“I feel like there’s a brick sitting on my heart.”
The speaker is a dedicated, creative woman who has been working as a church professional for many years. She is weary. The same good heart that drew her to a career supporting the life of the spirit makes her especially sensitive to the conflict and turmoil swirling around us all. Fatigue and discouragement are getting to her. She’s not alone.
Fraying At The Edges
Even veteran political and religious leaders express deep concern about the darkness of our days. Anger and discord seem to hang in the air like smoke from a wildfire. Mother Nature has apparently lost her mind as unprecedented storms, droughts and disasters lay waste to whole regions. The perennial tragedies of poverty, violence and war close in and multiply as our world grows ever smaller and more interconnected. The hectic pace of Western society and our own exaggerated expectations of the good life get in the way of our happiness.
At the same time our religious institutions - our traditional guardians of the spirit - are fraying and fading through a combination of scandal, polarization, secularization and simple boredom. The institutions we have depended on to provide a sense of stability and security are instead rocking the boat and messing with the steering.
We need swift, wise, and courageous action to address the crises around us, but it’s difficult to be skillful or brave when our spirits are flagging. Many of us are limping along, our hearts tattered, or we’ve protected ourselves by shutting down. Or perhaps we look up one day and realize we are somewhere we never intended or wanted to be. For our own sake, and the sake of those we care about, we need to find practical methods of keeping our hearts strong and our direction clear.
This is a blog (and someday a book) about tending to the heart
In so many areas of our lives we’ve become either trapped inside our heads or locked into a reflex emotional response to outside events. If we think about faith at all, we get sidetracked into theological debates, deluded into thinking we’ve got things covered if our particular Theory of Everything trumps our opponents’ pitiful Theory of Everything.
But life is about much more than theories. It’s about capacity, about spirit, about the way to be and behave in the world. Much of what’s most important we know through our hearts, not our heads. Our hearts are not pure emotion, but neither are they pure reason. A wise heart can grasp things intuitively when both reason and emotion come up short. We don’t decide whether or whom to marry solely by consulting an asset/liability list, nor do we decide whether to live an egotistical or a generous life based simply on spreadsheets. Intuition rightly trumps logic more often than we’d like to believe.
Our hearts not only guide us - they also give us the energy to live according to convictions. But many age-old daily rhythms that traditionally nourished our spirits have fallen away. We need to learn from some of the vanishing old ways and find other new methods of creating time and space to replenish our spirits.
Photo credit: Francesca Romana Correa, Flickr
Or as Albert Schweitzer put it when asked to name humanity's most pressing question, "Is the universe friendly?"
More and more people question whether anyone or anything is watching out for us on a cosmic level. The "new atheist" authors are convinced that any belief in God is sheer foolishness. The complexity of life and the overwhelming suffering in the world leave many of us beset by doubts. Yet doubt is a part of life. Many years ago I heard the rector of the St. Paul Seminary say, "Anyone who has never doubted is either a liar or a fool." While I know a few people who've been gifted with an unwavering faith, most of us wonder, especially when times are tough.
Often the debate rests on what appears to be a logical argument between science and religion. I would hold that science and religion ask different questions. Science can tell us that rainbows occur when light is refracted through water droplets, perceived by our eyes and processed by our brains. Science can't explain why 99% of the human race call rainbows beautiful, and why our first response to a rainbow is to catch our breath and stop in wonder - at the beauty, not the physics.
The God/science discussion is obviously way more complicated than that simple summary. My point here is that the scientific method has its limits. We make the biggest decisions of our lives - who and whether to marry, whether to live a generous or an exploitive life - on something other than logic and careful measurement. Our best life decisions don't ignore logic, but they are heavily influenced by intuition and the heart. So an intellectual debate about the existence of a Divine Being is only part of the search. Another path is the road toward encounter.
My husband told me this morning he saw what he thinks are fox tracks in the snow in our back yard. A debate about the existence of foxes and their usual habitat will not tell me whether he's right. The only way I can know for sure is to keep watch - quietly and patiently. If I don't see a fox, it doesn't mean there are no fox in our neighborhood. If I see a fox tonight, there is no guarantee I will observe a repeat tomorrow night. The fact that fox are unpredictable does not mean they don't exist. The fact that spiritual experiences are not as predictable as gravity does not mean they're not real.
My purpose is not to try to prove that God exists. I do want to suggest that by watching carefully, over a period of time, we may encounter something unexpected. I also suggest that, barring an outburst of grace, without a patient search we can't arrive at an answer.
We can argue the Sacred out of our world, or we can set up camp and watch for its presence. Spiritual practices up our chances of catching a glimpse of the fox in our woods. Some practices equip us to watch solo. Some offer us the benefit of other seekers' wisdom, experience and company. The percentage of people in the world who know how to track an actual wild animal has dropped dramatically over the last century. Linking up with skillful tracker can increase my chances of seeing an elusive fox.
Industrialization has taken a toll on our spiritual as well as our physical environment. We are short on space in our lives to notice God's action, and we've found some of our guides to be seriously flawed. Yet true guides are abundant, especially if we look back into our spiritual history. Saints and heroes like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Francis of Assisi, Desmond Tutu and Badshah Khan would all say they could not have achieved what they did or become who they were without strength that came from beyond themselves. We have nothing to lose but a little time if we decide to learn some of their techniques for following tracks in the snow.
Photo credits: Christopher Michel, Flickr; Peggy Cadigan, Flickr
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do... I have the desire to
do what is good, but cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but
the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:15, 18b-19
We’ve all had the experience of saying or doing something and immediately regretting it. “How could I have done that??!!” we wonder. For hundreds of years philosophers explained that our intellect and will constituted our “higher selves,” and that we needed to “subdue our passions.” We were encouraged to energetically scold ourselves, “Straighten up!” “Stop feeling that way!” "Get your act together!"
Which unfortunately doesn’t work very well. Those messy moments we all experience aren’t simply failures in character. Our brains aren’t designed to respond perfectly to vigorous self-talk, at least not when we’re emotionally upset. The more we understand how our brains do work, the more effectively we can steer ourselves toward greater peace and better behavior.
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean suggests the brain is divided into three basic parts. The theory described below is an oversimplification, but it holds enough truth to be useful in understanding ourselves:
So what? Why bother learning about this? It turns out the interaction among these three parts or our brains is one cause of our many human missteps. The limbic brain is designed to override our thinking brain in an emergency. If someone grabs you from behind on a dark street or your toddler suddenly starts to gag, you don’t have time to logically examine all your alternatives. It doesn’t matter what your attacker looks like or what precisely is giving your little one trouble. You need to take action. This aspect of brain function can work for us when we’re under immediate physical threat but against us in a disagreement with an employer or a loved one.
So do we just give up on urging ourselves to be more patient, understanding or generous? Obviously not. Instead, we can learn to use spiritual practices that touch our emotions directly in order predispose ourselves to listen to the wiser urging of our thinking brain - and the Holy Spirit.
I can trash social media with the best of them. Yes, technology disrupts our lives and sometimes fries our brains. The sight of seventh graders sitting shoulder to shoulder after school, thumbs flying, oblivious to one another’s presence, makes me shiver. I weary of the constant battle - with grandkids and with myself - to tame the monster.
But seriously, what would we do without our smartphones? And who knew technology could help us pray??!! In an ideal world we wouldn’t need outside help, but nobody I know lives in an ideal world. In the real world I can use all the help I can get.
I use two apps on a regular basis to help me stick with my morning prayer/meditation routine. My favorite is InsightTimer, which is free and pretty amazing. I use it primarily for the timer function, which saves me from peeking at my watch when I should be thinking deep thoughts. If you like you can also set it to sound a few times during your meditation to remind you this is serious business, just in case you've forgotten and started planning out your daily itinerary instead. (Unfortunately, on a really bad day i can get to the end of my 20 minutes and not even remember hearing the gong.) You can select from different sounds to begin and end your session and how long you’d like to spend.
The app has classes available for purchase, but there are so many free guided meditations available you could listen to a different one every day for the rest of your life. Granted, some of them would be terrible, but they’d be free. You can also form an online group and check out who in your town is meditating and what they’re listening to. (Some people would call that Too Much Information.)
Most guided meditations on the app are secular or lean toward Buddhism or Hinduism. Christian meditations are available but rather scarce, not because the owners discriminate against Christians but because there's a scarcity of Christian teachers. Which is pretty interesting, when you think about it.
My second favorite app is Pray-As-You-Go, put out six days a week by Jesuits in England. PAYG reflects on the Scripture reading of the day for ten to twelve minutes. It begins each session with a contemplative piece of music. A narrator then reads the Scripture passage for the day and another invites a reflection and application to your own life. The Scripture passage is reread during the remaining few moments and the session closes with a doxology: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”They've expanded their offerings to include other forms of prayer, several of which are familiar only to Catholics. They're worth exploring, but I usually stick with the Scripture reflection.
I tend not to use this one when I’m on track with my spiritual regimen, but lean on it gratefully when life is hectic or hard. The combination of music and narration sometimes gets a little busy for my taste if my mind is behaving, but when I'm wound up they're just what I need to wrestle my brain back to business.
My shallow side loves the English accents because they make me feel like I’m traveling in Narnia, the land of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also notice that my brain quiets more easily when I listen than when I read a reflection.
This is just a small sampling of available resources. The biggest challenge these days is sorting through all the options to find one that works for you. The great thing about apps is that if you find one you like, you can listen in the car, at lunch, in the morning seated with coffee and a candle, while watching soccer practice.
These two are available online at www.insighttimer.com or www.pray-as-you-go.org or wherever you access your apps. And no, I am not receiving any compensation for recommending these. They're really and truly helpful.
Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney warming up to sing Counting Your Blessings from White Christmas
“You should be grateful!”
We’ve all heard those words, most often when we weren’t in the mood to listen. We’ve scolded ourselves for not being grateful - also, most likely, when gratitude wasn’t coming easily.
Yet gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for building spiritual resilience. Gratitude actually holds the power to nudge us away from depression and anxiety and toward greater peace with our world.
So What Exactly Is Gratitude?
Gratitude is not the same as appreciation, although appreciation is a good first step. When we appreciate something or someone we stop to notice, to pay attention. We take the opportunity to register and savor the awesomeness of the moment. Appreciation is taking time to notice just how cool someone or something is.
Gratitude looks further to the source of the goodness. When I appreciate a plate of lasagna, I take a good look at it, I smell the delicious aroma, I pay attention to what’s on my fork and in my mouth without being overly distracted by what’s going on in the room. I appreciate the meal but I’m not considering how the meal got to my plate.
When I’m grateful I also acknowledge the cook’s skill and the time invested in preparing the meal. I can grow my circle of gratitude to include those who grew the ingredients and transported them to my grocery store. If I dig even deeper I can expand my scope to include the planet that sustains my life and ultimately to the One who created it all.
The online Oxford Dictionary goes one step further, defining gratitude as thankfulness and “a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Pretty powerful plate of lasagna.
Simply telling ourselves or our kids to be grateful doesn’t often make much difference. On the other hand, consciously shifting our attention toward the blessings in our lives can. I used to ask my high school students to list fifty things they were grateful for. I knew if they wrote a short list they would probably get stuck in clichés, but as they stretched to fill those last twenty slots their lists became much more interesting.I will never forget one student’s entry. She’d been injured as an infant while in the care of a negligent babysitter, and her beautiful face bore a noticeable scar even after several surgeries. On her list, without any explanation, was, “My scar.” I was humbled by her wisdom.
A Gratitude Practice
A spiritual practice is a concrete action we engage in on a regular basis in order to bring ourselves back to what's real. There are lots of ways to establish a practice of gratitude. You could make your own list of 50 and review it frequently, but most of us will forget, lose the list, get bored and figure it all takes too much time.
An alternative is to choose a time or event that happens regularly in your day, such as a meal, getting up in the morning, commuting to work, etc. Pick one recurring event and commit to thanking God in that moment for at least five people or things in your life. If possible, take time to really be present to each item on your list. Try to focus long enough that the gratitude actually registers on a feeling level. Pick a "target frequency" - say five times a week, and then give it your best shot.
There's actually research out there saying a gratitude practice can make you happier. Check it out if you don't believe me. You don’t have to take their word for it either. Give it a try for two weeks and see what happens. Then write and let us know how it goes.
A long time ago, when Sigmund Freud first started talking about the inner workings of the human mind, the conversation was pretty grim. Attention focused on what was wrong with people: hysteria, neuroses, complexes, fixations. For decades psychologists and psychoanalysts worked earnestly to help clients rid themselves of these sometimes-crippling disorders. As psychology fought to be taken seriously, researchers carefully studied a wide range of human dysfunction, offering important new insights to the world.
Which was good, but in hindsight a little lopsided. Around twenty-five years ago a few rebels started noticing that very little was being said about the positive aspects of human nature. Research on qualities like altruism, love or joy was almost nonexistent, and positive emotions were rarely mentioned in the professional literature. In time the field of “positive psychology” was born, and new research heralded our capacity for resilience, compassion and healing.
About ten years ago I stumbled across an article written by Dr. George Vaillant, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Vaillant pointed out the existence of what he called “spiritual emotions.” He noted that spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, joy, awe, trust, love and hope all direct us beyond our own survival toward something greater. He drew on the work of Barbara Frederickson, who points out that such emotions prompt us to cooperate with others to create new and better solutions. Fear, on the other hand, causes us to narrow our focus and grow rigid and reactive in our thinking.
The article caught my attention and I’ve returned to it many times. Vaillant offered me a new vantage point for responding to our troubled times. These days when I look at religious or political institutions I see structures in trouble. Those structures are essential to life together, especially when we live together in large groups. But when they get unbalanced they can be like an overloaded freight train rounding a curve too fast. We’re seeing a lot of high-speed teetering these days.
If dogma and institutions are the bones and muscles of religion, I would see spiritual emotions as the heart and circulatory system. To paraphrase St. Paul, we can’t live without bones or muscles, but we also can’t expect femurs or biceps to feed themselves. Spiritual emotions provide the energy and healing power we need to keep us going.
George Vaillant is now in his eighties and graciously carries the wisdom of age. Over the years his message has become ever more focused: the foundation of human thriving is love. He reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct rather than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we are often, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy.”
Vaillant sums it up, “Happiness is the cart. Love is the horse.”
Click here for his TED talk.
Photo credit: Jaroom Photography, Flickr
It's no secret our congregations are greying. St. Mary's Press, longtime Catholic education publisher, is researching and responding to the absence of so many young people from our pews. Their most recent blog post features a conversation between me and senior editor and wise counselor Jerry Ruff. Find it here:
Or the Senate Committee Room or...
Like so many others, I’ve been hooked by the Supreme Court confirmation firestorm. The situation is tragic regardless of who or what you believe. Rather than debating who's right or wrong, I'd like to examine a spiritual practice that can help each of us respond.
We're fascinated by this drama because we find somebody’s behavior appalling, and really bad behavior is frightening. When groups of people become enraged a terrifying sinister energy seems to emerge. And when we feel personally endangered our own dark side - vengeful, slanted, self-protective - fights to cut loose and start swinging.
I’d just finished reading the latest wrinkle in the unfolding story when suddenly an image of Jesus walking into that room came to me. In my imaginary hearing room he wasn’t there to take the stand or to take someone’s side. He was simply being present.
The effect on me was remarkable. I immediately calmed down - not completely, but substantially. Gone was my feeling of the world rocking beneath my feet, and I could sense a peace and clarity surrounding Jesus. The scene didn’t shift my opinion about who was telling the truth. It did shift me toward compassion for everyone involved. Until that moment my compassion had been reserved for the persons I considered to be injured, while I focused my judgment, resentment and anger on the other guys. Those guys included a large portion of my fellow Americans.
Regardless of what did or didn’t happen at a party 30 years ago, tragic incidents of sexual misconduct happen every day. We clearly need new awareness and revised systems to help us reduce their incidence and impact. The spiritual practice of imagining Jesus in our midst is one small tool that can help us get there.
The picture in my head showed up without my asking, but we can consciously decide to create imaginary scenes. The visitor we imagine doesn't have to be Jesus. For me as a Christian, Jesus is a spiritual touchstone. For Buddhists it might be the Buddha, for Muslims Muhammad. We can visualize a major figure in our spiritual tradition, or someone we rub shoulders with every day. The key is to choose a person of compassion and wisdom and to use our imaginations to create a vivid picture in our minds.
Visualization As Spiritual Practice
A practice is something we do on a repeated basis, usually to accomplish some result. Brushing your teeth is a practice. So is regularly checking the air in your tires or rewarding your dog's good behavior with a treat A spiritual practice is something we do on a repeated basis to call us back to our core beliefs and help us live according to them.
Athletic coaches as well as pastors and spiritual advisors teach visualization. Research demonstrates that athletes who visualize success are more likely to achieve it. Vividly imagining a spiritually-inspired scene helps anchor us in our own spiritual base. When we visualize we draw on our sense memory of sight, hearing and sometimes smell to help change our thinking and our mood.
Visualizing Jesus is a spiritual practice that helps me shift gears and see things in a new light. When I picture Jesus in a contentious scene several things predictably happen:
At their best, spiritual practices engage our whole selves - our bodies and emotions as well as our minds. When we tap into our sense memory to create an image different from the ones our overheated brains are currently cooking up, we get wiser.
And more peaceful, and compassionate, and hopeful, and...
Photo Dirksen226, Wikimedia Commons
Common wisdom used to claim our intellects were supposed to conquer our emotions, and certainly we’ve all gotten into trouble by being carried away with anger or captivated by some temporary obsession. But emotions also inspire people to great things, and researchers have recently discovered emotions play a central role in our so-called “intellectual” capacity to figure things out and remember.
So emotions are a mixed bag, and we experience conflicting emotions all day long. How do we sort them out, especially on the spur of the moment? How do we know what we’re “supposed to” feel? I’ve been puzzling over this question for a long time, and finally came up with a way to think about emotions. I believe they fall roughly into the following four categories:
Positive spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, awe, joy trust, hope, love, inspiration
Painful spiritual emotions like grief and contrition
Survival emotions: anger, fear and desire
Counterproductive emotions: resentment, anxiety and depression
Each category has distinctive characteristics and invites a different response. We’ll focus on positive spiritual emotions for the moment.
So What Is A Positive Spiritual Emotion?
Spiritual emotions occur when we transcend our own small selves and connect intuitively and emotionally with our deepest selves, other people, and/or God. Think of someone you would consider spiritually great. This person may or may not belong to your faith tradition, if you have one. You probably don’t agree with everything they say or do. They may not possess all of the qualities in our first list above, but most likely they’re strong in at least a couple. They’re buoyed not just be their convictions but also by a mysterious inner state.
That inner state or spiritual emotions can prompt us to take action or result from an outside circumstance. Sometimes we take action based on a surge of gratitude or compassion; other times a sunset or a baby’s laugh brings on gratitude and we just hold it - or are distracted and pass it by.
We’ve all had the experience of white-knuckling through a tough decision, overriding our emotional response every step of the way in order to live faithful to our convictions. Those moments are admirable and important. They’re also really hard to sustain. How do we shift our insides to a place where our emotional default not only feels better but also helps us be the person we want to be?
We can’t manufacture spiritual emotions, but we can cultivate them. We can choose activities and situations where we catch them from other people. We can become more aware of habits that steer us toward unproductive emotions like anxiety, resentment or depression. We can develop - but never guarantee - our capacity to receive them by grace from God.
Because we need them. And the world needs us.
Photo credit: Josh Sullivan, Flikr
Campaign attack ads. Stories of computer hacks and scams. Tarnished heroes hiding sordid double lives.
Newspapers and the internet seem to serve up the worst of humanity all day, every day. We’re fascinated and horrified at the same time. It’s as if the theme song for Jaws is always playing in the back of our minds. We're afraid the shark is sneaking up behind us getting ready to ram the boat, and we can't resist any opportunity to peek over the edge and take a look.
There’s a brain-based reason for our fascination, but that’s a subject for another post. Today I want to talk about the power of stories to help us shift our internal balance of darkness and light.
Do a mental check-in right now. On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 means you feel content and secure and 10 means you’re teetering on the edge of a meltdown, how uneasy do you feel? How short is your fuse? How well do you sleep? How much do anxiety or depression crowd your day?
Do you wish your “sleepless number” were different? Would you and the world be better off if it were different?
Distress isn't all bad. If we’re never distressed, we’re not paying attention. Our own or others’ pain is designed to help us focus and take action, and sometimes it does and we do. But much of our suffering is self-inflicted and unnecessary. Subjecting ourselves to too many miserable stories doesn’t motivate - it paralyzes. On the other hand, stories of courage, triumph, or plain old silliness lift our hearts and remind us of who and where we want to be.
Stories can be big or small. They can tell of Good Samaritans saving neighbors from a hurricane’s devastation or a dog helping a child learn to read. It can be the story of the original Good Samaritan or of an elderly person with a contagious enthusiasm for life. Stories can tell of a middle schooler’s kindness to another child who is often left out or of someone living well in the face of a life-threatening diagnosis.
If your “sleepless number” was higher than you’d like, there’s a good chance unsettling stories are contributing. These can be stories you read, stories people tell you, stories you tell yourself.
We can notice which stories occupy our attention and learn to be more selective. We can take steps to limit our exposure to terrible news stories and decide to pay attention to stories that inspire us and lift our spirits. Good stories are everywhere - in the news, in the Bible, in our family histories, on youtube, in our everyday conversations.
We can also help the children in our lives find stories deserving of their attention. I grew up reading the lives of the saints. Those stories were pretty heavily weighted toward virgins and martyrs, and I didn’t really want to be either in the long run. But every blessed one of them demonstrated confidence in God and courage under fire, and those qualities I did and do want. We can find better stories than the ones popularly offered to our young people.
I started this blog partly because the cynical, angry stories were getting me down. While we’re not called to insulate ourselves from the world’s suffering, we are called to preserve our capacity to respond to it. Stories matter. The right stories go a long way.
Collect them. Replay them. Share them. There’s so much goodness out there. Someone needs the story you have to share.
Photo Tail Waggin' Tutors, Fairfax Library
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