When visions come…

CCT Jinpa leading meditation

We had come from around the world, from every continent, as a global community seeking to cultivate compassion and learning to teach the same. We were beginners all, no matter our fields of service, which is how things work for contemplatives. We always begin again, sourcing our lives in the Source of compassion, as though we had never practiced compassion before.

Dr. Thupten Jinpa, translator for the Dalai Lama for the past 30 years, was leading us in an extended tonglen practice at the close of our first week of Compassion Cultivation Teacher Training in California. Tonglen is a way to imagine freeing others from suffering. But to me it is not very different from sincere prayer. The practice is a matter of the heart: wishing for a person or group to be free of suffering and becoming willing to act for that freedom.

Dr. Jinpa led us to close our eyes, still the mind, relax the body, and focus our intention. He guided us through a process of filling up with compassion and directing it to ourselves, and someone we love, by silently saying, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”

I have engaged in this practice for over a year on a regular basis and prayed for people my whole life. But my rational mind often kicks in and wonders things like, “Is this really accomplishing anything?” My mind has always done the same in the act of praying for others. My mind has a hard time believing in what it can’t see.

Then Dr. Jinpa added a new twist to the practice. As sixty of us sat in a giant circle, five teachers and fifty-five students, he had us briefly open our eyes, smile at the person on our right and left, and close our eyes again. I smiled at Wendy from New York on my right and Ravi from India on my left. Then he led us to pray, (my word, not his), for freedom from suffering for those two people by silently saying, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”

My mind wondered again, for a moment, if that wish was accomplishing anything. Then it happened.

A vision came, a fascinating image of the suffering in each of them breaking up into dark little fragments and flying off of their bodies and up into the air. The tiny bits of suffering were streaming away from them, like a scene from a Sci-fi movie. I felt I was actually seeing freedom from suffering happen in real time.

I started crying. I was so moved to experience that strange sense that something is really happening when I seek to free others of suffering, even if for only this moment. My crying was the kind that you stuff down and choke on when you are trying not to disturb a group. (Silly ego, worrying about being embarrassed when something big is happening like your heart breaking open!)

From there I started directing the same wish for freedom from suffering toward the many people around the room whom I had met during our week together. One by one I pictured them, the global community, and envisioned the same streaming of their suffering away from them. And I kept crying, and I kind of liked the feel of letting the tears cover my face. And I decided not to wipe them away.

Then I started directing the “May you be free of suffering” wish toward my loved ones, and the people in our School for Contemplative Living back home. Then, as Dr. Jinpa led us, I directed that wish for freedom from suffering toward a stranger, a difficult person, and finally toward all beings. In that part I included me: “May I be free of suffering. May I know peace and joy.” (Yes, in compassion cultivation we get to include ourselves, as though we matter too).

As he concluded the tonglen meditation experience, which expresses our wish to free all beings from suffering, and had us open our eyes, I felt the warm tears across my face and treasured them. I think I really got it, that this whole journey of compassion cultivation is about letting my heart break open, not holding back, and learning a skillful means of directing that broken-hearted compassion toward everyone: no exceptions!

When visions come we best pay attention. Our souls are awakening. Our hearts are stepping up to lead us. The ego is shrinking and falling off the throne of our lives. A new Master is taking over. She is the Great Love. He has always belonged on the throne. A new sheriff is in town and it is time to honor Her authority. A new president and CEO has stepped into leadership and it is time to follow His lead.

That’s how I want to spend my last thirty years on this planet: head bowed in reverence, heart broken open, soul united with the Great Love, and mind under the guidance of the Higher Wisdom. I choose compassion cultivation as my path and am, as ever, “called to a life of prayer for the world.”

Join me, won’t you, before it’s too late.

 

 

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Fighting compulsions on a Sabbath

Swamp worship photo

Cypress swamp worship is a great way to worship on a Sabbath, out here with the birds and locusts singing the hymns, the wind in the trees speaking of Spirit, and me doing my job: standing in awe. Worship at churches is good, and worship with other people is good. But something kept calling me away from all that today so that I could let go of all responsibilities and experience a true Sabbath.

However….

Fighting compulsions on a Sabbath is no fun. The urge to accomplish something returns every hour. Something powerful in me believes I must always get to work, be productive, maybe even find another way to grow our income as we prepare for eventual retirement. That compulsive force does not remember, or care, that this is a Sabbath. It even pushes me to do little things, like sweeping away more spider webs from the old gazebo at the end of our pier – instead of remaining in awe and stillness, or clipping more vines from our property next door – instead of feeling the breeze and hearing it sing through the treetops.

My compulsions would even settle for turning on the television to watch more hurricane images, so I can “keep up with the latest news,” instead of simply holding all beings in my prayerful heart, especially those in harm’s way.

Here’s the thing: my compulsions do not believe in God. They believe in me and my ultimate power to “do something” about things, to “make things better,” to “fix problems.” My compulsions think there is no one here but me. So they keep calling me to action – which seems more like activity just for the sake of doing something. They say, “Don’t just sit there, do something, anything!”

But I already do things six, or sometimes seven, days a week. I already act, and produce, and accomplish. I want to introduce my compulsions to the concept of another way – a day for Sabbath. I want them to ease up a bit so we can practice turning the universe back over to the Creator, who is not me, for at least a little while. I want to know in my bones that Someone spent billions of years imagining and making the cosmos, without my help. And I want to live like someone who aligns my life with that Creator Spirit, not like someone trying to be the Creator.

Twenty years of daily contemplative practice have not freed me of my compulsions. One starts to wonder if they will ever go away. If they will not, if they are my partners forever, maybe I can help them release their control over me by telling them a short story again and again.

The old-timer from AA responded to the newcomer’s question: “What does AA believe about God?” The Old-timer kept it simple. He said, “We believe two things about God: there is one, and you’re not it!”

So, dear compulsions, whether you know this or not: “There is a God and you’re not it.” And that means I can ease up a little longer on this Sabbath day, and turn the universe over to that God, (at least until sundown). And that includes the meeting I will attend later, where people are gathering in a house to consider how to serve the world through that house.

Maybe I will stroll into that gathering with no agenda, no plan for what “should” happen, and with an open heart, a heart of compassion for a hurting world, and a confident hope that God, not me, can guide the group into wise action when the time is right. Maybe I will keep my Sabbath frame of mind as people share their ideas, and treat the whole experience as another act of worship. My job? Stand in awe, just like I did this morning in cypress swamp worship.

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A Prayer Leveled Us

Open Table volunteers 

Contemplative communities want to stay aware of the invisible web of divinity as we serve. Here is an example of how that happened unexpectedly.

A wonderful group of volunteers came with a meal from Munholland United Methodist Church to join the rest of us in serving our street friends inside Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. They came from a church in a wealthy part of town to a church surrounded by destroyed roads and great poverty. Some of their new cars were made by Mercedes and Lexus. Some of the volunteers were just beginning to have contact with our street friends for the first time in their lives.

For people who spend the day outside, August in New Orleans means bearing the heat until they smell of the street. The mix of aromas from the hot meals and the hot people was, well, a bit like a teen boys’ school locker room. It wasn’t sweet or pretty.

When the food was ready to be served, and the Salvation Army shelter vouchers were ready to be shared, we all gathered to take a moment to be present, to really “be with” each other. The volunteers were invited to stand in a giant circle with our street friends. We all held hands. We looked at each other. I invited everyone to take a few deep breaths of the same cool air, and to notice that the Love of God was there among us and between us. I called on everyone to be aware that “we are the ones who can help each other by creating a loving space right here and now.”

Then we had a brief prayer. Sometimes I lead that prayer. Sometimes the pastor of Mt. Zion leads the prayer. And sometimes one of our street friends agrees to lead the prayer. Something shifted when Patricia , one of our street friends, led us. She who has the darkest skin tone possible, who never says a word from week to week, spontaneously led us in the Lord’s Prayer. It was the first time in ten years of serving with this ministry that someone had led in a prayer that everyone knows.

She started with, “Our Father.” And then a prayer leveled us. Everyone there followed with the words we learned since childhood, “who art in heaven.” And I felt the transformation as we continued. We were no longer separated according to those who have nothing and those who have everything. Suddenly we were one, a room of people who all have a need for the One Who Loves Us So.

Of course, our specific needs were spread across a wide range of our humanity and situations. Maybe some needed God’s help to receive a crust of “daily bread,” while others were more focused on needing God to forgive “our trespasses.” Some might have needed help in forgiving “those who trespass against us,” while others were seeking to want God’s will to “be done.” But in that moment of transformative leveling we were all the one people of God, voicing our needs in one chorus, every voice coming from a cherished child of God.

When oneness happens among all the diverse people of God, I say “a gate of heaven opened.” It’s a modern-day miracle really. People who might usually avoid street people at all costs were somehow drawn to be in one circle, holding sweaty and dirty hands, and saying a common prayer. And street people who would usually fear the disdain or disgust of rich people were somehow willing to hold perfumed hands, and be in prayer together.

Carol is one of the regular meal volunteers from the rich church who has a delicious smile and an obviously warm heart. She edged up to me later and said, “Some of us are beginning to move way out of our comfort zones to talk with people.” I affirmed that. Even those of us who have received every privilege in life can still experience God’s ongoing conversion of our hearts over time. We learn ever so slowly that everybody has suffering of one form or another, so we are not as different as we seem.

Robin Roberts, television anchor for Good Morning America, titled her recent book Everybody’s Got Something. That really says what we experienced. When a prayer leveled us, the truth of that book title became a living reality. We all became the people who have “got something,” some need drawing us into prayer, some tug pulling us down below our outward appearances and smells, into the place where we are all one with the One.

Perhaps you will pause right now and reflect on a time when a need, a prayer, or some experience leveled you. Remember so a gate of heaven can open once again.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 20

Sam and Peyton

Holding space for the Sacred to appear is an art which can be learned through teachers around us. Children make some of the best teachers in this art. Even infants and toddlers can be masters in awakening to the wonder and awe around us.

Once, in the middle of a giant Mardi Gras parade on St. Charles Avenue in 1996, I saw an infant awakening from a nap in his stroller. In that moment he became my teacher.

“The shortest Contemplative I ever saw”

 

The shortest Contemplative I ever saw

was barely two feet tall,

and became my teacher.

When he awoke from slumber

he was all eyes:

holding the most intent stare.

Gazing out into the Mystery that surrounded him,

he did not bat an eye,

and he was not afraid.

He had nothing to fear

seeing Reality straight up.

As he looked with those intent eyes

he drank in every image

awake, aware,

ever so carefully aware.

And with that most piercing gaze

he seemed to be looking into me too,

into the Deep,

and he would not turn away

and he would not get distracted

and he did not lose focus,

but remained centered

being vision

drinking Everything

watching

one thing at a time

with all his Being.

How I long to learn his art…

Many wise ones

study and pray

many wise years

in hopes of returning to the wisdom of the infant.

I, too, would learn the ways

of my teacher…

the shortest Contemplative

I ever saw.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 19

Self-compassion groups

Today we begin our meditation by dropping a false reason to meditate. Then we will examine a good reason for meditating today, and close with a practice.

This is not about making you a better person, so you can drop that intention right now. There are already far too many self-improvement schemes being sold in our culture, all based in the myth that you are not good enough. They promise to make you a better person if you will only buy the product, get the surgery, use that diet, believe correctly, etc.

Meditation can be turned into the same old message of becoming a “better” person if you will meditate each day. And this is a false motivation for practicing meditation.

In our weekly meditation group for staff at the Ochsner hospital this week, our friend Debbie, a well-respected and dedicated nurse there, shared a reading to begin our 20 minutes of silent meditation, as she often does. The reading really touched me and so I share it here:

Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. It offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot. Instead there is now meditation as an act of love. How endlessly delightful and encouraging.*

Now we’re talking! Now we have hit on a true motivation to meditate each day. This commitment to a daily spiritual practice as an act of love is something I can embrace. How about you? I choose to cultivate compassion for myself and others because this is what I believe we all need, especially these days.

In a culture stirred by daily images of hate, when hate has come out of the closet and shown itself openly, when news stations are reveling in growing ratings from all of us who are becoming addicted to the daily news feed, there must be another way to live. And I believe compassion cultivation is that way.

Compassion cultivation is another name for the call to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and being, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Compassion cultivation is not to assuage our guilt for not being “good enough.” Compassion cultivation is an act of love, a choice to live in a way that creates grace, love, acceptance of ALL my brothers and sisters, and the simple desire for us all to be free from our suffering.

I will begin a year-long teacher training program for compassion cultivation created by the staff of the Compassion Institute from Stanford University this fall. I will spend a year with Dr. Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator, and the core faculty for the program. They will help about 50 of us from around the world to learn to teach an eight-week course in compassion cultivation.

But this next year is not about becoming better people, fixing ourselves, or overcoming our imperfections. This year will be dedicated as an act of love, a gift to ourselves and our world. This year will be to learn a specific way to cultivate compassion, to integrate a variety of daily meditations and a growing collection of research data on the benefits of cultivating compassion. I hope to graduate as a certified teacher of Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) by this time next summer. But this challenging path will not be to make me a better person, to fix my broken humanity, or to help me finally get compassion right.

I begin this training journey as I began my meditation this morning: as an act of love, and a gift to myself and the world. I am aligning myself with a calling that began 25 years ago, when I clearly knew I was called to a life of prayer for the world. And I have slowly realized the life of prayer is a life of cultivating compassion by connecting each day with the Source of Love.

Holding space for the Sacred is the heart of my daily meditation. Making room for the Sacred to appear is how I want to live my days. This is not a duty, a guilt, another form of self-improvement. This is a dedication, a choice to live in a certain way, a desire to ground myself in a daily connection to the Source, which helps me stay close to my center during the day. And this is a simple act of love, for myself and the world’s sake.

So when you grow weary of the daily news addiction, when your stomach is tired of the flood of adrenaline that comes from hateful images all day long, when you just can’t take another preacher telling you what a sinner you are and how angry God is with you: Stop.

There is another way. There is another path. And this one is not about becoming a better person. This path is just an act of love.

Begin now, as you are, to open your heart to the Source of compassion, who only wants to flow into you and through you. Decide now to let the Source freely use you as a channel of compassion for the world.

Practice: Take time to draw in a few deep breaths. Then breathe naturally. Be aware of the flow of breath as your chest expands and contracts. Let yourself know the Source is filling you with the Breath of Life, flowing into and through you with this breath. Then, direct the outbreath toward another person as an act of love. Choose someone who needs love and compassion now. Let yourself feel a warm light of compassion around your heart. Direct that warm light toward the one who needs compassion with each outbreath. As you do so, silently say in your heart: “May you be happy, free from suffering, and know peace.” Repeat that quietly several times. See them receiving the gift. Continue being aware of the breath, aware of the warm light flowing into and out from you as long as you like.

Live this way today.

*The quote is an excerpt from “Meditation: Calming the Mind” by Bob Sharples.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 18

Beamazed!

Resist the urge to feed on the latest news of who is hating who today. Try walking another path today. Try feeding at another table today. Try feasting…

At the table of the Lord

a silent meal tasted in gratitude

a song of the soul heard in hidden corridors

a breeze across the cheek, noticeable as a lover’s touch

that extra moment of holding in an embrace

the awakening of your own dancing feet

comfort with being powerful, and powerless

a sudden and deep eruption of laughter in your child

I tell you, these are the moments

of communion at the table of the Lord

in which we drink of the very life-blood of divinity

in which we taste Life,

full-bodied life,

The Life

at the table of the Lord.

I tell you,

these are the moments….

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 17

Contemplative Practices Tree

The Contemplative Practices Tree reminds me there are many ways I can hold space for the sacred today. Each practice helps me live near The Center. And the branches of the tree, the practices, keep me rooted in contemplative experiences like solitude, silence, serving, being, community,, and sacred sharing. Crafting a contemplative life involves regular, preferably daily, practices and regular, preferably daily, experiences of the divine Presence.

You might have trouble seeing which practices are forming the branches of my tree, but that’s okay. Because the challenge is to find your own practices, your way.

This morning I began with eating meditation, and moved into walking meditation in nature, (just a few silent steps for listening and seeing the holy in the surroundings). Then I chanted a phrase from the Gospel of Thomas with my drum: “Come into being as you pass away.” Then I took several deep cleansing breaths, drawing breath in through my nose and releasing it out through my mouth, with sound. Then I meditated on my back by counting breaths and finally by holding my attention on the inhaling and exhaling of breath.

Soon I will be on my way to practice sacred yoga with others. Then I will gather in a Circle of Trust with other contemplatives to sit in silence for five minutes, then hear several people voice a poem or sacred reading, then we will listen within for the voice of the Inner Teacher to see what the reading says in our own souls, and then we will take turns sharing whatever has been spoken within us, without commenting on each other’s sharing.

After that group ends, I will drive over to a hospital, walk to the chapel, and sit in silence with several employees of the hospital for twenty minutes. I will practice centering prayer by being aware of my breath and letting go of the thousand thoughts. I will open my heart to the divine Presence with no expectation of anything happening. We will simply be together.

Later I will meet with people individually to share our lives. I hope I will bring my sense of the Presence with me, into the conversations, inviting communion within and between we who share.

In these ways I hope to craft a contemplative life today.

How will you live “your one wild and precious life”* today?

 

*A quote from the poet, Mary Oliver.

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