Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Finding Our Way

We all have times of not-knowing, times when stillness can become paralysis, and movement can become frenetic drivenness. Finding our way in those times, in what Dante called the “dark woods,” has something to do with faith. Recently, I received a story about living through and moving in times of darkness and confusion. I share it here with the permission of the woman- I'll call her Lucinda- who told it to me.

Lucinda lived in a small house at the end of a dark, quiet street. One moonless night she got up to use the bathroom. Now Lucinda generally has a good sense of direction, so she doesn’t turn the lights on for these short nocturnal journeys. But on this night, as she came out of the bathroom and reached out to touch the wall, she found it wasn’t where she thought it would be. Somehow she’d gotten turned around, lost in the darkness. Despite the fact that she knew she was safe in her home, she felt a sense of rising panic and confusion. The harder she tried to find the wall, the more fearful she became.

So, in Lucinda’s words, she did the only thing she could do- she sat down. She considered just staying put until dawn, but after she calmed down, she decided to move. She crawled on her hands and knees, knowing that if she picked a direction, stayed with it, and moved slowly she would eventually bump into something that would help her regain her sense of direction without mishap. And that’s what happened. As she put it, bumping into a familiar wall put “everything in perspective.”

I told this story a week ago at a Unitarian church service. In the car on the way home afterwards, my husband Jeff said to me, “So that’s your advice to people who are feeling lost? Get on your hands and knees, pick a direction and move slowly until you find something that helps you reorient yourself?”

"Works for me," I replied.

Of course, first you have to sit down and wait for the panic to subside. This can take awhile but racing around fearfully in the dark can lead to injury. Then, when the time is right and fear is no longer driving you, you have to pick a direction and move slowly. Lucinda knew she was basically held in the safety of her home. That’s the first part of faith- knowing that although we may be disoriented, frightened or lost we are held in what amounts to a larger “home”- inner and outer- where nothing can harm our essential being. Knowing this, we can act on the second part of faith- the knowledge that if we stay close to the ground (aware of the earth, our bodies and a larger ground of being,) pick a direction and stick with it (to avoid going in circles and until we receive information that would prompt us to change direction) and move slowly (so we can be mindful and not do ourselves or others damage) we will eventually find something that allows us to regain our sense of direction.

I can’t help but think that these simple clear guidelines, based on my own experience (see last week's post) and Lucinda's story, might be useful when we are individually or collectively confused or frightened:

Be with stillness until you are calm.
Pick a direction and stay with it.
Stay close to the ground.
Move slowly and mindfully.
Eventually you will touch something that lets you know where you are
and what you need to do next.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Naming My Demon

This is really part one of a two-part blog to be continued next week. I’m telling you this because the experience I am about to describe was not pleasant, and I will write more about how I came out of it next week.

I had all kinds of ideas about how a three year sabbatical would go. Think about it: three years of stillness, no deadlines, enough money saved to pay the bills, each day a welcoming spaciousness. After book tours and conferences I was tired, peopled-out and feeling the effects of the Chronic Fatigue that had waxed and waned for over twenty years. Minimally, and not unreasonably, I expected to regain some physical vitality and balance.

But, that’s not what happened. For lots of reasons (which I won’t go into here except to say all were exacerbated by the hormonal shift of menopause) I became increasingly ill. A whole new level of skull-cracking headaches arrived and seemed impervious to previously helpful medication. I was exhausted, aching, sometimes feverish, and generally wiped out.

In between moments of bewilderment and frustration, I surrendered to what was. I cancelled plans, lay in bed and followed my breath. And I got worse. Somewhere in the endless days of what the medical profession calls non-restorative rest, as I stared at the ceiling, I thought, “Maybe I’m just done.” I was too ill to read or write. And I didn’t care. Food, plans, people and even the stillness that in the past had brought peace and pleasure were flat, unappealing. It was as if the colour had been leached out of my life. I was not upset, worried or afraid. I was “done.” At one point I described it to Jeff as being on a hill-side cable car that is slowly but relentlessly going down. I couldn’t stop the descent. And, increasingly, I didn’t care.

I sought help- inner and outer- and nothing changed. One doctor said I was depressed. I wasn’t particularly resistant to this diagnosis but after years of working with those who struggle with depression, something about it didn’t quite fit. Still, I started to do the things I know can help with depression.

Then I heard the CBC radio show, Tapestry. Mary Hynes was interviewing Kathleen Norris about her book, Acedia and Me. Acedia is what the desert monastics called the “noonday demon” (noon being a particularly challenging time on the desert.) It is described as a state of not caring, of refusing the gift of the day. Things feel pointless, flat. . . .done. Those who do solitary work that requires focused attention- like contemplative monks, artists and writers- are particularly susceptible to it. It was considered one of the eight bad thought patterns, precursors to the seven deadly sins. Later it got lumped in with sloth- but that implies a kind of laziness that doesn’t really apply. Today, depression is probably the closest psychological concept to acedia, but again, it doesn`t quite fit. Depression can be horrible and debilitating but, with guidance, it can be a fruitful journey into the darkness of our unknown self, a mining of the gold we may have left behind. Acedia yields no such gold. Acedia, if given free reign, only leads to suicide.

As I listened to the broadcast I thought, “That’s it. It’s acedia!” and I suddenly felt something I had not felt in a long time- hope. The fairy tales were right: naming the demon gives us some power over it. The monks who had been beset by acedia were directed to pray, read the psalms aloud and go about the mundane tasks of the day – cleaning, cooking etc.- mindfully, whether they felt like doing them or not. If they found themselves avoiding company, they were directed to work with others. If they were avoiding being alone, they were directed to persist in solitary meditation.

In a world with so much frenetic doing, it’s easy to romanticize stillness. There is a time for and a gift in stillness that is much needed in our lives and our world. But so too, there are times for movement, times when failing to move can prove life-diminishing in a very real way. Suddenly everything in me- including the dreams from the Grandmothers- said very clearly, “Move!”

So, following the advice of those who’d guided the new monks, I read aloud (usually poetry, the “scripture” of my heart), did my prayers, cleaned my house and took myself out of isolation. I sought the guidance of a gifted Jungian analyst and went into Toronto a few days a week to see friends, meet with health care practitioners and connect with community. The acedia grew smaller and receded. One day, about a month after making these changes, I was walking down a Toronto street when the thought came- “I feel like myself again.” It was only then that I realized how far I had travelled away from feeling like myself.

Sometimes, to wake up, you have to sit very still. Sometimes, you have to move. And sometimes it's difficult to discern which is needed, particularly for ourselves. Going it alone can be dangerous and painful. Turning to community, trusted friends and experienced guides can ease unnecessary suffering and open the door to new life, and for this I am deeply grateful.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hospitality to the Self

Every once in a while I come across a phrase, a way of wording something, that changes my thinking, shifts my imagination and lets me approach the familiar a little differently.

Recently, I experienced just such a shift around my ideas of self-care and self-love. Now, I’m all for both, and I do think loving and caring for the self gives us the resources to be more loving and caring with others. But sometimes- when I’m tired or ill or busy- I have trouble sifting through all the available options to know what self-care might look like in the present moment. It can begin to feel like just another task on a too-long to-do list.

Then I came across Kathleen Norris’ book, Acedia and Me. She tells the story of complaining to her mother about having to make her bed every day when she was a teenager. Her mother replied that doing so was an act of “hospitality to the self” and would make her feel good when she returned to her room.

“An act of hospitality to the self” opened a window in the sometimes opaque directive to take care of myself. For me, hospitality to myself includes leaving the room or my home in a way that feels welcoming, beautiful and calming to me when I return. Similarly, making a pot of lentil soup, going for a walk, meditating or having a cup of tea while I listen to music that slows me down can be acts of hospitality to my mind-body-heart-soul self. For someone else, the list will be different, and it may change from day to day and throughout a lifetime. Using this phrase helps me discern what is and what is not, real self-care, today. For me, reading a good novel can be an act of hospitality to the self, but watching television for more than one hour is not.

Using this phrase as I make my choices during the day opens me to taking care of myself not because I think I “should,” and not as a burdensome task to be accomplished by asserting discipline, but simply as a way of giving and receiving the gift of the day I am offered. This changes the activity itself – makes it mindful, allows it to feel like part of a gracious way of living. Taking care of myself by thinking about what, in this moment, would be an act of hospitality to myself, allows me to find joy in the work involved and sustenance in the gift received. And when we feel welcomed, when we feel what we offer is received as a valued gift, it is much easier to graciously welcome and receive what others and life itself offers to us.

So, what would it look like today, to perform an act of hospitality to yourself?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Losing Hope, Finding Faith

Well, clearly I kept mulling the piece I wrote yesterday re: faith. I awoke this morning with dreams about faith and hope.

Hope says: It (my health, the economy, the world, a relationship. . . .) will get better.

Belief says: It will get better by prayer, action, discipline, surrender, exercise, meditation, taking care, paying attention, getting information, resting, working, trusting God/the Great Mystery, being more patient, more compassionate . . .

Faith says: Life is good- worth living fully with open eyes, mind and heart- even if things don't get "better," even if what I believe will create desired change does not appear to do so.

In the last couple of years, as I sat still, I came to the place of no-hope, of not knowing what to hope for, and of not finding energy available for hoping. I also found many of my beliefs shattered as I did all the things I believe "work" only to find myself increasingly ill. But the great gift of no hope and shattered beliefs is the discovery of faith. I have to admit, there have been moments of desolation when finding that faith remained truly surprised me. And in discovering faith there is great joy and a sense of deep peace.

And all of this reminds me of one of my favourite pieces of poety:

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness dancing.

T.S. Eliot from East Coker (No. 2 of 'Four Quartets')

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why "The Green Bough" ?

About a year ago a friend of mine, Jean Eng, had an art show in Toronto. Her promotional postcard showed a painting of a large spectacular bird landing on a tiny potted bonsai, and the words of a Chinese proverb: If I keep a green bough in my heart the singing bird will come. Something about the words hit home, made my chest ache and my breath catch. And I thought, "This is my statement of faith."

Faith is different than hope or belief. Hope is generally future oriented and often specific. When I'm ill in bed I hope I'll feel better tomorrow, and I believe that that is more likely if I take care of myself in ways that seemed to have worked in the past. I have hope we can foster peace, justice and environmental sustainability, and I believe that both individual and collective reflection and action are crucial to achieve these ends. Sometimes we need hope just to get out of bed in the morning, and although beliefs about what we need to do (or not do) change with information and circumstances, it would be hard to take any action without them.

But faith is different. Faith is about the ground we stand on in every present moment, regardless of changing conditions, no matter what hopes or evolving beliefs have our attention today. Faith is the green bough in the heart, the thing in us that chooses life with every breath, even when we have lost hope or feel our beliefs have failed us. Faith is our connection to life, to the sacred, the mystery, the spark of creation. As the proverb reminds us, our business is to keep a green bough at the centre of our being, to know and provide that which cultivates our felt connection to life, the people, places and practices that help us say yes to the gift of this day.

And what might the singing bird be? A guiding song from something larger than us, or from deep within ourselves. The tune that helps each of us become all of who we are. Sheer joy. However we describe it, it is what we ache for, and it comes by grace. We do not make the singing bird come, we simply provide a place where it can land and sing its song. Our business is to keep the faith- to cultivate the green bough.

The primary way I cultivate the green bough of my heart is by writing. It's how I respond to, pray for, struggle with and co-create meaning from what crosses my path. It's how I mull over the mystery and work out how to live with the vastness of what I do not know. Sharing my writing, helps me keep writing, supports me in keeping the bough of my heart green.

So, this is the first of a year long commitment to posting a weekly blog. I will write about what stirs, confuses, guides, excites and challenges me. I may write about books I am reading, movies I have seen, world news, personal encounters or spiritual practices. I write as an act of faith, trusting that those who read may, on occasion, find something here that helps them tend the green boughs of their hearts. I write because I am most alive when I write and I can feel the truth in the words of the American philosopher and civil rights activist Howard Thurman when he wrote:

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, because the world needs people who have come alive."