Sheer Silence: Part Four

This is the fourth installment, where we explore a key question:  In the midst of the busyness and noise of daily life, where can we turn for perspective and refreshment?

This question is particularly compelling during the holiday season.  The demands and expectations can be overwhelming and unrealistic.  The busyness can drown out the underlying spiritual essence of the season.

Within my tradition, Advent marks a four-week journey, ushering us towards the promise of the Christ child and the hope He represents.   My Jewish sisters and brothers celebrate Hanukkah, marking the eight-day festival of light as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Still others find meaning in the rhythm of the seasons. The Winter Solstice marks the longest night (honored with fire, dance and reflection).

Each of these ritualized events create cosmic space for a meeting of awe, wonder, gratitude and humility. A space which reminds us of the enormity and mystery within which we find our place.

What then can we do to step away from that which distracts us?   How can we enter more fully  into the cosmic search which the various religious traditions invite us?

Walking through the woods at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center, during a silent retreat for Advent.

Here are a few suggestions:  Carve out 30 minutes each day to simply be quiet.  The premise is that in silence we become open and are met by a Source of wisdom, which is greater than oneself.

Be mindful.  For a period of time each day, whatever you are doing, do so mind fully.  Be fully present to where you are and who you are with.  Imagine what happens when you are fully present to your child, to your beloved, to nature, to ___.

Be grateful.  Studies show that a leading indicator of happiness is an intentional practice of being grateful.  Consider making a list each day of at least three things you are grateful for.

Be kind.  Each day offer at least one-act of kindness, large or small.  Kindness expands our heart and mind.

Be unplugged.  This one is particularly challenging.  Recent studies show that many of us are addicted to our smartphones.  Indeed, social media platforms are designed to train us to spend more and more time on our devices.   A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania https://www.thecollegefix.com/college-students-happier-when-they-limit-social-media-campus-roundup-ep-36/ indicated that college students who limit themselves to 30 minutes on social media each day, saw a significant increase in their sense of mental well-being and connection to others.

This sacred season, whatever your spiritual path may be…may you carve out space to simply be and listen for the wisdom that is yours.  In the mid 19th century, the theologian Soren Kierkegaard said: ‘God is always present, simply waiting to be found’.

May it be so, for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

 

 

God’s First Language

Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and mystic, has returned to God’s eternal embrace, at age 95.  Fr. Keating famously said: “God’s first language is silence.  Everything else, is a poor translation.”   Keating reintroduced us to the ancient wisdom that it is in silence, that we hear God’s voice.

In our plugged in, hyper busy world, full of distractions…it is silence that provides an antidote.  Silence offers us respite from the exhaustion and anxiety, that results from our constant hurrying and preoccupation with much and more.

When I was a boy, I knew this.  Near my house was a wetland, where we explored and played.  Walking through the woods as children, we immersed ourselves in the sounds and smells of the forest…rich loom, scented pine needles, bubble of the brook, call of the birds….all called us to become open and reflective.

Silence, in such a sacred place, allowed us to hear the voice of our Creator.  Martin Luther said:  ‘The sound of wind, the movement of water, call of a bird are logoi (little words), from our Creator.

As I grew older however, I often forgot to listen.

I became preoccupied by dreams and schemes.  My life became active and busy.  At times, more times than I care to acknowledge, I became disconnected from the beauty and richness, that only comes from first being quiet.

Fr. Thomas Keating at Snowmass Monastery, Colorado

Thomas Keating however, came into my life as a breath of fresh air.  A teacher who through his books and lectures and simple witness, offered a series of spiritual practices.  Reminding us of what we knew as children.

He called it, ‘Centering Prayer’.

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. http://www.centeringprayer.com

Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation.

For those of us who are Christian, it leads us into communion with Christ.

Several years ago, I attended a retreat in Maryland.  The culmination of the retreat was a practice called, ‘The Great Silence’.  For 72 hours we didn’t speak.  We began and ended each day with 30 minutes of ‘Centering Prayer’.

On the third day of silence, I awoke to find that the colors of the forest, fields and sky had become more vibrant than any I had ever seen before.  A woman, at the far end of a meadow, greeted the morning by singing a Gospel song.   I found myself entering into the very melody, that she sang.

Words can’t adequately capture what I felt and experienced that day.  I can’t prove, measure or quantify what came to me.

What I do know, is that silence, an intentional practice of being quiet, created the essential environment, within which I was able to see with new eyes and hear and receive with an open heart.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet and mystic said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

I knew this to be true as a child.   Thomas Keating gave me a practice, for returning to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.   Thank you, Fr. Keating.

Sheer Silence: Part One

We live in a world of busyness and noise.   Smart phones train us to respond to prompts.   Email and texts blur the line between our work and personal life.  The 24 hour news cycle means we are continually processing data.  Oftentimes we feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious.

In the midst of the busyness and noise where do we turn for perspective and refreshment?  Is there an antidote from this seemingly relentless pace?

The Bible tells the story of a man called Elijah.  Elijah was a Hebrew prophet who lived approx. 3000 years ago.  Elijah felt abandoned by his people and abandoned by God.  Elijah: “I alone am left and my enemies are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Into the story God speaks but not in the way Elijah expects:

God said: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, the sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

Such is the great paradox of this story.  It is not in the noise and fury of wind, earthquake or fire that God speaks.  Rather, in ‘the sound of sheer silence’.   The paradox of being able to hear what is truly important in the midst of quiet.

Quiet…silence…creates emotional and spiritual space within which we can listen for and get in touch with what matters.  The countercultural call remains the same.  To make space for  quiet.  Space to simply be.

The truth is that many of us fear silence.  We fear the loss of control.  We prefer being busy.  Many of us are propelled by an old  joke:  ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!’

We do something, anything, to give us a sense of purpose.  Even if the ‘something’ isn’t the right thing or the healthiest thing to do.  Busyness and noise as an end unto itself.

Elijah knew that what truly matters comes not in the earthquake, wind or fire.  Truth and  value comes from silence.  Imagine.

In 2002 I participated in a ten-day silent kayak trip in the Tongass Wilderness, in Southeast Alaska.  We were introduced each day to meditation practices.  Meditation designed to help us quiet the busyness in our mind and simply be. Open to where we were and what was going on within me and around me.

Truth be told, for the first few days I struggled.  The silence was uncomfortable.  I had so many things to say.   Chaotic thoughts or feelings I wanted to flee from.  But by day three I felt myself shift…where the silence became a gift.  A gift that invited me to become more aware and open… to rest and be restored  ‘in the sheer silence’.

Over the next few blogs I’d like to explore with you ways of entering into the sheer silence.  I invite you on a counter-cultural journey of becoming quiet.  We may well be surprised by where the journey takes us.

When General Patton Goes on Vacation

Many moons ago when I was young and foolish my wife and I took our two children and an unruly yellow lab named Sandy on vacation.  Then living in Oregon our vacation plan was to drive to Yellowstone National Park.

Being wrapped pretty tight at the time I wanted to maximize every moment.  I noticed that our two young children and a dog barely out of puppyhood were not keeping to my schedule.

What was wrong with them?  We had places to go. Old Faithful was waiting on us.


On the third day of our trip, already behind schedule, I gathered the troops and channeling my inner Patton, informed them that speed was of the essence: “At 0800 we’ll have breakfast.  At 0900 we’ll begin to stow our gear and by 0930 we will commence to the route.”

My children ignored me.  The dog chased a rabbit.   My wife (who is smarter than me) took me aside and told me to ‘lighten up, smell the roses and stop being a pain in the caboose. We’ll get there when we get there’, she said.

Over the years I’ve gotten a little wiser.  I’ve grown to realize that a family is a small community that gets by with a mix of compromise, forgiveness and humor.

I’ve been thinking about this as Tricia and I get ready for vacation.  Both our daughters are grown and launched.  Soon we’ll fly to visit our oldest in LA.

‘What do you want to do’? she asks.  We reply: “We’re happy to sleep in, hang out and see your new neighborhood and talk.  We’re just happy to be with you.”

General Patton will not join us for vacation.  No forced marches.  We’re simply content to be with the people we love.

I hope you too get some down time this summer.  Time to simply be.

 

No Time for Silence

Some of us are better at being quiet than others.  Me?  I love to talk.  Give me a crowd and I become energized.

Yet, for a long time I’ve been aware of a part of me that yearns for silence.  When I was a boy I sought out quiet places, often in nature, to rest and reflect.  I remember finding refuge under a large Blue Spruce during a snow fall.  The flakes were large and quickly carpeted the boughs of the tree and floor of the forest.  Sound became muffled and I felt safe and fortunate to be in such a place at such a moment.

It has been a long time since I was that boy but I still remember the sound of silence.

Such is the tension I find within myself.  This enjoyment of conversation and being active…while an inner voice invites me to slow down and simply be.

Yesterday I arrived late to an organizing meeting of multi faith leaders in my community.  We were a mix of Buddhist, Jewish and Christian. We spent time exploring our purpose which took us down many paths.  As this was the early stage of our coming together we spent much of our meeting ‘muddling’ moving from topic to topic.

In the end we ran out of time and set another meeting to continue our search for clarity.

Our Buddhist host invited us to sit with her in silence.  Most had other items on their calendar and needed to move on.  I had items on my check list too but to my surprise decided to stay.

‘How long can you sit’, she asked? ‘I have ten minutes’, I replied.

So we sat.  In silence.  Facing the wall to minimize distractions.  She rang the Buddhist prayer bowl and we became quiet.

photo-zen-meditation

Ten minutes is nothing to a Zen Buddhist.  But for me this busy extroverted Baptist it was everything.  Those ten minutes of shared silence were like oxygen.

I felt my blood pressure drop and my breathing deepen.  When the bowl rang at the end of ten minutes I wanted, needed ten more.

Something happens in silence that doesn’t happen otherwise.  Ancient spiritual paths know this to be true:

‘Listen and your soul will live’. ~ Isaiah the prophet

‘Silence is a source of great strength.’ ~ Lao Tzu

‘The Creator’s first language is silence’. ~ Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and mystic

Perhaps by temperament you are naturally drawn to silence.  Perhaps like me you’re not.  But I know too that ones comfort with silence can be nurtured, cultivated.  In so doing we may find ourselves gradually going deeper and deeper, to hear a voice that paradoxically is silence itself.

 

In Praise of Moose

This past week I walked a portion of the Long Trail in Vermont.  For five days I backpacked with my cousin Tom from Lincoln Gap to the base of Camels Hump.

Nine years ago I took up backpacking in the mountains of my then home in Oregon.  For several years I packed with friends in the Eagle Cap Wilderness along the Idaho/Oregon border.  We climbed and camped at the 12,000 foot level.  I thought I knew what tough packing was like.

But the Long Trail is different.  The tallest peaks I climbed were in the 4000′ foot category.  But instead of the gradual switchbacks of a broad Oregon mountain this trail is essentially vertical.  Climbers scramble over glacial boulders and a twisted labyrinth of roots and stone.  Going down is no easier than up.

Photo of Tom on Long Trail

On the Long Trail you have to be mindful lest you fall. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn would likely praise the Long Trail. He’s all about being present to where you are:  ‘When you walk know you are walking’.

The Long Trail heightens your senses.  On one of the few relatively flat stretches I entered a mix of forest and wetlands.  Scattered along the trail were perfect piles of moose droppings.

Moose droppings or the colloquial ‘moose shit’ are perfectly round balls of one inch in diameter heaped in impressive piles along the trail.   Walking my senses were on alert looking for a moose in the flesh.

photo of moose crap

I didn’t see a moose.  Only the tell-tale sign that I was in the land of moose.  I know this  because I was not simply passing through.   I was fully present to my surroundings, my antenna was up my senses on alert.

Like the good Buddha Baptist that I am, I knew where I was.  I was on the Long Trail.  I was walking through the home of moose.

The Long Trail is not for the faint of heart.  It focuses ones attention.  It makes you feel fully alive.  The trail reminds you of where and who you are.

Be distracted at your own peril.

 

 

 

Living in Sabbath Time

The concept of the Sabbath in the Judeo-Christian tradition is rooted in the Genesis creation story. God created the heavens and the earth in six days and on the seventh day God rested and said ‘it is very good’. In the book of Exodus, Moses, God’s messenger, comes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, one of those is the commandment to rest on the seventh day. This rest was not only for the landowner but also the servant, the slave and the animals. Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow so that the land could replenish itself. The idea was that people and the earth need time to rest, renew and reflect.

This was a particularly radical teaching during Biblical times when life was so hard. Most people were subsistence farmers and lived through bartering skills and resources to acquire a little money to purchase what you couldn’t make. It was a time intensive, physically and emotionally demanding process simply to survive. Into this pattern of surviving is instituted this commandment to rest. Implicit in this commandment is the acknowledgement that each person is a child of God and has inherent worth. Not only people, but animals and the earth itself need time to rest too.

Sabbath Time remains relevant. Billions of people in developing countries work in a subsistence economy simply to survive. A health ministry I work with in Nicaragua called AMOS, sends delegations from churches in North America to live, learn and serve in impoverished rural communities. I remember being awakened in a village called La Pimenta at 4 a.m.. You awoke to the crowing of roosters and hearing the sounds of women rising to build fires to cook as the men rose to go to the fields. The work was relentless before sunrise until the sun set. But on Sunday the pace slackened, meals still needed to be made but the pace was slower rooted in an ancient teaching to rest, renew and reflect.

In orthodox Judaism the Sabbath is a day for sexual intimacy. Time to be with one’s beloved. (This may make the Sabbath suddenly more interesting or more foreboding). My friend Rabbi Alison invites her community to begin Shabbat during the summer by gathering on a beach facing the ocean as the evening comes and the Sabbath begins. Each ritual a reminder that the Sabbath is different, special, set apart for a life-giving purpose.

In my Christian tradition, our concept of Sabbath is too often shoe horned into one hour for gathered worship then on with the day. This misses the point. Sabbath is not a prescribed hour but a 24 hour space to rest and renew. Whether you are religious or not, we all need Sabbath time. This is particularly true in developed nations with technology at our fingertips 24/7. It is so easy to become obsessed with the minutia of social media that we miss taking time to breathe, to savor.

When we live in Sabbath time, we slow down long enough to think and feel. Thich Nhat Hahn says it this way: ‘When I eat I know I’m eating. When I walk I know I’m walking’. Buddhists call this ‘practicing mindfulness’, a form of Sabbath keeping. As we live into a new year, I invite you to create your own Sabbath ritual. It may be rooted in a faith tradition or not. Regardless, we all need time to rest, renew and reflect. This is true whether we are a subsistence farmer in Nicaragua or a tech driven person living here in Beverly, Massachusetts. We each deserve time to catch our breath and even count our blessings. In an upcoming blog I’d like to explore ideas for creating rituals for rest and renewal. I’d like to hear your ideas too. Happy New Year and may we too live in Sabbath time.

Spirituality of Extreme Weather

I grew up in New England where extreme weather is the norm. We can have hot humid summers that rival an Ecuadorian rainforest. Heavy rains can so soak the earth that water seeps from basement walls and rises from basement floors.

Winter however is where New England often smacks you upside the head. I remember the blizzard of 1978 but nothing prepared us in the greater Boston area for 9 feet plus of snow, that accumulated from a series of blizzards in February and March of this year. It was epic and brutal.

Blizzard of 1978

I grew up in New England but for twenty years lived in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The Willamette offers a generally moderate climate with occasional moments of weather related drama. For the most part it is a pleasant climate where the finicky Pinot Noir grape flourishes and flowers emerge in late winter. In the valley there are generally two seasons, wet and dry.

Over a year ago I returned to New England and have lived through a full cycle of the four distinct seasons. For me this cycle has been a spiritual journey. There’s something about living through an extreme winter that encourages one to appreciate the spring and savor the summer even with its humidity. There’s something about being smacked upside the head by 6″ of water in my basement last October, that invites me to savor the warm, dry and beautiful days that accompany these initial days of Autumn.

While I will always love the beauty of Oregon I find that New England has attuned me to the weather and my surroundings in a deeper way. I find that a change in the weather is also bringing about a change in me.

I am more aware of the birds migrating south for the winter, more dialed in to the tides and the wind as I regularly launch my kayak in the ocean. Today I went for a long run because it was sunny and dry and I know the opportunity to do so is fleeting.

Monks and mystics teach that being awake is essential to be awakened by that great mystery we call God/Creator/Spirit. Being awake physically, emotionally and spiritually opens one up to lessons and gifts that otherwise might be missed.

Thich Nhat Hahn the Vietnamese Buddhist invites us to practice mindfulness. He offers a lovely mantra to be in the moment: ‘Breathing in I calm my spirit; breathing out I smile. (Inhale) Living in the moment; (exhale) this is the only moment.’

Living in New England helps me to live in the moment. Partly because I don’t know what the next moment (weather wise) will be. And, as I live in the moment I find there is much to be aware of and thankful for.

If I forget and begin to live in the past or the future, a Nor’easter storm off the ocean, a blizzard or a breathtakingly beautiful morning (as it was this morning) will grab me by the lapels and say ‘listen up and look around!’

3000 years ago a Hebrew prophet named Isaiah said, ‘Listen and your soul will love’. New England weather requires that we keep attuned to what is going on around us. And, if we are attuned enough, we may very well discover that something new and life-giving is being awakened within.

The Practice of Walking on the Earth

In our fast paced motorized society I invite you to join me in a counter cultural act: Take off your shoes, wiggle your toes in the grass or sand and walk.

Walking and walking barefoot in particular, has a way of heightening your senses and making you mindful of where you step. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and mentor offers this: ‘The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.’ True. Walking slows us down and makes us aware of where we are. More than other modes of travel, walking invites us to experience what is immediately behind, around and in front.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An Altar in the World’ writes:
‘Jesus walked a lot. If Jesus had driven a car it is difficult to imagine how that might have changed his impact. Walking gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the read, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.’

It is one thing to drive by a person in need, a very different experience to walk past.

My friend Joe walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Only by walking do you get in touch with your own dreams and longings. Only by walking can you receive ‘trail magic’, gifts left by strangers such as a cold beer in a stream or a chocolate bar tied to a branch. Only by walking can a stranger become a friend as you listen to each others story.

This past Sunday several of us met in the woods to walk in silence. This was our Sabbath, to experience silence as we paused by a wetlands and listened to that which otherwise would have been masked by talk.

3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah offered this gift: ‘Listen, and your soul will live.’ To walk in silence, barefoot or in shoes is a counter-cultural act. To do so is to receive gifts that otherwise would be lost to us. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, to walk on the earth open, attentive, engaged

woman_walking_in_the_tao-resized-600

is a miracle.

Note: I lead mindful walks and contemplative paddle trips. Contact me for information on the next scheduled event. This summer 2015 the church I serve is hosting a study and sermon series based on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. Go to church web site http://www.fbcbeverly.org for more info.

Snowshoeing on a Woo Hoo Day

Thich Nhat Hahn the Buddhist monk speaks about the practice of ‘mindfulness’. He says: “When I walk I know I am walking. When I eat I know I am eating. When I see I know I am seeing.” His words remind us to be fully present to what we are doing.

I recently heard a TED talk on the theme of anxiousness. Several presenters mentioned that as we multi-task in life our anxiety level rises in proportion to our busyness. Those who are least anxious are those who are able to live in the now, to be present to what is.

I was thinking about this a few days ago on a drop-dead gorgeous afternoon in Massachusetts. After a historic winter with over 8 feet of snow and numbing single digit temperatures, my wife and I went snowshoeing on a sunny Saturday and a balmy 30 degrees.

We went to a local state park whose trails were busy with cross-country skiers, snowshoeing and romping dogs. People greeted each other with: “Today is perfect!”

snowshoeing

After a long grey winter the days were warming, Spring was but a few weeks off and we

knew

that this snow which had seemed never-ending was to be enjoyed, even savored. As I walked in my snowshoes I tried to walk mindful of the beauty that was before me. I tried to be in the moment, pausing often to bask in the sun and enjoy the beauty of freshly fallen snow.

As I walked I knew I was walking. As I breathed I knew I was breathing. As I shouted:”Woo hoo!”I knew I was shouting.