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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Needing Daily Practice and Purpose

CCT in meditation 3

There has been a need for daily contemplative practice in me for decades. Daily. Not periodic, occasional, or when I feel like it practice. I realized it again this morning. And I struggled for a long time to commit to actual daily practice.

I say need on purpose. This is not some duty, or wish to help myself be a better person, or desire to look good and spiritual to others. I need to practice the presence of God daily, in fact several times a day. And when the day is blessed, there are even moments of practicing the presence while serving.

Something in me needs to drop beneath thoughts, imaginations, memories, projections of my future, and feelings about all of that. Something in me needs inner stillness in the ground of my being. I think Jesus meant this place when he said, “The kingdom of heaven is within,” and “When you pray, go to your inner room.” I believe my spirit is at one with Spirit there. And there is more.

When I stay in that place of oneness, beneath thoughts and feelings, my purpose in being here becomes more clear. I intentionally asked myself again this morning, “Why am I here?” I did not try to come up with an answer. I did not rush the process. I just asked, and waited, and listened within.

In time there was a sense of clarity, a phrase that formed and took shape, a speaking Voice if you will. What came was, “I am here to gather people to practice the presence of God.”

In the spring of 1992 the message shaped itself in another phrase: “I am called to a life of prayer, for the world.” That is still as true as ever. Now I know this life of contemplative prayer is done for the whole world, for all beings, and for their sake. This is not praying for all beings like trying to get God to do something for them. This is uniting in oneness with the Source of All Compassion who already cares for all beings, more than I can even imagine. So the “life of prayer” is really joining God in the center of being to be one with the One who holds all beings in Her/His heart.

Now my purpose has gained clarity: it includes gathering others to drop down into that inner sanctuary together.

I wonder how it is going in your own journey toward finding your reason for being here? I wonder if you have also learned the importance of settling into the center of being to hear that speaking Voice guide you into your own clarity of purpose? If you have, thanks be to God. If you have not been there lately, perhaps you are like me and you need to come Home to the kingdom of God within each day. Perhaps you too need a period of inner listening. Maybe you want to drop everything and engage your daily practice of God’s presence right now.

*Some resources to support your inner journey include Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating, The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault, Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture by William Thiele, “A Contemplative Path” podcast by William Thiele, free on iTunes or SoundCloud. You could also contact Contemplative Outreach, the Center for Action and Contemplation, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Gravity, and our School for Contemplative Living.

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When I need calm…

self-reflection+moodboard

I turn within, slowly settling down into the center of Being, to be with the Source of all compassion, wisdom, and hope. So that is how I start my morning. Then I head back out to serve the world. Sourcing and serving always go together, at least to me.

Spoiler alert: If you are looking for escape from the stressful and chaotic world, do not look to practices like centering prayer, all forms of meditation, or any other spiritual practice. Because finding respite in the Inner Sanctuary is always brief, and then we are back at it. Warriors of Compassion go within-then-without, hoping to bring what we find on the inside to those with whom we serve around us.

Example: This morning I was leading a brief guided meditation at Project Lazarus in which we shared examples of people and places that need our compassion. The needs shared were diverse and unique, local and distant, practical and real. Then we closed our eyes and practiced envisioning ourselves lifting the blanket of difficulty off of the ones we care for as we breathed in, and sending them compassion, healing, and Light as we breathed out. We became Warriors of Compassion as a community in that moment.

This was extra meaningful and beautiful to me because the residents at Project Lazarus are experiencing HIV/AIDS, homelessness before they arrived, and often addictions. All races are there. The staff and residents share the morning meeting as one community, trying to find wise ways to create healthy relationships. It is often messy. People get angry at times, voice complaints at each other and staff members, and are not always receptive to the rules of the place.

Given where the residents came from, the ugly streets of New Orleans, it is a total miracle to see the staff respond with grace, openness, and willingness to hear all voices. Residents are not treated like “second-class citizens.” They are genuinely listened to and valued.

The other miracle is to see the residents’ willingness to focus on other’s needs for compassion. They have every reason to stay lost in their own survival and safety needs, and could easily block out the needs of anyone but themselves. And yet, they proved once again this morning, as they do every week, that they are also willing to share a few moments of compassion cultivation and to try meditation moments as a community. They might be weary, irritable, distrustful of strangers, sick, and yet, the residents seem willing to try a little meditative love to start their day together.

They too can walk the path of Sourcing, then serving, as they share their concerns for others and then willingly send out compassion. They need the calm of slowly breathing in and out just like I do.

I hope to share this practice with some other street friends tomorrow as we gather at The Open Table for a moment of prayer, then passing out Salvation Army vouchers, a hot meal, toiletries, clothes, and friendship. I also hope to share the Sourcing and serving at the Angola State Prison Thursday.

So I say again, when I need calm I turn within, slowly settling down into the center of Being, to be with the Source of all compassion, wisdom, and hope. Then I head back out to serve the world. Sourcing and serving always go together, at least to me. And you already know our world could sure use some contemplative service right about now.

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Brothers: One Buddhist Monk, One Christian faux monk.

Zen teacher Thich Thien Tri

William 2

Today I was blessed to sit in meditation with my new friend and brother, Thich Thien Tri, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who leads the Zen and Mind Family and teaches in New Orleans East and at local universities. First we visited about our common experiences of valuing the gifts of mindfulness through years of practice. He taught me some from his tradition. He asked me to share some from my own.

He served me tea, and offered his jacket since his office was cold. Then he brought in a space heater. He was dedicating himself to my comfort in every way possible. I shared how much I am filled by practicing oneness with other people and then inviting them to share whatever arises from within. I told him I do more gathering for practice than teaching. He commented that people do need teaching of basic mindfulness skills in a culture that promotes much division. I agreed.

As we spoke, I became filled with brotherly love. Our hearts were wide open to each other. I told him I could sense the loving-kindness flowing between us, and what a gift it is to experience that as a force beyond traditions. Truly, our coming together as brothers was in no way limited by our differences of background or religious tradition.

He agreed to lead us in a period of mindfulness meditation in the meditation hall. We sat on raised pillows: I in the half-lotus position and he in the full lotus position. He brought a blanket for warmth and a roll of towel to support my raised knee. He non-self-consciously led us into meditation, with a few phrases, a gong sound, and an extended period of silence. Then he chanted the phrase “Gate’, Gate’ Para Gate’.” (One translation is “gone, gone, completely gone.”) Then he finished with a few more gong sounds and stretching our bodies after the period of sitting.

I walked away by offering a hug, we bowed, and I was off to a centering prayer group with friends in the School for Contemplative Living.

In heaven, perhaps we will take turns leading each other as brothers and sisters from all the traditions. And we will laugh at the oddity of the time on earth when we all thought there was only one way to oneness, our own.

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How Advent Actually Happens in Cold, Dark, Desperate Places: Compassion Cultivation at Angola

Angola entrance photo

“Desperate” is defined as “involving a hopeless sense that a situation is so bad as to be impossible to deal with.”

Synonyms for “Advent” include “arrival, appearance, emergence, materialization, occurrence, dawn, birth, rise, development.”

Compassion warriors show up in desperate places, places where there is immense need for compassion, and there they seek Advent: the arrival, appearance, emergence, materialization, occurrence, dawn, birth, rise, development that can mend the torn fabric of the world.

100 compassion warriors gathered on a cold, rainy, windy day yesterday at our Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary for “A Day of Compassion.” Some of them were from the outside. Some of them were from the inside. All of them were seeking Advent in a desperate place, and it had nothing to do with free people stringing tinsel and being glee.

Here are a few of the compassion warriors seeking Advent in a desperate place who I encountered yesterday.

Rev. Michaela O’Conner Bono is a Zen Buddhist Priest, a young white adult whose hair is shaved on one side. She demonstrated a fierce stance as a warrior of compassion. She came from the outside, where she leads Mid City Zen in New Orleans. She seeks Advent.

Rev. A. is an African-American minister of Islam, who is from the inside, serving as a mentor, and hospice worker, as well as a religious leader of a Muslim congregation. His demeanor was joyful. He glowed from the inside. How is that possible when living in a desperate place like Angola? Advent must be finding him, birthing in him.

Ariel Jeanjacques is a program coordinator for Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice in New Orleans. She is from the outside, an African-American young adult who has learned that victims, families, and perpetrators of violence are all suffering human beings. She seeks Advent with all of them.

Mr. S. is a giant of a man who lives on the inside. He is a mentor, and speaks with at-risk youth and a wide variety of groups who tour Angola. He spoke of the pain of meeting a group from Germany who said the maximum sentence for crimes there is ten years, because in their criminal justice system there can be reconciliation and healing in justice, not just permanent punishment without hope of parole. I spent much of the day with him, feeling immense sadness and the constant struggle with hopelessness which keeps him hovering near the desperate place. He really needs and wants Advent.

Lara Naughton lives on the outside but serves on the inside. She has created a Compassion Cultivation Training program (CCT) inside Angola, completing two eight-week trainings with inmates before birthing “A Day of Compassion.” She is a survivor of violent crime who used a fierce compassion for the desperation in her attacker to survive. The inmates know that, and respect her immensely. Lara told the story in her book, The Jaguar Man. She believes the survivor has the right to seek the healing of both victim and perpetrator, and is dedicating her energy to doing just that on the inside of Angola. Lara is helping to birth Advent in a desperate place.

Mr. D. has lived on the inside for decades, continually paying for a crime from his youth. He serves as a mentor for new inmates, and is now a teaching assistant in the CCT program. He speaks with a sense of power and truth. He is “woke” to the daily effects of racism at every level of American society, including our choice to stay blind to the way poverty, poor education, low wages, and hopelessness produce inner city crime from generation to generation. He spoke openly of the unending hurdles to birthing compassion in the criminal justice system. And yet, there he was, working each day to do his part to help birth Advent in a desperate place.

John Burkhart is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a field director in the area of criminal justice reform. He lives on the outside, but works with those on the inside. He is a white male who is not willing to stand for the myths of white supremacy or black/immigrant inferiority which pervades the culture. He, too, is part of birthing Advent in a desperate world.

Mr. K. lives and serves on the inside. He authored a program for father’s in prison which is now used in hundreds of prisons across the country. At our last visit I agreed to send him a copy of my book, Monks in the World. When I saw him I felt bad for not taking that simple step for a month now. I reminded him I owe him a book. He simply said, “I know.” Despite how white people make promises we fail to keep with black people all the time, he still works toward Advent in a place that is the definition of desperate.

Margaret Cullen is one of the architects and core faculty of the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program created through Stanford University. She teaches CCT to physicians, nurses, HIV positive men, cancer patients, military spouses and now, even though she is from the outside, on the inside of a prison. She taught: “In compassion the ‘separation’ between us is gone.” She also shared some of the research showing the neuroplasticity of the brain, (meaning the brain can change), and how “compassion and altruism are trainable skills.”

In her first study right there at Angola this summer, the inmates who participated in the first CCT with Lara showed more than a 100% increase in their awareness of our common humanity. This awareness is foundational to growing in compassion for others’ suffering. Do you imagine Margaret is helping to birth Advent?

Another Mr. S. lives on the inside. He is a pastor and teaching assistant to Lara. In an increasingly soft voice, he led us through a compassion meditation. He called us down into the center of being where the heart guides our decisions and actions. There he invited us to direct compassion toward ourselves, “May I be happy, know peace, and find healing.” Then he led us to focus the compassion toward a person we care about, “May you be happy….” Then he led us to send the compassion toward everyone in the room. Those from the outside and those on the inside became one. Isn’t that Advent?

Sister Alison McCrary, SFCC, is a social justice attorney who has been leaving her home on the outside to visit death row inmates on the inside for twelve years. Despite the depressive atmosphere that pervades the places where she serves, Alison somehow stays near the Source of joy, and radiates that to all who meet her. She too is a young adult who serves from a heart of compassion, who seeks to be Advent in a desperate corner of the globe.

That is the thing really. Advent can be such a happy little moment for comfortable people like me to put evergreens and red bows around churches, to sing happy little songs about that sweet little baby Jesus coming to earth to save our eternal souls. But now I see how Advent actually happens in cold, dark, desperate places like Compassion Cultivation at Angola.

We from the outside, and our friends on the inside, closed “A Day of Compassion” by facing the camera which was filming the whole day, and directed the compassion to the 5678 incarcerated people, and the 1000+ staff members, who will all eventually see the video. We said to them all, “May you be happy, free of suffering, anger, and fear, and may you know peace and joy.” Perhaps others will soon see and know how Advent actually happens in cold, dark, desperate places like Compassion Cultivation at Angola.

*For more information about CCT, visit the website for The Compassion Institute or email the staff at info@compassioninstitute.com. For more information about the work of Lara Naughton, contact her at lara@laranaughton.com. To learn more about our School for Contemplative Living and our plans to incorporate CCT as part of our primary curriculum, contact William Thiele through http://www.thescl.net.

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