Category Archives: Spiritual direction

The way of the heart: Doubting the primacy of the mind

Several of my clients have told me they have a broken heart. Others said their chests pound with tension. They lay awake in bed feeling like they will burst. Others feel like they are going to have a heart attack and possibly die. One said crying uncontrollably works a lot better than the breathing techniques I suggest.

Let’s spend a few minutes letting our hearts and minds be at rest; we need it.

heart vs mind

We have heart problems.

At the recent CAPS Conference, Eric Johnson revealed how unacquainted with our hearts most of us have become. The modern and postmodern eras became increasingly subject to the “mind” as the central feature of human psychology and experience. Scientists thought they were overcoming many centuries of describing the heart of us with the word “heart” by asserting “mind.” But “heart” persists, since that common-sense description of our core experience is built into all the languages of the world (except for scientific language, for the most part).

  • Take heart.
  • Follow your heart.
  • She has a heart of gold.
  • He wears his heart on his sleeve.
  • We had a heart-to-heart talk.
  • He is heartbroken.

We all know what these things mean.

The brain scientists tend to ignore the “embodied metaphors” we learn as children in favor of their “more adult” cognitive bias. Psychology is supposedly the “science of behavior and mental processes.” If you use the everyday term “heart” to describe psychological dynamics it makes you look quaint and scientifically naïve, if not just a bit stupid. But just looking at the fact that stress is related to heart attacks would argue for a whole-body approach to wellbeing, even one centered on the 40,000 neurons clustered around the heart.

The way of Jesus is heartfelt

the heart has its reasonsThe dominant psychological term in the Bible is “heart.” It occurs over 800 times. For instance:

  • “Be wise, and direct your heart in the way” (Proverbs 23:19).
  • “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
  • “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
  • “Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

The psychology of the way of Jesus has been shaped by how we see the heart:

  • “The heart is restless, O Lord until it finds rest in You” (Augustine, Confessions)
  • “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (Martin Luther, Larger Catechism)
  • “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, #277)

Since psychology aligned itself with the modern scientific method many critics have argued it leads to a truncated and reductionistic view of human beings. We are uniquely constituted by our beliefs about ourselves. So a distorted sense of our psychology can, and does, impoverish us. Psychology might malform us in the name of science. So when my client tells me his chest feels heavy when we talk about his anxiety and shame, I don’t tell him, “It’s all in your head.” His feeling also reaches back to his first experience of himself as a child and how he has related and considered himself and God ever since.

The way of the heart

the way of the heartPsychologist, priest and spiritual director, Henri Nouwen, consistently used the word “heart” to mean our access point to God through contemplative, listening prayer and active obedience. His little book on the desert fathers and mothers, The Way of the Heart, has been a foundation for prayer for many of us.

The way of the heart helps us come to God with all we are: our fears and anxieties, our guilt and shame; our sexual fantasies; our greed and anger; our joys, successes, aspirations and hopes; our reflections, dreams and mental wanderings; our family, friends and enemies – all that makes us who we are. With all this we listen to God’s voice and participate with God speaking to us in every corner of our being.

As people have become vaccinated in the past weeks, I have repeatedly heard them describe a “weight being lifted.” As the George Floyd murder trial grinds on, mass shootings hit the news and attacks on Asians become known, many people feel deeply infected. Our hearts ache. It is no wonder we describe our experience that way. The “heart” is the secret place in us where our spirit, soul, mind and body come together in a unity of the self. There is no such thing as a disembodied spiritual heart. Our joys and sorrows happen in time. We are restored in Jesus so we can love God, neighbor and self with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength (Luke 10:27).

The way of the heart sends us on a quest with a lot of questions. The main one is “Who am I? What is at the heart of me? Can I trust my heart? Will Jesus really give me a new heart?” Even if we are quarantined we only need to look at the TV to live a very challenging life.  Nouwen says the greatest trap in life is not success, popularity or power; it is self-rejection, doubting who we truly are at the heart of us – the beloved of God. When we believe the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, or define us as a series of chemical reactions, or condemn us to whatever society labels us, then we might be steered any old way.

Johnson and Nouwen have encouraged me to sink into that scene at the Lord’s baptism when God demonstrates how she feels about humans bearing sin and death as he says, “You are my beloved, on you my favor rests.” It is that heart-to heart moment we continue to incarnate as we also come to God as we are in our own time and dare to open our hearts.

A passion: Deaths and wonders

At times last year, my spiritual director must have felt he was riding a bucking bronco when we met. We sold our family home of 25 years, totally rehabbed the new condo, which was probably the most disastrous rehab we ever experienced, then said good-bye to my hired role in Circle of Hope – mostly during a pandemic and an election circus! Maybe my director was fine, but I still feel like I may have hit the dirt a few too many times. Fortunately, I have some rodeo clown friends and a cowboy family to pick me up.

When I drag in, looking a bit dusty and dazed, my director will often respond to one of my stories with, “It’s a ‘passion.’” He does not have a ready definition for what he means by “a passion,” and I am not much for defining spiritual experiences anyway. But I think I might understand what he means more all the time as I experience the little deaths that lead to new life. As I endure the indignities that accompany the joys of transition, my life keeps teaching me. Like Paul says:

And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:30-32)

What Paul is doing is a “passion.” He writes with a passionate heart about risking it all on the hope of resurrection.

Facing death is normal Christian life. It is so wonderful we can face it in the distant future with confidence. Most most of us think we’ll be alive a lot longer, so that confidence is easier and no less comforting for being so. It is also wonderful we can face the “wild beasts” in the present with confidence. That’s usually more difficult and often feels comfort-challenged.

In Paul’s story above, the enigmatic reference to “wild beasts” probably refers to the riot started by the silversmiths in Ephesus who thought Paul’s gospel would wreck their lucrative trade in honor of the religious power, Artemis, who ruled the area. I wish I were more like Paul, but at least I know what it is like to face power struggles with blinded people who think Jesus is no more than an alternative fact, at best. You undoubtedly have such struggles, too, at whatever level you struggle.

In facing what seem to us like death-dealing forces, we are like Jesus being attacked in John 10. His opponents are ready to stone him, and he says, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” I think my director would call that moment “a passion.” In the face of the violent, judgment-wielding world, we speak the truth in love. If we die that day, just a little or for the last time, we do.

The Elements of Holy Communion — Jacques Iselin

The death and wonder in the communion meal

It does not seem accidental that bread and wine are central to how we understand the crucifixion and resurrection this week. They are symbols of transformation. The grapes are crushed and reduced. When they “die” their inner juice and flavor are released. Then in the darkness we wait for them to become new wine. Likewise, simple flour with a little water and salt becomes many variations of bread. Add yeast and the whole lump of dough expands and becomes new. In the transformation into the food that feeds us there is a death of the old and the wonder of the new.

When our own transformation passion is working in us it is a bit more traumatic, isn’t it? It is painful for us to feel crushed, even when we know the newness is being released. And we don’t like being expanded, or stretched, even though it is the process of welcoming that wonderful fullness for which we have been longing all along. And when it comes to being the bread of life with Jesus, that can seem like a bit much.

Last week, when I saw my director, I could not tell if I was stuffing my pain or dampening my wonder. Both actions would be good ways to try to avoid dying that day. Pain reminds us we are going to die – severe SMH. I want to shut pain out. And wonder reminds us of why we don’t want to die – severe FOMO. I want to keep wonder in. Yet I don’t want to wall off my heart. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings,  becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Paul actually said that in Philippians 3, but I say it too.

Our passion in the Holy Week

I don’t want to die. But I certainly want to live. So I always need a Lent to teach me about passion — the Lord’s and mine and ours. I keep learning that living is giving – whether Jesus is about to be stoned, or Paul is fighting wild beasts, or we are facing societal breakdown, or we face all those other breakdowns: mental, physical, and relational. I don’t mean we give because we are afraid to die, although that may be where we start. I mean we give because we know we are alive and will live forever. It isn’t, “If I give I will live.” It is, “I give because I live.” I like living. Giving is living.

This week is all about how dying leads to rising, how living is giving. As my Lenten guide, Alan Jones says:

We are made in the image of God who gives himself away. [We are made in the image of God who gives herself away]. The mystery of that self-giving is what Easter is all about. The closer we get to our destination the closer we are to the crucifixion. Holy Week and Easter are not the only times when we remember God’s Passion for us. They also invite us into our own passion. Lent is a long period of reality-testing that questions our view of ourselves and the world. (In Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home)

That testing has surely been happening to me. Maybe we have all been experiencing a pandemic-long “lent” that is testing who we are and questioning the world in which we live. If so, maybe a big resurrection is about to dawn. I hope so. The Holy Week calls us to show up and endure the process, especially if we missed the rest of the season!

The situation in the country is giving us lots of opportunity for a reality test. But my experience seems more acute than an assessment of where society should be going. My daily dying won’t be something that works back on me from what is happening in the world.  I’m already happening. Resurrection is already loose in the world. My profound actions will not make it happen. To the contrary, my grapes are being crushed and the yeast of God’s Spirit is expanding me.

Some days I don’t think I can die any more or rise any more. Perhaps when I feel that way my wine is taking some time to ferment and my dough is resting. But by this time in my life, I often know that despair might signal Easter is coming. Ready or not, a resurrection is imminent, as surely as the daffodils are coming up to bloom and, as a church, we keep turning our faces into Spring.

Active imagination can deepen your life: A four step process

L’atmosphère Météorologie by Camille Flammarion, ca. 1888

Most of us could use a tool (or twelve) to deepen our spiritual awareness. What I mean by “spiritual awareness” is the ability we all have to experience the Spirit of God. If you don’t relate to God personally, then I mean your ability to experience the “numinous,” the outside-my-understanding events that stay with us throughout our lives, even after we’ve tried to explain them away. You may have been ordered to repress or deny that capacity for a variety of reasons. For instance, one genius-of-a-friend reported for med school at Jefferson U. and was quickly told his faith had no place in the upper realms of research for which he was headed. The order to squash his spiritual awareness was direct and not implied! You may have been squashed too!

So most of us could use a tool to help us deepen our spiritual awareness. We’ve all got it, but we have a lot of reasons we have not been using it. Active imagination is such a tool (much like dream work last week). The idea is fairly easy to understand, since it relates to the fantasies that regularly run through our head. We may entertain or dismiss our fantasies, but most of us rarely take their energy seriously, try to harness it, or learn from that common experience of what is going on inside.

According to Robert A Johns in Inner Work:

Active imagination is a dialogue that you enter into with the different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious. In some ways it is similar to dreaming, except that you are fully awake and conscious during the experience. This, in fact, is what gives this technique its distinctive quality. Instead of going into a dream, you go into your imagination while you are awake. You allow images to rise up out of the unconscious, and they come to on the level of imagination just as they would come to you if you were asleep.

Active imagination is a common experience in the Bible

Before you Christians get nervous about being self-centered and lost in a perpetual search for elusive meanings in your inner world, let me remind you that people with the most active of imaginations wrote the Bible. At least that is what Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) told Krista Tippet that time during On Being. If you cannot ponder metaphor, or cannot see yourself in the Bible, or cannot imagine how the Spirit of God is relating to the part of you that is also beyond your ordinary awareness, you might be religious but you’ll be a dissatisfied Jesus follower. Our imagination is a beautiful part of us and is a doorway into the deep realms of the Spirit into which God calls us in Jesus. And let’s not forget God calls all sort of people who don’t know Jesus, too, who begin their journey by knowing their own capacity to be aware of spiritual things.

And before I get to my very-abridged summary of Johnson’s steps to practicing active imagination in service to our growth, let me add a couple of warnings. On the one hand, most of us will probably have a tough time getting the process of active imagination going. We’ve been “ordered” to repress it, after all, by secular and religious authorities. It may take some experimenting. On the other hand, and this is a real warning, some of us might go too far, get lost in the realm of purposeless fantasy and have trouble getting back to the here and now. If you suspect that is likely to be you, enter into the process holding the hand of Jesus and definitely holding the hand of a therapist or friend who can bring you back if you get lost. I compare this necessity to the rope people tied to the high priest when he went into the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple so they could pull him out if he got lost somehow, or died. The legend of that practice is not true; there is no evidence people really did that. But you get the idea. Active imagination needs to stay tethered to an real-time purpose, or it is something else.

Many of us are familiar with Ignatius of Loyola and his teaching on entering the Bible story as an active participant, especially when it comes to records about Jesus. Active imagination is a similar kind of exercise, only the context is not outside us but in us. We are entering into the interesting interchanges happening within us, walking and talking with the persons we find in our unconscious, confronting and arguing, making friends and probably fighting. We consciously participate in the drama of our imagination. You can see this is not passive fantasy, like worrying, or like repeating negative messages. We are acting as that observing and relating “I” we all are, getting to know all the territory of our unconscious, and so deepening communication among all the parts of us.

Four steps

Robert A. Johnson has some fascinating examples of active imagination in his book. They are all examples of personifying some content from the unconscious that arises to the surface, putting it into image form so one can dialogue and deal with it. For instance, when you have stomped off from a heated argument and sit sulking somewhere, you might turn to the anger, which likely comes from someplace deep, and ask it who it is. You might find some lonely child, or some power-hungry tyrant, or some confused priest. You wouldn’t judge them before you got to know them, just see who is there and honor their right to be you.

Here are the four steps. Like when we were talking about dreams, the explanations are abbreviated, but I hope they whet your appetite and give you and idea of what you might try. You might even read Johnson’s book.

Step One: Invite the unconscious

Invite the inner persons to start the dialogue. Take your mind off the external world and focus on your imagination and wait to see who shows up. When you let yourself rest in Christ, you might find yourself in what I call my “inner landscape” where my encounters often take place. Be patient and stay alert. If something comes up, don’t judge, just go with it. If it feels productive, hang with it. If it is just a fantasy, or you are not ready for it, move on.

Step Two: The dialogue

A helpful dialogue with personified images from your unconscious is very much like a healthy conversation with anyone. You demonstrate a willingness to listen and actively do that. This is best done with a journal. As I was in the process of writing this post I had a very useful time of active imagination in which I managed to turn into a feeling, ask who it was and listen. But when I went back to it this morning, it was a hazy memory. Writing out the main things being said and experienced helps to make the most of the process.

Sometimes we’ll have an argument and that might be when we are really getting somewhere. However it works out, a problem will be revealed, different viewpoints will be noted and a response of some kind will come. This could take a few minutes or days or even years.

Step Three: The Values

This step is important for everyone and especially for Jesus followers who are no longer alone and usurping God’s place. Johnson says:

Once the imaginative process is launched, once the primordial forces are invited to come up to the surface and be heard, some limits have to be set. It is the conscious ego, guided by a sense of ethics, that must set limits in order to protect the imaginative process from becoming inhuman or destructive or going off into extremes. (Inner Work)

Hold out for what is good. Don’t let one energy take over at the expense of the others. Nurture what serves human life, practical needs and healthy relationships. Do it all in Christ.

Step Four: The Rituals

We always want to incarnate our active imagination so it gets out of the abstract and gets connected to the earthbound. When we have an insight or a resolution, we do something to make it concrete. My active imagination often makes me feel better, but it is best when I do better. Remember not to act out some fantasy or project some inner conflict on someone else. We’re talking about integrating the essence, the meaning, the principle we have derived into our practical life.

I hope this brief intro (or reminder) encourages you to do some inner work this week. The world needs deep people. Plus, this activity is great for times of stress and confusion. We can gain a lot of confidence for what we need to do on the outside when we are in less turmoil inside.

Find your contemplation where you can

I have enjoyed getting to know spiritual direction students and teachers over the past semester. My cohort is a diverse, sincere bunch of people that always remind me of God’s goodness and humanity’s capacity for compassion and hope.

There is only one thing about my new group of friends that is funny. Many of them remind me a lot of the old SNL skits about NPR.

Sometimes that NPR voice is such a wonder, like on my favorite WHYY voice, Jennifer Lynn. Other times the special character of that voice makes me wonder if the sincerity of it is just another act of branding. With everything on ZOOM now, a lot of us now have ring lights and new microphones. And I think a lot of us have started to wonder how to act on screen, including how to sound.

What does the voice mean, now?  My spiritual direction teachers and many of their students seem to have learned to speak with an NPR voice. Is that a thing, or is it just me? I know I’ve been tagged with a “Mr. Rogers” voice, so maybe I learned it a long time ago.

Voice command

Our voice is a powerful instrument. We had four children before the oldest turned 4. I developed their attention to my voice as a high priority, especially my command voice: “Do not step off that curb!” and “Let go of your brother’s neck, now!” Since we were often in a church meeting, I could turn the command volume down very low, “Give me that marker!”

Humanity continues to prove it is hell-bent on emulating the perceived power of God  through its own control and manipulation. This is kind of a leap, but I think the medium of radio does its control and manipulation via voice command. As my children tell me I did, I think NPR commands with an iron fist in a velvet glove. By this time, many of us fans can seem very empathetic and nonthreatening while advancing the same old domination.

I bring this up because my teachers, and most of the authors they suggest, basically move with Eurocentric, privileged assumptions that leak out as “best practices” for spiritual formation and direction. There is usually a candle. There is often Taize music (from France) or classical music (based in Europe), there is aloneness and silence, which, in themselves, are often hard-to-find luxuries. There is often a call to “let go,” which is hard to do if your are barely hanging on. There are often calls to “submit” or “surrender” since they are in charge and conquering something by nature. And when they speak it could be right out of NPR.

I have spent decades perfecting all the spiritual practices practices that come with the dominant culture – and to a good end. I think my teachers last semester were great. Candles, Taize, silence in solitude, and submission are all elemental to my spiritual practice.

reaching for the edge of contemplation

There is another side

I also have enjoyed the luxury of getting to know other ways to contemplate contributed by the nondominant cultures around me. Fortunately for me, my parents came from the U.S. underclass and felt blessed to have clawed themselves into the lower middle class. So when I brought classical music home from college as the first to attend one, it did not go over well. I was called on to let go of the pride of thinking I was better than someone else, rather than called on to let go of the assumption I was better than most of the world, like most world-dominating Americans assume.

Many people from nondominant cultures are invited into contemplation by Eurocentric people and the “hospitality offered may be more stifling than respiting, more harm than blessing…The ways that marginalized groups answer the question of who God is needs to be contemplated in a more authentic way than the ‘average’ contemporary expression of spirituality might expect” (Ruth Takiko West*). So true. Besides, members of the so-called “dominant culture” are also very diverse, so forcing them into learning the Eurocentric practices as if they are “best practices” could be a mistake. Leaders need a lot of intentional introspection if they hope to alleviate the problem of merely dominating instead of liberating. The image of God does not just reside in people such as oneself.

Your culture is fine, as is mine. But Jesus is transcultural, even though he comes from a culture, in a gender, and is born into a family system. He experienced the dominant culture providing some kind of general order. But he insisted on enacting the liberative, reconciling work of the Spirit by giving preference to the poorer or more distant, as well as those yet to be included.

The ever-accepting Savior calls us into a mutually accepting relationship with Him and everyone else. Jesus is the Spirit in a body, the body of Christ is the Spirit making all of us into family: the body of Christ. This works out in all cultures. One does not need to look outside of one’s culture or outside of oneself to meet God. Henri Nouwen said, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that declares we are loved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence” (see Spiritual Direction).

The presence of the Spirit transcends and infuses culture

We don’t need to act one way or another to develop intimacy with God, and though Jesus came one way, the Spirit of God with which he graced us is as multifaceted as the Creator. If God speaks to you in an NPR voice, wonderful; it is a sweet voice. But it can be a dominating voice, especially when white teachers unwittingly erase other sounds by making it prescriptive.

The rich experience of Black Americans, even those who understand Taize, Thomas Merton, and such, is often run over by the soft tones of people in charge, even though they have a rich tradition of their own that might be even better. James Cone writes, “The spirituals were a ritualization of God in song. They are not documents for philosophy; they are material for worship and praise for the One who had continued to be present with black humanity despite European insanity” (in The Spirituals and the Blues). Solitude in silence is to be treasured but contemplation is bigger. It is purpose, intention and deep consideration. As such it comes in many forms in as many cultures. Takiko West describes the Black experience in community where contemplation is exercised in the singing and the hearing of songs like the spirituals:

The presence of God is evidenced by the movement of the Spirit that causes one to jump to their feet, hands thrown up in the air when the soloist hits that one note and sustains it as if he/she needed to make sure the sound would reach heaven. It is within that moment that there is communal solidarity around the awareness of God’s grace.*

Cone writes, “The certain fact is always that God is present with them and trouble will not have the last word.”

I’ve had the privilege of being invited into this kind of contemplation in cultures other than my own all over the world. I have a feel for NPR’s more Eurocentric contemplation and I have also been blessed by Aretha Franklin’s. In the following video from Franklin’s 1972 live album, Amazing Grace, she manages to lead the moment of contemplation in a setting of a live recording. In it she bridges the societal divides, as she was so good at, by taking a Carol King song and combining it with a familiar gospel tune, in a South LA church. The album is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Aretha Franklin demonstrates how the nondominant find their place in the culture and how they keep a hold of their dignity and affirm their identity as the beloved.  The contemplative scene she leads is just as useful as the singular, quiet, secure-that-your-body-will-be-there-when-you-get-back-to-it, Eurocentric contemplation. We don’t need to choose. There is one body, one faith, one Lord. No one is excluded.

* From her essay in Kaleidescope: Broadening the Palette in the Art of Spiritual Direction. Ineda P. Adesanya, editor.