Priestessing the Priestesses

Last week, I had the incredible privilege of sitting vigil with a friend in hospice in her final hours on this earth. She slept for most of the time I was there, but her waking moments were lucid, if brief. She whispered how good the fresh juice tasted (it had been made for her by a friend), and she seemed to prefer having my hands on her back to pain medication. In the last hour I was with her before leaving, a mutual friend joined us and played gentle, lullaby-style music for her on the kalimba and guitar. As he sang softly to her, I could barely make out his words; the intention was pure, the moment was intimate, and I felt honored to be present for such a profoundly sacred moment.

Speaking with another mutual friend who had held space for Maria in her final days, I mentioned that as I was at hospice I had felt an awareness of priestessing the priestess. Our friend agreed, and said she’d had a similar sensation. “That’s who Maria has been for many of us, whether she claimed that title or not.”

Maria and I were not part of a shared formal congregation or spiritual community in the traditional sense. We were both part of an informal network of friends in a variety of communities whose membership and interests overlap – sacred movement, ecstatic dance, ancestral healing, sound healing, and alternative spiritualities. It’s a network that is both leaderless and full of leaders, as its inherent diversity of beliefs and practices lends itself to members who are specialists in one tradition, students in another, and generalists in deep compassion, holy presence, and unconditional love.

Read more at Feminism and Religion

Holding Two Truths

img_1730Last month, I attended a series of workshops on self-care, family dynamics, and recovery from complex trauma. In one session, someone asked the facilitator, a counselor with over 30 years of experience in mental health fields, how to balance faith, confidence, and belief in recovery with the reality that sometimes healing can be a rocky road, with missteps, false starts, and restarts. The counselor noted that one of the key concepts he’s reinforced in working with people on their recoveries is that to keep moving forward – to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, to not give up on ourselves when old patterns resurface, to sustain the energy needed to continue The Work in the face of obstacles, doubt, and fear – we need to be able to hold two truths at once. We need to expand ourselves such that we can hold two realities – that our hope in ourselves is not misplaced, that we are strong and can overcome adversity, and that we can move through our lives with grace and skill; and also that we may slip up and fall short of our ideals, that we sometimes may feel fragile and overwhelmed, and that recovery (from trauma, grief, substance abuse, or illness) may include steps backward intermixed with the forward movement.

This concept was especially powerful for me. As someone who spent my childhood and young adult years mired in black-or-white thinking, my personal healing and much of my spiritual practice has been built around reconciling seeming opposites, not by blurring difference such that the unlike becomes like, but by digging into the ways in which the tension between opposites is itself fertile soil for the activity of creation and growth, art and brilliance. Since creation is, for me, the sacred in action, and understanding of self in the context of the cosmos is sacred practice, this gives the tension of two truths a spiritual meaning and the fluid give-and-take that holds them in balance a spiritual wisdom…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Your Signature Reads Like Heartache, But It’s Powerful

“This has my signature all over it.” Tear-swelled eyes lower toward creamy swirls in your now-room-temperature latte, and for a moment you look as if gravity might betray you.

I rest my hand on the table, palm-up, an invitation, and notice how quickly it disappears into the weave of your fingers, hands laced together into a mesh of unsettled fear, aching with guilt.

You tell me how her struggles tear at your mother’s heart, this adult child wearing the shadow-eyed mask of addiction, and how painful the recognition of each line in her face, each rationalization in her argument. “I know this darkness,” you say, eyes shifting as you remember things you’d rather forget.

“This has my signature all over it.”

Our sweaty hands are clasped tight. I don’t pull back. My own eyes shift — was that a memory?

Chewing my lower lip, I search for the right words — words that could heal or soothe or enfold — and come up short.

“I’m so sorry.”

What I want to say is too much, too raw.

Read more at Rebelle Society

On Being an Occasion of Joy

Decorating the tree in the convent guest house When I was 19, I fell hard into the kind of deep depression that hits college kids whose unstable upbringings, rife with inconsistency and trauma, left them ill-prepared to face the self-direction and responsibility of independence. I didn’t grow up religious despite my father’s attempts to turn visitation weeks into conversions, but had started attending the local Episcopal cathedral months earlier after seeing its stunningly beautiful windows on a historic tour. Having taken basic stained glass courses when I was 18, I’d been mesmerized by the artistry and would sit in a different pew each week, drifting into and out of awareness of the service, eyes trained on the nearest window, lost in contemplation, love pouring in.

When the darkness became too much and I sought more of that love through spiritual care and reflection, I walked into the church library and thumbed through the directory looking for resources, and was hopeful to discover that the Episcopal Church had convents. That afternoon, I dialed the number for the nearest convent, and in that especially dramatic way of depressed 19-year-old artist types with backgrounds in theater, I declared that I couldn’t handle life in the world anymore and that I might want to become a nun. Sister Ann told me that their order was less an escape from the world than a new way of being fully present in it, but invited me to spend Christmas at the convent.

What started out as a holiday visit became several months of me spending every day that I wasn’t in class or at work at the convent, living in the guest house, attending five services a day, helping with maintaining the grounds, and spending as many waking hours as I could in the library, face buried in the works of medieval women mystics….

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Touch and Presence as Intimate Communion

Over the past 20 years, I’ve been blessed with many moments in which fully aware or embodied presence has intersected spiritual transformation, both in my own life and in the lives of others. In my work on a crisis hotline, I’ve held space for strangers to open up and speak freely about pain, grief, and despair.  In my work as a minister, I’ve held a couple’s hands as I blessed their marriage, and I’ve held space with the dying and their loved ones.

In my work as a doula, I’ve supported women draped over my arms as they pushed new life into being; I’ve also held crying fathers in hospital hallways while their lovers were being prepped for emergency surgeries. In my rape crisis work, I’ve held the hands of women in hospitals through fear and sorrow, and I’ve facilitated support groups for survivors to reconnect with their own embodied sexuality and the fullness of its complexity as they worked toward greater compassion for themselves and their processes.

I’ve worked to build a practice of presence and compassion in my life that extends beyond my family, even beyond people. Last spring, I was late to a party because I’d stopped to help a stumbling fawn out of the highway. Seeing that it was unable to move, I sat with it at the edge of the woods and sang it to its sleep.

Each of these experiences has transformed me, my way of viewing the world, and how I see the role of touch and presence in friendship, service, and worship…

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Read more at Feminism and Religion.

What I Believe: Panentheism

I’ve always felt that our personal narratives shape how we come to know and understand the Divine, and that our theologies cannot be examined apart from the stories and experiences that lead us there. I’ve recently explored Carol Christ’s work on embodied theology, and have found a model therein for weaving personal narrative with theology. I’m by no means an expert at this model.

Although I’ve blogged about spirituality for years and am comfortable talking about my beliefs and practices even from a stage, the only people I really talk about my beliefs with one-on-one are people I already know think similarly to me, and they’re usually people who already know the basic outlines of my story. Recently, someone reached out in friendship and dialogue, and I realized a few things about myself. First, I can’t begin to explain my beliefs apart from the experiences that gave them life – a heart crudely removed from the body to explore it closer stops beating, stops giving. Secondly, speaking of beliefs with someone new – someone for whom the story, the me, is reasonably new as well – is a radical act of willing vulnerability. It gets me out of my comfort zone and zaps me at my core with both the fear of rejection and promise of potential. And finally, I don’t even know where to begin. Usually the story and its accompanying beliefs sneak through organically in blips over the course of friendship; when I found myself trying to express what I believe – something, anything – it all ran together in a jumble of thoughts and ideas. This post is an attempt to begin to clarify and put words to what I’ve come to believe, in an orderly fashion. It is not a complete work or a perfect expression of my ideals, and I can assure you that over the coming years it will continue to evolve, shift, and change. This is a snapshot of this particular moment in my spiritual development, and a partial and somewhat blurry snapshot at that.

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I grew up in a mostly non-religious family. While my grandparents scrambled to sign me up for Vacation Bible School and took me to church with them during visits (Presbyterian with my mom’s parents, Southern Baptist at my dad’s), my mom and stepdad weren’t religious, didn’t attend church, and regularly expressed private scorn for anyone who was passionate about their beliefs. They mocked “holy rollers” and “Bible thumpers” for their backwardness and “New Agers” for their blissful ignorance of reality. I didn’t live with my dad, but when I’d visit with him he’d take me to his church – which usually meant a charismatic, evangelical, conservative Christian church with a rock band for music and people passing out in the Spirit.

Neither of these approaches fit for me, even when I tried to make them my own.

From the time I was little, I struggled in my dream life with sorting out issues of meaning and spiritual direction. As a small child, I was awakened when I fell out of bed during a dream in which Jesus and other holy men were meeting to discuss whether or not I was ready to be one of them. “Not yet” seemed to be the consensus; I was more hung up on the “at all,” having never thought of myself as either religious or a leader. Throughout my childhood, teenage, and young adult years, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was on a tour bus through time travelling through Memphis in 1968. In the dream, I see Martin Luther King, Jr. get assassinated, and watch in horror as nobody is able to save him. I know I can jump out of the bus and possibly help, but that then I’d never be able to get back to my own time, my own place. I would always wake up at the point where the decision must be made, sweaty and trembling with questions of courage and calling.

This tension – between the holy drive toward service and the fearful insecurity that paralyzes and disrupts – played a significant role in my spiritual formation. Moments of absolute bliss and connection were offset by fears of inadequacy beaten into me by dysfunction and abuse. I read John Bradshaw and learned mindfulness and relaxation techniques at the suggestion of a compassionate high school teacher, and dabbled in Paganism when I wasn’t hanging out with the evangelical Christian youth group on visits to see my dad.

Seeking progressive religious community when I was 19, I discovered the Episcopal Church, and a few months later I struggled free of the immediate grip of depression and anxiety with the support of the Order of St. Helena, who became my chosen family and spiritual home. Their approach to God was full of compassion, with room for the masculine divine, the feminine divine, and the gender-fluid beauty of mystical union. Their God was clearly transcendent – above all and beyond all – but very much present in quiet moments of heartfelt confession and gentle prayer. It was there that meditation, walks through nature, ritual and routine, and allowing the space for mystical dissolution of self all became part of my practice.

In the late 1990s, as the Episcopal church headed toward crisis over the ordination of women and gays and more churches began to call themselves “Anglican” in protest, my home church brought in a theologically and socially conservative priest whose teachings directly countered all I’d come to expect from and love about Christianity. It was during that time that I discovered the Unity church, whose “practical Christianity” offered direct tools for mindfulness, mental health, exploring the power of optimism and language, new understandings of “highest good,” and the very presence of God within and around me at all times. Throughout this time, as I explored Unity in depth, I sensed the Divine as both transcendent and immanent, but had no philosophical framework within which to reconcile those two seemingly contradictory views. It was a knowing brought about through personal experience, but not a particularly well-articulated one.

Eventually, I took on full-time work in religious leadership and enrolled in a small, private New Thought seminary. While in seminary, I had the incredible good fortune to study under and learn from Deb Whitehouse and Alan Anderson. Deb taught me the fundamentals of counseling with choice theory, a way of relating to others that, while imperfect, still informs my interpersonal communication. Together, they introduced me to process theology and panentheism, although at the time I did not dig deeply into their theology, as I was so enamored of the monistic idealism of the traditional Unity teachings – that mind is the fundamental and only ground of being, with the physical world remaining subservient to the will of the mind.

When circumstances forced a break from the Unity church a few credits shy of completion of seminary and ordination, we moved into a small town in which “alternative spirituality” meant you left your Baptist family to attend a Pentecostal church. During that time, we church-hopped, never fully committing to one church – attending nondenominational, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, and Anglican churches, each offering something needed and ideal submerged in a mix of otherwise problematic teachings and beliefs.

In 2009, after we moved to a small, progressive enclave in my natal North Carolina, I abandoned organized religion in favor of embracing a private, solitary, nature-based practice that drew upon some of the Pagan influences that had remained a thread in the weave of my spiritual self-understanding since my teenage years. In this practice, I have come to believe that the Divine is present in the material world – not as a spark or impetus, but bodily and in manifestation. When I encounter the Divine in nature, it isn’t a feeling I’m experiencing (although it can certainly be affective in impact) – it’s a presence, a fullness of wisdom so expansive and powerful that it flows through my very bones and flesh, which also carry and embody the Divine.

When I think of what is me, what is self, I’m aware that I have a body, and that it is me. The flesh, the skin, the cells and eyes and brain – these are all undeniably part of the manifest me. But there’s more. There’s also an animated energy and spirit and mind of me – a nonphysical, conscious self that could never be explained away by the mere firing of neurons, complex though they may be. Correlation does not equal causation, and the firing of neurons that accompanies the activity of memory and emotion might more rightly be relegated to the realm of the mechanism of manifestation rather than its source.

When I think of what is God, a similar model emerges. The cosmos, stars, and nebulae; our atmosphere, waters, and land; rich earth and dry sand, river-flow and ocean tide, cloud and wind and breath – these are all Spirit manifest into the material, but of the same substance. God manifest into the physical through nature is of the same basic substance as God yet unmanifest into the physical. God manifest into the physical through our bodies, our hands, and our lips is of the same basic substance as the God who exists non-physically in reality through our spirits, our love, and our ideas.

This changes how I view traditional mind-body dualisms, as neither of these is privileged over the other in my understanding – our minds don’t universally control all aspects of our realities, and events in our everyday realities don’t universally and uniformly control all aspects of our mental, emotional, and spiritual responses from person to person and culture to culture. They’re the same substance in different form, working in partnership, and my goal isn’t to strengthen one so it can dominate the other – a metaphysical model which emerged out of patriarchal histories in which the mind was said to have dominance over the body just as men dominate women.

My goal is to explore the points at which the nonphysical enters the physical and where the firm boundaries of the physical dissolve, even temporarily, so that I might have greater understanding of the relationship between the manifest and the unmanifest, and to allow myself to connect with the all that is me, contained within and expressing the all that is God. In my model, spirit is sacred and so is the manifest universe in all its parts, and the liminal spaces where the boundaries between physical and nonmaterial blur and blend are holy spaces, providing opportunities for greater understanding of ourselves and of God.

iStock_000002083840SmallWhat this means practically is that my God is immanent and transcendent. My God physically enfolds me when I dive into the river and gently holds me when I lie weary and seeking on a soft bed of leaves under a canopy woven of trees and stars. My God comforts me through the voice of a friend when my heart is breaking, and celebrates with me in dance and play when I’m bursting at the seams with new joy and vibrance. My God is present with me in my journey and speaks to me through birdsong and laughter, but also has an aspect that is fully removed from the short-sighted realities that come from limited human understanding and the boundaries of physics. This, for me, is the beauty of panentheism: in God’s immanence I find ever-present friendship, solace, comfort, and joy; in God’s transcendence I find reassurance, wisdom, and the optimism that pours forth from potentiality.

This view of Divinity has direct impacts on my ritual life and prayer practices, but more importantly, it shapes how I move through and exist in the world. With a worldview that sees all of manifest reality as an expression of the Divine, curiosity becomes a spiritual practice and education an act of ritual devotion. Seeing God in nature leads to the kind of ecological mindset that refuses to separate the human from her context, and makes holy the acts of growing, gardening, hiking, and tending. Seeing God in myself leads to greater self-acceptance, the ability to love quirks and “flaws,” and a dedication to self-care (by which I mean mindfulness, health, and forgiveness) as an act of sacred reverence.

Seeing God in every person I meet leads to explorations of intimacy as sacred art and radical compassion as mystic devotion. It also leads logically to the practice of authenticity as a rule of life, and to acts of social service, activism, and advocacy as heartfelt ministry. Seeing God in bliss becomes ecstatic communion; invoking God in the crushing darkness of depression, trauma, and fear provides the unseen light – transcendent and otherworldly – that lights our way until we once again set foot on the solid ground of brilliance, love, and hope. In the manifest, there is One who is lover and friend and playmate and teacher and water and food and life; beyond the manifest, that One supports and sustains and heals and cleanses me when my personal physical experience reeks of brokenness and shame in spite of whatever material balms I’ve used to bathe my wounds.

I read all that I’ve written above, and feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Perhaps in future posts I’ll continue to unpack my beliefs, practices, and things I’ve learned in the humble hope that it might speak to someone in perfect timing and perfect trust, that they might be inspired to seek out the God of their own being in a way that is authentic for them.

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Light
Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown on an ancient, fertile plain
You hold the title to.

Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy

Even if your mind is now
A spoiled mule.

A life-giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come –

O look again within yourself,
For I know you were once the elegant host
To all the marvels in creation.

From a sacred crevice in your body
A bow rises each night
And shoots your soul into God.

Behold the Beautiful Drunk Singing One
From the lunar vantage point of love.

He is conducting the affairs
Of the whole universe

While throwing wild parties
In a tree house – on a limb
In your heart.

– Hafiz, “In a Tree House,” translated/interpreted by D. Ladinsky

I’ll Go With You: On Bathrooms and Theocracy

The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.
The window of the Switzerland Cafe in Little Switzerland, NC, where we ate lunch one day.

Last month, I took a dear friend on a trip to the North Carolina mountains. Throughout the trip we were sharply aware that we were no longer in the progressive enclave where we both lived – the tiny area whose deep blue always stands out in votes-by-county maps after elections and whose responses to discriminatory legislation like HB2 – the controversial “bathroom bill” that prevented trans people from using the restrooms that correspond to their identities – has always been resistance.

Even in our progressive bubble, though, transphobic people found themselves empowered by legislative support to speak louder and more harshly to gender nonconforming people. Leaving that bubble for two days of rural travel with a trans friend meant a thread of tension that followed us throughout much of our trip, as every glance, every bathroom break and every interaction with strangers had the potential to become upsetting or frightening…

Read more at Feminism and Religion.

Poets, Christians, and Not Wanting to Be a Poser

OSH crossLately, I’ve been pretty deep into words. Having been writing for years – essays, academic writing, and technical writing – I’ve always longed to write words of beauty and powerful metaphor, rather than direct explanations and carefully constructed arguments. In high school, some of the more brilliant kids I hung out with wrote poetry, and I always read their words with a sense of wonder. If only I could write the things on my heart, I thought, it would be so healing, so transformative. I was a musician and dancer, so I’ve always had the mind and soul of an artist, but longed to put to the page the images of beauty, pain, and awe that regularly danced across my understanding.

I read poetry – loved reading poetry – but when I would pick up a pen and start to write, it all came out wrong… Too corny. Cheesy. Trite. I’d get two lines in, scribble out what I’d started, crumple the page, and give up. So, I kept dancing, played flute, and channeled my artistic pursuits into performance, while continuing to write the kinds of academic papers that dazzled teachers and floated my GPA. I was not a poet, not a creative writer.

Over the past few years, though, the urge to find words that convey the nebulous and numinous has grown louder and more persistent, and I’ve longed for coaching and teaching to help me break through the structures of academic writing and tap into a more fluid, imagery-laden, and heartfelt style of writing that more closely matches the insights and experiences of my heart. Through a series of near-magical coincidences, I ended up attending the Into the Fire writer’s retreat in late-May, sponsored by The Sun Magazine, an event intended to serve as instruction and inspiration for those seeking to improve their skill at creative personal writing. From Joe Wilkins, I learned about writing evocative prose, and from Frances Lefkowitz I learned how to allow my distinct, personal voice to flow into my writing style.

My favorite workshop of the weekend was on “hovering,” in which the amazing poet Chris Bursk led activities to teach us to linger over moments, allowing our words to circle round, ambulate, and drink deep from each feeling, each experience, before moving on to the next scene. While I didn’t write any poetry in his workshop, I wrote phrases, sentences, and brief pieces that used words to paint in ways I’d never done before. I came back from the workshop to discover that when something would be bearing on my heart, I immediately wanted to write, and to my surprise, what landed on the page in those moments of urgency were lines of poetry rather than prose.

And yet still I have a hard time calling myself a poet. I’m not sure if what I’m writing is any good. I don’t know what makes good poetry or bad. I know what I like to read, and I know what comes off my fingertips when I sit to put my heart into words, but feel a bit of a fraud to say I’m a poet, or that what I write is poetry. I’m finally comfortable calling myself a writer, but a poet? Isn’t there some external validation you must pass before adopting that word for yourself? Some confirmation that what you’ve written passes muster, meets the standards?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my spiritual journey. Over the years, there have been a handful of key traditions that have played a bigger part in my journey than others. While my current practice is greatly informed by an adoration of nature and penchant for digging deep into the scientific workings of the universe to find metaphorical, spiritual meaning, one of the greatest influences on who I have become and how I worship rests in the years spent deep in the mystical, liturgical, compassionate, and progressive Christianity I experienced through the Convent of Saint Helena and a handful of small, Episcopal churches. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church has found itself subject to great tension and difference of opinion about what constitutes the Episcopal tradition and what practices and beliefs can rightly be called Christian.

With those voices added to many conservative, rigid, and intolerant voices organizing in their efforts to dominate discussions about “true” Christians and Christianity, there simply came a point where I didn’t feel like I could lay claim to the label any more. No matter how compassionate, gentle, and progressive my Christ is, if all the other voices seem to be saying I’m not a Christian, that I’m wrong, there simply came a point where I was okay with that. I don’t need a label to practice my connection; I’m not attached to being called, considered, or seen as a Christian, particularly when some of the more vehement and bigoted Christian voices today rest firmly on the centuries of violence and oppression that have stained the institution of the Church for much of its history.

Do I still find power in the chant, liturgy, and community of the organic, progressive, feminist Christian church? Definitely. Attending Eucharist or any one of the daily prayers – even listening to them online – opens up channels in my spirit that aren’t tapped into by any of my other practices. Do I still yearn for deeper knowledge and understanding of the socially progressive radical Jesus – the one who dined with the marginalized and loved without bigotry? Yes, definitely. These questions are easy. The harder ones, more complex and unresolved, are these: Could I be in community with Christians, even progressive ones doing the work as I understand it, when “Christian” is a word that in my mind has become so powerfully associated with bigotry, patriarchy, and rigid, unforgiving morality? If I decided that I’d like to pursue participation in that community, can I stand firm in the face of rejection by the more conservative elements of Christianity, authentically claiming the interfaith nature of my practice and its deep, ecological roots as well as progressive Christian practice as I know and understand it? At what point do you accept someone else’s interpretation of the tradition as normative, and to what extent can we (feminists, progressives, radicals, and social justice activists) redefine, reinterpret, and represent a new, more open Church? When we do, who is listening?

I don’t really need to think of myself as a Christian, any more than I need to call myself a poet. They’re labels, useful only to the extent that they describe the goings-on of my heart, my practice, and my expression. For now, I’ll keep doing me. I’ll write prose when it flows and lines of (maybe?) poetry when that’s what pours forth. I’ll dig in the dirt, burn incense, swim in rivers, dig my toes into the sand of the oceans, write love poems for mountains, and pour out offerings onto the sacred earth of the forests. And I’ll read scripture, chant Psalter, pray, read writings of medieval mystics, and be bold to say the things that I might not be able to say in a community of like-minded people – not anymore, not yet. And I’ll try – really try – not to get hung up on the labels that I hesitate to adopt, and focus instead on living, learning, and growing in my own connection to Spirit.

For now, I welcome reading recommendations. Who are the feminist theologians within the Christian tradition you feel are doing powerful work? Who is tying in ecological awareness in a meaningful, powerful way? Who is doing interesting work reconciling their other interfaith practices with their Christian backgrounds?

I See You: Can You Feel how Loved You Are?

Source
Source

(Published at Rebelle Society)

I see you.

You may not realize it, but I do.

I see you with eyes shaped by tides and waves, hills and trenches. When your joy explodes into the ether, and when the implosion of sorrow damn near pulls my heart out of my chest and straight into yours, I see you.

I notice you.

The way you reach for words when answers born from old fears rise up against a tentatively opening heart, or when you spin the rings on your fingers as you pretend the surge of decision isn’t rolling heavily across your face and shoulders. You carry all that is life so well, with such grace; do you even know?

Do you realize how beautiful you are when you meet fear with tender strength, or uncertainty with the next step, no matter how tentative? Do you know how you inspire me? Even while fumbling, you’re exquisite. When bliss bursts through your every pore, you are breathtaking…

Read the full post at Rebelle Society

The Tension of Opposites: Love, Chaos, & the Wild Vortex

“Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a high tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and a tendency to think in opposites are characteristics researchers have found common among creative people in many different fields. But professional creators… come to understand that in order to be creative, they need to give themselves to sensations of ‘knowing but not knowing,’ inadequacy, uncertainty, awkwardness, awe, joy, horror, being out of control, and appreciating the nonlinear, metamorphosing features of reality and their own thought processes — the many faces of creative chaos.”

– John Briggs and F. David Peat, Seven Life Lessons of ChaosNYIntensive201404

As someone whose interfaith, nature-based spirituality regularly draws inspiration from science, I experienced my recent read ofthe book Seven Life Lessons of Chaos as both an affirmation and a challenge.Throughout the book, one theme emerged over and over, each time in a different context: the creative impulse – that which generates nature and space, planets and stars, love and rage – emerges from within the tension of opposites….

Read more at the Feminism and Religion blog.

A Personal Face to the Refugee Crisis

I can’t help but notice how hard it is for us to connect with news stories when we don’t have a personal face — someone we know, or a memory, or some simple way of helping us feel personally impacted by stories we read about.

My closest friend from college, about whom I care more than almost anyone except my family (and who has been like family to me for the past 20+ years), is an American (born in Cleveland) who also happens to be a Syrian-American and a Muslim. I got to catch up with him tonight, hear all about his new baby, and what he’s been doing with his life.

I asked about his family abroad, knowing that most of his parents’ (and his wife’s parents’) families had still been in Syria. His elderly grandma is still in Damascus, not wanting to leave her home. Some of his uncles, aunts, and cousins were able to go to stay with family in other parts of the Middle East. One cousin left after learning he was about to be drafted into the Syrian army. One cousin took his chances, and is now in Europe – one of the everyday people in the Europe’s “Syrian Refugee Crisis.” His wife’s mother and sisters stayed in their home in a suburb of Damascus – partly because they didn’t want to leave the home they’ve known, but they also weren’t sure that life as a refugee would be an improvement, given what they’ve seen of how the refugees have been received so far. Thinking on that hurts my heart. I cannot imagine making these decisions.

This same friend lives in one of the areas of the south that was devastated by storm damage and flooding that followed Hurricane Joaquin. He and his wife took their newborn to stay with their parents a half-hour away, but since he lives in a neighborhood with lots of retirees and elderly people, he drove up periodically to check in on his neighbors and see if they needed anything. You know, because that’s what good Muslims do. The neighbors would tell him how they’d been without clean water and had to boil water before drinking, or how the power had been out most of the past week, or how they couldn’t leave the house to go anywhere. This is what life is like in parts of Syria every day. Imagine if that were your everyday life, and you didn’t know that things would get better over the coming weeks, as utilities were restored and your life got back to normal. Imagine if this was life every day, with no hope on your horizon of it ever changing, at all. No normal. What if this were your only normal?

I’m reminded that people don’t flee their homelands for an unknown life as a refugee unless home is untenable. I’m reminded that these people fleeing their countries — these people in refugee camps or trying to find a new country that might welcome them with compassionate kindness and offer safe haven – these are real people, with families, many of whom had regular, everyday, normal, middle and upper-middle class lives back home. These are people who don’t love the Syrian government any more than we do, and who despise Daesh/ISIL in ways us non-Muslim Westerners can barely comprehend, because they aren’t claiming to represent us. They aren’t parading our religion in front of the world as their reason for murder, kidnapping, rape, and destruction. They aren’t going after our cousins, sisters, and extended family. They aren’t turning countries we’ve visited and loved – countries our grandmothers still love too much to leave – into rubble. If you think you hate what is happening in Syria, you should ask a Syrian how they feel about it. Believe me when I say that your grief, your rage, and your heartbreak, however huge they are – they’re pebbles beside the boulders of crushing grief and fear these refugees and the people who love them are carrying on their backs.

I have no answers. I know that these issues are complicated, and that they are made more so by the ridiculous level of misinformation and fear that spreads unchecked through biased news and social media frenzies. I share this with you not to preach, but only because it touched my heart and gave this crisis a personal face in a much more concrete way for me, and I think that’s what it’s going to take for us to act with integrity in the face of xenophobic calls to fear and intolerance. So, if you’re one of my FB pals who doesn’t know a Muslim in real life, or a Syrian, or an Arab, feel free to let my friend be your friend. He’s a stand-up guy – the best of the best. I can vouch for him. Let his family touch your heart like they’ve touched mine. And then let that be the lens through which you evaluate what you’re reading, saying, and sharing.

Love, C

Activism, compassion, and healing — finding balance

“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” -Alice Walker

This is a concept that has guided my life for many years now. I’ve volunteered with church groups, youth initiatives, hurricane relief efforts, LGBTQ advocacy groups, and programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. I’ve also answered suicide hotlines, rape crisis hotlines, and facilitated support groups for survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse. Wherever someone is, that’s where I’m willing to meet them, and I feel that my own life (and own understanding of the world) are enriched by connecting authentically with people in the darkness as well as the light.

Everyone has their limits, though, and my ability to dive into the depths with those who reach out to me does not mean I am without limits. In order to willingly go there with others, I need to make sure I’m doing the emotional and spiritual work on myself to keep myself healthy so I don’t absorb the problems of others. In order to recover from vicarious exposure to traumatic experiences, I need to carve out time for self-care, which for me includes reading, bubble baths, meditation, exercise, and leisure time with my family. In order to maintain the motivation and passion to continue with activist and advocacy work, I need to limit unnecessary exposure to upsetting or painful stories. It’s one thing — an ideal for me, even — to be able to walk through the darkness with another person in pain with the purpose of being a catalyst for or companion along their healing. It’s something altogether different to turn resistance to trauma into an art form without reason, or make suffering (vicarious or personal) into an ideal. I was first introduced to this concept in my early twenties by a neighbor who was a lightworker and Reiki master. When she told me she never watched television or read the newspaper “to keep from bringing negativity into [her] home,” I was surprised. How do you know what’s going on in the world if you don’t read the news? What if there are things going on that you won’t know about? What if there are things you just won’t know? For someone as addicted to information and knowledge as I’ve always been, it was hard for me to understand why someone would intentionally choose not to know what is happening in the world. How can you do something to help change the world if you do not first learn what issues need attention?

Here’s the thing, though. If I am traveling on a long journey in my car, I can’t just jump in and go. I’m going to have to stop every now and then to refuel, to change the oil, for a tune-up or tire rotation. I’m going to have to give myself time to rest now and then so I’ll be an alert and responsive driver, and I’m probably going to have to occasionally tag-team and let another driver take the wheel for shifts so that I can regroup, refocus, and rest. Long journeys like those toward social change and cultural healing take time, and long-term dedication requires long-term planning. Most of us don’t have the stamina and focus to stick with a passionate issue for years on end without breaks, and the few that do have likely worked significant elements of self-care and self-healing into their daily lives.

In her 2011 TED talk, Joan Halifax mentioned moral outrage as an enemy of compassion. And truly, there are situations that are morally reprehensible, that harm children and innocents, that corrupt the meaning of love, that impede healing, and that cause deep wounds and scars upon the souls of individuals and peoples. For me, the truth of Halifax’s assertion is in the word outrage. When I acknowledge the deep suffering and violence in the world, I accept its existence in a way that allows me to choose how I will direct my healing energy. When I am outraged by suffering and violence, I have already spent energy in my emotional reaction to an event even before I have considered any role I may have in healing and effecting change.

Having come across this TED talk during a time when I was already pondering the balance between activism and inner peace, I was grateful when a friend suggested I also listen to Halifax’s recent interview with Krista Tippett for the On Being radio show. In this interview, Halifax discusses moral distress as experiencing deep empathy for those things we can’t do anything about. Interestingly, Halifax referred to studies in which Tibetan meditators were able to feel empathy for others much more deeply and sorrowfully than the average individual but were also able to let go of it more easily. She attributes this to an enhanced ability to distinguish self from other — those with the grounding of meditation and enhanced feeling of deep compassion still feel the resonance of vicarious suffering, but have a keen awareness that they are not a part of the other person’s suffering.

All of these reflections bring up two insights for me:

1) Activism, though essential to effecting social and cultural change, is only one form of paying your “rent” on the planet. Healing practice and prayer work (provided you aren’t using them as excuses to avoid the realities of the world) can be contributions to the greater good. Working on yourself and maintaining a personal growth program can contribute to the greater good, and are particularly essential when you need to rebuild yourself for another round of activism or healing. Everyday steps to change how you live — recycling, for example, or gardening, cycling to work, or speaking out one-on-one against bullying or bigotry — can be important factors in cultural shifts, both practically and symbolically.

The truth about how we as individuals effect environmental, cultural, and social change may be best illustrated with the concept of cycle. Each of us has different gifts, strengths, and challenges at different times in our lives. Someone who has worked directly with survivors of sexual assault might need to shift to a more theoretical area of advocacy for a time after a personal, triggering experience. Someone who has had a public role in activism and advocacy may choose to take a more private role after going through a rough personal challenge. Sometimes we may burn out on one area of activism and advocacy, but find new energy to give in a different area. Sometimes our work is focused more on the outer, and other times more on the inner. Shifting from a more outer role to focus on inner healing doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle. Shifting from a more political approach to social activism to a more prayer and healing based approach doesn’t make you a bad activist; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, and using the gifts you find in abundance at any one point in time. Likewise, shifting from a more prayer and healing based approach to a more political approach doesn’t make you less spiritual as a person; it makes you a human experiencing and embracing cycle, working with the gifts you now find in abundance in your life.

2) Discomfort experienced with purpose (or finding meaning in past traumas) can be a part of compassionate change; we don’t need to intentionally expose ourselves to meaningless negativity, pain, and heartache to be compassionate. Sometimes we will experience sadness and pain that is out of our control, and when that happens we need to allow ourselves space to feel what we feel, to grieve, to rage, and to be real. When it comes to intentional exposure to pain, we must evaluate our choices against a few simple principles. First of all, do we currently have the capacity to work through this pain? No matter how well-intentioned we may be, we do ourselves and others no favors when we willingly walk into pain we cannot currently handle. If we’re feeling sickly or temporarily run down, emotionally overwhelmed, distracted by personal problems, or otherwise not emotionally balanced, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and giving bad advice or establishing unhealthy dependencies with others when we dive into their pain. There’s no shame in acknowledging that now is not the time for us to advocate in the darkness, or in waiting until we’re in a better headspace to do our activism and healing. This isn’t a sign of inadequacy or failure as a healer; it’s a sign of maturity and strength.

Second, is our experiencing this pain going to help us someone else avoid trauma or heal from pain? If we know that reading a tragic news article will do nothing to effect change, but will certainly leave us weepy and troubled for a period of time, we can choose not to read it. If we know that someone is only telling us their traumas to create drama or get a shocked reaction, we can politely bow out of the conversation. If, however, we have an opportunity to grow our awareness of an issue, learn so that we can better advocate, or help another process trauma and heal from it, then we can choose to enter into that relationship knowingly, and with the specified intent of helping to make the world (and the lives of those in it) better. In choosing to stop giving our emotional energy to those situations that would sap our reserves, we build a better supply of healthy emotional energy that we can later use for our chosen purposes, whether they are personal growth and self help, lightwork for the healing of the earth and her people, or political activism for social and cultural change.

Ultimately, how we choose to direct our energies is a personal decision. If you find that you derive some benefit from reading tragic news stories, listening to sorrowful people, or feeling angry about injustice, carry on. If what you’re currently doing is working for you, keep doing it! But if you have found your efforts at healing and activism sabotaged by burnout, moral distress, or “compassion fatigue,” it might be time to start exploring the role of balance in spiritual, personal, and advocacy practice. For me, I choose balance. I welcome the different phases in the cycle of my journey with life.

My intention matters, but it isn’t everything

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Mitch Horowitz while he was researching and writing his book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life when he contacted me about a paper from which I’d had an excerpt published over a decade ago. I was able to get him a full copy of my paper (although I’m not quite sure how helpful it was), but then in a series of emails and a meeting when he was visiting near my hometown, solid, good, real discussion happened. I shared some of my thoughts about trauma, disability, and how I worried that the shortcomings of the Law of Attraction, universally applied, could compound trauma. It isn’t that I don’t believe that we attract what we expect and believe in; it’s that I have a hard time understanding how that belief can be presented as universally helpful, true, or transformative when applied as an after-the-fact diagnostic for someone who has experienced a trauma or illness such as rape or disability. Mitch shared with me an idea so simple and helpful, I was surprised that I hadn’t read it, explicitly stated, in any of the LOA-based positive thinking books I’d been reading. Simply put: he believes that the LOA is one out of many laws that shape our experiences.

The idea that the LOA is only one influence out of many, the more I thought about it, began to heal the years-long inner conflict I’d experienced with the ideals of positive thinking. These conflicts began when I was working toward ministry in a New Thought church, and had been teased apart and highlighted by my work in rape crisis, where I was a hotline volunteer and support group facilitator for a few years. In my crisis support and intervention role, I had seen survivors successfully use positive thinking as a way to heal their traumas, had used Belleruth Naparstek’s Healing Trauma visualization in a group setting, and had even written and presented a healing, affirming visualization for one of my groups. I had also seen survivors bury themselves under feelings of responsibility for their assaults, worrying what they could have done differently — feelings and worries that are already compounded by a culture of victim-blaming in the media, in our court systems, and in our everyday lives. Even if LOA proponents never say anything other than supportive sentiments directly to survivors of sexual assault and other crimes, promoting thought-creates-reality as an individualistic, uncompromising, and unswayable law of reality sets up a view of reality in which sexual assault victims must have attracted their assault into their lives. This, to me, is unacceptable on a moral and ethical level, as well as on a factual and theoretical level.

If sexual assault is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the rapist. If child abuse is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the abuser. If murder is caused by wrong thinking, it is caused by the wrong thinking of the murderer. That isn’t to say that the collective attitudes and beliefs of our culture aren’t a part of the problem; it’s simply to say that for a single survivor of any kind of assault to believe they caused their assault through their expectations and thoughts misses the mark, and misunderstands both reality and trauma. But in order to allow for this complexity of reality, we have to accept (as Mitch suggested) that our thoughts and beliefs, while they are powerful carriers of our desires and intentions, can have their effects changed and moderated by outside forces — by other laws that also act upon our lives, our physical environments, and our spiritual realities.

While I have a full-time job in a non-spirituality environment, I’m blessed to work on a regular basis with some of the most interesting, thoughtful, kind, and insightful people I’ve ever met. Frequently, you’ll find us hard at work, but still discussing spirituality, social justice, and how to make the world kinder. Earlier this week, while discussing these thoughts with a coworker, I found myself using the following illustration.

I believe, fully and wholeheartedly in the law of gravity. If I want to drop a ball and have it land in a certain spot, I know I can lean out of the second-floor window of a building, reach my hand out, and drop the ball. Knowing about gravity and it’s associated formulas, I can tell where the ball will land, and I can even calculate about how long it will take to land. This might lead me to feel successful, as if I have a pretty good grasp of gravity and how it influences my ball-dropping. If, however, I go to a window above a ledge, when I drop my ball at the same angle, with the same distance from the window, and with the same method, it will bounce off the ledge and out from the wall, landing at a different distance and angle from the wall than I expected. This isn’t because gravity failed; it’s because other laws, theories, and formulas explain the bounce, the new trajectory of the ball, and where it will land. If it’s a windy day, the ball might land somewhere other than where I intended. In neither case would the result be because I don’t understand gravity or its proper application.

If I go to another clear window without a ledge and drop my ball again, I’d expect it to land in the designated spot, directly below where I dropped it. But what happens if as I drop the ball, someone runs up below me and uses a baseball bat to knock the ball out of the park, so to speak? Does that mean gravity failed? Does it mean I didn’t use the law right, or that I brought the situation on myself? Does it mean I need to rethink my ball-dropping technique, hold my hand differently, or believe more in gravity while dropping it the next time?

This illustrates the challenge I’ve had with a universal and unchangeable application of the Law of Attraction in all situations and at all times. I simply cannot believe that a child who develops a rare form of brain cancer, as a friend’s daughter did a few years back, is experiencing the results of her own or a parent’s thoughts sent into the universe, returned in kind. I don’t believe that survivors of rape or other assaults and crime attracted the experiences to themselves because of faulty beliefs, not being positive enough, or simply because they were attracting “exactly what they needed” to learn and grow. I don’t believe a stroke survivor who doesn’t regain full use of his body failed in any way, or is any less powerful or positive than someone who did recover, or who never had a stroke in the first place. In all of these cases, the human spirit is awe-inspiring in how it overcomes challenges. The child can be in that 12% who recover. The survivor, even as she acknowledges the pain, unfairness, randomness, and trauma of the assault, can make meaning out of it, chart her own healing, and grow through the experience of recovery and self-exploration. The stroke survivor may be challenged to explore formerly held ideals and (as a result) experience a profound emotional healing that may never have been triggered without the stroke. Does that make the stroke, the assault, the cancer a GOOD thing? It doesn’t have to. Humans are amazing. We can rebuild in beauty after the most tragic experiences of destruction and heartache.

So, to the extent that Law of Attraction can help you put your life back together, feel strong, be empowered, and grow in compassion after a trauma, use it! Focus on your strengths and successes, and on the ways you can use your gifts to make our shared world beautiful. Do things that nurture your soul and heal your spirit. Just remember that LOA is far more effective as a method of rebuilding than it is as a diagnostic tool. Responsibility for what is truly yours to own is a healthy thing; self-blame, self-doubt, and self-abuse are not. Be gentle with yourself; you deserve good things and kind treatment.

Complex ideas, catchphrases, and simplicity

 

trustbirth

If you’ve spent any time reading up on natural childbirth, you have probably encountered the phrase, “Trust Birth.” It’s a catchphrase that encompasses the idea that birth is safe, natural, and healthy — a natural process of a woman’s body, rather than a medical emergency that requires intervention. We live in a culture of birth in which women’s bodies are treated like machines, birth like a crisis, and dehumanizing as the inevitable consequence of failing to honor the mother’s natural instincts and body wisdom. “Trust Birth,” then, reinforces the idea if you just leave birth alone, allow it to progress normally, and only intervene when it is medically necessary for the safety of the mother or baby, that things will go well.

And when birth is trusted to progress naturally without interference, things DO go well… most of the time. There will, however, be a small number of cases in which intervention is necessary, even when birth is trusted fully and allowed to progress normally. While this comes nowhere close to accounting for the cesarean rates we are now seeing (over 30% in the US), there will be rare cases in which interventions, even cesareans, are necessary, beneficial, and life-saving. Even at The Farm, an intentional community and midwifery haven led by the godmother of the modern midwifery movement, Ina May Gaskin, there is a 1.7% cesarean rate and 5.2% of their births transfer to the hospital. This suggests to me that even in the most birth-trusting of environments, things occasionally can come up.

I have to admit that a 98.3% success rate of “Trust Birth” is impressive and powerful. Surely, in most cases, birth can be trusted! We cannot, however, continue to promote “Trust Birth” as the universal law of childbirth without considering its effect on the 1.7% of women who trusted birth fully, and were still unable to have their ideal birth, especially considering that outside of the idyllic (and well-screened) reality of The Farm, that percentage is likely to be considerably higher. If a mother trusted birth fully, gave herself over to the process, chose providers she thought would be supportive of her natural birth wishes, attended childbirth education and prepared herself fully, all the while reciting “Trust Birth” as her mantra, will her “failure” to achieve a natural birth be seen as a failure on her part? Will others think she didn’t trust birth enough? Did she not trust birth enough? Will she now worry about the judgment and disappointment her midwife, doctor, doula, or natural childbirth friends might feel for her? It’s definitely helpful, and a part of any healthy grieving process, to consider what we might do differently in the future; it’s not helpful to consider these questions from within the confines of a self-imposed shame that is reinforced by a culture that promotes blind faith in the “Trust Birth” as a standalone paradigm. Trusting birth fully without the chance to work through, in advance, the idea that sometimes things can just happen that are out of our control, can lead to greater feelings of victimization and trauma after a disappointing outcome.

I was talking recently with another birth advocate who had, like myself, had a planned homebirth that ended in a cesarean about how we felt about “Trust Birth” as a slogan. We both admitted that we kind of liked it — that it felt pretty revolutionary to trust birth in the face of a medical machine trying to take over and pathologize natural functions of women’s bodies. We also, however, agreed that as a method to achieve a natural childbirth, trusting birth is not, and never could be, 100% effective. It has gained traction because it is catchy and simple — a mantra many can get behind. It’s a lot more marketable than Trust Birth Most of the Time or Trust Birth Unless Medical Intervention is Required or Trust Birth Unless You Go Into Labor at 25 Weeks. There is simply a lot more complexity to the birth experience than any one catchphrase could ever express or contain, and while the percentage of women who truly need medical assistance or intervention to bring their babies safely into the world is small, the impact on their lives when that intervention is needed is tremendous. Women who birthed many years ago under traumatic or frightening conditions remember the anxiety and terror as if it had just happened, and we can’t simply assume that intervention was necessary because mothers didn’t trust enough; this isn’t consistently factually accurate, and the degree to which this belief compounds trauma is unacceptable in a compassionate community.

This is similar to a dynamic I’ve seen in Law of Attraction and Positive Thinking communities. We know that thoughts can shape our reality, and that we attract more of what we focus on. Does this necessarily mean that anyone who experiences trauma, pain, or poverty created it themselves? Can we just assume that the survivor of the crime, of the rape or near-fatal hit-and-run, attracted that experience through their own faulty thinking? Or can we get comfortable with the idea that the rape was the result of the rapist’s faulty beliefs, or the accident the responsibility of the alcohol abuser who drives drunk? Can we accept that while our thoughts shape our realities, that there are other forces at work that likewise shape our realities, and that many of them are out of our control?

Truly, it takes a HUGE investment of emotional commitment, dedication, and passion to walk a path that is not mainstream, and I’d say that neither natural childbirth nor positive thinking are yet mainstream movements, although they both have their followings and seem to be growing in influence. You have to genuinely believe in it to seek out a provider for an unhindered birth, especially in a country where midwifery is not even legal in many states. You have to stay focused to keep your thinking positive in a society that tells you how impotent you are to effect change for yourself or others. It requires a level of passion that isn’t always friendly to complexity, but I’d argue that in order to be truly compassionate movements, we have to embrace at least a little complexity, even if only for the benefit of that small percentage whose trust in birth, or the universe, has not prevented them from experiencing unwanted outcomes.

Let’s use our catchphrases. Let’s trust birth! Let’s accentuate the positive! Let’s know that birth is healthy, normal, and safe! Let’s affirm that what you believe, you receive! But let’s make sure that any time we move our conversations beyond the catchphrases and into real discussion, teaching, and counseling, that we address those other forces at work preemptively, so that people will know that if they fall short of their ideal, it isn’t necessarily their own fault for not trying hard enough. Let’s control everything that we can control, sure, but let’s do it so that we can then let go of those things that are out of our control, which are more than we sometimes realize. This, to me, is the true power of holistic thinking — not only are we freed from limiting thinking that reinforces our helplessness and dependence, but we are also freed from limiting thinking that doesn’t take into account the myriad influences, forces, expressions, and outcomes that are all intermingling in our universe, shaping our lives along with us. That’s true freedom, right there!