Recently, my wife and I were discussing where to send our son to school, closer to where we live or closer to where he goes to pre-school now at my wife’s church. At some point the conversation shifted to a discussion of our son’s personality and social skills. When he’s in his comfort zone, he’s gregarious, outgoing, and sociable. At his Summer camp, though, out of his element, he’s more of a loner.
My wife reflected on her own experience in school. She remembered the in-crowd seemed to have some kind of bond or a secret language and it was hard to break in. Then it hit her, their parents all knew each other. These kids knew each other outside of school. The solution? I would have to step up and initiate social contacts to help smooth the path for our son when he started school. Not the most attractive of tasks. As a general rule, if I can avoid small talk, I will.
A few weeks ago, in a moment of honesty and self-awareness, a friend of mine confessed to feeling less excited than they expected about the recent spike in national dialogue about systemic injustice.
Even though this person both studied this problem deeply and worked as an activist for several years, they asked “what if I was passionate because I got something out of it? Years ago, I was one of the few white people I knew actively organizing against systemic racial injustice. Now it seems like common knowledge, less unique. Is that why I’m not as passionate now?”
A few weeks ago I found myself unable to perform my regular Centering Prayer practice for much of the week. My schedule was very unusual, including two sleep studies, one at a sleep lab, and several night’s sleep interrupted by my young son.
At the same time, I faced setbacks in several projects at work. And irregular circumstances required I stay at the ready for much of the week and skip my regular work out times. The fogginess from the lack of sleep only made matters worse. In the midst of this general slog, I received a co-worker sent me an antagonistic, disrespectful email.
On a recent trip for my day job, I headed to the main office for a week of meetings and strategy. It can sometimes be a bit of a culture shock to go from my predominantly left-leaning community into a right-leaning context.
In one conversation, a colleague became heated about current affairs and started spewing angrily about Obama and the Clintons and lunatic Sanders supporters and we needed someone strong like Trump to finally have the intestinal fortitude to do what needs to be done, and so on.
Coming from a daily context where almost the polar opposite can be heard in a coffee shop or in casual conversation drives home the deep divide in our civil discourse. And then the news this past week pours in with tragedies in Orlando and Leeds. And it strikes me all of this has something to do with contemplative practice.
So, what’s the connection? It can seem pretty far afield on the surface. If we have any context for the word contemplation at all, it might call to mind escapist monks chanting Psalms in a distant mountain monastery, hiding out from the world.
But let’s look a little more deeply.
After graduating High School overseas I was at a loss as to where to go next. I had family in the Pacific Northwest, a girlfriend in Australia, and friends scattered across the US and England. I decided to spend a year living with my brother near Seattle to take my time with the decision.
As a missionary kid from a humble family background attending a prestigious international school in Europe, I had enjoyed an illusory sense of social standing. Now the cold reality set in. We lived in a basement in a working class town and earned little at our jobs.
A year after becoming a father in a new house and taking on a new job, sleepless and overwhelmed, I was purely in survival mode. I had been struggling to maintain any sense of orientation or even coherent identity. The barista calling out my daily coffee order (as large as possible) seemed one of the few touchstones of identity in a newly jumbled existence.
Throughout adulthood, daily journaling and reflective reading had been a touchstone spiritual practice. That was gone for now. No time. Creative practices like writing and music had kept me centered. These were on hold. Travel or long phone chats with old friends? Gone. Spiritual or scriptural reading? Intermittent at best.
Sixteen years ago I took a world lit class taught by a professor who opened my eyes, not only to the relevance of myth and classical literature, but to contemplative spirituality as well.
Dr. Thorpe opened the class with a simple statement “We’re lost. We’re trying to get home. That’s the story at the heart of Western literature and it’s the story at the start of the spiritual journey.” With that framework in mind we read Homer, Dante, and Dostoevsky. We read the stories like maps of the soul’s journey home.
As a kid who had grown up overseas and suffered from reverse culture shock, it was like being handed a golden key. I might not have been home yet, but I had a way to get there. It felt like hope. (more…)
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle tells his story of awakening as follows. He struggled repeatedly with acute bouts of depression throughout his life. One night in particular he struggled with intensely suicidal thoughts. He kept repeating the phrase “I can’t live with myself anymore.”
Then he suddenly realized if there’s an “I” that cannot live with a “myself,” there must be two components of the self. He then wondered who this “I” and this “self I can’t live with” were. He soon felt himself drawn into some kind of vortex of intense energy, and heard the words “resist nothing” as if from inside him.
So, I messed up (if that’s the way to put it). I let my ego dynamics take over.
When I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball a few years ago, the rehab was cut short and I’ve been hesitant to put too much strain on it ever since. Last year I finally joined a gym and started getting into (some amount of) shape. It’s great to be around people first thing in the morning, catch up on podcasts or audiobooks, get a good stretch and hit the showers. After a few months I thought I’d give basketball a shot again.
I played a few times, overcame a few growing pains having not put certain muscle groups to the test for years, and met some good guys. It was fun.
Then one morning someone came to play I hadn’t met before, though I’d seen him play during my treadmill runs. He was combative, contentious, hogged the ball, complained on nearly every call, and after an accidental foul from me shouted I was a dirty such-and-such. I was mad, but kept it internal. People in that frame of mind turn the atmosphere toxic, and everyone was a little more on edge that day.
Though I stayed calm in the moment, my emotions caught up with me after the fact (which is my general pattern). For days, I recounted the situation in my mind, coming up with witty comebacks, challenges to this person’s manhood, putting him in his place, vowing internally not to play again if this toxic person was there. Body tense. Blood pressure elevated. Then I got even more aggravated. Not only had this person ruined my morning, but now my weekend as well.
After graduating High School in Germany, I moved to the Pacific Northwest to go to college.
The reverse culture shock was jarring at times. What would have been considered embarrassing social behavior back home suddenly seemed not only tolerated, but celebrated here. Young guys revving engines in muscle cars and massively oversized trucks was suddenly a normal aspect of male identity and expression.
Back home you were supposed to at least project humility and self-deprecation. Any attempt to stick out and act superior made you subject to open ridicule. To get approval, you had to cultivate a degree of well-rounded gentility.
Now suddenly everything seemed upside down.