Mindful Mess

My contemplative practice has long been influenced by the 15th Century mystic Madame Jeanne Guyon. She teaches a number of types of contemplative prayer in her books Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and Union with God. Her starting point is that if, indeed, you have given over your life in some way to God, God dwells or abides in you. Therefore, prayer is a form of turning inward to connect with that divine presence. As you try to turn inward, you are often distracted by many thoughts, but one must gently and compassionately continue to return to the presence in our time of prayer — or indeed for Guyon, throughout the entire day. She often used a slow and savouring reading of scripture or the Lord’s prayer in conjunction with this.

One of the dangers of these forms of prayer and meditation is that we start to see all our thoughts and feelings as ‘distractions’ from the peace that comes when we are ‘truly’ in union. But what I have learned more recently is that these times of slowing down and connecting inward often bring out big and difficult feelings, feelings that should not, really, always be pushed aside in favour of ‘peace’. It may be that our spiritual work is in fact to pay attention to these difficult feelings in order to become more self-aware and thus, I think, less likely to externalise these difficult feelings through unhelpful behaviours.

In recent times, I have been using a number of different contemplative practices in combination to do some of this work. At the moment, I am often beginning with short periods of mindfulness — often timing up to 15 minutes on the insight timer app, which has a nice bell at beginning and end (I also set up ‘wood block’ sounds every 5 minutes to remind myself of what I am supposed to be doing as my mind goes off on tangents quite easily). During this time I pay attention to my breath, body, mood, obsessive thoughts and so on. Often difficult things come up here: my shoulders are tense and hurting, I’m thirsty, I am angry or resentful, I am feeling lonely. This helps me decide what to do next, if I am so lucky to have a quiet time longer than that (which I often can now my children are older, and I am getting up earlier on my own).

So next might be some reading (recently, Henri Nouwen) or some journalling. I’ve worked hard in the last six months or so to get really honest in my journalling. It’s difficult to see my difficult feelings written down in actual words, and I feel very self-conscious. For example, feeling jealousy or envy seems facile and immature to me and I have trouble admitting even to myself when this is bothering me. But journalling can often spiral into self-loathing, so I do try to then make time for prayer after this.

I have recently been more influenced by Cynthia Bourgeault’s teaching on centreing prayer, as well as using a centreing prayer guided session on insight timer as well, led by Maria Gullo. This form of prayer, for me, is more of a restful awareness — a deliberate sitting in openness to God and gently and compassionately  returning to focus with a ‘sacred word’ when we notice ourselves getting distracted by the shopping list or the self-loathing or the stress. The idea is that the word acts as consent for God to work in you. This, for me, balances out the going deeper with journalling and mindfulness, allowing a period of letting go, of not being responsible, of allowing things to just be — and also to be different, potentially.

One of the things I have worried about alot in recent times is that this spiritual practice is not based on bible reading. But at this point in my life, I have read through the bible so many times that it was in danger of becoming a meaningless rule based task, with the same interpretations of the same passages, and no transformation  or growth in my own Christian walk. Yet at the same time, I can see that allowing God to work more deeply in my emotions, thoughts and mess is absolutely the right place to be. I feel deep gratitude to have been lead into this place of acceptance, to the friends and church people who have led me here, and to the Daily Marinade community for supporting contemplative practice in Aotearoa New Zealand, the bloggersphere, twitterverse and beyond.

Kelly Dombroski writes at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com

Taking a break from all of the feelings

Somehow, yesterday, I came across this episode of Insight, an Australian current affairs programme. It’s called Wine O’Clock, and subtitled ‘why women over 40 are drinking more than ever’. I’m not yet 40, but it was scary how much of what they were saying could be the future of some the choices I, and people I know, are making right now.

Many of the women had a glass of wine every night while cooking dinner — a way to relax after a day of kid-wrangling, work, and you know, just being a woman and all that might mean in your situation. For many of them, this became their enjoyment and relaxation, an acceptable way to switch off and relax while still being at home and (mostly) present with your family.  But for some it was quite a bit more, and becoming a health issue: One of the women talked about how she realised drinking a bottle of wine every evening was problematic, but every time she raised it with her friends or family, they brushed it off as normal. Many of them did it too.

One moment of telling interest was when a member of the audience described how giving up was easy for the first few days, then about day four she began ‘feeling again’ — which she hadn’t done for years. Another woman on the stage had already mentioned the need to ‘relax’ and ‘switch off’ and that wine provided that.

It got me thinking about the need to switch off. I think we all have that need, and when life is tough, or boring, or pointless, or we are questioning the routine of sandwich-making, organising people against their will, cleaning up crumbs and other people’s hair, while holding down a job and looking professional on top of all that, caring for parents and other family members needing emotional, financial or physical support — well, yes, my friends, a mental holiday may indeed be in order. And wine is a very tempting way to do so!

But two things here for us to think about in terms of our spirituality. One, we have to find a spiritually (and physically!) sustainable way to take those small mental breaks; and Two, we can’t avoid all of the feelings forever.

Taking a break

For me — and many who read The Daily Marinade — a contemplative spiritual practice is one way to take those breaks in feeling and doing and never seemingly being enough, or indeed, too much emotionally. Centreing prayer, Lectio Divina and other slow scripture practices , a contemplative collective worship or prayer meeting or practice, meditation, breathing, walking, yoga and more. What these practices offer over and above other forms of regular Christian practice is the opportunity to learn how to put aside worry and overwhelming feelings and to experience just being. It doesn’t come easily, but eventually, we can get better at settling in to ourselves, finding that point of connection with the divine, and resting.

Dealing with feeling

But of course, we cannot rest forever, and we cannot always be pushing aside our feelings and not dealing with the things that make us want to switch off in both healthy and unhealthy ways. But a rested mind and a renewed spirit are perhaps better able to hear the voice or gentle nudges of God, to put our emotional turmoil in perspective, and to find the strength to act as we might need to. I often find after an hour of yoga, concentrating on the poses and breathing, then resting in meditation, I then experience a sudden insight into a problem I have been chewing on (or obsessing over) for some time. It is hard work to do personal work, and to recognise what is going on for us emotionally in any given season of our lives: but it is important for our spiritual walk and growth.

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What kinds of contemplative practices resonate with you? When might you need to use them, and how might you make the time to do so? It can be hard, clearing space to do this. One busy mother I know meditates next to the blender while making smoothies — she cannot hear her children for some brief minutes over the noise of blender! Others find time on the bus or train, in their lunch hour, early in the morning, or while the kids are entertained on the trampoline. Can you ask for the help you need to make these spaces?

Kelly Dombroski writes on care, women’s lives, community economies and other things, normally in secular academic outputs. You can find her less academic work at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com .

I know, I’ll wait, I’m here

In a post circulating on facebook from 2016, a woman describes her struggle with giving up alcohol in a society that seems to require women to drink to just get through life. Giving up drinking seems to have rendered her acutely aware of her misery and unable to blunt it or to smooth it over.  In her case her suffering seems to come from at least a few different points, including a kind of omnipresent sexism in the work place, an ongoing  demand from her peers that she “enjoy” herself, particularly through adding wine into every occasion, and finally the way in which society seems to have transformed the feminist proposition “you can be anything” into “you must be everything”, an acute pain that seems to underlie her deep-seated ambivalence about sober life.

As co-authors interested in the problem of care in contemporary society, we were struck by this story, and asked ourselves the question: how could one care for a woman for whom life seems so impossible?

This is a question asked by Henri Nouwen in his 1972 book The Wounded Healer, in his case through an analysis of an ineffectual ministry conversation between a young theology student visiting a sick farm-worker waiting for surgery in hospital.  The farm-worker expressed – somewhat hesitantly – his fear of death, and his fear of life, in which no one waited for him to return from his operation. Sadly, he dies soon after on the operating table.  Nouwen asks how a young theology student with plenty to live for can respond to a stranger alone and in need. He encourages the minister to step into the life world of the stranger and offer personal concern and love. To offer, in fact, not to be a skilled counsellor, but to be the person waiting for him to return from surgery, in solidarity in both life and death.

How can we really be present for someone in both life and death? To offer structured counseling responses to the woman struggling with sober life  would perhaps not be as useful as being the person waiting, being willing to sit alongside in sobriety and life and say not ‘it will all be OK’ but I know, I’ll wait, I’m here. And through that statement, to draw attention not just to our presence but the possibility of One greater than ourselves who is also knowing, waiting, here.

Nouwen suggests that being present in this way can make the difference even in the few moments we might have with a stranger – to ignore our calendars and commitments, to express solidarity in the struggle of life and death and to be willing to ‘leave the ninety-nine in order to go after the one’. He asks us not to ‘diminish the power of waiting by saying that a lifesaving relationship cannot develop in an hour’, insisting that:

One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it needs only a second to be born (p 72).

He continues the thought when considering love and solidarity in death as well as life:

“I will be waiting for you,” means much more than, “If you make it through the operation I will be here with you again.” There will be no “ifs.” “I will wait for you” goes beyond death and is the deepest expression of solidarity that breaks through the chains of death (p 74).

In that moment, Nouwen asserts, we are no longer ‘minister’ and ‘stranger’, but ‘two human beings who awaken in each other the deepest human intuition – that life is eternal and cannot be made futile by a biological process’ (p 75).

We finish with another facebook story: of  Mohammed Bzeek, an LA man  who fosters terminally ill children since his own near-death experience of facing cancer treatment alone. He brings the children in to his home and nurses them until death, holding them in their last moments, communicating I know, I’ll wait, I’m here. Drawing on his own faith in God’s love for each of these children, he doesn’t shy away from the pain life can bring, or demand we enjoy ourselves.

We don’t all get the chance to minister in that grand scale, but in this day, this week, this space – can we awaken faith and hope through our care-full love of the stranger who happens into our lives, and indeed, our neighbour? Can we draw attention, not to ourselves, but to the possibility of an ongoing contemplative spiritual connection to God, through being present in another’s pain – or in this case, being in some ways The Presence.

Stephen Healy and Kelly Dombroski collaborate in writing and thinking about care. You can find us both at www.communityeconomies.org , Kelly also blogs at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com

Solitude and Connection

 

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and pastime.

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

I recently read this quote in a book about introverts. The words pierced me sharply and took my breath away. Convicted me, one might say.

I’m not an introvert, you see. I have long realised that for me to continue growing in my relationship with God, I need to be in community with other people doing so. I feel close to God when doing God-related stuff with other people who want to be close to God too. So I make time for those activities: for about 18 years I’ve been involved with worship leading in a variety of contexts, working with others to craft spaces where people might encounter God; I have been involved in groups, prayers groups, homegroups, student groups, and reading groups; I have committed myself to things like The Daily Marinade, knowing that it will push me towards God if I am in a position of having to write something other people will read.

For a long time, I’ve accepted that I need those things. But sometimes I slip from acceptance and knowledge that I need those things to relying on those things to the degree that they become my only relationship with God. And that is why the Gibran quote struck me.

In the quietist practice of contemplative prayer — which I have tried on and off to practice for some 16 years or so — we turn our attention inward and focus on our ‘hearts’, a metaphor for that small place in us where, somehow, miraculously, mysteriously, the Holy Spirit dwells. We don’t have to produce, we don’t have to speak, we just have to be still and know. When I read the Gibran quote recently, I realised that I had been living through my ‘lips’, through communications with others over contemplation in the solitude of my heart.

I do need others, that is true. But spending time alone and in contemplation strengthens my connection — not just with God, but with who I am when others are not around. In fact, on one point I disagree with Gibran — our hearts are not a place of solitude, but a place of true unity and connection. When we take multiple small moments in our day to draw ourselves inwards in little sips of apparent solitude, even those of us that are extroverted can find connection to the Mystery of the indwelling Spirit.

Kelly Dombroski is a writer, mother, lecturer and avid reader, among other things. She blogs at https://throwntogetherness.wordpress.com. Tweets as @DombroskiKelly.

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