and embrace our gifts and celebrate the unique person we are?

If you are one who tends to constrict yourself, The Book of Joy may be a good resource. A quick and inspirational read, the book captures five days of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Each has known incredible hardships imposed from the outside. Spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama has lived much of his life in exile. Spiritual leader of Anglicans in South Africa, Archbishop Tutu has lived much of his life under the system of apartheid.

Each has met those challenges with astounding resilience, revealing the inherent love, goodness and joy within their hearts. Their examples inspire each of us to remove the obstacles that hide the radiance of our own inner light.

 

I am spending time these days sorting through stuff. What to keep and what to release? It is a worthy task for any decade but even more so in our later years.

The accumulation of what we once thought important enough to lug around collides with the knowledge of the way life turned out. Fewer “rainy days” remain, and what is wanted now, much less needed, may not be what we saved long ago.

As a “Jack” of many trades I have collected much: shelves of books; files of weddings, sermons and eulogies from days of ministry; course syllabi and curricula from teaching; plans, proposals and publications from leadership roles; speeches and correspondence.

To be honest, in addition to easing the load on those who must deal with this stuff when I depart, the sorting provides an opportunity to revisit the story I tell myself. Wouldn’t most of us want to emphasize the times when our better angels prevailed?

Then there are the forgotten jewels. During an unsettling transition in my twenties I bought a pricey camera to explore an interest in photography. Two of the boxes I am culling contain slides, negatives, and photos that I developed and printed from that period.

There are family members, friends and landscapes; moments of play and laughter, music and fellowship – images of my life frozen, preserved and now re-presented to delight and refresh an aging memory.

Each still-life frames a gift with which I am blessed – loving relationships, connections to the earth, a quest for meaning and opportunities for service. These treasures reinforce the core values of my story and justify the effort to lug this stuff around all these years.

And you? What is the weight of stuff you carry? Is it a burden or a boon?