heart-opening Quaker meeting

(January 10, 2016) It is First Day, Sunday, Quaker meeting. Today is his first visit to my holy place, my sacred ground. Only a couple of people are in the meeting room when we arrive and there is something so vulnerable and intimate about that. I’ve learned by now that when I bring friends here I can take no responsibility for the quality of their worship. There is no way I can relieve their boredom if they are bored – though it turns out they are generally not bored and enjoy the silent experience. So today, I trust him to settle in, and I take note of who is present, gaze out the window. Then I turn my eye inward, shut my eyelids, open my hands to God.

This past semester, every meeting was a challenge, my inner demons attacking me after my first ten minutes of silence. I couldn’t sit still – well, I did sit still, but inside, I was a mess, a thousand monkeys ricocheting in my  monkey brain.

Lately, though, I have been full of peace and joy. I am this way today, sinking into something deep, wondering if anyone else is experiencing today’s meeting how I am, wondering what it feels like to be in what they call a “gathered meeting” and how I might find out. Is this one gathered? I am gathered, at any rate. My heart is open to the world, open to other people. I remember when I was not this way. It was most of my life. I used to be so closed off, so guarded, so walled. So afraid. Who am I now? How am I this different from the girl I once was? Today, my open heart overflows with love, and I want everyone else here to experience this as well.

The children file in at the end and my wish for them is that they may remain open-hearted, that the world will not close them off and that they will stay light and free. I hope they still are: when I was their age, I was not.

Heart-opening exercises in yoga have got nothing on this Quaker meeting, for me. Sit, breathe, expand, love.  

NMCF outside

(Picture taken from my meeting’s [North Meadow Circle of Friends] Facebook page… thanks, guys!)

new year new me

January 1, 2016

In a wood-floor room with huge windows that look upon the meandering river below, the dancers make a circle. Everybody has a partner and we will progress around the circle, switching partners; no eye will be unlooked upon. I have been coming to these dances long enough that I finally feel comfortable, happy, at home while dancing. The energy is palpable and we are joyful to start a new year. I start off with my love, making eye contact in the ways we already have been all weekend, sharing our divine selves with each other. I feel so present.

I honor the place in you where the entire universe dwells
I honor the place in me where the entire universe dwells
Namaste

I look people in the eye, holding each and every person’s gaze who will hold mine. I wonder if they know that this used to be out of the question for me. I wonder if they can see my soul’s expansion.

January 2, 2016

Richard Rohr tells me that there are many paths toward contemplation and Love, not just meditation, yoga, and chanting, but even poetry. This makes me feel better, because even though what I am doing is not exactly poetry, maybe if I
created new lines
every once in
a while,
it would look like poetry and we could call it contemplation. Because what I do when I sit down to write is pick a moment that I’ve held on to from the day, or maybe the day before, and let it bubble up from within and see how it is speaking to me. Sometimes it seems profound to me, but usually just a word or three. Sometimes it’s not, but who says the human experience always feels profound? Isn’t the daily hum and beauty of living profundity enough?

joy, and undoing the knowing

(12-28-15) My friend unwraps Reese’s bells with the greatest deliberation and sets them before himself on the counter. One, two, three, four. He stuffs them all into his mouth at once because they taste better that way. Tears roll down my cheeks, my abs ache, I can’t breathe.
I laugh every time just remembering it.

*****

(12-29-15) I know him so well but tonight I don’t. A near stranger staring at me earnestly across the counter. I am stunned and speechless, almost dizzy for a moment as my eyes unfocus – who is this man with the scruff and glasses, rubbing his forehead in that way? They focus again and I see him, the man I’ve always known, yet am undoing the knowing.

*****

(12-30-15) I sit with my therapist and give her my stream, or really train of consciousness about the new love that is pouring into my life and my most wonderful retreat at Gethsemani and how very very happy I am right now, sorry to be talking so much about everything all at once. She laughs; this is your time, use it how you want! She has sat with me in my pain and tears, and somehow it makes things better that she sits with me in my joy and shows me that this is just as important. I struggle to believe joy is okay but maybe it is okay because these people are not leaving me just because I am happy.

*****

(12-31-15) I am at home here, in the home of a Friend. My belly is full and my heart is warm, and we settle in to Quaker silence as I settle in under a blanket.
My heart is full to bursting. I must surely radiate this joy from my very being. I wonder if it is okay to feel this much joy. Maybe I should ponder sadness around the world? No, no, no, something deep within assures me, Joy is precious, and not found every day. Share this joy with others. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free. Joy like this should not – cannot – be contained.

Sun over horizon

last of Gethsemani

I may already be back at home, but here are two last shorts about Gethsemani, my friends.

Kentucky countryside

I have noticed when I do the things I think I “should” do but do not really want to do, I feel stifled; I want to climb out of my skin.
I sit, squirmy, through Christmas Eve mass, having forgotten everyone else here is Catholic and these things mean more to them than to me. I count down to when they will go forward for the Eucharist and I will leave to go have a snack, to go outside in my blanket and look at the moon. Finally. When will I learn to listen to myself and stop obeying all the things that I think “should” be done and rather listen to the One deep inside me who knows what I need? When will I stop allowing guilt to run my life?
I already am on this path.
I go on a Christmas hike instead of a church service, and it is the best Christmas morning I could give myself.

 

I finally sat down and meditated today. I did not fall asleep once. I sat with the sense of Self inside me that I’m trying to learn to listen to. Maybe it was because I was actually alert. Maybe because I had read enough Thomas Merton to get in the contemplative mood. Maybe because I ran out of running away.

 Stone houseThis little house is named Enoch’s Stone House. It’s a little meditation shack. Inside are cobwebs, a pitcher of water, a cross and rosary, a beautiful psalm book, and notebooks where people write down their prayers.
I rarely write in such books, but today I decided that my words, too, were worth being heard.

12-27-15, Gethsemani

there are many things I know here –
where to get coffee in the morning,
the sound of the church bells ringing,
the tune of Our Father.

but there are many things I want to ask, like
is there an actual monk ringing those church bells in the service?
and, why are there so many knobby hills in Kentucky?
and, do you get bored of your every-day-the-same life here?
and, how did you know you wanted to be a monk?

I don’t even attempt to answer these difficult questions of the universe.

 

On my loop of the garden, I feel someone staring at me and turn around. The moon winks coyly at me. I offer a shy smile back and tease, “come on now, don’t pretend you’re not just borrowing the rays of the sun, you beautiful thing.”
But then, am I not doing the very same thing?

 

I’ve never lived here, but Kentucky charms me in a special way. I don’t know what this means for our future together, but I take note of my feelings.
I drive through the country on my way home and everything is flooded, brown water, green grass. I stop in Louisville and watch everything turn gray outside with water pouring from the sky.

Flooded stream

Christmas at the Abbey of Gethsemani, 12-22 & 12-23

I have begun a quest to write for 90 days in a row (and if I miss a day, make it up the next). It’s similar to the 12-Step “90 in 90 days” motto (90 meetings in 90 days). It’s been enjoyable and rewarding even just for myself, but sometimes I want to share what I’ve written. I hope you enjoy – or feel inspired to start your own 90 of whatevers in 90 days!!

12-22-15, Tuesday

Song of Simeon

 

It is 7:27 p.m. when I pull into the dark parking lot of the Abbey just in time for Compline, the last prayer service of the day. The back roads of Kentucky feel so familiar to me now, even in the dark, and the opening organ notes in the church even more so. Let us pray. I wish you could hear it because you sing it, not speak it. The monks’ choral stalls are darkened and the faithful visitors are washed in light so we can read our prayer books. The monks have all the words memorized. We sing psalms, I don’t know what, but the music lulls me. And my favorite prayer, which is sung as well. Oh, save us…save us while we are awake. Protect us while we are asleep, that we may keep our watch with Christ. And when we sleep, rest in his peace.

Eventually, silence, dark. We wait. You hear the sound of the rope that pulls the bell before you hear the bell. Ker-clunk. Ker-clunk. I know the rhythm, the pauses, the majestic grandeur of this bell. It makes my heart ache and my soul sing, though it is so seemingly simple. Sing, bell, sing! I sing with thee! RAP. The abbot raps his knuckles to signal the end of service and we shuffle forward for a holy water dashing on our heads. Now we may sleep in peace. I am ready for my retreat.

 

12-23-15, Wednesday

I walk outside in the middle of the night in the garden of Gethsemani after the first prayer service of the day, Vigils. The clouds make the sky brighter. I wrap my blanket around me as if it is a prayer shawl, a monk’s cowl. I notice I am not afraid of the dark garden like I usually am, skittish of dark spaces and ghosts of monks gone before. I wonder if I have been confronting my inner shadows and I am less afraid of the ones outside. Maybe. Then I notice the trees have lost their leaves and they don’t cast so many shadows anymore.

*****

I’ve decided to accept the truth about my ability to meditate these days. Today, I attempted for 20 minutes and my head kept jerking and startling me back awake. Why try so hard at something that isn’t working? I will walk slow circles around the garden; I will walk quickly on the hiking trails, I will read, I will write. I will forge the path of my own spirituality. Let your life speak. I ask God to speak to me in the ways I can hear God.

 

reasonable expectations = not being crazy (or driving yourself mad)

My “editor in chief,” as I like to call him (reader of essays, emails, and occasionally even texts, for when I’m trying particularly hard to sound like a polite and sane person) took issue with the second-to-last line of the previous (okay, and only) post. To save you some time, I’ll re-quote it: “I can never live up to my expectations, because they are not made to be lived up to.” This was even softened from my first version on Facebook, which read: “I always, always let myself down.” I decided not to change it, because I was expressing how I felt. But the point he raised has stuck with me: You cannot be content, and therefore have good mental health, if you insist on maintaining unreasonable expectations for yourself. If my expectations are, as I say, “not made to be lived up to,” that inherently makes them unreasonable. Moreover, I also translate the unreasonable expectations for myself to others, who of course cannot live up to them either. I get caught in a cycle of setting unreachable standards for myself, judging myself, projecting this anger onto other people while setting unreasonable standards for them, watching them fail to meet my expectations, judging them, getting angry at the cycle …

As usual, I reach out to what I have read to help me work through these issues. Annie Lamott is an author I enjoy – her books are my few “pleasure reading” books that I read simply for relaxation. Besides being outrageously quirky and funny, she is very insightful about herself and the human condition. Annie is an ex-alcoholic and ex-drug addict and a single mom, and though I am neither of those things, I connect deeply with her insights. She understands and expresses that even when life does not seem particularly hard, it still can feel like it. Living is an ordinary task, but the ordinary tasks can challenge us, frustrate us, make us sad or angry or disappointed. And that the next day, we may turn around and feel joyous and content… and then back again. Here’s some of my favorite lines of recent:

“I don’t know why the most we can hope for on some days is to end up a little less crazy than before, a little less down on ourselves. I don’t know why we have to become so vulnerable before we can connect with God, and even sometimes with ourselves.” (Plan B, p. 28).

“It’s so hard to get quiet enough, free enough of the bondage of self, to hear the voice in the wilderness that Job heard. There’s always so much shouting going on in here [in her mind]. It’s a cacophony of sounds from my childhood– parents and relatives and teachers and preachers and voices distilled into what has become my conscience. But I don’t think the still small voice is my conscience. Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s the true unique essential me– and maybe those are the same thing. It’s so hard to hear it though, and sometimes when I think I hear something in my own true voice, I’m so nuts that I’m not sure if it’s me or someone pretending to be me. It seems like when it’s really you, the voice doesn’t even have to talk.” (Operating Instructions, p. 158-9).

We grew up being told to listen to our conscience to know the right thing to do. However, I find our conscience (or at least mine!) can often be overbearing and full of the noise of the world and our past experiences, constantly yipping at us and tell us what we “should” do. Our minds, our false selves, our consciences – whatever you call it -often get in the way of listening to that true self.

 “I tried to drop my attention from my head to my heart, which is actually an ascension of sorts… still, my mind chattered on, as if the spider monkey had taken acid. My mind is the main problem almost all the time. I wish I could leave it in the fridge when I go out, but it likes to come with me. I have tried to get it to take up a nice hobby, like macrame, but it prefers to think about things and jot down what annoys it.” (Plan B, p. 259).

I feel the same way. When I regain a moment of sanity, I realize that all these expectations I build around myself are like a fortress to protect against the awful, dooming sense of meaninglessness. When I am able to trust for a moment that the expectations just make a crepe paper fortress – that they do not truly protect against anything – I try to settle down into my heart. I attempt to meditate, to do centering prayer, and release the anxiety in my chest and instead rest in the Divine Presence. It’s so hard though to “wake up” from that time (if my mind was able to stop its chattering at all) and feel like my same old self once I am challenged with interactions of any kind. When will these changes come?

Unfortunately, the only way out is through, and meanwhile I must endure the roller-coaster merry-go-round cycle of holding on and letting go. Of remembering it all doesn’t matter, and at the same time it all does. I have hope that I will find release from this, but until then, I must wait patiently and let the work be done in me … releasing one small expectation at a time, until I can find contentment in things just the way they are.

I leave you with a quote from the Tao Te Ching, which was written in about 6th century BC in China by Lao Tzu. It is an essential text for Taoism, and later became adopted into the Zen Buddhism tradition. I have been reading it recently and find its contemplative perspective very profound. This quote is from Stephen Mitchell’s English “version,” but even though it is not a direct translation, I think it speaks to our culture quite well:

“I have just three things to teach: / Simplicity, patience, compassion. / These three are your greatest treasures. / Simple in actions and in thoughts, / you return to the source of your being. / Patient with friends and enemies, / you accord with the way things are. / Compassionate toward yourself, / you reconcile all beings in the world.

plan b image
operating instructions image