Tag Archives: mindfulness

Tips for the spiritual journey

The spiritual life invites us to turn away from cultural ideals of power, success and accumulation and to embrace vulnerability, simplicity and poverty. Spirituality speaks of surrender, sacrifice, discipline and detachment.

But we are immersed in our culture, swimming in it, so it can be difficult even to see our attachments and recognize what needs to be let go.

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Some suggestions for the spiritual journey:

~Our culture may demand productivity, but God desires our presence and openness. Doing more (more praying, reading, etc.) and believing we have control of spiritual outcomes can be counterproductive, because our efforts alone will not produce spiritual results.

In the spiritual life, our task is to be open to receive whatever God sends; God does the rest.

A good first step is to let go of our assumptions and expectations and to accept what God sends. Set aside time every day to be present to God and to receive the gift of God’s love.

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~Don’t compare your spiritual journey with another’s. Each of us is at a different place and only God knows where we are meant to be. Accept where you are and focus on your own growth.

Matthew 20:1-16 tells of workers who came early in the day and agreed to a wage. Others came to work later in the day, yet they received the same wage as those who worked a full day. The all-day workers protested. The owner reminded them that they got the agreed-upon wage, adding: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

God’s mercy and love is extravagant and abundant. When we are the recipients, it is wonderful. But when we look around and see others we deem as less worthy receiving the same abundance, it can seem we got cheated. Don’t look around.

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~Practice mindfulness. Learning to notice what we notice helps develop awareness of where God is moving in our lives. Stop once or twice a day and look back over the past few hours. When did you feel closest to God? And when did you feel most distant from God?

Learn to look openly at what brings you into harmony with God and what distances you from God, trusting that the Holy Spirit is engaged in both.

Growing in awareness helps us make small course corrections that enable us to be more tuned into God’s movement in our lives.

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~Practice gratitude. Gratitude creates an awareness of the blessings and graces being poured into our lives, but which we can dismiss or not even notice because we are not looking.

Begin by noticing how often you say, “thank you.” Make note of small gifts and blessings you receive throughout the day. It can be as simple as someone holding a door open for you or a patient driver.

Offer thanks for every little thing because gratitude begets gratitude.

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Change is inevitable

A former neighbor came to mind on the second night of my recent retreat.

Most Saturday mornings, Margaret and I would hang our laundry on the lines behind our rowhouses in Eddystone, PA. She lived three doors down from me, which was about forty feet away.

The first to empty a laundry basket would walk over to the other, and we would catch up on the past week.

Margaret lived a Christian life, and she inspired me.

My first Thanksgiving in Eddystone, both she and her husband were out of work, so I offered her the turkey I had gotten from the local grocery store. She thanked me—and then added it to a basket she was preparing for a neighbor. Margaret looked at the world through eyes of gratitude, and she always knew of someone whose needs were greater that her own.

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The memory that came to me, though, was about a pledge we had made one day as we chatted by the clothes lines. We vowed that we would stay in our homes and grow old as neighbors.

At the time, our neighborhood was changing. The last original owner was in her nineties, and although there were still some people who had grown up in Eddystone, more newcomers were moving in every year.

I had been one of those newcomers, so I did not mind others joining me. But for those nostalgic types, “new” usually meant “not like it used to be.”

I had listened to more than one neighbor complain about the new people moving in and “changing” the neighborhood. Pointing out that I was one of those new people did not stop their grumbling.

Margaret was different; she welcomed everyone and never complained about changes.

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I had no plans to move. I loved my house and the town, located near two expressways and only minutes from the airport. We had a grocery store, a couple of restaurants and our own public safety department. Why would I leave?

Then Margaret got pancreatic cancer in October 2010 and died six months later.

Our pledge was broken.

Three months after Margaret died, my friend Jim was diagnosed with a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer. He died nine months later.

My pledge to Margaret and my friendship with Jim were major reasons for my living in Pennsylvania. With both of them gone, I decided to move home to Michigan to be near my family.

I don’t know why the memory of Margaret and our pledge came to me now.

Earlier that day, I had walked along the creek that flows through the retreat center’s grounds. I watched the water tumbling over rocks and around fallen trees. I listened to it gurgle as it rolled over itself—rushing on its way to a destination I could not see.

My life has felt a bit that way in recent years—tumbling and rolling, taking me to new destinations.

Perhaps the memory was meant to remind me of the inevitability of change.

Taking Risks

The other day, my dog did something she has never done before—she ran out the front door and onto the lawn. I was shocked and shouted, “Get back in the house.” Instead, she ran halfway down the drive and then headed toward the back yard.

She reminded me of a child at the shore of a lake or the ocean, testing the waters with tentative steps, and then seeing a wave rolling in, running back to the safety of the shore.

Seeking safety and a solid foundation is something most of us know instinctively. We tend to crave security.

But Jesus calls us to put out into the deep… (Luke 5:4), which is the opposite of seeking safety.

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Taking risks and trusting that Jesus will be there to catch me when I fall can be a challenge—whether the risk is large or small.

During this Easter season, I have been pondering how my life compares to the early Christians. Am I on fire with the excitement of the resurrection? Am I bringing things to life (as Peter brought people back to life)? Am I spreading healing, hope and forgiveness? Am I witnessing to the restorative power of love?

I am trying to be open to how God is calling me to spread Easter joy.

One recurring thought is about unity and the way I relate to Christians of other denominations. Am I curious about how others practice their faith? Am I respectful of the ways that other Christians live out their faith and mindful that we are all seeking the same God?

I have been trying to be more conscious of my reactions to how others express their faith.

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Then, while driving to a nearby park for a walk last week, I heard a piece on the radio about the beginning of Ramadan. The interviewer asked what the appropriate greeting is for someone observing Ramadan. What is the Muslim version of Merry Christmas? Among the list of greetings was Happy Ramadan.

Just minutes after I arrived at the park, I noticed a woman wearing a hijab, a head scarf worn by Muslim women.

Maybe God is calling me to be mindful not just of Christians seeking God, but also to a deeper awareness of people of other faiths.

As we walked laps around the park, I wondered if I could muster the courage to wish this woman a Happy Ramadan.

I had said hello, but acknowledging her faith seemed to be crossing a line. I was afraid—would I say the wrong thing? Could acknowledging her faith somehow be offensive?

I watched her walk out of the park.

But then, feeling like Phillip running to the Ethiopian in the carriage (Acts 8:29-30), I ran up to the woman and asked if it was ok to wish her Happy Ramadan. She smiled broadly. “Yes, yes,” she said. “Thank you so much!”

She seemed happy, and I was grateful that I was able to step out of my comfort zone.

Surrender

The post-resurrection stories in Mark 15:9-15 depict Jesus’ disciples as doubters, as people resistant to change.

After hearing the accounts of how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and two others, Jesus’ companions did not believe. Not until Jesus appeared to them did they believe. Jesus rebuked them for “their unbelief and hardness of heart.”

Why do we resist? Why do we stick with our own certainties and refuse to see things in a different way? Why do we close ourselves to new ideas?

Jesus had predicted that he would die and rise, so it wasn’t as if this was completely new information for the disciples. But still, they dug in their heels and refused to be moved.

My word for Holy Week was surrender. During prayer times and church services, that one word kept coming back to me: surrender.

What, I wondered, is going on in my life right now that I am resisting? What certainty am I clinging to irrationally?

We, like the disciples, can find change difficult. Change is a kind of betrayal—it is as if the truth we knew and believed wasn’t really the truth. Changes shifts the ground upon which we have been standing—like an earthquake—and when the shifting stops, nothing looks the same.

How do we make sense of it?

In the disciples’ situation, Jesus appeared to them to dismiss their doubts. That is unlikely to happen to us in such a dramatic fashion. So how does it happen?

I recently attended a talk on mindfulness and the speaker talked about trees and how they change four times a year. Trees appear dead in winter, but then bud and leaf, before losing their leaves and appearing dead again. Every year, the same cycle of change. But, she noted, the tree does not resist. Rather, it simply changes.

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Be the tree, I said to myself. Embrace change. Lean into it. Welcome it. That is what it means to surrender. Not insisting on my way or my beliefs but living in the kind of openness that invites change, living in the reality of every moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.

If I had been one of Jesus’ companions in Mark’s Gospel, how would I have reacted to Mary Magdalene or the two people who met Jesus on the road? Would I have been quick to believe? Or would I have been incredulous and cynical? Would I have needed to see for myself? Would Jesus chide me for my lack of faith and hardness of heart?

I fear the latter. But I want the former. I want to be like a tree that moves smoothly through the changes in life, that welcomes and celebrates every season and sees the beauty of each. I want to let go of my certainties and be quick to believe.

Surrender is a discipline to be practiced—letting go of the past and living in the present with a heart open to change.

God of abundance

I spent several years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, as a full-time volunteer, and for part of that time, I worked in an office downtown. My walking route to work took me past a shoe store a few blocks from my building.

Usually, I am not much of a shoe person, so the window displays offered only a passing interest.

Then one day, I noticed a pair of brown leather boots. They were ankle high, medium brown, with thick, cream-colored fleece rimming the tops. I could imagine the soft leather hugging my feet and how the fleece would keep snow out. From the first time I saw them, I loved them and knew I had to have them. I began to plot how I might make them mine.

The problem was that the boots cost nearly $200, and my monthly stipend was $50—and that had to cover my food, transportation, clothing and fun. I was living very simply, walking the three miles to work and packing a PB&J sandwich for lunch every day. Breakfast was oatmeal and dinner was usually rice and beans or homemade soup. I didn’t mind the simplicity of my life because I am frugal by nature. So why had these expensive boots caught my fancy? And why did I feel such a need for them?

Day after day I stopped by the window to stare at “my” boots.

My infatuation continued to grow as the days went on.

At my next monthly meeting with my supervisor, I told him about the boots and my compulsion to have them. Material things did not usually grab hold of me in this way, and I was honestly confused about the attraction of this particular pair of boots.

During that conversation, though, I had an “aha” moment and realized the boots had come to symbolize the things I was denying myself because of my limited income. As we talked, I came to see that I was adopting a worldview of scarcity. I explained to my supervisor how my God had always been so abundantly generous to me, and I rarely had the experience of “wanting.” But, there I was, coveting a thing.

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This memory came back to me during Mass on Ash Wednesday.

Twice this week, I heard the Lenten journey compared to a space mission (pre-set time, limited activities, etc.). I wondered if astronauts use their time in space to look inward. Do they reflect on their actions and process the events of their lives to see if they need reconciliation? Do they set new goals? Do they seek a different perspective?

Preparing for Lent, I wondered if I could view Lent like a “space mission” and take a step back from life and gain a different perspective.

Perhaps the “boots” memory came back to me because it reminded me of the abundance of God. During Lent, I want to try to live out of abundance and not scarcity—faithful in prayer, fasting from negativity and generous in almsgiving.

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Thankful every day

A big part of living in gratitude is noticing little events throughout the day that have a positive impact on us—and taking the time to register these small events as the gifts they are.gratitude-mindfulness-kindnessFor example, the other day, I received a check from a doctor I had seen two years ago. The accompanying letter said an audit showed they owed me a refund. Being somewhat skeptical, I called the billing department (I didn’t want to cash the check and then find I had actually enrolled in a Vitamin of the Month club). The billing department confirmed this check was legitimate.

“Merry Christmas to me,” I said to the billing department staff person. Yes, this was a gift, pure gift, and I was grateful. It was only $20, but it was an unexpected $20, something I didn’t have the day before.

As I drove to work soon after that call, I recalled the check, my response to the billing department staff person and my happiness at having received this unexpected gift. I added “unexpected gifts” to my litany of gratitude for the day, and reminded myself to be more mindful of other unexpected gifts throughout the day.

I didn’t have to wait long.

When I got to my office, I found a note taped to the door with a picture attached—just someone thoughtfully stopping by to say hi and to leave a little gift.

I allowed myself to feel the delight that welled up inside me, and the gratitude for this person’s thoughtfulness. Again, a small thing, but one that touched me because it was unexpected and because it was a random act of generosity.

Later that day, a volunteer came into my office to work with me on a project. This one-hour meeting would lead to her spending many more hours of follow-up work at home, all of which will strengthen our nonprofit organization. She embraces her volunteer work enthusiastically, happy to be able to use her skills to build up our nonprofit, and her commitment to our organization makes a big difference. I was grateful, thanked her, and added her to my litany of gratitude.

And so the day went. Seemingly little things adding up to make a big difference.

It can be easy to see what goes wrong in a day—the rude driver or the phone call that does not end in my favor or the volunteer who doesn’t show up for a scheduled meeting. But, shifting the focus to what goes right and giving more energy to noticing the good things creates fertile ground for gratitude to grow.

It can be a subtle shift, but one that results in significant changes because we are more likely to see what we look for. If we only focus on what is going wrong, we cannot see what is going right.

Focusing on what is going right sets us on the path to seeing and receiving more good things—more things for which to be grateful.gratitude-mindfulness-kindness

 

 

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Fill my heart with gratitude

Re-reading a journal from three years ago, I came upon an entry about my friend Ted, who had gone through surgery and treatment for esophageal cancer the previous year. Nine months after being declared “cancer free,” it was clear that something was wrong. He was understandably a bit reluctant to go and get checked out—who would want to face the recurrence of cancer?

During that time between realizing something was wrong and getting checked out, I wrote this: “I pray for Ted to be present to what is instead of wishing for something else.”

Then I wrote, “How about me? Being present to what is instead of wishing for something else? Accept, surrender, stop resisting.”

A few weeks later, Ted found out the cancer had come back, and he died a few months after that.

Facing truths that we might not want to face, and accepting those truths can be so difficult. Fear comes into play, usually accompanied by anxiety.

As I was thinking about how Ted faced his illness and death—and pondering my own fears and anxieties—this prayer came to me: Lord, fill my heart with gratitude.

Gratitude helps me focus on what is, on the reality of my life right here and now. It helps me identify and accept the truths in my life—both the things I find difficult to accept and also those I easily embrace.

I believe that gratitude, like love, casts out fear.gratitude-God-spiritualityAnd yet, some realities of life can understandably create fear. Cancer is one of them, but there are others—loss of job, betrayal, death of a loved one, etc. Without looking for them or wanting them, we encounter bumps in the road—things beyond our control that upset the order of our lives.

It can be very difficult to be grateful in the midst of some horrible life situation, but that may be the point. It is easy to be grateful when things are going well, when everything is turning my way and everything I touch succeeds.

Being grateful when bad news outweighs the good news is the challenge—and the invitation.gratitude-God-spiritualityI work at a cancer support center, so every day I hear from people who have received bad news. Helping people find something for which to be grateful as they are facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—or even death—can be a daunting task. I think, though, that people come to our center not just to vent, but also to find hope.

Gratitude and hope go hand in hand.

The difficulties and challenges don’t go away, but gratitude has a way of robbing bad news of its power. Gratitude changes the focus.gratitude-God-spiritualityI have so much for which to be grateful—a home, job, family, friends, health, faith….

I want to revive the Litany of Gratitude I created when Jim was sick, add to it every day, and read it regularly. Then I will be more open to allowing God to fill my heart with gratitude.gratitude-God-spirituality