My house was created as a place of retreat - no T.V., no internet and for some reason cellphones don't work here most of the time. People stay here for a few days to unwind, disconnect, renew & return to their lives with more clarity and purpose perhaps. Offering my home this way helps me to pay the bills, but more importantly it gives life - to me and to the people who share this space for a brief time. I stay elsewhere while the house guests are here. Inevitably, when I return, my heart fills up - usually until it spills over in tears. People are amazing when they are allowed the time and space to be amazing. I have a guest book where people have written songs, poems, and lovely thank you notes. Over time, my home itself has become a sort of guest book. It is taking on a life of it's own as each person that enters leaves something of themselves here - sometimes in just the way they've folded the towels, left a walking stick by the door, weeded part of the garden or eaten every last one of my favourite Morning Rounds with a note saying, "They were too good. We had to eat them all." Other times, someone has felt moved to leave an item or artwork in the house or to send something along in the mail after their stay. Everytime I sit here and say to myself - "People are amazing."
When I tell my friends about this they say "Well, you've created a wonderful space for people so of course you're attracting amazing people." I get that in part. My day job as a spiritual director is very much about creating space - a space for people to sift through the details of their lives and find what is life giving and what may be draining the life out of them, what feels connecting for them and where they are resisting connection, and how their struggles are affecting and shaping them. We discuss & share practices that support them to be grounded, conscious, intentional and sometimes, to stay sane! But, we talk about things. They share, I listen, they reflect, I give perspective. When people enter the retreat house, there is no verbal communication between us. I leave. They enter.
I find myself wondering what it would be like if everywhere we went felt like we were entering into a welcoming, inclusive, and inspiring retreat space. As I go over in my mind some places that I frequent, I realize that they are full of amazing people. This is where I meet up with a local farmer, artist, musician or someone who is exploring their passion and purpose. I see posters about local fundraising events, ads for holistic services, pictures of the pet of the week from a local rescue shelter, and opportunities to volunteer or serve the community in some way. At the same time, my mind wanders into spaces I've been where I felt no inspiration and a lack of authenticity, places that increased my level of stress or decreased my sense of worth, my sense of self.
A space can take on many forms. It can be a retreat house, a private confidential session or a place outside in the natural world. It can also be a space created in time - where we listen to someone's story, sit down with some art supplies or a musical instrument, do some stretching or meditation or to be quiet and still. A space can also be created by opening up our hearts and minds - to a new idea, a fresh way of seeing, an alternative view or simply by making room for someone to be their best, to offer their gifts, to shine. People are amazing if we create a space for them to be amazing. You are amazing if you allow yourself the space in which to be amazing. Be amazing. Be amazed.
I am thinking that most of you, like me, have used these words at times in your life - "I misjudged him" or "I misjudged the situation" or something along these lines. What this tells us is that we are human, that we often go on first impressions, that we make judgements about others - whether consciously or unconsciously - many times a day.
I remember being part of a study a few years back that involved looking a pictures flashing on a screen and choosing a word or name at the bottom of the screen to match the image. Everything flashed quickly and the idea was to tap into our reflex response as opposed to giving us time to think out our decision. Based on the study, most of us found out that we were racists. What???? I'm not a racist??!!! Others in the study were as dumbfounded as I was in seeing the results. It didn't take us long to understand, though, how this was true. We went on to learn how we all carry what is called "unconscious bias" and we've been carrying it since childhood. Similar studies have been done to also measure our stereotypes about a variety of social groups including homosexuals, women, and the elderly. One study about unconscious bias, from 1998, was recently reviewed in Psychology Today. You can read the article HERE. The same technique can be used to measure stereotypes about many different social groups, such as homosexuals, women, and the elderly.
Recently, I took part in an online class with Pema Choudron, an American Buddhist teacher, where she talks about the concept of "shenpa." This Tibetan word is often translated into English as “attachment.” Pema suggests that the attachment might better be described as getting “hooked.” In an article in Lion's Roar from 2003, she says "at the subtlest level, we feel a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us." You can read the full article HERE. Judgement is an inevitable result of shenpa, whether we judge a situation, another person or ourselves.
Both of these processes - unconscious bias and shenpa - are well-entrenched in the human psyche. They are working behind the scenes, under the radar, and without our conscious effort. Without acknowledging and becoming aware of their power, we are creating a life full of misunderstandings, assumptions, reactionary behaviour and judgements of everything and everyone around us. Each time that we feel a judgement arise we are being given an opportunity to go deeper and do some important inner work. Where is that judgement coming from? Is there any truth in this judgement or does it go against your beliefs? Notice how your body is feeling. Notice where your thoughts are going. Notice if you are experiencing fear, guilt, shame, regret, anger, jealousy - simply notice and try not to judge.
Choosing to live our lives consciously means we increase our capacity for compassion, acceptance, kindness and love for others and ourselves. Choosing to know and understand ourselves allows us to experience more peace, love and joy in our lives and as a result, be able to share it with others.
Two young men were killed in a tragic accident this past weekend. There are no words, no condolences that will be enough for the families and friends who loved them and will miss them terribly. It's important, however, that we speak the words that we can - our thoughts and prayers just have to be enough. Our community is small enough that everyone knows someone who is connected to these two boys. No one will be missed in the thread of grief that intertwines with their lives. On a global level, this thread wraps around each one of us every day when lives are lost tragically, through illness or violence - we do not escape from the pain of knowing that life is impermanent for us all. When death hits us hard, it can be difficult to breathe let alone believe that life is good, that it is worth living.
That is why our words, our hugs, our baking cookies, our cards are needed. A steady flow to remind those who are grieving that they are being held in love each and every minute right now. We are also reminded that everyday someone is grieving. Our simple words and gestures of compassion and love keep others afloat when they need a lifeline of hope. Don't hold back from being Love. Don't rob the world of your compassion by keeping it inside. Risk feeling awkward, risk letting tears flow, risk not knowing what to say, but saying something anyway. It is never wrong to reach out to someone who is grieving. It is never wrong for you to be grieving along with them. Grief doesn't have rules or a time frame - it exists within us - an unwelcomed guest - that we are forced to make room for somehow.
Allowing ourselves to surrender to our grieving creates space for us to experience it's opposite - joy. The ebb and flow of grief and joy brush up against each other when we lose someone we care about. One moment we are sobbing in despair and the next we are laughing while sharing a treasured memory. It is in our sharing and gathering that the potential for healing begins - that it continues - that it reminds us of who we are and always will be - grieving, joy-filled, healing human beings.
Today I attended an event at our local Neighborhood Co-op. Students and staff from the university created hundreds of bowls for a very special fundraising event "Empty Bowls: art for your table, food for the community" The funds raised went to the Good Samaritan - a place that provides food, shelter and more for those in their time of need. It was windy and cold. How long could it take to pick a bowl? I thought. I would just pick one and get inside for some soup!!! I heard someone say that the soup was almost gone! I approached the table and picked up the first bowl that caught my eye. It was a creamy colour with a smooth, shiny finish. Very round. Very lovely, with splashes of blue and brown. I moved down the table and really could not believe all of the beauty that was laying before me. The other prospective buyers and I huddled together against the cold. I began picking up bowl after bowl, feeling it's beauty in my hands. It was like connecting with the love of each potter who created this gift on behalf of others. As I picked up each bowl, I wondered what kind of dish the refugees were eating out of right now. Did they even have a bowl? I felt myself being drawn deeper into the stories of all of the refugees, the poor, and the displaced with every bowl I held. The last bowl was the one I would take home. I stood there admiring it, feeling it, praying for it to somehow multiply and be soup-laden in the hands of everyone who was hungry, alone, without a home. I went to pay for my bowl. $5. I turned away still looking into it and was stopped by a reporter from one of the local papers. She said to me "I noticed that you were really taking your time choosing your bowl. Do you mind if I ask you what you were looking for - a specific colour, shape, or design?" I must have looked stunned because she apologized for interrupting me and I told her that it was okay and asked her "Do you really want to know what I was doing?" She replied "Yes, if you don't mind." She opened up her note pad. I'm not even sure what I said because it seemed like a difficult thing to explain, but something about thinking about refugees and what they might be eating and how the bowl was mis-shapen (is that even a word?) She asked to take my picture. She took a few shots and then said "mis-shapen" - "I'll have to write that down". As I turned, she said "Thank you" and added "The bowl matches your outfit.".
Soul in the World