“Sneaky Grace,’ as Anne Lamott calls it.

CCT Teacher graduates

The following lines really speak to me from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: “Everything slows down when we listen and stop trying to fix the unfixable. We end up looking into other people’s eyes, and see the desperation, or let them see ours. This connection slips past the armor like water past stones. Being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter.”

Spoiler alert: This slowing down, listening, and looking into each other’s eyes cannot happen on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Sorry to have to remind you my friends, but the devices in our hands do not possess this power. Reading this blog won’t do it either. We have to be in direct contact with each other, actually be with each other, with open hearts and minds. That changes everything. That opens a crack in the door so that “sneaky grace” can slip in, between us and among us.

Last Monday I was flying from San Francisco back to New Orleans, after being with the beautiful global community pictured in this photo. We were completing the academic portion of our teacher training in Compassion Cultivation* through the Compassion Institute of Stanford University. Among us were friends from every continent as well as the faculty and staff of the Compassion Institute. Now I know each of them by name.

These faces represent my direct experience of the global community. I have heard that term as a concept. Now I have first-hand experience of the unique joy which rises from a deep place in the soul when making friends with people from South Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, India, Africa, Denmark, France, the Czech Republic, Tibet, Australia, Belgium, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Canada, Brazil, and all over the U.S.

We became friends through sitting face to face, telling our stories, or at least the vulnerable and crazy parts we were ready to share, and listening to each other with full attention. That’s how I know what Anne Lamott is writing about. I am learning how “everything slows down when we listen,” and trying to let go of my terrible need to fix. I still mess that part up, that wanting-to-fix part, but at least it’s not every single time I am with someone.

In our compassion cultivation teacher training we delved into the challenging art of opening the heart wider even as we hold our personal boundaries, of finding our way through empathy distress into active compassion, of overcoming compassion fade and fatigue through self-compassion and sourcing in a Compassionate Image. And all of that begins with the willingness to see and hear the suffering in myself and others. Anne named that being willing to “see the desperation” in another’s eyes, “or let them see ours.”

I am learning that compassion includes embracing the smile on another’s face and knowing there might be some painful places hiding behind the smile. I was continually amazed through the teacher training as the new friends across the globe shared their stories. With the super-power of courageous vulnerability, many of us ventured into that place where we feel a bit naked and yet take the risk of saying the unsayable. We peeled back the armor enough to allow others to look on our beating heart, just like we sometimes do in the groups of our School for Contemplative Living. As Anne wrote, that act of “being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter.”

I guess the One who made us knew grace would have to be sneaky, since beneath the skin we are really pink flesh, blood, bone, and water, walking around as though we had on a suit of steel-plated armor. Actors are we, pretending we are “just fine,” even when we are quivering inside like Jello in a shaking bowl. When we are scared we try to look brave. When we are mad we try to look unaffected. When we are sad we try to look, “just fine.” No wonder grace has to sneak up on us when our guard is down. No wonder divine grace takes the opportunity to reach us when we are face to face and really listening to each other, letting the eyes be the window to the soul.

So I challenge you to gather your courage today, and practice some face-to-face time, in place of the Facebook kind, as I hope to do the same. You could start by stopping your reading of this blog. Words about sneaky grace have little power. Real face time, experiencing how “everything slows down when we listen,” now that’s where the power is, the power to let sneaky grace find us. Let’s begin now.

*For anyone in New Orleans this weekend, I will be offering an information session on the 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) course this Sunday, May 20, 12:45-2:45 pm at Rayne United Methodist Church’s Epiphany House, 3924 St. Charles Ave. For details or to RSVP, email me at William.thiele56@gmail.com.

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Listening to Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott photo

Listening to Anne Lamott’s unique voice is like attending a good AA meeting: terrible and wonderful truth is all mixed together in there, and you leave feeling a little saddened at the stark reality of our human condition, and really joyful at the wonder of being redeemed. Today I want to share a few lines from her last book, Hallelujah Anyway, as an example of how she speaks to me.

“I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine or the human; the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”

I, for one, am pretty good at feeling mercy for the people I like, (which unfortunately circles a lot around those who like me), pretty crappy at feeling mercy for those I judge, (which is most everyone sooner or later), and especially retarded in feeling it for myself. So I guess I am starving for mercy too. Thanks a lot for reminding me of this Anne!

“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves….”

I am starving for a little mercy when I see myself being “a great big mess” in one of our contemplative community groups: alternating between shining with a super-spiritual insight in my own mind, relishing a delightful word of vulnerability shared by a peer, noticing how sexy she is as she speaks, punishing myself for having that thought, trying to focus on something more pure, wondering how long it will be until we are done and I can drive home to eat dinner, hoping someone will say something that inspires me, trying to stop talking so much myself so I can actually let someone else speak, and on and on it goes inside the “great big mess” of my mind.

“I want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get a partial credit for that? The problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right.”

How many times have I settled for trying to be right, in place of surrendering to mercy? With my tribe I want to be inside the group who welcomes everyone, the inclusivists. And I love to say little digs at the exclusivists, who seem to pop up in the news everyday with their rejections of women, African Americans, immigrants, LGBTQs, the “other” political side, the poor described as “lazy,” (just making this list makes me glow at how “right” I am and how “wrong” they are). All of this is to show that I have special expertise at excluding the excluders. I can make subtle and blatant points within my tribe about how right we are, but I have a dang hard time making myself walk back up to the neighbor and chat after he told me how poor, black people in the inner-city are lazy and how we all need guns to protect ourselves from those dangerous criminals. Is there some way to have mercy and still hang onto how right I am?

“I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect.”

Over the past year I learned Anne and I are not the only ones who struggle with genuine self-respect, which might mean practicing little acts of mercy toward ourselves. The Stanford professors teaching our Compassion Cultivation Teacher Training course have reminded us of the studies showing how people in the West have a much easier time feeling compassion for others than ourselves. This caused them to rearrange the order of practicing compassion cultivation to start with a loved one, and then work into cultivating compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves. (If we get a little experience with that hard work under our belts, we can move toward compassion for strangers, difficult people, and all beings. More about that later).

Maybe the uphill battle of practicing a little mercy for ourselves is one of the greatest gifts Anne Lamott has been trying to offer us all in her writing. In describing her own daily battles with this monumental task, she is telling us it is okay if we struggle with boarding the self-mercy train. I know I need help with this one. I really need friends around me who accept, and even kind of like, me as I am. Being illiterate in reading the truth of my own innate value, the kind that is based on nothing but simple being, I need them to be professors of the high art of having mercy for me. I need their teaching of acceptance. I need the remedial class in mercy-for-self most every day. (No wonder I built a career around forming contemplative communities who meet everyday).

In a few months we will welcome Anne Lamott to New Orleans. She will not speak for many hours in a lecture format like we often have for our annual contemplative conference. She will share like someone does at a good AA meeting: telling her story of terrible and wonderful truth all mixed together in a way that helps us touch our own humanity and walk away feeling a bit more redeemed. We will try to withhold our projections of greatness and offer her the mercy of accepting her as a messy human just like us. We will thank her for sharing her own story, just like AA friends thank each other: expecting nothing but Anne being herself, and hoping we can have eyes to see the presence of The Mercy right there in the messy middle of it all.

If you want to join us for “An Evening with Anne Lamott” on Saturday, October 20, and get a copy of her next book, Almost Everything, watch our website for registration details at http://www.thescl.net. In the meantime, practice a little mercy for yourself here and there, and if you want to, come share your own messy story in one of our contemplative communities. We will try to do the same.

 

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Earth Day Poem: Sexy Maker

IMG_0053

Warning: The Earth Day poem below arose from a place of cataphatic prayer, the kind where we celebrate the divine as experienced in the natural world. It came from watching Spring explode throughout our cypress swamp. The language is overtly sexy at times in celebration of the One who makes all things beautiful. People familiar with nature poetry and mystical poetry will think nothing of this. Others could find the imagery outright offensive. But April is such an inspiring month, when the divine turns everything that looked dead into new life, and Earth Day seems like a fitting time to share the joy in this way.

Sexy Maker 

Who are you

Maker of the million shades of spring green now waving in the wind

squirting Your juicy self up through crooked gray limbs that looked dead

just a minute ago?

How do you

turn Spirit into organisms of brown, yellow, red, and purple

rumblin’ up from the dirt and oozing out through microscopic buds

’bout this time o’ year?

Why do you

fly through white cumulus formations, changelings across the bluest sky

one minute

and spill yourself out in wetness across this earth home the next?

All I know for sure, is that

I want You

making, waving, squirting, turning, rumblin’, oozing, flying, and spilling

in me.

 

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On Knowing and Not Knowing

William's SCL talk

Almost Everything is the title of Anne Lamott’s upcoming book. I think the title is short for “Almost everything I know for sure.” Our School for Contemplative Living will bring her to New Orleans to speak from the book on October 20, four days after it is published. And yes, you can buy a ticket to hear her speak, which will include a copy of the book.

Her TED talk on YouTube gives a hint of what her book and talk will focus on: everything from life to death, truth as paradoxical, grace, chocolate, aging, and writing. Her theme is “What I know for sure,” in an age where “alternative truth” and blatant lying has become a norm.

So, I got to thinking about the paradox of “knowing for sure” and “not knowing.” And I have to say that one of the great gifts of walking through life as a contemplative is slowly learning to accept “not knowing” as a path. I do NOT mean that we cannot really know what is true. That is the current political myth in America. I do mean we can learn the humility of becoming comfortable with not knowing much with certainty, we can hug our own not knowing, even as we stand firm on what little we do “know for sure.”

I wonder if each of us might compile our own list, as Anne Lamott has done, affirming our own “What I know for sure” and humbly adding “What I don’t know.” My list starts here:

“What I know for sure,” by first-hand experience, comes from Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion: “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a Speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.”

After that, the list gets very personal: I know I love my family, deeply, no matter what. I know I love to gather people and sit in silence together. I know practicing the presence of God is True Home and sharing that is my mission. And I know I love milk chocolate with caramel and sea salt. After that it gets a bit fuzzy, except I know I am comfortable with not knowing much of anything these days and am uncomfortable with people who act like they know everything.

What about your lists of knowing and not knowing? Get to work on them, share them when you are ready, and come hear Anne Lamott’s list with us October 20.

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I want more…

Heart in stone photo

I want more than the experience of mindfulness these days. I want heartfulness: loving-kindness and compassion as the focus of my life and contemplative service.

I have been in several mindfulness retreats in 2018, and many over the years. So don’t get me wrong. I do not mean I do not value the practice of being in the present moment. That has been a very important foundational practice in my life and teaching for 20 years, ever since I first trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. But I do mean I have become more clear that mindfulness is not enough for me personally. I want more.

For instance, I have listened to guidance at the mindfulness retreats about working with thoughts and emotions. The usual instruction goes something like this: “Notice the thoughts and feelings which arise as soon as you can, label them, and let them go. Each time they return do the same.”

I understand the basic concept beneath this teaching: we suffer less if we notice thoughts or feelings as such before they become a story which the mind believes, like “I feel terrible because of what he said to me.” Or when we notice the mind has already created a story, we suffer less if we recognize that it is only a story in the mind, not reality. That can give us the strength to let the story go. I do find those ways helpful and share them with people regularly in counseling and spiritual direction.

But I realized in the middle of a recent mindfulness retreat, as the usual instruction was being repeated for working with thoughts and feelings, that I find another step from heartfulness work even more helpful. I personally use this step and share it more frequently in counseling and spiritual direction. The question is simple: “Can I/you/we hold this in loving awareness?” And to emphasize the point, I usually cup my hands together to make space for the compassionate holding.

Once I see that I am suffering with something, including thoughts, feelings, and stories about them, can I, will I, be aware of the suffering with compassion? When I notice the suffering in me, will I care about the me who is going through this? Will I hold myself in love? Will I even decide to radiate the one who is suffering–me–with compassion? It is the same thing I would offer someone else who is suffering: I would radiate compassion and loving-kindness into them. (Some people call this prayer). So why not treat myself in the same way?

Can you see what I mean in wanting more then just noticing what is happening when there is suffering, and just labeling the suffering as that? I no longer believe that is enough.

I have miles and miles to go before I sleep, but on the journey ahead I want to practice a deeper level of self-compassion. And I want to share that practice with others. I want more than mindfulness alone for myself, and I want to share more than mindfulness. I want to live and share the work of heartfulness.

In the Spring of 1992, at a retreat with the faculty of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I learned the biblical Hebrew phrase for a whole heart: leb shalem. Heartfulness work to me is the cultivating of a whole heart, a fullness of heart, and living with a heart full of compassion and loving-kindness is the more I have longed for. That is my intention.

Heartfulness is the way I want to live in my better moments. But the more I study compassion cultivation in my current teacher training program, the more I see how often I am not compassionate. Focusing on the heartfulness work is like shining a light on my current experience of compassion and loving-kindness for myself and others. And in the light, there are so many times when I see my failing, my fading compassion.

To be clear, this is not a bad thing. It is a needed seeing. It is bringing the myth of, “I am a pretty caring guy,” out from the shadows of my unconscious assumptions so that I can work with it. How else can a gradually convert the myth toward a reality?

During the training I have learned about “empathy distress,” and the way it can lead to “compassion fade” if left unchecked. So rather than turning my struggles with the intention of heartfulness into another reason to judge myself unworthy, the training is showing me how natural it is for us humans to slip out of compassion mode and into a kind of heartless reaction to suffering in ourselves and others. Something in us tries to protect us from becoming overwhelmed with great needs in ourselves or others. This is part of being human.

No wonder people sometimes like to “blame the victim.” It is painful to see below the surface to the suffering of the young man in prison who never had an education, or real love in his impoverished family. It is easier to say “he is just lazy” or “he deserves what he got.” It hurts to see the deep pain of the rape victim, how helpless she felt, how ashamed that it happened to her. So we want to blame the rape on what she wore, or how much she drank, or how late she was out. It brings empathy distress into us to really see her need, pain, suffering. And we want to relieve our own distress with a short-cut, a story that separates us from the inherent suffering in others.

I want to offer that young man in prison more than mindfulness, more than the ability to see and label his thoughts and feelings over and over. I want to help the rape victim with more than a way to notice what is happening within her in the present moment. I want to help them find leb shalem, a whole heart, heartfulness again. I want to show them how to hold their suffering in loving awareness. And I want to find the radical courage to not turn away from their raw need, letting my own compassion fade. I want to learn to cultivate compassion that lasts.

I want more…. This is not a criticism of mindfulness training. This is a call to the next step: compassion cultivation. Now I see them as part A and part B. Both are part of the journey into living an abundant life.

This summer I have the opportunity to begin teaching Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) for the first time. And then we will begin to make it part of our core curriculum in the School for Contemplative Living. I am super grateful for the training I am receiving from the Compassion Institute faculty. And I have loved learning more about the teaching process by watching Lara Naughton teach CCT at Angola State Prison. Soon I will begin being a beginner at teaching CCT myself.

My free CCT Intro Workshop will be held on Sunday, May 20, 12:45-3 pm at Rayne United Methodist Church’s Epiphany House, 3924 St. Charles Ave. New Orleans, LA 70115. You can email me for more information or register at William.thiele56@gmail.com.

You can also learn more about CCT at the Compassion Institute website:

https://www.compassioninstitute.com/

If you want to experience a taste of why “I want more,” come join me in May.

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Finding Our Evolutionary Purpose

Self-compassion groups

Dear contemplatives,

     This past week Richard Rohr’s daily meditations have revolved around “Evolution.” The readings his team selected fit well into the thinking of Reinventing Organizations: Illustrated Version, by Frederic Laloux. In that work, one of the three primary characteristics of new organisms which are developing around the world is that the people involved all seek to discern their evolutionary purpose together. Their essential question is: “What are we being called to manifest in this time?” Everyone involved in the organism discerns this calling all the time.
     If we were to live into this new model as a School for Contemplative Living, every person who participates in any aspect of the School would be discerning our evolution together.
     Father Rohr writes of this in a way similar to his theme of The Divine Dance, calling us into aligning with and co-creating the world by dancing with the evolving Trinity. My sense is that we are on the verge of such an evolving, and perhaps already tumbling our way forward.
     I invite you who read this into our continuing exploration of “What are we being called to manifest in this time?” In this, our tenth year of existence, I am inviting all our participants in the School’s groups, classes, workshops, and retreats to the same.
     As one example of an authentic question around our evolving purpose, are we being led to extend our arms of contemplative living to actively embrace those who do not know about contemplative practice or who cannot afford contemplative retreats, like our poorest neighbors, our young adult neighbors and college students, our friends of color? Is this a year in which we reach out to cancer patients, or any group who are experiencing physical suffering? Is this a time to specifically engage clergy, or healthcare workers, or other professionals who are often too busy to tend their own spiritual lives?
     This article about contemplative inclusion is an excellent insight from one of the Living School alumna: Teresa Pasquale Mateus, “Mystic Love, Unbound: A Reclaimed, Reframed, and Evolving Love Story between God and the World,” “Evolutionary Thinking,” Oneing, vol. 4, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2016), 48-51.

​     All responses are welcome. Join us in listening within to a Speaking Voice. Listen to and share with each other. Be honest.​ Share what comes up in you. Help us find and follow our evolutionary purpose.
And remember we welcome each of you into a regular contemplative community this year,
William Thiele, PhD
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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The longing beneath

Centering retreat circle

Today I have been fielding phone calls and emails from people drawn to connect with our School for Contemplative Living. The conversations concern specific gatherings, classes, workshops, or retreats. We talk about details such as locations, meeting spaces, the people who attend, the topics, etc. But when I settle into the stillness afterwards I know something else is going on: I sense the longing beneath the conversation.

Yesterday I had many conversations with men living inside the Angola State Prison, and some with volunteers who live outside the prison world. The conversing covered many topics as we met together for a session on our common humanity, part of an 8-week course in Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). The exercises included groups of two or four men looking into each other’s faces and listening without speaking as one person, then another, shared responses to questions like: “How is your heart today?” and “Who are you, Who were you, Who are you becoming?” We answered fun questions for connecting, like what our childhood nicknames were, and meaningful questions like, “What has brought you sorrow or inspiration lately?”

The experience was powerful. The connecting with men who were strangers before we met was moving. The sharing was sometimes fun or funny, sometimes sad, and always touching. And we were able to visit and catch up with a few mentoring men who we have been seeing since last summer.

A deep awareness arose in me from the first conversation that beneath these faces, and stories, and answers to questions, I could feel the longing beneath it all.

The longing beneath which I felt at the prison yesterday was like the longing beneath which I felt in the phone calls and emails this morning, though the worlds of the people involved were vastly different.

My sense is that there is a longing in all of us, beneath the surface of what we say or how we look or what circumstances we are in, which is for Something More than what we currently experience. That longing might take various forms but still be a common human longing for Something More: more love, respect, validation; more feeling heard,  understood, and cared for; more connection to the Something More which flows within us and among us; more understanding of the meaning and purpose of our lives and a sense that our lives matter; more of a sense of connection to others who are more like us than not.

If we could drop down to the bottom, to the longing beneath all longings, I believe we are longing for union/oneness with God, however we understand or do not understand God. Since the divine is the Source of all love and compassion, we could say the longing is to be one with The Source of Love, to directly experience how we are the beloved of the One.

No wonder I felt moved to become a contemplative missionary after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, as a small group of us sat in silence together, resting in the Center of Being. No wonder my spirit rose up in delight at the discovery of the filling our lives always long for. No wonder a calling arose to share the treasure we were discovering with others wherever I went. No wonder we eventually had to birth a School for Contemplative Living as a means of gathering people to long for the Source and practice the Presence together.

I know you know what I am referring to. I know as you are reading you want to stop looking at these words and fall down into the longing beneath them. I know you know words can never bring us to the longing beneath. I know you do not need any more invitation and are ready to drop down right now into the longing beneath. I know you know the Something More is waiting.

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