We are proud to present a new podcast focusing on contemplative practices and the mystic’s path. My best is that episodes will be released more often than monthly but less often than each week.
Transcript of episode #1:
Hi. ‘Welcome to the Open Hand: A Faith-ing Project Podcast. It might be asked, why would you want to release a podcast now?
It is a strange time. We began as these isolated people living these isolated lives. And now some of us find ourselves under doctors orders to isolate more. Others of us find ourselves wanting to be good citizens, and wondering how much contact with each other we should have. Should I go to church? Should I go to the bar and have a beer?
Our health, safety, jobs, and ways of life are threatened.
I live in urban Massachusetts; that’s the north eastern corner of the United States. When I went out yesterday, it seemed like most people are responding to this crisis by rushing out, buying the most unlikely and impractical of things, and then rushing back home. People are buying enough toilet paper, cleaning products, paper towels and bottled water to withstand the end of the world a few times over.
I am sure I am not the first person in your life to observe how little sense this makes.
My read on this situation is that we have become like Pavlovs dogs. We have been conditioned to feel relief when we spend money. There are only a few things we can control right now, as elected leaders and bosses make policies that will rock our world, as friends and neighbors get sick, as our security nets begin to show signs of strains. One of the The few things that we can do to lower our chances of getting sick are around cleaning. So my best guess is that these two impulses are working together, deep inside. I don’;t think many people buying these supplies are consciously recognizing it… and of course, once the shortage begins the rest of us are faced with the question of what we are going to do, knowing that we are going to need some of them. When we watch the supplies dwindling will we practice defensive shopping and snatch up as many items are there? Or will we resist our anxiety, resist our capitalistic programming, and simply get what we need?
And that brings me back to the fear and lonlines, the anxiety and the isolation. This is why I decided it was a good time to begin this thing. One of the things I love about podcasts is that they are made of human voices. There are times that the content of a podcast doesn’t matter to me. If I am missing human connection, just hearing another human being talk helps me to feel connected.
I hope that you get a little more out of this than just the comfort of hearing somebody talk. Hopefully these words are a little more helpful than somebody reading their grocery list, or doing math problems.
My love for contemplative practices comes out of the transformation they have created in my own life. When I was collecting my thoughts for this podcast, the first thing I wrote here was that there is so much less fear in my life now than there was before I started to meditate. But that’s not qutie right. The thing is, the level of fear in my life? When the world isn’t in the grips of a pandemic, It;s about the same as it always was. The reality is that I now know what to do with my fear. I can hold it with the conviction that it won’t destroy me.
One of the things I wanted to make a regular feature of this podcast was to identify and carry an intention through each recording. This is a paralell to an intention I might set before sitting down to do a spiritual practice. In the podcast, the idea is that this intention will be a recurring theme for that particular episode, a lens, perhaps, to view things through at that particular time.
The intention I would like to set this week is to be as radically honest as I know how to be, around my motivations and hesitations. In this spirit, I would like to say a bit more about my sense of timing about why I chose to create this podcast now.
To be honest, I am a little conflicted. Because it’s entirely possible that there is a bit of really ugly oppurtunism mixed up with all my other motivations. Mostly, I really want to help. I want to reduce lonliness. I want to equip people to better face their fears. But the truth is that I love being noticed, I love being thanked for helping people out. My work in the faith-ing project has begun to generate a few dollars. And I am so very thankful for this. Yet…. it does complicate this work.
There is no easy solution to this. But naming it helps keep me humble and honest and pulls it out of the darkness where it can do the most damage. So there we are: I have an ego. I wonder how much of this that I am doing now is motivated by a desire to gratify that ego.
Phew. That was quite a long introduction. At this time, I think the plan for each of these podcasts will go something like this: After I offer up a brief introduction where among other things I will introduce the intention I have for that particular episode. I will share a brief spiritual practice to clear the mind and get us ready for being present to the rest of the episode. In part 3, I will share a bit about my journey and how I got hear. In part 4, I will share a bit more about what I see as some of the joys of the contemplative path. Each week, we will close with an additional spiritual practice.
This is where I got the name ‘Welcome to the Open Hand.’ The Open Hand is, of course, such an evocative symbol. It has so much meaning in particular associated with contemplative practice. In my brain, each of these 5 parts is like a finger, or thumb. Where these comes together, the palm of the hand, so to speak, is what you do with them: how will you pull all these experiences together in your own life?
In between these five sections I will share some information that I think you might want to know. Some of this will be shameless self promotion. Some of it will be good work that I have come across, whether it is being done by friends or just a resource that I think ought to be on your radar. When I give these little pitches, I will be transparent about what my level of connection is to whatever it is that I am pitching.
So, that’s the plan. Make sense? Good. Let’s begin then, with our opening spiritual practice.
In the middle of all the things that are going on, there is probably lots of things that we are not adressing. Today’s introductory spiritual practice is a version of the welcoming prayer. reate a safe, quiet environment for yourself. Turn down your phone and consider lighting a candle.
- Breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.
- Take a mental inventory of where you are, right now. List the feelings you are experiencing. Do your best to engage this with a nonjudgemental attitude. Your feelings are neither good nor bad. They simply are.
- Choose the feeling which seems to be the most impactful. Think, or say “Welcome ___________” (E.G. ‘Welcome, Fear. Welcome, sadness. Welcome, anxiety. Etc.)
- Breathe once.
- Say, or think “I let go of my desire for security and survival.’
- Breathe again.
- Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.’
- Breathe again.
- Say, or think ‘I let go of my desire for power and control.’
- Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire to change the situation.’
- If you wish, you can repeat this process for a second, troubling emotion.
Let’s just take another minute of silence before we continue. If you would like more than a minute, now is a good time to pause this recording. If you would like to try this practice again, now is a good time to cue this recording back to the appropriate spot.
So, you’re probably getting that in each episode there will be five separate sections, like fingers. After the introductory spiritual practice I will share a little bit of my story. This is not because I think there is anything particularly exceptional about me. On the contrary, I suspect that in all the imnportant ways, my story is a whole lot like your story. We are in this together. I might go so far as to say that we are, in fact, one.
There’s probably some kind of joke in the fact that we are now on the middle finger, and that’s when I am going to tell you about me. But I guess I will leave that one alone for now.
In a variety of different ways, I get some questions that are variations on a theme of “What is the faith-ing Project?” or “Why are you doing this?” Today, I would like to take a shot at answering those questions. This is going to be a pretty quick run through a few years of my life. In the future, I will probably offer up a few details on the story that I am know going to share in some pretty quick, broad strokes.
I spent over three decades searching. I was a philosophy student in college, and a spiritual pilgrim for all my life. I had a lot of contempt for many of the people I met associated with Christianity, and for the institutions associated with them. At the same time, I had a fascination with the person of Jesus.
There were a lot of things that fell into place when I first became a Christian. The first was my wife. Things were not easy for us, early on. We fell into a script. We said hurtful, stupid things to each other. And it took me a long while to realize that I was still going and she was not.
She had something about her that was able to resist the temptations I was falling into. A gentleness, a kindness. One of the many stupid and hurtful rants I would go on would be to disparage her faith. I found myself beginning to think that there was maybe something to it after all.
We ended up at a church that seemed reasonable, at least some of the time. I began to spend some time with the associate pastor. He eventually became the executive pastor. I would ask him questions and expect him to come out with pat, useless responses. Some of the time he would respond to my critiques. Other times he would recognize that I made a really good point and admit that he did not have all the answers.
I fell quite in love with the people at the church. They took good care of me. I lead small groups and eventually took on responsibility for all of the small groups. It was a good time in my life.
But when things took a turn for the worse in my life, the church was not sure what to do with me. Honestly, I did not know what to do with me either. At first, people made attempts to help. There was some incredible genourosity. But my experience was that there was something toxic, too.
As my difficulties did not get any better, it began to feel like people believed that this situation was entirely my fault. Please know that I was far from perfect. I made numerous foolish decisions that made things much worse. But there was this subtle, profound piece of theology that nobody would have ever expressed in words. Most of them did not know that they believed this, I think. But this does not change the fact that there was this belief: it was a belief that if things are going good in your life, that is a sign that you are doing things well. If things are going poorly, this is a sign that you are doing something sinful.
From my vantage point of all these years later, I would like to observe that this is an ironic thing to believe, if you make a big deal out of the fact that Jesus suffered horrifically and undeseveredly on the cross.
As time went on my family was in jeapordy. I developed paralyzing anxiethy and substantial depression. I lost my license, was perched on the edge of financial disaster. If it was not for the hard work of really bright pschologists and psychiatrists I would not have been able to function through that time.
As my spiritual deconstruction commenced in the midst of all this, people were making it onto my radar who promoted the power of meditation, contemplation, and spiritual practice. I had always been interested in these topics, but in my years as an evangelical didn’t get very far with them. Now, I was given permission to explore.
At first it was difficult to figure much out about how you do these things. It seems like some people believed firmly that there was only one way to do these things correctly. The problem was that they couldn’t all agree on just what that method was. I was just getting out of the fundamentalist movement. I wasn’t interested in trading one fundamentalism for another.
Also, many people wanted more money than I had in order to share what they know. I don’t begrudge them that. We all have to eat. But it didn’t help me at that time.
As I began to figure these things out, I began to get much better. I slowly reduced the time I spent in therapy. I slowly reduced the amount of psych meds I felt like I needed. I felt… happy. I began to wonder why somebody had never told me about this stuff before. I made a promise to myself, if I could, I would make it easier for the next person to walk that path.
So here we are. Several years later. I continue to experience all the benefits of those choices I made to invest in a spiritual practice. I have curated a website and social media platforms dedicated to sharing the wonders of mysticism and spiritual practice. I have engaged in dozens of email explorations, sharing the spiritual practices. I have written a bunch of low cost books on the topic, which have subsidized the time and energy I have put into all the other outlets.
I am happier. I am less afraid. I am calmer. I love to hear about other people reaping the benefits of these gits. I have had these experiences of God that transcend my ability to communicate… they practically transcend my ability to understand them. They have brought me closer than I have ever been to the maker of this universe.
But I want to be real. I still have bad days. I still get hangry, sometimes. I don’t want to meditate every day, even though I have lived this transformation. Walking the contemplative path makes things better. It doesn’t make them perfect.
Maybe at some point in the future I will get all fancy with musical interludes to signal the fact that I am now transitioning to another segment. For now, my friends, you are going to have to deal with awkward conclusions, and me saying things like, “Well, that’s the end of that segment.” So…. “That’s the end of that segment.”
Let’s take a little pause right here and now, in the middle of the podcast.
- The fourth finger…. The ring finger. Gifts of the contemplative journey. The topic of being afraid came up earlier today. Let’s talk about that for a while.
I don’t know if the people around me would have described me as being a fearful person, several years ago. I do know that fear did motivate lots of my decisions before I started these spiritual practices. I think that it was a little bit about not wanting a negative outcome to come to pass. But it was a lot about not wanting to live in the discomfort and anxiety.
Let me try to give you an example. I am a special educator. For most of my career, I have worked in residential settings with kids that we sometimes have to physically manage to keep them safe. The thing about working with kids that could become violent is they don’t magically land at my school after a bad day. By the time they come to us, these kids have had multiple school failures. They have been placed in lots of classes, worked with lots of adults. One of the things we all do with each other, all the time, is shape each other’s behavior based on past interactions.
My students are used to forming temporary unspoken agreements with the people they work with. If these agreements were sustainable in the long term they would not have ended up with me. But they might, for example, come into a classroom every single day and tear up the text book as soon as it is placed on their desk. As the teacher tries to begin a very long process that moves very slowly of helping administrators understand the student is not a good fit for their class, he has to live his day-to-day life. So it is quite understandable that he stops placing the textbook in front of the students, as he watches his supply of useable books slowly diminish.
When the student is not presented with work that might not be attaimable by him, or which he might not possess the mental endurance to complete, he feels that he has accomplished something. The teacher and the student have reached a sort-of agreement. For a time, there is peace in the classroom, and some peace in the heart of the student and the heart of the teacher. Things are better than they were.
Except that the student isn’t learning anything that he is supposed to be learning. And both the teacher and the student know it.
Eventually, the student ends up in the school I am at. If things are rough at home, too, he might live there.
When I started in the field, I was worried by kids who destroyed books. Or threw chairs. Or assaulted staff. I had been trained in physical management. I use these techniqus when I or someone else is in physical danger. But this is no easy thing. I have been hurt on the job a hanffull of times. Once, I was out for over a month with a sprained back. Even when I am physically safe and everything goes right, restraints are inevitably are the low point of my week.
But back to the hypothetical student who destroys text books. Earlier in my career, I would have avoided any kind of confrontation. His aggressive tendencies would have shaped my behavior. My passive tendencies would have shaped his. I would confirm his impression that a show of force is what it take to get people to leav you alone.
I would have taken a very long time to even get to the point where I was expecting any work out of this student at all. I would recognize that a complete blow up ending in a restraint would have not been particularly likely on any given day. But as soon as I started to push the issue with him, I would have been in an uncomfortable territory. My heart would be moving just a little bit faster. My breath would be coming just a little bit quicker. I think I did more to avoid that heightened sense of anxiety than to avoid the somewhat unlikely worst case scenario of needing to call for assistance to physically manage the student.
Neuroscientists say that we can trace the evolution of animals through the brain. If you go the very base of the brain, where it meets the spinal cord, you see an architecture that looks like a very primitive land animal. If you move out from this center a little bit, the brain looks a little more sophisticated. When you get to the outer layer—the cerebral cortex—you only see this structure in primates. I gather that this is the way evolution works, adding new and complicated structures ones to the more basic ones. There is no magic wand here, to erase what has gone on before. It would be very strange and surprising if we didn’t see the remnnants of the creatures that came before us.
Fear and anciety locate all the brain activity in those basic places. We get stuck in our lizard brain. We are imprisoned to the basic reactions we had before. When I am not in my lizard brain, it seems pretty simple to come up with a solution like having multiple photocopies of the pages we will be reading for the student who destroyed the books. When I am not in my lizard brain, I find myself wondering if this student is terrified that the world will find out that he can’t read. When I am not in my lizard brain, I can explore whether he get’s some sort of tactile gratification out of tearing the books up and help him find something less expensive and destructive to do with his hands.
That’s all pretty basic stuff. My old special education professors would probably give a very intellectual “no duh.” To all three of those approaches. But the thing is, my brain activity wasn’t in the place I could access all that when I was filled with fear and anxiety.
As somebody who calls himself a mystic, who values and talks about meditation, I feel like the things I am supposed to say are supposed to sound like the words of Master Yoda from the Star Wars movies. I am all for Yoda, but the thing about meditation and fear is an explanation that is really to simple to make a very good fortune cookie.
You wouldn’t think that it took much courage to just sit with out distraction. You would think that doing nothing would be the easiest thing of all.
But take a look at what we do to our lives. We fill it with noise and clutter. We pack our schedules so full. When we are alone we put on the radio or a podcast. Sometimes we are even honest enough to admit that we just want some background noise.
Why? Why do we do this?
When is the last time you have bucked this tendency?
Physically, outwardly doing nothing is a great first step. But there is some part of our very own mind that colludes with this strange desire that lives inside of us, and in the space between us. Even when we eliminate the outward noise, the outward busyness, we create this endless babble.
And all of it… we do it to drown out the things we are feeling, thinking, and fearing. I love the image of one of those little, annoying dogs that barks at everything to describe our fears. Have you ever seen one of these little things that looks as much rodent as it does canine, maybe it is behind a fenced in yard, and every time a car goes by, it runs until it hits the fenced wall, barking all the way?
I always wonder what the little dog would do if the fence wasn’t there. The car is thousands of pounds heavier. Hundreds of times larger. What’s the end game here, little doggy? Will you be sinking your teeth into the bumper and dragging it back to your water bowl?
Our fears are that little dog. Only nobody told us it was a little dog. We always thought it was a dinosaur. So whenever we heard it we sped up as we passed that house. Meditation is like somebody opening the gate. The dog comes out, barking away, maybe he even jumps up and gets half his mouth around a little corner of the bumper. Regardless, he won’t be dragging us to his water bowl.
Now, I want to be really careful here. I am not saying that all your fears are unfounded. Though studies show the huge majority of the things we worry about never come to pass, some bad things happen. Some of them might have been avoided. Some of them we saw coming.
Let’s make this real. One month ago, most of us had lots of worries and fears. Most of us had no reason to think that this pandemic would soon be the biggest thing on our minds. Many of the fears and anxieties we held are in fact moot points now.
The dog doesn’t stand for the things you fear. He stands for the fear inside your mind. In a really important way, that saying is one hundred percent wrong. One of the only things we shouldn’t fear is fear itself. When we create a space and time of emptiness. When we stop with the noise and the clutter, sometimes that is the very first time we looked at our fears at all.
When we let them come to light we find that we can dismiss most of them. Then we can do work on the ones that are legitimate and reasonable. We can’t avoid everything. There are certain things we will be powerless to avoid. But in my experience, we do a lot more damage to ourselves by living in denial.
We deny all of our fears rather than face them, usually. We never sort through and weed out the foolishness. Most of it is foolishness.
I am not advocating a spiritual practice where you make the decision to consciously just walk into all the things you are afraid of. There are some who do this. They find it useful. But that can be like drinking from a fire hose. And also a little sadistic.
There is a wisdom in the body and the mind. When we put away all of our distractions, it will give us what we are ready for. Just quietly sitting. employing a mantra, or a technique like labelling the thoughts, or any of the other possibilities that are out there…. These are like turning the fire house down, so that you get the fears and anxieties in bite size chunks.
Sometimes, people get frustrated when the their chosen spiritual practice doesn’t seem to work perfectly. Disruptive thoughts sneak in. Anxieties get past the image we have chosen to focus on. Fears lead us to lose our focus on the breath.
These practioners find themselves on a hamster wheel of frustration. Their irritation gets them further away from the peace they sought. And then they are even further away and more disruptions arise.
This is not a helpful way to look at them. Spiritual practices are a win-win. One possible outcome is that they feel like they are leading to a sense of calm, and then it is good. But the surprise is that the other outcome is also good. When we lose focus, when these fears, disruptions, and distractions arise, that is also good. We are seeing these for what they are. We are given the opportunity to engage the practice again: to return to the breath, to say our sacred word, to place the thought on the leaf on the river.
So, here we are. Just about to move on to our final segment. I am going to take this time, between the fingers as it were, to put some things on your radar. I want to keep my commitment to you that I would be upfront about this stuff, so please be forewarned that the things I am sharing with you today are directly connected to my work with the faith-ing project.
Sometime around May, you can look forward to the next book from the faith-ing Project. It is called Contemplating the Enneagram. As you may know, The enneagram is a centuries old system that helps give meaning to our motivations and personalities. One of the major aspects of the enneagram is the division of all people into types which are assigned numbers. For example, I am a 5. Fives are characterized by their love of knowledge, their stinginess, and their challenges with human connections and emotions.
There are lots of great introductions and descriptions of how the enneagram works. I recommend the Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile or The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert. Contemplating the Enneagram is not another introduction to this way of understanding our personhood. Instead, my book will be mostly focused on contemplative exercises specifically chosen for each type and some considerations unique to each number as they build their own spiritual practice. Their will be a brief review of the characteristics of each type, but this book will be most helpful after readers familiarize themselves through the books mentioned previously, any of the dozens of podcasts available on the topic, or online resources like the recent Center for Action and Contemplation emails which went out or the Enneagram Institute.
- Let’s conclude with another spiritual practice. This is a relatively brief mindfulness practice. I am sharing it hear because it is another good antidote to these fear filled times we are living in. Like many mindfulness practices, this is a good thing to do in the middle of the every day stresses of life.