My current spiritual practice includes, among other things, the excruciatingly slow reading of the Bible and other wisdom texts. I typically read a paragraph, or a few verses, per day; that’s plenty to sit with in silent prayer and ponder the depths that the passage may hold.
This year I began reading The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day in this way. (If you don’t know Dorothy Day, you can start here to get acquainted with her—a writer, journalist, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, tireless advocate for pacifism and against poverty, etc.) Today, quite by accident, what came up was her entry for the first Friday in Lent 1935. Very short and yet, my goodness, it could have been written yesterday:
Lent is teaching me a great deal through the lessons at hand—teaching me not to be surprised at the foolishness, even the treachery of creatures. [This lesson] really has nothing to do with them—…it is for my good.
Is there anywhere in our public square that’s not rife with this kind of foolishness? Does it rile you up as it does me? I would love, instead, to learn what Dorothy learned: to take it all in stride, not excusing the treachery but approaching it with a clear mind.
For those of you who practice Lent, may you have a blessed one.
Two months ago I got hit with a torrent of inner conflicts/issues/etc., what I will refer to as dreck. The dreck included huge lifetime struggles with body image, my intense craving for approval, and my occasional impatience with chronic illness.
It was intense.
I know that deep spiritual practice tends to stir things up. But along with the dreck came an attitude I didn’t even know I had: I should be done with this by now.
I should be, right? I’ve done therapy off and on for 40 years. I’ve kept a journal off and on for 40 years. Plenty of time to steam-shovel the big stuff, so that all I have to do now is fine tune.
No. As God/Reality/the Universe was trying to tell me, it doesn’t work that way.
People I respect confirmed this message. My Zen teacher compared self-transformation to “peeling the infinite layers of an onion.” My spiritual director told me about an interview with Carl Jung in which he said the conscious mind never stops processing, even in the face of death.
The clincher, for me, was a famous line from Dogen, the monk who brought Zen to Japan: “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.” (Full text of the quote here.) Since studying the Buddha Way can take forever, why wouldn’t studying the self?
So, no: I guess we’re never done with the inner dreck. Conflicts we’ve long suppressed finally come to the surface. Issues we’ve dealt with for years demand another go. Spiritual practice keeps stirring the pot.
But why bother? On one level I want to say we’re asked to do it. On another, though, we mine such rich veins of life in the process. Sometimes we find deep healing, as I’m now finding—maybe for the first time since I was eight—with body image. Sometimes we glimpse a clear, liberating view of reality, and it takes our breath away, and that clarity and liberation are worth the whole long hard slog.
This aspect of life isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. But if it calls to you, pay attention. You’re in for one hell of a ride.
Questions? Comments? Bring ‘em.
The 2024 U.S. presidential election has become more personal to me—more personally threatening—than any other in my lifetime.
It took 60-some years for me to experience such a threat, thanks to a boatload of advantages I haven’t really earned: I’m white, college-educated, often mistaken for cis male. As a result, I’ve had the liberty to make voting decisions on “objective,” “rational” criteria, which here means criteria removed from my own experience. I read about the candidates, weigh their positions, get a sense of how they think, choose one. It’s not a bad approach per se. But I employ it at a certain distance.
Now comes 2024, and one aspect of my life—my status as a nonbinary person—is under attack.
Recently The Atlantic, AP news, and other sources have reported on Donald Trump’s rhetoric and plans for trans people.*** Because some of my friends may dismiss these sources as “liberal media,” I web-searched to see if I could find the same plans coming from Trump’s own lips. I did. Here’s what I found in two videos featuring Trump himself:
So if Donald Trump wins back the presidency, my own government may well cease to recognize me, or at least an essential truth about me. Being trans or nonbinary will suddenly become “less than,” or “less tolerated.” It’s easier to openly take negative stances against people in such circumstances. That can have consequences: as we’ve seen, some of Trump’s followers take his words and actions as license to commit violence against those not in his favor.
Granted, the risk to me is probably not high. But my trans friends and relatives may be more in harm’s way—whether the threat is to their personal safety or their access to needed services like healthcare and housing. So the 2024 election could reshape my own life and those of people I love.
It took this wakeup call to get me thinking of people and groups for whom every election is personal—and personally threatening. How they’ve lived with such a threat all these years, I have no idea.
What about the rest of you? What’s your experience of taking elections personally?
***Footnote: The line between trans and nonbinary is fuzzier than it used to be, which is why I feel justified in taking this personally. I seriously doubt Trump knows the difference.
Late last year, in a town about 90 minutes from us, a house exploded--really exploded. People felt it 40 miles away. Investigators found that an accidental gas leak caused the explosion.
My first thought when I heard the news? Meth lab.
I know precious little about that town, let alone the house or its residents. There are millions more U.S. homes fueled with natural gas than there are drug labs (yes, I checked). So what the hell was I thinking?
I was thinking the way many folks think these days: assume the worst.
Consider the beliefs and stereotypes you hear from people assuming the worst. Doctors who order tests are just padding their bills. People who favor controls on immigration are racists. Businesses care about nothing but the bottom line. Scientists skew their research conclusions to please their grantors.
It’s true that, for each of the above statements, there are a few scoundrels. But too many people believe that everyone’s a scoundrel in a given category. Look how many human institutions (government, science, and the military, to name three) are no longer viewed with trust by large swaths of the populace.
There are problems with assuming the worst. For one thing, it’s flat-out inaccurate. I’ve met scientists who conduct research with the highest integrity, CEOs who care deeply about global concerns, doctors who are not padding their bills but using new and better tests to deliver better care. For another thing, when I assume bad intent, I can’t view the person I’m talking with as a unique being, with a unique perspective. I’ll learn little or nothing from the conversation.
In contrast, when I assume good intent, my heart opens. I’m suddenly attentive to whatever this person has to say. I may hear something that counters my hidden stereotypes or at least adds nuance to my thinking. Best of all, I’m open to a new or deeper bond.
Assuming good intent can also help us process the news. Yes, reporters and their employers have biases, and those biases may color their reporting. But what if we started by assuming that the reporter is trying to present the facts as they’ve uncovered them in their investigation? There’s time to factor in bias later, as we reflect on what’s before us.
Two other things about assuming good intent:
What about you? Like me, you’ve probably done your share of both, good and bad intent. What is each one like for you?
Yesterday, New Year’s Day, around 7:00 a.m., I gazed out the high window in our family room (as usual) and found a clear sky (not usual). It promised pink and blue later in the day but wasn’t there yet. I’d spent the week beforehand in an intensive at-home retreat, and I hadn’t noticed the unremitting gray skies that are more typical of our region. Still, the early morning clarity was a delightful surprise.
I’d like to cherish clarity and beauty, and wisdom, and delightful surprises as they come this year—and if they’re blogworthy, I’ll share them. They’ll likely mix with more difficult posts, because 2024 looks to be a difficult year for so many of us. Some topics will tread on sensitive ground, and I will do my best to handle with care. Some posts may seem political, but politics will (in most cases) not be the point; rather, I’ll use the political landscape to address a larger, more universal question.
As I said a while back, I have no clue how often I’ll post here. One thing I do know: I’d love to have you join me on this journey. One person’s thoughts can only go so far. Many people’s thoughts can do much more. And if we get to enjoy some clarity and beauty along the way, so much the better.
For the past couple of months, my brain has been working on two posts for this space. Now I may never post either of them, and I’m not entirely sure why.
One involves the 2024 election—how it’s the first election in which I have a deeply personal stake in who wins. The other concerns the Israel-Gaza war. Even though I’ve mulled both of these at length, I cannot shake a sickish feeling deep within my chest, the sense that these are not yours to post.
Israel-Gaza has inspired thoughts in me from the beginning, many of which I haven’t seen articulated in mainstream or social media. So there might be value in saying (posting) them out loud. But they have a certain reserve from the raw events on the ground, as though they come from my head and not my heart. They feel like what I’ve called “the arrogance of the abstract.”
The election post has run into its own quagmire. Here I am, having voted since 1976, and it takes till 2024 for me to have a deeply personal stake? This makes my observations feel like small potatoes compared with those whose lives could be upended by every election, especially people on the margins. My post feels too me-centered right now, too removed from the larger landscape.
Neither post, at this point, would do what I believe this blog (and my whole vocation) want to do: to spur myself and others to explore certain aspects of life as honestly and openheartedly as we can, within ourselves and with one another.
It may seem like overthinking to ponder this question in today’s “post everything” social media landscape. On the contrary, it’s precisely today’s social media landscape that makes this kind of pondering useful.* So…how do you decide when to speak, or post, and when to keep your thoughts to yourself?
*Here I’m alluding to the suggestion (original source and wording unknown) to ask yourself three questions before saying anything: Is it true? Is it useful? Is it kind? Do you use this formula? How has it worked for you?
A few years ago, I utterly blew a Zoom presentation.
On the third sentence I forgot what to say. I spent long painful moments shuffling my script. My voice lapsed into a monotone and stayed there the whole 20 minutes. I kept looking at the webcam, per expert advice, and got further disoriented.
Right afterward, I knew exactly what had happened. The presentation took place on the day of a time-zone change, and time-zone changes unhinge me. Because of said change, I didn’t realize the presentation time was also my body’s lunchtime, so I launched into the speech ravenous. Oh, and I’d had zero experience formally presenting on Zoom.
Great lessons, right? Clearly the next step was to absorb them and move on.
Oh no. Instead I spent two years thinking I am a bad speaker, and I will never present in public again.
In other words, I got myself stuck.
Now I knew this wasn’t true. I’d presented enough to have complete confidence that my public speaking ability is absolutely…OK. Not Barack Obama, not Billy Graham, but not bad. All that evidence should have nipped stuckness in the bud. But it didn’t.
Has this ever happened to you? Ever get stuck in a view of yourself that isn’t accurate, and it holds you back?
I don’t have a nice three-point presentation on How to Get Unstuck. In my case, a dream highlighted my stuckness in rather vivid detail. I journaled about the dream, the lessons I’d learned from that invaluable experience two years ago, and the view of myself I need to take forward: i.e., my OKness in in-the-flesh formats (jury’s still out on Zoom).
Of course, your mileage to getting unstuck may vary. But I’d love to hear your experience if you’re willing to share. How have you gotten stuck, and how did you get out? Feel free to email me, respond in the Comments section, or share it on Facebook.
A wise friend of mine posts thought-provoking “questions of the week” on Facebook. Last week’s question provoked an answer from me, and it’s got me thinking again about the difference I can and can’t make in the world. Because this feels so right for the blog, I’ve reproduced it here (with slight edits). I’d love to hear what you think of this.
My friend’s question:
What’s the thing you feel most powerless or helpless about?
I'm getting to a point where I feel powerless about the things I AM powerless about--specifically, things where my one-person's best contribution cannot begin to address the scale of the problem. Climate change. The rush to AI without proper reflection. The horrific state of polarization in the U.S. The resurgence of totalitarianism.
I look at these problems and think, (a) I cannot change their course by myself, and (b) as a species or nation, etc., we're probably screwed—or at least headed for a worse place than we inhabited several decades ago.
This sounds like despair but it is emphatically not. I THINK it's coming from a deep place in my Zen practice. What it does is liberate me to set the big problems aside and be my best self, do my best work, to serve the people and causes I can actually make a difference with. As an older nonbinary person, for instance, I can model what that's like to the world. As a writer, I can address issues that sit deep in my heart, without a thought of whether my writing will change the world. As a bireligious person (Christian and Zen), I can model interfaith bridge building by BEING interfaith bridge building. Etc.
Bottom line, I feel powerless over a lot of things, because I am. And seeing that fact releases what power I do have.
My question to you, dear reader:
What do you think? Feel free to email me, post your thoughts in the Comments section, or put them on Facebook.
Who are the channel markers in your life?
Over the years I’ve had several “channel markers” of the human kind. Like keeping an eye on buoys to steer your boat safely, I watch how these people conduct some aspect of their lives that sets a standard I want to meet. Then I steer myself according to what I see in them.
Sometimes the standard is written down, and my channel markers excel at meeting it. When raising guinea pigs, we specialized in a couple of particular breeds and colors. Our animals eventually became quite good, according to the written Standard of Perfection. But two or three breeders were justly known as the finest in the U.S. for what we raised. When given the chance, I’d watch what these breeders were showing, and use them as channel markers for my own efforts. Was the color on my animals rich enough? Could I improve the body shape? Just by doing what they did, these folks inspired me to do better.
Sometimes the standard is less clear. About 10 years ago I worked for a consultancy that applied the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to organizations. One of my co-workers had been involved in this work for many years. A Black woman, Carol approached many DEI issues with a vigor and mode of thought that never would have occurred to me. I didn’t always agree with her, but I could see how much more she knew and had experienced. So, as I did my own internal work on DEI, I’d look over to see what she was doing, how she thought about this or that, and (I hope) my own sensitivity grew.
The funny thing about my channel markers is they’re not necessarily my best friends. In some cases they’re not even alive. One of my go-to channel markers is a French nun who died some 125 years ago. If not for her penetrating autobiography, St. Thérèse of Lisieux would have been lost to history. Between that book, her letters, her last conversations, and even her poetry, she detailed a way of spirituality that I’ve drawn wisdom from for years.
Bottom line, I see something in these people that I need in my life, so I keep an eye out.
What about you? Who are your channel markers? How does keeping an eye on them guide you? Do they know they serve this role for you?
It has been 19 months since my last blog post.
I don’t mean that as an apology. A great deal has happened in those months, and it’s turned my life into a non-blogging direction. As if that weren’t enough, the climate for authentic dialogue in the U.S. (at least) has deteriorated further, and quite honestly, it’s discouraged me. The waste of words in the public square these days is vast, and I find myself wanting to run in the opposite direction.
However…I miss the conversations with friends and colleagues. I learned a great deal from you in the process. And maybe the vast waste of words means that good words—yours and mine—are more needed than ever.
So let’s give this a go. I make no guarantees of blog frequency, or topic, or much else with regard to this blog. I do know that if it’s going to work at all, it has to begin in the depths of my own heart. That’s a pretty mysterious place, so there’s no telling what might come out. Here, however, are a few close-to-my-hearts you might see: