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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

10 Ways to Bypass the Real. ~ Jeff Brown

Via Jeff Brownon Mar 20, 2014

The Woods

In 1984, psychologist and author John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypass.”

In Soulshaping, I defined the spiritual bypass “as the tendency to jump to spirit prematurely, usually in an effort to avoid various aspects of earthly reality.” This way of being was very familiar to me, as I have often displayed a tendency to bypass uncomfortable truths by jumping to divinity.

On a pogo-stick to the stars, I enjoyed the opportunity to pseudo-transcend the dualities before inevitably crashing back to earth to deal with my unfinished business.

In Soulshaping, I also acknowledged the need for bypass techniques in a still difficult world:

“In a world of pain, the spiritual bypass is an ongoing temptation. It gives us something to believe in and a vision of what we are missing in our localized reality. Without it, many of us would have to suffer unbearable situations. At the same time, it can be a detour on the path to genuine spirituality. In our efforts to leapfrog to something better, we often avoid something crucial. Spirit becomes the crutch rather than the expression of a natural unfolding.”

Subsequently, Robert Augustus Masters dedicated an entire book to this important topic—”Spiritual Bypassing- When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters.”

As the term grows in popularity, I have noticed that it has taken on a very broad application, not uncommon with terms of art that morph into labels. In an effort to avoid its over-generalized and unattuned usage, I want to make a distinction between different forms of bypassing and shadow jumping, for they surely come in many forms.

The following list arose through observations of my own patterns and is intended as a self-assessment tool, one that can be used to support your own efforts to recognize and transform your methods of self-distraction.Some can be understood as branches of the spiritual bypass tree, while others have a meaningfully different quality.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list, as there are as many ways to avoid reality as there are humans, but I am particularly interested in some of the ways that self-avoidance paths mask as enlightenment in the spiritual community in particular:

1.   The positivity bypass (aka the bliss bypass)—The tendency to feign positivity/bliss in an effort to sidestep or rise above the unhealed shadow. Often associated with the ungrounded “It’s all Good” mantra.

2.  The cerebral bypass—The tendency to seek refuge in the mind, to live in and through thoughts alone, to over-intellectualize the moment. Head-tripping in an effort to detach from the world of feeling. Often manifest as a profound capacity to articulate consciousness models and inquiries with little capacity to hearticulate and embody felt experience.

3.   The witness bypass—The tendency to live in witness-observer consciousness, to stare at our unresolved pain body across the room and imagine ourselves present, to confuse helpful detachment practices with life itself. Meanwhile, our unresolved pain is congealing into weapons that turn inward against the self. Often manifest as a kind of glossy eyed pseudo-equanimity with reduced affect.

4.   The pragmatism bypass—That is, remaining perpetually focused on practical reality in an effort to avoid an experience of unity, the bigger picture. Often manifest in great success in the material world, but a spiritually bankrupt life.

5.   The All-One bypass—That is, remaining perpetually focused on unity consciousness in an effort to avoid our particular issues, challenges and practical needs. Often manifest as an ungrounded inability to meet grounded, basic needs while floating off into the great mystery.

6.   The Non-Duality bypass—The tendency to self-identify as a non-dualist in an effort to transcend the human fray. Non-dual bypassers tend to conveniently remove everything that makes them uncomfortable from their unified framework- personal identifications, the unhealed emotional body, the entire ego, the self, the body- in an effort to transcend their humanness. Of course, there is nothing non-dual about it. Our humanness is the grist for the soul-mill. Without it, we can’t grow toward an authentic, sustainable experience of non-separateness.

7.  The Accountability Bypass– The tendency to use ‘mirror/reflection’ and ‘no judgment’ techniques in an effort to sidestep our own responsibility or the responsibility of others for wrong action. Lodged in the ungrounded notion that there is no wrongdoing, the effect of these practices is to condone and perpetuate unhealthy behaviors and to discourage victims from their rightful and necessary healing process.

8.   The You are not your story Bypass—The tendency to flee painful and confusing elements of our life experiences by disparaging story. Yes, we are often so much more than our stories, but let’ not throw the whole story out with the bath water. We also are our stories. At the heart of our story are the personal identifications, emotional material and unresolved issues that are the grist for the soul mill for our spiritual expansion. Without karmic clay to work through and with, our expansion is stalled.

9.   The Karmic Contract Bypass—The tendency to attribute every single event on the planet to universal or soulular intentionality—that is, “you must have chosen it,” it was destined, it reflects your vibration, “everything happens for a reason”—in an effort to flee the painful, mysterious and misguided nature of many events and experiences. Those who participate in this bypass technique have a tendency to shame and shun their own experience, and to do the same to others where compassion and healing are required.

And my own, as yet unworked through tendency…

10.  The Forgiveness Bypass—The tendency to avoid unresolved emotions and relational experiences by feigning forgiveness. Premature forgiveness. Often manifest in a tendency to shame those who haven’t forgiven, as though forgiving a wrongdoer is more important than healing itself. Real forgiveness requires a genuine working through of the emotions and memories related to our experiences. And, at the end of that process, it is the victim’s choice as to whether they choose to forgive.

Jeff Brown, former criminal lawyer and psychotherapist, Jeff Brown is the author of the best-selling book Soulshaping: A Journey of Self-Creation, and a popular book of spiritual graffiti- Ascending with Both Feet on the Ground. Endorsed by Oprah’s Soul Series radio host Elizabeth Lesser, authors Oriah Mountain Dreamer and Katherine Woodward Thomas, Ascending is a collection of some of Jeff’s most popular spiritual graffiti quotes, soul-bytes and aphorisms frequently shared in social media. He has been interviewed by CNN radio, appeared on Fox News.com, and written popular inspirations for ABC S Good Morning America. He is also the author of the viral blog Apologies to the Divine Feminine (from a warrior in transition) and the producer and key journeyer in the award winning spiritual documentary – Karmageddon- which also stars Ram Dass, Seane Corn, Wah! David Life, Deva Premal and Miten. His newest book- Love It Forward- is now published. Endorsed by best-selling authors Andrew Harvey and Caroline Myss, Love It Forward is another book of Jeff’s most impactful quotes and writings, with a strong emphasis on love and relationship quotes. You can check out his work at Soulshaping.

examin_image

 

The method presented here is adapted from a technique described by Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. St. Ignatius thought that the Examen was a gift that came directly from God, and that God wanted it to be shared as widely as possible. One of the few rules of prayer that Ignatius made for the Jesuit order was the requirement that Jesuits practice the Examen twice daily—at noon and at the end of the day. It’s a habit that Jesuits, and many other Christians, practice to this day.

How to Make the Examen Part of Your Day

Variations on the Examen

Reflections on Praying the Examen

Handouts on the Examen

This is a version of the five-step Daily Examen that St. Ignatius practiced.

1. Become aware of God’s presence.

2. Review the day with gratitude.

3. Pay attention to your emotions.

4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.

5. Look toward tomorrow.

For details about each step of the Examen, read How Can I Pray?

dotMagis Posts About the Examen

From the category archives of the dotMagis blog.  How to Make the Examen Part of Your Day

Lunchtime Examen, a 6-session prayer series led by Jim ManneyLunchtime Examen

Pause to review your day in the presence of God with this six-session series led by Jim Manney, author of A Simple, Life-Changing Prayer: Discovering the Power of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Examen.

– See more at: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/#sthash.KfVghhP1.dpuf

Rummaging for God: Praying Backwards through Your Day

By Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Dennis Hamm, SJ, a scripture professor at Creighton University, calls the Daily Examen “rummaging for God.” He likens it to “going through a drawer full of stuff, feeling around, looking for something that you are sure must be there.” That’s an accurate description of what it’s like to pray the Daily Examen. We look back on the previous day, rummaging through the “stuff,” and finding God in it. We know he is there.

Consciousness Examen

By George Aschenbrenner, SJ

Considered a classic. This is a reprint of the original 1972 article by Aschenbrenner exploring the how and why of practicing the Examen.

Reflection and Our Active Lives

By David L. Fleming, SJ

The tools and methods of Ignatian spirituality, particularly the Examen, instill in us habits of prayerful, thoughtful reflection.

The Examen Video

A six-minute video about the Examen, produced by the Jesuits of the California Province.

A Method of Making the General Examen

Simple and clear explanation of the Examen, focusing on what Ignatius intended when composing it.

Daily Examen Video from Strake Jesuit

Audio presentation (with accompanying images) of the Examen as it is presented each day to the students at Strake Jesuit College Prep in Houston.

An Examen on MP3

Peter Filice, SJ, guides you through a Daily Examen.

Review of the Day (MP3 format)

Review of the Day (wma format) (3.9 MB)

The “Review of the Day” is an eight-minute Examen provided by the Jesuits in the UK. To play, click on the link above. To download, right-click on the link and choose “Save Target As” from the drop-down menu.

Into the Examen

This follow-up video to “Examen” from St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco features a student trying out the Examen for himself. Several people think it is the best video they have seen about the Examen.

Variations on the Examen

Review of the Day for Managers

By Paul Brian Campbell, SJ

An adaptation of the Ignatian Examen designed for managers.

From Ashes to GloryFrom Ashes to Glory

A way of praying the Examen through Lent, with materials by Joseph Tetlow, SJ. Take up the practice of reflecting on your day, its gifts and graces, and the progress you are making in life with Christ.

Communal Examen (PDF)

By Philip Shano, SJ

The author describes a “communal” examen of consciousness, an exercise based on the realization that Ignatian spirituality is applicable to communities, not just individual men and women.

Ecological Examen (PDF)

By Joseph Carver, SJ

The Examen is presented from an ecological perspective.

Examen Me

Examen.me describes itself as a “modern approach to ancient devotional practices.” The site does not refer to Ignatius and, although its ownership is hard to trace, it is based in Fort Worth, TX. Examen.me offers six different types of examens, with only one being close to the traditional Ignatian version.

The Prayer of Examen (Guided Version) (PDF)

Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan guides the reader through a four-part version of the Examen, with questions and suggestions for proceeding.

Reflections on Praying the Examen

Examen (PDF)

Based on an original article by Father George Aschenbrenner, SJ

This guide calls readers to take another look at the Examen through a consideration of the goal and shape of the prayer. It’s an abbreviation of an article by Aschenbrenner. The present format was prepared by Fr. John English and has been further amended by members of the British Province of the Society of Jesus.

Finding God on the Metro

By William Blazek, SJ

God is present in all things—even on the subway during the morning commute.

On the Sofa with God

By Paul Brian Campbell, SJ

One image to consider in practicing the Examen is sitting on the sofa next to God.

Tom McGrath Responds in Blog-alogue about Examen

As part of a conversational blog exchange about the Examen, Tom McGrath recounts a wonderful image about telling your story to God, who then tells your story back to you.

Did You See That? God, Dorothy Day, St. Ignatius, and the Examen of Conscience (PDF)

By Patrick E. McGrath, SJ

McGrath uses Dorothy Day’s quote, “I’m just happy to have had our good Lord on my mind all these years,” as a starting point for a brief article on the Examen.

Handouts on the Examen

The Examen: Finding God in All Things (PDF)

A printable guide to the Examen which seems eminently suitable for beginners in Ignatian spirituality.

– See more at: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/#sthash.KfVghhP1.dpuf

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I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory