The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere

The Gate of Heaven book cover

The day arrives, the time comes knocking at the door, when the new book needs to be birthed and a lively dialogue begins. This is how the story begins:

“At the center of our being is a point…which belongs entirely to God…a pure diamond blazing…I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” Thomas Merton

     What if you learned the gate of heaven, the Source of wisdom, power, peace and love we all need, could be found anywhere and everywhere, here and now, right where you stand? Maybe you turned to this book because that is what you are searching for. This discovery could change everything.
     The people who said you could only find a gate of heaven if you believed their way,
acted as they said, attended their church, or mastered the right yoga postures and learned to sit in a lotus position, were wrong. You were wrong if you believed the gate of heaven was intended for people who are worthier than you. What if the very gate of heaven can be found anywhere, even by someone like you, because it is everywhere?
     When we see the fabric of the world’s soul being torn asunder by every manner of
divisiveness between human beings across the globe, the human family desperately needs to find our oneness, our common center, a gate of heaven in our daily lives. What we need now is to encounter the Wild Divinity, a Life Force great enough to move us from chaos into inner stillness. What we need is a Power greater than ourselves to help us make the shift from the illusion of separateness back into our awareness of how we belong to each other and need each other’s protection and care.
     This is a book about the quest to find the home of God in the center of our beings, which can then open a gate of heaven wherever we go. We need that connection to our Source more than ever. The path before us is a contemplative quest: the search for the Wild Divinity.

This is my journey. I wonder: Is it yours? If so, are you ready to enter the dialogue on a global scale, the one where we share our own experiences of the sacred, our own luminous moments that mean everything to us, that even save our lives? If you take the risk to share yours’, as I have done in this new book, you will be enriching all of us and helping us find, or rediscover, the gates of heaven in our own lives.

So today, in the very middle of a pandemic, I offer this gift to you. It comes with the invitation to join in a global conversation of how we have each found a gate of heaven opening in our own lives, perhaps even when things fall apart, and even when suffering is great. You can have a pre-publication copy of the pdf version free. For your free pdf copy just email me at william.thiele56@gmail.com.

If you are able you can also make a donation in any amount to our School for Contemplative Living at http://www.thescl.net. Donations can be received by TextPay, online contribution, or checks. The website explains how, and I can email you the details.

If you want to join in the global conversation of the many ways we are discovering a gate of heaven everywhere, even in the midst of a pandemic, just share your experience into the Google Sheet with the link here.

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Giving up hope (wishing)

Dear ones,
     In the seismic global shift of the pandemic, as the very ground under our feet falls away a little more each day, what if we quit trying to get things back to normal and instead tried “giving up hope.”
     From the opening sentence of chapter 7 in Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart, an insight is arising which might also speak to you. It probably has been a truth you have known for some time.
     When Pema uses the phrase “giving up hope,” for times like these I believe a better word is “wishing.” Try substituting one for the other if you read the chapter. (One of our classes in the School for Contemplative Living is reading her book during the pandemic).
     In 1992, I heard Dr. Gerald May speak to the difference between wishing and hoping, (within a retreat led by the staff of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation). “Wishing” is wanting things to be different, to go our way, to change to fit our plans, or to have the outcome we seek. “Hoping” is knowing we are held in the abiding Presence of Great Love no matter what happens, even if things go exactly the way they are going, and even if they are exactly what we did not seek. Obviously, disasters still happen.
     Hope in this sense is related to the gift of peace, abiding peace, which whispers, “Whatever happens it will be okay.” My wife heard this whisper 35 years ago after our son was born and she was diagnosed with a kidney disease that was marching toward failure. She did not hear a wish: “You will be healed of this, it will go away, a cure will appear, etc.” She came to know as a gift in her inner being, “Even if you die, it will be okay.” And her gift began to help me too.
     When Pema writes of the necessity of “giving up hope,” so that we can relax into embracing life as it is unfolding right now, and facing what is here right now, I hear, “give up wishing everything was different, give up your illusion.” (As you all know through experience, disillusion is the dissolving of our illusions).
     So what if Pema’s call to “hopelessness” means giving up wishing altogether, letting go of “if only,” which tends to undercut our ability to be here now and face what is happening now. Then a quote we read this week from page 8 makes even more sense: “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation [of our wishful thinking] can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
     Rev. Callie quoted the phrase “compassionate abiding” from another of Pema’s books this week. I believe that is exactly what these times are calling us to find. “The wisdom of ‘No Escape'” in the Buddhist tradition parallels admitting our powerlessness in the 12-Step tradition, and learning to “deal with life on life’s terms.” This is what I believe to be a core spiritual attitude of our Christian contemplative tradition too: surrendering willfulness, (having to have things my way), and embracing willingness.
     My friend in Al-anon years ago summarized the first three of the 12 Steps like this: “I can’t. You can. I think I’ll let you.”
     Prayer: “Dear Lord, since I can’t seem to run the universe my way, and you seem to handle that better than me, I decided to give up my wishing and my willfulness. Through this pandemic, I turn my life and my will over to your care. Help me locate the indestructible inner ground you provide beneath groundlessness. Help me find the indestructible hope you offer beneath my wishfulness. Help me live this day in your gift of abiding peace, knowing “whatever happens, it will be okay.”
     May we all so live, as best we can, this week. Let’s start now.Global prayer
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Freedom

     I am sitting near my mother-in-law and wife in the living area of my mother-in-law’s apartment in Texas. Nothing special is happening, nothing at all. We are just sitting, reading, having thoughts, occasionally speaking, and finishing breakfast.
The cat inside is napping. The stray cat on the porch is too. They are masters of contemplation, awakened ones, neither fretting over the past or worrying about the future. Both are living in freedom, and for a moment I had a glimpse of that incredible freedom, a direct experience of: “this moment is enough.”
     The Buddha, or awakened one, calls us to “cross over to the other shore” of freedom from the clinging and grasping mind and its expectations for things to be different than they are right now. A shorthand reminder is to awaken to “just this,” embracing just this moment as it is without any wanting of things to be different.
     Jesus, an awakened one, calls us to the same in his famous “Sermon on the Mount,” (Matthew 6:25-34), saying “Be not anxious for your life, what you shall eat or drink, nor for your body what you shall wear…Behold the birds of the heaven…your heavenly father feeds them…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil or spin…But seek first his kingdom….”
     These master contemplatives want to help us “cross over” to the kingdom now, and they both prescribe the path: “Let go of being anxious, clinging to how you want things to be, and be like the lilies of the field, embracing what is right now.” This is radical trust–faithing–experiencing Enough right now, (not when things are more like I think they should be).
     Yesterday I was riding the Flixbus from New Orleans to Houston to be with the family. I took the seat I had reserved on the front row. When the driver got back on the bus she told me I couldn’t sit there. I explained that I had paid the extra $8 for that seat. She said there are no reserved seats, defying the company policy, and insisted I move to the back. I moved. (It turned out she had an assistant she wanted to sit in my seat and placed her own things on the remaining three front seats).
     My mind replayed the scene repeatedly as the trip began. This was not a grave injustice, and I knew it. But the mind kept attaching to the tiny injustice of paying for a seat where I could stretch out my long legs and then being denied the seat I paid for. It was really no big deal, but my attachment to the way I had wanted things to go was still strong.
     It took some time for me to really notice the reality of the moment. Sitting next to me was a young black woman with a beautiful baby boy with shining eyes and a delicious smile. He was probably more than six months old based on his teeth.
Once I started tuning in to what was, and away from what was not, I made little finger movements toward the boy’s face. He would delight in the game and his smile became little laughs. We played the game off and on over the six and a half hours of the trip. The moment was enough.
     I was able to turn to the side and stretch my legs as needed. I rested with my neck pillow. I read a little. I ate a little. I got out and stretched my back at our stops along the way. I gradually let go of the “grave” injustice, as much as my mind could, and had some moments of being one of those “lilies of the field.”
     In these times of grave distress, when our minds exhaust us with our clinging to the way we want things to be, and our frustrations with the way they are, I think we could all use some glimpses of true freedom, crossing over into the kingdom of Presence by embracing what is.
    From that kingdom of freedom, perhaps divine wisdom will arise to show us how to make the world better, instead of making things worse with our perpetual animosity. The Buddha and Jesus both called us to the Way, and told us how to walk on it. Let’s start now!
Flixbus
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Heartfulness, Even at Wonder Cuts!

Heart in stone photo

Here’s the thing about the life of a contemplative missionary, heartfulness can sneak up on us in so many unexpected places and people and ways. It can happen anywhere and everywhere: even at Wonder Cuts!

Like this:

He was a new hair stylist at Wonder Cuts, the only man I had ever seen cutting hair  there. He was young and enthusiastic, with a young man’s beard and that fast-talking way that elders sometimes have trouble following. He had so much to say that he hardly paused to ask what style of cut I wanted.

In the way that conversations do, the subjects tumbled along from the crowd who had been coming in on a rainy Friday afternoon, to the way you never know when people will walk in, to what he had been reading lately, to the fact that he received his social work degree but had struggled with PTSD after a car wreck in which a drunk and suicidal man had crashed him and six other cars in New Orleans.

He said his insurance wouldn’t cover his counseling sessions so he could only afford a few visits with a therapist named Kidder. Did I happen to know Dr. Kidder? “Sure, he’s my friend.”

I acknowledged that I am a therapist too, and happen to focus on teaching meditation, contemplative practices, and compassion cultivation.

He launched into what he had learned about positive brain changes resulting from all forms of contemplative practice. He said he had a few books on the subject but had barely read any of them. I mentioned originally learning such things from Herbert Benson, MD, the Harvard researcher who studied “the relaxation response” which follows contemplative practice. He knew about that.

He told of being a Catholic who had studied Buddhism for years, including reading of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who founded Plum Village in France, but said he had never found a sangha, (community of practice), or found a way to sustain personal meditation practice. I agreed that it is hard to keep practice going without a group for support, and said that is why a group of us had created a local School for Contemplative Living after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. I confessed that people like me need a lot of time practicing contemplation with others, especially during stressful times. I also said I have a Vietnamese Buddhist monk friend from the temple in East New Orleans: Thich Thien Tri.

He said I was reminding him about a guy who had served at a Methodist Church in New Orleans and wrote a book about all of that, which he had bought but never read. I said, “The guy is William Thiele, and the book is Monks in the World.” He said, “That’s it.” I grinned with secret pride, “That’s me.” (He wasn’t too impressed. After all, he never actually read the book.)

But he did continue speaking his enthusiasm for the kind of life and practice he would like to begin if he were more disciplined. The haircut had already lasted thirty minutes. I think he was so into the conversation and conviviality that he was cutting the same hairs over and over. I didn’t mind. I thrive on heartfelt conversations.

Heartfulness is like this. The heart swells a bit as we connect with others. Our mind and body are engaged but the heart takes preeminence, and invisible things, tiny specks of light and love, flow between two (or more) hearts. A sense of being kindred spirits arises. We experience our common humanity. We have the subtle sensation of being one, even if we are hardly conscious of it in the moment. We know we are not alone. We belong, even if only in that moment, with that stranger who is somehow no longer a stranger.

Here’s a wacky thing about my heartfulness with a stranger in Wonder Cuts. I never even asked the guy’s name. I gave him my email in case he decides he wants to join one of our local contemplative groups. But I never stopped to get his name. And yet I walked away feeling like a contemplative missionary, a guy who spoke with another guy about our mutual valuing of heartfulness. (He had even learned the word heartfulness from reading Thomas Keating, the Benedictine monk who founded Contemplative Outreach).

Such encounters are not rare for contemplative missionaries. They keep happening to us, and through us, and in a sense they have little to do with us. Here’s why.

There is a Great Love flowing through our corner of this universe. That Love is ever and always creating moments of connection between the beings inhabiting this blue and green rock. Contemplative Missionaries are just people who notice the Presence of Great Love when we are lucky enough to be awake. We stumble into the encounters. We have no tracts to hand out, no dogma to proclaim, and no plan for how to bend conversations toward spiritual stuff.

We are more like bumblers who have our hearts opened by Something Bigger than us, in moments of encounter with other sentient beings, including animals and people. Great Love pulls our attention away from our own self-preoccupations long enough to say, “Hey, you. Wake up, and notice what’s happening. This is a moment for connection, like-mindedness, heartfulness, a reminder of your own belonging in real time. Don’t miss this!”

And if we are lucky enough to feel the divine tug at our sleeve, we get to jump into oneness with a former stranger, like a kid jumping in a puddle on a rainy day, or a dog splashing into the ocean’s waves, or the sunlight popping out from behind the clouds.

Contemplative practice, or practicing the Presence of Great Love for a few minutes each day, is our little contribution. Such moments help the heart open and become a little more ready for those chance encounters. Practice helps us experience our smallness and the presence of Greatness. Humility follows. Hearts have a little more room for ourselves and others after that. Love of self and neighbor becomes a little more possible, (as long as we don’t get slammed by our own prejudices at “those kind of people.”)

I know these things by experience. It happened in a conversation with a judge and his team of specialists in reentry from prison just before I made it to Wonder Cuts. It happened in a conversation with a guy fixing our air conditioner. Heartfulness can truly happen anywhere, in direct experience.

But just reading about it won’t bring the magic. So maybe it is time to stop reading these words and go in one of two directions: within, to be present to the Source who is nearer than your breath, or without, to be with the guy cutting your hair. Your choice. Either way, great things are in store for you.

Heartfulness is looking for you, even at Wonder Cuts!

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“You Shine!”

The evening’s compassion training groups had been full and rich, and I just had to let the men fresh out of the Angola State Prison know what was in my heart before they headed back out into the night, “When you are speaking from this space of fiercely protecting your recovery, you shine!” We shared a few hugs and fist bumps and rolled into the wild world, all of us feeling a bit lighter than when we walked into the stark room for the Reentry Program of the 24th Judicial Court in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

I listened to an excellent Sounds True podcast with Dr. Kristen Neff yesterday about “The Yin and Yang of Self-Compassion.” The balancing of both expressions of self-compassion really moved me, and I wondered how to bring the truths into our evening groups of Compassion Cultivation Training with these guys. The language and themes of the yang side of self-compassion especially resonated with what I imagined these men had to practice daily.

Following an inner guide, I started the groups by mentioning how the word compassion is often seen as only soft and tender, and sometimes as simply being nice. Then I shared my interest in the ways compassion for ourselves and others can require action, strength, courage, even fierceness. Here is what I asked:

“Tonight, I want to know about the ways you have to act, be fierce, and take a stand to protect your own recovery. How do you show courage in doing the right thing to provide for yourself and your family? What steps are you taking to keep from falling back into the old life?”

Mr. C. was ready to jump into the discussion immediately, his face already shining like a kid who knows the answer to a class quiz: “I know I can’t hang out with the guys from my past. I see them on the street, and I turn the other way. There was a time I was just as lost as them, and I am not going back. I am done with that life. One thing prison taught me was that the old life is not for me. I would get money and waste it all on drugs and then have to beg for five dollars just to catch the bus. Now I am applying for a second job and getting all kinds of interviews. I am doing something with my life.”

“You sound like you are making a commitment to yourself to do whatever it takes to live this new life,” I responded. “Whatever it takes,” he repeated.

Mr. K. went next: “The old me kept fighting with my baby’s Momma to get time to see my daughter. Then my pops told me to be patient and wait until the day I got the call to watch the kids while she took a break. I did that and it worked. Now I see them all the time. My current old lady showed interest in my kids from day one. She started buying them clothes and s***, I mean stuff. That showed me she would have my back. Now I have her and my kids. And nothing can make me go back to the old me.”

Other guys spoke of being fierce in protecting their recovery by: going to 12-Step meetings, talking with a sponsor and other recovering friends, avoiding former ‘homeboys’ who are still looking like zombies on the streets, spending the money I earn on things that last, becoming a better example for my kids, feeling proud of myself for these changes, holding back my “flash point” of anger when provoked at work so I don’t lose my job, moving out of the house when my partner became excessively toxic, sharing struggles and asking for guidance instead of thinking ‘a real man takes care of business on his own,’ keeping jobs for over a year, accepting the rules of the Reentry Program when in the past I violated every restriction they put on me, clinging to the feeling of having my daughter really love and respect me, and want to be with me.”

They also shared some hard realities of stresses they face within their families and at work, things that would break many people, and often followed with the truth: “I’m just keeping it real.”

That’s one of the greatest joys I experience when engaging these men. Over and over they demonstrate their trustworthiness by “keeping it real.” No Sunday School answers here. No playing nice and giving the “right” answer. They don’t have the need for such masks. Their sustained recovery depends on them speaking truth, being honest, putting into words their hardest emotions as best they can, and not falling back to a lifestyle that was all about being slick and slippery, lying so much that even they believed their lies. Now their lives depend on living the Truth with a capital “T.” And hearing those hard-edged truths thrills me.

So, I will be back in that nondescript room, mixing it up with guys I would never have known before, guys who have a lot more to teach me about real-world compassion for self and others. I love how the teacher/student roles keep switching. And how these guys respond when I affirm them cracks me up.

After sharing a robust story about demonstrating true power during a conflict in his work as an excellent cook, Mr. M. got immediately flustered when I affirmed him with a question: “How did it feel to look at yourself in the mirror and see this amazing and powerful man you are becoming, a guy who doesn’t let himself be provoked to his ‘flash point’?”

He threw his hands in the air and said a gibberish phrase that meant, “Stop saying that. You’re making me crazy uncomfortable.” (These are not men who have much experience with real affirmation from the heart). We all laughed, and I let it slide. But he did go on to finish the story of how he was empowered to speak up for himself with the Human Resources person at the job, and let the provoker know about it. He loved sharing the look on the provoker’s face and how that man’s behavior was “shaping up” ever since.

Listening to these men’s stories is sacred, like seeing the transformative work of the divine right before my eyes. My sense is that  a Higher Power is slowly weaving them back together in their broken places, and my job is simply to ask compassion questions and watch the shining come forth.

Yes, my friends, self-compassion can look like being empowered, holding your boundaries, speaking up, protecting your recovery, being a person you and family can respect, keeping commitments, acting with integrity, being authentic and wise, keeping your own anger from reaching the “flash point,” and knowing when to walk away.

May what these men are teaching about fierce self-compassion become how we too live our lives. Let’s begin now.IMG_0052

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The chant just came to me.

Singing bowl

It was late in the evening and I was practicing slow-motion walking meditation around the living room. I was quietly singing a chant-song we learned from Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault: “Be still and know that I am God. Be still and know that I am. Be still and know. Be still. Be,” (Psalm 46:10). I invited the singing bowl in my hand to sing with each step.

After several rounds of this walking, a compassion phrase came to mind and so I began to chant-sing it in rhythm with my steps: “Love your neighbor as you love your self, as you Love your neighbor as you love your self.” The chant just came to me. So I sang it as I walked, each phrase matching a step, and each step matched with the singing bowl’s song.

After a few rounds of this the chant morphed several times: “Love your wife as you love your self.” Then it became “Love the stranger as you love your self.” Each phrase was in sync with a step. Then it became “Love all beings as you love yourself.” I invited the singing bowl at the beginning of each phrase. We “sang” together as I slowly walked.

And just like that, the essence of our 8-weeks of Compassion Cultivation Training* integrated into a chant-song for walking meditation.

I had been reading Phileena Heuertz’s recent book: Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation. She closed the chapter with an invitation to practice the original chant of “Be still…” which she had learned from Fr. Richard Rohr. From that suggestion the words became a chant-song in me, as Cynthia Bourgeault had taught. After that, the morphing simply arose from within.

I find such creative impulses are a fairly common and delightful result of periods of contemplation. It seems that dropping the analytical mind over time allows the intuitive-contemplative mind to arise. And because the contemplative mind has access to the Source, anything can arise from the surprising Mystery within.

In this particular instance, the arising brought a simple and beautiful way to remember and practice the steps of the compassion training. We begin with compassion for a friend or loved one, someone easy to love. We practice compassion and love for ourselves. We learn ways in which all people are “just like me,” embracing our common humanity. So we practice love for neutral people and strangers, (adding people with whom we have difficulty if we are especially brave), and we then practice compassion for all beings.

In a way, the “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” phrase captures the whole teaching, if we know and embrace how all beings are our neighbors. All being are our neighbors, (no matter what rhetoric you hear in the news or social media about making almost everyone an enemy). Oh how desperately we need to return to this truth and practice it as a global community!

Chant with me. Walk with me. Sing with me. Live it with me, won’t you: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself as you love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Let’s begin now!

 

*You can learn more about the Compassion Cultivation Training classes at the website link for the Compassion Institute here: https://www.compassioninstitute.com/.

We will offer the 8-weeks of two-hour classes in New Orleans through our School for Contemplative Living, with class options beginning 9/4/19, 5:30-7:30 pm, or 9/5/19, 12-2 pm. There is also a free intro session on 8/21/19, 5:30-7 pm. Learn more on our website homepage at http://www.thescl.net.

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Courageous in their Recovery

SCABC photo

David Whyte writes: “Courage is a word that tempts us to think outwardly, to run bravely against opposing fire,” etc. But he notes the word’s origin, from the old Norman French, is rooted in Coeur, or heart. “Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work, a future,” (Consolations).

So courage is living with heart or heartfulness.

Today, I was speaking at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, a progressive Christian church in uptown New Orleans. Though we Quakers prefer to “let our lives speak,” and we are drawn to listening in silence for the Inner Teacher without prepared sermons or programmed worship, I had agreed to share from my experience. In such situations my inner leading is to tell a story of what I am experiencing and learning from others, and I felt led to share an experience of discovering heartfelt courage with Mr. T.

Mr. T. has been out of Angola State Prison for a year now. Along with the other men in the Reentry Program, he goes to work each day, appears before the judge once a week, has random drug screens, and attends weekly classes in Moral Recovery, led by my friend Lenda Faye, or Compassion Cultivation Training with me.

I was starting a new round of compassion classes with my basic questions for the men:

“What is compassion to you? Where have you seen it? When have you felt it?”

The room went quiet as they tried to think, and I wondered who would find the courage to become vulnerable.

Mr. T. spoke first, (like an unofficial “Voice of the People”), “All I know is I’ve been on my own since I was twelve, when my moms was put away in some mental institution for good. I couldn’t trust no one. I took care of myself from then on. I learned to do what you gotta do to get by.”

I questioned, “I’m guessing you mean drugs: doing them or selling them.”

“Damn straight,” he answered, “Only thing I was ever good at.”

Then from the silence I pushed a little: “So you never could trust people and never felt compassion?”

“Never,” he answered.

We all took a long breath, then I stepped into the messy trauma of his story: “What about with these guys?” (I had seen him clowning around with the other men from day one, and I also saw their respect for T. When he spoke, they listened.)

“Oh yeah. These guys are pretty cool,” he said.

I wondered out loud, “You trust them?”

T. didn’t hesitate, “Sure, these are my boys. You can’t live with guys every day for two years and not learn to trust them. I mean we saw each other go through everything, highs and lows. These guys are alright.”

I decided to push him one step further, “You really care about these men.”

“Naw man, I love these dudes.” (I was shocked that he came right out and used the “L” word). “That’s pretty cool T. After all you went through, stuff I could never really understand, you came out of Angola knowing how to trust and care.”

“Yeah.”

I wished we could stop right there and bow to T., or light a candle, or create some ritual to celebrate the sacredness of the moment. First, I was blown away by the tragedy and trauma of his early story. Then I was blown away with awe for a man who was becoming whole again right before our eyes, one day at a time.

But other men needed to speak. So we stepped across that sacred threshold like it was no big deal, and I asked, “Who else wants to answer the compassion questions? Next man up!”

I was still reeling with amazement at how these men from Angola can be so courageous in their recovery. Sometimes I wonder how I got this lucky, like a cosmic accident, to land in that room with twelve men at a time as they step across the chasm from who they were, to who they are, and toward who they are becoming: Men learning to live with Coeur – heart.

Seeing their courage, watching their unfolding transformation, and being in their presence as they always “keep it real” in how they share, inspires me, comforts me, gives me hope.

If their lives can turn around, a day at a time; if they can survive the multi-faceted brokenness they have faced and then begin to find wholeness again, maybe I can find the wholeness beneath my brokenness. And maybe you can too.

Scripture: “Praise be to the God and Parent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Source of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in our troubles, so that we can comfort others with the comfort we ourselves receive from God,” (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

Thank you T. Your story of finding compassion among those men at Angola comforts me. If you can make it through all you faced and learn to trust and care for that new family of choice, maybe we can get through our troubles too. Maybe we too can learn to live with heart, with courage, finding the wholeness beneath our brokenness in true community.

Closing Note: September 4 and 5 we will be launching new compassion classes in New Orleans. New groups will form to use exercises, meditations, and dialogue to grow our compassion skills and see if we can learn to live with courageous hearts. If this is a time when you feel ready to begin the compassion adventure with us, email me at William.thiele56@gmail.com and lets talk. Maybe we can become courageous in our recovery too.

 

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Sustaining Spiritual Leadership

 

Ten years ago this month we launched a School for Contemplative Living. Our mission began as simply “living in stillness, serving in joy.” Over time it evolved into “creating contemplative communities who practice the presence of God for personal transformation and compassionate service with the world.” Our little motto has been: “Let Love Rule.” An initial vision during a small post-Hurricane Katrina centering prayer group of spreading contemplative living as a lifestyle, evolved into the many weekly classes and groups, monthly workshops, annual retreats, and an annual contemplative conference which we support today.

This weekend we were led in a “Yoga and Contemplative Prayer Retreat” called “In Your Presence is Fulness of Joy” by Rev. Ani Vidrine at our Ecoutez! Retreat home on a cypress swamp in South Louisiana. The experience was typical of our monthly experiences of gathering whoever feels drawn this month to go deeper into the center of our beings, into the Presence within, in community.

This year I will be launching out into other places, like a contemplative missionary, to create or support contemplative communities in other places. And part of that work will involve teaching the Compassion Cultivation Training created at Stanford University by the Dalai Lama’s translator, Dr. Thupten Jinpa. Thanks be to God we are continuing our expanding mission as we begin our eleventh year.

Recently, several young adult women who serve as spiritual leaders asked how one goes about sustaining spiritual leadership. In part they meant financially. But what welled up in me started with some contemplative leadership principles which have slowly formed through experience. Because what arose seemed to speak to the Catholic nun, Protestant spiritual director, and Buddhist priest, I thought it might be of service to share it here.

     Some principles of contemplative leadership first:
1. Do not look for traditional employment with institutions. They always have other agendas that will pull you away from your mission to serve the institution, like, “By the way, we need you to give Sundays and many weekends to unrelated church events where staff are expected to ‘come help,’ i.e. do the set up, run it, and clean up.” There goes your energy and open space for aligning with Spirit’s own intentions.
2. Let go of needing people in authority, or sometimes even family, to understand or agree with your calling. Almost no one will grasp it, except perhaps a few with the same kind of calling. Look to them for support. Keep listening within. Spirit will reveal Her desires for you.
3. Let yourself be converted, again and again, as your first priority. Your inner transformation and alignment with Spirit is what radiates the Great Love out into the world. Seekers will be drawn to you, or to Who is at work in you.
4. That means your daily spiritual practice of Sourcing is more important than any acts of service. Get that backwards and you will fill with resentment, even toward those you seek to serve.
5. Do not waste energy fighting against systems or institutions trying to change them. Love individuals inside those places and transmit Who is in you to them. You will find one or two who can see or support your vision. Make friends with them. “Fighting against” is not our path. The world has enough of that.
6. Keep listening down in your inner sanctuary, day to day, for your own personal guidance of where you are led next.
Bon courage!
Now for what you really asked about practical sustainability, probably meaning, “Where’s the money for this?”
1. Your clarity of vision, (The world you feel led to create), succinctness of mission, (Exactly how you feel led to create that world), and ability to articulate those to the world who needs you will draw the financial support you need. How?
2. My own spiritual director led me where I did not want to go years ago before we had a School, by discerning this, “William, you are being led to carry a monk’s begging bowl.” I resisted big time. But in the end I had to start asking for what I needed, and I still do every day. Our version is to ask for suggested donations, with openness to whatever people can afford, at all workshops and trainings. We created an annual conference with well known speakers who draw a crowd paying $75-100 for a weekend. That raised  anywhere from $5000-100,000 when Richard Rohr came. I also ask specific people of means to help support such events, and several of them donate $500-5000 occasionally.
The point is: be willing to keep asking for what you need, and do not underestimate what you need. You are not asking for a Mercedes, you are asking people to sustain a ministry created by the Spirit of God through you. You matter, your service matters, so you need income to keep serving. Ask.
3. Look to a variety of sources of financial support. I receive income through a small salary in our School, which goes up or down according to what comes to us. I also am paid for private counseling and spiritual direction, and retreat leadership. I occasionally teach at Loyola University, though schools always underpay adjuncts. I spent a year receiving a certification to teach Compassion Cultivation Training. If I teach locally the donations go to our School, which helps support my salary. If I teach out of town, the income comes to me.
4. How much? I ask for $100/hour of leadership at retreats, which is what our School pays each workshop leader. So we ask participants to make suggested donations to attend. That way church groups do not say “we have no budget for this but come do it for free.” Churches are notorious for underpaying everyone except some white male pastors. They also think everything should be free. I don’t do free, because I need to eat too. So sometimes I must say “no” to things I would have enjoyed leading, and some groups say “no we can’t pay you.”
5. How do people learn about what I offer? Write. Blog posts, Instagram and Facebook posts, and articles or books you write help people keep up with what you are offering. Some of them will attend what you lead. Some might support what you offer financially. Create a Go Fund Me or such for a special project, set a real goal and deadline, and do not give up. This helps people see what you are offering and associate money with the service, even when they do not give at that time.
6. Word of mouth is the best way people learn what you offer, so ask friends to help publicize your events in a wide range of settings across spiritual traditions.
7. Interfaith gatherings simply reach a broader range of people than events for only one church, synagogue, or temple, and that also helps more potential supporters know or participate in what you offer. Plus, Spirit loves and wants to embrace all peoples, and so do you. Do not limit your scope to a small group.

I hope these initial thoughts help you know you are on the right path, and sustaining spiritual leadership is what Spirit has in mind, through you.

William Thiele, PhD, founding spiritual director
The School for Contemplative Living
Video: “Monks in the World” https://youtu.be/VEklS0j_HLg
author: Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture
“A Contemplative Path” podcast on iTunes and blog on WordPress.com
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Back inside prison

Angola photo

The men keep teaching me, whether those inside Angola State Prison, or those in the reentry program. This week some amazing men on the inside, who I first met in the summer of 2017, and some new men I had never met before, and the men on the outside all taught me about character, resilience, faith, caring for each other, and the joy of recognizing each other’s inherent dignity and worth.

Several of the men on the inside are actually anticipating release after decades inside Angola. And they are fine men. We judged them for decades based on their worst day in their adolescence. They used the time to grow in character, develop or deepen their faith, receive education or ministerial training, and become mentors to other men.

One of the guys, (I’ll protect names), spoke at the Day of Compassion Wednesday about what it is like “when compassion seeks to marry justice.” He spoke with great wisdom, and I told him so afterwards. One of the guys talked briefly about serving as a volunteer hospice worker for over a decade, in addition to serving as a daily AA sponsor for up to 10 men a day. He inspires me and I told him so. We share big hugs of mutual appreciation when I get to return and see these guys again.

Other guys talked about preparing for reentry in the next six months. One of them wrote a manual on being a good father while incarcerated, which has been shared in over 250 U.S. prisons. He mailed me a copy and it is full of hard-won wisdom. So I brought him a copy of my own book, finally, after promising to do so a year ago. As I told him, it was embarrassing that he managed to accomplish that from prison before I exchanged my book with him from the outside. I hope I get to meet up with him once he is back out in the free world.

One after another, incarcerated men made my heart happy as we greeted each other like long-lost friends, even though we have only had a few conversations in the past 18 months. My little contributions to the day included leading a few moments of guided meditation for the group of 150 people gathered there by Lara Naughton, certified Compassion Cultivation Training teacher, and offering my sincere joy in connecting with the men.

Wednesday was a beautiful day, a day when free people from the outside learned from men on the inside, and together we built another bridge toward inner freedom for all of us.

The evening before that was fascinating too. I was facilitating the Tuesday reentry group with the returning citizens. These men work all day, and then they attend the weekly meeting in support of their own reentry into society, in addition to meeting with their probation officer and judge each week, attending AA or NA meetings, and showing up for random drug screens. Their consequences are not over just because they are outside Angola. And their struggles are daily.

This week I was challenging the men to take a deep dive by asking an unusually blunt question, in hopes of helping us all keep cultivating our compassion for each other. The request was for them to share a response, if they chose to, which began with: “I suffered when….” The role for the rest of the group was to listen with compassion and answer the sharing with: “May you be free of suffering.”

I modeled by sharing first, and told some of the harsh details of going through the breast cancer journey with my wife. They responded with the group blessing: “May you be free of suffering.”

The guy next to me spoke next, and briefly said, “I am suffering right now. I am really wrestling with my demons and it feels like they are winning. That’s all I have to say about that.” We all shared the group blessing.

The next man spoke of his frustration over having limited income to help provide for his kids. He said he felt bad after years of being inside where he couldn’t contribute to the family at all. And now he faces the many costs of daily life, and of the reentry program, with the result of having to tell the kids “No” to some of their requests. He said, “I hate having to tell them ‘no.'” We offered the group blessing.

Then most of the men started passing on the sharing as my singing bowl moved from one man to another. The intention was to sound the singing bowl when each man finished. But seven men in a row passed. I started to wonder if the resistance was going to upend the rest of the hour together. The room felt like it got cold. I felt anxious about what might happen if they all resorted to a stone cold silence. One of the guys who had already shared asked the question that they all might have been wondering: “What are we doing this for anyway?”

One guarantee in the group of returning citizens, they always keep it real. They do not play nice or pull any punches. They say what they really think and often challenge me. So I responded: “This is just an exercise to practice caring about each other.” He retorted, “We spent years together on the inside. We already care about each other.” I responded with trepidation, knowing I am still an outsider in their tight-knit group: “Yes, and we are just continuing to cultivate compassion for each other. We all know their is enough hatred in the world. We can all use some practice.”

The room stayed quiet for a moment.

Then the youngest man took the singing bowl and launched into a detailed story. “I am suffering now with my old man. I still live in his house and he decided to raise my monthly rent by 50%. He questions me about what I do with the money I earn. I tell him to mind his own business. Then he tells me my daughter can’t spend the night there anymore. It’s like he keeps looking for new ways to frustrate me and make life harder.”

At that point several of the men jumped in with their advice of ways he might handle all of that. I let them go for a few minutes and then interrupted: “Let’s try just listening to what he has to say and caring for him in these struggles. Anyone can give advice, so let’s really hear him.”

That was too much confrontation for the unofficial “voice of the people” to take. The former drug dealer, who tends to resist whatever I offer, challenged me: “How can it be wrong to offer our input when we see our brother struggling. That is caring.” I said, “Okay, tell me more about that.”

“We get what he is going through. We’ve been there before. This is what we do to show we care. We tell him what he can’t see and how he could handle this.” The unofficial leader was making sense. I started seeing that their challenges and confrontive advice were the best way they knew to care.

So he interpreted what he thought the dad was doing: “He’s trying to push you out. He wants you to become a man. Hell, I was out on my own at sixteen.” Another guy said, “Yeah, when I was eighteen I was already buying a house and supporting myself and my old lady.” The “leader” carried on: “Your dad probably cares about you but he wants you to learn how to stand on your own. And that’s what you need, to be a man. He’s gonna keep pushing on you ’till you get out on your own. And you’ll thank him for it later. Then you can do what you want.”

The discussion and challenges invited the man, who had started his sharing with anger, to admit he could see their point. Several more guys got on that bandwagon until he seemed through with his story. I invited them to speak our group blessing one more time: “May you be free of suffering.”

Two men jumped up, checked the time, and said, “We’re done.” Then they all got up and, in fact, we were done. As I said, they don’t “play nice.” These guys don’t follow the rules of polite society. Their lives are too hard. And they lost their freedom and felt controlled by others, often white prison guards, for way too long. Now they can do what they want. So when they are done, they are done.

It’s weird, but I am pretty sure I am going there to learn how to practice compassion cultivation inside their difficult world. So it seems funky that I still have an ego that can feel offended inside with each week’s confrontations, challenges, and resistances. I guess I am just human that way.

But at the same time, I like the challenge. I like having to face my fears and learn to go with the resistance. And this week I learned that I could be wrong. Maybe advice is not always wrong. Maybe, probably, for these guys it might be the most caring way they know.

Being back inside prison, and working with men as they come out, it is so clear again this week that these men are becoming some of my best teachers. May we all be free of our suffering as we take our own baby steps into cultivating compassion.

*Compassion Cultivation Training classes begin soon in New Orleans. I am taking registrations now from the general public and starting the eight weeks of classes on January 2 from 5:30-7:30 pm, or January 3 from 12-2 pm. You can register through the website of The School for Contemplative Living at http://www.thescl.net. Come help me keep learning how this works!

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Fresh out of prison

Shadow Man photo

This week I began exploring compassion cultivation with a second group of men who are described as “fresh out” by the men referred to as “veterans” in our original group. Being a “veteran” simply means they have been a returning citizen for several months. The new men have been out for two weeks.

Transition from prison back into the “free world” is a giant challenge. The men do not want to go back, but they are just beginning to learn some skills needed to negotiate the stresses of life on the outside. “One day at a time” might seem a cliché, but for these men that is a desperate truth. They really have to find better ways to cope with life fast, or they will ruin this chance at freedom.

So how do men learn compassion for self and others fast? We all know it doesn’t work that way. And each week we only have an hour to begin baby steps in this life-long work. We have to trust that if we give them a chance, the men who are ready will continue to develop character and skills to cope with challenges to their character.

Two of the “fresh out” men attended Compassion Cultivation Training classes with Lara Naughton while inside Angola prison. So I asked them to share with the rest of the guys what they could remember learning. One of the guys spoke first with a question he remembered from the training: “How is your heart today?” He told how the men divided into pairs, looked each other in the face, and responded to the question.

As he described the process, the veteran next to him said, “Wait. What?” He was shocked at the idea of two tough men facing each other and speaking in that way of the heart. He couldn’t really believe men in Angola are learning to do that. Another peer made fun of him and called him a “homophobe.” He said, “No it’s not that. In the streets men don’t stare each other in the face unless they are threatening each other.”

The “fresh out” man explained that the class members had in fact had the courage to simply see each other and speak their truth with things like: “My heart is sad today because I haven’t seen my kids in over a year.” I affirmed what he said and told about the first time I did the exercise with a man inside Angola. I had shared how entering the gates made my heart feel a hint of the despair that men on the inside often feel, even though I knew I would be free to leave a few hours later.

Once again, as the compassion cultivation training continued, then men who were ready responded to the question of the day and spoke their truth. They responded with very honest and vulnerable answers to the question of the night: “Who were you? Who are you now? Who are you becoming?” Once again I was amazed that men kept leaping off into the abyss of confessing who they had been in great detail. And once again they tried to find words for who they are and are becoming.

Their sharing is like men finding words they have never spoken for experiences that are brand new in this very moment. They are literally fresh. They are just tasting skills of honesty and truth-telling they might have never tried before. Many of them are attending 12-step recovery meetings each week. They are practicing truths from those meetings for the first time, like: “This is HOW this program works – Honesty, Openness, and Willingness.” In our room too, they are doing the work that can set men free, really free.

Thanks be to God that men who were in prison mentally/emotionally/relationally even before they entered Angola, and then spent years on the inside, are now becoming “fresh” in their experience of inner freedom – “One day at a time.”

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