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.

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Mindful Reading
February 13, 2012, 8:00 am
Filed under: practice | Tags: , ,


When you read, whom or what do you have in mind? This question startled me today, while working out with a friend. I need to do a bit of study—what we would call hermeneutical study, in the biz—into literary criticism, various interpretive strategies over the years, but something in the question struck me with new force I had not felt before.

A picture of a favorite text appeared into my dumb-phone this week, with delight. As I considered the text, I realized it really was well-suited to the friend who had sent the pic. I picked out the volume from my shelf and browsed it again, with someone new in mind. I saw things I remembered, things I had forgotten, but each one felt different with the potential of a new reader I’m getting to know better. 

Then another favorite essay came back into mind and recall, mentioned in an earlier posting here. Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, specifically the chapter-essay on “Holy Obedience.” I had re-read bits and pieces, in search of precise specifics of earlier thoughts, musings. When a friend wrote a bit about life’s difficulties and commitments these days, the prayer that flowed into prose back to him had Kelly’s language in it. When the friend wrote back for clarity, I mentioned the essay and offered it to his attention. I re-read the piece again, this time closely, with him—an Orthodox Jew—in mind. The experience of it, the things heard and seen, were recognizable but different too. 

When you read, whom or what do you have in mind? 

In one sense, this is a basic college-prep inquiry. How do you assess the text and its legitimacy for what your needs are—information, conceptualizing a problem in various ways, relaxation, beauty, self-improvement… The list could easily go on. In another sense, though, I find it a newly fascinating question. First, is what you have in mind a whom or a what? Do you think it makes a difference? Second, for the “whom” responses, how big or small is your “whom”? 

Think about reading scripture, for instance. I’m thinking about “in your own history or tradition,” but it could be scripture read as holy text of another tradition too. Do you have yourself in mind, searching desperately for a word from God? The famous “I just opened the bible and this page spoke a specific Word to me” approach to understanding life’s challenges and human responses to them? Nothing drives a religious leader more batty these days than this grasping for the metaphysical proof of worth. Or the pinning of God down into evidential proofs of care. At least it infuriates one religious leader I know and love dearly. 

Perhaps one reads the text a bit more critically, engaging what scholars call “exegesis” to determine—as best we can—the historical, textual-critical, form-critical, archaeological contributions to understanding the text within original context, original intent of the author, etc. In this sense, what is in mind is “what was happening” or “what was intended” or a critical-realist sense of truth-claims. (At best, in my view). But now I hear mentor-teacher Fred Craddock in my head: “Lots of folks say we can’t get back to intention or what really happened. I don’t know about a lot, but whether I can find the intention or not, I know that the author had one.” In this context, it seems Craddock, like he always does, is attempting to bring the critical apparatus back to the person of the author, the web of relations in which he (most likely) wrote, the impassioned connection between the experience of God and the distanced-form of a text describing (probable) events of “long ago.” 

Both of these senses of “mindful reading” feel different from the kind of reading posed to me these last couple days, mentioned above. The first has only self-reference, reading for what the reading offers you. The second has a distance to it, whether historical or objectifying of other events and persons. Reading with particular persons in mind feels different from both those options to me. 

I remember when I was in high school my father would “assign” me readings he enjoyed from C.S. Lewis or George McDonald, then we would go out for breakfast “to talk about them.” I was just beginning my theological education, though neither of us knew that’s what was happening. I loved those breakfasts, and the texts were good too. I didn’t think about it much, but part of what drew me to those readings was his own passion, his own “being-shaped” by them. They were ways to get to know my father a little better. Reading something another has read, has valued, does bring an intimacy into the experience of reading. 

And therefore one does have to be intentional about reading “because the other’s enjoyment requires it” and welcoming their enjoyment while still reading “for what feeds you too,” “that you enjoy for yourself too.” Intimacy is always the dance between deep connection of selves separate enough to be connected and selves so enmeshed that one can’t tell who likes what and for what reason. Learning to say “Nope, that’s not for me” can be just as valuable as saying “This feeds me too,” in this sense. 

The point drawing me forward here, however, has to do with reading considered religious in some way—scriptural reading, whether formal or not; lectio divina, or reading of smaller texts with prayerful intention and listening; textual reading for theological formation, engaged by students pursuing graduate degrees in higher education. If we experience the text differently, depending upon whom or what we have in mind, ought we not to name and claim that at the front? Ought we not to hold in a sense of mindfulness those for whom the text might be read this time? Ought we to listen for whether we’re only considering “our own,” however we may classify that phrase, “ourselves,” as we struggle against life’s inanities, our “intimate others” whom God or Providence or Grace has brought into our lives for reasons of mutual encouragement? 

I think I may have a new “thought project” to consider when I’m finished procrastinating here away from the one I’m supposed to be working on today. I invite you to engage your practice—whatever that is, whether mindfulness, prayer, mitzvot, service, etc.—and welcome the reading texts that shepherd you along your way, choosing a person or two to have in mind while you read. Allow yourself to be interdependent with him/her/them for receiving what that text’s nurture is for you this day. See if there are easier or harder persons to choose to keep in mind. Be gentle with yourself too. Choose the easy ones first. But as your capacity deepens, choose the neutral ones whom you have little affection or aversion for. Then every once in a while, choose the one(s) who drive you batty, and allow them to teach you new things about texts you never read before, or things you never saw in the texts you know well. To be honest, I’m “vamping” here on the Buddhist practice of Tonglen; credit where credit is due. But I’ve never considered it within the highly scripturally-focused environments in which I serve. 

Whom or what did you have in mind as you read this piece?




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?