Meditations on a pencil sharpener

I have an electric pencil sharpener behind my desk. I love this thing. I love having a really sharp pencil for balancing my checkbook and writing out ideas. In both cases, the eraser comes in handy, but I like having the sharp point to make my numbers and ideas clear and easy to read.

I noticed as I was sharpening some pencils today that if I push too hard, the whole thing stops. There’s a level of pressure that is right between too hard and not hard enough that is perfect. It lets the machine do its work, shaving off the next level of wood and lead. Push too hard and the machine will dig too deep and break the pencil. Don’t push hard enough and nothing really gets sharpened. Isn’t it the same with creativity? Push too hard to make “art” or deep change and you end up jamming up the works. You try to go too fast and everyone feels pushed and stressed out. Don’t work at all, and you end up with no results. Eventually, the project gets boring because there’s no forward motion.

I also noticed that my pencil sharpener is a Boston product. To me, the town of Boston is my past. My family is mostly from New England and the Boston mindset (and accent) feels like home sometimes. There’s so much good back there. Of course, if it was really for me, I’d be living there. It’s not a bad place, just not my place to live all the time. When I’m in my creative mindset, when I’m living the life I’m creating, it’s important to know where I belong and what is now a part of my past. The outer layer of wood on my pencil has also served me well at some previous point. It’s not useful now because it’s covering up the lead I need to write my next chapter with.

Today I dumped out the reservoir of pencil shavings. It’s important to consciously let go of what no longer serves us on a regular basis. That might be the clothes in your closet, the relationships you’ve outgrown or the mindset that has been leading you into confusion and unhappiness. All of this benefits from regular evaluation and release.

Finally, I notice that this is an electric pencil sharpener. What a great metaphor! No matter what tools I am using, the energy behind the tool is something outside of me. As I create my world, as I sharpen my own consciousness and bring forth balance or new ideas, I’m powered by a greater energy. I don’t need to provide that power. It’s there for me to use whenever I use this machine. It will wait for me to be ready. I never feel guilty for not sharpening something in my office. The pencil sharpener is there for my use when I’m ready, as are the pencils and every other physical and metaphorical tool I have.

Isn’t it great that Spirit shows up in such beautiful, mundane ways? God is in my pencil sharpener as much as the majestic mountains and all the miracles we all recognize in our daily lives.

Pride and Pruning

I just spent a little over an hour working outside the Center pruning bushes and cleaning up a bit. I was there helping our Saturday morning volunteers. One of them drags around an oxygen tank and I know at least one is an octogenarian. I lasted an hour. Tops. They were working when I got here and are still working. Yikes! I bow to their superior stick-to-it-ness.

I find that doing physical work is good for me, no matter how much I might avoid it. It’s good for me when I get too stuck in how hard it is to do all the mental work I do. It’s also good for me when I get too puffed up with pride, thinking about how I can do things better than other people and start thinking that means something. What Spirit was pruning from me out there was the unhealthy kind of pride. Healthy pride says I have intrinsic worth. Unhealthy pride says I have more intrinsic worth than you do.

I doubt very much those bushes out there are comparing themselves to each other and noticing who I left lopsided or where there are still stray flyaway branches. I know they aren’t comparing how they looked before to how they look now and lamenting that they can’t afford a better hair dresser… uhm, gardener. Emerson once wrote:

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower, there is no more; in the leafless root, there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.

When I get stuck in unhealthy pride, I am miserable. Nothing I do will ever be good enough. Nothing I say will ever be wise enough. I know this is something most of you already know, but the answer will always be to go back to God (by whatever name you use). Get back into this moment. Remember that you are like the other plants, no better and no worse, that exist in the Divine Garden. You are there for a reason that is all yours. Physical work, as much as I might try to avoid it, helps me get back in the present.

Maybe today was about pruning my unhappy pride as much as helping out our volunteers. I’ll probably come up with a hundred and one excuses to do other work on the first Saturday of other months. But in the future, I’ll be aware that spending an hour with the landscape is worth the time.

Reaching out

 

I’ve heard that the biggest issue in America today is loneliness. I don’t know – maybe it’s actually homelessness or the fact that we are still at war or that bookstores and libraries are closing. Still the loneliness thing seems to be attached to all the other issues, so we may as well see what we can do about this one.

I’ve started several groups that meet on a regular basis to offer mutual support. Sometimes the groups really take off. Sometimes they take off after the third or fourth attempt. Sometimes I’ve found that the reason they didn’t take off is because there’s already a group and so I join that one.

I meet with a group of eight female ministers once a month for lunch. It took a few tries to get this group going, but we did it and have been meeting for several years now. I don’t know what I’d do without these women. They have heard me celebrate big and little victories. They have heard me lose it over big (and little) tragedies. They have remained in principle and unmoved by my story, although they are always wonderfully compassionate and loving to me (they just don’t buy my story – it’s a good thing). I’ve heard them in the same types of circumstances. We laugh together about the crazy gig called ministry that we all love. It is more than worth driving an hour and a half each way to eat salad with these beautiful souls.

The thing is, this started as a semi-professional meeting. We met because we were all ministers in a particular philosophy in a male dominated profession. We do share best practices, new books and trainings and what to never try again, but mostly we share our lives. This is the big secret. There is a lot more professional development and worth in creating the connection than in finding out which fundraiser works the best.

Because of this group, I answered the call to be a Regional Support Representative for our region. Our region is five states, with about thirty Centers. I did it because 1. They asked me and I didn’t think “they” even knew my name and 2. I wanted to pay the good I got my from minister friends. Now, I don’t get to meet with all the ministers or Boards in my region on a regular basis. We certainly don’t get to do lunch together more than once a year, if ever. But I can call, and send silly emails, and that’s a connection. They all have my number. I know before I took over, I sometimes thought my RSC was watching me and would call just as I was losing perspective. And she usually said exactly the right thing or pointed me in the direction to find the right thing myself.

Here’s another secret. I’m massively shy. I don’t reach out easily. I’ve gotten myself into hot water more times than I care to say because I let myself get isolated. I get why loneliness might feel like the biggest issue in our country right now. And I’ve learned that the best way to heal my own loneliness is to reach out to someone who might be in the same boat. In that way, neither one of us is lonely anymore. So it’s really a self-serving spiritual practice. I’m not nice as much as smart. And I offer my trick to you as a cure of any loneliness or isolation you  might be feeling.

Worthy of consideration

Today I found out that the report I worked so hard to get out…hadn’t been sent. For whatever reason, I attached a report from several years ago to the email. I got the right report out this morning, and heard back from our manager that I have another month before my report is actually due. Son of a motherless goat! This is a great opportunity to stop for a moment and chill. I don’t need to get everything done right now. I am trying to make sure all my bases are covered so when I leave (in over a month) I have everything done for the time I’ll be gone. What I need to remember is that, due to my compulsively responsible nature, I’m actually ahead of the game.

I spoke last Sunday about realizing that sometimes the things we most hold against ourselves are actually strengths in disguise. Okay, they can be strengths when seen correctly, as part of God/Good. That’s more accurate. I used to take it very personally when I made a mistake because I thought/believed that mistakes or dropping the ball was a direct reflection of my worth as a person. I didn’t know that worthiness is something we all inherently carry. When I know I’m worthy of love or my space on the planet or whatever good I feel I need, life is just easier. I have nothing to prove. When I don’t know I’m worthy, I have everything to prove and no hope of ever proving it.

If I still believed in the lie about being unworthy or inherently broken and bad (anyone else ever feel that way?) I would be deeply embarrassed by sending so many emails to folks who are already busy. This morning, I laughed it off and let it slow me down enough to notice what is going right. I have plenty of time to get things done. I have time to go slow and be creative. I have time to do whichever project I want because I’ll get to the others in due time.

What aspects of yourself can you reframe in a positive way? What would allow you to feel worthy, or notice that you were never unworthy? What will it take for you to live from worthiness?

A balanced budget

It seems like balance is a big issue for me. When I was in ministerial school, one of our instructors often reminded us to aim for the B. As you may guess, many of us were over-achiever types who put pressure on ourselves to get all A’s. Now in this case, the B stood for balance. We were to pay as much attention to creating work and life balance as we were to creating an awesome business plan or powerful Sunday talks. Balance is what really matters, we are told.

What if there’s no such thing, really? What if, when I say balance, what I mean is to be really present in whatever I’m doing? So if I’m at work, I’m not thinking about the weeds that are out of control in my yard at home? If I’m at home, I’m not obsessing over my next talk or even contemplating how to fit in an extra pastoral care visit in this week. I find that being fully present is enough of a challenge for me. If I add in trying to be completely balanced between work and play then it becomes too much. The truth is that, for me, there will be times I need or want to be at home for longer periods. There are times of the year when I simply expect to be busy at work. Basically don’t really expect my full attention between Thanksgiving and Christmas unless we are in my office talking about the work of ministry.

I’m working on the Center budget right now. The big goal is to find a way to fit in everything we think we need and have a plan to pay for it all. When I start this process, I find that the first version of the budget, where we just plug in numbers that seem to make sense based on what we spent in previous years, is almost always way out of whack. Never in our favor, either. It takes more time and more thought to bring us into balance. I’m starting to think that life balance requires the same time and attention to expenditures and income. Where do I get my energy? Am I willing to invest enough time in the things that feed me so that I don’t end up in the red at the end of the day or week or year? I’m so careful to balance the financial budgets in my life – time to look at other kinds of energy as well.

So… is your energetic budget balanced? How do you make sure?

Immortality

Tonight I’m teaching a class whose theme is Immortality. We’re going to be talking about life after death, what it might be like to live without a human body and what we teach about all that. Mostly it ends up being a discussion of the students’ experience with near death experiences, ghosts and other interesting occurrences. The thing is, our teaching is pretty simple. We don’t claim to know. We each individually have our pet theories, but the official teaching is that we can’t really know.

Here’s my official teaching. It’s more interesting to me to know if there can be a healthy, prosperous, fulfilling life BEFORE death. My focus is on right now. Am I doing everything I can to live large before I leave or am I just waiting for whatever comes next?

When I was in Practitioner training, we had to do an exercise in which we wrote our own eulogies and planned our memorial services. Mine was a big party with balloons and music and fun. I said I had died at the age of 83. I believe it was a happy death, and not a particularly difficult one. I had time to say goodbye to folks, make sure my affairs were in order and then just leave gracefully. This exercise is supposed to be about living more fully in this life because we are reminded we won’t be here forever.

I’ve been pretty up front about managing my depressive disorder. The effect this exercise had on me was to make me calculate how much longer I had to be here and when I could leave. It was more like counting down a prison sentence (a life sentence, if I want to be facetious). I’m not afraid of death; like many of us, I tend to have more anxiety around life. Realizing that I believe life to be eternal was, at one point, a very painful truth.

So now I’m taking the next step. At this juncture in my life, I still firmly believe that life is eternal and we get to keep the memory of whoever we were on earth. That’s no longer bad news. I also believe that we get to learn more about whom we have been in other lives and who we are between lives, which sounds pretty cool to me. The homework (as it were) is to make sure I don’t waste the time I have here. Am I coming out from behind my Netflix queue in order to engage with real people? Am I being of service to the folks I meet in the grocery store and at work, or do I just post something on my Facebook letting people know how I feel about the latest scandal? Or kittens, for that matter? (I’m pro-kittens, for the record).

This culture makes it so easy to live from a step back. We make it easy to live by proxy through our electronics. It takes effort to remain present in the here and now, and I believe it’s entirely worth it. As fascinating as I find near death experiences (nope, never had one) I don’t want to have a near life experience while I’m here. If for no other reason, I want actual people to show up for my memorial service and have something to say other than what my favorite TV show was.

Listing

I love making lists. I love checking things off my list each day or week. I make a list of things I want to accomplish and then gleefully check them off. I don’t scratch them out because I might not be able to read them easily if I did. I want to go back over the list and make sure I don’t try to do something twice (waste of energy) and I want the joy of knowing exactly what I accomplished.

To some degree the whole list thing is useless for doing spiritual practice. I can’t say “meditate”, then put a check mark by it and be done for the day, much less the rest of my life. So far, I can’t pray for a better attitude just once. That one seems to be ongoing. Spiritual practice lists would be like putting “brush teeth” on a daily project list. Yeah, you’ll do it (one hopes) but that doesn’t mean it’s really complete. If I put it on the list of things to do, it just takes up space. It should be habitual, but I find that my habits are hard to start and even harder to stop.

I do have a mental “do every day” list but that is short. It only has three things on it. It’s just cell phone, cat box and medications. That’s my do every day before leaving the house list. I found that if I didn’t do those three things, if I tried to leave them for later in the day, bad things often happened. If you are a cat person, you don’t need me to explain. If you are not a cat person, you don’t want me to.

So how do I make my mad skillz at list making work for me in my spiritual practice? I finally found an answer. I have a list of things to do when I don’t know what to do and/or I’m not having fun. On that list are things like “use a lifeline” which refers to prayer and meditation. It also includes “call a friend”. I have the word HALT on that list. It stands for hungry, angry, lonely or tired. If I’m feeling any of those, I stop, take care of myself and then it is usually easy to move on to knowing what else to do next. Doing some kind of service is on that list. Service work both keeps me out of my head and out of the fridge (emotional eating is an old coping mechanism). I can read a book or watch a Youtube video of a sermon by a friend. There are so many things to put on this list – but when I’m in the dumps, I don’t naturally think of them. When the things on this list are a habit, I’ll have to create a new list. Luckily, that’s a favorite thing to do.

What’s on your list? What works for you?

Back in the saddle again

I took last week off kind of by necessity as our building including my office was all packed up. We got new flooring – and it’s absolutely beautiful.  On Saturday a bunch of folks put everything back and I am happily sitting in my office, back in the saddle and ready to go.

My sister was/is an equestrian. She did dressage and competed in cross country stuff. What I learned from her boils down to which direction to face while mounted on a horse, but life has taught me that getting back in the saddle, especially after a fall is important. I hear people talk about “less than active time” as down time. I often hear folks talk about just sitting around and doing nothing as if it were a waste of time. I hear myself talk about not having time to take breaks, having too much to do. What a load of horse….. you know.

What happened as a result of not being in the office this week? I got some down time and let my brain rest. I got some visits with shut-ins done on Valentine’s Day that would otherwise have felt rushed. I read some books and contemplated the vision for this Center. I did some dream-weaving around what I’d love to see happen here over the next few years. I took the time to get to an appointment that will help with my allergies.

While I “did nothing”, the building was beautified and dusty old carpet was removed (so my allergies might even be better). My office is now set up again – and much better organized. I don’t have a lot of the clutter because who puts that back? I finally looked at all the books I inherited seven years ago and decided which ones I’d actually keep here. I got the sanctuary chairs set up in the way I like, with a definite aisle down the center that is straight.

How often have I told myself that it was important not to stop and take downtime? And how often have I taught that “downtime” is another word for spiritual practice? After all, I’ve defined meditation as sitting and waiting for nothing to happen.

I’m back in the saddle, but I’m going to remember this time that it’s important to climb down and wander around every so often. And I’m going to remember that it’s been the horse that carried me when I was in the saddle. I don’t need to make things happen. I don’t have to carry the saddle OR the horse. Stopping long enough to contemplate, slowing down long enough to actually look at my life and my calling and being willing to be in the stillness… that is the essence of the spiritual life and my work. I’m so glad that Spirit found a way to make me do it.

Politics Unusual

Dictionary.com defines politics as “use of intrigue or strategy in obtaining any position of power or control, as in business, university, etc.” That’s actually the sixth definition, but it’s the first that does not use the word politics in the definition. If this is an accurate definition, is it any wonder that I hear folks talk about being sick of politics? I don’t like playing manipulation games, either. And yet, we all do it. We all have methods of getting what we need and/or want that are less than direct. We all hint at things we want to ask for rather than just asking. Why? For most of us (okay, me) it’s because I no longer realize I’m using a coping mechanism that worked when I was a child. Or I am making the assumption that it’s obvious what I’m asking for directly when the words I use actually mean something entirely different to the person I’m asking.

I have a friend who asked “Do you mind if I manipulate you into your greatness?” at the beginning of a class of adults. The uproar was immediate. No one wants to be manipulated. It feels like a power play. Even if the stated reason is to show you your greatness, the word manipulate makes it icky.

I have had lots of reasons to look at what manipulation means and especially what it means to “talk politics” lately. As a minister, it is mine to say the hard stuff sometimes. Like, are we really living from Principle in our interactions with each other and with strangers? Or are we just defending the status quo by remaining silent, not speaking out when we feel in our hearts something is going sideways? I don’t want to talk politics from the pulpit. I feel comfortable saying that the strategy I am willing to employ to use the inherent power that I have is really just spiritual techniques that help me govern my own thoughts. Yes, of course, there are times when I wish folks would just stop arguing and do as I say, but that’s not my usual modus operandi. I don’t want to lead a cult; I want to share a spiritual journey.

Having said that – there are some social justice issues that for me are purely about Principle. I can’t teach Oneness and sit quietly by while my LGBTQ friends are excluded from enjoying basic civil rights (like the right to work or rent an apartment while gay). I would hope I’d have the courage to intercede somehow if a woman was being attacked for wearing hijab (I grew up with nuns; one doesn’t touch the veil any more than one tugs on Superman’s cape). To be comfortable in my skin and in my role as minister, I need to put into action the things I teach on Sundays. So if that’s not okay…that’s okay.

Skunked

 

Many years ago, in the land of San Diego, I was home with my sister’s dog, Mali. Mali was one of my favorite people. She was cute, she was smart and she was cuddly. Not a small dog, more medium, and by smart I mean that when Kelly lived on a farm, she could have Mali fetch a particular horse out of the pasture and bring said horse into the barn. So we loved Mali. She did have one flaw. She loved chasing skunks. On this particular day, she caught one. I thought she’d escaped and I pet her as I was bringing her into the house. BIG mistake. Now we both smelled like skunk. I had no car, no phone and a gag reflex that was working full time. I had to take a bus (my abject apologies to the other passengers) to get to a pay phone to call a friend for help. The friend was sympathetic and told me to call if I needed anything before she hung up. I was flabbergasted. I thought that’s what I had done. I bought tomato juice and walked home. I was not allowed to come to work for almost a week because the smell was so bad. The person I carpooled with didn’t want me in her car and I was car-less at the time.

Fast forward to last night. My sister’s dog Ben is wonderful. He’s very handsome, silly and smart. He has one flaw. And last night, the skunk got him. Kelly can’t smell skunk so she brought him in. It took me a minute for the stench to actually process. Gag reflex fully engaged, I told her to get him out of the house. Now, it’s winter so Ben can’t spend the whole night outside. He was locked in Kelly’s room. I brought out the essential oil diffuser and used what I had to save the living room. And then I put myself to bed.

Why am I telling these two stories, other than to garner sympathy for my skunk-y plight and/or throw my sister and her skunk chasing dogs under the proverbial bus? Because while the two stories start the same way, they ended very differently. My tools for handling the crisis were very different. I didn’t take ownership of this problem; I gleefully (well, as gleeful as I can be while gagging) left it to Kelly to handle. I am at work the following morning, stench free (as far as I can tell). My home is no longer a small apartment so I was able to get away from the worst of it in order to sleep. It doesn’t even smell bad in the living room this morning. Kelly had some kind of deodorant for the dog that allowed me to pet him this morning without additional gagging.

This is the difference between a life with some spiritual tools (which often translate into physical resources) and without. This is the difference between victim-hood and victory; between feeling skunked and feeling serene. I could beat this metaphor into the ground, but you get the idea.