Living the mission: radiating compassion

William 2
Opportunities are abounding to share what I learned from the Compassion Institute’s teacher training program in the curriculum for Compassion Cultivation Training, (CCT), created at Stanford University by Thupten Jinpa, PhD, and the five wonderful women who serve as the founding faculty: Drs. Margaret Cullen, Monica Hansen, Kelly McGonigal, Erika Rosenberg, and Leah Weiss.
 
Here are some hints of the opportunities: Meeting this week with law school professors from the Tulane and Loyola law schools about teaching CCT for law students next semester; Sharing “Cultivating Self-Compassion” with staff at Ochsner Hospital for Spiritual Care Week, then with their Chaplain Residents next week; Planning details for a Spring “Compassion Now!” workshop and then a national conference with the Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
 
In the midst of living this mission, I also know there is danger in saying “yes” to so many opportunities that we end up talking of things we are not living.
 
From the earliest beginnings of the Quaker movement among Christians in the 1600s, the founder George Fox went around England challenging Anglican priests for being “nothing but a notionist, and not in possession of what [they] talked of.” For people of faith everywhere, including Quakers like me, there is a danger in becoming so busy in our doing that we end up only sharing “notions,” rather than practicing the Presence in direct experience first, from which we are then radiating compassion.
 
In contrast to becoming so busy we are empty within, and then speaking “notions” out of that emptiness, Fox called for another way of life where “…your growth in the Seed [Inner Teacher] is in the silence, where ye may find a feeding of the bread of life…and there is innocence and simplicity of heart and spirit is lived in and the life is fed on.”
 
May we each heed the call to live the life first, today, now, and only then speak what we experience. Or better yet, may we even radiate compassion without many words. May you and I so live.
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Returning Citizens are not like we thought.

Shadow Man photo

This week I learned that formerly incarcerated men who are participating in the reentry to society program are referred to as Returning Citizens. I really like that title. It has dignity in it. It focuses on what is happening now, not before. It puts them in the same boat with the rest of us. The question for all of us is not just, “Who were you?” The greater truth/question is about “Who are you?” and “Who are you becoming?”*

This week the program manager was not there to lead the check-in group, so it was just me and fourteen Returning Citizens. Now I have to say that made me nervous. My fears were that the men might take advantage of her absence and act up a bit, decline to stay on topic, be disrespectful, ignore whatever I offered, or just walk out. Like most fears, they were all unreal.

The real insecurities were within me. What do I have to offer them? Can I relate to them, since our life circumstances have been so different? Can I handle the group, (asking this reeks of wanting control)? Can I lead them to something meaningful that doesn’t waste their time?

Then there was the practical reality that I had already learned not to try to lead some pre-designed exercise. And in my last group a deepening question had proven meaningful. So what question might take them into the journey of self-exploration and personal growth?

I spent the afternoon practicing a Quaker way of opening ourselves to what we call “vocal ministry” in a meeting for worship. In worship, which is silent meditation, we listen to the Inner Teacher for guidance in our personal lives. And sometimes there is this nudge that says whatever is being spoken within us might be of help to the larger community. If clarity arises about that, we might briefly speak a few phrases of vocal ministry out loud for the good of the group, and then we fall back into silence.

During the afternoon, I was asking for such guidance from the Inner Teacher about a question to ask: something simple and heartfelt that could bring us toward wisdom for living. Finally, I remembered how Lara Naughton once asked the men inside Angola to pair up and respond to the following question: “How is your heart today?” I had been surprised by how sincerely the men had been able to speak from the heart in vulnerable ways.

But the question rotated in my mind and turned into this: “Who is in your heart?”

That evening the guys filed into the group room, mostly on time, and began re-connecting after a week away from each other. There was a lot of joking around, catching up, telling stories, etc. They obviously enjoy being with each other.

When the time came for me to call the group to order, we started with my meeting the newest member of the group who had just become a Returning Citizen. I asked the men to start off by telling me something about him. Several told funny stories about him from the days on the inside.

Then I told them the program manager wasn’t in town, that it would just be me with them for the evening, and I shared a brief introduction to the subject for the group: “Most people in society might think guys who have been to prison don’t care about anyone but themselves. They might presume you are heartless. So here’s what I want to know tonight: ‘Who is in your heart?'”

The guys didn’t have to think long before __________ spoke up, “These guys right here are in my heart,” and he laughed, then directed the response to them, “You guys are all in my heart.” I said, “That’s amazing. Tell me about that.” He said, “We all shared a lot through the years inside,” and he gave an example of a funny thing that had happened with one of the guys, (which I won’t share to protect their confidence).

Another man spoke up: “Yeah, I have a few of these guys in my heart too.” So I asked, “Who else is in your heart?” He answered, “My family.” I asked who his family was. He named his mom, sisters, an uncle, and some cousins. I thanked him for sharing that.

As though things were getting a little too sincere for him, one of the guys who hasn’t been outside for long turned things upside down: “I’ll tell you who isn’t in my heart.” Then he launched into a story about a prison guard who he still hated for being so mean on the inside, and another incarcerated man who was always playing practical jokes to get him in trouble. Then the man who had just come to us from inside jumped into a story about the same guy being violent toward a prison guard.

I had already let things go too far and had to speak up: “How did we go so far off track that now we are sharing who isn’t inside our hearts?” They laughed. “Can we get back to who is in your heart?”

Several men tried to speak at once, so I had to pick one to share and asked the other guys to hold it. ____________ said he was letting some kids from the neighborhood into his heart. “There was a time when they all saw me for what I was, a drug dealer. They knew what I was about. So I want them to see me for who I am now. I was leading them the wrong way. I am changing that by volunteering to help with the soccer team. I don’t know ____ about soccer, but I can be there for them, buy everyone a drink after practice, and try to lead them toward the right path.”

I said, “That’s pretty cool that you would pick the very kids you were hurting in your old life to help now.”

Then it was like popcorn. One man after another gave examples of who is in their heart. When the hour was nearly over, I had to ask a few of the men who had not spoken to check in if they wanted to.

One guy who always seems reluctant to speak took the challenge: “I became a Christian on the inside.” (He seemed a bit sheepish to say that out loud, so I admired his courage). “I learned I had to let God into my heart. And now I’m trying to let others in too. I ain’t sayin’ it’s easy. And I don’t let everyone in. It’s still not easy with my mom. But I am tryin’. I affirmed him for that.

I asked them all, “Can I tell you one quick example of who is in my heart?” They agreed, as long as I made it quick. I told them about one of my favorite moments when my grandson had awakened me about six a.m. with a little kiss on the cheek saying, “Let’s play Papa.” I simply told them, “My grandson Sam is in my heart.”

Then we closed. I breathed a sigh of relief that things had gone pretty well with their sharing. I think it was meaningful. And as they left the group room I realized that what I secretly wanted was for them to accept me. My real relief was that the guys seemed to be letting me into their circle, (which I am realizing is a kind of wisdom circle), even if I wasn’t on the inside of Angola with them.

There it is. I need acceptance and belonging as much as they do. And even if the reentry group isn’t about me, I still want to be accepted into the circle. Maybe that is one of our most human traits. We want to know we are worthy of love and belonging, even if we are in unusual places like a group for Returning Citizens.

 

*(I learned this sequence of questions from Lara Naughton as she asked men inside Angola State Penitentiary).

 

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A lawyer in compassion class sniffed enlightenment

He said he had just had a “weird, crazy” vision. But it wasn’t weird or crazy. He had just sniffed enlightenment. And even though the class was ending, he really needed to share his vision. It was like the reality and power of his discovery would disappear if he didn’t tell it right then.

We spent the evening covering the theme of our shared common humanity during week five of the Compassion Cultivation Training program, (originally created by Dr. Thupten Jinpa in the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University). Our class was delving into a subterranean adventure, looking for the inner layer of our existence where we are interconnected with all humans, speaking out the many ways others are “just like me,” and sharing examples of how our lives depend completely on millions of others.

The class members had taken turns sharing deeply and playfully that evening in a kind of fill-in-the-blank game of how “Just like me, other people are…addicted to negative news on their cell phones, yet wanting to be free of suffering…meditating for inner peace, and yet resisting taking the time to meditate…playing guitar and other instruments to experience beauty…making art…seeking purpose in life…wanting to be happy.” Once we had begun to share, the examples of ways we are just like each other flowed freely.

Then we practiced connecting with each other in pairs through an exercise of bringing deep presence to hearing each other’s stories. We all closed our eyes, practiced breathing to center ourselves in the moment, opened our eyes to really take in our partner, and then one person shared a time of difficulty or suffering while the other listened intently without speaking. After a time of speaking/listening, we paused, closed our eyes, centered ourselves again, felt what we had just experienced, and switched so the other partner could share/listen. They could substitute sharing a response to the question, “How is your heart today?” They could also fill in the blank to the questions of, “Who was I? Who am I? Who am I becoming?”*

Class members described their experiences as “touching, beautiful, difficult to listen without speaking, connecting, creating a sense of immediate friendship,” and more.

Then we spoke our examples of ways our lives completely depend on others, like: “I depend on the garbage men who take away all the trash that would make my whole house and life a mess without them, so sometimes I run out to them with a bottle of water to say, ‘thank you;’ I was with a family member for dinner who prayed for the farmer who grew our vegetables, the truckers who drove the food to the store, the stockers who put it on the shelves, the cashiers who checked me out, the people who created the gas for my car to drive the vegetables home, the people who assembled the car itself, the people who made the pots I cooked in, and the family gathered to enjoy the meal; I went to meet the local woman farmer who grew the vegetables I cook in my restaurant; I depend on others to drive me in the city because the crazy drivers scare me too much; I depend on my husband to love me no matter what; I depend on our weekly guided meditations to help me cultivate compassion.”

Their examples were highly personal, detailed according to their own circumstances, and yet they spoke things which we could all relate to. It was obvious we could have gone on all night and barely scratched the surface of the ways our lives completely depend on others.

We moved into a guided meditation to cultivate the embracing of our common humanity. It included cultivating a Compassionate Image which could help us broaden our compassion, sending compassion to a loved one, opening our hearts to ourselves from a time we had suffered, and then moving to the challenge for the night. Participants were invited to remember a stranger they had encountered, to see their face, to wonder what their life was like, to picture them being loved, to imagine their difficulties, and to send them a blessing.

Then they were challenged to picture a difficult person, without getting lost in the story of what made them difficult, and to wonder about the life behind that face. They were asked to picture them as a child, someone who had been loved by others, and someone who had suffered. They were asked to see them “with the eyes of the heart,” to wish them well and to say, “May you be free of suffering. May you know peace and joy.”

Finally, they were asked to see all three people in front of them: loved one, stranger, and difficult person. They were asked to use their eye of the heart to see them and wish them freedom from suffering. They were reminded that “Just like me,” they all want happiness and freedom from suffering, even if they all seek those things in very different ways. And they were invited to let themselves abide in the awareness of how interconnected we are with all beings everywhere.

The evening was drawing to a close as I reviewed suggestions for homework during the week to come. Our time was up. But that’s when the lawyer spoke up. He asked if he could please keep us a minute longer so he could share his “weird, crazy” vision. We said, “Sure.”

His vision was not weird or crazy. His vision was a sniff of enlightenment.

He said during the guided meditation he imagined the car he had driven in to our class. He saw how the tires were made by someone, the car parts assembled by others, the car trucked to the dealer by someone else, the car sold by someone, and then he saw the people who worked on street repair. Then he imagined those who built the sidewalk up to the house where we were meeting, and the housebuilders a hundred years ago, and the painters, and the furniture makers for the chairs we were sitting in.

He said, “It’s like I am seeing every single detail of this life as interconnected, interwoven, and all the people everywhere as part of the whole thing. It’s mind-blowing to see layers upon layers of people over time, for thousands of years now, all being part of each other.” Then he paused, “Weird huh?”

I responded, “I challenge you to drop the negative judgments of your vision like calling that ‘weird’ or ‘crazy.’ I think you just started seeing the real layer of life, beneath the surface. You know the Dalai Lama was once asked if he had experienced enlightenment. He immediately protested, ‘Oh no. But I think I sniffed it once,’ then His Holiness laughed his deep belly laugh. __________, I think you just sniffed enlightenment. May we all be so blessed.”

 

Amy and Lenda Faye*Those alternative questions were created by Lara Naughton, creator of the Compassion Program at Angola Prison, a certified CCT teacher, an author, and a writing instructor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

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Just out of prison, these men taught me,

with unexpected depth and clarity, about hard-won faith.

I was invited to offer a first baby-step of mindfulness training with a group of formerly incarcerated men from the Louisiana State Prison at Angola. I was a little nervous that they would not relate. So I briefly explained that guys like them who face the stress of daily life back on the streets, and who don’t want to become reactive or relapse with addictions under the pressure, might need some practices to help them cope with stress. They were invited to tell me straight up whether it was helpful or not, after we finished. Then I launched into what I thought would be about fifteen minutes of a mindfulness meditation exercise involving silent meditation and relaxation.

First came my usual instruction to sit up with dignity, head high on the neck and shoulders relaxed, eyes closed or eyes open with the gaze dropped to the floor. They were challenged to not look around to see how their neighbor was reacting, but to turn their attention within. About ninety seconds into the introduction one of the guys stopped us abruptly.

“This sitting in silence isn’t doing anything for me,” he said.

My emotions popped. Feelings of embarrassment, shame, and disappointment began to rise immediately. But words flowed out of my mouth, “Okay, tell me about that.” And he explained that just sitting there was not what he needed to keep him from going back to prison. Still feeling upset with a sense of failure, I asked him, “So what does help you?”

He looked me in the eyes across the silent group room and said, “Every morning when I wake up I don’t want to get out of bed to go to work. But then I think of Angola prison, and that’s all the motivation I need. I am NOT going back there. So I get my butt out of bed and go to work.”

Another guy sitting closer to me jumped into the conversation saying, “Yeah, when I am stressed I can’t just sit there. I have to get up and go take a walk, or go see my women.” (He said that toward the other guys with a smirk that communicated. “No brag, just fact.”)

I decided to skip over the brag and said, “So I call that walking meditation. That’s a great way to relieve stress when sitting still doesn’t work.” I was still emotionally flustered and feeling like my exercise had failed, but my mouth kept moving.

This was live. And they were “keeping it real.” There was no time to sit back and ponder how to respond. It felt like I was tripping through the spontaneous conversation, trying to get a grip on what was happening, with my emotions going one way while the gist of what was actually happening was going another.

Then a third guy spoke up. His personality is usually jovial and playful, but he had something very serious he clearly needed to share. He said, “Here’s what happened to me this week. I was at my apartment, minding my own business, when the cops showed up saying someone had reported me for stealing cases of alcohol, a riding lawn mower, and some other [stuff]. They rifled through the place and of course found nothing, while I texted my PO (Probation Officer) to let him know what was happening. But they took me to jail anyway. First they interrogated me, trying to pressure me to admit I had stolen that stuff, even though it was obviously not there.

I told them, ‘Do you think I am crazy. I don’t even drink alcohol. I am on probation. Do you think I would risk going back to prison just for that stupid stuff?’ Then they put me in Central Lock-up for three more hours until my PO finally showed up and got me released.” His face showed the anger of righteous indignation, and yet powerlessness to do anything about such injustice.

“I have no idea how I would’ve responded to that craziness. How in the world did you keep from cursing them or hitting them?” I asked.

He said, “There’s no way I am letting them have the satisfaction of sending me back to prison. I did my time.” I responded, “That’s amazing __________, when you had every reason to blow up at them, you didn’t become so reactive as to lose it and hurt yourself in the process. That’s exactly what mindfulness does. It helps us have our emotions without being controlled by them.”

Then Lenda Faye intervened with a deeply insightful question, which is one of her special gifts as the facilitator of the Reentry Program: “So are you in prison now, or are you free?” (Since they were all clearly outside of the physical prison now, it was clear she meant free or imprisoned at a deeper level).

A great discussion ensued, with most men saying they are free and explaining what that means to them. One guy admitted he still felt like he was in prison because of all the rules of society and the probation program he has to keep.

As I walked away from the group that evening and out onto the street, one of the guys pulled up in his truck and rolled down the window. “Don’t give up on the guys, they’ll come around,” he said, and drove off smiling. I told him, “Thanks,” and kept walking. My feelings were saying the experiment had failed, and I was wondering if I should give up on the whole idea of introducing mindfulness and then compassion training. But another voice in me knew better. It was sensing that what had unfolded was exactly what needed to happen, just vastly different from what I had imagined. His encouragement really helped.

After a week of trying to listen within to what was needed for my work with the guys, I returned to the group. When Lenda Faye asked me to take the lead, a new guy had just entered late. He had gone straight from prison into a drug rehab program and was just seeing his friends from the Reentry Program for the first time since his release. His arms had sleeves of tattoos that rode up onto his neck. He was still very muscular from his daily workouts in prison, and the guys commented on that. They were all clearly glad to see each other.

He turned to me and asked, “So you don’t look like the rest of us. What are you doing here?” They all laughed. I said, “I do belong here. __________ over there, (the guy who had first interrupted the silent meditation), asked me to come lead you all in thirty minutes of silent meditation.” They all laughed again.

Then I asked the question that had come to me for a next step: “Here’s what I want to know: What sustains you when you have lost everything?” The room went quiet.

____________ was sitting on my left, and he spoke first, immediately becoming my teacher, “God is what sustained me, straight up! I never was much of a pray-er before I went to prison. But when I got there I wasn’t sure I would walk out. I was scared. So I just started asking for help. That got me through those years and it’s what’s helping me now.”

All I could say was, “Wow.”

______________, the same guy who had boasted about his women before, said the same thing: “I know I might not act like it sometimes but I pray too.”

Much to my surprise, the tattooed guy to my right, who had questioned why I was there, quietly joined in. His demeanor softened a bit. His tone was less boastful: “I turned to the Lord too. What else could I do? Doing things my way hadn’t worked. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try praying. That’s keeping me going.”

Several other guys jumped in with stories of what had been sustaining them. That’s when things came together in my heart/mind and I realized these guys don’t need me to teach them new coping skills, at least not now. They already have some amazing skills for handling stress. They developed their skills in one of the worst places in the country and they found what worked for them: faith. Maybe they didn’t all land there. But they did find something within that sustained them when all else had fallen away.

So maybe I am there to learn from them, to ask questions, to see with them what is already in them. Just out of prison, these men taught me, with unexpected depth and clarity, about hard-won faith. So what sustains you when all else falls away?

May we all find such a Source of hidden power.

 

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Why does the global community make me so happy?

My Buddhist monk friend, Minh C. Nguyen, and his monk and nun friends dropped by Saturday morning. Welcoming them into our home, smiling into each other’s hearts, and walking the pier together through our cypress swamp retreat brought me great happiness. Later, I wondered why. My curiosity arose and continued through the weekend. What is it about connecting with people from all across the globe that makes my heart happy?

This morning I was responding with joy as I saw a Facebook notice from Ida Hertz that my two friends in Denmark, she and Lone, were part of the spread of our Compassion Cultivation Training there, along with Thupten Jinpa, Leah Weiss, Margaret Cullen, and others in Europe. How is it that something happening across the globe can bring full-hearted happiness into the swampy, sultry, hot and humid region we call ‘Nawlins?

Then I see the photo of us 2017-2018 graduates of the teacher-training program from the Compassion Institute. I remember the faces of my new friends from every continent. I can still see us all gathered in a large room in Los Altos, California, meditating, experiencing that oneness which seems to flow from settling into the Center of Being together, and then it hits me: “Wait a minute. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the act of meditating with others opens the heart to each other, makes way for us to experience our innate connection across the invisible web of divinity. Maybe meditating together cracks the door of imagined separation enough to let loving-kindness and happiness flow through.”

Then I wondered further: “Could it be that even meditating by myself somehow opens the same door? I spend a little time each morning with the guided meditations to cultivate compassion. I settle into the inner stillness of centering prayer. No one else is around. Could even that welcome the global community into my heart and widen the happiness door a little more? Is that how they draw near in my heart, even when they are not close?”

Then more curiosity followed: “Why does connecting with new people from everywhere, strangers if you will, trigger heartfulness in me? I know this has nothing to do with me. It is something much bigger than me. Seeing strangers seems to trigger fear, resentment, and even hatred in so many people these days. It’s like an epidemic. Why are some of us drawn to connection while others are moving away from it as fast as possible?”

Answers do not come easily when people are complex. And we humans are about as complex as it gets. But here is what I think might be happening. I think contemplative practices widen the heart. I think they cause us to welcome the stranger. I think they lead us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” And I think we are made for this.

Contemplative practice to me means practicing the presence of Great Love, or God, or whatever term we use for this Something-Bigger-Than-Me. If this Presence is love, then it follows that practicing love, or opening to love, leads to a direct experience of greater love. If the heart is made for this widening, this “love of neighbor as ourselves,” then each opportunity for the heart to widen/open to a new person would make the heart happy. If this is true, it would explain both halves of the current global situation.

People who are not engaging in regular contemplative practices, i.e. practicing oneness with love, are experiencing a closing of the heart. That makes the heart unhappy. And the longer people go without experiencing oneness with love, the more unhappy their hearts. Could this explain the angry faces, the shouting, the belittling of others, and the rampant attempts to throw out and throw away anyone who doesn’t look the same as us? Could a very unhappy heart lead men to hurt women, and children, instead of cherishing them? Could that be how anyone can hurt anyone else?

People who are engaging in regular contemplative practices are experiencing an opening of the heart. That makes their hearts happy. And the more they are practicing, the more happiness they are experiencing in their hearts. Could this explain why some people are taking radical steps to welcome their neighbors: marching in support of women/immigrants/LGBTQ communities/people of color, passing out water at bus stations, opening their homes, adopting children, working for victim rights, visiting prisoners, etc.?

I mean come on people, you gotta know that there is an incredible amount of good being done out there. Compassion is flowing globally, even if it rarely shows up on the evening news. This should make us all wonder: “What is the difference between the haters and the lovers?”

Since I am really smart, naturally I think I am right. (You know how that feels don’t you!) And maybe I could be making this whole issue too simplistic. But I think I might be onto something about how practicing the presence of Love makes the heart happy, and vice versa. And I am not the first to have this “Aha!” (It turns out that a few other people who are less famous than me, like Jewish authors of scripture, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and even Oprah, have seemed to agree).

Here is my challenge to all of us across this spinning blue/green globe: Let’s engage some contemplative practices each day for the month of October and see if we change a little, see if our hearts become happier as we find it amazingly easier to welcome ALL our neighbors into our hearts. Practicing the Presence of the Great Love each day can’t hurt. And who knows, it might help. Go ahead. Give it a shot. And see if a happy heart follows. Start today.

 

[In case you are free to be inspired on Saturday, October 20, you might like to come to New Orleans to  hear Anne Lamott, best-selling author, share from her new book: Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. She includes some notes on the benefits of dropping hatred and cultivating love for self and others. Signed copies of the new book come with a ticket. You can get tickets through the website for our School for Contemplative Living: http://www.thescl.net].

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Heaven Now!

CCT Jinpa leading meditation

My contemplative friends know a way to visit heaven now.

You could say we are impatient. We are not interested in waiting for heaven by and by. We do not care to imagine a world of staying in hell here until we can finally die to be in a heaven elsewhere. We want to live in the kingdom of heaven here and now. And this is only possible by finding that kingdom within.

The photo pictures Dr. Rosenberg, Dr. Weiss, Dr. Jinpa, and Dr. Cullen, four of the founding faculty for the Compassion Institute’s Compassion Cultivation Training course, practicing one of the guided compassion meditations during our teacher training program. If you look at their faces you can easily see how stress is falling away and inner peace is rising, a sense of separateness is disappearing and a sense of our oneness is happening. The Source of inner peace decided to create humans with this amazing gift of accessing that kingdom of heaven within. This means you too can know heaven now!

The American poet Emily Dickinson said it like this:

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —

I just wear my Wings —

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —

I’m going, all along.

Sunday we finished our first Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT)* class offered through the School for Contemplative Living. We had a beautiful group of people sharing their wisdom and seeking to cultivate their compassion through guided meditations, readings, exercises for seeing and hearing each other, and group dialogue. People practiced at home during the weeks between classes as best they could, both in using the guided meditations and informally developing their compassion skills. Then they came to weekly class with honest stories of the ups and downs of how it was going.

Class members were Christians, Buddhists, AA members with a Higher Power, and perhaps people of no traditional faith at all. It was a truly interfaith gathering. Class members were from many professions including medicine, law, psychotherapy, theology, accounting, human resources, education, and pastoral ministry. They also ranged in age from thirty-somethings to seventy-somethings. So in many ways they were a great cross-section of American society.

Some of them might or might not have said they were “getting to Heaven…all along.” But I would say they were at least on the path, walking in the Way that can bring us to heaven now.

What is that Way?

In the School for Contemplative Living we believe we can practice the presence of God now, and so we do. But we do not claim to possess a secret formula for experiencing that presence. And we sure do not believe we can manipulate results to feel “perfect peace” in three easy steps. We follow the guidance of people like Thomas Merton, who wrote this in New Seeds of Contemplation: “The way to contemplation is an obscurity…there is nothing in it that can be grasped,” (p. 250). Our methods are ultra simple. As Merton challenges, “So keep still, and let [God] do some work.”

Like the people in the photo, we must learn to “keep still.” That is part of our Way. And yet, cultivating inner stillness can also be done in walking meditation, nature walking, labyrinth walking, yoga, and any form of moving meditation. It is really about inner stillness, and physical stillness is just one way to be on this Way.

“Letting God” do the work of transformation is another essential part of our contemplative Way. We do not focus on trying to change ourselves. We are more likely to surrender to God’s view of us as already made in God’s image. Our practices are to help us come to rest in the wholeness beneath all our brokenness. There we might glimpse a place where we are already one. So God’s work of transformation down in our depths is more like cleaning away the mud from the diamond beneath: bathing in the divine.

For followers of the Way of Christ, we would say “Christ in us is the hope of glory.” Tuning into the Christ within is so very different from trying hard to be good, moral people on our own. And that inner tuning rarely happens by accident as we spin out of control by living at 100 miles per hour. Slowing down the pace of our lives is another part of our Way. In that slowing, we hope to align ourselves with the wise guidance arising from that Christ within. We use reading, seeing, speaking, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting as sensual avenues to align with the One who is within and beyond our senses.

Contemplatives also use community gathering and personal solitude as equal ways to walk this Way. We cannot walk a contemplative path alone, for we will surely become lost sooner than later without support for this Way. And we cannot always be with others, for the noise and busyness of others will distract us from sometimes needing to be alone with the Alone. On this Way, we need community and solitude. Paradoxically, the contemplative communities of our School always practice being alone-together: we practice coming together to be alone with God.

Now let’s drop all these words about this contemplative Way, and return to our True Home within, the place where we can know Heaven Now!

*(If you are interested in learning more about CCT classes with the School, I am offering a free information session on Sunday, August 26, 1-3 pm, at Advent House, 1637 Seventh St. at Carondelet. If you are interested in registering, I will offer the 8-week courses on Wednesdays, 5:30-7:30 pm beginning 9/5/18 and on Sundays, 1-3 pm, beginning 9/9/18. RSVP: William.thiele56@gmail.com).

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“If I open my heart to you,”

said the flower to the bumblebee,

“will it hurt?

If I let you into the deepest part of me

even though you are a stranger,

and I treat you like a friend,

will you still leave me in the end?

And if I let myself love you,

really care about your life and well-being

in my heart of hearts,

and imagine a future together,

will all my hopes be dashed

as you flitter away,

riding some invisible summer breeze,

and leaving me alone again?

Is love always such a risk?”

“Always,” said the bumblebee.

“That is why it takes a fearless heart

to risk love.”

“Is it worth it?” asked the flower.

camelia-photo

The bumblebee waited

contemplating the question for the longest time,

until a tiny smile arose across her face.

“Always,” she answered.

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