Living the Playful Life

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I spent a weekend in the north Georgia mountains where I read slightly racy mystery novels, napped when I felt like it, and ate whatever sounded good at the moment.  For the first time in years, I allowed my mind to let go of planning future projects, preparing for the next thing, analyzing, and thinking deeply. I didn’t even plan or pack the food for the trip. My daughter did it all, even the navigating. On the way home, when we stopped to buy gas, she asked me if I could drive for a while, and I had to pause before answering. My brain was so relaxed and just open to what was going on around me that I wasn’t sure if I could refocus enough to drive. I got behind the wheel and had to reorient and take a deep breath before starting the car. That weekend got me thinking about what play means to me now as a semi-retired adult.

I’ve always been a somewhat serious person. Even as a child, my mom said I wanted to familiarize myself with my surroundings before abandoning caution and just playing. Tricycles had to be pushed around for a bit before riding them. I had to observe the other children for a few minutes, I think to take on the group dynamic, before joining in a game of make-believe “house.” I enjoyed those types of activities but was perfectly happy to spend hours reading a book and living in the world I saw in my head.

Somewhere along the line, I forgot how to play. Maybe it was when I was working full time and going to school at night. I had something to prove and no time to spare. I remember being afraid that if I were to let go of keeping on top of everything, even for a little while, I might not be able to pick up all the pieces again. My mom’s habit of list making became important to relieve some of the anxiety of too many things to hold in my head. I was a workaholic who couldn’t just sit and watch a tv show without looking at a magazine simultaneously (that was before the days of scrolling on smart phones or tablets).

After returning home from our mountain weekend, I kept thinking about what play could look like as an adult and got out the dictionary. Unfortunately, the definitions only referred to children’s activities, so I decided to substitute “individual” for “child”.  Here’s how the definition of play would read:

Activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. It is self-directed, and the rewards come from within the individual; it is enjoyable and spontaneous.

  • Self-directed
  • Self-amusement
  • Provides rewards
  • Enjoyable
  • Spontaneous

I want more of those things in my life. Maybe I just need to think about play a little differently. Is play more about how you feel when you’re doing something instead of a pre-defined list of activities?

I have the self-directed part covered. It’s part of my personality. I had to think a bit about what it means to amuse myself, though. The synonyms I found were delight, diversion, enjoyment, hilarity, laughter, pleasure. It seems to imply an activity that brings on a smile or feeling of happiness, not just an absence of pain or presence of contentment. For me, simple things like noticing the flash of a bird when I’m taking a walk or watching the cat playing solo hockey with a toy all around the kitchen would seem to qualify.

Play also provides behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. I really had to think about this aspect of play for a while. I can see how playing a sport could qualify as playing with all the “good job” and high fives as social rewards if you’re good at it. I’m not good at it, so sports are not on my list of favorite play dates. But enjoying having lunch with an old friend after so many months of staying at home because of the pandemic seems to fit the bill. Eating food that someone else cooks and brings to you, and you don’t have to wash the dishes! A great conversation as you catch up on everything that has been going on in their life. Lots of behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards from those activities. And it also qualifies as enjoyable.

The most difficult part of play for me is spontaneous, which means free, unstructured, and instinctive. Does it count when I set aside time in my calendar for “doing whatever I want?” As I’m reminded of the Buddhist value of non-attachment, I think the answer is yes.

Buddhism teaches that joy and happiness arise from letting go.

Thich Nhat Hanh

I think some of my happiest moments as an adult have occurred in times like our weekend in the mountains. Periods of time clearly labeled on my calendar but only loosely planned. I can leave behind the to-do lists and only a loose itinerary. Space opens to become curious and interested in what is right in front of me, and there is freedom to follow that curiosity to see where it will take you.

I think that’s why I’m attracted to road trips. You never know what you will find when you decide to take a left instead of a right turn along the way. I’m intrigued by the variety of houses of worship I come across and frequently pull into parking lots or turn around to get a photo. The architecture, grounds, and cemeteries speak to me as a unique expression of a particular group of people in a specific place attempting to worship their personal version of God.

As you pass towns, houses, and yards, it’s like looking through a Viewmaster (remember those?), seeing snapshots of life. That family has a dog. This farm has horses. The next house has goats in the yard. I notice the broad span of a hawk’s wings as it circles above the road, and I wonder what it sees. The spectrum of green spread across the trees on a mountain reminds me of a Pantone chart, sun and shadow creating lighter and darker tones.

Photo by Girl with Red Hat on Unsplash

I’ve been trying to apply this idea of not getting too attached to any particular outcome as I move through each day. It’s not always easy, even though I know that I can’t control so many things in life. But when I open space in my heart and mind, the magic happens. Life becomes more like a road trip. A playful adventure full of fascinating people, places and possibilities.

Header Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash

A Tribute to My Mom

Growing Up in the Pine Woods of Alabama

This past Mother’s Day, I wanted to honor the woman that was my mother by collecting some of the pieces of her story that I remember and trying to flesh out the context that shaped her. In many ways, her life was the product of the culture that surrounded her. But there was also strength, resilience, compassion for others, and simple joy in everyday things. She profoundly impacted my life and how I move in the world. Unfortunately, it’s too late to truly get her perspective, but I wanted to write about what she shared through the years with thanks for her love and care.

Family History

Her name was Emma Mae, and in the Southern tradition, both names were used and almost run together. Her mother was Emma Isabell, but everybody just called her Emma, except my grandfather, George Washington Poe, who always called her “old woman.” I wish I had asked more questions about her earliest memories. Most of the stories she told were about family, and hard work.

My grandparents married in 1915 when Emma was twelve, and Poe was nineteen. I don’t know how they met, but the story goes that she was the only girl in her family and didn’t even know how to cook because her father was afraid she would ruin his supper. I do know they were both born in Washington County, Alabama. He was born in Wagar, and she in the Vinegar Bend community. I found a county record dated June 1917 where my grandfather was exempted from the World War I draft because he was already married with one child and claimed his stepfather as a dependent. I wonder which stepfather lived with them. There were step brothers and sisters from two other men besides my grandpa’s father. One step sister was the age of my grandparents’ first child.

Historical Perspective

In order to understand what that time and place was like I did some research about the part of Alabama where they lived. Named after America’s first president, Washington County was the first official Alabama county established in June 1800 and was home to the original state capital. Choctaw tribes had populated this land before White people arrived. However, by the 1830s, there were very few Choctaw people remaining in the county. Cotton was the big crop and plantations turned into sharecropping enterprises after the Civil War.

During the Great Depression farming declined so lumber and turpentine became the major job sources for everyone. The turpentine industry required intense labor to collect the pine sap and distill it into salable turpentine that was used for fuel and to make varnishes. The Great Migration of Black families moving out of the agricultural South to more industrial Northern and Mid-Western states had not really taken hold yet in this corner of Alabama.

My Mother Enters the Family

My mom was born in one of those turpentine camps called Hawthorne, in Washington County, Alabama, in 1932. Hawthorne wasn’t even an official town, just a community. I wonder if it was named for the Hawthorn family that owned a plantation in nearby Wilcox County. I’d love to find records that showed whether that family owned or leased the pine woods and ran the turpentine camp. From what my mom said, the camp consisted of a tiny church, grocery store, school, and two groups of rough cabins (one for White families and one for Black families) loosely grouped around the sap processing equipment. If some of the men weren’t married, they lived in barrack type cabins separated from the families. The landowner/lessor owned everything and workers paid rent for the cabins and bought supplies at the owner’s store.

I don’t know exactly what my grandpa’s job was in the camp, but he was White, so he probably didn’t do the heavy labor in the forest. Instead, that work was done by the “negroes” who lived in a separate group of shacks that were even less sturdy than my mom’s family’s. They would have had to tramp through the endless pine trees from sunrise to sundown, checking the sap buckets and dipping whatever had dripped out into larger containers to be hauled back to the camp. The White men were usually supervisors or ran the distilling equipment.

I don’t think they ever thought about how poor they were. Everyone around them lived the way the they did and only a few men ever left the camp to take the turpentine to market and return with supplies to be sold in the little store. There were eight children in my mom’s family; she was number seven. The oldest was a girl, Lola, who was born when my grandma was thirteen. She was followed by two brothers, another sister, and then another brother. Virgie, who was two years older than my mom, had Downs Syndrome. The baby sister, Shirley, was born when my mom was four. All the children wore overalls; they were sturdy, and it was easier to pass them down as children grew. Also, Alabama winters were mild, so shoes were rarely needed.

My mother described the cabin as having a dirt floor, and there was no electricity or indoor plumbing. She recalled a garden where she learned to pull weeds at an early age and her other job was to watch over Shirley and Virgie. Lola was sixteen when my mom was born, and she and the other older children did the heavy work. The girls would help my grandma wash clothes in large metal tubs and hang them out to dry on a line strung between trees. They had eggs that had to be gathered, chickens that had to be fed, their necks wrung, and feathers plucked so they could be fried up for dinner. Cooking and heat were provided by a wood stove. I’m sure the boys chopped the wood.

When I look back at the one class picture my mom had from that time, there were no Black faces in them. I wonder if the Black children even went to school or if the schools were just separate. My mom never talked about how the Black and White families lived together in the community. However, I know the tiny church was only attended by White families. Singing was her favorite part of church and I remember her singing hymns even as she did housework.

My mom never talked much about what it was like moving in second or third grade to Baldwin County, Alabama. A house was built in a different patch of pine woods outside Fairhope. I don’t know the details of how my grandpa could afford to buy land, but with a few cows, chickens, and a garden they got by. At some point they planted pecan trees in one of the pastures and the kids picked them up in the fall. My grandpa worked the pine forest and sold the sap for turpentine.

When World War II started, the oldest boy, William, was twenty-one and wanted to join up but couldn’t pass the entrance exam. So instead, he went to work at one of the civilian infrastructure projects in support of the war effort. Another brother, Leo, was 18 and went to work in one of the shipyards in Mobile across the bay.

Eating together was a big deal. My grandpa always sat at the left end of the dining room table and was served first. Grandma never sat down to eat, constantly moving back and forth to the kitchen for plates of biscuits and other food. Mixing molasses and butter was a perfect spread for a warm biscuit. As the years past, sliced white bread from the store was also served. Grandpa called it “wasp nest” because it collapsed in your mouth and tasted to him like paper. My grandpa also wouldn’t eat the fantastic fried chicken my grandmother made. He said even the smell of the chicken cooking reminded him of all the chicken soup he had to make for his younger siblings and mother as they recuperated from yellow fever when he was a teenager.

As my mom’s older brothers and sisters got married, they each received two acres of land from my grandpa and built their own houses across the dirt road or on the other side of the pecan grove from the main house. Living so close together, everybody knew everybody else’s business. There was a story about how the wife of one of the brothers’ was caught pouring buckets of water on the floor at the back of their little house and sweeping the “river” out the front door. It was a good thing they didn’t have much furniture. My mother described life as a lot of “messin’ and gommin'” going on all the time, especially as the grandchildren started coming along.

My mom’s social world was small. In high school, she was involved in Future Homemakers of America and Beta Club. The family attended a small church. After my mom died, my uncle shared that there here had been a boyfriend that everyone thought she would marry. But graduation came and that didn’t happen. Apparently, the guy got engaged to a prosperous farmer’s daughter.

Her high school counselor had asked her about college, but there was no money for that. The choices for jobs and available boys was limited so she considered joining the military.

I don’t remember my mom ever saying why she choose the Navy. Maybe it was the spiffy uniform, or they paid the best, or the boot camp requirements weren’t that hard for women at the time. She did talk about having to know how to swim but that wasn’t a problem since she had been swimming in the creek behind their house for years. There were deep spots that were even good for diving out of the tree platform the brothers had built.

Looking back at the pictures of my grandma in her Sunday dress and my twenty-year-old mother in her uniform the morning she left, my mom looks so self-assured and happy. Grandma was so proud. Mom had never been away from home, but had loaded everything she owned into a military issue trunk that had her name stenciled on the side and got on the Greyhound bus headed for Norfolk, Virginia. It was March 1952.

Reflections

There are so many things I wish I could go back in time and ask my mom and grandparents about.

In that small poor community in the Washington County pine woods, did the racist rules of that time period apply or did at least the women and children understand they were all in the same situation and needed one another?

I wonder if there were stills that made something other than just turpentine. What was it like for my grandma to have barely entered puberty and be married off knowing nothing about housekeeping? Was marriage even her own choice? What was it like to raise a Down Syndrome child in that time when there were no therapies or support programs to help her learn to her greatest potential.

Was there more to my mother’s decision to join the Navy? Was she excited or terrified to see the world outside Alabama? I think it was probably a little of both.

Reflecting on my mother’s life is part of my ongoing work of understanding who I am, and how I was formed so that I can stay awake and not just act reflexively. As an only child, I was very close to my mother. She had an inner strength that many people probably never saw because she cared so much for other people. She had a strong work ethic and always gave people the benefit of the doubt. I hope my journey of remembering encourages others to consider such a journey in their own lives.

Pine Tree Photo by Pert Wardhon on Unsplash

Spring as Liminal Space

I have always loved Spring in Atlanta, even with the pollen. As soon as there are a few days of warmth in February, I start looking for the daffodils to start poking their heads out of the pine straw. My friends that have moved further north are still experiencing snow and cold. I know we’re the lucky ones. In the South, we know Spring is here.

Something about the consistency of this process every year brings comfort and hope of renewal and growth for my own life. It feels like a good time to make plans. In the past, the signs of Spring started me thinking about Summer vacations, signing my daughter up for summer dance or art camps. We could feel that the school year would soon be over, and I knew it was time to make decisions about the coming school year. Programs were signing up students for Fall, and, God forbid, you should wait too late and miss out.

One of the earliest flowering trees is the redbud. From a few feet away, the tree looks like the branches are turning purple. For the past few years, I’ve taken pictures of this progression from fuzz, to flowered limbs, to tiny heart-shaped leaves of dark maroon. The leaves grow in size. By the time Summer arrives and the weather is hot, they will be beautiful chartreuse hearts.

I’m naturally a “think ahead” planner sort of person, so this constant imagining of what will be needed seemed natural, even necessary. After all, it was also a big part of what I did for a living, making project plans and monitoring what needed adjustment. Living that way gave me a feeling of being able to shape my life as I wanted it to be.

This Spring, a progression of colorful flowers bloom every week in the park, and gorgeous sunny days are relief from staying inside so much this Winter. Within a week, both my daughter and I will be fully vaccinated, and our world will expand even further to include friends we’ve only seen via Zoom or at a distance. We’ve made a few plans, a weekend in the mountains, and I plan to visit my good friend in Wisconsin this summer. As we did six months or so ago, we are rearranging the furniture just to look at something differently. We’re slowly going through the accumulation of stuff in the storage room, hoping to lighten the load of things tethering us to to the past.

The pandemic has me thinking about another aspect of Spring. With warmer weather comes the clash of cool air with warm, creating storms. They roll into Atlanta from the West and, because of my daughter’s anxiety about tornadoes, we pay close attention to the weather forecasts, preparing for the worst. Sometimes we can’t even clearly see just across the street. Those moments of waiting to see where the storm’s path will go are a liminal space of unknown.

This second Spring of Covid feels to me more like this liminal space of storms than the exuberant flowering of possibility. It sometimes seems that a new normal is right around the corner. But the past few years have taught me how quickly conditions can change. I’ve learned to seek out more information, wait a few minutes, look for the signs of how things might unfold. Sometimes, I just have to wait, with nothing to do, until it’s clear how things will turn out. Even when I think I know.

My pod during the pandemic has been my daughter, our cat Lynxy, and me. Like many people have reported, sharing space and finding the balance of time alone and together has been a challenge.  We have learned that life together is smoother when we say out loud what we need in each moment. Even Lynxy has a repertoire of sounds and movements to indicate what he wants us to do.  

So much togetherness and lack of distraction provided some clarity about my daughter’s mental health and led to a diagnosis of Bipolar 2 in addition to ADHD. Not having to go on campus for classes also made it easier for her to adjust her life to having inappropriate tachycardia syndrome. Meanwhile, I finished up my thesis and graduated from seminary, and have had to find new and creative ways to spend my time and not over-focus on my daughter. Some days it even works. We found it necessary to adjust the rhythm of the day based on what unfolded.

We are in a liminal space between storms right now. My daughter has registered for summer online classes, knowing that in-person may resume in the Fall, but that has yet to be announced. I wait to find out if some part-time work will continue past Spring. But I’m feeling the need to go easy on the planning ahead. I ease forward, watching for the next part of the path to be slowly revealed. For right now, I need to focus on the three feet around me that I can clearly see right here and now. It is less painful to make adjustments that may be required when I’m not charging ahead full force.

There are other benefits of living life more slowly. As I go for walks, I am more aware of how the trees, the turtles, and the ducks on the pond change every day. Will this slower pace and noticing provide resilience when the inevitable storms of change roll through my life? Can I hold space for flowering and growth along with the unknowing of the rain and storms? Perhaps even enjoy them both?

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . .

Ecclesiastes 3: 1 (NSRV)

A season for planning farther ahead may come again. But for now, I’m in a liminal time of living in the moment. Enjoying what is and trying not to get too attached, knowing change will come.

Rain Photo by Cristi Goia on Unsplash

Seeing My Whiteness

What are my earliest memories of being aware that I was white? That seems a very different question than asking when I first noticed other people’s skin color.

My mother told a story about a trip to New York when I was really little. My dad was in the Navy and was signing paperwork to re-up for a few more years. They had a car and offered another sailor who was black a ride. Apparently, I was afraid of him and kept saying something about him being pink. You need to know that I had spent the first years of my life in Morocco. Darker faces theoretically should not have been unusual so, why the upset?

When I was around two and a half, my mom left my dad, and we went to her parent’s house in the country outside Fairhope, Alabama. My grandfather made a living collecting pine sap and turning it into turpentine. Again, no personal memories, but I’ve seen pictures of a black man named Mose that worked for him. In the photo, he’s sitting in a chair in their kitchen, holding a plate of food. My understanding is that when somebody took this picture, the rest of us were sitting in the next room eating. Probably my mother, since I have the picture. He was a person I was familiar with, and apparently, I wasn’t in the least afraid of him.

From the vantage point of time, I wonder what was going on in the adults’ minds involved in these stories. None of them are alive to ask about it, but I can take a guess based on incidents I do remember. The New York story took place in the late 1950s, and it was a fellow sailor. My parents were probably only mildly embarrassed at my childish behavior. On the other hand, they probably didn’t blink an eye about Mose not eating at the table with everyone else. But what did the sailor think? Mose?

Fast forward to when my daughter was little. It was the mid-1990s. I was a working mom, and my daughter spent her days at a home daycare run by a Cuban American mother and daughter. The mother cared for my daughter. She spoke Spanish to her and cried when I moved her to a nursery school closer to my work when she was around one and a half years old. The lead teacher, Jody, was a very experienced black woman.  The first week was rough. A new place, new people, and my daughter cried when I tried to leave her. Jody said not to worry. That my child probably hadn’t seen many black people. She’d seen it before, but it always worked out just fine.

I knew I was white at that moment. I’ll never forget the shameful feeling of being so white and living in a bubble of whiteness. I thought I wasn’t racist. My work world was multi-racial. But it was heavily steeped in the “I don’t see color” denial. I lived in primarily white North Fulton County. I wondered whether my little girl was crying because new places are scary or afraid because Jody had a different skin color than she did. Jody was right that it all worked out. She came to our house, bringing her niece with her, to baby-sit. My daughter named her white baby doll after her. But Jody and I never had a conversation about it again. I didn’t ask what she really thought.

But I didn’t understand the amount of space that I take up as a white person without giving it any thought until a couple of years ago in the grocery store. I was running into the grocery store to get one thing on the way to somewhere else. I was walking fast and focused on finding the item I needed and wondering why Kroger thought they had to lay out every store just a little differently. I was annoyed and barreled out of an aisle into the path of an older black woman pushing her cart full of groceries. The alarmed and fearful look on her face stopped me in my tracks.

The space I take up matters. I have no right to move thoughtlessly through the world, and my self-centeredness has significantly more effect on those with brown and black skin. Changing requires breaking a lifetime of habitually asking first and foremost how things affect me. As I listen to the news or make everyday decisions, the lens through which I look must be broader. I must ask, “How does this affect people of color?” I can’t assume I know. I must ask. I must listen and remove myself as the central opinion to be considered. How could I possibly justify not caring about their wellbeing? It’s not a sacrifice. It is an act of love.

I’ve come relatively late in my life to this point of view. White culture still has a strong gravitational pull towards centering self. I need a more substantial practice of resisting it than just being hospitable to people in my building or sincerely grateful to the lady at the self-checkout. So I seek out places to use my skills to support women of color who are leaders. Sometimes, I don’t believe anything has or will change in the world around me. But if love can continue to change me and the seeds of freedom to change are planted in even one other person, love has grown.

Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.

Romans 8:11 (The Message)

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

The Transforming Power of Spiritual Practices

I have meditated for several years, sometimes more consistently than at others. I’ve done it long enough to know that it helps open and free my mind to think differently. But I wanted to solidify the practice and make it a regular part of my everyday life. I also longed for rituals and life rhythms that would help me stay focused on living out the life values I professed. So I signed up for a class at Columbia’s Center for Lifelong Learning entitled Call to the Center. The Covid-19 pandemic that had started in the spring of 2020 seemed the perfect time to focus on daily practice. But by the time class ended and it was time to write the essay, we were moving into the holiday season. The rhythms begun during the course turned my reading/reflection and meditation practice into a routine.

As I thought about the work I have done toward integrating what I believe about God and myself in relationship to God, it started to become more apparent to me that spiritual practices are the mechanisms I use to create a container for holding these beliefs as I move through everyday life. This view helped me see that spiritual practices are essential to my journey living into the freedom of God’s love. A few of my old beliefs about transformation were not valid.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV) was a favorite quote in many sermons I heard growing up. It says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The preacher’s implication was a one-time salvation event that would get rid of all my human imperfections. Well, I lived in Central Florida during my teenage years, and when Disney World opened, we went there often. I had seen a sign that read, “the doors will open automagically when it’s time to enter the theatre.” It would be fantastic if we could learn a new framing story about God for our lives, envision a new identity based on love, and automagically erase all the old learning, harmful habitual response mechanisms, and the pain from the old beliefs. However, we still live with the realities of being human alongside our new understanding of having God’s kingdom residing within us.

As I read Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Pray and Inner Awakening, I uncovered another old belief that needed to be unlearned. Just because the Divine lives in me and through me does not negate the reality of my humanness. God’s creation was good, and being human is not a disease that needs to be cured [1]. The unique human essence is useful and is the “raw material” for creatively living out who I was created to be [2]. Honoring and accepting myself is part of the journey towards being fully alive, living in companionship with God and other people.

The idea that personal transformation is a process resonates with my experience. When I studied practical theology, the study of aligning theological understanding and lived experience, I learned it was based on the praxis of action and reflection. Organizational change management theory includes implementing and reporting or reviewing for evolving and adapting business processes.

Richard Rohr believes in the inseparability of contemplation and action in the process of transformation so much that the non-profit he founded is named Center for Action and Contemplation [3]. Contemplation or “looking thoughtfully at something for a long time” provides the input we need to embody what we believe. After we act, returning to contemplation helps us notice the result, and the cycle begins again.  I’ve found that spiritual practices are necessary to increase my capacity to engage in contemplation, take action, and be transformed over time.

Awareness Meditation and Centering Prayer

I had never seen a difference between awareness meditation [4] which I learned from the Buddhist tradition, paying attention to my breath, and centering prayer. The use of a word to refocus the wandering mind seemed the same as returning to the breath. Bourgeault talks about three types of meditation, each with a specific purpose for the practice. She describes my practice of attending to my breath as providing clarity of mind [5]. It has been instrumental in providing insight into my false self’s actions and making connections to alternate ways of being. It has slowed my thinking mind, reactive behaviors and allows me to notice what is happening internally. I am becoming more present to God’s work in the world.

The practice of centering prayer has an additional function that I had previously not considered. Based on the understanding that God, the kingdom of God, is within me, my attention during meditation moves from my head and thoughts to my heart or soul space where God and I reside together. Within God’s loving presence, I can release all the unhelpful judging, defending, and afraid parts of myself. In the moments when I return my wandering mind to my heart, I am free and fully loved [6]. I can experience these moments whether I am using my breath or a word because it is an internal movement of allowing myself to be without trying to accomplish anything.

I’ve become fascinated with noticing how this practice of visualizing the movement from head to heart and resting in that true self communing with God is unfolding a new sense of awareness. I’ve been more aware of the moments between stimulus and response as I go about my day. The inner observer [7], which I think of as God and my true self, can be heard more often in those moments.  I’ve also observed more clearly some of the false or small ego parts of myself asserting themselves and remember that emotion only lasts about a minute and a half [8]. I can sit with, really feel it for that long before taking any action. Sometimes a little breathing is needed to calm my nervous system, but it works a bit better every time I practice this.

Welcoming Prayer

Whether you use the Christian terminology of surrender [9] or the Buddhist description of letting go of attachments [10], the process of letting go of thoughts during meditation prepares me for another spiritual practice. My spiritual director has long encouraged me to practice welcoming prayer. Maybe I just wasn’t spiritually ready, or perhaps I just needed a slightly different way to practice it. This practice is an active letting go of the underlying defensive or protective emotion to see more clearly what your next right action should be.

In Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, I found Mary Mrozowski’s four-line litany very helpful for this “letting go” process. The last two lines are most often the hardest for me [11].

“I let go my desire for security and survival.
I let go my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go my desire for power and control.
I let go my desire to change the situation.”

However, when I can practice acknowledging the small ego parts of myself and move back into the heart space where I am aware of God and my creative, loving self within, I can more often break a cycle of behaviors and habits. Bourgeault warns that this is not about fixing yourself or getting rid of parts of yourself that you don’t like [12]. This practice frees us to allow our true self to emerge, and we can be who God has created us to be [13].

Loving Kindness Meditation

For those of us who are just beginning to internalize a new framing story about God, ourselves, and our relationships, seeing and feeling emotions and old habits and their harm to ourselves and others can be overwhelming at times. I know this is very true for me. My reactions vary from beating up on myself to a kind-hearted acknowledgment of the pattern accompanied by a desire to do things differently. I find myself turning to another type of meditation I learned a few years ago to help me turn towards myself with love as I continue my inner work.

I took a compassion meditation course at the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Brookhaven through Emory [14]. I found it builds upon the awareness meditation I practice to internalize the Buddhist understanding that everyone has an inborn desire to be happy and free of suffering. This desire can lead us into those false self or small ego actions that we try to use to shield ourselves from anything that we think prevents happiness or causes suffering. By offering ourselves or extending compassion to others, we can stay with our own humanness and establish a connection to others’ humanity.

Compassion or loving-kindness meditation offers love and compassion for the internal struggle I must allow as I welcome and truly experience my feelings as they arise. The practice provides a process that helps me turn lovingly towards all the parts of myself when my body wants to run or overthink. It also helps me connect with the pain and suffering that is going on in the people around me. Through this lens, I can refocus within the life-giving framework of the kingdom of God in each person. This work of generating compassion and empathy is ongoing and is foundational for continuing my inner work.

Where Do I Go From Here?

 Spiritual practice was not a term I grew up knowing. I got the impression that, for most people, reading the entire Bible every year and kneeling for daily praying was what was required to be a good Christian. My mother was one of the few people I knew who quietly and consistently practiced these things out of devotion instead of obligation. I no longer see the practices I choose to work with as just another item on my to-do list. They are rituals, each with its purpose and intention. I am practicing these things with attention to that purpose and include them in my daily planning [15]. I’ve come to understand that the need for spiritual practices is fluid, and the choice of what I choose to do varies with the circumstances and needs of my life. But, I now understand the need for ongoing and regular methods of actively keeping my mind, body, and spirit engaged with loving God, self, and neighbor.

This understanding has led to incorporating other rituals and practices into my life. I’ve embraced yoga as a means of learning to identify my body’s needs and how the body interacts with my thoughts and emotions. Casper Kuile, in his book, The Power of Ritual, shared a quote from Aldous Huxley that reads, “It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine [16].” I’m beginning to experience this. Writing free-form pages about my life every morning and regularly reviewing them has become a practice with results similar to the examen. It helps me name my needs and feelings and see connections. I’ve seen the effect of telling the truth in my writing as to God and asking for direction and further insight [17]. From Lectio Divina experiences, I have created a writing practice about what I’m reading and exploring new concepts that help integrate what I’ve learned [18]. I use Instagram as a means of recording where I am encountering God in daily life.

Some of these have become habits foundational to maintaining a life lived according to my expressed values. Others come and go as needed or as experiments. Kuile shares that the word spiritual means a pointer to something beyond language. I realized I would like to add visual elements to increase attention during these practices to their spiritual purpose [19]. I want to experiment with lighting candles, preparing the space with a smell, or playing music consistently to “consecrate or dedicate” the time [20].

It’s all part of the freedom and creativity of the journey.

“So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go.”

Matthew 8:12-14, The Message

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Kindle (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2004), 105.
[2] Bourgeault, 106.
[3] “Who We Are,” Center for Action and Contemplation, accessed February 27, 2021, https://cac.org/about/who-we-are/.
[4] Bourgeault, 20.
[5] Bourgeault, 119.
[6] Bourgeault, 117.
[7] Bourgeault, 129.
[8] Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Kindle (Boston & London: Shambala, 2012), 12.
[9] Beaugalt, 162.
[10] Chodron, 9.
[11] Bourgeault, 147.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Bourgeault, 149
[14] “Overview | Emory University | Atlanta GA,” accessed March 6, 2021, http://compassion.emory.edu/cbct-compassion-training/index.html.
[15] Casper Kuile, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, Kindle (New York: Harper One, 2020), 25.
[16] Kuile, 109.
{17] Kuile, 154.
[18] Kuile, 35.
[19] Kuile, 28.
[20] Kuile, 40.