Little Camino, Day 23: Just As I Am, Just As Life Is

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

I read Kitchen Table Wisdom so long ago; it was published in 1997, and I read it soon after. It’s sold over 700,000 copies now in twenty-one languages. I didn’t so much remember what she wrote as how it impacted me. I wanted to sit at that table with this humble Jewish doctor and listen forever. Recently, I stumbled across a quote from the book that spells out much of my experience on the Camino. And this time, I hear her words like crystal notes of clarity.

“Those who don’t love themselves as they are rarely love life as it is either. Most people have come to prefer certain of life’s experiences and deny and reject others, unaware of the value of the hidden things that may come wrapped in plain or even ugly paper. In avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all cost, we may be left without intimacy or compassion; in rejecting change and risk we often cheat ourselves of the quest; in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness. Or even that the love we have been given can be trusted. It is natural, even instinctive to prefer comfort to pain, the familiar to the unknown. But sometimes our instincts are not wise. Life usually offers us far more than our biases and preferences will allow us to have. Beyond comfort lie grace, mystery, and adventure. We may need to let go of our beliefs and ideas about life in order to have life.” 
― Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal

The first line alone is enough; I’ve never heard it stated more concisely. It’s as if we who are still striving for some unnamed perfection, don’t realize we are saying in effect, we don’t love ourselves as we are right now. And that judgment gets projected onto all of life not being okay just as it is.

I didn’t get much encouragement in my life to love myself as I am. Did you? I was aware and made aware of all the ways I needed to improve to be approved. I’m just now learning in these later years of my life to consider this simple reality–to love myself without editing. That. Just writing that feels like relief.

Dr. Remen suggests I will be much more content with life just as it is–without a preference. I had so many preferences for how I wanted life to be on the Camino. “The guidebook said there shouldn’t be rain like this in late April!” “Why is there never any room at the allergies? It’s not fair!” “Why is there so much snoring? I can’t get any sleep!” (to name a few.) Remen says, “in avoiding all pain and seeking comfort at all cost, we may be left without intimacy or compassion; in rejecting change and risk we often cheat ourselves of the quest; in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness.”

In hindsight, even though I did not love myself or the circumstances well on the Camino, the pilgrimage taught me those very things. I grew in compassion; I saw the quest through; I learned about a greater inner strength. Yet that next line is the one that I hold most dear in my understanding from the Camino; that by not accepting life as it is, we doubt “even that the love we have been given can be trusted.” Without this basic trust in life just as it is and in the Love that has created us, I lose my way on the journey. This accepting and loving myself as I am is directly connected to love of life and basic trust in the way of Divine action.

So how does that happen–loving oneself? I ask that question not in a narcissistic way. I mean to love oneself just as we are, without masks or need to change. If I try then I’m the one back in control of this quest. My ego will form a list of how to love myself or my inner judge will comment on all the ways that I’m not loving myself. Oh yes, I can how easily I could make even this a way to fix myself again.

This turn to loving oneself is willingness on my part and grace on the part of Love. It’s a whole new orientation. As Remen says, “We may need to let go of our beliefs and ideas about life in order to have life.” Jesus said something like that too. (And he was Jewish.)

This orientation is dropping the belief that I need to be fixed and changed– to just letting myself be. What does that actually feel like or look like? I don’t fully know. It’s unfamiliar. But I’m open to learning.

I think I’ll just set this aim, trust that this orientation to self-love will unfold somehow in the mystery, and relax. That seems like a good place to live into loving myself, loving everyone else, and having a life, loving life just as it is. My Little or not so Little ongoing Camino.

Little Camino, Day 22–Little Miracles

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

At a recent book talk about The Long Walk Home, I started talking about miracles. Certainly, the miracles that are attributed to the Camino, primarily about St. James, (Santiago) and how he appeared miraculously to save in many situations. I also remember the miracles that others felt occurred on this ancient pilgrimage. So many miracles happened to Steve and I not only during the walk, but in our lives together, and even in the publishing process of this book.

The definition of a miracle has at least two distinct understandings:

  1. An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God.
  2. One that excites admiring awe; a wonderful or amazing event, act, person, or thing. synonymwonder.

I have been wary of saying something is a “miracle” in the past. I think we all have reason to have a certain amount of skepticism in naming something a miracle, meaning “supernatural in origin or even an act of God.” We know how that has been abused and used to deceive and scam. Drugs, treatments, creams, pills– all purporting to work a miracle. I am hesitant to claim I’ve “seen a sign” or “heard God’s voice” since many have been led into beliefs that have harmed, betrayed or even killed others. So I tread lightly with this topic. I don’t want to be gullible either.

Yet, miracles have happened in my life. And I have heard a voice. I was nine when told on the authority of specialists at the Mayo Clinic that my two year old brother had a zero percent chance of surviving a rare cancer in his arm. He had a few months to live. I prayed on my knees in my bedroom that he wouldn’t die, and heard a voice by my right shoulder that said in a loud, strong voice, “He will not die.” And he didn’t. He’s now 64. That really happened. I’ve never heard it again, but I’m not as skeptical as some.

I was brought up in a faith tradition that told me all kinds of stories about miracles that occurred by God’s providence. The Israelites saved by the parting of the Red Sea, manna in the desert, water from a rock, a burning bush. And then the stories of Jesus walking on water, turning two loaves of bread and a few fish into enough to feed 5000. Touching a blind man’s eyes with mud and then he sees again. Casting out demons of mental illness. Healing leper, a cripple, a woman bleeding for years. Even bringing Lazurus back from the dead. The basis of the whole Christian faith is the story of a miracle: Jesus dies and then returns alive in new form that walks through doors, can appear and disappear at will and ascends to heaven. All fantastic miracles and I could doubt them, but somehow I don’t.

I want to regain the wonder of what can actually happen to us and by us as human beings. If I let skepticism and doubt govern my life, my ego will feel secure, but I don’t want to live where amazement at things that are beyond my comprehension can’t abide and inspire. And what do I do with the verse when Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20-21.

My small self is always afraid and lives with blinders on, keeping me from the deeper truth of human existence and how God works in this realm. I’ve glimpsed these wonders in many small and significant ways in my life–enough so that sometimes, I look at a mountain and contemplate moving it. It doesn’t matter to me if it moves or not. It only matters that I have the willingness to contemplate that God could do that through me. That keeps that grimy doubt from clouding my vision of life with despair and hopelessness, anger and hate–that’s my ego. It is not my essence that is of God.

Miracles are often explained away in today’s culture, unlike that of the Middle Ages when the Camino was at its height. Even I examine the origin of miracle stories and wonder about superstition or wishful thinking rather than reality. But I’d rather be a fool at this point, than miss “something that excites admiring awe, a wonderful or amazing event, act or person.”

So my ongoing little Camino is to play the fool, be open to mystery, transparent to wonder and believe in the possibility of miracles. That a mountain could move.

Image result for almaas quote

Little Camino, Day 21; Indigenous Wisdom

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

When pilgrims first walked the Camino de Santiago, the rule was to travel very lightly. The less they took, the more they would be dependent on God. In the middle ages, Popes prescribed the pilgrim’s dress – a long cloak, broad hat, a staff and gourd, a pouch to hold alms and a satchel. The broad hats to protect them from the sun, the cloak to counter cold and rain, the satchel for food, the gourd for water and the staff for defense and support over rough ground. The scallop shell, which the pilgrims wore, soon became the symbol of the pilgrimage. This was to identify them as pilgrims and not vagabonds.

Steve and I did not follow these exact guidelines, but we did limit what we carried to ten percent of our body weight. With one change of clothes and the bare minimum of toiletries, we kept to this limit for the entire journey, supplementing our food daily. We didn’t suffer from the limitation as early pilgrims did, and instead, living that simply was a certain kind of pleasure. We were both glad we followed the old rule of limited possessions. It did keep us focused and unencumbered and not wanting for anything (except a bed at night!)

I was reminded of this old wisdom more directly when we invited Rita Pitkin Blumenthal to come to the Listening Post as our guest in honor of our third anniversary. She was one of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers who had gathered from around the world to share their wisdom and their medicine in service of the planet. Their collective story is an amazing tale in and of itself, and I encourage you to read about it; but I want to only tell the story that Rita shared that night; it is one that I have never forgotten and still guides me.

Beside being the first certified Native healer at Alaska Native Medical Center, she had done much work on deep listening with patients and in her culture. She told us the story of the long and careful preparation for her initiation to become a Yupik shaman for her people. The process went on for five years. Once each year several villages would gather and during that time, they would work on the garments and tools that she would need for her initiation rite. For five years, the skins for her robes were tanned and sewed, intricate bead work done, dance fans made, rattles fashioned, mukluks painstakingly sewn, the head dress fit to her size, and the bags where she would keep her healing arts were designed.

Finally everything was ready and the large gathering came to honor her in a ceremony to make her a shaman at last. But this is the part that set me back on my heels when I heard it; after the ceremony, her mother took her out behind the tent that night, stripped her of all her beautiful garments and tools– and burned them in front of her.  And what her mother said to her as the fire blazed was only this, “Cling to nothing.”  Cling to nothing. It was not about the outer garments that would make Rita a wise healer; it was what would happen on the inside to the heart. It was the inner journey that would outfit Rita to become a shaman for her people, not external finery.

Whenever I tell this story, my soul always leans into it, knows its truth. My little Camino continues in my living into not only simplicity, which can still be egoic if used as a badge, but to take that step of clinging to nothing. As with Rita, clinging implies that there is something outside of myself that is needed for intimacy with the Holy. Truth says we are never separate.

Photo of Rita Pitkin Blumenthal from the archives of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers

Little Camino, Day 20: My Problem with Problems

Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

I’ve been thinking about the definition of the word “problem”that I read online last week, but try as I may, I can’t find it again. But it has slumbered in me. So I ask forgiveness in not naming the source, but I want to share it with you. It traces its lineage back through the French, then Latin, but ultimately to early Greek. It literally means “to throw in front of.” But that particular author felt its meaning was more precise than that; it meant “the stone God throws down in front of you.”

I have lived my life so long as one who works on problems, solves problems, avoids problems, dislikes problems and considers problems in a nutshell as negative. Who wants problems–mine, others’, the world’s? Success seems to be defined as having a problem-free life. The capacity to deal with anything that arises and say nonchalantly, “No problem.”

The trouble is, of course, that problems are endemic to living a human life. Rather than resisting them, this new definition of the word has opened me to seeing a problem as connected to the work of the Holy in soul transformation. If I perceive it as a “stone God throws down in front of me,” everything shifts. Here is an opportunity to not resist the problem and try to get past it, but rather guidance on where I need to be wake up from the illusion of the ego that tells me problems are a problem. Maybe they are gifts in disguise. Or portals to deeper understanding.

I am going to use an example of a problem that always gets my reactivity up and helps me to so clearly see my ego–calling the help line of my local internet provider. The first problem is that I feel inadequate about technology and the terminology. So I’m already feeling defensive. I call and say I have a problem with my connection. The tech person doesn’t understand my problem. I feel myself tighten. I don’t want to admit it might be my problem. Then I get self-righteous about my right to have what I pay for every month to work flawlessly. When the tech support person keeps repeating the instructions I’ve already tried, prejudice and judgment arise, just as it did so often on my days on the Camino. I like to think I’m a person open and welcome to immigrants, but I judge that the tech support person doesn’t really know what they are talking about because English is their second language. I begin to feel superior. I begin to talk in clipped tones. I just want the problem to go away. I hang up and feel like a jerk immediately. It was like I couldn’t stop myself. I have this ego ideal of being an understanding person and then within five minutes of things not going my way, I behave exactly in the way I so despise in others–uncivil, demanding, unkind. More confessions.

I didn’t want to be cold or tired or unable to find a bed for the night on that pilgrimage, and I resisted and resented these problems. But what has changed gradually since I walked the Camino, remembering these confessions, is that I am beginning to see problems as opportunities–opportunities to not react in the old familiar ways. Those stones thrown down in front of me may indeed be the things that the Universe in all its wisdom wants me most to see, so that I can change from living from my little scared and wounded ego and be more of who I really am.

It seems hilarious to me now to remember how I so wanted the Camino to be easy and go according to my plans. That has never been the description of a pilgrimage! There were a lot of problems with my body, the weather, the Germans, the housing. And yet–guess what? The Camino from St. Jean to Santiago went exactly according to my plan of 34 days with 2 rest days! And all those perceived problems are the very things that transformed me and that made for the best stories! If it had been easy, I wouldn’t have come face to face with so much of my egoic patterns or sensed the depth and sacredness of this ancient path.

My little Camino these days is not easy; it is living into a life where problems are not to be avoided, but to lived as practice for enlightened living. It isn’t a straight line. I’m better in some areas than others. I sometimes start out being calm and contemplative about the problem, but lapse with impatience before it’s resolved. But sometimes, on a good day, I see the problem as an opportunity and I feel a shift, stay relaxed.

I can’t exactly say I look forward to the next time my internet doesn’t work, but I will ask for grace, breathe and recite the mantra, “this is a stone God has thrown in front of me” before I dial tech support.

Little Camino, Day 19:

Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

Sometimes I look at my book to see what I was doing on the day that corresponds to the day of this post. On Day 19 of our Camino, Steve and I were in Mansilla, this town marked by a very friendly albergue staff that were dedicated to using healing arts with the pilgrims. Many were lined up to be treated by a smiling woman who assured us that everyone would have a chance to be with her. I wrote that this place had an aura of refuge and rest. It was here that we took our second full day off on the Camino. Although welcomed by our bodies, it was hard to stop our forward momentum toward Santiago.

This is the little Camino that I still lingers with me–to practice and learn how to rest and receive.

This past weekend on retreat, I not only did no work, but I was fully waited on for my every need. I began to see so clearly how this still feels unfamiliar to me. Growing up on an Iowa farm, I can truly say that I never slept in until I was in college. I was up for chores and farm work by 6:00 a.m. every morning of the week. “Those pigs aren’t going to feed themselves,” my dad would say. The times of rest were after supper and on Sunday. After church, we had four hours in the afternoon to ourselves before evening chores, but we rarely rested. That was the time to meet with friends. Not working, not being busy was always named as lazy and getting soft. My dad would say, “Who do you think you are? Zsa Zsa Gabor?” (a famous actress of the time). Personal worth was work and achievement. And that is how I framed my life.

It is no wonder then that finishing the Camino in 34 days, and walking the entire length of the Frances route seemed as if there were no options. I couldn’t understand (and judged) those who didn’t. I see that now. While being a good worker is a good attribute for getting along in the world, it has taken a toll on my soul and my physical body over the years by not balancing it with rest and receiving the help of others.

I think a lot about surrender these days–what it really means and how it gets lived out. Specifically for me, I feel my ego creak and groan with the thought of surrendering my life to just being present, and letting my response to life unfold from that stance. Oh my gosh, you should hear the internal arguments! They range from making me feel guilty (there’s so much that needs to be done in this world), to shame (what kind of person gives into indolence?), to fear (well, what will you accomplish or who will you be?), to pity (oh, I guess you’re just aging), and if none of those work, the ego pulls out the guns (so are you just going to sit around and rust and die watching TV or staring out the window?) I actually know that none of these voices are the voices of my benevolent God who loves me like crazy just as I am– but still, they are there.

I do answer these voices, thinking of them as just scared little children. It’s not only okay to rest and reflect, it is in the way of divine order. As we enter winter time, I see how the trees, the animals, even the rivers slow down or hibernate and take rest. Everything will be okay. Of this I have sacred certainty. Everything will be okay.

Those scared egoic voices don’t understand that the surrender I contemplate doesn’t mean I won’t respond to the needs of the world and do nothing with the rest of my life. It means the surrender to knowing that I don’t need to do anything to be loved by the Divine or have worth. If I am called to respond, I will–but it will not be driven by guilt or shame or fear of reprisal. There will be ample rest, a slower way of being and greater compassion for my body and soul.

So there it is; the question I keep calling to myself: what keeps me from loving myself as passionately as I am loved by God? That surrender. That work. That way of being.

Little Camino, Day 18:The Hardest Thing

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

After reading my book on the Camino, several people have come up to me and said without preamble, “Those Germans!” And then we both laugh. I harbored such a grudge for the poor Germans on that pilgrimage, reciting all the ways I thought they were violating the way it should be done. Oh such judgment. And if you have read it, you know that it was not until I am in the cathedral at Santiago during mass, that the great “Ah-ha!” hits me–I’m German, or at least that is my heritage on my Dad’s side. As I was so self-righteously judging them, I was also judging myself for not doing the Camino as I should. I just used them as my scapegoat. It was terribly relieving to see it and so amusing I laughed out loud. And yet…

And yet, although I understood how I had projected my judgment onto others and let go, I hadn’t really taken the next step: I had not forgiven them. Not in the way a heart is changed. A little grudge prevailed. That feeling of being justified lingered.

Even writing about forgiving makes me feel a little guilty. I want to be the type of person that easily forgives, but at this moment, I still hold onto a couple of significant grudges; I need more understanding than just knowing about projection. I’ve preached plenty of sermons on forgiveness–how it doesn’t hurt the other person by not forgiving them as much as it does hurting myself. I’m bound up by my unforgiveness. And I know it’s foundational in my Christian faith–“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But all that knowing doesn’t change the fact that I still struggle with it.

I got some help this week from a friend who emailed me to thank me for sending her the book Ho’oponopono by Ulrich E. Dupree about three years ago. I had been impressed when I first read the book, but it had fallen off my radar. Ho’oponopono is the process in the Hawaiian culture to use for reconciliation and forgiveness within a community. Pono means to “set right, to correct, to amend, to adjust, to make harmony.” So ponopono means literally to set “rightly right,” emphasizing the need to stay in community with one another. There are four steps or really, four parts to a prayer, that at first sight seem to be an unusual way of forgiving.

I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.

Okay. Just that first part, always stops me. And my friend said the same; “I still had resistance to sending the message of “I’m sorry” to those who I feel have harmed me,” she wrote. It seems natural for the first part to be instead, “I forgive you.” What is so stunning to me about the Hawaiian understanding of forgiveness is that it begins with acknowledging our own part in the breach. Thus the asking for forgiveness, not the giving of it, followed by “I love you,” which opens the heart, and “thank you”which moves us into gratitude instead of judgment.
My friend shared her longer version of this process as she understood it:
“I’m sorry for judging you for being the way you are. Please forgive me for the times I’ve been the same way and for still holding that energy in the field.  I see how in doing so, I’m allowing the energy to remain because we are all connected. All there is is unity and this connection, even when I’m having my own unique experience. I love you. The part of you that is connected to me and all that is in this grand web of experience. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to see differently.”

This way of reconciliation relies not on blaming or judging, but recognizing how we are part of the problem. And then, moving toward relationship in love and gratefulness. My Little Camino this week? You can guess I think–I’m taking this old wisdom into praying for my current grudges. And I will be truthful; my ego is gripping onto them. But not the Self that is who I really am–a human being not separate from any other human being.

As I write this, I see the very real potential for Ho’oponopono to transform my little grudges; I can feel my part in them already as I visualize the person and say the four sentences. But I try to imagine forgiving someone for a really big hurt–like rape or murder, and it seems impossible for ME to say I’m sorry or ask for forgiveness. I sense I have much more to learn about this process and the dedication it must take, the patience it must muster and the compassion that must compel it. I wait and as always, ask for grace.


Little Camino, Day 17: Holy Hope

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

I’m writing about hope today because I don’t fully understand it. What I do know is that even if I have questions about living in hope, I don’t want to be without it; I’d rather have hope than be hopeless. But if I hope for something, does that mean I’m not content with what is? Do I need to hope for something other than the Reality of what’s unfolding right in front of me? Is it up to me to decide what to hope for, what outcome? This is my conundrum.

In my book, I mentioned Gerald May, one of my teachers in the spiritual direction training I took twenty years ago. When I met him he was not well physically–I believe his heart was failing as a side effect from cancer treatment. He was thin and frail-looking, but his eyes were so bright and his spirit so alive and full of childlike playfulness that he disarmed me. It was rumored he didn’t have long to live, and in fact, he died less than two years later. He was writing a book at the time, which would be his last, called The Dark Night of the Soul (Harper Collins, 2004.)

The term “the dark night of the soul” seems a little sinister at first, but is not “necessarily a time of suffering and despair, but rather one of deep transition,” says May. “Our liberation takes places mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control.” And certainly I feel that my pilgrimage had many of the aspects of this kind of dark night.

I mention his writing now because in this book, he also writes of hope (pp. 190-194) in a section called Hope in the Morning. He bemoans the fact that he is always attached to the idea of making progress in his spiritual journey and “yet the truth of the journey completely transcends my petty notions of progress.”

“So in the end I am left only with hope. I hope the nights are really transformative. I hope every dawn brings deeper love, for each of us individually and for the world as a whole. I hope John of the Cross was right when he said the intellect is transformed into faith, and the will into love, and the memory into….hope.”

Here is the line that I contemplate the most: “It is not a hope for peace or justice or healing; that would be an attachment. It is just hope, naked hope, a bare energy of open expectancy.”

When May visited with survivors of the Bosnian War–people who literally had lost everything–he was surprised to sense a shining hope in them. He asked if they hoped for peace. “Oh no, it’s gone too far for that,” they replied.
He asked if they hoped for U.N. intervention. “Oh, no. It’s too late for that.” He said there was simply nothing they could think of to hope for.
So he asked, “How can you hope when there is nothing to hope for?” They answered. “Bog.” The Serbo-Croatian word for God.

Brother David Steindl-Rast writes in his book, Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer (Paulist Press,1984), that hope is by definition openness to surprise, similar to what May called open expectancy.

Both of these definitions are saying in effect, that we are not in control and we don’t know. When I dug a little further in my library, A.H. Almaas, in his book, Facets of Unity (Diamond Books, 1994), speaks of Holy Hope vs. egoic hope. “It is the activity of the ego which does not trust Being or God is doing everything, will do everything, and, if one surrenders to it, its optimizing thrust will spontaneously deliver us. This striving embodies egoic hope, as opposed the the flow that expresses the optimism of Holy Hope. Egoic hope makes us react and disconnect from our experience, while Holy Hope makes us relax and open up to the unfolding that is carrying us harmoniously to fulfillment.” (p. 274).

Holy Hope then to me is not helplessness. It isn’t striving for what I want. It isn’t my agenda. It is, yet again, surrendering. How often it comes back to this.

Does this answer all my questions about hope? No. It feels mystical and maybe I will never by my own reason come to fully understand it. I will come again and again to it. But I can hold all the things I hope for–for myself, for loved ones, for the world–with a lightness, with trust, not helplessness, that things are unfolding as they should, no matter how different that looks on the surface. As in the Dark Night, God is working in ways unseen, with a perspective we can’t understand, with a love we can’t fathom. These wise teachers guide me toward being relaxed. To living a life that I don’t control, but rather a life with openness to surprise. (and yes, I confess–I still want that surprise to be what I define as a good surprise..sigh. Surrender yet again.)

Little Camino, Day 16: Watching My Endings

(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)

To Live without pretending,
To Love without depending,
To Listen without defending,
To Speak without offending.

I see these lyrics everyday taped to a mirror in my bathroom. Actually it’s taped to the mirror in the guest bathroom; evidently I feel a need to share this wisdom with others. It sums up so much of the true spiritual journey. And each time I read it, one of the lines stands out more than another as I review my day. But as I searched to find the author of these words for this blogpost, I discovered that it was widely attributed to a Canadian rap singer named Drake. However, in a comment on his site, a woman named Nina Robert Baker asked him why he didn’t attribute the quote to her as he had previously done, and had adopted it as his own? (This happens too often.)

I then found her website (there are many Nina Bakers) and have what I now believe to be the original quotation. There are two more lines to the quote that were dropped by Drake–

To Give without ending,
To Build without rending.

What I also discovered is the title to her writing: Watch Your Endings. It made me smile.

How is this all part of my continuing Camino? I’m not sure really. Except that each line continues to remind me of a time I pretended, depended, defended, offended, ended and rended while walking the Camino. And how, as I’ve talked recently, this is being human. As I reread my book (it’s amazing what I forgot I wrote), I find myself less judgmental of all those Confessions I admitted to. If I knew then what I know now, I would have noticed what I was feeling, but I would have just been curious, instead of putting myself down. It’s a matter of discrimination: being conscious of when I am being run by my ego, and yet not flogging myself with regret. Again, saying to myself with light-heartedness, “Oh there I am, being human again.” Yes, truly with a light heart, not guilt, but compassion. I now am grateful for what I learned from those confessions. And confession can truly be good for the soul, in letting things go and receiving forgiveness freely. I know I’ve said this before, but it’s like the spiral staircase I reference in the book–it’s the same issue, but seen from a higher perspective. I’m more and more able to see myself as a human being that is imperfectly perfect. How much better life is without the weight of judgment, shame or guilt. You may disagree, but I have come to feel certain that any voice that makes me feel “less than” is not the voice of a Loving God. In fact, shame and guilt to me are the primary barriers to our relationship to God, the Holy, the Source or whatever name you give this Essence.

At the same time, this quotation/poem keeps me aligned with how I wish to live my life. I will continue to “Watch My Endings.” I’m glad to have the new verses to add to my post on the bathroom mirror as well. And if I were to add my own, “To love the Truth without bending.” But that may be something I explore in another blog. As I “Watch My Ending” of this blog, I give thanks to Nina Robert Baker for sharing her wise soul with me.

Little Camino, Day 15: Who Knows?

I was cleaning out a drawer this week and came across something I’ve always cherished–the writing that visitors left in the journals at the Listening Post when it was located at the Transit Center at 6th and H Street. It was this place that I describe in the epilogue of my book on walking the Camino. After returning in June from my pilgrimage, I immediately knew that a Listening Post was what I wanted to create in Anchorage–a place where the marginalized were listened to with confidentiality and respect. In the eight years we were there, several journals were filled with incredible entries of vulnerability, questions, life stories, prayers and wisdom. Here is one entry from those journals, written by a wise young man who is also schizophrenic.

“Once upon a time a king asked his council for something to make him happy when was he was sad–but sad when he was happy. They consulted and then presented the king with a ring. Inscribed in the ring was, “This too shall pass.”

This was my mother’s mantra as well. Underneath its apparent truth is the way of being that is content no matter what life presents, whether happy or sad. Spiritual teacher, Jeff Carreira, says, “If you can’t be content no matter how you feel, then you will always be in a position of being somewhat victimized by circumstance. Your contentment will always be dependent upon certain conditions existing to allow you to feel content, and if that’s the case, then you will constantly, consciously and unconsciously, be trying to manipulate the circumstances of your life to be those that make you feel content. And, of course, life doesn’t cooperate, and at some point you realized this is a losing proposition.”

Being content as a human being is an elusive thing if that contentment depends on exterior circumstances; it is only achievable by allowing all experiences while maintaining an inner ground of basic trust and choice to surrender to what is actually happening in the moment.

“Easy to say, hard to do” is the proverbial comeback to that statement. And it is. Most people, including myself, live their whole lives dependent on being content by controlling their experiences–which is a perfectly fine life. Doesn’t always work, but I get by. Yet there is this option, this potential freedom to live with the conviction that no matter what, I’m okay. And content with life as it is.

Even as I write it, protests arise in my mind; “No! We can’t be content with what IS. There’s so much we need to fix in this world. How can you say that?” Good argument! But what if that voice is the one inside us that wants to be the one in control? Wants to be the ultimate judge of what is right and wrong? When I listen to that voice I get tight inside, defensive, self-righteous. And that doesn’t feel like the voice of Holy guidance, the voice that shows me how to respond to life, but not to react. Responding with love and concern in this world comes from our true heart, one dependent on grace. Reacting with judgement comes from our ego. Period.

When I was a senior in high school, my high school Sunday school curriculum contained this lesson. Even now, I can hardly believe that I received this Chinese wisdom in 1969 in Sunday School. It has a few versions but it goes like this. (And even if you’ve heard it, it bears repeating and reflecting.

Who Knows? A Chinese Fable

Many years ago, a wise peasant lived in China. He had a son who was the apple of his eye. He also was the proud owner of a fine white stallion which everyone admired. One day this horse escaped from his grounds and disappeared. The villagers came to him one by one and said: “You are such an unlucky man! It is such bad luck that your horse escaped.” The peasant responded: “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?” The next day the stallion returned, followed by 12 wild horses. The neighbors visited him again and congratulated him on his luck. Again, he just said: “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?

As it happened, the next day his son was attempting to train one of the wild horses when he fell down and broke his leg. Once more everyone came with condolences: “It’s terrible” Again the the wise peasant said, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?” A few days passed and his poor son was limping around the village with his broken leg, when the emperor’s army entered the village announcing that a war was starting, and they were enrolling all the young men of the village. However, they left the peasant’s son since he had a broken leg. Everyone was extremely jealous of the peasant. They talked about his sheer good luck, while the old man only said, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”

I never forgot this story, even though I haven’t lived it out. Yet, I still believe that it is possible to live with the perspective of that wise peasant. My little Camino this week and for my years to come is to practice being content with what life actually is, without my meddling. And remembering that no matter what, this too shall pass.

Little Camino, Day 14:More on Being Human

Jack Kornfield quote: If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in...

You may know this quote by spiritual teacher, Jack Kornfield, but I only heard it for the first time during a retreat this past week. Maybe like me, you thought he was referring to the ideal for a human being, only to be startled and amused by the last line. I burst out laughing, realizing in an instant how we are conditioned to feel we need to be perfect as human beings, or else we are somehow deficient. Actually, we are as we are, “warts and all” as another saying goes. And certainly not consistently able to be what a dog can be. As a dog cannot be what a human can manifest.

On my Camino, I consistently realized how I was not living up to my ideal of what a pilgrim should be; in one way, it was good to see my ego and to confess my inability to live up to it. Yet in another way, it was still the ego that was criticizing–the part of us that judges ourselves and others so harshly. I wish I could see then as I see now that there is no one right way to walk the Camino or to live our lives. And the way I did it was simply what it was. And if then, I could have simply recognized that I was being human, let myself alone, and enjoyed the journey, even with all its ups and downs. This becoming more human means to me a coming to allow all of life and not rejecting what is. As one of my fellow students on this retreat said, “It’s kind of ridiculous to reject Reality.”

I can laugh now thinking back on how not only did I want to be something like Kornfield’s description of a dog–faithful, unflappable, accepting, calm, happy–but I also wanted my Camino experience to be like that–sunny weather, welcoming and available places to sleep, perfect health, kind fellow pilgrims. In brief, I was being human, giving in to my instincts of wanting only pleasure and safety. I don’t judge that now, as it taught me so much about myself. But there was much more to learn in these years that have followed about just being with whatever is happening–sun or mud, kind or arrogant people that pass me on my journey, things that come easily or things I would never write into my script. Can I allow them all, trusting they are ALL part of what is unfolding, and even if not entirely sure, just be curious?

Now that the retreat is over and I am left with all this wisdom in my lap, I want to remember a quote by one of my teachers, John Davis: “We don’t come to this work to be different. We come to this work to be who we are.” And that takes years to slowly uncover and reclaim from all the hurts and wounds that cause us to hide behind ego. But with love, it is possible to find that freedom to just be ourselves, and how ordinarily extraordinary that can be. Something not separate from the Divine.

(When in doubt or wavering, let a dog lay its head in your lap, and remember.)

Steve and Dozer, dozing at the cabin.