Archive for August, 2013

I begin guiding a worktreat (a combination of workshop and retreat) with questions.  Generally, one of them is: ‘Why are you here?’ [i.e., why are you, literally, here in this room and more broadly, why are you here on this earth]  This question tends to help the recipient focus on the ‘positives’ more than the ‘negatives.’  Another question might be: ‘How would you be if. . .?’  Another might be: ‘What gives you hope?’  Another might be: ‘In what do you trust?’ [a corollary is: ‘Who do you trust — and why?’]

I find that many participants focus on ‘what is wrong’ or on ‘what’s not working’ or on ‘what needs to be fixed.’  We seem to love to solve problems [we ignore the reality that there are many more paradoxes to be embraced and dilemmas to be resolved than problems to be solved].  Given this, we might well find anything that is not ‘problem-focused’ is a waste of our time.  We also seem to miss that problem-focusing leads to ‘blame.’  One antidote to ‘problem-focusing’ is ‘strength-finding.’  What is going well?  What ‘strengths’ [gifts, talents, abilities, values/virtues] do we demonstrate that we can build on?  How can we develop our strength-capacity so we can more fully and wisely use them to help foster health/growth [in individuals, in relationships, in institutions]?

When I have the privilege of working with educators who are struggling with their ‘call’ I invite them to remember their ‘passion’ — ‘What was the passion that drove them to education?’  For some, there came a realization that they ended up in education by ‘default’ and so for them a ‘search’ for passion began.  I have also had the privilege of being with highly successful business professionals who remembered that they had a passion for something other than ‘business’ [I remember some who had a passion for music, cooking, painting, philosophy and yet chose ‘business’ for this is what others — aka ‘father’ — wanted them to do].  We are most alive when we have passion for. . .  We are called, I believe, to identify, develop and use our gifts, talents and abilities to meet a need that exists in our/the world and one of the fuels that feeds our internal fire is passion.  We also know, many of us by direct experience, that when our inner fire smoulders or goes out that we fill with dense smoke from within and we suffocate unto death.

All of these requires that we ‘listen’ intently and receptively.  In order to listen in this way we must be awake and aware, intentional and purpose-full.  We must be fully ‘present’ to ourselves.  We must be open to hearing the quiet whispers of our life-guide [I believe we each have a life-guide who will speak if we are open and if we listen; our life-guide will also become silent when we are distracted by noise — internal and external — and by busyness].  What are the ingredients that need to be in place for one to listen in this way?  I believe that each of us knows the answer to this question or with some help we can discern the answer.  I do have choice. . .so, what will I choose today?

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It was early morning.  I was sitting in a coffee shop and a young mother and her young daughter entered.  The young girl was distraught.  As I observed her and listened I learned that the young girl was to go off to kindergarten for the first time — and she didn’t want to go.  She was afraid.  Her mother was patient, reassuring and yet firm — her daughter was going to go to kindergarten.  How many parents over how many years have had a similar conversation with a son or daughter.  It might have been about the first day of kindergarten, or perhaps the first grade, or maybe even ‘going off to college.’  Loving parents listen and respond to their concerns.  They reassure and support.  And they hold firm — it will not benefit the child nor the parent(s) if the child does not cross this particular threshold.

When I-You-We choose only that which eases our anxiety or our fear we lose out.  In choosing relief we turn our backs to the ‘Way Open’ and we cement our feet to the threshold while looking at the past.  We cannot go back — this is an illusion that quickly manifests itself when we try to do so.  In going ‘back’ we soon become lost and confused for this is not where we belong; the land that was once ‘home’ is now alien to us.  We learn that our anxiety and fear is not diminished — it might well be ‘put on hold’ for a time but it will only return with more intensity.

One of the challenges of stepping off of the threshold into the ‘Way Open’ comes when we know we must make a choice as to how we are going to proceed with our life.  Too often these life-choices are made while it is still unclear as to how the choice will enable us to develop more fully, how it will enable us to use our gifts and talents and abilities to meet the needs of the world we will be stepping into.  We feel a tug to go back.  We want to cling to the unknown [you might remember, gentle reader, that in Afghani, the verb ‘to cling’ is the same as the verb ‘to die’].  If we have discerned a ‘guide’ that has helped us navigate our way we might now question whether we really trust him or her.  Our challenge involves holding our anxiety and fear with gentleness, taking a deep breadth of faith, and then stepping across the threshold into the ‘Way Open.’

Although the choices we face might be important ones, even life changing ones, like: which job to take, where to live, whom to marry, how much money to save or when to retire; the choices I am now thinking of are deeper and more far-reaching.  These choices include the development of our capcity for compassion, for love, for being trust-worthy, for being trust-builders, for living a life of non-compromising integrity.  Stepping into the unknown ‘Way Open’ requires trust, faith and hope — in ourselves and in something greater than ourselves [God, the Transcendent, Humanity, etc].  How will the ‘Way Open’ help me become a more loving person, a more compassionate person, a more empathetic person, a more forgiving person?  How will the ‘Way Open’ enable me to feel more deeply and respond more fully to the world’s pain?  How will the ‘Way Open’ enable me to discern the needs that I might help address using my gifts, talents and abilities?

Like the young girl faced with the threshold of stepping into kindergarten, we each have had and will have times of such life-changing choice.  Like the little girl, we all need the love and support of another (or a number of others) as we face the anxieties and fears that come with these types of choices.  And like the little girl, in the end we have to take the step across the threshold alone for it is our life that we are called to live.

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I love questions.  For example, there are the questions implicit in ‘the search’ — ‘Who am I?’  ‘Where am I?’  ‘Why am I?’  And then there are the questions that the seeker is asked, sometimes by life, sometimes by the person’s life-guide or teacher, sometimes by God [by the by, God doesn’t ask us questions because God does not know].  Here is a ‘question’ story that comes out of the Middle East.

Once upon a time during the height of Babylon’s splendor there lived a famous holy man.  He was celebrated by all levels of society, from the richest to the poorest.  He was, they all believed, truly blessed by God.

One day the ruler announced that the city would celebrate this holy man and a great festival was created.  On the day of the celebration there was a great parade that wound its way throughout the city.  Last to enter the city’s gates was the holy man.  As he was about to step onto the platform that would carry him throughout the city the holy man heard a Voice emerging from deep within his soul and heart.  And the Voice moved to words and asked: “And have you forgotten Me so soon?”

The holy man was terrified and fell to the ground.  He lept up and ran into the wilderness.  He wept bitter tears.  His heart burned with remorse.  He wandered in the wilderness for years; the terrible Voice and its question living deep within his heart and soul.  During his wandering he prayed, he meditated, he fasted.  After ten years of wandering he found himself standing by the very city gates from which he had fled.

He was thin, he wore rags for clothes — he was truly unkempt.  Slowly he entered the city and as he passed by children they would laugh at him and throw pebbles at him; older people would pass him by as if he did not exist.  Others hailed him with jeers and gibes.  The holy man’s heart was full of sadness and he was despondent; as he walked he hung his head lower and lower.  Finally he came upon the palace gates and the guards looked at him and drew their swords in order to drive him away.

As the holy man turned away the terrible Voice emerged once again and asked: “And have you forgotten Me so soon?”

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Transitions are the norm.  Some occur quickly as I open the door, cross the threshold, and enter into the coffee shop.  We have so many of these types of transitions every day that we, generally, don’t pay any attention to them.  Then there are the other transitions that require one to be patient, that require one to wait — perhaps for ‘Way’ to open; sometimes we have to wait on the threshold — we cannot go back nor for any number of reasons can we move across the threshold.  Yet, we can’t remain standing on the threshold, at some point we must step over the threshold and enter.  Yet, there are transitions that call us to be patient and wait and this waiting immerses us in the waters of uncertainty, doubt and perhaps confusion.  For some, they have to muster the courage and faith in order to step over the threshold; for others, they have to prepare themselves in other ways so that they can take the step.

It is not healthy for us to hurry these transitions, to step [or is it a leap] before we look; to rush in where fools dare not tread.  We are becoming less and less a ‘waiting-patient’ culture and yet these life-changing transitions require us to pause, to slow down, to step-back, to prepare more intensely.  I am thinking of a man I know well whose wife died suddenly — I happened to be with him when she died.  For months he demonstrated that he was ‘stuck’ on the threshold; he could not go back, his wife was dead and he was not ready to move on.  He is a man of action and so he became active by searching for a new place to live, not just a new home but a new state.  Circumstances prohibited his being able to sell his home so he waited.  As the months passed be demonstrated more patience in his waiting.  He also began to see across the threshold the glimpses of a life without his wife [‘She was my best friend’ was his grief-mantra].  After about 18 months he was ready to step across his threshold into a life without his wife.  He continues to be a man of few words but his actions indicate to me that he is more and more ‘at home’ now.  He did not move geographically as he also found that his support system — many people — was truly supportive.

I have been standing on a threshold for almost two years now.  I am in a ‘holding pattern’ and as I look out over my threshold I see through a glass darkly.  I cannot turn around and go back; the way has closed.  I am not ready to cross the threshold.  Part of me treasures this place and part of me is fear-full and anxious-full.  As I search and seek and strive to remain patient so that I might discern ‘Way Opening’ I remain on the threshold.

I am remembering a man who participated in a four day retreat that I guided many years ago.  He told me that he had wanted to come to the retreat a year prior but circumstances prohibited his doing so.  He said that during that year he found himself ‘preparing’ for the retreat by becoming aware of the major life-transitions that he would be facing.  He realized that this year of being patient and waiting enabled him to come to the retreat ready to engage his life-transitions.  During the four days he became aware of what he needed to do in order to step over the threshold.  He contacted me a year after that and told me that he had ‘successfully’ made the transitions.

As many of you gentle readers know, I am a ‘Person of the Book’ [People of the Book = Jews, Christians, Muslims] and as I reflect this morning I am thinking of certain gospel stories: Jesus taking his time getting to the gravesite of his close friend Lazarus or his dilly-dalling around at the wedding feast prior to following his mother’s suggestion or his kneeling down and writing in the dirt prior to answering the question about ‘compassion or the law.’  This gives me hope as they remind me that waiting for the Divine to guide us is not such a bad thing (ask most Quakers about this).  I am told that the voice of God comes as a whisper and so I must be quiet, and I must wait patiently in order to hear.  James Finley offers us these words: “Be patient.  Trust that God’s generosity is at work, bringing you to a realized oneness with God infinitely beyond anything you might have imagined possible.”

Gentle reader: When have you found yourself on a life-transition threshold?  What challenged you to be patient, to wait?  What was it like for you to be patient and wait?

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I have found that I am able to listen more intently and effectively when I identify and suspend my assumptions.  Anyone who has attempted to do this knows how daunting a challenge this is, for discerning and naming our intentions puts most of us on a very slippery slope.  How do I really know that I am assuming something about the speaker or about what is being said?  What is an assumption anyway?

Assumption = something I take as ‘true’ without confirmation.  Assumption can easily lead to ‘presumption’ — arrogance.  So, I might well ‘take for granted’ that I already know what the speaker is talking about or what the person will say next.  When I do this, I stop listening — there is no need to listen for I already ‘know.’  I stop listening in order to understand and I begin to listen to my internal response as I prepare to speak.  I also know that I am in the land of assumption when I find myself having a strong visceral and emotional response to either the speaker or to the speaker’s words.

During the moments when I am awake and aware enough I might be able to discern my assumptions and then, on good days, I can set them aside (suspend them, if you will) and then I can choose to listen intently and receptively in order to understand.  I can always pick up my assumptions later.  The risk, for me, is that I might well be influenced by my understanding of the other and if I am deeply wedded to my assumption the risk feels like a threat: I might have to choose to change.

During these times of seeking to listen intently and receptively in order to understand I will ask ‘clarifying questions’ and I will ‘feedback’ to the speaker my understanding and then ask if I am truly understanding the speaker.  ‘Understanding’ does not equate with change.  I might well come to understand the other AND continue to hold my own beliefs, positions, ‘truths,’ etc.  I might actually come to appreciate the other and the others position. Again, I can come to do both without having to change.  As an aside: for many adolescents, ‘understanding’ equates to change as in ‘dad, if you really understood me you would let me do it.’  For many of us, we carry this belief into adulthood (by age not necessarily by ’emotional maturity’).

The other thing I have learned when I choose to suspend my assumptions and listen intently and receptively in order to understand is that I come to understand the others ‘intentions.’  I assumed the person intended ‘A’ when what I learn is that the person intended ‘B.’

This takes time, energy and ‘space.’  I know of no short cut — email, tweet, or text — that allows all of this to unfold quickly.  Do I really want to ‘understand’ — you, me, us?

Gentle reader, what hinders you from listening intently and receptively in order to understand?

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