The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere! Episode 1

Happy Girl

Author’s Note: Today I am introducing a new book through this blog. I want to share the opening of my next book and get your response. Your comments help me continue with the work, as well as making changes as needed. So please feel free to respond when you feel so led.

The gist of the message is what I have learned over the last few decades as a messy contemplative: We can find the home of God within, and when we do, we discover that the gate of heaven is everywhere! One of those moments happened with my wife, standing by a field of wild flowers in the City Park of New Orleans. That’s her in the photo. And there are so many more gates everywhere. Take the journey for yourself and see if this is true. I hope reading this series helps you find your own gates of heaven.

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.[1]

Thomas Merton

 

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 story 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, though we stumble around like blind people when we try to find it on our own. The path before us is a contemplative quest, the search for the Wild Divinity, and it is my journey. I wonder: Is it yours’? I hope so because I need your help to find my way Home.

I hope my meditation practice will lead me to that God point in the center of my being. Then, after the meditation, I want to find an opening of the gate of heaven again so I can encounter the divine in my daily life. I know finding the nearness of the divine can sustain me through life’s terrible challenges, and can become my great treasure. But, just like Thomas Merton, I have no program to guarantee sacred vision. So where do I turn?

My contemplative practice is like holding space within me in which to discover God’s presence. That is what I am seeking. But making space in my mind and heart also allows tough things to come bubbling up from within me. Feelings, thoughts, memories, impulses, imagined stories, and personal suffering often flood into that space. Meditating can be a wild roller coaster ride.

For example, during one meditation I remembered a night when I could not drive back to New Orleans to be with my wife in the emergency room. Her infection had popped up while I was away on a silent retreat. I remembered my tiredness that night, how I could not get out of bed to make that drive, and felt embarrassed and ashamed in facing my incapacity to love. A day came when I could not do what a loving husband does without question.

My meditation makes room for such memories to arise. I wish it wouldn’t let them all in. I wish the practice would insulate me from facing the hard stuff within, but it never has worked that way. When I become still, the difficult feelings easily find me.

Here is another example. There’s an angry guy inside me who sometimes comes to remind me of old angers during meditation, when all I really want is a few minutes of peace. I am seeking a gate of heaven, but my favorite old resentments can arise to batter my mind instead. I am truly at the mercy of such emotions when I make space within.

There’s also a perpetually discontented guy who loves to visit my meditation. He’s not invited. I don’t become still so my mind can review everything it wants and doesn’t have, like better income, city streets that aren’t destroyed, work that earns the esteem of others. The discontent is endless. While my discontented mind is at it, why not figure out a sure-fire way to win the lottery without having to buy a ticket? This is crazy of course, but the mind has taken me there in the middle of my meditation.

I want to tell you my meditation is always beautiful and sacred. But there are also a lot of troubling things inside me, a big fat mess sometimes, and all of that is sure to visit me during my practice of stillness.

So why do I keep at it? If the insecurities, uncertainties, shame and sorrow, fear and anger, lust and guilt are all going to torture me sooner or later, (mostly sooner), why give them a chance? Why keep returning to the quiet space we call meditation?

I keep at this because of what comes after the meditation.

[1] Merton, A Merton Reader, 347.

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“Okay, I guess I will let you lick me on the neck.”

Furyand Rocky

That’s what Rocky the dog said to Fury the cat. And he continued: “It feels like compassion, and I could use some compassion about now.” In this way two pets became my teachers. Letting others have compassion for us, which helps us cultivate self-compassion, seems like a great spiritual practice to add to our repertoire. And according to some extensive research found through the Compassion Institute at Stanford University, self-compassion is at the heart of sustaining compassion for others.

You can read all about the art of cultivating compassion in a recent book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, by Dr. Thupten Jinpa, translator for the Dalai Lama. And that is where I first found a Great Truth verified by research, that self-compassion sources compassion for others. Dr. Jinpa shares extensive research on compassion cultivation in a very readable way. He points to the work of a wide variety of experts, like Dr. Kristen Neff, who focuses on self-compassion. They seem to agree with Jesus when he called us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

One of the biggest turning points of my life was discovering how out of balance I can get in trying to give out compassion without sufficiently sourcing myself in compassion. I spent ten times more energy serving the world after Hurricane Katrina than I did in cultivating self-compassion. That pattern broke something in me. When I awakened to how out of balance my life had become, I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and a bit shocked that I seemed to know so little about self-care.

Sure, I could talk a good game. I could make presentations to rooms full of therapists about the importance of daily self-care for caregivers. But seeing the state I was in after the big storm proved it was more theory than reality in my own life. Like a man walking in a fog, I could not see where I was heading as I said “yes” to most every person who came to me for counseling in those days. And continuing a second full-time job in pastoral care for a church on top of that was downright insane. I was oblivious to the insanity of it all. I had no idea that I needed my own neck licked.

Sam and Rocky

“Okay, I will let you lean into me because I feel the love when you do that,” said Rocky the dog to Sam the boy. “Good, because I feel loved when we lean on each other,” said Sam the boy to Rocky the dog.

Sam and Rocky, boy and dog, are also my teachers. The need to lean on each other seems so simple and obvious for loving relationships, but for decades I just practiced letting others lean on me. To this day I am still barely a beginner at asking others to let me lean on them. I expect it is a pride thing, a lesson I should have mastered a long time ago. Letting myself lean is a form of self-compassion, a recognition of my normal human needs, a way of caring for myself. I just didn’t get that at all for way too long.

Eleven months after the big storm I finally awakened and realized I needed to slow down, listen to my life, lean on others, let myself be loved, and find a new way to live. I slowly discovered my need to sit in meditation and contemplation with others each day. I needed their presence, their intention, to help support my own. And I needed that unique form of leaning every day.

Sure, I could spend my private time in meditation each morning, but that was clearly not nearly enough. I needed to lean on others every day. I needed to form small contemplative communities who wanted what I wanted.

At first I wasn’t even sure what I wanted, but I knew I needed to be in small groups who were seeking to find Home Base together. I mostly began to birth a School for Contemplative Living ten years ago out of this simple need to silently come Home together.

Slowly, over a lot of years, I began to learn how much I needed others. Still do. And so giving myself what I needed most every day of the week became a new form of self-compassion. Fancy that: contemplation with others as self-compassion.

There are lots of other ways I try to have compassion for myself these days. I am beginning to accept that my needs matter. Though I have so very far to go, I do give myself little things as a form of self-care, like: a bottled Frappuccino and some mini cinnamon rolls each morning, a Gatorade after working outside in the summer heat, white cheddar popcorn or sweet onion potato chips for a snack, and lots of chocolate candy. (Are you beginning to see a pattern here?) Maybe someday the self-care with food will even be healthy!

If I want a hug for myself, I walk up to my wife or friends and offer a hug. Since I love to share mindfulness meditation and contemplative practices, I am building my life around sharing those things and asking people to pay or donate as my form of making a living.

I look for places to share mutual compassion, a kind of leaning on each other at the same time like I learned from Sam and Rocky. Volunteering by sharing a meditation each week at a residential community for people with HIV/AIDS called Project Lazarus, or at a senior center called Mercy Endeavors, or at a weekly feeding ministry with street friends called the Open Table, are all examples of my new learning about leaning on each other.

Compassion cultivation, including self-compassion, has become so very important to me. So I took an eight-week course in Compassion Cultivation Training with Lara Naughton, who is a certified teacher with the Compassion Institute. Then I offered to join Lara for one of the eight sessions she is currently teaching at Angola Prison. Then I applied and was accepted to receive that same year-long teacher certification, which begins this fall.  And now it seems right to add this training to the core curriculum in our School for Contemplative Living, once I complete my own training.

Here is a part where I lean toward you. Our School is raising the $5200 for the course tuition of the Compassion Institute at Stanford University. Meanwhile, I am paying for the flights to California and the extra room and board and ground transportation. You can help us by making a tax-deductible donation to the School for the course tuition. That donation will become the vehicle through which we can train people in compassion cultivation through the School.

If you can help the School financially, you can donate to our church sponsor, Rayne United Methodist Church, adding “SCL Compassion Donation” to the lower memo line of your check. Mail the check to the church at 3900 St. Charles Ave. New Orleans, LA 70115. Add “Attention: SCL” to the envelope.

If you have questions or further interest in compassion cultivation, you can contact me at the church office 504-899-3431, or by email at William.thiele56@gmail.com, or you can go to the website for the Compassion Institute here: https://www.compassioninstitute.com/.

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“Do you want me to sit in the back?”

norman-rockwell-painting

She asked that today as I was about to drive three women from our Open Table ministry at a church to the Salvation Army for their night’s stay. Nickea, with her stunning short and punked blue hair and dark skin and hot body, (from being on our New Orleans streets all day), was just sliding into the front seat of my little Scion xB when she saw that the other two ladies behind her happened to be Caucasian.

It is not 1940 or 1950 or 1960. It is July of 2017, in America, and Nickea still reflexively asked, “Do you want me to sit in the back?” I was stunned for several seconds. I drew close to her face and asked, “Do you really think I would do that?” She responded, “Well?”

Oh, (I had almost forgotten), a group of mostly white and privileged males did try really hard again today to get enough votes in the Senate of the “United” States of America to take healthcare assistance away from 20-30 million of us, because the economy needs our money. My wife and I have been on Affordable Healthcare for a year, along with about 24 million other Americans who need assistance to afford healthcare in America. Many of us who need this assistance are not Caucasians, and it seems the primary agenda of the past  seven months for the “leaders” of our “United” States has been to find some way to save America by taking away our healthcare coverage.

Maybe Nickea has reason to think a woman of color is still supposed to sit in the back seat.

*

“Are you really okay with homosexuals in your church?”

I was at a coffee shop for my first get-acquainted visit with a lesbian woman who was new to the United Methodist church I was pastoring. She had attended worship several times with her partner. I had greeted them with hugs and invited them to assist in serving the weekly communion. Sure, I seemed like I was being open with them, but Amanda was having trouble believing it could be true.

She asked the question with fear and trepidation, as though I could have a secret plan to get them into the church for a few weeks before I suddenly hammered them with some kind of judgmental harassment, or attempts to covert them from their “immoral” ways, or could be setting them up for an embarrassing public rejection. Who knows what she was imagining, but she thought she better ask the question outright before they got too comfortable.

At first I laughed. (Not the most pastoral response). I thought she was kidding. I reached across the little coffee shop table for a quick hug and said, “Do I really seem like that kind of guy?”

When it hit me that she was serious, that this was no joke, I felt so very sad. This is not 1940, etc. In the twenty-first century a woman still has to ask if she and her partner are really welcome in a church, the same church which says we follow that guy who said, “When you do it to them, you do it to me.” She might as well have asked, “Do you want me to sit in the back?”

Oh, (I had almost forgotten), a white man was just elected Vice-President of the “United” States who supports “conversion therapy,” counselors trying to convert gay people into being straight. Could straight people be converted into being gay? Really? And I had almost forgotten that religious denominations still split apart over whether to treat the LGBTQ community as equals who can marry and become clergy like everyone else. I guess it is no wonder that Amanda had to ask if she should “sit in the back” of the church.

*

Sometimes contemplatives get mad and sad over the current state of things in the “United” States, just like others do. We feel what others feel. We react like others react. We become distressed when people still have to ask if they can just be treated as equals. And right there in the middle of our distress we really need our primary spiritual practice: opening our hearts to the Presence of the Source of Love, and holding the suffering of our beloved sisters and brothers in that inner Presence of the heart. We simply follow the Path in the middle of our sadness and anger, the Path of the One who said to “love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love your neighbors as yourselves.”

No, Nickea, and no, Amanda, neither of you have to sit in the back. Not in my car, or in my church. Not in God’s house either, which is this whole world. Listen closely now, both of you: you are the very beloved of God, as beloved as any of us. And how do I know? She just whispered it in my ear today!

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A Meditation Experiment

IMG_0052

This morning I decided to try a meditation experiment, a new way of entering into the Presence at the center of being. A drum, a unique phrase from The Gospel of Thomas, and my singing voice were involved. The phrase is well worth meditating on in the form of lectio divina (sacred reading), but today I used it as an audio divina (sacred sounding).

I was following the suggestion of Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault in her book Wisdom Jesus. She writes about the contemplative practice of chanting, giving several examples like chanting the Psalms, Taize’ chants of simple scriptural songs, and Sufi chanting with one word as a name or attribute of God. Then she invites the reader to use the words from The Gospel of Thomas and to listen for a sound or musical phrase from within with which to chant the passage.

The phrase is perfect for a contemplative practice: “Come into being as you pass away.”

I was led to pick up a drum and to begin playing a rhythmic pattern. A musical form arose within: a monotone of one note to sing the phrase, and a rhythm for singing and playing the drum. I set my intention to use the chanting as a way to simply be in the Presence. And I began. I sang a while, played a while, and when my thoughts wandered, I simply returned my attention to the phrase and the sacred sound.

Drum photo

I do not know how long the meditation experiment lasted. I would guess fifteen minutes.

In the process I decided to follow a suggestion from the new senior pastor at Rayne United Methodist Church in New Orleans. Jay invited his associate pastor, Marissa, and me to spend the next six weeks praying at the same time each week to discern how we could be led to use a new house the church purchased for ministry. For some reason, my meditation experiment with chanting seemed like a good time to begin the inner listening we call spiritual discernment. I sought to let go of any preconceptions I might have had about the use of that house and simply opened my heart-mind as I chanted.

Soon an image of gathering people for daily meditation/prayer in the house came to mind. The phrase “urban monastery” came to mind. The remembrance of my primary calling in life, which has been clear since 1992, arose within: “I am called to a life of prayer for the world.”

In the early years the phrase primarily meant a call to be praying for the world. Later that evolved into the act of holding others in my heart as prayer, and that heart-holding practice took many forms. And in the last decade the call has evolved into also meaning I am called to a life of prayer – for the sake of the world. That became the basis of my becoming a contemplative.

Okay, so that was a lot of explanation. But what arose this morning was a simple image that the house could be a place where I live my calling each day, in the company of other contemplatives, even visitors from around the world. Who knows if this imagination will lead across the liminal threshold to become a sacred reality. Figuring out the details of what happens there is not up to me. The church’s pastors and many people will dream dreams, listen and discern, and give input from their own heart-minds until decisions are made.

So I share how the images arose this morning as a hint of what can happen when we try a meditation experiment, a new way of opening the heart-mind to the divine. If we let go of what we think should happen, and engage in spiritual opening, the divine can bring whatever She/He wants to bring. And if we let go of any attachments to even what arises, not getting lost into figuring out how to make the image a reality, we might find that it will lead in new directions we had not imagined.

Today I chanted with a drum, my voice, and a gospel phrase: “Come into being as you pass away.” I will return to this meditation experiment again, for it helped me open the heart-mind to the Presence, and that is how I want to begin each day.

I wonder if you will engage in a meditation experiment today, or this week, to enhance your own contact with a Power Greater than yourself?

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A Meditation to Save the World

image-of-god

In the middle of our group meditation it hit me: “What we are doing right now could save the world!” We were a group of eleven adults entering into a silent day retreat I call “The Heart of Mindfulness.” We were standing in a circle to set our intentions for the day. Most people there did not know each other. So to enhance the sense of our connection I invited everyone to begin holding hands. That’s when it hit me. The words that came out of my mouth were these: “We’re all in this together.”

At first I was imagining that truth on a small scale, that “we are in this day retreat together.” But the larger Truth came to me immediately, that “We in the human community are all in this together.” By this I meant this life, this journey, this adventure of being a global community. And a giant Truth came after that: “If we all knew this across the world that, we’re all in this together, wars would immediately cease. Political, religious, cultural, sexual, racial battles of every kind would end, because we would know we are part of each other. We could not harm each other because that would harm ourselves.”

We began the day resonating with the Great Truth: “We’re all in this together.” We could call it the “WAIT Together Meditation.”

After a seamless passage from one contemplative practice to another through our six hours together, we concluded with a loving-kindness meditation for ourselves, a loved one, a stranger, a difficult person, and all beings. That practice takes seriously the spiritual reality that every being is a unique image of God. We were practicing the truth inwardly by knowing that every being is thus worthy of love and belonging. (In the photo above, a large group of us were practicing the same truth outwardly through signing the Hebrew letters for “image of God” on each other, as directed by Rabbi Rami Shapiro at our 7th Annual Contemplative Conference last Fall).

Then our small band of mindful and heartful travelers closed the day with a unique way of being aware of our interconnectedness. Our closing ritual involved rubbing loving-kindness into each others’ shoulders. What???

We stood in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder, and then turned to face the same direction, taking a small step toward the center of the circle so that each person could easily reach the shoulders of the person in front of them. Then the person behind us could also easily reach our shoulders. I invited us all to fill our hearts with loving-kindness in a moment of silence.

Then I called on the group to let the loving-kindness rise up from their hearts through their arms and hands. Then I asked them to begin rubbing that love into the shoulders of that person in front of them. Just then we all noticed that we were also receiving the same rubbing of love from the person behind us. I spoke another Great Truth: “This is how the world is supposed to work. We give and receive love equally. This is what the Divine intended from the beginning. We love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

The feeling was fantastic, so I had us continue for several minutes. Then I called on us all to stop rubbing the shoulders and to leave our hands there. Then I said we should make a simple prayer for the person in front of us by wishing for their well-being, remembering that they are a unique image of God. We fell into silence and prayed from our hearts through our hands and into them.

Just when you would think the ritual should be over, I asked the group to drop their hands to their sides, to make an about face, and to put their hands on the shoulders of the person who was previously behind them. Then we started over with the same ritual in the other direction. I just had to ask: “Is this delicious or what?”

I had to make the joke that I was only sharing the ritual for their sakes, not because I love getting my shoulders rubbed in the process. Once again in the other direction we had a direct experience of the Great Truth: “We’re all in this together,” through a WAIT Together Meditation, or a Rubbing Loving-Kindness into Shoulders Meditation.

I have loved sharing the ritual for over twenty years. It expresses a holy Truth, and provides a direct experience of that truth that can be felt in heart and body. So maybe you will stop reading right now, and let yourself fall down into a meditation that could save the world. If you are super lucky, maybe you will even find the courage to invite some people you know to experience a We’re All In This Together Meditation through a Rubbing Loving-Kindness into Shoulders Meditation. If you want some guidance you can contact me through our School for Contemplative Living. Let’s save the world. Let’s start now!

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From my heart I say…

Self-compassion meditation

Dear sisters and brothers,

There is so much I want you to know, you searchers, and seekers, and those of you who know a deep longing for Something More, and those of you who fear you will never find it, and those of you who forgot how much you need it, and those who can barely imagine the possibility that there could be Something More calling out for you, from inside you, stretching across what seems like many miles, and trying to reach you with The Message, so that you are able to finally be free.

There is so much I want you to know, but can’t put into you with words, because these things are only known from within by personal experience, and only then will they mean so much to you that you will not be able to breathe without them; but if I could share them across the invisible web of divinity connecting us all, I would want you to know that you are worthy now of love and belonging. There it is, a Truth that changes everything: “worthy now, not if….”

If only I could place that into your deepest being, so you could finally rest, and fall down, and give up your ceaseless striving, and drop all need to perform, and let go of hustling for what is already here for you. I would call down into the well of your grief and say, “Be comforted now.” I would climb the walls of your best defenses and shout just over the top, “Be who you really are.” I would swim across your widest river and tell you, “You have been beloved since your first breath.” I would hike across your vast wilderness and invite you to listen in the silence with me, until our souls become as one, and are quieted within us, and we both know the Center of Being firsthand.

If my words were not so powerless, I would tell you to finish reading your books, even your most cherished ones, for they can protect you from direct contact no longer, and I would help you give them away so that you feel stripped naked, like some Adam or Eve in the Garden, and I would pray your shame would dissolve so that you could feel the original enchantment of that divine-human union. I say, “Let knowledge end, so direct contact can begin, right now.”

Isn’t it time for that old, nagging sense of aloneness to fall away, and be replaced by the joyful dance of communing with us, your kin, your spiritual family, your contemplative friends? Isn’t it time for us all to settle into the inner stillness where we are finally Home, even those who thought you were strangers? Do you know there is a community waiting for you, whose hearts are as your heart, who are close as breath.

Close your eyes now, and feel our nearness, and join us in the circle dance of the beloveds. Come down into the inner country where we can join the throng, the millions, the many who have walked here before us and the many who are coming Home now. Come home, come home, you who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly, we are all calling: come Home.

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She Rides Horses…

Self-compassion groups

as her newest form of meditation. She told me the story just last week. She was realizing that nothing gives her more of a sense of mindful awareness and oneness than being on the back of her favorite horse and running free. She spoke of how she centered herself emotionally and aligned herself physically with the movements of her horse. She said a ride is always very uncomfortable when you are resisting the horses’ stride, or tightening your own muscles. So the intention is about getting into a “flow.”

Sounds like meditation to me: centering, surrendering, aligning, getting into the flow.

She was delighted to realize this active form of mindfulness is her way, and that it is okay to meditate in a form different than sitting still. Sure she might learn a hundred different ways. But for now it is important that she is finding her own best way.

He described fishing as an excellent form of meditation for him. Whereas the usual mind loves to jump around in a million directions, he is noticing that his mind can learn to focus attention into one place through fishing. He watches the bobber for the slightest movements at the water’s surface, as a sign that a fish is nibbling on his worm. Or he uses an acute sense of feel with a rod in his hands, as he trolls the lure through the invisible dimension below the river’s surface. The sensitivity of his hands in feeling that fishing line running through his fingers is a very specific form of mindfulness. His senses are alive, his attention is focused, and his awareness is trained on the one thing.

Fishing is a long way from horse-riding, but both are excellent ways of being mindful.

That’s the thing about learning mindfulness. Everyone has to find their own best ways to practice. And no one’s way is wrong if it works for them. So when you see the photo above of some of our contemplatives sitting in silence, do not presume everyone has to become comfortable with that way. Silent sitting is a good way, and it is only a way. Fishing and riding are great ways too.

The challenge is setting our intention and actually experimenting with many ways to find our own ways. I happen to be lucky in that I experience both mindfulness and heartfulness in a wide variety of ways. And it isn’t wrong if horseback riding is not one of them, (I never learned to relax with the horse enough to keep from busting myself in the saddle over and over).

Mindfulness is present moment awareness. And we can use most anything to cultivate that awareness. Heartfulness is what I am also seeking in all of these practices. Heartfulness to me means experiencing a full heart, a leb shalem or whole heart, a heart where love can dwell, which means where G-d can dwell. These are my intentions for the day: to be mindful and heartful. In that Sourcing I have a chance of radiating compassion as the highest ideal of my life.

So this morning I needed an hour of practicing visio divina (sacred seeing) and audio divina (sacred listening). I was seeking to be mindful and heartful in the cypress swamp that is our backyard. I was seeing this.

Ecoutez! photo

I was surrounded by nothing but the sounds of the yellow warbler, the crickets and locusts, the bull frog, the green heron’s call as he flew through the trees, the blue heron’s flapping wings as she took off when I got too close, and the high-pitched whistles as the brown whistling ducks came in for a landing. All of their sounds helped me focus my attention on the present moment, and open my heart to experience the oneness of all sentient beings. That was my form of audio divina this morning.

The thin green fronds of the cypress trees, the deep blue sky, the rugged texture of the cypress bark, the myriad plants and flowers growing on the water’s surface, and the image of the various birds sweeping through the trees were all part of my visio divina.

Listening and seeing, such simple ways to practice mindfulness and heartfulness. Both have sourced my intention to radiate lovingkindness as I head out into the world today. What will be your ways today? How will you focus your awareness and open your heart? Take the challenge, accept the adventure, and find your path today. It is not too late!

Next week I will launch a Men’s Meditation Challenge with 8 practices in 8 weeks. Each week we will commit to the daily practice of one way. If you are in the New Orleans area, contact me and let’s take the challenge together.

 

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