artisanalway


One Word at a Time
April 29, 2012, 10:38 am
Filed under: interdependence, practice, vulnerability | Tags: , ,

What is help?

Sometimes I find myself fascinated by a word, spending time with it like I might with a good friend. Open, attentive, present, curious. It’s remarkable how difficult such a simple act of presence is today. We hang our lives on an overwhelm of words, after all. News reports, mundane communications for lunch or direction and more. Rarely do we devote our attention to just one word at a time. Rarely do we companion it with invitation, inquiry, a blessing of breath, full presence and attention offered without expectation of return. How often are you curious for what might be learned today, in contrast to what you expected yesterday, from one word?

Sitting with the word help, I’m struck by how common yet opaque it is. Helping is something we do every day. I help Dad around the house. She helped him put groceries into the Subaru. We helped a young man pay his rent. They helped students learn calculus for the AP exam. Here help seems to be something someone offers another who needs it. Notice already how a non-noun like ‘something’ is required? Nouns become synonyms for help, things like houseworkeffortmoney, or services of some kind.

Yet help is just as opaque as it is common. Think about those things offered as help that are not received, or able to be received, for some reason. I helped the older woman across the street before she hit me with her cane, saying, “Leave me be! I am fine.” Effort refused, perchance because it was misdirected. He provided answers to help them pass the test. Services of teaching offered here…or cheating that serves no one, in the end? She gave a $20 bill to the woman dressed in rags with her two children. Help or being had? Do we ever truly know? At the very least, help seems to accompany need, whether it is rightly perceived or even received.

Perception and reception are what draw me to the word today. How do we do the first thing for help–determine a need–then identify healthy response(s) to that need, and then either extend or receive such help? What is the responsibility of the one who needs and the one who helps? And of course, the ever-present power-differential: who is helping whom in this connection or interaction? Much like service, you see, help is consistently misunderstood in both perception and reception. The strong help the weak. The full help the empty. The wise help the ignorant. Here, the ‘more’ powerful (or provided, or smart, or…) offer assistance to the ‘less’ powerful (or…). Receptivity is the task of the one who needs, in this perception.

This way of looking at things falters in the face of need as gift or seed for transformation. Just because we don’t like to needto be needy, does not preclude the fact that our needs are strong signs of invitation to self-awareness, connection, learning. Without need, we stay just as we are. Without need, we do not extend ourselves. With need, we yearn for, we reach outside ourselves for… What better evolutionary schematic could there be for change, for learning, for new interactions and more life? If we consider a need to be a strong sign of invitation, to be a gift or seed of new life, then the task(s) of perception and reception in help change.

By naming a need, I join generations of the human race. I become both more than I was—by identifying my particular need-invitation and helping-path—and I connect myself to all those who have come before, all those living. Knowing this need in its specificity allows me to welcome all that may help and invites me to disregard the rest. Strangely, allowing the need, identifying it, puts me in a place to help myself, the only one who truly knows all dimensions of need and the best-path or prospect of help. Knowing my need makes me strong, when I act gently, slowly meeting it, face to face, with a smile.

The unavoidable counterpart here, of course, is that true help comes only with accurate perception and reception, a healthy willingness to discern and receive what the world offers. Both of these things are exceedingly difficult to do well for human beings who only know about 15% of their own brain functioning. [Neurologists estimate that human beings, by and large, live most of their lives dependent upon only 15% of their grey matter.] To respond to the opening inquiry, true help in this sense means that which meets a need toward life, toward wholeness, toward greater connection with self, other, world. Help is that which connects the ‘strong’ to the ‘weak’, the ‘empty’ to the ‘full’, teaching them both of distinct needs and meeting them both in healthy fulfillment of those needs.

Or at least so I surmise from help received this weekend. Unbeknownst to me, a need grew in me I can now see was a heavy feeling of isolation, an overwhelm by a burden I had willingly accepted. I had chosen to make a sacrifice, of sorts, though one unperceived by everyone around me. I had not needed anyone to know, as I didn’t choose the path for recognition (at least in my best self). As it grew heavier than I could sustain, I reached out in need. Help came, unexpected but shared in a smiling strength from afar. My loneliness was met, driven by need known and unknown. The burden became lighter, then moved to completion and release. It didn’t take much–a text-touch, a bit of wisdom-sharing–but I had to discern the need within me, seek the right responder and response, and receive whatever might come (or not come) in trust that I had done all I could on my own behalf. Help was both my action of reaching out and the response willingly received.

In the end, help is many things to many people. True help comes when entering into one’s own need and acting gently, slowly, to open to it, to its attraction of the right or healthy response. Only in such a way do we become fully who we already are, newly strengthened for life. The irony is what suggests its truth: one’s need is the hidden gift of strength. When tended in this fashion, need and help become one, interdependent, a new way of being together in and for the world. Not a burden taken or received. Not an ‘ought’ met in obligation.

A deep breath inhaled then shared outward, for good.



Assessment Together and Alone — Alone Together?
December 7, 2011, 8:47 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice, renewal | Tags: , , ,

Earlier this semester, I received a newspaper clipping from one of you about the challenges of technology entering into human life, relationships, potential. The New York Times’ Sunday Review featured an analytical essay on the increasing “digital divide” appearing in our civic and material culture(s). We are approaching the end of a semester here, with its invitations to listen and reflect, evaluate and learn what we’ve been learning in texts, contexts, and subtexts. It’s time for a bit of musing, I think, with Sherry Turkle’s (relatively) new book as springboard, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other (NY: Basic Books, 2010). How have these three or four months of intentional formation in MINgroup processes, service-learning, and accompanying coursework shaped your spirit, your habits of mind, your body-awareness(es)?

A psychoanalyst who has taught at MIT for over 25 years, Sherry Turkle begins her third-book-in-a-series with a propositional statement: “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.” This text offers an ethnographic and clinical study of the evolution of an unfolding “robotic moment”—a ripeness for meeting human needs through technological devices and artificial intelligence(s)—and the manner in which ever-connectivity (via the Web, the Net, social-networking, etc.) is shaping our habits of mind and capacities for personhood, identity, intimate relationship. Alone Together is her third in a series of texts, following The Second Self, which traces the subjective side of personal computing, and then Life on the Screen, tracing how people forge new identities in online spaces. She’s always been inordinately interested in how computers have shaped being human, and she used to be optimistic about their capacity to allow human-self explorations and (mostly) healthy development. She’s decidedly less optimistic in this volume, with a weary recognition of the ever-human paradox: our seemingly insatiable yearning for intimacy and almost in the same breath, our fear of it, our avoidance of it, our increased defenses against it. In summary, she observes that “in the company of the robotic, people are alone, yet feel connected: in solitude, new intimacies,” and “We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes” (p. 18-19).

To be clear, this is not a piece bemoaning the loss of communities because of technology, nor is it a diatribe against technological evolutions in our midst. As leaders in religious communities and students, some of whom have chosen online-learning environments in which to complete coursework, you need to reflect critically on how you are being shaped, in texts and contexts, but also in assumptions and subtexts of your choices. So this is a piece in which I urge you to think carefully about how your habits of mind are being shaped in context, in your engagement of technological innovation, in your spiritual practice(s) as you share in a common life with your MINgroup, your faith community. You are venturing into worlds unforeseen and unbeknownst to your professors and all must listen carefully to Spirit’s leadings for how we bring our gifts to the world’s table.

So what do these phrases stir up in your awareness: in solitude, new intimacies; in intimacy, new solitudes? As you engage texts in your multiple contexts—home, church, work, coffee shop, school—how do you feel? I can imagine many saying immediately, “Stressed.” Yes. But underneath that. Underneath the sensations of duty, responsibility, deadlines, what awarenesses bubble up, when you sit for a period of 10 minutes doing nothing? New intimacies? New ways of being known by folks you could not have predicted or chosen yourself? And solitudes? Do you have any of those? What are they like? In what ways do you feel alone that you have not before?

Turkle’s work explores the early and late stages of human life in which robots have emerged, for good or ill. The young who have played with Tamagotchi ‘bots’ or little digital toys that mimic human connection since they were toddlers. The elderly who have staved off loneliness or separation from family with a ‘sociable robot’—well marketed in Japan—created for its ostensibly positive effects on the ill, elderly, and emotionally troubled (p. 8-9). In each case, human beings facing self-differentiation or separation from familiar relationships feel connected by sociable robots able to mimic human-emotive response to fear, loneliness, pain. Alone, they yet feel “companioned.” How well do you sustain your own sense of loneliness, if/when it comes? Do you know it can be a gift of new leadings of Spirit? Thomas Merton’s classic comes to mind: Dialogues with Silence. Pick it up. Sit with it. Notice your impatience with its poetic prose and incredibly slow pacing.

Turkle also challenges us to hear how we often choose against non-technological contact—the e-mail over the phone call, the text over the e-mail. As we are encouraged to be more and more efficient in our work, by use of technology, so we feel encouraged to become efficient in our relationships. But is that the life-giving, delight-full direction? In many instances, Turkle learned of those whose virtual lives were more fulfilling or more robust than “RL,” “real life.” Detaching from virtual worlds in which their self-image could be “just so,” these folks grew depressed or fidgety to “be back to who they were/are” in virtual times/space. What happens to complexity of human relationship amidst these options? What if someone in your RL betrays you, or misleads you? Do you maintain connection to work it out, thereby living into a redeemed form of new life made available to us in Christ, made possible when we forgive and are forgiven? Or do we move our energies to ever more connectivity yet little RL discomforts of such inconvenient but deepening human intimacies? Do we move to expect more of technology to meet our intimacy-needs, expecting less and less of those in our “real” circles? And how does this play into MINgroups who meet twice a year, face-to-face, but connect only online the rest of the time? When you have a disagreement, do you let it slide, moving to Facebook to make your point to those who agree with you?

These are the kinds of questions we need to constantly assess for ourselves, with our measured use of technological advancements and the increased potential with connective-media. The opportunities are here for sharing our traditions’ resources for a fully human life, known in delight, with ever-more and potentially diverse persons beyond our geographical contexts. But every step forward in technological exploration may need three or four steps backward to reassess, to reflect on how we are coming to think, to see, to perceive the world around us. Turkle’s concerns center on our ripeness for choosing robots who make us feel good over “RL” that shapes us with discomfort, reality’s difficulties, as well as intense delight and possibility. My concerns mirror hers, but I know the depth of wisdom available in our tradition. What costs must we pay to serve faithfully and fully in a world becoming as it is, without any chance of controlling it, governing it? What gifts and graces do we yearn to offer, as well as what responsibility do we have to bring the Light of the World into these challenging times, concerns, pressures into human being and life?

So take some time this week, this holiday season, to disconnect. See if you can go for 2-3 days without any technological connectivity. See how your mind and spirit respond. How do your relationships change, if at all? Then return to the connectivity with intention for Spirit-listening. How does your prayer life, your practice life, change, challenge, thrive? As always: what are you learning, in Spirit’s tether, in these things?



Spiritual Strength-Training
October 26, 2011, 11:26 am
Filed under: body, life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , ,

The fruits of strength-training demonstrate the integrity and character of the discipline engaged. Such is my current hypothesis, at least, with potential ramifications for how we reflect critically on spiritual strength-training. What are the fruits of your daily life right now? In what emotions, awarenesses, mind-habits are you steeping today? When someone maligns you in speech or action, do you retaliate or worse, begin plans for revenge rooted in a bitterness of the injustice of it all? When you hear of injustice, do you rise up in anger? When a colleague betrays you, how do you navigate the hurt, the pain of it? When a colleague invades your privacy, threatens you in passive-aggressive body-language, how do you respond?

These questions arise because I learned something important this morning at the gym. I have been on an “intentional bodywork” path for about nine months, though I re-discovered ‘contemplative running’ for myself about five years ago. [‘Contemplative’ in this context simply means ‘a quieting pace,’ ‘even an intensely slow one.’ 🙂 ] As a portion of my regular self-care plan and as an academic’s ‘re-learning’ tool, this has meant working with a personal trainer. Original goals were simply re-dress of nutrition habits and stream-lining physical fitness, with particular attention to core-strength. Discovering I actually have core muscles, for instance. I didn’t really think on it until this morning, but even with an intensified fitness regime, I’ve not sustained any injuries of note and I have much deeper awareness of body-sense, sometimes what I call ‘felt-sense’ in all areas of my life. Two dimensions of this awareness beg further attention: 1) strength-training with a guide who knows what she’s doing clarifies the path and allows mutual negotiation of obstacles (internal and external) and 2) strength-training, like everything else, has an integrity and character of its own, known by its fruits.

When I re-discovered a love of running, I established my own fitness goals and challenges in terms of races, each of longer duration than the last. I checked in, from time to time, with someone at the local Y. I lost weight and aligned other habits to my new addiction, running and the adrenalin rush that would come after about mile 2. Life was good, and I was pleased with the fruits of appearance and felt-health. About every 3-4 months, however, there would be an inconvenient injury of some kind—pain in the hip, knee-pain, arch-pain. But “no pain, no gain,” right? So I kept on. Eventually the arch issue made running impossible and I was stymied on how to be in my body anymore. My practices had provided fruits my mind enjoyed tremendously, but my body was also complaining to the point of making practice impossible. I would start a run and at some unexpected moment, a shooting pain would travel up my leg, halting all movement. I began to wonder if there were a different way to learn bodywork, body-movement.

Strength-training with a guide challenged my autonomy, not to mention my pride. Each of us knows best our own body, our own path, right? How could someone else, especially someone known only in a professional sense, know our bodies better or differently than we do? There’s a partial truth there, of course. Each of us has a particular relationship with our own body, what one author calls “the joyous consort” with whom we come into this life. But like other specialized areas of human inquiry and knowledge, bodywork draws its own experts—professional athletes, trainers, sports-medicine specialists, etc. Those whose gifts and graces are awareness and skill-development in physical movement, strength-training, wholistic living from view of or primacy in body. In a very real way, my trainer-friend knows my body’s mechanics better than I ever will. I’ve discovered a great freedom in finding out what she knows and can teach me about how I uniquely move through the world, which muscle groups I can ‘fire’ to accomplish various tasks, how best to strengthen my embodied relationship with the world in which I yearn to contribute. Simply put, however, I’ve not sustained any injuries of note for months. The path continues to unfold, with obstacles negotiated in mutual consultation with a guide who knows about such things.

The insight or awareness this morning: there are learned ways to move, to sustain weight, and then there are the intended or natural ways to move that proffer a sense of flow or weightlessness. Even when I think I’m moving naturally, my guide gently sculpts the movement back into form, healthy biomechanics. And often I can feel the difference, though I didn’t know how to get there on my own. Those involved with Chi-LivingChi-Running or Chi-Walking—speak of this too. When we are children, we learn how to walk and then run well attuned to natural ways of movement, what our body does naturally. Children can run for hours, not only because they are young and have lots of growing energy. They move naturally, without years of confined movement, poor-posture, constrained ways of being determined by societal norms of attractiveness, etc. As adults, we forget how to move in ways natural to our being, in other words. If we become conscious of the difference—which many of us never do, avoiding it for reasons of shame, guilt, apathy, whatever—but if we become conscious of this difference, we can spend years (perhaps) trying to re-learn a natural way of being in our own skins. Re-learning what was intended from the beginning.

This naturally led me toward the integrity and character of the practice of strength-training, asking not only the questions of ‘how’ or discipline of practice but also those of ‘toward what end’? Gyms are full of many of us who yearn to be seen—in fitness, with attractive physique, with desire—but gyms can also be thought of as a playground, a space in which to move like we did when we were kids. There are things to climb, balls to throw, games to play, by oneself or with others. Gyms can be environments of exploration, learning that extends inward and outward, both. So what are the fruits that come into your life from such explorations? Do you feel playful and rooted to the goodness of life when you leave the gym? If not, why not? Or perhaps you play outside instead. After your times of working out, how do you feel?

Ultimately, though, I’m interested here in the potential learnings and fruits for spiritual strength-training. Each of us receives learned ways of spiritual practice, offered to us by our communities of belonging as the ways of being faithful. But are those the way your own spirit yearns to move, to breathe, to connect? What are the fruits of that training? Have you sustained injuries within such training, and if so, ought you to seek a guide who may align your own spirit’s movement with that of Spirit, whose fruits allow healing and minimizing of life-halting injuries? Does your way of practice result in open-hearted fruits of the Spirit, grounding you in a peaceableness and joy, even in the face of communal anxieties and fearfulness? When life wounds you—as it always will, you can’t avoid it—does your training strengthen your spirit to sustain and heal?

If nothing else resonates for you in these musings, I leave you with simply a confession of gratitude for what can be received along a wisdom-way, what we need to remind one another is true: there are Spirit-intended ways we move and breathe and have our being, and sometimes they match our learned ways, but often they do not. Being companioned by a guide who knows spirit-movement can make a big difference in re-learning what was intended to come naturally. So perhaps that person will be a spiritual director, or a prayer-partner, or a coach. Whomever. Pray for him/her to come into your life, and I promise you’ll be surprised who appears. This is also not an ego-command to behave morally or with Methodist perfection. This is a witness to who God is when we step into the river of Spirit intended from the beginning. You don’t try to do any of this…it flows, when the strength-training is true. When we move, breathe, and have our being in this way, this Way, then peaceableness—even joy—meets injury with patience, betrayal with mercy, injustice with gentling fierceness.

I wish that strength-training, with guidance, for you, for each of us, for all of us. As the child of God you are, receive a blessing in the words of one who has become a guide for me:

May it be so for you,

May it be so for me,

May it be so for all of us.

Amen, Amen, and Amen….and a little woman.