I have struggled with how to write about and respond to the current political climate in our country and in our world today. On the one hand, I believe that public intellectuals, spiritual leaders, and artists (actually, all citizens) have a responsibility to be part of a public voice of resistance to egregious lies and attacks against human decency (to say nothing of human rights). On the other hand, I don’t want to play into a kind of Trump-bashing attacks that feed my own ego and paradoxically play into the media spotlight on this atrocious leader (and others).
But when I saw this beautiful, simple statement on the wall at Rise coffee shop recently, it seemed to me that perhaps the simple act of committing to a contemplative practice and prayer-life that fosters compassion – in thought, in word, and in deeds – becomes a radical act in and of itself. It becomes a spiritual, moral, human act of resistance. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel coined the phrase “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity,” and that sums up what we need right now.
Of course, Trump alone is not responsible for all the hatred and violence in the world. At the same time, however, he is the leader of the “free world” (to the extent that means anything anymore), and the actions of leaders have powerful consequences. So it’s not really about Trump and his administration and supporters, but it’s rather about paying attention to and then mindfully and intentionally responding to the movements of energy in the world. The choice not to give into hatred – even of those with whom we vehemently disagree politically, religiously, socially, etc. – must done with intention and conviction.
Several political commentators and historians have noted that after a steady rise in democratic forms of government across the globe (since the end of WWII), we are now moving into a decline. President Trump has publicly praised Valdimir Putin, whose political opponents have shown up mysteriously dead all over the globe, and Rodrigo Duterte, who advocates for his soldiers to rape women and has executed a multitude of “drug lords” without any due process or judicial review (a process most would consider murder, plain and simple). Meanwhile, two brave citizens were killed and a third injured in Portland after intervening to stop a raving lunatic from berating Muslim women. All the while, the new white-nationalist “alt-right” leaders like Richard Spencer and others, continue to believe that just because they speak calmly and “reasonably” and they cut their hair cleanly and wear nice suits, they are somehow less racist, bigoted, or violent than their peers in white hoods. And of course, we now live in a self-contained world of “alternative facts.” These are the alarming evils of our time.
The sad reality is that not a single strong political leader has emerged who is speaking up for moderation, democracy, human rights, and a return to what makes America (and any good community) great again. (To be fair, there are voices out there, but none of them have the range and scope needed to truly erode this larger movement – at least not yet). It is perhaps ironic that as the West has become increasingly secular, the two public figures who are most influential in speaking out about compassion as the new radicalism are both religious and spiritual leaders – I’m thinking of Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.
Spend a few moments just taking in the faces of these two men. They are radiating with joy!
I want to imagine a new marketing campaign. Remember those old WWII-era posters of Uncle Sam that say, “I want you!”? Let’s put these two guys – and anybody else who radiates compassionate joy – onto posters all over the world with that same tag line. (Any graphic design artists out there? ‘I want you’ to work on this!).
Join the revolution! Start small, do whatever you need to do to remain in touch with your compassion. Build communities of support and resistance. This is the radicalism of our time.
This summer I am partnering with Michael Pollard, L.C.S.W., of the St. Louis Consultation Center, to offer a two-part workshop in which we present insights that emerge from a dialogue between Christian contemplative spirituality and the psychology and neuroscience of health and well-being. Together we will explore the wisdom and practices that have been developed in the Christian contemplative tradition and apply them while drawing upon the most up-to-date science of the psychology and neuroscience of well-being.
Participants will leave the workshop with practical skills and a concrete plan for supporting long-term spiritual and mental health in order to thrive in a long and fruitful career in ministry.
We invite you to join us regardless of the kind of ministry you do or your denominational affiliation.
We also plan to simulcast the workshop on the web for those who wish to participate online and who are unable to be with us here in St. Louis.
You can download a pdf version of the flyer here. Post it and share it with friends!
Survive & Thrive Flyer
The first person I think of when I hear the term “alignment” is B.K.S Iyengar. He was one of the original students of Krishnamacharya in India, along with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Indra Devit. These were the first pioneering teachers who brought the practice of yoga to the United States in the 1960’s, along. Even if you have never heard of these figures, if you have ever attended a yoga class you have probably been influenced by their teaching. Iyengar wrote the book Light on Yoga, which has been called the bible of modern yoga in the West. His particular style of yoga, creatively named Iyengar Yoga, focuses especially on cultivating proper alignment – especially along the spinal column – within the postures (or asanas, as they are called in Sanskrit).
He taught that proper alignment, rather than greater effort or straining, is what made the physical posture (asana) and breath control (pranayama) so effective in opening the channels of energy within the body so that prana (the energy or life-force that pervades and sustains all things) may flow freely, infusing the body, mind, and spirit with grace and well-being. Some have likened prana in Hinduism and yoga philosophies to the Holy Spirit in Trinitarian Christian theology.
Alignment is also a hot topic in business consulting and organizational development. Consultants look to see if the corporation’s vision, mission statement, and values are actually reflected in the day to day operations and decisions made by executives, managers, and front-line workers. Areas of misalignment often lead to poor business practices and inefficiencies which are reflected in unsatisfied clients, poor products and/or delivery, and often disgruntled employees as well.
Think of the decision by high-ranking executives at Volkswagen to move ahead with installing “defeat devices” on Volkswagen vehicles sold in the United States so that they could cheat and provide false information on emissions tests. This “misalignment” cost the company billions of dollars in penalties in addition to the loss of current and future customers who no longer trust the Volkswagen brand. Alignment is good for both your physical and financial health.
Since I have been practicing yoga for about five years with various teachers and on my own, I think of myself as pretty well-aligned, at least physically, if not spiritually. So you can imagine my righteous indignation when I recently went to see a physical therapist, and she told me that my spine is not very well-aligned. I had gone to see her in order to address chronic tendonitis pain in my wrists and forearms, the intensity of which had been ebbing and flowing since my days of intensive rock climbing in my early twenties. She began to treat the soft tissue and joint alignment issues in my wrists and forearms. And, like the excellent therapist she is, she also wanted to address the root causes of my recurring tendonitis, which are likely related to poor posture that places increased stress upon the nerves and tendons in my arm and hands.
I finally realized that somewhere along the line, I got the idea that “straightening” my spine meant rotating my pelvis forward, creating an increase in the curvature of my lower back (lumbar region) and in the amount of muscle tension required to hold this position. This was in turn increasing the curvature and tension in mid- and upper-back (thoracic and cervical regions). What I have been re-learning with her help is that in order to align and straighten my back I need to release this tension and allow my pelvis and hips to come to a natural, neutral position. When I do this, I can literally feel my spine naturally lengthen and straighten, and the muscles that run along each side of my spine to relax.
I have now become much more attuned with the tension in my back muscles. I am catching myself rotating my pelvis forward and tensing the muscles of lower back (because this has been my default position for decades hardwired into my neuro-muscular pathways), and then responding with a gentle reminder to allow that entire area, the pelvic floor and surrounding areas, to relax so that things can fall into place.
Ironically, this is exactly how my practice of Centering Prayer works! Whenever I notice I am engaging in thoughts (which is an umbrella term for cognitive thoughts and emotions, memories, bodily sensations, images, etc.) I simply notice this, repeat my sacred word, and let go back into that open awareness, resting back into God’s embrace. When I let go of both thoughts and the tension that arises in my pelvic floor, I also notice that I am wasting less energy and that energy is able to flow more freely along my spine and back – and my tendonitis is beginning to heal (albeit more slowly than my ego would prefer).
This is one simple example of how mind-body awareness, when integrated into a contemplative practice, can have a profound effect on everyday awareness, including physical, mental, and spiritual health. Notice tension in lower back, repeat sacred word on exhalation, relax pelvic floor and back, allow natural alignment and integration to emerge, energy flows more freely, rest in awareness of God’s love presence – repeat ad infinitum!
Have you ever noticed that when you make a commitment, set an intention, or begin to ask one of the big questions, that somehow you start to encounter a world teeming with responses? I was amazed that after my post about creating a working definition of contemplation, I received a link from Yoga International to an article on “The Real Meaning of Meditation” by Swami Rama (the teacher of one of my teachers).
I found the following quote from Swami Rama to be a fitting addition to my list of ways of describing the human experience of contemplation:
Meditation is a practical means for calming yourself, for letting go of your biases and seeing what is, openly and clearly. It is a way of training the mind so that you are not distracted and caught up in its endless churning. Meditation teaches you to systematically explore your inner dimensions. It is a system of commitment, not commandment.
I hope this brings a bit of clarity and intention to your day, and click here if you’d like to read the whole article.
One of my take-away lessons from presenting the Centering for Wisdom Assessment at Oxford in January is that the term “contemplation” conjures up a wide array of meanings, connotations, and personal responses. I find myself in workshops using the clunky phrase “mindfulness, meditation, or contemplative practices” to refer to a variety of practices. I remain convinced that there is a common element to these human ways of being and of engaging the world, but I have yet to fully articulate how we might capture what is most essential. Thus, I have begun a quest to develop a working definition of the term contemplation. I would absolutely love to hear feedback and comments from readers so that this becomes a collective endeavor. Please submit any comments or additions below!
Part of the challenge in developing this working definition is that it will need to be concise enough to capture what is essential about contemplation, while also being open enough that persons from a wide array of disciplines (e.g., the humanities and the natural and social sciences) as well as persons from a wide array of spiritual and religious traditions, could find it applicable. No small task!
To begin, I simply offer the following list of definitions or descriptions of related terms, which I have been collecting for about a year. I make no claims that this list is exhaustive, and it is admittedly heavy on the Christian tradition, which simply reflects my training and identity as a Christian theologian. In compiling this list, I hope some common elements might emerge that can help to narrow our inquiry down toward a working definition of contemplation:
“Resting quietly in the presence of God”
– St. Gregory the Great (6th century, Christianity)
“An awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn (Medicine)
“Paying attention to what’s naturally arising in the present moment with kindness and curiosity.”
– Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (Education)
Contemplation is “a third way of knowing that complements both the rational and the sensory…designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind to cultivate a capacity for deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.”
– Tobin Hart (Education)
“Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.”
– Thich Naht Hanh (Buddhism)
Being present in “an open, kind and discerning way”
– Shapiro & Carlson, 2013 (Psychology)
COAL – Curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love.
– Daniel Siegel 2017 (Interpersonal Neurobiology)
“Consciousness is that which is most intimate to our experience—that which lies beneath thought and feeling. It is awareness itself, the experiencer. ”
– Hari Sharma & Christopher Clark. (Ayurvedic Medicine)
“Yoga [union] is the control (or cessation) of the modifications of the mind field.”
– Patanjali, Yoga Sutras (Yoga philosophy)
“For contemplation is nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love”
– Saint John of the Cross (Christianity)
“Contemplation is a wordless, imageless prayer into which God invites the Christian who has devoted himself or herself for a prolonged time to discursive prayer. Contemplation, as John [of the Cross] says, is precisely a general, loving knowledge of God”
– Mark O’Keefe, O.S.B. (Christianity)
“the transcendent experience of reality and truth in the act of a supreme and liberated spiritual love…contemplation is [the human person’s] highest and most essential spiritual activity”
– Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (Christianity)
“Finding God within”
“Mysticism” is a modern word for what the Christian tradition previously called “mystical theology” (a life-style, not an academic discourse), or “contemplation.” I prefer to speak of the “mystical element,” which is a part of a concrete religion, such as Christianity or Judaism. I have described this elsewhere as follows: “…that part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of what the mystics themselves describe as a direct and transformative presence of God”
– Bernard McGinn (Christianity)
“the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with its God”
– St. Teresa of Avila (Christianity)
“In the mystic way, reality is neither seized nor deciphered. Nor can it be committed to ideational formation. Instead, it is engaged – delicately, knowingly, and passionately. It is engaged by being loved”
– Walter Capps & Wendy Wright (Christianity)
As mentioned in a previous post, I have been creating an uploading guided meditations to Insight Timer, the world’s largest free meditation app. It’s been fun and inspiring to see what other teachers are uploading to learn how to make these more high-quality and professional-sounding. But I also wanted to offer these meditations through my website. (You can also check out all the free meditations available on the Podcasts page.)
The Welcoming Prayer: Saying Yes to Daily Life –
Three Doorways to God: Body, Breath, Sacred Word –
A new promotional video for the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Mission Leadership at the Aquinas Institute of Theology highlights some of the work we do (when I’m not blogging!).
Ria and her crew from Tree9 Films were incredible to work with!
During his homily today for the feast of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622 CE), Fr. Jay Harrington, O.P., read the following quote from Francis’s Introduction to the Devout Life. Self-compassion has become a popular topic in meditation circles recently, so it may strike some as surprising to hear such tender words from a medieval saint. I offer the quote both because I find it personally very helpful (I’m pretty hard on myself), and because it offers a beautiful alternative to the more popular image of the saints as overly self-critical and harsh.
One of the best exercises in meekness we can perform is when the subject is in ourselves. We must not fret over our own imperfections. Although reason requires that we must be displeased and sorry whenever we commit a fault we must refrain from bitter, gloomy, spiteful, and emotional displeasure. When overcome by anger they become angry at being angry, disturbed at being disturbed and vexed at being vexed.
I often notice that I add unnecessary suffering to my day by getting angry at myself for getting angry. Francis continues:
when we have committed some fault, if we rebuke our heart by a calm, mild remonstrance, with more compassion for it than passion against it and encourage it to make amendment, then repentance conceived in this way will sink far deeper and penetrate more effectually than fretful, angry, stormy repentance.
The phase “with more compassion for it than passion against it” seems to me to be a particularly helpful reminder to take from this celebration of the feast of St. Francis de Sales.
Tonia Bock (Professor of Psychology, University of St. Thomas) and I were recently fortunate to be able to present the initial results of our validation study of the Centering for Wisdom Assessment tool at the fifth annual conference of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, entitled “Character, Wisdom, and Virtue,” held at Oriel College, University of Oxford, UK. Here are some of highlights and take-aways from our experience: