A Year of Learning – and aging

img_0639Your task is not to seek for Love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” – Rumi

At the end of this year of a CPE residency (Clinical Pastoral Education), evaluations, contemplation and the celebration of completion are upon me. I am grateful and tired.

For those who don’t know, CPE residency is formal training for chaplains. It is a yearlong educational and clinical program providing spiritual care in a medical setting. Working as a chaplain in a hospital is more than just sitting and listening, or saying a few prayers. Those are certainly part of the work. But within those parts and other parts are complex and dynamic elements that in CPE are explored, learned, integrated and practiced. Like other clinical professions (nurses, doctors, techs), one year of residency is just the beginning.

Questions that I explored in CPE and I will continue to explore, because the door has been opened, again, even wider:

  • Who am I bringing into an encounter with a patient/client, family, staff (or anyone, really)?
    • What do I know and believe about myself because of my own stories?
    • What are my expectations? Why? Where do they come from?
    • What do I need, emotionally, physically, spiritually? Why? Where do those needs come from?
    • What gifts do I offer in connecting with another? How do I hold those gifts lightly?
    • What may limit me in connecting with another? How do I hold those limitations lightly?
    • How can I listen to the other, really hearing them?
    • What are they feeling? What might they need from me?
    • How and why do I resonate with another?
    • How can I use empathy?
    • What do I believe, theologically? How were those beliefs formed? How are they changing?
    • How am I privileged? What am I blind to because of that privilege?
    • How can I behold the other, regardless of circumstance, past or present?
  • Professionally:
    • What are the tools – theories, concepts, interventions, assessments – that I learned and continue to refine that will serve this unique encounter?
    • What are my responsibilities to others and to myself?
    • What protocols, policies and laws govern my work?
    • What ethical standards guide my work?

A pretty intense experience, to say the least.

One thing that has been curious is seeing how participating in this kind of program at an older age has some advantages and disadvantages.

#1

Disadvantage: I’m more tired and my stamina is not as robust as it used to be. The overnight shifts as well as the 12+ hour days took a bigger toll than had I been even just 10 years younger. The body does in fact age.

Advantage: However, as I have aged, even before this year, I have put a great deal of value and effort into self-care, and taking breaks when needed. I can’t push myself like I used to, so I don’t, and I’m ok with that.

#2

Disadvantage: I have done a great deal of inner work over the years, in and out of therapy. I thought I had dealt with a lot of my “past” and healed much of the events, losses and relationships that have contributed to, as Rumi puts it, “all the barriers” I have built against Love (in all forms and definitions). But, well there is always more work to do.

Advantage: I have done a great deal of inner work over the years, in and out of therapy. Even though “stuff” (a lot of stuff) was unearthed this year in CPE, I already had tools and practices to help, while being open to adding more.

#3

Disadvantage: Doing all this very deep work with others, who are also doing deep work adds more stress to the whole process (on top of all the personal, non-CPE related events in ones life). See #1.

Advantage: With aging, self-care becomes more critical. Part of self-care includes evaluating how much energy I put into any given moment. Being discerning about which issues to challenge. Which situations and encounters energize me and which drain me. What battles to fight and which ones to let go. I have learned that as I age what mattered so much before doesn’t matter as much now. Being right is one of those things. Saying, I’m sorry, or I don’t know is self-care. Connection and peace are more important now. Not false peace of “I won’t say anything because it will rock the boat.” But authentic peace of “I’ll express my needs and thoughts and do my best not to be attached to the outcome.” Or the peace of “I can’t change (him, her, them, that). All I can change is my reaction.

Finally, my last few months of the CPE program I had the privilege to again work in hospice chaplaincy. I learned when working with people facing the end of life, four elements are critical for their spiritual and emotional care: Hope, Peace, Purpose and Connection. I will talk more about these in a later post. But this last one, Connection, becomes more and more important as we age.

  • connection to others who love us;
  • connection to our compassionate selves;
  • connection to care and support in our journey, and
  • connection to that which gives us Joy.

In every moment and in every encounter, may you be inspired to seek, find and dismantle all the barriers to what connects you to Joy and Love.

Inner Listening

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
do you hear what I hear
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
do you know what I know
In your palace warm, mighty king,
do you know what I know
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring Him silver and gold
Said the king to the people everywhere,
listen to what I say
Pray for peace, people everywhere!
listen to what I say
The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
————————————————————-

The Buddha said, about his teachings, don’t just take my word for it, go out and find the answers yourself.

Rumi says, look for the answer inside your question.

Your Inner Voice comes from the part of you that can see the bigger picture and helps guide you towards your true life expression. – Joan Sotkin

Many teachers of various backgrounds and experiences have said what Joan said, in different words.  They suggest a myriad of techniques and practices on how to access, listen and trust our inner voice, our guide, our higher self.

Practicing quiet, meditation, yoga or other forms of stilling our bodies and minds has great benefit in being able to better listen to ourselves.

I awoke one morning with the “Do you hear what I hear” song in my head.  Reading the lyrics more closely I was struck by something about the song.  If you notice the verses travel from seeing, to hearing, to knowing.  Knowing a truth, a great and important mystery, so important that it deserves the most valuable offerings we can give.  And in this knowing we are gifted with goodness and light.

This knowing is birthed in us, pure and good, like a child, full of hope and possibilities.  We have experienced times when we had an “ah-ha” or a deep understanding, a knowing.   This knowing can feel liberating, filling us with confidence and a sense of “Yes!”  This is that voice speaking.  This voice we listen to.

Do we need to pass through the gates of seeing and hearing before knowing?  As humans, it just might be that we have to, at least for some things.

Sometimes I read something, or hear something on the radio or iPod, and a deep resonance will occur, a knowing of a deep Truth, at the precise moment I need it.

Sometimes, I sit in silence, in meditation, or by the beach or among the trees or in the water, and have a revelation to a question that has been tumbling in my head and heart.

Sometimes, I hear  a story, a phrase, or a piece of advice from several different people within a short amount of time.  Or people will mention a book, or movie or music – three times in a week.  It’s as if the Universe has a 2×4 and hit me with it.  At that point, I can’t help but acknowledge the invitation to listen, to incorporate what I have seen and heard into what I know and then, to know differently.

Sometimes, my inner compass tells me which direction to go when I’m lost.
If I just listen.

How do you listen?

“You here all by your lonesome?”

A nice man whose campsite was across from mine, come up and asked me this question.  I was sitting next to my campfire, reading, having a glass of wine, after a wonderful day driving up the coast.  I was pretty content and relaxed.

I said, “Well, I’m here, but not lonesome.”  “oh.” He said, clearly not expecting my response.

It made me think about traveling alone.  Traveling on trips like this one, and “traveling” through this life.

While there were times when I thought it would be nice to have someone with me on this road trip, like when trying to navigate and drive (I see why my Mom has a talking GPS), I thoroughly enjoyed my own company.  I can listen to the music I want, or not.  I can stop when and where I want.  I can eat what I want and when.  I can sit or walk for however long I desire.  I can talk to people, or not (including myself).  However, I couldn’t turn to my traveling companion and say, “Wow! Look at that!  Isn’t that beautiful!”  I still said it, though, knowing the Universe was listening and receiving my excitement and gratitude.  Hearing my own voice say those words was also surprisingly comforting.

Traveling alone in this way, I also learned more about myself.  What do I want?  What do I like?  While I know answers to these questions most of the time, traveling and having new experiences, I get to answer these questions anew!

I discovered, for instance, that my natural inclination is to place myself and my desires second.  Especially if I don’t have a strong inclination towards one thing or another, I will offer to defer to my companion’s wishes, hoping they have a stronger inclination.  Traveling alone I couldn’t defer to anyone.  I stopped when I felt the urge for a picture, or an exploration without having to discuss it with another.  I also got to change my mind without need of explanation.

I also learned that when I am tired and hungry I am very irritable.  Ok, I didn’t just learn this, but it was illuminating just how irritated I can get, and how at some point the irritations (with slower drivers who don’t use pull-outs, or turn signals) became almost comical.  “Really, you are getting that upset?  Look at what you are missing by being pissed off.”  This usually worked to help me become more present to the beauty and wonder I was passing.

I also was able to greet people on the paths (hiking, sidewalks, and gatherings) without having to worry what my companion would think, or if our conversation would be interrupted.  Saying “hello”, especially to those hiking the same trails is an acknowledgement of our sharing an experience, greeting a fellow traveler, even if we never have any other words between us.

And while I do enjoy meeting new people, I am an introvert and shy by nature, so extending myself in that way is a stretch for me.  I tried to greet people, but found my more contemplative nature compelled me to sit at the end of the row at services.  I initiated a few introductions at the various gatherings, but when another approached me, I welcomed the greeting and opened easily to the conversation that resulted.

And even though I technically traveled alone, I didn’t really.  There were a myriad of people without whom I would not be able to travel in this way.  I had wonderful couch surfing hosts, Art and Linda, who let me stay in their spare bedroom for three nights; there was the friendly toll taker before getting on the ferry; the skilled ferry driver who took a boat full of cars and people across Puget Sound; the helpful ranger at Olympic National Park who told me about the hike to Marymere Falls; the distraught young man in Coos Bay who asked me to pray for his brother who has schizophrenia; the animated camp hosts in Sunset Bay who drove around the camp asking if campers needed fire wood; the joyful bubble makers on the beach who gave so much joy; those generous souls who prepared, offered and celebrated the Yom Kippur services; the beautiful Interfaith Community that welcomed me and others; the hard workers who maintain the highways; the smiling waitresses and cooks at the cafés and restaurants where I dined; the miner who extracted the rose quartz that now hangs round my neck; the radio hosts on my car radio……

And yet, there were also signs that this next, unknown part of my life I am to travel alone.  Meaning that the answers to the questions I am asking myself now about offering myself in service (my ministry) are not necessarily to be found outside myself exclusively.  Reading, consultation, workshops, even welcomed advice from friends does not trump my own knowledge, just because of its origin.  Outside is not better than inside, and visa versa.  The key, I am discovering, is in creating the space to listen, then to listen, then to trust, then to keep listening inside and outside – comparing, contrasting and trusting clarity will come.

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“Look for the answers inside your questions.” Rumi says.  A quote that I have had on my business cards, website and email signature for years.  Now I read it and face the reality with new eyes and a more open heart.

And it’s not just about listening to the answers that are given in the stillness, but trusting my own wisdom, experience and worth to answer these questions, and respond to the call.  Trusting that my intentions to be a compassionate channel of healing, light and grace will guide me, as long as my intentions are not muddled with fear and worry and doubt.  If I discover fear and worry, I get another opportunity to return to the ground of myself, what I know to be true – that the energies of the Universe (God, etc) heal and guide when I open authentically to them.

My wish is that as I navigate and travel these paths, these discoveries and reminders will support me, and others in their travels.   And may this be true for all of us!

Our Common Humanity

A conversation with a friend recently became part of a gathering of revelations about what it is that makes us all human in the same way.  Some of these revelations were illuminating, some needed reminders.

According to John Welwood* it basically comes down to fear that I am not really going to be accepted for who I am, and my deep longing for that acceptance. 

I bet that if I asked each person on the planet this question, 100% would say, “Yes.” 

“Do you want to be accepted for who you are?”

If we all want the same thing, then why is it so hard to make that happen?  That is also how we are human in the same way.  Because the kind of true acceptance (absolute love) we are longing for is experienced only in temporary moments in the human journey, which is the way humans are built.  Permanent experience of this kind of love will only be realized when we return to that Love, when we die.

Then there is the love that we humans are built to give to each other, and all beings, relative love.  It is different than the all accepting love we long for, and often gets mistaken for it, which contributes to our suffering.

This human, relative love has been described as messy, and it is.  It is also beautiful and exactly what we need in order to connect with each other.  Unfortunately, this relative love changes, we fall out of love, we forget to express love, we take love for granted, we make judgments and assumptions, and we hold grievances.

Absolute love is the love of the Source, our Essence, God, Jesus, Allah, Energy – whatever name we give to the Mystery.  It’s not that humans can’t experience absolute love, we do in moments.  Absolute love is what we came from, what we will return to, and paradoxically what we presently embody (our essence), although humanly. 

There are many times when we experience absolute love, but only temporarily – holding one another, playing, laughter, tears, deep joy, deep pain, and deep longing.  This is a love that mystics talk about when trying to describe their experience of communion with the Divine.  Because that is what absolute love offers, communion with the Divinity of Love.  This love comes through us, and is offered to us in many moments.  It is pervasive and unlimited. 

In human relationships we often mistakenly identify relative love as absolute love.  And when we discover the love between us is not absolute (all the time) then we rail at the unfairness, become wounded and hold grievances, not realizing we are creating our own suffering by not accepting ourselves and others for who we are –  humans, having a human experience.

We are not built to experience absolute love absolutely.  We are built to experience it in moments, when there is a softening within and between us.  When the divisions between each other and the Divine are weak.  We are built to rejoice in this temporary experience of absolute love because we know what it is like to not have it, the majority of the time.

The way to open up the space for those momentary experiences of absolute love to be possible is to “plug into the Source” the absolute love, whenever possible.  To be aware of the temporary moments.  To cultivate gratitude for the simple joys and tenderness.  To let in longing and pain as much as joy and wonder.  To attend to my own process and practice that allow me to see when I am “plugged into” humans instead of the Source of absolute love.

What I can do is recognize the fact of this human experience, knowing that I can not always experience the kind of acceptance and love I know is possible.  I can commit to offering that kind of acceptance, or at least be a channel for it when possible.  I can also recognize the common humanity of the longing for and moments of absolute love.

The most powerful thing we can do for each other, for ourselves and for the entire world is to explore what it means to accept each other for who we are.  Not to be perfect at that acceptance, but to explore how it can manifest, moment to moment. 

 

* Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart, by John Welwood. Published 2011.

The Truth about Being with Someone Who is Dying

It is never easy to be unable to help someone you love who is leaving this world.  Helplessness in dying irreparably breaks our heart.

What are we to do when sitting and waiting while we watch someone die?  Some say, pray.  Meditate.  Talk to the person because they can still hear us.  Say goodbye.  Hold their hand.  Hold them.  Cry.  Read to them.  Sing to them.  Tell stories.  Tell them you love them.  Thank them.  Tell them you forgive them.  Ask for their forgiveness.  Tell them it is ok to let go.

All of these are true, and yet the breaking of our heart continues.  With each remaining breath, our heart cracks a little more.  With each reluctant realization that we will be separated, the piece of our heart falls away, forever.

Being in this state of crumbling is excruciating.  We want to leave.  We want to stay.  We want to scream and cry and rail at the unfairness of the world.  We want to disappear into an abyss.  We are fearful that the abyss will swallow us.  We want to do anything to change this, even offering our own life.  We are desperate for it to end.  We cling to every moment so that it won’t end.

There are no answers that will neatly package this experience.  Our human-ness is not neat.  Love is messy.  Dying leaves marks.  Being present for the experience seems impossible to sustain.  Finding compassion gets lost in the search for ground in this groundless time.

Sometimes, the best we can do is breathe.

Intimate Acceptance

Turning 50 years old recently has offered me yet more opportunities to deepen and reveal more layers of my becoming.  I decided to go back to therapy to work on some issues from the recent past that have been creeping into my heart in ways that feel limiting and depressive of my spirit.

The second session with my therapist left me uncomfortable and annoyed.  I was not able to immediately identify what was amiss, but later I sent my therapist an email explaining some of what I thought was happening.  In the session, we had veered into a philosophical discussion about whether events in life happen for a reason (I believe they do), and how one lives in ways that accept this belief without often knowing the reason, while balancing needs and desires, as well as discerning when to push for change and when to surrender to what is.  My email ended with the revelation that I feel the need to work on surrendering to what is and to understand what is getting in the way of that process.

Then I read an article by Tara Brach titled, When We Don’t Make Anything ‘Wrong.’ She wrote a book called Radical Acceptance.  The article tells the brief story of her encounter with Jacob, a man in his 70s who has mid-stage Alzheimer’s.  At a 10-day retreat Tara met with Jacob and he shared with her that his attitude towards his disease was:  interested, sad, grateful and even good-humored.  Intrigued by his resilience, Tara asked him how he came to be so accepting.  He said it didn’t feel like anything was wrong because it all feels like real life.

Jacob went on to tell a story of when he was leading a Buddhist  meditation talk early in his disease process.  After talking his seat in front of hundreds of people he went blank.  He didn’t know what to do or what to say, or even why he was there.  With his heart racing and mind spinning in confusion he gently put his hands together at his heart and started simply naming his experience, “afraid, embarrassed, confused, feeling like I am powerless, shaking, sense of dying, lost.”  For several minutes he sat head bowed continuing to name his experience.  As he began to relax and feel calmer, he named that too.   At last, Jacob lifted his head, looked around and apologized.

The response he received from the students was one of deep and tear-filled gratitude for the teaching of pure presence.

Perhaps Jacob’s teaching is not about struggling to accept what is in any moment, but accepting by starting with naming, “lonely, excited, tired, open, confused, hopeful, hopeless, judgmental, avoidant, loving, grateful.”

Surrendering to what is starts with identifying it.  Naming without judging, or analyzing or intending to fix.  Surrendering is becoming intimately connected with my own process, whatever it is, whether I understand it or not in the moment, and to whatever end it may reach.

Real life is not wrong, it is …now…and now…..and now……

Aging into Our Elderhood – What have you learned from your elders?

“When we resist aging, we resist life itself, since aging is inherent in living. To resist the reality of aging creates needless suffering. But, if we can see the aging process as an unfolding opportunity, as a way to gain deeper wisdom by discriminating external phenomena from internal reality, then we can open to the fullness of life and the experience of Conscious Aging.”

This quote was offered from an elder messenger at a workshop exploring ageism.  I believe it sums up what I hope to offer on this blog.

As we age, especially in America, elders become invisible at best, and oppressed and abused at worst.  One reason is because as we age we have grasped onto the fears in the messages that aging exclusively means decline, lack of independence and worthlessness. Because of these fears we have pushed away any hope that there is something more, something worthy about aging.  We have allowed ourselves to miss the many opportunities for continued learning and growth that is always available. Elderhood and the way in which we can claim it will be different for each person.  Claiming our Elderhood must happen if we are to change aging from something to be avoided and feared into a time of learning, hope, connection and strength even with the realities of the physical changes and unavoidable death.