From paralysis to power

If we pay attention and discern the messages in our emotions—joy and sadness, anger and fear—we can use what we learn from this inner experience to guard our wellbeing. However, this very thought rang alarm bells for both my colleague Kelsey and my wife Burna: What keeps us from being paralyzed by our emotions?

Paralysis is the result of misdirecting our energy: holding on to what we need to let go of or avoiding what we need to hold on to. Avoiding paralysis begins with our willingness to be awake and aware, and developing our capacity to observe our inner experience. When we observe our emotions and thoughts, we feel and are aware that we are feeling; we think and are aware that we are thinking. When we are awake and aware in this way, we can choose how we relate to our emotions and thoughts. By observing the ebb and flow of joy and sadness, and the energies that lift us up and settle us down, we can self-consciously choose detachment or attachment. Our observant, active awareness is what allows us to creatively use our emotions and consciously choose the direction of our energy.

Using our emotions and directing our energy requires commitment and skill. Commitment to our relationships—being present, reaching out, and offering ourselves—helps us find the motivation to do the needed letting go or holding on. Skillfully discerning the messages in our emotions helps us to decide how and in what direction to invest our energies.

Imagine a conversation between two people. They could be a couple, business associates, or school friends. A: “I realize I’ve treated you badly.” B: “Yes, and it’s made me angry.” A: “I want to make amends.” B: “And I need to practice letting go of my anger.” Both A and B have been aware of their inner experience. A has discovered a blind spot that hurt his relationship. B was aware of hurt and anger. A chose to let go of a harmful pattern. B chose to let go of painful memories.

These two people have developed an ability to observe their inner experience with an attitude of openness, honesty, and vulnerability. Both needed some letting go and both needed some holding on. They exercise their ability to discern which way their energy needs to be directed to enhance their relationship. We can refine the life skills needed to practice this kind of day-by-day transformation over a life time. And day by day, life itself supports our explorations and our discoveries.

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The universe where energy lives in matter

We’re living and working this week between two great solemnities of the Church: Trinity and Corpus Christi. This ancient language requires careful translation to connect with our lives. We look back to a celebration of the “Most Holy Trinity.” Fr. Richard Rohr describes the Christian understanding of “Trinity” as the flow of being, consciousness, and joy.

We look ahead to a celebration of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. This language is tougher to decode. It becomes clearer if say that the Christ is really present when we experience the sheer joy of being alive and filled with uplifting energy. Thus, on Corpus Christi Sunday, we can say that we celebrate with joyful gratitude the gift of creation and the spirit of self-emptying love for the world.

But how might we think about the meaning of this ancient poetry—the real presence of the body and blood of Chris—mid-week. We have to dig deeper. When we speak of the Body and the Blood, we’re alluding to the two inseparable components of the universe: matter and energy. God is not an idea, God is what we call the infinite offering of matter and energy that is the elemental stuff of our being and all Being. When we speak of the Christ, we’re alluding to the wholeness of the Trinity in Jesus’s life and our lives: in Fr. Rohr’s way of putting it—the flow of being, consciousness, and joy in every living thing.

So rather than asking “Do I believe/you believe in God?” a better question would be “How do you experience being, consciousness, and joy?” What is it like: to sit in silence, to meditate, to do a creative project, to knit or sew or do home improvement, to invent something? What is it like: to have an aha moment with an old friend, to be stretched by an exciting stranger, to be the beloved of a parent or partner, to be jolted awake by a colleague at work, to feel compassion for someone you mentor, to fall in love with the planet? What is it like: to weep because the music is beyond gorgeous, to laugh at a baby’s first steps, to cry when a lost pet is found, to giggle when a problem is solved, to feel profound happiness just holding hands, to feel peace at last when you stick your hand into the garden soil, to come home exhausted but grateful after serving meals to the homeless?

Father-Son-Holy Spirit and Body and Blood of Christ are the precious, archaic expressions we use to remind us of how life works: how Life Itself wakes us up, breaks our illusions, crashes the barriers that separate us, blows our minds, touches our hearts, and lifts us out of ourselves—so that we might live in and care for our world.

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The Orchid and the Universe

It’s the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. Last Sunday Rev. Denise at Church of the Holy Family in Aurora, Colorado, spoke about shared human experience—the heart-to-heart experiences of music, love, mercy, kindness, and joy. This coming Sunday we’ll receive Bishop Francis Krebs and together ordain Bonnie Pino-Fraser as a deacon. I’m feeling lifted up by the anticipation of choosing and receiving a new pastor, the pleasure of collegiality, and the joy of celebrating a colleague’s vocational journey.

No wonder that when the orchid on my wife Burna’s and my northwest window ledge began to bloom last week, the word emergent—“coming into being”—popped into my mind. Our human nature is emergent: like a sense of our calling in life, it comes into being over an entire lifetime. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Human beings bloom over time.

In fact, our expanding universe is emergent. Space gases and debris coalesce over eons into planets, moons, and stars. Stars explode and collapse into black holes. Our orchid is periodically emergent. There are two old stems from previous blooms, each about a year apart. Burna waters the dormant plant patiently and faithfully, and in twelve or so months, voilà, a new set of buds appears.

Like the universe, we humans are expanding. I’ve been considering meditation for many years and now a new bud is opening at last—after considerable procrastination. With fresh energy, I find that I am actually devoted to a daily practice. We humans are perpetual learners; humanity knows vastly more today about the way life works than our ancestors. Among our neighbors who come from all over the planet we occasionally discover new and remarkable friends. And most remarkable of all, we may have met Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims with whom we discover shared beliefs and experiences that illuminate our own faith journeys. Some species, like Thyme, Pink Salmon, Tawny Owls, and others are even learning how to adapt to a changing climate. How remarkable a new world is this.

Like the rest of creation, our inherent human nature is to expand and emerge: to perpetually explore with curiosity and devotion our greatest, deepest, truest selves. Our spirituality is this inherent capacity to relate afresh to ourselves, to one another, and to life itself.

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The creating, animating power

I’ve been writing about emotions and the freedom we have to welcome emotions as messengers that guard our wellbeing. But new questions arise. What is the relationship of emotions to spirituality? Can we talk about spirituality in as concrete terms as we talk about emotions? The week between our celebration of the Ascension of the Lord and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the perfect time to consider these questions.

Luke recounts the Ascension event in Acts 1: After Jesus’s so-called post-resurrection appearances, he was lifted up into a cloud and disappeared into heaven. This is a signal event in our memory of the Jesus story that points toward the coming of the spirit on Pentecost. On its face, this ancient language—lifted up, the cloud, and even the word heaven—leaves me nonplussed. To my 21st Century mind, this word picture doesn’t make sense. To a person with a scientific, urban, secular mindset, Jesus just seems to disappear without explanation.

Our founding father and mothers would not have been nonplussed; they would have been awe struck. For them, heaven—the place from which God ruled—was above. As Jesus’s followers were to make disciples of all nations, Jesus needed to be available everywhere to everyone. In the world of the early church, heaven was just such a place; even though Jesus had disappeared, he was in heaven and thus available to the whole world.

Remember, this story tells a truth: Jesus and His Father Abba are everywhere and available to everyone. What story might tell the same truth in a way that could be heard by people with a scientific, urban, secular world view? For me, the answer was as simple as turning the picture 180 degrees. Up isn’t about disappearing into the sky or climbing a ladder to heaven. Up is about going inside ourselves and discovering that God is what animates our entire being. Down is about entering the world and discovering that God is the creator and sustainer present in all that is. Up means in and down means out.

This is a revolution in thought that points to a new vision of God: God is the name we give to the creating, animating power that is embodied in all that is, including ourselves. Sit quietly and consider this image. Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore the implications for such an image of God and Heaven for our sense of ourselves as spiritual beings.

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The two guardians of our relationship with the world

I’m writing about our emotions as messengers that guard our wellbeing. I observed that joy lifts us and sadness sets us down. If we look deeper, within sadness is the energy of connection that pulls us toward one another, our community, a project, to our gardens or the mountains. In a word, within the energy of sadness is the energy of love. Sadness arises when we’re separated from what we love: ourselves, others, the wherewithal of our lives, and to life itself. It’s just that we’re wholly dependent on others and the gifts of creation to sustain us. This dependency and the uncertainty that comes with it is what we call contingency. The emotions of contingency—anger and fear—are the two other messengers that guard our wellbeing.

Think about these two emotions. What makes you angry? With me (for example) it’s the tailgating driver, burning the toast, or hearing that voting rights have been compromised. We get angry when our boundaries have been violated, our illusions have been broken, or we’ve spotted an injustice. These things have already happened. If they are certain to happen or might happen in the near or far off future, we experience fear: that our safety or equilibrium will be threatened, that something we’ve counted on will fail, that some avoidable harm will occur through ignorance or neglect.

Anger and fear are alerts that some kind of action or adjustment is required; something must be mended, changed, anticipated, or prevented. Anger and fear are clues to how we need to deal with our lives. Joy and sadness are clues to how we’re relating to life. All four offer essential spirit guidance—inner awareness that helps us orient ourselves to what’s happening to us and inside us. But if life is contingent and nothing is certain, how does experiencing our emotions not just lead to paralysis?

I’ll write next week about the energy within and behind joy and the power and calm of transcendence.

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Touching something fundamental about the way life is

I’m writing about four emotions we all know but may frequently puzzle over: sadness and joy, anger and fear. The four are linked in life-giving ways. But it’s the link between sadness and joy that helps us really see our relationship to everyone and everything, even to life itself. Here’s an extreme example that highlights the link.

My parents died sixteen years ago. Although we were not close, my visits before their deaths were intense, emotional, and eye-opening. Both were elderly, frail, and coming to terms with letting go of life. I spent time with each, agonizing over letting go of them. Mother died first, and after she died, Dad relaxed, let go, and died nine days later. He had fulfilled his life purpose—not dying first and leaving mother alone.

I cried and laughed frequently during the seven months before their deaths. The more deeply I allowed myself to cry, the more likely I was to break out in gales of laughter. Crying and laughing seem to be related. Think about the tears of joy that may accompany a birth, reunion, or marriage. Think about the laughter at a roast for a retiring colleague or a memorial service for a person who has just died.

Delight and joy can be so light they lift us up. Sadness and grief can be so heavy they knock us down. Either way, up or down, energy flows within us when we’re exhilarated by deep truths and dreams come true or devastated by broken illusions and unfulfilled promises. The expressions “I laughed my heart out” and “I cried my heart out” are a clue to a connection. That laughing and crying use the same muscles is another. Both joy and sadness seem to come from the same deep “place” within us—perhaps the very relationship we’re trying to name when we use the word soul.

We’re touching something fundamental about the way life is, a core gift of our humanity, and a capacity we need to name, trust, and call upon in our lives. I’ll write more next week.

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The “Strange Angels” of Our Inner Life

Kelsey Hart’s homily at Church of the Holy Family on April 30th resonated deeply, especially her observation that after his death, Jesus’s disciples’ feelings must have been “all over the place.” I’ve spend a lot of time with emotions all over the place. Yet I’ve been able to befriend my emotions and even to learn from them. I’ve begun to treat them like a sixth sense. After sight, taste, smell, hearing, and touch, I’ve added my emotions—the content of my own inner experience.

My mental map of this inner territory includes four primary emotions: happiness and sadness, anger and fear. See if these experiences resonate. Happiness is light and sadness is heavy. Happiness accompanies friendships and reunions, visions and accomplishments. Sadness accompanies death, leaving friends, losing a pet, or getting a low grade or evaluation. Anger accompanies a trespass or violation, an unjustified criticism or an avoidable mistake. Fear accompanies danger, risk, walking a tightrope in business or friendship, even the prospect of loss.

Emotions are like guardian angels—they are messengers with information to share for our wellbeing. Fear warns of danger, anger suggests an injustice, sadness alerts us to loss, and joy announces the gift of grace. It’s no wonder that the symbol of the cross has resonated over the centuries. It’s surely the perfect image of the full human experience: the horizontal line, the contingency of fear and anger; the vertical line, the cycle of sadness and joy.

Over the next four weeks I’ll write more about joy, sadness, fear, and anger and take you on a journey that leads, without fail, to the choice to embrace the gift of grace.

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