Lately I've been thinking about what it takes to expand our capacity for joy. Is the ability to be joyful something that we can improve, much as a swimmer can lengthen the amount of time she can hold her breath, or a weightlifter the total sum of iron he can lift? Meditation techniques show that one can learn to focus the brain, to quiet thoughts, and disengage from negative emotions. What about ways to experience more joy?
While pondering this question, I came upon an equally intriguing topic, one that takes the expansion of one's brain (or soul) in another direction. A post by my friend Robin Bates, whom I've mentioned before, highlighted a speech by Beth Rushing, the Academic Dean of St Mary's College of MD, where Robin teaches. (You can read the entire post at Robin's website BetterlivingthroughBeowulf
.) The focus of the talk, given to incoming freshmen, was the cultivation of negative capability. Rushing quotes Keats who describes negative capability as the ability to live with uncertainty, mystery, and doubt, without any “irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Both of these abilities - to experience joy and to live in uncertainty - presuppose a validity. Why would we desire to expand our capacity for joy if we didn't believe that joy was a meaningful and energy-producing part of life? The same is true for negative capability. What could be the reason to become comfortable with being uncomfortable? Rushing goes on to talk about Barbara McClintock, a biologist whose fundamental openness to the situation in front of her allowed her to learn without boundaries; coming without preconceptions, she offered the plant time to unfold its secrets to her. Her ability to interact with plant life without hypotheses, or a necessity to "prove" something allowed McClintock to make surprisingly unique discoveries, for which she was later awarded a Nobel Prize.
We need faith as a foundation for life. If all is uncertainty, then we spin dangerously close to mental illness, questioning everything, unable to get out of bed in the morning, and certainly incapable of engaging in the journey of life. McClintock had to believe that the plant wanted to share itself with her. (Robin Collins, a philosopher whose interests bring together science and religion, describes this as the principle of discoverability.) We, like McClintock have a choice in our core beliefs. We can choose to believe that connections want to happen, that good is meant to come, that love will bring us what we need. But we don't know how that will happen, in what form or at what time the gift will be given.
This gap between what we want and what comes to us is the area in which doubt flourishes. Ambiguity can rock our boats, leaving us yearning to plant ourselves firmly on some stable shore. And yet we can become used to the heave and pitch of the ocean waves, and develop our sea legs, as did crusty sea captains of old. When we do, we can engage on voyages of exploration with a measure of competency and a fresh enthusiasm.
Cultivating the twin capacities of joy and negative capability may seem odd, and yet I think they might actually be best practiced together. Learning how to be OK with discomfort drains our energy as we fight against the urge to DO SOMETHING! and lessen the pressure. Choosing more ways to be joyful, or allowing ourselves to soak in the goodness around us, infuses us with a sense of well-being, allowing rejuvenating energy to enter our minds and bodies.
It's the beginning of the school year, complete with new notebooks and fresh pencils. If you're looking for some assignments, you could try these. And let me know what you discover along the way!
My husband, Dan, who blogs over at Toucanic.net
posted these reflections on collaboration yesterday. Creativity is often thought of as a singular affair; images of melancholic artists gnawing dry bread crusts in musty garrets, huddled around pots of tea come to mind. But a much more realistic view is communities of people, encouraging each other to hone and share the unique gifts they embody.
Goodness is amplified in community. The energy created doesn't only feed you, but like the five loaves, it is transformed into a feast for a multitude. With baskets left over. So thanks to my husband, who continues to spur me on to think and write creatively. Enjoy!
My cardiovascular exercise of choice is cycling: it’s exhilarating (especially on Pennsylvania hills with shoulder-less roads), low impact and offers great scenery (in 15 minutes I can be next to a burbling river: perfect). Most days, I ride alone; I do the distance, but take my time.
Couple days ago, a friend called: Want to ride this afternoon? Sure, I say, thinking I can probably keep up. We’ll go at your pace, he says (he’s in better shape and gracious). We start out, me in the lead. All of a sudden, I’m flying down hills, cranking up hills, way faster than usual. My friend is not pushing, not cajoling; he’s totally silent the whole time. We finish, chat a bit, then go our separate ways. Could I go this far this fast tomorrow?
I’m editing a book these days, working with more than a dozen writers. Some are experienced, some are new to the field. They send essays which I read, then I make comments and send the work back for rewrites. To a person, they seem grateful for the remarks, and what they’re producing keeps getting better. Because I’m such a great editor? Pshaw. I think it’s more likely that being part of a group is having this effect.
I’m also getting edited, as beta readers for a light mystery I’m finishing weigh in with their comments. Sitting on the other side of the desk is trickier; I’m not always sanguine when someone wants to correct my word choice, grammar or punctuation. And if they raise questions about a story arc or detail–that can be interesting.
But. I’m finding that these beta readers/editors are usually right. And even if they’re not, or if it’s a judgement call, I still learn something from their remarks. My manuscript is, without doubt, better for their participation in it.
As with cycling, I can write on my own, and manage to cover ground or fill a page. However, while writing has a lot of solitary in it, good writing is hardly ever a solo act. It’s tough to write by committee (try reading an instruction booklet, or a company’s policy manual, for evidence of what happens when a lot of voices shout into a single document), but it’s also nearly impossible to write well as ‘me one’, to quote a favorite Bahamian saying. If it’s progress I’m after–getting better at nearly anything–it’s people I need.
Reflection of Mt. Rainier
One morning, the third or fourth day of our vacation, I took a meander around the small lake which hugs one side of the camp we were visiting. There was a point with a cross somewhere at the terminus, and I thought it might make a pleasant place to sit and meditate for a while. The morning was crisp and shimmering with light. The sun had woken me with double patterns on the bedroom ceiling: the first, fashioned directly by the early rays, the other puzzling at first, until I recognized it as being refracted from the lake outside my window. It shifted backward and forward, like a timid square dancer, learning to honor her partner.After a few questionable moments (where did the trail go...?) I made it to the point and settled on an upended log to take in the view. It took me a while to focus in, and when I did, I was afforded a double treat - an almost perfect reflection of the shoreline, replete with grass, fir trees and snow covered mountains, crowned by a pale blue sky with a dash of cloud. I don't think I've ever seen such a perfect reflection in my life. Or at least, not one where the view was so puzzle-perfect. Where was my camera??? I had to make do with my eyes and hope that memory would serve me well.
Being the sort of person I am, the sort who is rarely content to let something just be itself, I started thinking about the art of reflection. And I've been thinking ever since.
Reflecting is the ability to see something clearly. In some instances, it is the ability to look at yourself and evaluate what you have been thinking, feeling, sensing or experiencing. You can reflect about what is happening in the present, or what you have experienced in the past. St Ignatian spirituality relies on the process of "desolation and consolation" as a means for reflecting on when you were most in touch with the Spirit throughout the day. How did I feel? is a legitimate question as a means of evaluating choices you've made. Some meditative techniques teach people how to quiet their minds (think still pond here) and name what emotions they are feeling in the present. For instance, one can notice that they are angry, sad, or lonely. Viewing emotions dispassionately allows one see clearly what is going on. They can go beyond that awareness and probe even deeper if they desire. Why am I feeling this way? What happened to elicit this response? Is there something I can change?
While possible to reflect on one's own, at times it is helpful to have someone help mirror you. I find that I am involved in that quite often. Friends offer the gift to me, and I reciprocate. It requires the ability to be still, to quiet myself from my own set of thoughts and ideas, and to focus on the other person. They can often hear themselves in a different way while talking to me. I can notice with them what they are saying, and perhaps probe with a question to go deeper. Yesterday a friend came for breakfast and reflected back to me my experience up to my daughter's wedding. It was helpful to remember how I had handled the stress and be realistic about the amount of energy it took to love well.
Socrates says, "The unexamined life is not worth living". The Old Testament prophets encourage giving careful reflection to one's ways. By slowing down and becoming more aware, we can see more truly. We can notice and name what is going on, opening ourselves to deepening our life experiences by changing our behaviors or attitudes. But reflection is not always about problem solving, as I've discovered recently. We can also experience a deeper joy by reflecting about positive memories, allowing the delightful moments in our lives to soak into us. As I'm sorting through the piles of wedding photos from our daughter's wedding, I can choose to reflect on what I felt on the day of the wedding and allow that delight to nourish my soul, weeks after the event.
I like where my thoughts are taking me. It's a big topic, but I feel like I'm getting a bit of a grasp on not only the importance of reflecting, but the value of reflecting on different things and in different ways. I'm sure that will show up in weeks ahead.
A friend of mine, Cathleen Lauer, is a spiritual director who is trained in the art of noticing and naming. She recently wrote a post over at Clarifying Peace, which talks about the value of good conversations. I've learned a lot from Cathleen over these past years. Much of the language I now use, including noticing and naming, has come from her. I appreciate her ability to be a reflective partner. She's a great resource, and if you're thinking this might be helpful for you, I'd encourage you to contact her. She can work not only in person, but also over the phone.
What if each day is an invitation to love? This question came to me as I was out walking this morning. I've been struggling as of late to find some way to order my life. Choosing to live in the moment has been a great exercise (I'm sure it's expanded my capacity for something) but it's left me feeling a bit adrift. I thought perhaps it was the need to "find my rhythm," to get into a routine, although I had my doubts. No, what I think I need is a compelling world view, something that's big enough to encapsulate the changing circumstances of my life, something succinct enough to remember, to fit into my traveling bags as I continue to wander.
In Wendell Berry's "Hannah Coulter," an old woman reflects on her life. Her voice is saturated with love. It is as palpable as the humidity that blankets Washington, DC during the summer. She speaks out of her experience, the memories deep and rich as a forest floor, where years of decomposing leaves have created a nurturing humus. Early on in the book, she describes life as an invitation to enter a room of love. "Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. some do not come in, Some may stay out forever."
To enter into the room of love means to be willing to connect to the world around you. To risk being open and vulnerable, allowing the energy of love to flow in and through you, building connections, bringing purpose and desire, power and motivation, joy and delight.
I've blogged in the past about love, (see the categories along the sidebar for those posts) and how I believe it has three main components: giving, enjoying and partnering. Each of these requires an other (even if it means that I see myself in relationship to myself). To be "in love" with the world, is to be actively engaging in these three aspects of love. I choose to give to the things and people I love. I offer my time, my energy, my insight and encouragement. I may bring a casserole or mow a lawn, or craft a quilt. I can volunteer at an animal shelter, or be a part of conservation efforts for our local stream.
I also love by enjoying the world around me. I choose to be fed by the sunlight streaming through the trees on my morning walk, by the peach that's finally ripened and offered for sale by a local farmer. I see and appreciate the kindness of my spouse, and laugh at the outrageous scene cleverly described in the current novel.
Then there is the third component of love: partnering and collaborating. Creative companioning, I've called it. Writing this, I find myself aware that it is the area in which I feel the least energy. Although I am energized by giving (and it's an easy posture for me to fall into), and I am expanding my capacity for enjoyment, the missing component, I can see now, is that of creative collaboration. When I am involved with others and we are working together on what we love, then the energy is reinforced. Have you had this experience? This is what I think is meant by synergy - the concept that the energy of working together is more than the sum of the two energies of the parties involved.
Life as an invitation to love. It gives me my goal, and helps me evaluate where I'm missing out. I like it.
Yesterday I found a website that is helping me understand a passage from Julian of Norwich. The website, entitled "People of the Second Chance,"
features blogs written by people who have hit rock bottom, yet somehow were able to accept the radical grace of God and start again. As part of their mission statement they state: "We are not ashamed of our scars, wounds, or failures and leverage them as a source of strength and character development."
The passage I've been pondering from Julian of Norwich comes in chapter 38 where she says:
"God also showed that sin shall not be shameful to man, but his glory; for in the same way as God's justice gives every sin a suitable punishment, so God's love gives the same soul a joy for every sin."
Punishment for sin makes sense to me as a part of justice (I see it in the cause and effect language), but what does it mean for God 's love to give the same soul a joy for every sin? What the website shows in a powerful way is that people who have made a mess of their lives (and in some way, we all fall into this category) are the greater recipients of God's grace. Because their soul is truly broken, they can do nothing else but rely on God's rescue and restoration.
When Dan and I were first married, I discovered a broken tea cart in my mom's attic. It had been given to my mom by a family friend, someone I'd known and loved, and one of the wheels, walnut like the rest of the table, had been shattered into several pieces during a move. My mom put the pieces in the attic, not willing to part with the table, although despairing of it ever gracing the dining room again. But I knew that Dan's grandfather was a whiz at repairing antiques, so I asked if we could have it and see what he could do. You can probably guess the end of the story, and the tea cart has been with us ever since. In showcasing the ability of a family craftsman it is doubly a "graceful" piece.There's a lot of grace in the work of Julian of Norwich, more perhaps than many of us might be comfortable with. The God she describes refuses to blame us for the things that cause suffering and pain in our lives and in the lives of others. This God sees that we, like the table, cannot help the face that we are broken. It doesn't make the brokenness any less painful, any less "wrong," in the sense that it causes distress. The truth stands, and some amount of culpability is acknowledged. And yet there is some way in which God accepts that this is the way things are, the way things had to be (sin is necessary, Julian has stated earlier). God prounces with accuracy the state of affairs (judges rightly) and then stands willing and eager to show his re-creative ability, his restorative powers, so that what was thought useless could become in time useful again.
Later in the passage, Julian says: "and then God brought cheeringly into my mind David and innumerable others of the old Jewish Law, and in the new Christian Law he made me think first of Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul, Thomas of India and Saint John of Beverly, and also innumerable others: how they are famous in the church on earth with their sins, which are not shameful for them, but are all turned into glory. And therefore our kind Lord gives us a partial vision here on earth of their perfection in heaven; for there the badge of their sin is changed into glory."
How many of us, I wonder, live some part of our lives in shame? We know that we have shortcomings, or that we have wounded those around us. We feel that we have used up what grace might have been doled out to us. And so we shuffle along, refuse to open up certain doors, shun relationships that would expose our weaknesses.
The People of the Second Chance are committed to shouting down that doomed way of thinking, to gently, but boldly open the walled-up closets of our secret sins and usher in the light of grace.The people who share their stories have found a new source of joy. Like Julian, they know that grace is endless, and for those who are humble enough to receive it, there awaits a badge of glory - a testament to God's love and ability to make all things well.
I haven't blogged much these past weeks as Dan and I have been enjoying our vacation in the northwest. First driving from Seattle to Montana, then back to Seattle, we finished our time with a four day circle which took us through Mt Rainier, Yakima, Hood River, and up the Oregon Coast. Taking a pass on processing verbally, I instead spent each evening downloading, editing, and then posting the day's top images on my facebook page where I could relive the grandeur once again.
It is healing to be in nature - to be in landscapes that dwarf you, to stop thinking, analyzing, imagining, controling. You offer your presence, your attention to the beauty that surrounds you, letting it rush into your soul like the cataracts crashing their way down from snow-covered peaks. You allow yourself to be wordless, the response only a deep breath, or unbidden tears.
It requires, especially for those of us who tend to be analytical, a conscious effort. As the following poem by C.P. Cavafy shows, one needs to be willing to stop, both physically and mentally, to actually see.
Let me stop here. Let me, too, look at nature awhile.
The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,
the shore yellow; all lovely,
all bathed in light.
Let me stand here. And let me pretend I see all this
(I actually did see it for a minute when I first stopped)
and not my usual day-dreams here too,
my memories, those sensual images.
Although I have had extremely intense experiences of connecting with the universe through my intuition, the path of the senses is one that has been traveled over the centuries. Choosing to shut down the one and be open to the other allows an equally intimate and immediate way of union with the universe. This is the gist of the following passage from Lord Byron's "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," which has been a favorite of mine for some time. I love it for the way it expresses what is often inexpressible.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its road:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne're express, yet cannot all conceal.
I found, as I traveled through the northwest, that each of these experiences drew me back to the Creator of such beauty. There is an old hymn I've often song, but never as meaningfully as when I couldn't sing it, standing in a mountain pass overlooking Mt. Rainier.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur...
Then sings my soul, my savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
To view the porfolio of God's handiwork, just a fraction of the beauty that is part of our earth, brought forth joy at such a deep level, I couldn't choke out a word. Instead, I let my heart sing and did not try to stop the tears from flowing.