I’ve been slowly reading The Five Invitations by Frank Ostaseski, a book that looks at what death can teach us about living fully, and this week I blazed through Harriet Lerner’s the Dance of Intimacy, a book that looks at how to change patterns of relating that keep us stuck in a dance of distancing from the love and connection we all long for. At the same time I’ve been working my way through From Stuck to Unstuck by Kenneth Halstead which focuses on how to overcome congregational impasse by bringing some systems theories into awareness along with a recognition of paradoxes, paradigms and double binds.
As I reflect on the connecting threads I’ve noticed between these quite different contexts I’m challenged to slow down and look more closely and attempt to see more clearly what it really means to accept Jesus’ invitation to life in all its fullness.
What does it mean to be fully alive? To be fully your self – not the self that is limited by the mask of personality but fully and freely the whole self, rooted and grounded in love, the wholeness of your true and uniquely given self.
This sentence from The Five Invitations stopped me in my tracks. Frank writes:
Wisdom is not about age or expertise, tools or roles. I have a lot of tools that I have collected over the years, but in serving, I don’t lead with my tools. I find that if I start pulling those tools out and setting them down between myself the my client, then one of us is sure to trip over them. So instead I lead with my humanity.
You might want to journal: What does this idea evoke in you? Thoughts? Feelings? Sensations?
In the old paradigm of hierarchical systems we are not encouraged to lead/teach/learn with our humanity – that would expose vulnerability and open us to attack or manipulation or just diminish our authority over others or the material we are working with.
Embracing our own humanity sounds like it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge except that it actually means embracing our limits and our need for others to provide what we cannot. Essentially it’s about accepting with warmth and enthusiasm our absolute dependence on many things fundamental to our survival and thriving that are totally outside of our control.
I think it is the warmth and enthusiasm part that is the hard bit, personally.
And also the other hard bit is that I have learned (long ago and in an unpleasantly oft repeated pattern) that needing other people sucks. They totally let you down and hurt you. And that makes having to ask for what you need really, really hard. I’m speaking from my own experience, of course, but I’m pretty confident that I’m not alone in this.
So Kenneth offered some wise words about forgiveness (because you have to let go of the disappointment and hurt if you’re going to be freely, fully and wholly alive):
Forgiveness is a grief process involving pain, loss and anger, as well as a mix of other intense emotions such as guilt, shame, fear, helplessness and deep sadness. Grief processes take much more time than our culture typically allows. Healthy grief processes move forward but continue in some form throughout our lives. Grief takes work…we must stay with terrifying and agonising emotions long enough to let them have their say and mean what they mean.
You might want to journal: What rises for you or resonates as you read this? Are there particular hurts that you need to revisit and stay to listen for the meaning of those intense emotions? How might you do that, and when?
Harriet also speaks into the discomfort of our own neediness by outlining the patterns of relating that we get stuck in. These are: pursuing and retreating, overfunctioning and underfunctioning and other-focus.
Pursuing can look both friendly and unfriendly – crazy though it may seem, criticism, self-pity and picking a fight are as much a request for care and attention as solicitousness, amorousness and commiseration. Retreating can be physical distance but it can also be emotional cut off – or both.
Like pursing and retreating, over and under functioning are ways that we seek to get our needs met and at the same time they mitigate the reality that some of our deepest needs are not being met. There is an ‘other’ focus about both the over and under-functioning stance that can become more obvious if someone or something can be deemed ‘the problem’.
Over functioning steps in to manage the other, to fill in the gaps and take responsibility for the other, offering unsought advice, seeking to fix and explain rather than listen and understand. Under functioning steps back to let others do for you, resists advice, rejects opportunities to take responsibility, drops the ball and denies competence. Over functioners get their needs met by controlling what is not theirs to control. Under functioners get their needs met by letting others assume the burden of what is theirs to carry.
All of these relational patterns sacrifice equity, reciprocity and respect. At the same time each one is half of a duet and the separate parts need each other – they cannot be sung alone.
All of these patterns of behaviour are not just ways of managing anxiety when our needs are not met in our significant relationships. They are also exactly the ways we avoid focussing on what we are not willing to risk recognising, accepting and embracing – our own needs. All of these patterned habits allow us to avoid having to express our needs in ways that would allow those same needs to be met. They are the ways we avoid the vulnerability of intimacy.
If you are honest it is probably uncomfortably easy to see the ways that these behaviours manifest in your own significant relationships with parents, siblings, friends, partner and children.
So I wonder, can you see any of these in how you relate to the Divine? Or how you were taught to relate to the Divine? You might want to journal again.
Wake up with poetry
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you, Don't go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want, Don't go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the door-sill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open, Don't go back to sleep. ~Rumi
Going back to sleep is inevitable, so use the poem to remind yourself to wake up. Wake up to where you have slipped back into a pattern of hiding from what you really want and avoiding asking for that. This poem is easy to commit to memory – try it! Then try reciting it to yourself while you wait at a traffic light or as you boil the kettle or brush your teeth. See what it brings to your awareness.
Slow down with beauty
Beauty speaks to the spirit, the heart and the whole. In a culture that is efficient, mechanised and standardised beauty isn’t often crafted into the way we make and build. And yet we need beauty. It nurtures something within us and calls forth something from within us – something we may find hard to name. Beauty cannot be rushed, either, but needs to be savoured and soaked in. The Japanese practice of forest bathing is an example of the kind of unrushed doing nothing in the presence of beauty that makes space for meeting a need you may not realise you have.
Find a way to immerse yourself in beauty this week with a generous time allowance and without an agenda.
Pondering roles with Thomas Keating – lectio and journal exercise
“As long as we are identified with some role or persona, we are not free to manifest the purity of God’s presence. Part of life is a dropping of whatever role, however worthy, you identify with. It is not you. Your emotions are not you. Your body is not you. If you are not those things, who are you? …Thomas Keating, The Human Condition
“The ultimate abandonment of one’s role is not to have a self as a fixed point of reference; it is the freedom to manifest God through one’s own uniqueness. … To be no self is to be the true Self. To be nothing is to be everything. For Christians, it is to be a kind of fifth Gospel: to become the word of God and to manifest God … When you have been liberated … you are in a space that is both empty of self and full of God. …
“If we have not experienced ourselves as unconditional love, we have more work to do, because that is who we really are.”
“The contemplative journey is …not just a method of meditation or a practice to find personal peace. It’s basically a total acceptance of the human condition in all its ramifications … [H]umans are fully capable of becoming God, not in the fullest sense of the term, but in a very real way, where the light, life and love of God are pouring through them, channeling a source of healing, compassion and reconciliation wherever they go and whatever they do. They are rooted in the divine compassion and mercy, and are manifesting … the pure light of the image and likeness of God within them, which is the assimilation of the mind and heart of Christ in everyday life.”Thomas Keating, Heartfulness: Transformation in Christ
The two extracts from Thomas’ writings are worth dwelling with for a while, going slowly and noticing where you attention is caught. Let your energy follow the thread of attention and see what unfolds as you make connections, chew over an idea and notice your responses.
The two passages both invite reflection on the various roles you inhabit and how you hold those roles. Are there some where your identity is inextricably entwined? Familial roles can feel this way. Who would you be without that role? Similarly, are there other things that you do outside of a specific role which you equate with who you are?
Where do you see signs of divine compassion and mercy manifesting in you and around you? What might you do to bring more of your attention there? (and energy always follows attention)