Surrender And Surrender Again

I’ve grown accustomed to this sanctuary. I come here when Kerri has meetings in the church. It is quiet. As I sit here alone, I easily become quiet. The evening sun pours through the stained glass, the symbols shimmer.

When I met Kerri I told her that, if we were going to have a relationship, she needed to understand two things about me: I don’t sing and I don’t pray. I imagine that was stark news for a woman who works as a minister of music. I imagine she rolled her eyes. It is a running joke with the folks that know the story of my proclamation that I now sing in the church choir and band. I love to sing. As for the praying, well…, I’ve always been a meditator and that counts. Quiet is a delicious form of prayer. I was hung up on definitions. I talk to the universe all the time. To-mAaa-to, to-Mah-to.

I have, all my life, believed religion most often gets in the way of a true spiritual experience (life). “Prayer” was for me, at the time I met Kerri, a word of religion while “meditation” was a word I associated with a spiritual life. One night, not long after my move, Kerri and I had dinner with Heidi. She asked me about my faith and laughed at my reflections, saying, “You are one of those many-paths-one-mountain guys.” Yes. And, to truly be a many-paths-one-mountain guy, I’ve had to challenge some of my long held defenses, walk into some of my long held prejudices.

Yesterday, Bill said a simple, beautiful thing about faith, grace and spiritual journeys. It reinforced something I have known (for myself) for years. He said, “The problem with religion is it is heavily invested in having answers. It becomes invested in being right (righteousness), being “the way” as if there was only one way. A true spiritual life,” he said, “is about walking into the questions.” Life, the real crackling, shimmering life, is always experienced in the questions. Awe is rarely experienced in something so constructed and contained as an answer.

I brought to the sanctuary an outline/book of a class that I intended to teach years ago but never got around to offering. In the introduction a previous-version-of-me wrote this: The premise is simple and ancient: when you change your story you change your world. All stories of transformation begin with an attempt to control the uncontrollable: transformation in a story happens when the main character surrenders their illusion of control, strips their armor, walks into their fear, and meets their dragon. There are many variations on this theme. What is important to grasp is that empowerment follows surrender….

Were I writing that today I would never use the word “empowerment.It is an overused and abstract word like “presence” and generally misunderstood as something to achieve (or sold as an answer). Power is irrelevant after a dragon is met.

When I met Kerri I was terrified to sing. I’d been shamed more than once for opening my mouth, thus my proclamation. I learned, as I sang the fear from myself, that the only thing that follows surrender is more surrender.

And, in surrender, there is shimmering quiet.

Have A Conversation

my quick sketches of two of the stained glass window panels

my quick sketches of two of the stained glass window panels

Yesterday I learned that my conversation with the stained glass window was only on hiatus. Several months ago we simply stopped talking. In the silence I thought the conversation was complete. For almost two years we had a weekly chat. I took lots of notes.

I recognize that one is not supposed to have chats with windows – at least not admit to it. Master Marsh teased me saying, “There’s help for things like this.” I’ve decided that my conversation with the window is more ordinary than odd: plenty of people around the world talk to statues. Most of us have had silent reckoning with the sky. I’ve witnessed mechanics talking to their tools and bakers wooing their dough. Who hasn’t cursed the object of a home fix-it job-gone-wrong (plumbing regularly gets a tongue lashing from me!) or praised a project done well? Traffic gets a regular talking to. In this region, at this time of year, more than a few brides make deals with the weather. A soul in exchange for sunshine.

Who hasn’t, in a moment of turmoil, looked inside themselves and asked for help? Who hasn’t uttered a quiet thank you or asked for guidance or made an appeal? Call it prayer, meditation, epiphany, catharsis, intuition, gut instinct, reading the signs, hearing the call, or communing with nature, it’s a conversation.

I’m not the only artist – or scientist for that matter – that, in moments of flow, feels as if something bigger is coming through. In that sense, all of my paintings might serve as the record of a conversation with something bigger. Writers often speak about having the experience of the characters writing themselves, of following rather than creating. Following, surrendering, allowing, listening, responding, getting out of the way. Play the chords long enough and you no longer need to think about them. In the land beyond thinking about it, music becomes possible. It’s a conversation.

Sitting on the chancel, listening to Kerri play, I stared as I often do at the morning light pouring through the colored glass. I studied the symbols. Birth and death. Tree of knowledge, Tree of Everlasting Life. The Grail standing between two flames. It’s a repetition in symbol of the same idea. Born into an experience of duality and distinctions, a world fighting over its differences, we have the opportunity to walk the middle path, the unity consciousness, the “something bigger.” “Between the two, one,” I the heard the window whisper. “It’s simple, really.”

a quick sketch of all three panels: birth, death, and the middle way.

a quick sketch of all three panels: birth, death, and the middle way.

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Seek Solitude

from my Yoga series of paintings

from my Yoga series of paintings

It is easier to sail many thousands of miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone. ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I remember watching a documentary of the painter Lucien Freud. He said he couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to be a painter because the choice meant living a solitary life. His comment struck me as odd because, for me, solitude was necessary for the muse to come through. I often yearned for solitude. I always looked forward to my time with the muse.

More than twenty years ago, for a period of time, I was painting exclusively. I had an abundance of solitude. Each evening my dear friend Albert would show up at my door, force me out of the studio and take me to a coffeehouse. He told me that he feared my isolation, that without human contact and conversation, I might twist. His fear, although probably valid, also struck me as odd.

A solitary life can be quiet, prayerful; it can be full. A solitary life can also be lonely and empty. The difference, of course, is in the presence of a relationship. Most painters that I know, most artists, feel as if they are a “channel to something bigger.” Something comes through and it is in the solitary moments that the channel opens. It is in the solitary moments that the relationship becomes available. The relationship with the muse can be full, rich, and three-dimensional. I imagine monks, nuns and ascetics of all spiritual traditions know this relationship, too. Solitary need not be lonely just as, paradoxically, the loneliest place on earth can be in the middle of city teeming with people.

The exploration of the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being is the province of the artist. The relationship with “something bigger,” with the muse, is the seed from which all art forms grow. The seed is visible in the adornments found in pyramids, in the harp of Orpheus, and in the paintings of Marc Chagall. It is present when children with gusto run their fingers through paint or dance all alone in the grass just because it feels good.

 

Play For The Light

Photo by Wes Morrissey. See more at rocknfish.com

Photo by Wes Morrissey. See more at rocknfish.com

I’m hanging out listening to the handbell choir practice. I meant to bring my ipad so I could write while hanging out but I forgot it so I had to go old school and find a pen and some paper. The pen was easy but the only paper I could find was the back of an old church bulletin. I opened the bulletin and found the language for the communion celebration, “…he took bread, gave thanks, and broke it saying, ‘Take this and eat. This is my body, given for you….”

In reading the words I was thrown back in time (a meditative handbell soundtrack is very useful when being cast backwards in time). Many years ago, just after I moved to Seattle, the Makah tribe attempted to revive their traditional whale hunt. The entirety of their traditional ritual life stems from the hunt – the whale is their central god much as the buffalo is central to the worship of the plains tribes. In the early 20th century the Makah voluntarily suspended the hunt because European whaling techniques had devastated the whale population. Consequently, with no central ritual, their community fell into disarray. The revival of the hunt brought intense opposition and a media circus of epic proportions.

At the time, I was taking a masters degree in systems theory with a focus on Cultural Mythology and Transformational Art and, so, was enrapt by the collision of cultural perspectives. Through one lens, the hunt was an unnecessary slaughter of a whale. Through another lens it was a communion meal; the hunter is deemed worthy and chosen by the god (the whale), the god gives his life to nourish the people (spiritually and literally), and the people, in turn, perform the rituals of rebirth that bring the god back to life. It is a cycle of death and rebirth, the god nourishing the people and the people revivifying the god through their rituals and attention to life.

The central word is “communion;” to commune with the divine – regardless of faith tradition. And, in the end of the day, when the shopping is all done, isn’t that what this season is about? Does it matter how we mark the return of the light, the winter solstice, the return of the god to eventually bring life to a barren winter landscape (I’m writing metaphorically, too), the fulfillment of a prophecy, as long as we truly experience communion with something bigger than ourselves? It is an awesome responsibility to revivify the god – especially when the return depends upon how we live our lives and perform our rituals.

The handbell choir is working extra hard. Although they play each month, this preparation is for something special. They play with a sense of stress and excitement and desire a perfection that they usually do not entertain. This performance matters more than the others because they know, just like this time last year, they are playing for the return of the light.

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Serve Life

Untitled by David Robinson

Untitled by David Robinson

I’m writing language for a website. In the past my website reinventions felt like an exercise of the same old cereal in a new marketing box. This time it’s different. I am a new cereal and I’m not certain that I want a box. It makes a difficult task of telling people what I do when I’m fully invested in container resistance. As I wrangled deep into the night with clever but remarkably meaningless marketing language, I had two mini-epiphanies:

1) Last year, unlike the captain of the Titanic, I sailed my ship directly at an iceberg so that it would sink. I sank the ship with all of the fine china, the gold bars and diamonds in the safe, the furniture, the clothes and fine food. It all went to the bottom of the ocean. I wanted off the ship so why would I now build for myself a new ship? I didn’t bob around in my raft in the vast ocean spearing tuna and catching rainwater so that I might someday step back on to the bridge and do it all over again. What, exactly, am I building?

2) I have tried my whole life to squeeze myself into too small of a box (as, I suspect, all of you have, too). I have worn the jacket of coach, of facilitator, of teacher, of director, of actor and waiter and painter. I am none of these and all of these. I have made websites complete with testimonials and classes, nice pictures and e-books, workshops and retreats. The process of building a site is a two-agenda process: first, locate yourself in space and time for other people so that they might find you and, second, orient yourself toward other people’s concern so they might know why they should seek you. In other words, 1) this is where I am and, 2) this is what I provide. The pronoun is “I.”

What, exactly, do I provide? I am not a plumber or a pizza maker. Every marketing person I’ve ever known has advised me to brand myself. Brand myself as what? Brands are made up. A year ago on New Year’s eve, tarot woman told me that she didn’t see a career for me. Rather, she saw lots of expression. “Brand that!” I thought to myself. Last night I reasoned, “I am not a brand.” Neither can I reduce what I do to a pithy phrase or clever visual. That’s precisely why I sought an iceberg and sank the ship!

I’m an artist (a painter and performer) and I write. I like to write a lot. At the center of all that I do is…disruption or change or spirituality or transformation, words that sound great but what do they mean on the concrete, day-to-day experience of living. I deal in heart, intuition, and soul. Great. I hold people’s hands and walk with them into their dreams. I dive with them into their past so they might let go of their story and sit solidly in their present. I help them unbuckle the weight belt of their story so they might surface for air. Brand that.

To ask, “What do I provide?” is to ask the wrong question. This question will always lead to too tight boxes.

Joe sent me some links: short films of Stephen Jenkinson (The Meaning of Death and Making Humans). Stephen Jenkinson says that humans are made, not born. He speaks eloquently about the necessity of dying to our childhood – which means recognizing that our short lives are limited. That’s the recognition necessary to grow up. We can only really fulfill our gifts when we understand the necessity to serve life, not our life. We end. Life continues. Martin Prechtel writes of his community’s male passage rituals; young men learn that they can only serve their community when they recognize their mortality. The passage ritual is meant to bring them to the realization that they are finite. Only then can they understand the imperative to serve something greater than themselves: life. Tonight in the Taize service, Pastor Tom read a passage about losing yourself to find yourself. It is the same concept wrapped in biblical clothes.

Here’s what I want to say on my site: when you are willing to stop trying to save your life and ready to start giving it, call me. No box necessary.

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Do The Dishes

649. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I’m at 37,000 feet. The coffee has been served. The trash has been picked up. The man sitting next to me is asleep, as are the people across the aisle. I see the flicker of movies or games on ipads; a baby somewhere behind me is fussy. We are in an aluminum tube hurtling through space at several hundred miles an hour and I am typing. And, as I look around me, I’d say that most of my plane-mates believe that flying through space is usual, mundane.

A hundred years ago very few people had seen the earth from the sky. A few people in balloons made it into the clouds. Now, hundreds of thousands of us soar through the sky everyday. I was reminded in the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas that it has only been 45 years since a human being saw the earth from space. We have been on this planet for thousands of years and the miracle of the earth was something we imagined but had never seen. I am in the first generation of humans to see a photograph of the earth from space. I remember seeing it for the first time and I gasped. Now, we think it commonplace. Sure, from space there are no boundaries, sure it looks alive (it is), but I imagine most of my globe-mates think it is usual, mundane.

It is the center of every spiritual practice, it is the task of the artist: what does it take to truly SEE. How do we develop our capacity to see what is right in front of us instead of seeing what we think is there? To think is to interpret. To think is to abstract; it is a veil that can blunt the immensity of experience. How do we become present to the enormity of being alive and cease to reduce our lives to the mundane?

Travel to another country and you will see. Fall in love and you will see. Climb to the top of a mountain and you will see. Stand in the river with the water rushing around your ankles and you will see. You will see because you want to see; you will enter your moment having decided to be there and nowhere else. You will see because you let go of the fog of knowing and allow yourself to not know. You will see because you have re-entered discovery. Do the dishes for the thousandth time. Do nothing else but simply feel the water on your wrists, smell the soap, the muscles in your hand as you hold the sponge. Feel your heart beating and you will recognize that you have never lived this moment, you’ve never breathed this breath, you’ve never done these dishes and you will come alive quite suddenly and see the miracle of your life.