Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shadows in the Night

Every little girl has a monster that keeps them up at night. Mine was: “the Shad” or Shadows, and it was a nightly ritual in my house that upon tucking me in, my parents would put on a large ritual of wrestling “the Shad,” hoisting him up, and throwing him out my window. The monster that I made up who only came out at night was, of course, merely the large oak tree outside my window casting its shadow on my wall. But “the Shad” was a fear that my parents weren’t quite sure what to do with.

Carl Jung writes extensively about the human “shadow.” Our ego is who we consciously perceive ourselves to be. Our persona is who we wish to be seen as in the world. Our shadow is those repressed, feared aspects of ourselves that we fail to see and consciously know, and as I illustrated in my childhood story, we engage in shadow-making very early in our lives. Our culture begins instructing us very early on of what behaviors, activities, and personality traits are appropriate or valued and what ones should not be shown, should, in fact, be repressed. Though we are born whole, we divide ourselves into an ego and a shadow according to the characteristics our particular culture values and consequently promotes in us.

When we choose not to incorporate or ritualize our shadow side consciously and instead repress it, chances are good that we will project it onto another person, or even onto a whole group where it appears to us in the form of bigotry, racism, etc. Through time immemorial we have been repeating our absurd projections onto one another. Jung stated at the end of the Second World War: “Now that the angel of history has abandoned the Germans, the demons will seek a new victim. And that won't be difficult, for every man who loses his shadow, every nation that falls into self-righteousness, is their prey.” Years later he would remind us again: “It is the face of our own shadow that glowers at us across the Iron Curtain.”
“The Shad” is a monster that I have dealt with all my life. Though intellectually I know that I have nothing to fear and it is only a product of my childhood psyche, I must admit that in my most vulnerable moments, I still leave a light on at night. I think this is because our fears, our weaknesses, those sides of ourselves that we don’t want to admit are there, go far beyond our intellect. They affect us in a soul way, in a way that engages our senses and our emotions. My “Shad” has transformed over time, and my modern day Shad is far more than a monster, he is all the things about me that I dislike. 

What is so dangerous about our shadow side is that most of the time we aren’t even aware of its activity. The idea that there is a side of ourselves that isn’t easily compartmentalized into one of the many masks we put on in a day is slightly disturbing. In fact, the idea that there is anything in our lives that isn’t under our direct control is flat out alarming. Is our shadow really something to fear though? Your damn right it is! The human unconscious is a mighty power to be dealt with. Left unattended to, it is capable of the horrors we see in our newspapers, the tragedy we see on our televisions, and yes, the small hurts that we witness in our own communities and families. Shadow?…original sin?…call it what you will. It’s there, and it’s there to teach us something.

The shadow side of human existence is radically dangerous, but only when hidden behind an agreeable nod and a fake smile. When we do honest work with it and admit that it is a part of our being, we can begin to take control and become authentically self-aware.Of course, self awareness stings a little. The phrase, “Ignorance is Bliss” has a stark truth to it. Dealing with the fact that the people we can’t stand being around are most probably the people that reflect back to us a dimension of our own personality is a frustrating realization. But admitting that fact to ourselves can be a valuable way to better see the dimension of ourselves that it is most difficult to discover, that dimension of ourselves we least know. Perhaps this truth is why Jesus called us to “love our enemies,” for if we can do that, than we just might have a shot at learning to love our shadow, and consequently, our Selves.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gone and yet they Remain

As Christmas approaches I've been thinking a lot about an important professor to my personal spiritual development, Dr. Russ Connors, whose family will be celebrating their first Christmas without him this year. As my academic advisor he was the kindest, most patient man, I was so lucky to have his guidance in my early years as a theology student. In class I marveled at his ability to facilitate dialogue and engage us in deep conversation. He listened deeply to us and then challenged us further, pulling out of his students the very best of our own thinking process.

In the case of many of my loved ones who've passed on, I have felt their continued presence. But I think especially in the case of a student-teacher relationship, when learning and mentorship take place, it really is as if a piece of them lives on in us. I pray that I am able to convey even the smallest slice of what I have learned from Dr Connors to be able to share his kindness and insight into life and faith with those whom I meet. Indeed, I hope that all those whom I've loved and lost somehow, remain. Both in my seeking to live my life in light of knowing them, and also in that ever-mysterious way in which the Body of Christ is never broken, even in death.

I think  Karl Rahner hits the nail right on the head:

The great and sad mistake of many people,
Among them even pious persons, is to imagine
That those, whom death has taken, leave us.
They do no leave us.  They remain!
Where are they? In the darkness?
Oh, no! It is we who are in the darkness.
We do not see them, but they see us.
Their eyes radiant with glory,
Are fixed upon our eyes full of tears.
Oh, infinite consolation!
Though invisible to us, our dead are not absent.

I have often reflected upon the surest
Comfort for those who mourn.
It is this: a firm faith in the real
And continued presence of our loved ones;
It is the clear and penetrating conviction
That death has not destroyed them,
Nor carried them away.
They are not even absent,
But living near to us, transfigured:
Having lost, in their glorious change,
No delicacy of their souls,
No tenderness of their affection.
Death is, for the good, a translation into light,
Into power, into love.
Those who on earth were only ordinary Christians,
Become perfect…
Those who were good become sublime.

A Prayer for a Loved One

We seem to give them back to You, O God, You who gave them to us. Yet as You did not lose them in giving, so we do not lose them by their return. Not as the world gives, do You give, O lover of Souls.  What You give, You take not away, for what is Yours is ours also if we are Yours.  And life is eternal and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight.  Therefore lift us up, strong Son of God, that we may see further; cleanse our eyes that we may see more clearly; draw us closer to yourself that we may know ourselves to be nearer to our loved ones who are with You.  And while You do prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where You are we may be also for evermore.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dogs as Spiritual Directors

     One of my favorite ways of praying is hiking with my dog Zoe through the state park. I was remembering today a hike we did a couple of years ago when Zoe, after following a scent for awhile ran back to me, begging me to follow her. She brought me up around a bend in the trail and happily pointed out to me a huge deer. So there we stood a long distance away, motionless, just watching, knowing that a sudden move would send this majestic creature fleeing from us. And yet, hopeful that if we could stand still long enough maybe the deer would see us as part of the landscape and trust us enough to come a little closer. 
     That day, that moment, which Zoe and I spent silent and motionless, just hoping together was a beautiful lesson to me in what God asks of us in the ministry of spiritual direction. I've often heard the phrase “Dogs are natural therapists.” But in even more ways I think dogs are natural spiritual directors! They never talk about themselves or force their opinions. They never try to guide the conversation or give advice. A dog will never criticize you or become uninterested in your experiences. Rather, they will sit silently and attentively just looking at you with that empathetic, loving gaze that lets you know they care, and are fully present to you in that moment. If the goal of the spiritual director is to help one notice the presence of God, then Zoe has shown me this time and time again in her attentiveness to me and our family. She moves from room to room, house to car, errand to errand alongside me as if she is my shadow (I don't mean in the Jungian sense either :), silently and patiently inviting me to relationship with her whenever I am ready and willing to notice: A perfect analogy for the way in which our God invites us to relationship. She is a wonderful reminder to me that I don’t need profound insights or deep reflections into the lives of my directees to be a good spiritual director… just a kind gaze and perked ears! 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Be Happy!

A wonderful reminder from a wise friend. Check out her blog:

Has anyone ever told you it was wrong to feel proud of yourself or to be too happy?

What is bad about feeling good? Nothing at all, if you ask me. But there are some people who will try to get you to believe that you shouldn't be too happy. They will tell you things like, "Pride goes before a fall," or "Who are you to feel so good when there is so much misery in the world," or even "If you show too much happiness, you are only tempting Fate to step in and slap you down." They will say they are only telling you these things for your own good, and they will try to make you feel guilty if things go too well for you.

Now, they are not lying to you. They really believe that what they are telling you is the truth. But I want you to know that this is "their" truth, not "the" truth. And, I want to suggest to you that it is a good idea to avoid people who try to rain on your parade.

You don't have to live in a perfect world or be a perfect person to be happy. The time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the reasons to be happy are all around you. If you take a moment to look for them, they will be there.

Happiness is a choice you make, not something that happens to you. When you choose to be happy, you become a light in the world and a source of comfort and inspiration. What is so good about feeling bad? Not a single thing I can think of. Why not choose happiness for yourself, and why not start today?!

Lou Tice

Monday, December 12, 2011

Supernatural Existential

The “supernatural existential” is the central feature of Karl Rahner’s theology. Often misunderstood, this has less to do with our need for a divine relationship, and more to do with our capacity to receive it.  I find Karl Rahner’s idea that the very metaphysical makeup of humans contains aspects of the divine which intersect into the sphere of being human extraordinarily convincing…indeed inspiring! I think that whether every human person realizes it or not, we are always searching for something outside ourselves, something bigger. I encounter this “tendency to meaning” regularly as a spiritual director. Humans strive to make meaning out of just about anything. We are constantly striving to fill up this space in ourselves that always seems to need satisfying; I imagine this is the capacity in us for the supernatural existential. Those people who have no language for this, or whose parents didn’t model for them what values to adopt in their lives, sometimes fill up this space with things of a superficial or harmful nature. Often people who have encountered much suffering in their lives will outright deny the existence of a supernatural other. Though interestingly, even those who outright deny the existence of a higher power, still seek to prove that fact with such vigor that they almost end up turning their unbelief into a sort of god. A Rabbinic poet once said: “The God of my unbelief is magnificent!” So in a sense then, whether a person is a theist or an atheist, both serve as proof to us of the fact that within human beings there exists a capacity for the supernatural existential. This fact, serves as yet another example of God being a God of relationship, constantly extending us the invitation to either respond to God’s love and luring us toward relationship or to ignore it. However, it is almost written onto our very DNA to tend toward the former because our nature will never be completely satisfied and we will forever seek after some unnamable meaning until we link back up with that from which we came. It makes one wonder if this violates free will or not. Hmmm…another blog… J

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Washing the wine glass and my journey toward spiritual health

Research on the relationship between religious or spiritual practice and health has grown dramatically in the last few years...I think in particular of the growing field of psychoneuroimmunology. There is much evidence that people engaged in some kind of spiritual practice have lower stress levels and tend to be healthier both in mind and in body. The million dollar question is whether spiritual/religious practice is the factor affecting health, or whether such practices are simply a marker for some other factor that is the affective agent. Certainly we can say that what people believe, think and feel seems to have a direct effect on their health, the question that needs to be explored further is: How?
                It is my own observation that one of the most important indicators of physical-emotional-spiritual health is cultivating the practice of mindfulness. By mindfulness, I simply mean our capacity for awareness or self-consciousness. That simple, yet difficult practice of paying attention, of “being present in the present,” of coming to a deeper appreciation of our existence through our senses. Whether a person is disciplined about a particular religious or spiritual practice is obviously not necessarily an automatic indicator of health. However, when such disciplines assist a person in being more mindful of their everyday life, these practices seem to yield the outcome of a more balanced, healthy mind-body-spirit relationship.  
In his book Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that our ability to pay attention and be present to our own existence is so important that when we fail to do so, the consequence of our dis-attention, or dis-connection manifests, of course, as dis-ease. Our habit of not paying attention or “putting out of our mind” various tensions or stressors can, over time, allow symptoms to worsen, and make us prone to disease in other areas of our life. This habit of intentionally ignoring our body’s signs permeates our everyday existence. At this very moment, I am the perfect example of this because it has suddenly come to my attention that it is now 1:45pm and in my desire to finish this blog today, it slipped my mind that perhaps, I should eat lunch! Intentionally, or perhaps it would be better to say unconsciously, I have been ignoring all my body’s signals pointing to the fact that I am hungry. But what has it gained me other than an increased ability to ignore or “put out of my mind” my own self-awareness and walk through life un-conscious?
               These small, mindless habits we adopt are important to notice because of the reality that “practice makes perfect.” Every single behavior or task we perform in a day is one that we get better at with each repetitive act. Every time we become tense, anxious, angry, or any other emotion, we get better at being: tense, anxious, angry etc. Our conditioned behaviors and mindless habits are a direct result of our “way of being” in the world. Without an awareness of that “way of being” every moment of our lives will be one in which we walk through our lives un-conscious. If I’m at the beach on my cell phone am I really there? If I’m on Facebook and watching Cars for the 24th time with my daughter am I really watching Cars? Indeed, have I ever really seen the movie, even once? The common job interview question: “how are you at multi-tasking?” is rather paradoxical to me, instead they should ask: “how good are you at working mindlessly?” Multi-tasking is not a skill! It is yet another collective way in which we have come to value the “ability” to lessen our experience of the present moment.
                The reality of my own unawareness struck me, much to my chagrin, when my dishwasher broke. Second to laundry, there is no household task I dislike quite as much as washing dishes. The coping mechanism I developed to help myself deal with this tragic fate was to reward myself with a glass of wine every night after I had finished the dishes. One evening, while enjoying my well earned glass of Riesling (it was a pot-roast night and I forgot to turn the crock pot off), I picked up Thich Naht Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness.  As I cracked open the book the very first example of practicing mindfulness presented was, alas, washing dishes! You see, there are two ways to wash the dishes. One can wash the dishes to have clean dishes, or one can wash the dishes, to wash the dishes. If we choose the former, then truly it could be said, we are not even washing the dishes because our mind is not there with us in that moment, it is already on to the next thing: drying the dishes, putting them away etc. But when we choose to wash the dishes, simply to wash the dishes, we encounter the present moment, our very self, and the miracle of life all over our finger tips in our very own warm, soapy sink!
                 Indeed, when I really thought about it, even after I had moved on to my glass of wine, I wasn’t actually drinking my glass of wine; I was giving my daughter a bath. And while I was giving her a bath, I was folding laundry, and while I was folding laundry I was….
                So with small, gradual baby steps, I have begun the simple yet complex journey of washing the dishes…to wash the dishes.
                I really liked washing the dishes to have a glass of wine though
…Maybe I’ll start with just washing my wine glass. 
                After all, a healthy dose of self-compassion goes a long way in this journey we call life! (-: