Friend Zoned by God

Sometimes life hurts. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we dive deeply into darkness. Sometimes we fall.

Sometimes our lives line up so perfectly we can’t help but sense the hand of the divine helping us clear our paths and point us toward wonder. Other times we plan and work, make vision boards, bullet journal, dream journal, gratitude journal, think positive, dream big, and repeat affirmations until we finally take in the joyful chest-inflating breath of a goal welcomed.

Sometimes we can’t help but see the roles we’ve played our experiences, how we’ve drawn certain experiences into our own lives. We see how those experiences have impacted our lives for pleasure or pain, but almost always (if we are willing and able to work with them) for our growth.

Sometimes we do everything “right” and end up disappointed. Sometimes we float along without intention and land in the “right” places.

But at no point is the divine obligated to “put out” in the specific ways we expect because of our efforts, prayers, or intentions.

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.

…..

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.

…..

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

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!