Documenting the journey. This is my Reflective Expression for Module Four of my Spiritual Direction Certification/Master’s of Pastoral Counseling Program …
As I sit here reflecting on Module Four, tears stream down my face. So much is moving in me that is hard to articulate. The Divine has always been present in my life, more present than my own breath and the blood coursing through my veins, but for much of my life I never saw it that way. While I’ve always been spiritually inclined and attuned, at the same time something has often made me feel alone and at war with the world … ego? Throughout life, I’ve been driven to excel and I’ve often felt like it was up to me (and only me) to get where I wanted to go. I see now that God has always been directing my actions, that it is by God’s grace that I’m in this program, having these experiences, articulating these things to you. Sure, I made these things happen by my actions, but what is the source of it all? Nothing is random and I am exactly where I belong.
My thoughts keep coming back to the ways I’ve settled my nervous system over the past year, how none of this would be possible had I not done that work. It’s significant because the looping nature of my brain kept me stuck in ways I now vividly see but no longer participate in. So many things I want to say sound cliche to me … ‘life really is full circle,’ and ‘I am an onion once again peeling back the layers.’ I am frustrated by my inefficiency of articulation. All I can say is ‘so much is moving,’ but I cannot form many sentences beyond that. It seems to me that I’m on an embodied journey of deep trust and that my experience, practice and life are now showing me better ways of working with my thoughts and helping me to access the deeper knowings within myself that land deeply but don’t yet have a voice.
Spiritual practice is not new to me; it’s the thing I’ve been drawn to my entire adult life. What is new, though, is this reckoning that’s taking place, merging my deep spiritual self with my very human self. I’ve read lots of things that have touched me over the years but in my spiritual studies, I’ve not yet had to read and then write reflections on them. I’ve not really connected the stories I’ve seen or read to my own life, and these days I find myself doing that on the regular. I’ve never seen things as clearly as I see them now, with a settled nervous system. And yet, lots of things are so very confusing too. Sometimes I cannot make sense of what is happening to me, how things are moving through. I rarely have big ‘a ha’s’ on the spot, directly after I’ve watched or read something. Things move me, yes, but the realizations often come days later, ‘out of the blue.’
With that said, I’ll do my best to reflect on the questions posed in this Reflective Expression assignment … Mabry’s work felt straightforward and somewhat rigid to me, but I absolutely see the value of it for new spiritual directors and for those going into spiritual direction as directees/clients. I entered spiritual direction myself less than two years ago and I was very fortunate to find a spiritual director who resonates deeply with me. I trust her and I’m thankful to work with her each month, but since starting this program, I am interested in working with another spiritual director from a tradition other than my own.
One thing I particularly liked in Mabry’s book was the way he wrote about establishing and maintaining firm boundaries. Luckily I’ve not crossed any of them but I can see how easy that could be to do. In some ways I’ve given my spiritual director a lot more ‘clout’ and credit than is perhaps necessary; I’ve become pretty attached to her. It is absolutely appropriate to express my gratitude, but to put her on a higher level is an action of my ego, not my spirit. She has been a spiritual director for thirty years and she is very good but this sentence from Mabry’s book really stood out: “I lit a candle and said, “This will remind us that there are three of us here.” My spiritual director is quite skilled at bringing me back to the ways the Divine is working in my life, that forces greater than me are working alongside of me on the journey. I’m not alone.
Throughout our study these last few months, I have been thinking a lot about how I will administer spiritual direction to others. I enjoy listening much more than talking and I don’t feel I’ll have trouble in that department. I also have done a lot of work around giving advice, especially unsolicited, and more recently I’m hesitant to give even solicited advice, mostly because I see so clearly these days how we truly must forge our own ways. Each of us works on and works through our ‘stuff’ differently. With that said, I absolutely loved Mary O’Malley’s book and have been using the questions she presents in my own personal practice as a way to better understand them. As I was going through a hard time last week, the questions were a beautiful way to shift negative energy that has been stuck for a while. I believe the questions are a great tool for helping others recognize their own inner wisdom/divinity and am excited to begin to use them in practice.
My favorite reading assignment was Dreaming Me, hands down. Her journey was fascinating; to me it shows the possibility of a human life. She really is a person who was up against all odds and persevered in the most beautiful of ways. As I read, I thought a lot about identity, belonging, having a sense of place, dignity, and of fighting for what is right. Her life is the epitome of contemplation AND action. As a white educated woman, my own life has been privileged, but in reading about her upbringing and the deep-seated racism she (and everyone else of color) endured, I felt deeply and understood her draw toward taking a stand and working with the Black Panthers. In the end she said she was glad she didn’t choose that path, and in my opinion, the path she did choose took even more courage. To look at and be with such deep systematic racism and to choose compassion takes a lot of strength and fortitude. Only the Divine in us is truly capable of that.
Early in her story, I underlined these words, “As I grew older, I also wanted to trust and to genuinely love others. To get beyond the pervasive sense of pain and suffering I carried, I knew I would have to find healing, to find that place of belonging that is so basic for us all; feeling at home in our own skins. And so, from my earliest days, my solitary quest became to find a way to accept myself, and to love me.” While I didn’t endure racism or the hardships she did, her words resonated deeply; I saw myself in them. As humans, pain is the very thing we inflict upon one another, but our commonality is that we all want to be happy and free from suffering
I wrote these words, ’the ways we’re affected by small, seemingly random events of childhood’ next to this passage:“I was different, I was strange, I was smart—she often told me—and now I was also evil. It was a weight that seemed unbearable.” I could see myself in these words too. Truthfully, I think Willis’ work has stirred up some deep philosophical questions in me about life. Being human is hard, no matter who you are. Our work here is to alleviate suffering and it’s a practice … I’m not sure it comes naturally for anyone. Even deeply compassionate people deal with hardship, heartache and old demons that seem not to let them go. It’s also frustrating to not know how to proceed in life. We’re invited to live in the mystery but humans aren’t built that way. It takes practice.
“Well, first you must know that you would not have recognized such intense emotions if these were not a part of your own mind …” was another line that touched me. I have heard that many times but understanding her life story and the context of the situation she was speaking about helped me understand it better. I don’t think any of us want to see ourselves as having hatred within but as humans these emotions live in all of us. She could have felt so righteous and indignant about the hatred the white woman showed her; many would fight fire with fire in these situations. And this line came toward the end of the book, after a lifetime’s worth of work in compassion but it was still there, still very present within her. Lama Pema’s response was also priceless to me: “Spit it out and keep going!” He was deeply attuned to her suffering and at the same time casual in his words and tone, like spit it out, it’s just that easy. “Buddhism stresses overcoming suffering through understanding how we each play a part in constructing it, and that compassion and wisdom go hand in hand. These are lessons about being human.”
The final lines I’d like to comment on relate to my own understanding of how ‘paths are many, truth is one.’ Early in the book, on page 57, Willis realizes her oneness with all just after her baptism. She was never drawn to the Baptist faith of her upbringing but in the end, she found comfort and commonality there. Later in the book, she writes, “It was a joyous place. The Spirit moved and breathed here because it was holy ground. That same spirit infused Buddhists too …” and “I am a human being, graced by the eternal truths espoused both by Baptists and Buddhists …” For a long time now, I’ve been struggling with my own beliefs. No, that is not quite right. I know what I believe but no one religion or practice outlines it perfectly. I am a yogi who uses poetry, embodiment and Buddhist practices and the philosophy of the Yoga Sutras as a way in to spirit and my true nature. I participate in the Eucharist and Catholic Mass but I have a hard time calling myself Catholic. Sometimes it’s unsettling to me that my spirituality is so fluid and open. I want to practice compassion and live in Truth. I appreciate that I am not alone.
Finally, I loved the line, “one doesn’t know what one really believes until one is forced to act.” Her words, all of them have given voice to the things I feel, and comfort that I am not alone in feeling them. I return to the lesson that’s been present for most of my adult life. Relax and trust your life, Heather. I apologize if I quoted too much; I could write a report on this book. It touched me deeply. “Practice patience. Think of others always with compassion, and as for yourself, count your blessings. Give up everything to hear that still, small voice.” Yaaaassssssss.