Non-Violence, Choosing Joy, and, Messy Mornings

I interrupted a video call with my dear friend Marcos in order to greet my family.  The boys had just come home from school.  Levi, my six-year old son, had done a great job restraining himself from opening the door to the guest room where I sat in my favorite yellow arm chair.

“I’ll be out in a minute, buddy,” I called to him.

I could see his silhouette through the opaque glass panel in the door.


“Truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

-Jesus


I slept through my 5am alarm this morning, or, maybe I never set it. I don’t really remember.

Our five-year old son Jakob came into our room just after 6am.  I used it as my cue to get out of bed as he assumed my spot, clutching the pillow as he laid down.

Walking out of the bedroom I stepped over our dog ‘Flor’ who was still snoozing.

Bathroom.  Heater.  Coffee. Shoes.  Jacket. Bags.  Treats. 

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

-Henri Nouwen

Flor typically walks me in the morning much more than I walk her.  This was a good day in that regard though, because she took care of her business quickly, allowing us to turn back towards the apartment after just a few minutes of being outside.

It was a cold morning.  And I was happy to be back indoors.  Rising to the fifth floor of our building, I exited the elevator and opened the door to blindness.  Feeling and hearing the sound of dark silence sitting in the apartment, my eyes quickly adjusted.

Hang up keys.  Hang up leash.  Empty pockets. 

After pouring myself a cup of coffee I proceeded down the hallway to the guest room.  Flor curled up at my feet as I eased down into the yellow armchair next to the window.

I would spend the next hour and a half there, simmering in silent meditation.  Reviewing the previous day and considering what this one held in store.

The anomaly of everyone sleeping in was an extra treat today.  And emotionally I felt like I needed the time.  But as the clock rolled past 8am, it became time to begin waking folks up.

Lucas, our three-year old son, had also entered our bed at some point during the night.  I spotted his thin, playful, wispy hair, partially matted to his scalp, above the potato sack sized bulge of his curled-up body, snuggled up behind my wife Taryn.

She laid in the middle of our bed, sandwiched between the two boys.

Reaching my left arm carefully across my other son Jakob’s body, I placed my hand on top of the duvet resting on her back.

Sunlight peered through the bottom of the partially raised ‘persiana’ into the bedroom.

“Hey,” I muttered quietly, without whispering, shaking her shoulder slightly, “it’s after 8 o’clock.”

Beautifully open-eyed she sat up.  Her face expressed shock at the news of the time as she inhaled the kind of breath one does when coming up for air after being under water.

I handed her the mug of coffee I had been holding in my right-hand, offering it as a kind of consolation that all was well.

Feeling satisfied, I strolled down the hallway back to the kitchen and began to make sandwiches for the boy’s school snack.

Slowly, the once dark and still space of the apartment began to rouse with the morning noise of pattering feet, opening doors, flushing commodes and high-pitched, groggy requests.  Meanwhile, the doggy greeting service proceeded forth, as Flor scurried out of the kitchen in search of her signature hind legged balancing hugs.

Likely receiving a stiff arm from Lucas on his way to the living room, she persisted in pursuit of the onesie, pajama wearing three-year old.

Oh God…the comedy of it all, I thought to myself, spreading mayonnaise on the second of three ‘jamon’ sandwiches.  I checked my phone.  The time was 8:15, which meant we had around 30 minutes until departure for school.  This was doable.

Glimpsing Taryn in my peripheral vision near the doorway to the kitchen, I continued with the morning’s duties, focusing in my mind, on what still needed to be done for an on-time take off.

Breakfast, clothes, …

 The thoughts were interrupted by a scream.

“Yuuuuuckkk!!!!”

Again…

“Yuuuuuuckkkyyy!!!”

Taryn quickly turned out of the kitchen, moving towards the shrieks coming from the living room.

A few seconds passed.  I held the aluminum foil.  My hand suspended in the hair awaiting the report.

“What happened?” Private-eye Jakob had now approached the scene.

“Oh, Flor just threw up,” Taryn answered nonchalantly, already on the way back to the kitchen for a rag and cleaner.

Frickin’ dog. 

 Opening the cabinet below the sink, she collected the necessary cleaning items and returned to the mess.

Before she finished, another shrill bounced through the apartment.

“Flor went poo-poo!!!”

Are you fucking kidding me…?

I could feel a headache coming on.  Feeling my jaw clenching-up I searched in vain for access to more hospitable interior resources.

I tried to focus and sink into the sensation of constriction I felt pinching my brain as a first step in attempting to practice the Welcoming Prayer.

To no avail.

I had been knocked off Center and felt the disappointment rising at what seemed like sure defeat.  My thoughts were off and running around the corners of my shame basement where little Jonathan dwelled in the self-pity corner.

I don’t actually remember cleaning up the poop in the hallway.  I had been cut-off from connection to the moment and my attention was fragmented in the tumbling-dryer like upheaval of my racing negativity.

Walking down the hallway I became conscious of my frozenness when confronted with a simple request by my six-year old son Levi with a look of sheer, “how dare you ask me for something at this moment?”

And although my anger was then already being projected outward, the ugly messages of meaning that were arising out of the basement of despair had public enemy number one, yours truly, in their cross-hairs.

 “When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

-Henri Nouwen

Violence always starts with an act of rejection against the self.

Yet, in passing Levi, something stronger than self-hate began to surround and clarify my shroud of doom, and I glimpsed an opening to choose.

And then a question showed up.

Who do I want to be in this situation? I thought, remembering the innocence of Levi’s face in my mind’s eye.

Welcome imperfection.  Welcome control. Welcome need.  Welcome Levi.  Welcome Jakob.  Welcome Lucas.  Welcome Taryn.  Welcome Flor.  Welcome Life. Welcome Home. 

 “Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently than the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.”

-Henri Nouwen

Indeed, Henri.

Joy is a choice.


We made it to school on time that morning.  Just barely.  And the romp down our neighborhood’s sidewalks was joyously blissful.  A choice of acceptance-celebrating the privilege of living life on life’s terms.

That afternoon, emerging from the guest room, after ending my call, Levi sat in the middle of the hallway playing.

“Hey buddy!”

He looked up at me.

Striding over the doggy gate I spotted a small shiner below his left eye.

“Hi daddy,” he said, returning to the scene of his play.

Sitting down slowly if front of him I placed my chin just above my bended knee.

“What happened to your eye, buddy?”

“‘So n’ so’ kicked me,” he said, matter-of-factly, holding a tinge of woe-is-me in his voice.

“What happened?” I asked, genuinely offering curiosity and concern.

I was surprised by the ability I had to be present to the situation.

“The first principal of non-violent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.”

-Gandhi

No blame.  Withholding judgement.  A better kind of listening.

We eventually got to the bottom of the situation, finding out Levi wasn’t just a victim in the story.

Together, along with Jakob and Taryn, we sat in the hallway in support of our son and brother. We created space to talk about a difficult situation for Levi and his schoolmate.  We modeled non-violence in our communication and became a living sign of hope, discovering a new way of being in the world-opening up space for a six-year old boy to access his own connection with a more spacious interior.  I’m reminded that it’s only in the presence of this kind of compassionate, collective, curiosity, where real choice even becomes possible.

“Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

-Henri Nouwen

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