Walk With Me

Three turning points on the path to inner peace

Am I the prisoner or the jailer? Or am I both? I gaze out of my prison. It’s dark, and I’m desperate and afraid. I don’t know who I am.

Come with me to a new place. If you want, we can sing as we walk. There’s a long road ahead still, but I know this path is mine, and it is right for me.

There is a place of great safety, where “Today I might die” doesn’t matter. In that place, the executioner is loved as much as the hanged man. Tumors that break bones don’t matter and neither do needle tracks, promiscuity, despair, regret or betrayal.

A Christian hymn says, “We are pilgrims on a journey.”

The Sufi poet Rumi says, “O you who’ve gone on pilgrimage—where are you, where, oh where?”

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says, “I’m a traveler, a pilgrim. No one can hold or stop me, not the bonds of joys and sorrows, not the room I live in.”

Maybe you don’t believe in God. That’s all right. Maybe religion leaves you empty. That’s fine too.

Our destination is kindness and caring for all beings. We’re going to walk beyond pain and shame and hatred. The word that you attach to the destination, how you name it, doesn’t matter.

I have wandered a lot. What I know is that there are three major turning points, three forks on this road. All of them help answer the question “Who am I?”

1. I am not my body.

This body is a wonderful temporary organism. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it wants food or sex and sometimes it laughs out loud at smelling and feeling and sensing life.

When infection touches it, the body gets sick but it can fight almost any germ. After all, it’s been practicing staying healthy since cavemen fought saber-toothed tigers. The body knows how to grow, how to heal and how to stop when it’s time.

Who am I? Am I the joy and health of my body? What if living in the body is torture?

If I have AIDs or cancer, is that who I am? Am I my tumors? No, absolutely not. If I am 95 and slowly fading, is that who I am? Christopher Reeves was more than his body when he looked like superman, and he also was more than his body when he lay paralyzed.

We are part of the whole. Divine intelligence dwells in our bodies, making them sacred tools. We hate to admit it, but our bodies really are temples of holiness. We heal from sickness because our bodies are more brilliant that we can imagine. And yet a body is temporary.

On our pilgrimage, it doesn’t matter if this body gets broken today. When we are quiet enough, when we meditate or pray, eventually we discover silence. The silence is the truth beyond our bodies, the wholeness that needs no body.

Even with cancer, even on a ventilator, even in addiction, even in death, our perfect essence belongs to the wholeness that is eternal.

Imagine your body as an ice cube floating in a sea of all that is, floating on the living water of kindness—and then melt. We are the water, not the ice cube. We are the ocean, not the wave.

2. I am not my story.

The cruelest thing our family and friends tell us is, “I know who you are. I remember everything you have done.” They say, “I love you, but let’s admit it. You’ve never been able to do math.” “You’ve made mistakes.” “No man will ever want you.” “You’re not really star quality.”

It’s so common that we don’t even notice it. People pretend they are being honest. But those pronouncements lock us into prison because we accept the lies as truth.

Kindness could be just as honest. “Wow. That was such a great thing to do.” “Why don’t you try again? I bet you’ll get the hang of it.” “I know you’ve got it in you to succeed.” “Forget the past. It’s over. Look to the future.”

Much worse than the judgments of others is how brutally we judge ourselves. We savage ourselves again and again, and we think it’s good.

After all, we think the story of our life is who we are. We think our past is our identity. If we “succeed,” then we have permission to be proud. If we “fail,” then we must be ashamed.

Think instead of the story of your life as instants of perception that have passed. They were lessons that you have finished.

You can let them go. Your story is like heavy chains that drag you down. Your story keeps your hands busy so you never reach for joy.

Here’s the trick—You’re clutching those chains. Nobody wrapped them around you. If they are there, it’s because you agreed to accept them. You said, “Yes, it’s too bad, but that is who I am.” Your own hands are pulling them tight.

You can let go. You can open your fingers and let it all slip away.

You are not your past. You are not your story. And the ones who really love you will help you let go.

But if I am not my story, then who am I? Sometimes people think their story was ugly, their pain was bad, but at least it gave them a special identity.

You can find a better identity.

You are more than just your body and more than just your story.

3. I am not my thoughts.

Ever since I was a baby, my mind has been creating thoughts. For many years, I assumed that my thoughts were my truest identity.

Some were good, and some were nasty. I could tell close friends my deepest thoughts, and I thought that was telling them who I really was.

Many of us use thoughts to whip ourselves. If I feel guilt or shame, I can punish myself again and again. “I shouldn’t have done that.” “He did that to me! How terrible!”

If we have an obsessive edge, we replay the bad scenes thousands of times. We would not do that to someone else, but we do it to ourselves.

Even our good thoughts are tricky because we are such brutal judges. We think, “I forgive her, so now I am good.” But that gives immense power to a flimsy thought.

Unconditional love means not judging—and that includes not judging ourselves.

One of the first things meditation teaches is that thoughts are neither good nor bad. They just are. I can let them go.

When I think, “I am good,” I can let that float away as a wisp. When I think, “He’s a bad person,” that can also just float away as a wisp.

When I think, “My body is ugly,” it’s just a wisp, neither good nor bad. When I think, “I should never have taken that last drink,” it can melt away. When I think, “There is no hope,” it’s just another strand of nothing.

Practicing meditation gives me the skill to let my thoughts float away without identifying with them. Without meditation, I don’t know how I would accomplish this.

That’s why meditation is one of the ways we heal into wholeness. That’s how meditation brings us closer to God—It helps us love ourselves in a completely new way.

Even after 30 years, practicing meditation is still hard for me sometimes. And it’s hard for everyone—even for the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Our thoughts are so intrusive and so compelling that we think they define us.

But we are much more than our thoughts.

We are pilgrims on our way to a new place.

Even if our bodies are failing, we are whole. Like ice cubes, we are melting into the whole.

We are both temporary and eternal.

Just as an ice cube freezes and melts, we take shape and then melt. Are we just the temporary shape? No, we are the essence out of which the ice cube forms. We are the living water.

So even when we are dying, we are whole. The ice cube melts to water as a form of release.

Even if we have failed terribly in the past, we are whole. Nobody dodges life’s lessons, but once the learning is done, we can open our hands and let the chains go. We are not our story.

Who we are today is the only thing that matters.

Even if our thoughts are clever, brilliant, terrible or sacred, they do not define who we are. They are like smoke on the wind. They melt away because they are nothing.

We are holy pilgrims, even when we cannot define God. We arrive at the sacred place beyond words, beyond time and beyond individuality. We rest in the immensity of all that is. “I will die” and “I was born” don’t matter.

In this place, it’s easy to touch one another. Our edges have melted. Who are we?

We are the connection itself. We are pilgrims on a journey to the truth of utter kindness.

Here, take my hand. Look into my eyes. We melt into each other and become one. We are whole.

 

[An earlier version was originally published on http://www.elephantjournal.com]

 

 

 

 

 

Opening to God in a New Way

At first, Christian meditation sounds weird, especially if you’re used to church and scripture and sermons. But here are three teaching videos by two well-known, devout Christian teachers.

The first two videos are by James Finley, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist who studied under the great Christian mystic Thomas Merton.

In the first video, Finley talks about how we think we know what’s going on in our lives, but we really don’t. We have the plans our egos have made, what we think SHOULD be happening, but the Divine has other plans. Finley’s teaching about “don’t-know mind” is profound. He says that it is when we finally give up our ego’s plans that God can really reach out and heal us—even when life is very tough, as in serious illness or addiction.

Finley video on “Don’t-know mind”

In the second video, Finley explains what Christian Meditation is and how to do it. He discusses it all– how to sit, what to think, how to relax, and how it helps the individual open to God’s presence and healing. There’s a link to Finley’s book, Christian Meditation, in the Bookstore.

Finley teaching Christian Meditation

In the third video, Cynthia Bourgeault teaches the well-known Christian meditation technique Centering Prayer. Dr. Bourgeault’s teaching is easy and makes sense within the context of Christian faith. Links to her books are available in the Bookstore.

Bourgeault teaching Christian Meditation

 

Mrs. Stanley’s Lesson

It’s how these things so often happen. Early on a Monday morning in about 1979, after I had finished meditating, something came to me. It was Mrs. Stanley’s face or maybe her voice. It overwhelmed me.

These things come like a distant bell, a magical, haunting, beautiful sound that you cannot ignore. I hadn’t even thought of her in more than ten years, but there she was, my high school English teacher, calling me.

By then my life had gone seriously wrong. My first baby had died, my poor drunk husband had gone home to his own country, I was poor, and every so often depression crippled me.

The joys I had were my little girl and a new sense of hope and love. I had started to meditate.

On that Monday morning what I suddenly knew—out of nowhere, I thought—was that I had to tell Mrs. Stanley thank you. It was obvious. Looking back, heaven was prompting me, but at that time I hadn’t figured that out yet. I got a card, wrote a note and mailed it.

A week later the phone rang and there was a trembly fairy voice. “Jean, is that you? Is that you? Where are you? Where are you? Come and see me.”

She was in Madison General Hospital, dying. By now I knew a little bit about death, so I went right away.

She is lying on pillows, oxygen tubes in her nose, IVs in her arms—Of course, all her smoking. Lung cancer. The room smells bad, and it’s dim and grey. Her voice is still low, but she can barely whisper.

“Your little girl? I thought you’d bring her.”

“I was afraid to—I didn’t know how you would be.”

She nods. “What did I give you? Why did you write? Was it my teaching?”

This part I know. “No….The teaching was good. But it was never what you said. It was how you were.”

“How?”

“Remember when that girl tried to kill herself and she came into your room?  And you climbed into the ambulance with her and went with her to the hospital?”

She sighs a little. “Poor girl. Yes…yes.”

“You cared so much. You would say anything, do anything…. We were so stupid. So immature. We laughed at you, and you just ignored us. It was how you were, not what you said, not who you were. You were there for us, for all of us, even when you weren’t supposed to be. Even when it was embarrassing. You told us the truth. You were strict but you cared. You always showed that passion, and damn everyone else.”

“How did you hear me? How?”

I shrug. “I just knew. I just knew—It just came one morning.”

She falls back onto her pillows. “So there is something….Oh God. Oh God.” Tears slide down her cheeks.

It was the only time I saw her. In a few days she died. She was one of my most important teachers.

Here is Mrs. Stanley’s lesson: It’s not who you are or what you are that lasts, that matters forever. It’s how you are. Kind. Tender. Caring—No matter who laughs at you. How you touch. How you speak.

Touch kindly. Be there for others. Let your eyes shine because that’s God’s joy. Tell others how precious they are so they know.

How you are is exactly how God happens in this world. How you are is the only thing that matters. That’s it—the whole thing. It’s not what to be, not who to be. It’s how to be.

 

 

My First Language Is Christian

Our secretary stormed into the office and slammed her textbook on the desk.

“This is so stupid! It doesn’t make sense!” She was just back from French class. At fifty years old, she was learning her first foreign language.

“It’s just a window! A stupid, stupid window!” Her voice shook. 

She said it again, louder.  “Window!”  She pointed at the glass. “Why would anyone say something different? Fenêtre!  What the hell is that about? Why can’t they see that it’s a window?  It’s so easy—Anyone can see that! Why use some stupid other word?”

I look at the window. In my head I remember a dark room’s lovely arched window looking out onto a courtyard throbbing with sun and magenta flowering vines. Khidki in the Hindi language. I think of a small opening in a dark thatched cottage. Fuinneog in the Gaelic language.  A huge plate glass window in a grey cement building. Okno in the Russian language.  

The light itself always shines—in every hut and prison cell. Without end or beginning, outside of time itself, the light is the very fabric of all existence

I know the light and so do you. It runs deeper than breath. Every time it touches me, I recognize it. I remember it. This is the instant of utter awe and joy. It might be the sound of the wind at night or one wildflower growing by a freeway or the smell of your child’s skin.

The opening into the light has thousands of names. Window. Fenêtre. Khidki. Okno. But the eternal light itself—the Divine, the awareness, God—is One. Oneness. The Mystery. The Source. Everything. All.

I say “God” because I speak Christian. As a tiny child sensing beauty and joy, the words of my family and culture were “pray” and “God” and “Christ.” Even though I know other words for the light, such as the Tibetan Dzogchen word Rigpa or the Hindu word Brahman, those words don’t give me goose bumps. 

What my heart knows is something deeper than any one language. My heart sings of the light itself.  The “zing” of existence. Utter joy. Sunrise. Hope.

But when I have to force that vast knowledge into a single word, I choose the words of my childhood because for me they brush my skin like the chords of an old hymn. Those words smell of the lilac bushes where I played with my dolls and my grandmother’s homemade rosewater and glycerin hand lotion. I hear the melody of a hymn on Sunday. Morning has broken like the first morning. 

My sisters sleep around me in our bedroom. At the foot of my bed is a big dormer window facing east. As the sun rises, birds start murmuring and light streams onto my bed.

Other children are waking up at this moment, in other places, in other families. A child waking in a yurt in the Altai mountains of Mongolia says Allah, and a child ringing a bell in a Hindu temple says Vishnu.

I speak Christian. I look at the light and call it God.

–by Jean Gendreau