Aching for Wonder

For the past month, there’s been a poem by Mary Oliver echoing through my head. And what’s funny – or coincidental or providential or whatever you believe about these sorts of things – is that since I first heard the poem about a month ago, I’ve seen it referenced by no less than three different people in blogs and speeches. Weird.

Here are the first lines:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

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I’ll tell you right now, some of you just skimmed those lines of the poem. (I know that’s what I’ve done a lot in my life with poetry.) And some of you probably read them and thought to yourself, “meh, don’t know what the big deal is.” And some of you probably projected some ideas you have about me upon the poem and now are questioning my sanity.

But there are probably a few of you who read those lines and you may have gasped because somehow, in some deep, mystical way, those words cut through you.

I call this the ache of wonder. Sometimes a song, a poem, a picture, or a moment, sometimes in a religious space, sometimes in the most ordinary of situations, I see or hear something that is full of meaning and wonder to me.  At times, I’ve simply been standing under the open sky at a concert and for whatever reason – the music, the weather, the people I’m with – I have a deep ache inside me.

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I don’t think I’m strange in this. I think we all have these moments if we are willing to open ourselves up to them, if we slow down, if we pay attention, if we stop and listen when we feel the invitation to gasp and hold the wonder in our chest, for however long it wants to reside.

I think this is a part of intimacy – when we share these moments, when we share our aches of wonder and we find someone who aches over the same beautiful thing, a connection is made. This is why lovers make mix tapes, why writers write, why painters paint – we’re looking for “our people,” the people who are inspired, moved by some of the same things we are.

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I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Yes, in case you’re following along, I’m quoting Big Magic AGAIN. And if you talk to me in real life, I quote “my friend Liz” (not really, but I wish) a lot. But she’s so right – paying attention to wonder connects me to my soul.

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So here’s a thought that’s been rattling around. To be honest, I’m a little nervous to put this out there. But I’ve been thinking about creating a wonder gathering (yes, I know I need a new title). I’ve been thinking for a long time that I would love to create a space where I could sit with other wonder-seekers and say, “Here’s a song, here’s a passage from a book, here’s a poem, here’s a food that moves me.” And in turn, I want to sit with other people and their wonder and maybe discover that what causes the ache of wonder in them also causes ache in me.

Maybe you already have this kind of space. I think this is what book clubs can be when they get beyond “What do you think about the text?” and get to “Didn’t this one sentence just cause you to stop and sigh and marvel at the beauty?” I think this is what small groups can be if the members can get beyond discussing ideas about whatever they might be studying and instead get to deep places of intimacy where they share wonder.

I was talking with someone not to long ago, a new friend, and he was telling me of the dance party that he hosts at his house every year to celebrate New Year’s Eve. But also he told me of the email he sends to friends throughout the country asking them, “what are the songs and books that moved you over the last year?” Yes. Dance parties are fun, but sharing wonder moves us towards those whom we love.

At the same time, this idea scares me a little, because to share my wonder is to share my soul and my soul is fragile and doesn’t want to spread itself out to everyone. So here’s a lesser invitation. Share with us one wonder. Share with us in this space a song that you can’t get enough of right now or a picture or lines from a poem.

To rewrite the fifth line from Wild Geese:

Tell me about your wonder, yours, and I will tell you mine.

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Taming the Drunken Monkeys

Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents…It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

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In September, I was hiking with my friend Justin in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. Both Justin and I are outgoing, friendly, talkative types, but when you started hiking before sunrise, carrying a 60-pound pack, and it’s now late afternoon and you’ve still got a long way to go – so long that you’ll eventually end up hiking in the dark the last 2 hours to get to your campsite for the night – you just run out of things to talk about.

I don’t know about you, but when I stop talking and my phone is turned off and packed away, when I don’t have music playing in the background and there’s nothing else to do besides keep putting one foot in front of another, I tend to get a little crazy. My mind erupts into a cacophony of noise and chatter, some of which is good, but most of which, left unchecked, is destructive.

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The Buddha called this the “monkey mind.” He envisioned the mind as filled with drunken monkeys screeching, howling, chattering and generally misbehaving. One of the tasks of enlightenment, the Buddha taught, was to learn to tame the monkey mind.

It’s funny to me that whenever I talk to someone about silence/solitude/meditation/prayer, one of the first things that that person almost always says is “my mind gets so active when I try to be silent.” And I reply, “Yep, that’s what everyone says.” One of the very first tasks of the spiritual journey (and I think ALL of the spiritual traditions agree on this) is to learn tools for taming the monkey mind, knowing the monkeys are always ready to throw off their fetters and scream if given the slightest opportunity.

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So, on the forest trail, as silence settled in and the monkey mind erupted, I re-found the breath prayer that I had written a couple years back while circling the beautiful lake at Mundelein Seminary in the Chicago suburbs. A breath prayer is a simple prayer, easily remembered, fitting within the flow of one’s breath. It occupies the mind, staving off the drunken monkeys.

Probably the most famous breath prayer comes from the Orthodox tradition. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ (exhaling), Son of God (inhaling), have mercy on me (exhaling), a sinner (inhaling).” But there are lots of others, or you can even write your own (ask me about it and I’ll point you in the right direction). In fact, the words aren’t so important as the goal of the breath prayer: to move to a state of “praying without ceasing,” which focuses the mind on God.

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Something I learned about myself on Sabbatical is that my mind is healthiest when I’m creating things. Again, Liz Gilbert:

By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, [creating something] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir – something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration. (Big Magic)

When I’m writing, speaking, cooking, planning an event, my mind is fully engaged and so the monkey mind gets quiet. Now, I need to make a distinction here. Learning to tame the monkey mind isn’t the same as running away from it. This idea of creating as a diversion from “the dreadful burden of being who we are” can turn into running away if I’m not careful.  I also need to engage in strategies like a breath prayer as a way to quiet the monkeys. And, frankly, when I tame the monkeys, I find myself more freed up to create. It seems to be a virtuous cycle in me.

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Finally, a nod to Brene Brown here. Some of the drunken monkeys need to be rumbled with and removed from the tree. Sometimes, doing the hard work of going on an inner journey, naming what happened inside you, and rumbling with your story brings healing and wholeness in a way that will eliminate some of the chatter in your head. At least this is true for me. As I’ve rumbled with certain parts of my story over the last couple of months, some of the drunken monkeys have died because I’ve taken away food. I don’t believe this to be true of all my monkeys – there are some who will be with me the rest of my life – but in my experience, it is true of some.

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So, what’s in your monkey mind? Can you start today by at least naming the monkeys? (Hint: “fear,” “shame,” and “unworthiness,” are common species.)

[photo credit: Yep, that’s me. Justin took this one.]

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Five Things I’m Learning About the Creative Process

The last two weeks have been some of the best of my sabbatical by far. I think I’ve finally “settled in,” and I’m finding a rhythm that suits me. I spend the morning reading and writing, until sometime after lunch, then I go for a run and spend the evening with my family, doing homework and cooking dinner together. Earlier this week that time erupted into a twilight game of football in the middle of the street, until we couldn’t see the ball anymore. I can’t tell you how much joy and peace I feel playing all-time-QB with my boys in the street at dusk, facing west and a beautiful sunset. Jennifer and I were in bed by 9, we watched an episode of Gotham, and I was asleep before 10:30, so I could get up early and see the boys off to school and repeat. I’m recognizing all the ways I “hustle” for love and attention and right now, I feel free from those pressures. I’m really in “the sabbatical bubble” now, and I love it.

I’m nearly always reading multiple books at one time, but right now the book I’m most excited about is Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic. She might be near the top of my list of people-I’d-love-to-have-over-for-dinner. If you want a taste of Big Magic, you can watch her TED talk or listen to her “Magic Lessons” Podcast. Anyway, a whole bunch of thoughts are running through my mind this morning about creativity and the creative process.

Here’s what I’m learning about creating things:

  1. You have something to offer the world. I love the way Liz thinks about our “muse,” and how “genius” works (“you have a genius, you aren’t a genius”). In her way of thinking, all kinds of ideas surround us – creative, musical, literary, technical, relational – waiting to find a human host to bring them forth into the world. We all, simply by nature of being a human being can be conduits of birthing beauty into the world.
  2. You will have to make choices. The modern world is full of distractions. The news is on 24 hours a day, cable television always has a new series kicking off, Netflix is creating great content, Facebook and Twitter always have something to say. And for some of us, the allure of hanging out with friends, eating in cool restaurants, drinking in cool bars is always a temptation. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but they can all get in the way of the idea tapping on your shoulder wanting to find its way into the world.
  3. When you agree to work with an idea, work turns into play. In my experience, when I get tapped on the shoulder by a great idea, the “work” of writing a blog post or sermon or anything else, suddenly turns into play. There’s almost nothing I’d rather do than follow my muse, time flies by and it’s 10 minutes before the kids get home from school and I’m still in my pajamas.
  4. This will help you deal with disappointment. Here’s my truth. According to Google Analytics, very few people will actually read this post. But still, I feel compelled to write it simply because I felt inspired to and I’m trying to learn to say “yes” more often to ideas as they come, in hopes that it will open the floodgates to more ideas. I recently read The Alchemist and as much as I love the idea that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” that idea kinda feels like a lot of bullshit to me these days. Mostly, I feel like the universe conspires against me, but I keep creating, because I’m most happy and fulfilled when I do so.
  5. This isn’t selfish, it’s for the people. If you’re having fun, and you’re doing the work, you might feel a little selfish (or some a-hole will tell you so), and in that moment you’ll be tempted to self-loathing. But according to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey isn’t just about the hero being transformed by an adventure, it’s also about the hero bringing back gifts for the people. Yes, when you submit yourself to the play of creation, you will be changed, but that change brings good things to the people you love. Over the last year or so, there have been people – who because they follow their muse – have been a gift to me. Micah Murray’s raw exploration of his escape from fundamentalsm, Addie Zierman’s vulnerability in her faith journey, Rob Bell and his continued faith journey – these people and their willingness to create even in their darkest moments have been gifts that Jennifer and I have savored, lying in bed reading to one another or discussing and voicing our agreements.

So, what idea is tapping you on the shoulder? What do you need to say “no” to today, in order to play with your idea?

We are all eagerly waiting for you.

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