Turn and See

I walk.  And relatively, a lot.  Daily, it amounts to an average of anywhere between 3 and 5 miles.  I guess that makes it an average of 4 miles per day.

I walk my kids to, and sometimes from, school.  The distance is only around .5 miles, but can take anywhere from between 10 minutes, if I’m carrying my youngest of three sons, Lucas (3), to around 20 minutes, if I’m allowing the boys to mozy, explore, and romp-doing my best to re-direct them from picking up cigarette butts, eating food off the the ground or stepping in dog shit, all the while corralling them away from the street.

My walking has increased since the reception of our six-month-old Spanish water dog Flor (meaning flower), a few weeks ago.  Having lived in ‘el campo’ for her first five months, city life has been quite a shock.  Passerby cruise past on scooters, as do bikes, those-stand-up-handle less-Segway-things, not to mention dogs and people walking at various speeds; some cane-assisted, others sticky-fingered, small, and squealing.  Oh, the noise!

Oh. All. The. Noise.


In October, I participated in a mostly silent retreat. Our days were occupied in a varied rhythm of chant, meditation, teaching, dialogue, mindful work, shared meals and time alone to explore the Silence.  The retreat took place on the beautiful grounds of the Othona West Dorset Retreat on the southwest coast of England.  Along with our facilitators, the group embarked on the task of building a collective body-working mostly with the tools of the Christian and Sufi Wisdom Traditions.

To my great delight, the most meaningful experiences for me came in sharing meals, and engaging in simple, mindful work.

Steeped in Silence, the smacking food, knocking glasses, and chiming cutlery, all began to sound like a simple, yet elegant, symphony of the profound privilege of human participation; in contrast, of course to their sometimes-irritating edges, or their unconscious relegation to being the background noise for daily existence.

In this heightened awareness, the thought dropped down into my heart in the form of the following words:

“It’s taken the Silence for you to hear the beauty of the noise that’s always surrounding you.  And it’s always, surrounding you.”


A couple of days ago, on a Tuesday, Flor was spooked by another dog to the point that she pissed herself.  Since then, she has regressed in her potty training; peeing and pooping only inside the house, despite her ‘cinco salidas al dia.’

The monastic practice of the divine office-rhythmically stopping to “remember…that the work we’re doing is not who we are and is not as important as we think it is_[i]-is a practice, albeit in an adapted version, that I’ve decided to take on in the daily walks I take with Flor.  And it has begun to open up more space to receive the reminder of those “little interior glances,” inside other routine activity.

Gerald May, devotes an entire chapter to exploring the interior glance in his book, The Awakened Heart; a simple, yet subtle, practice taken on and taught by a 17th century French chef, named Brother Lawerence.

May writes:

 “The Interior Glance…is a contemplative look Godward.   It does not necessarily mean looking  inward; it simply happens interiorly.  It is an attitude of the heart leaning toward the truth of God’s presence, or a flash of the mind opening to the remembrance of being in love.  It might involve a thought about God here and there during the day, feeling our desire        for love now and then, performing small consecrated actions, leaving little reminders for ourselves, or anything else that can help pull us our of our forgetfulness for a moment.  Little interior glances are simple things: unadorned remembrances and noticings happening within the ordinary activities of our daily lives.  They come and go.  They are not meant to be held onto.”    

After consecutive walks with Flor not relieving herself outside, my practice began to reveal itself as wanting.  Rather than leading to the experience of surrender I found myself clinging to my need for her to take care of business.  Genuine intentions coupled with their common companion of mixed motivations-the fraudulence of my false-self struggling for its survival.

But then, came a thought, in the form of a question.

When you cease having projects to do and there’s no more problems to fix, what’s the place for spirituality in your life?  


One of the tasks we were given on retreat was to pay attention to our automatic and unconscious ways of performing common tasks; noticing when we had left the moment and then gently returning to our task with mindful presence.  After these periods of mindful work, we were encouraged to return to our rooms and write-down any observations.

In the course of following that encouragement…I returned to my room one morning after having spent time washing cars.

The half-turn stairway leading up to my room, ran into an old window hanging just over the stairway landing.  The window overlooked a winding asphalt driveway.  The driveway was set underneath an elevated gravel parking lot surrounded by shrubs, with trees lining the back of the lot.  Several cars sat atop the lot, most of which belonged to fellow retreatants.  Looking out, just below the window, I noticed the cars I had spent time helping clean, cringing, then smiling to myself, as I noticed some missed spots.  Walking up, I turned left once reaching the top of the stairs.  My door was the first on the right-hand side of the hallway. Jangling the keys from my rain jacket pocket, I unlocked the door, and slowly stepped through the threshold.

The room partially mirrored itself.  Twin beds faced one another alongside opposite walls.  One bed lay just to the left-hand side after entering through the door.  The other sit underneath the far wall beneath a large rectangular window that looked out over an old, simple building, purposed as an art studio.  A chest of drawers sat in between the heads of the beds, and a dormant, stone, fire place rested in the corner just right of the window.  Upon entering the room, a fairly large wardrobe lined the wall to the right.  The floors were carpeted with an industrial, Berber like material.  And a wastepaper basket sat lined with a white plastic trash bag just in front of the fire place.  My grey house slippers sat atop the stone skirt of the fireplace.

Taking off my jacket, then me shoes, I slid into my slippers, easing onto the bed, while glancing out the window.

I picked up my black journal, from off the chest of drawers and began recording what I had noticed during the that morning’s mindful work. It was around 12:30pm and the clouds had opened up to provide for a beautifully sunny day.

I took in one more slow glance, admiring the green grassy slope below the art studio, still glistening from the early morning rain.

Anticipating a stream of consciousness dump of new insights, I began writing.

I jotted down several lines of observations, in hopes not to miss the experience’s meaning – “We had the experience but missed the meaning,” writes T.S. Eliot.  But after those first several lines my sense of being able to reflect on anything disappeared.

I held my pen off of the page, sinking deeper into the experience.  The sunlight, the furniture in the room, my body, were all there, in harmony somehow, I sensed.  A bit of time passed before I wrote down these words.

This is the third time now where I have stumbled into seeing something more clearly and it seems significant.  I fell into a field of knowing which leaves me with only my naked Being in Love.  No more words or processing are necessary at this point.

I was left knowing a presence, knowing me.  Subject to subject -mouth to mouth with the moment.


T.S. Eliot’s words call our attention to the importance of reflecting on our experiences.  Yet, often we don’t have the experience to begin with. And sometimes when we do actually have it, we discover there’s no higher meaning than that-that is, truly having the experience.

In these gaps between self-reflection, we are invited to turn and see, discovering that we ourselves are already, always, being found in the Holiness of the Now.

Sometimes it just takes enough of the Silence to notice those spaces, allowing our self-reflective mind to drop into the nakedness of our Heart.


This morning, Flor finally pooped outside.

It’s still got me wondering though…

When you cease having projects to do and there’s no more problems to fix, what’s the place for spirituality?  What becomes possible in the surrender of outcomes? 

 

[i] Cynthia Bourgeault in Singing the Psalms: How to Chant in the Christian Contemplative Traditon

School is in Session

I am a recovering perfectionist, living cross-culturally in Spain.  I have three children-Levi (6), Jakob (5), and Lucas (3).  Tomorrow we are getting a puppy named ‘Flor’-meaning “flower.”  

Each of these elements provide the necessary messiness, and context, for my life’s healing and ongoing transformation.  

Let’s just say…my life is set up in a manner where I never get to get away with looking too good, for too long. And, thank God for that!!!        

I meditate most mornings, and try and follow a twice a day practice of centering prayer.  I also enjoy reading in the mornings, especially on Saturday mornings, and especially with a cup of coffee.  Although typically, it takes me all morning to finish my first cup.  

Sometimes I replace reading with other things, like listening to recorded talks.  Today I listened to a teaching on humility by James Finley.  He talks about a particular transition in our spiritual journey when it seems as though we, in the role of seeker, move from being the questioner of life and God, to the one being questioned.  

From his book Merton’s Palace of Nowwhere, Finley writes:

“The experience is something like going, you think, to teach a class at a    university.  You come in on the first day of class and you’re so pleased to see how many students have signed up for your class.  You come up to the front of the room and you open your attache and you put your notes on the podium.  The students are continuing to file into the room.  And at a certain point an administrator comes up to you and whispers as gently as possible, “There has been a terrible misunderstanding.  You are not invited to teach the course, you are invited to take it.”  And the professor who was invited to teach it is standing there with her attache waiting for you to get out of the way so that she can start the class.  And in front of the whole room you are fumbling, dropping notes on the floor, trying to get yourself together, and there is only one seat left empty in the room which is in the back row.  And the professor begins to speak in a language that you do not know, and the first exam is on Friday.  We do not like moments like this…we thought we were teaching the course and here all the while we were being asked to take it.  And we don’t even understand the language the course is being taught in.  Nor do we understand the scales in which our progress in the course is being weighed.”      

I also work with a tool called a Life Plan-a visual narrative that helps a person co-create their life with the Divine through a lived remembrance of their essence.  A Life Plan therefore includes all of a person’s most essential relationships-with a Higher Power, oneself, partner, other family, friends, community and purpose.    

After completing my morning routine, including the reading of my Life Plan, I got up to join the rest of my family on the other side of our apartment.   

My wife, Taryn, and our oldest son Levi were preparing to leave to the pet store.

Standing in the entry way, having put on his jacket and shoes, Levi broke out into a song with synchronized movements as Taryn and I stood rapt in awe, trying to listen closely to the Spanish lyrics, taking in our son’s glow and sincere desire to share with us this gift.  Standing side by side, we glanced at each other in mutual recognition at the beauty of the moment’s unfolding. 

Really feeling it, I began to dance along, unaware of the coffee I was spilling in the process.  

As Taryn pointed out that fact, I glanced down to see it on the floor; along with some darkened spots sitting atop the grey wool of my house slippers.  

At that moment I could uncharacteristically care less as I beamed in the perfection of the design of my life plan, recalling its words surrounding my relationship with Levi.

Levi, in his MORE, leadership, unfettered goodness, and contagious zeal for life, is my forgetting myself, and I give him space, a room and a tether to BLAST OFF in WILD CELEBRATION!

Taryn eventually handed me toilet paper.  I held it, waiting for Levi to complete his perfect rendition-which it was by the way.  

Closing the door behind them, I knelt down reverently to clean the mess.  Disposing of the paper, I walked down the hallway into the living room where meanwhile, Jakob and Lucas were watching the animated film Kung-Fu Panda.  I sat down, placing my arms on the back of the couch, Jakob sliding under the fold of my wing with Lucas laying peacefully on the floor at my feet.        

It felt good. Like the way a Saturday morning should be.  I sat wearing a satisfied smile.   

A moment passed before, looking up at me, with big, innocent, knowing eyes, Jakob declared, “I’m Oogway.”  

Oogway of course being a character from the film; a wise, elderly tortoise and kung-fu master, and one whom my ego usually identifies itself with; while my kids typically claim ‘Po,’ the fun loving, curious, albeit clumsy, slow learning, and undisciplined, panda.     

Knowing Jakob knew this, I pulled him in closer to my body, partly in adoration and partly as a placating gesture.  Though clearly he felt my affection for him, under the heir of my sense of superiority and rank, as he then settled his head down into my lap.  

In the gap between that moment and the next, I relaxed deeper into the felt sense that indeed all is well in the universe. 

That is, until, a sudden jerk sent Jakob’s body across my lap, his head bumping into my half-full coffee mug.  

I jumped to my feet, feeling the room temperature liquid splash on my hand as I swept my arm up trying to keep the coffee contained.  Simultaneously I heard the words “sorry,” and “what the fuck,” spring into the air, the latter ones coming out of my mouth as I completed the motion of standing up.  My eyes had moved from the mug down to the couch surveying for where and how much coffee had been spilled.  First spotting the darker color of grey on the couch, my eyes then focused in on the liquid I saw that had been spilled on the back of my phone, which had been sitting next to me on the couch.  Quickly stepping towards the dining room table in front of me I set the mug down with my left hand and reached back across my body with my right hand to grab my phone, picking it up and chucking it against the back of the other couch that sits at the adjacent wall, spewing the words “God damn it!” as the phone left my hand.  

Having already turned my back to walk out of the room towards the kitchen, I heard a thud accompanied by a three year old “aaooowww,” as I crossed the threshold through the doorway into the kitchen.  The phone must have bounced off the couch, hitting Lucas’ small, sprawled out body, where he lay on the floor.

Only now can I appreciate the words of my Life Plan regarding my relationship to Jakob and him to me. 

Jakob, in his sensitivity, stubbornness, charm, and affectionate nature, is my caring for myself, and I give him access to safety and challenge that shows up AT THE END OF ME. 

After rinsing and wringing out a rag in the sink, I calmly walked back into the living room as though nothing but the accident that it was had happened, having now gotten to the “end of me.” 

I dropped the rag on the wet spot of coffee, next to where Jakob sat on the couch in a conceding-like acknowledgment, that yes Jakob, indeed, your head butting wisdom had come as a gift, reminding me again, that I am, and always will be, much more like ‘Po’ than ‘Oogway,’ much more student than teacher on the spiritual journey, the one being sought and questioned, much more than the one doing the seeking. 

“There is no shortage of spiritual directors in our lives. For our spiritual directors are the people we live with.  They place upon us unbearable burdens.  They give us unexplainable gifts.  They grind us like wheat.”

-James Finley

 

Humility celebrates life’s messiness as an experience of grace, trusting the entirety of human experience as an expression of God’s infinite generosity; giving itself to us and through us as the very shape of our lives.  Its purpose being, in part, to learn the ongoing lesson that our ego is not Running The Show, and our sense of what’s good or bad, right or wrong, positive or negative, is not only, typically misguided, but ultimately, irrelevant.  

Because in the end, God is Everything and All is Grace.  

 

(Originally written on November 12, 2017)