Category Archives: Spirituality

Into Quiet….

In the past few months, something has shifted. I’m not sure what, and not sure why. Nor do I know if I appear changed to other people, but I feel more quiet inside.

I find I often can and want to be still, to sit without moving or wanting to move. I had pretty much abandoned my morning meditation practice, but now I am doing it again and finding it easier to let go of obsessive thinking and return to breathing in and out, observing as my body fills with breath, expanding and then relaxing, expanding, letting go.

I have been drinking Pu-Erh tea first thing every morning for almost three years, but only now am I noticing, as I sit very still, how the caffeine sets my entire body to tingling.

I pause at various times during the day to observe my hands as they cut an apple or to contemplate the flower stalk of my amaryllis bulb as it races upwards to bloom. These are the sorts of moments of mindfulness that I’ve tried to remember to cultivate in the past, but now they just seem to unfold.

Being pulled towards stillness seems natural enough—but it has worried me. I will be 76 in a few weeks. What if my body and mind are becoming quiet because some part of my brain is beginning to malfunction or shut down? Do I feel empty because my brain is, in fact, empty, a shrinking walnut knocking around inside my cranium?

Oh, my, I hope not.

However, as I meditated yesterday morning I realized something that made me feel a whole lot better about my turn towards stillness—that made me, actually, almost giddy.

It occurred to me that the place, or the mental/physical state, to which I feel drawn is akin to something I have experienced for a while now when doing taiji.

When I do the form slowly, with relaxation and focus, my movements become very steady, very smooth—indeed, very still. I feel as if I’m engaged in some kind of flow, riding or possibly creating an almost palpable stream that may curve or change direction but that continues without interruption until I stop moving—or lose focus. It is lovely—and I am certain it is not dementia.

Perhaps I am becoming able to be in that same space, or substance, when I’m not doing taiji. Perhaps I have entered another stage of whatever journey I am on.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been floundering, wondering what is happening to me and where I’m going, I’ve been wanting to find a spiritual home or teacher or companions in meditation, and through a series of coincidences, on New Year’s Eve, I did.

I am now meditating with a group of lay people at a convent in my city. It is an extremely odd place for me to be feeling at home. I am a lifelong agnostic with deep prejudice against the Catholic Church taught to me by my mother, and to her by her parents, who had been disgusted with the hypocrisy they witnessed in the church in Europe.

But so it has happened. The sessions I attend are referred to as contemplative prayer, although the format is pretty much the same as at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Oregon where I once did a number of retreats. Indeed, the nun who leads the group is also a Zen master (and I am not naming her because, by the self-imposed rules of my blog, I would need to ask her to read this before doing so, and I have come to feel that asking people to read what I’ve written for any reason is pretentious).

During our meditation sessions, which are two 20-minute sessions with a period of silent, meditative walking in between, we can ask to have a consultation with the leader in a separate room, as was done in Oregon. Last week, she said to me, as she had said before to the group, that one might choose to use the word God, or life force, or some other term, but that it is all the same, it is all the spark of life that flows through us—but somehow, as she said it to me as we sat face to face, my tears welled up.

“You’ve felt it,” she said. “Yes,” I said, “perhaps I have.”

Felt what? Now I’m not sure. I think my tears may have come because, as she spoke of that something flowing through us, her hands depicted that flow by moving outwards from her body—and because I was sitting across from her, they moved towards me. It wasn’t that I felt that she, personally, was giving me something, but that I felt that I have been given something the various times I’ve had ah-hah moments in qigong.

When those moments have happened, I have always felt awed—and grateful. Perhaps that is what worship is about. There’s a book about Chinese medicine titled “The Web That Has No Weaver.” Perhaps, at least for me, this flow of life is the gift that has no giver.

I don’t have any idea how this pull to quiet is going to turn out, but I feel an unaccustomed acceptance of not knowing. For now, I’m just going to sit and breathe….

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New Year’s Day Spiritual Recognitions….

Like many of you, I generally use the turning of the year to take stock of my life and make resolutions to fix some of the ways in which I find it, and me, wanting.

On this New Year’s morning, I had repaired to my sofa with tea and cat, prepared to do what I’ve done before, when I found an email from my Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and his naturopath wife in my iPhone inbox.

They proposed doing a different sort of stock-taking: taking stock of what’s good and what’s working in our lives, instead of what’s wrong, and beginning the year with feelings of gratitude instead of focusing  on deficiency.

If we’re struggling in some areas, they suggested we bring kindly attention to those areas, without berating ourselves, and then realign, perhaps redefine, and shift from wanting to having.

Frankly, some years I would have found this message a bit pat, even cloying. This New Year’s Day I realized, slowly but surely, that it was just what I needed, and what I wanted to and could do.

There are many areas of my life where I realize on a regular basis that I am incredibly fortunate, where gratitude comes easily.

But my spiritual practices had become problematic. I worried that they were self-indulgent, perhaps even pointless, or worse. Taiji often felt like an exercise in failure, what with my balance/dizziness/internal swoopiness issues. And I didn’t know where to go with qigong, since maybe I’d been doing it wrong and/or amplifying flaws inherent to my aging brain, with the result being internal swoopiness instead of knowing and peace.

But as I pondered, I realized there were indeed positives in my spiritual practices, things I could be grateful for. Continue reading

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Qi Dimension, Take 2

A stone wall Thomas Merton might have seen burning

A stone wall Thomas Merton might have seen burning

A couple of weeks ago, Janine Larsen, who is the executive of the Pacific Northwest District of the Unitarian Universalist Association and also a member of my UU church, spoke at a Sunday morning service about her Buddhist spiritual practice.

She called her talk “Cultivating Irrational Mind,” although I wish she’d called it “Cultivating Non-Rational Mind” because, for me, the word “irrational” brings forth images of people shouting and being nasty and totally unwilling to consider anyone else’s point of view during an argument or at a political gathering. But, then, it was her talk….

And it was a wonderful talk, full of things I particularly needed to hear that morning when I was deeply into my late-life crisis. I asked her to send me a copy so I could have some of her words to hang on to.

When I printed it out and read it, I put a giant star in the margin where she quoted UU lay leader David Rynick as saying, “Spiritual practice is what we do repeatedly with the intention of moving closer to that which is most true and alive for us.”

Yes…. Yes. And I should probably add that I definitely view qigong as a spiritual practice.

Farther on Janine said that Buddhist meditation has helped her grow a more spacious mind, that she occasionally experiences internal quiet when she is being still, and that she can more readily let things go and trust who she really is instead of worrying about who she thinks she is or should be.

Which I think/hope is the direction qigong is taking me. Indeed, perhaps what I have termed my late-life crisis is merely the result of the ways qigong is changing me. Change, of course, is not always comfortable.

Janine spoke of Zen Buddhist koans, the seemingly nonsensical stories that Zen teachers use to get their students to shift from logical analysis to intuitive, non-rational understanding. She presented several examples of stories that would once have driven me nuts, including the poem “In Silence” by Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, mystic and amazingly prolific writer. Continue reading

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