Welcome!

If you are here to explore working with a Spiritual Director, you may well be in the right place. Explore the site -- go to the GETTING STARTED (FAQ) page where many of your questions may already be answered; read the blog and listen to how you feel; follow some of the links to learn more; find out a little something about my background. If you'd like to contact me -- either to set up an appointment or ask a questions, there's a contact form on the right side of each page that you can use to MAKE A CONNECTION.

Most simply, though, the spirit of my practice can be summed up in these words (adapted from Robert Mabry Doss): For those who come here seeking God ... may God go with you. For those who come embracing life ... may life return your affection. And for those who come to seek a path ... may a way be found, and the courage to take it step by step.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Using Technology

Many people imagine a shaven-headed monk, sitting beside a still pond, on the top of a mountain when they hear the words "spiritual practice."  Well, maybe it's not that extremely austere for you, but simplicity is a word that comes up often.  And a whole lot of people can't imagine how they could possibly fit something so quiet, calm, and spacious into their overly crowded lives.

I believe I've referenced this before, yet I'll go ahead and risk doing so again.  In the movie my Dinner With Andre, the actor Wallace Shaw is having a wide-ranging dinner conversation with the director Andre Gregory.  At one point, Shaw (who may be best known for his role as the villainous Vizzini in The Princess Bride) says,
Tell me, why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality?  I mean ... I mean, is Mount Everest more 'real' than New York?  I mean, isn't New York "real?"  I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out!  I mean ... I mean, isn't there just as much 'reality' to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?
I think it's important to point out his saying "if you could become fully aware ..."  That, it seems to me, is another way of explaining the "purpose" of spiritual practices.  Yes, as I noted in an early posting, from one perspective there is no purpose to any spiritual practice above and beyond the doing of it.  On the other hand, or from a different point of view, spiritual practices help us to develop our ability to see the "really real," ultimately preparing us to be able to "become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store."

The other point of this passage is that "the spiritual quest" need not take place far outside of our every day lives.  It can, and perhaps should, take place right in the middle of it all.  This is one of the ways I describe the difference between therapy and spiritual direction.  If, during a time of trouble, you go to a therapist, generally speaking they will try to help you understand what is happening (maybe even why it is happening), and then try to help you work through it.  A spiritual director, on the other hand, will try to help you focus on where the sacred, the holy, the spiritual, the Life is in the midst of the trouble.

Two of the chapters in Faithful Practices: everyday ways to feed your spirit offer ways to use that ubiquitously quintessential icon of modernity -- the smart phone -- as a tool for spiritual growth. 

Cynthia Cane writes about how she uses Instagram as a way of helping her to take the time to really look at things.  She stops, and takes the time to notice the details of her environment which she might otherwise literally overlook.  Instead of looking over them, she looks at them, and how they relate to one another, as she frames a shot.  And in sharing the image, the moment, she captured, she offers its beauty to others and invites their active awareness, too.

Aaron Stockwell offers a number of ways that he uses his phone's features to support his spiritual deepening.  One in particularly struck me powerfully, so much so, that as soon as I'd read about it in his proposal, before I knew whether his was going to be one of the chapters included in the book, I incorporated into my own daily life.  The practice takes advantage of the ability to set a number of alarms on your phone, and to name them.  So, following Aaron's sage advice, have set several alarms to go off at various times of the day, and each one has its own name (which comes up on the screen with the alarm).  At 9:43 there's a chime, and the words, "Remember God."  At 11:51 it's, "Remember your blessings."  I am promoted to "Remember you live in love," at 1:17 each day, while at 3:33 I receive the message, "Remember to be grateful."  The last of these alarms, at 7:53 each night, is, "Remember what is true."

Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, whoever I'm with, when I hear the chime I see it's reminder as I go to shut it off.  I don't need to take off my shoes, put on a robe, and light some incense to engage this practice.  I don't need to set aside lots of time in the midst of a busy day.  Instead, I am called (briefly) to attention by the sound of the chime, and gently reminded of something that it would otherwise be all too easy to forget.

Is this something you could imagine doing?  Whether it is or not, I wonder what messages you would send to yourself ...

Pax tecum,

RevWik




Monday, April 16, 2018

The Spirituality of Superhero Action Figures ...

Since I was a little kid, I have loved comic books.  It was Marvel figures in my childhood -- Captain America, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange (Master of the Mystic Arts), the Silver Surfer, Black Panther, Thor ... the whole bunch who've been lighting up the silver screen for the past decade or so.  In my young adulthood, and later, I was more captivated by the other hero universe -- DC -- with its Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, et al..  (I had actually stopped paying much attention to comics and comic book heroes during college, but then a friend gave me a copy of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns, and I've been a bit more than hooked ever since.)

Much has been made of the role Star Wars plays as modern day mythology, particularly the first three films.  (It's known, for instance, that George Lucas studied with Joseph Campbell, the pre-eminent scholar of comparative mythology, and intentionally followed Campbell's structure of the Monomyth -- the Hero's Journey -- when constructing his story.)  It is also widely acknowledged that superhero stories function as a modern mythology as well, and, more that they function as a reflection of our cultural zeitgeist -- superheroes as "cultural barometer."

As I've noted elsewhere, one of the things I love about reading comic books, something that grows out of reading about the same figures over time, are the numerous ways that these characters are "made real" by their writers and artists.  Every character has quirks that make them more than just a powered person in spandex, and over time you can see these characterizations become more nuanced.  If you read a comic long enough, you can watch its characters grow, mature, change.  And in the hands of some of the real pros, there are a myriad little details of interaction that are delightful gifts that reward those of us who've stayed with them.  While any one issue of any one comic book title may consist of little more than "a slugfest," as they're sometimes derided, over time it becomes clear that they really are a form of what we might call, "expansive storytelling."  Just as the story of "The Boy Who Lived" plays out over the more than 2,000 pages of the seven primary Harry Potter books (and the roughly 18 hours of the movies), and the story of the One Ring is told over the 1,200 or so pages of Tolkien's masterpiece, so too the stories of these comic book heroes and heroines have grown and developed over time.  (Superman premiered in 1938, the Bat-Man first appeared in 1939, and Wonder Woman showed up a scant two years later.)

Given all of this, it should not be surprising that I have quite a comic book collection.  I also collect action figures.  (My collection is probably something in the range of 350-400 comics, and somewhere a little over 200 figures.)



In the new anthology about spiritual practices I edited for Skinner House books, Faithful Practices:  everyday ways to feed your spirit,  I wrote a chapter about a practice that feeds my soul, "Playing With My Dolls."  I note that I'm not one of those people who leave their comics bagged in plastic, requiring you to wear gloves if you take it out, nor do I have my figures boxed and safe from scratches and fingerprints that might lower their value.  I read (and re-read) my comics, and I play with my figures.  I also make scale models in which to pose the figures, because I also take photographs of them.  [As I write this, my action figure photo album on Flickr has over 800 pictures in it.]

I write in my chapter more about what this practice consists of -- in practical terms -- but I also list seven characteristics that I find in my photography of action figures that I think are common to all spiritual practices.  If there's something you do that brings you joy, that feeds your soul, that helps you to be more alive, check it against this list of attributes.  If you find that it has elements of more than a few of them, you may well have a spiritual practice on your hands!


  • Commitment:  A spiritual practice, as opposed to a mere "spiritual hobby," is something that you have made a commitment to.  Runner don't always want to go out into the cold and the rain, they'd often rather stay in bed, but they're committed to their running, so they put on their shoes and go out.  Is this thing you do something that you keep coming back to whether or not it's frustrating or challenging?
  • Regularity:  Using the metaphor of learning to play an instrument, a person can make a sound on an instrument they pick up haphazardly, from time to time.  A person who takes their instrument out regularly, with some consistency, is much more likely to make some kind of progress.  Is the thing you do something that you do on a regular basis -- daily, weekly, monthly?
  • Interior Circularity:  I made up this term, but it points to the experience of different aspects of a practice reinforcing one another.  For example, entering your meditation space respectfully leads you to engage in your meditation more seriously.  Your experience(s) in your meditation make you want to return to your cushion the next day, or later that day.  Are there elements in this thing that you do which, in and of themselves, inspire you to do the thing?
  • Flexibility:  Although this would seem to contradict the qualities of commitment and regularity, I have found that I am more likely to engage a spiritual practice that I can, at least in part, fit into my ever changing life.  Yes, regularly and commitment are important, and both the desire and the ability to dip my toe in the waters of my practice seems to me to be important, too.  Is the thing you do something that you can do in some way whenever the mood strikes?
  • Separate From Daily Life:  When I'm in my workshop working on building, say, the fourth iteration of a 1:12 scale Batcomputer, or making minor adjustments to the tilt of a figure's head in a photo, I find that the rest of the world "drops off."  The ten thousand things that pull me this way and that, the million-and-one voices that call out to me for attention, quiet down, and in that quiet I am more able to hear that "still, small voice," that "voice of quiet stillness," which some call God.  Is the thing you do something that takes you out of the hustle and bustle of your day-to-day?
  • Yet Not Entirely Separate:  There is a critique made of some religious/spiritual folk that they are all pious and holy in church on Sunday, or are filled with loving kindness when kneeling on their prayer rug, yet who seem to forget all about that during the other 23 hours of the day, and six days of the week.  I have action figures in my house and in my office at church, not just out in the workshop.  I watch superhero movies, and read comic books.  There are reminders of my practice throughout my life, and there are aspects of it that are integrated into my daily life.  Is that true of whatever it is you do that you're thinking might be a spiritual practice?
  • Joy:  I really enjoy "playing with my dolls."  I'm aware that lots of folks might think it odd -- my teenage sons keep me well aware of that.  Yet I really love it.  Even when it's frustrating, even when I'm faced with a hurdle I don't know how to overcome, I return to the workshop again and again because it doesn't just make me happy to do so -- it brings me real joy.  How about you?

There is a popular notion that "anything you do can be a spiritual practice," and that's true.  That's true especially if you remember those two central words, "can be."  The seven characteristics of spiritual practices that I've just listed are certainly not the only ones, yet I recognize that they are present in my practice of building "sets" and taking pictures of action figures, and it's in that recognition, and through my intentional cultivation of them, that what might otherwise simply be a hobby becomes a way to feed my spirit.

Pax tecum,

RevWik


Friday, April 13, 2018

Faithful Practices

On Wednesday I praised the book Everyday Spiritual Practice: simple pathways for enriching your life.  Published by Skinner House Books in 1997, it has long been my go-to book when people ask me to recommend something they could read about spiritual practices.  I simply know of no other book that is both as expansive and as accessible.  More than any other book I've come across it helps people to see that they may already be doing something that might be understood as a spiritual practice and not even known it.  As the editor, the Rev. Scott Alexander, says in the Introduction:
"While working on this collection I was often asked, 'What makes an everyday spiritual practice different from a casual spiritual hobby, something worthwhile that one simply dabbles in when one feels like it?'  The answer is intentionality, regularly and depth.  Whether it is sitting zen, doing charitable giving, working with a spiritual director, or tending your relationship with loved ones, what shapes your efforts into an everyday spiritual practices is your commitment to making the activity a regular and significant part of your life."
Written from the perspective of "professional" religious people (aka, ordained clergy), and more "ordinary" (read, lay) people, part of what makes this book so powerful is that you not only read about how to do whatever practice the chapter is about, but also why the author engages the practices themselves, and why they think it might be of interest to anyone else.  Simply put, I've known of no other book on spiritual practices that I would recommend more highly.

Until now, that is.

This year Skinner House Books published a new anthology:  Faithful Practices: everyday ways to feed your spirit.  Like its predecessor, Faithful Practices is written by a collection of lay and ordained Unitarian Universalists, with each chapter describing both the how and the why of its author's own practice.  Two things, though, make it stand out for me:

First ... well ... I'm the editor.  I was really honored when the good folks at Skinner House reached out to me, saying that they were considering doing another book like Everyday Spiritual Practices and wondering if I'd be interested in submitting a proposal.  I am tremendously grateful that they saw in me someone they trusted to take on a project like this, and seriously humbled that they saw in my proposal a vision of what the book could be.  (As always, I cannot say enough how wonderful it is to work with editors like Marshall Hawkins and Mary Benard!  They turn manuscripts into books, and are really patient and kind.)

The second thing that makes Faithful Practices stand out is that it takes an even more broad view of what can be considered a spiritual practice.  Maintaining the perspective that anything a person does with "intentionality, regularity, and depth" has the potential to serve their spiritual growth, it goes places that will be for many truly surprising.  Here's the Table of Contents:


Practices Born in Tradition

  • Learning to Pray (Sue Magidson)
  • Finding a Teacher (Wayne B. Arnason)
  • How to Begin an Integral Transformative Practice (Arvid Straube)
  • Directed Mini-Retreats (Matt Alspaugh)
  • The Greatest of These is Love (Susan Maker)
  • The Silent Singing Alphabet or Setting the Altar (Laurie Bushbaum)
  • Enloightenment in the Dressing Room (Jaelynn P Scott)
  • Entering the Labyrinth (Leia Durland-Jones)
  • The Cosmala (Jon Cleland Host)


Practices Born in Play

  • Making Magical Moments and Letting Them Go (Lynn M. Aquafondata)
  • Instagram as Spiritual Practice (Cynthia Cain)
  • Playing with My Dolls (Erik Walker Wikstrom)
  • Roller Derby (Dawn Skjei Cooley)


Practices Born in Daily Life

  • The Spiritual Practice of Chop, Chop, Chopping (Linnea Nelson)
  • The Bloom of the Present Moment (Barry Andrews)
  • The Whole of the Spiritual Life:  A Meditation on Friendship (James Ishmael Ford)
  • On the Days I Eat (Colleen McDonald)
  • Walking as a Spiritual Discipline (Jonalu Johnstone)
  • Making Art (Amy Zucker Morgenstern)
  • Creating Community (Jessica Lin)
  • Collecting Joy as a Spiritual Practice (Ann Richards)
  • Integrating Technology into Spiritual Practice (Aaron M. Stockwell)


Yes, along with walking the labyrinth, there's a chapter about walking in your neighborhood.  In addition to a chapter about making art, there's one about using Instagram.  Along with prayer there's an exploration of playing with superhero action figures (aka, "dolls") as a spiritual practice.  And then, of course, there's the not-usually-mentioned spiritual discipline of playing roller derby!

Each chapter in Faithful Practices not only describes the particular practice of its author and why they consider it meaningful, but at the end of each chapter are several questions for you to consider including, "how can you see integrating this practice into your life?"

Pax tecum,

RevWik





Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Everyday Spiritual Practice

In 1999, Skinner House books published, Everyday Spiritual Practice:  simple pathways for enriching your life.  It was edited by the Rev. Scott Alexander, and includes 38 chapters, each one written by a different person describing a spiritual practice which they, themselves, found meaningful.  These weren't academic essays about various practices; they were first person accounts of the authors' lived experiences with the practices they described.  And, so, each chapter included both a description of how the practice worked (i.e., what to do), as well as why the practice was meaningful (i.e., why to do it.)

There have been other such collections.  Three that come to mind immediately are:


I have read all three -- more than once -- and can recommend them.  I would note that all three are written from a distinctly Christian perspective.  I do not think that this is in any way a bad thing.  I think that they would be accessible even to non-Christians (who have the ability, and the willingness, to "translate" Christian language and theological assumptions).

Celebration of Discipline covers what you might call the Christian classics -- meditation, prayer, fasting, solitude, service, confession, worship, etc.  First published in 1978, Celebration of Discipline is, itself, a classic.

Brian McLaren's Finding Our Way Again, also looks at "the ancient practices" of the Christian tradition.  McLaren (author of such books as A New Kind of Christian, and, A New Kind of Christianityamong others) offers more of a context for these practices than Foster does, and many liberal/progressive religious folks would find his theology more appealing.

Practicing Our Faith is another anthology, and more expansive than either of the others.  Still, none of the chapters would surprise anyone who has any kind of exposure to traditional Christian spiritual practices.



Everyday Spiritual Practice is a different kettle of fish altogether.  Firstly, it does not assume a Christian orientation (although it is in no way anti-Christian).  All of the contributors are either ordained clergy or lay people within the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  And if you know anything about us UUs, you will not be surprised that the practices covered within these pages range from the traditional things like prayer, silent retreats, sacred reading, yoga, and mindful eating, to such things as marriage, parenting, the experience of loss, anti-racism work, and vegetarianism.  There are also chapters on quilting, gardening, and cooking.

If you are looking for ways that you can, as Scott says in the Introduction, "spiritually examine, shape, and care for your life -- and the life around you -- to achieve more wholeness, satisfaction, depth, and meaning," then you ought to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of this book.  (And yes, full disclosure, I have a chapter in the book.  In fact, that chapter formed the foundation for my own later book, Simply Pray: a modern spiritual practice to deepen your life.)

Pax tecum,

RevWik


Monday, April 9, 2018

I'm so excited to announce ...

The book I've been working on as editor is now out in print!  Here's how the publisher, Skinner House Books, is telling about it:



“In all his work as a parish minister and as an author, Erik Walker Wikstrom has been primarily concerned with deepening spiritual lives in today’s world. Now in Faithful Practices; Everyday Ways to Feed Your Spirit he has assembled a collection of essays about different ways that people take time for their souls. You'll be entertained, and you will be guided to find the holy in the ordinary and in the extraordinary.”
—Rev. Hank Peirce, Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, Massachusetts

An eclectic mix of contributors share their reflections about spiritual practices in their everyday lives. Each of them describes their practice and the ways it opens them up to their hearts and souls. From chopping vegetables to creatively arranging action figures, from taking long walks to playing roller derby, these practices demonstrate the wide range of ways that we can be spiritual, and provide models for those seeking a practice of their own.


Erik Walker Wikstrom is the Lead Minister at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of several books and curricula, including Serving With Grace: Lay Leadership as a Spiritual Practice and Simply Pray: A Modern Spiritual Practice to Deepen Your Life.



In future posts I'll write more about what's in this book, what makes it so unique in the field of spiritual practice, and the earlier Skinner House book, edited by Scott Alexander, Everyday Spiritual Practice: simple pathways for enriching your life.


Pax tecum,

RevWik


Friday, April 6, 2018

Meditation for People Who Don't Like to Meditate (pt. 3)


This is the third in a series of posts looking at the challenges people often cite when explaining why they haven't been able to stick with a meditation practice, or who've never started one because they knew they would face these challenges and couldn't imagine a way around them.  On Monday we looked at the issues of "not having enough time" and "physically not being able to sit still that long."  On Wednesday the focus was on the issue of being "too easily distracted."  Today, let's consider the complaint which, it would seem, the younger monk must have just raised with his elder:  "What happens next?"

Is that all that meditation is about?  Sitting on a cushion (or chair) and counting your breaths or saying a mantra over and over again?  Isn't something supposed to happen?  The Buddha, we're told, sat in meditation for seven days under the Bodhi tree, after which he "awakened" and saw through to the depths of reality, the underlying Truth of existence, which he then taught as the Four Noble Truths.  The term "Buddha" means "the awakened one," and there is a story that the Buddha was once walking down a road.  A man he met asked what manner of being the Buddha was -- an angel, a demon, a God, and so on.  The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

This state of "awakeness," of seeing through to the heart of reality, is what most people think of when they think of "enlightenment."  And enlightenment is what most people think is the purpose of meditation.  When asked why they think meditation is important, or something they "should" be doing, folks often say that it will make them more peaceful, more calm, more easy going, more aware, more healthy, etc.  Yet nearly everyone knows that one of the results that's usually claimed for meditation practices is "enlightenment."  Yet whether it's purely for relaxation, or for some kind of spiritual deepening, most people think that meditation is going to do something for them.

Within the Zen tradition(s), at least, doing meditation in order to accomplish or achieve something is to fundamentally misunderstand the practice of meditation.  In fact, one might say that the extent to which you practice in order for something to happen, the less you are truly meditating.  As the senior monk in the cartoon says, "Nothing happens next.  This is it."  The purpose of sitting on your cushion, it's been said, is to sit on your cushion.  Nothing else.

There's a wonderful story told about Ludwig van Beethoven.  It is very likely apocryphal, but the story is that after playing one of his piano sonata's at some fashionable soiree, as he did, a woman said, "That was marvelous, Herr Beethoven ... but what did it mean?"  Beethoven is said to have sat down at the piano again and played the piece through one more time.  When he was finished, he looked at the woman and said, "That, Fraulein, is what it means!"

The Thing In Itself.   The music exists for its own sake; it has no meaning or purpose.  It doesn't exist so that ... anything.  It exists because it exists.  I'm put in mind of what the character of God gives to Moses when they meet at the burning bush and Moses asks God's name:  "I am that I am."  (Interestingly, the Hebrew can also be translated as "I was what I was," "I will be what I will be," or any combination.)  In other words, the name, the underlying reality of God, is "is-ness," is existence.  God is, and that's all that matters.

And that's true of us, also.  At least, if you look at life through the lens of in-this-moment mindfulness.  If this moment is really the only moment that exists, then I am not typing these words in order for you to read them.  I'm typing them because I'm typing them.  I'm typing them to type them; there is no other purpose.  If I were typing them so that you could read them, and something goes wrong with my computer and the file is erased, then I would have wasted this moment.  I don't mind if you do read them, of course.  In fact, I hope you will.  But if I am truly living with the awareness that this moment is the only moment, then I can't write them for any other reason than the writing of them.

Now, note that I said, "if you look at life through the lens of in-this-moment mindfulness."  One of the things the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, John Daido Loori, used to say was that when you're sitting in the meditation hall you are aware that all things are interconnected, that nothing exists independent of anything else, that, "you and I are one."  However, he would say, when you're crossing traffic you need to remember that you and the car coming at you are different!

So yes, of course, as I'm sitting here writing this post I am doing so, at least in part, in the hopes that you'll read it, and that there'll be something in here that'll be worth your time.  That is, if you will, the way we look at things in "ordinary time."  Yet just as practicing scales is an exercise a musician does to be able to play their instrument more beautifully, or working out at the gym is a kind of peculiar time set aside to prepare one's body to function more healthfully and effectively, so, too, the time spent in your meditation practice is sort of a time set apart from "ordinary time."  It is, if you will, a time during which you train yourself to be mindful so that, in the moment-to-moment realities of our lives we can be more mindful.

As noted on Wednesday, meditation is a four-fold practice:  Focus.  Become Distracted.  Recognize that we've become distracted.  Make the decision to return to our original focus.  While in the middle of doing this practice, there is no reason for doing so except for the doing of it.  If you're doing it in order to become more peaceful, then that intention is, itself, a distraction from the focus on, for instance, counting your breaths.  If you're training yourself to focus only on the thing you've chosen for your focus -- your breathing, a mantra, a candle's flame -- than anything else you bring with you into your time of meditation is a distraction.

It is very likely -- extremely likely, in fact -- that if you engage in a meditation practice (or, for that matter, any spiritual practice) you will experience some "results."  Chances are you will feel more peaceful, calm, serene, relaxed, healthy, focused, etc., etc., etc.  You might even gain enlightenment and see through to the "really real."  Yet during the time you've set aside for meditation, you probably shouldn't feel as though anything is happening.  In that moment, there should only be the sitting.

Pax tecum,

RevWik

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Meditation for People Who Don't Like to Meditate (pt. 2)


On Monday I began to write a bit about meditation.  I noted that there seem to be three kinds of folks when it comes to meditation -- those who've tried to meditate but ran into too many challenges, people who've never tried to start a meditation practice because they thought the would run into too many challenges, and those who have a meditation practice (no matter how spotty) and who are committed to deepening it.

When asked about the challenges people have run into, answers tend to fall into three categories:  not enough time, can't quite our restless minds, and it's hard to keep the practice alive because nothing seems to be happening (i.e., it's boring).  Having looked in the last post at the question of time, I want to address the issue of what Buddhists sometimes call "monkey mind."

Everybody knows that meditation is about sitting still and quieting the mind so that you are not distracted by the usual inner monologue(s), right?  That's the point, isn't it?  A quiet, serene mind?

Well ... I don't really think so.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that those distractions are actually essential for meditation. Rather than a problem, they are at the heart of the practice.

I have studied a number of different meditation techniques over the years.  (I've even practiced some!)  And just like I believe that there are core elements in prayer that transcend any religious tradition's particular dressing, I believe that there are four phases in any meditative practice.
  1. Choose a focus
  2. Become distracted
  3. Recognize that you've become distracted
  4. Choose to return to the focus


1.  Choose a focus:  in some traditions you count your breath, one count for each in-breath and each out-breath -- "breathe in, one; breathe out, two; breathe in, three; breathe out, four" -- continuing until you've reached ten, and then start over.  In other traditions, the focus is a word or a phrase, a mantra.  Sometimes you're encouraged to look at a candle flame, or an icon.  Yet despite the apparent differences between traditions, nearly all at least begin by suggesting that you focus your mind on something.  Zen practitioners sometimes refer to this as, "feeding the hungry tiger," because besides being like a money (jumping from thing to thing) our minds are also like tigers which, if they don't get something to eat, become voracious.  Just emptying the mind of all thoughts, then, is a pretty advanced technique.  We novices need something on which to focus the mind, so that we can then let everything else go.  (Another metaphor could be that the focus we use is like the rodeo clown that gets the attention of the bull so that the other people in the ring can get free.)  In choosing a focus, we are choosing to engage with an exercise.

2.  Become distracted:  This is the part of the practice of meditation that causes a lot of people to quit, or not to begin in the first place.  Because we have this notion that meditation is about having a still and quiet mind, the fact that our minds seem to become even more cacophonous when we try to meditate is incredibly frustrating.  Some people believe that they just aren't able to meditate because they just can't get their minds to quiet down.  "Breathe in, one; breathe out, two; breathe in ... what am I going to cook for dinner tonight?  Did I remember to close the door?   Oh why didn't I stand up to my boss this morning?  Oh crap ... Breathe in, one; Breathe ... I'm a lousy meditatator.  I can't do this.  Whtat's the point?  Breathe in, one ..."  Some of us get further along in our counting than this, others don't even get this far, but the monkey mind always seems to reassert itself.  This isn't failure, though.  If we didn't get distracted, we'd have nothing to work with.

3.  Recognize that we've become distracted:  This is key.  If in our meditation we didn't have this opportunity to recognize when we've become distracted, there would be no practice.  It'd be like going to the gym without ever picking up a weight or getting on the stair climber.  At a certain point we realize that we've forgotten our decision to focus on one thing as a way of allowing all of our other thoughts to drop off.  We can, of course, berate ourselves when we discover that our mind has wandered, and many of us do.  This is why some of us quit trying to meditate.  On the other hand, we can see this recognition of our distractedness as a good thing.  It is a major step toward that goal of a still and quiet mind.

4.  Decide to return to your focus:  As I said, we could choose to self-flagellate when we recognize that we've strayed "from our meditation," or  we can accept this as part of the practice, each part of which is essential.  If we could choose a focus and then actually stay focused with no other thoughts intruding on our single-pointness, we wouldn't actually be meditating.  And whether you need to return to your focus one hundred times during your practice or just once (right at the even because you hadn't even noticed that you'd been distracted the entire time!), each phase of this four-phase pattern is necessary.

Whatever the goal of meditation may be, as understood through the lens of any particular tradition's teachings, that practice itself fundamentally consists of these four steps:  choose to focus your mind on one thing so that you're fully and intentionally aware of it; lose track of that one thing in the flurry of the thousand and one things that we're usually swimming in; become aware that we've stopped being fully aware of what we've decided to do during this time; and make the conscious choice to return to our original focus.

One more thought -- there is a meta-dimension to this four-fold schema.  If you, like me, find your practice to be  ... spotty ... take hope.  The fact that you can't seem to maintain a daily meditation practice is analogous to the difficulty of maintaining focus.  Let's say you decide to meditate daily.  And you do, for a while.  But then life encroaches and you soon realize that you haven't meditated for days or weeks.  (Or, as has been true for me more than once, months.)  This is like choosing a focus and then becoming distracted.  So, just as within a particular period of meditation, notice that you've become distracted, and when you recognize that you've not meditated in a while, choose right then to return to your original decision to engage this practice.  See the parallel?  Make a conscious choice; loose sight of that decision; recognize that you've forgotten your commitment; recommit yourself.

So ... there's a way of looking at the distractions of your hyper-active minds that might just eliminate that as a hurdle to engaging in a meditation practice.  (Or that can support you in sticking to it.)  On Friday we'll tackle the last of the most frequently named challenges -- boredom, the experience that nothing seems to be happening.

Pax tecum,

RevWik