Does stillness feel like a straight jacket to you, too?

When people find out I’ve published a faith-based title, they often ask, Do you meditate? “I pray,” I tell them. This is usually met with an uncomfortable silence or, “Oh.” Then crickets.

People, it seems, aren’t quite sure what to do with prayer. Meditation is the in thing. It’s so much more … accepted, inoffensive, non-denominational. It’s something people do who are giving responsible attention to their “inner quieting” when the world feels so loud.

I get that. So much shouts at us to hurry up! keep up! get ahead! don’t fall behind! Be better! Be faster! Do more! All while the backlog from our to-do lists piles up and our best intentions get shoved aside. Who in her right mind would turn down the opportunity to embrace stillness and quietly channel her inner self in calm moments of meditation?

I would, actually. Do, in fact. Oh, it’s not the calm or quiet I object to, it’s the “stillness” that gives me trouble. Whenever I am required to be completely immobile, no matter where I rest my hands, how I cross my legs or where I direct my gaze, I feel like I am confined by a straight jacket. Almost instantly, I want to fight to free myself, open my eyes and give in to a good belly laugh at the silliness of the whole situation.

Now, some who would meld prayer and meditation have suggested that meditation is simply the listening part of prayer. For instance, begin with “be still and know that I am God” and then meditate on the response you hear, sense or receive.

While this feels like a powerful practice and can be for me on my good days, on most days that “be still” part catches me up. The key is getting to the listening part in a condition that actually inclines me to listen; I have to loose the straight jacket without losing my focus.

I’ve found (and described in my book, Made to Move) that the best way for me to do this is via natural movement like rocking, swaying, nodding or through rhythmic activity like walking, running, riding, rowing or swimming. Movement that “happens” without intentional ignition is best, especially when it can continue without drawing attention to itself. It’s as if I have engaged my body to attend to my soul.

Best of all, I can tap into this any time! By piping down the panicked voices that shout “faster, better, more” — and for me this requires I call on that Higher Power who can silence what doesn’t belong — I can actively and healthfully engage my work in the world. Whether it’s writing a novel, working difficult mathematical calculations, tending to a distraught co-worker or family member, creating strategic market analysis or any other work worth doing, I can engage it fully, contemplatively.

While meditation teaches me to subtract myself from my doings, to take a break in order to re-engage the fight, real-time bodily prayer actually adds to my effectiveness in the “fight.” By it, I gain confidence, courage and insight to do what’s before me, again and again.

Yes, I pray. And actually I am okay with the silence that may follow. Because in it, I am on the move, taking the awkward and tossing it back and forth with my prayer partner as if we are having a catch in the back yard. Throw/catch. Throw/catch. Listening to it snap into the pocket of my mitt, and then into His.

Words are easy there. So is silence.

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Surprised by grace

I returned the book* one day late. I knew it was late. I could have returned it the day before, but I had a few more pages to finish. So I kept it. Kept it from the next person on the list, who had put a hold on it, whose right it was to have it. To get to start reading it. I was delinquent and I knew it.

Sheepishly, I approached the white-haired woman at the checkout counter. Producing the book, I apologized for having kept it a day past its due date. I fingered the coins in my hand, ready to pay for my transgression. The woman smiled at me as she took the book. “You’re probably OK,” she told me, “We build in a day of grace.” After scanning in my return, she paused a moment and then declared, “You’re forgiven.”

Ho-ho! How delighted I was to hear those words! I admit I had a sudden urge to ask this woman to repeat herself so I could record her on video. Thought better of this, though, and left the library, smiling broadly, my quarters still in my pocket. I’m actually not sure how much the one day fine would have been had it been assessed, but not much. Certainly, my gratitude at being excused was out of proportion with the giddiness I felt. Not at getting away with something, but at confessing that thing and being surprised by my forgiveness.

That’s the singular thing about grace that has us kicking up our heels in delight. Because we don’t deserve it we don’t expect it so it catches us completely off guard. It’s a gift we didn’t see coming. Swoops in and sweeps us completely off our feet.

Funny, this instance has reminded me of the conversation Jesus had with Simon-Peter when he was belly-aching about the extravagant love shown Jesus by a woman “who had lived a sinful life.” Jesus asked Peter to reconsider her via a parable about a money-lender who forgave two debtors, neither of whom could pay; one owed 10X the amount owed by the other (Luke 7:41-48*). Then Jesus asked, Now which of them will love him (the money-lender) more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

Well, here I am, over the moon about my small debt forgiven while I celebrate this moment of grace. Until the sinner in me realizes that now that I know there will be a day of grace extended, I will very likely be tempted to take advantage of “my extra day” as if it were mine to take rather than His to give.

Apparently, the amazing thing about grace isn’t its quantity, quality or availability. It’s that it comes as a complete and utter surprise. After that, we’d do well to keep the gratitude gig going.

*Searching for Sunday, by the late Rachel Held Evans

What gets your attention?

We all notice, don’t we? The thing that wasn’t there before. The thing that isn’t but was. The thing that’s different from one image to the next. Heck, that’s a puzzle I loved to do as a kid! Find all 10!

Yes, if we’re paying even the slightest attention, we notice when something has changed, been moved, seems out of place or is acting strangely. That’s why airport security admonishes us, “If you see something, say something.”

The funny thing is, we were made for this. It’s a survival mechanism. Really. Our perceptors (my new word: receptors for perception) are designed to alert us when something might be dangerous. Did you know that your body responds more quickly and forcefully to a critter crawling UP your arm than to the one crawling DOWN? Yep. One is a threat to the jugular; the other may only nibble a finger or toe. No biggie.

So, given this design, it’s not surprising to find that something moving quickly in our peripheral vision draws our attention. Someone behaving oddly gets our gaze. Someone dressed distinctively gives us pause. Honestly, when something or someone is different, it is hard to look away — even when it’s impolite to stare.

I find it at least a little bit comforting to realize that it isn’t just my socio-cultural bias at play here: a good bit of this responsiveness is programmed in. I’m designed to notice different and be wary, AND I’m drawn to seek the similar because it brings me comfort. It’s our instinctive nature to distinguish among and between in order to seek safety, security and well-being. It’s the same for all the animals in the animal kingdom. Draw close; protect your own.

Today’s world, though, is demanding more of me and of us. It is calling us away from the basic animal in our nature toward what is unique to our human nature. Yes, we have biases — ingrained, learned and polished over years of practice. There’s no disputing: We do prefer this to that. We understand this and not that. We accept this and reject that. But our humanity has been dealt a brilliant extra card: a mind that can notice its bias and reject it.

It’s a small thing really, to catch myself in the act of assigning a story to someone I see but don’t know, whether it’s on the TV, in the news or in the parking lot at my local shopping center. I have discovered that I can nip that thought right in the bud, though. In fact, I’ve taken to giving myself a little swat on the thigh to say, “Stop that right there, you!” That’s what you’d hear if your earbuds were listening in to my brain. I trust you aren’t, but the Big Someone Else surely is.

So, I figure I ought to listen, as Lincoln put it, to the angels of my better nature. They’re telling me to: lead with forgiveness, err on the side of generosity, assume the best in the other — until further notice. Lotta grace flowing down that stream. Grace I don’t always even give myself. Got a lot to learn.

Ironic, the difference between what gets your attention and what you give your attention to. Every animal in the kingdom comes pre-programmed for survival. We humans have the capacity to discern, decide and re-direct. Thought by ever-loving thought.

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