Autumn Reflections from the Porch Swing

It was a lovely autumn day. I sat on the front porch swing and watched as squirrels continued their collection of items to store for winter. Birds from farther North arrived in the South, nesting in shrubs and on trees, or resting on the telephone wires overhead. Occasionally, a breeze stirred up the fallen leaves, which danced across the yard. In the midst of the tranquility of the autumn afternoon, I was also mindful of different mental images which seemed incongruous in my placid setting. There were many terrible news headlines I was following: continued trouble in the Ukraine, innocent people slaughtered by the Islamic State, youth shot down in the streets of the US, and so much terror and violence around the world. The harsh realities of life seem so distant from my idyllic afternoon sitting on the porch swing yet I knew they marked the day to day reality of people in other places.

As my reflections shifted from the tranquility of the moment and the violence in the world, a question emerged. It was not a well formed question, but a series of inquisitive thoughts that were interconnected and jumbled together in my mind. What is the purpose of life? Is there a purpose in life? How is it that we are to live? In the midst of violence and chaos, what sense do we make of life? What is it that we are missing? How do we escape the cycles of violence which mar human existence?

My mind drifted to other places I’ve lived and how much I’ve enjoyed just sitting outside. In Atlanta, it’s the porch swing. I smiled as I remembered the porch swing at my childhood home in Pennsylvania. In Miami Beach, it was a balcony overlooking the water of Biscayne Bay. In Tucson, there was front porch bench looking onto a desert landscape. I’m very fond of sitting outside, being quiet, and reflecting on life – just from my own front porch.

From each place I sat, I could see trees. There were pine trees, willows, cacti, mangroves, palm trees, maples, cherry trees, and so many others. What does it mean to be a tree? There are so many varieties and different types of trees. How could “treeness” be limited to just one variety?

A sparrow perches itself on the porch railing near where I sit. Today there are cardinals and blue jays in the yard. I think of the birds I’ve watched from my various porches: the robins, crows, buzzards, hawks, egrets, and pelicans. How is it that nature has given us so many different kinds of birds? They are so different, one from another. What would it be like if all the birds were exactly alike?

My mind wanders even further. In our galaxy, it’s estimated that there are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars. The number of galaxies in the universe, yes, those are also numbered in the hundreds of billions. As mind-blowing as those numbers truly are, I can’t begin to fathom the theoretical possibility that even with all those stars and galaxies, there could also exist other universes somewhere out there in dimensions I cannot comprehend.. Even the stars and galaxies are very diverse, one from another.

As I sit on the porch swing, I am struck once again at how incredibly diverse our environment, our world, our solar system, our universe actually is. The constant theme that runs through everything that exists is diversity. That’s even true within our bodies, composed of many organs, systems, cells, and billions and billions of microorganisms growing inside.

For whatever reason, humanity has succeeded in disconnecting itself from living in appreciation of this fundamental diversity of the universe. Diversity is the way things were meant to be. Yet, we try to make everything the same: one true religion, one correct political system, one “best” economic system, one superior race of people, and one way of doing, saying, dressing, or behaving. From large systems to particular behaviors, humans have the tendency to try to limit diversity and have one right way.

As part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I find myself quite uncomfortable with this human tendency to claim that one way or one thing is the right one making other others somehow less valuable or even defective. I believe that all creation is a reflection of the Divine. God created the cosmos as an expression of self. All aspects of the cosmos fundamentally are good. That means that when we fail to live with reference for the diverse ways creation presents itself to us, we fail to reference the goodness of God expressed in creation. Perhaps more importantly, there is something about the essence of Divinity that could only be expressed through incomprehensible diversity.

In this context, it’s deeply ironic that religion is used to justify war and the taking of human life. While all the great religious traditions of human history contain some form of the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do to you, out of greed and lust for power, people throughout history have used religion to justify the malicious intent they unleash on others. In doing so, they not only violate the religion they espouse but ignore the deep and obvious reality of the natural order of things: the fundamental principle of diversity in the cosmos.

In sitting on my porch swing, a small insight becomes quite clear to me as very important. The sparrow doesn’t act as though it’s better than the starling. Both the squirrels and the chipmunks know their role in gathering for the winter. In the diversity found in my own yard, there is a kind of harmony and order. That is the way we humans are to live: in harmony with the order established in creation, a harmony of orchestrated diversity where the many parts are woven together to form the great symphony of life. If we could only learn the lessons life presents us by just taking a moment to sit and rest in our own yards.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Embracing Age: The Last Quarter of Life

I recently celebrated my birthday. I appreciated the well wishes from others and the humorous jabs made about my age. It’s all part of the fun. One comment, from a friend I’ve known for nearly 30 years, stuck out in particular. In the midst of a group of people, he said, “I don’t know what pact you made with the devil. But I recently looked at an old picture of you and you haven’t changed a bit. You look the same today as you did when you were 30!”

I know that I do look younger than my age. I always have. What’s more striking to me is that in many ways I don’t feel much different from when I was 30. The main exception is the arthritis that grabs at my joints first thing in the morning and later in the evening. While physically, I feel pretty much as I always have, what has changed is my perception of my life. As I have aged, the perception of my own life has shifted in some fundamental ways.

Presently, I’ve lived about 3/4 as long as I’m likely to live. If I die at the age of other relatives, I have perhaps 20 years left of life. (Okay….I’d like at least 25 more, if that can happen!) I often think about the wonderful aspects of the life I’ve lived while also taking care to make decisions about what I do with what time I have left.

There are a number of people I know who are in their 20’s and 30’s. Because of their age, they look forward to life with plans, hopes, and dreams. That’s a wonderful thing. When I turned 40, a shift began as I reconciled myself to the reality that my youthful dreams hadn’t worked out quite the way I had hoped. That’s a lot of what mid-life is about. As I now count the years to retirement, I am much more aware of using time wisely. The problem is that I’m just not sure what it means to use my time wisely.

I’m well aware that at the end of life no one ever says that they wish that they would have worked more than they did. While some people have regrets about past actions, it’s more typical for people to regret what they didn’t do. What does one do when one reaches the point in life when the awareness of the limited life-span becomes more palpable?

Of course, we each approach choices in the later period of adulthood in various ways. I have a couple of colleagues who have a deep passion for teaching. They are in their 70’s and maintain full-time faculty positions. Another colleague has retired to a rustic home in the mountains and, for the first time in his life, is writing fiction. I’m reading his first novel, which may be turned into a movie. I have other friends who have largely unplugged from life: now living in a lake house with no TV or internet, reading, boating, and traveling on occasion.

I don’t know what will mark the next 20 or 25 years of my life. But I am certain of a few of the parameters. From the mid-life transition onward, life is characterized by the process of letting go of the attachments of the various ways we thought life would turn out but didn’t. Instead, we have the opportunity to grow in the acceptance of our lives as they are. Even as I cope with arthritis, I have to let go of the expectation that I can easily move my body in the ways that I intend and often have to “loosen up” a bit to walk or climb stairs. No matter if it’s letting go of physical abilities, dreams of what life would be, or professional roles that are taken over by a younger generation, at its heart, letting go is a spiritual process. This process of letting go is what I have learned to do each day when I sit in silence and open myself in meditation. In that quiet time, I let go of doing anything other than sitting and being mindful. I open myself to a mystery that is far broader than I can fathom. I rest in the trust that all will be well.

I don’t know what will mark the last ¼ of my life. But my experience in prayer and meditation provides the context for realizing that no matter what comes my way, all will be well. I understand the words of Dame Julian of Norwich more deeply today than when I first read them in my 20’s. As she faced the stark reality of her own illness, her faith was simply that “in all matter of things, all will be well.”

Another birthday has come and gone. I venture on another trip around the Sun. I trust that just as the first three quarters of my life has been a wonderful adventure, so too the last quarter will include people, experiences, and encounters I can’t anticipate. At whatever age, it truly is a gift to simply be alive. Perhaps that’s why it’s important to celebrate birthdays: to remind us that our lives are indeed a gift.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Spiritual Direction and Healing the Soul

Spiritual Direction. It’s an odd term. It refers to a practice in which one person tends to another as a companion for the spiritual journey. The “direction” aspect of “spiritual direction” is what makes the term awkward. A wise spiritual director doesn’t direct anything. At best, an experienced spiritual director may make some observations about what form life is taking for the other. But someone shouldn’t be giving directions or advice.

Some people have tried using other words for “spiritual direction.” There’s spiritual friend, spiritual companion, spiritual coach or advisor, spiritual teacher …. all of which have their own problems. Conveying the dynamic of this process seems to elude all of these terms. It’s similar to trying to define spirituality itself: as soon as it’s defined, it becomes obvious that something is missing.

I don’t know when the English term “spiritual direction” was first used. In all my study, I’ve not been able to find a reference for that. But the actual process is found in every great religious tradition.

My understanding of the practice of spiritual direction is rooted in the Eastern Christian tradition. In the Eastern Christian tradition, spiritual direction traces its origin to the third century of the Common Era. At that time, the fathers and mothers of the Christian contemplative tradition sought refuge and quiet in the Sinai desert. From them emerged an understanding of what we today call spiritual director. The person regarded as a father or mother, abba or imma, was a person known for living a well integrated spiritual life. Others would seek out the wisdom of the father or mother. More often in small groups, but sometimes individually, the father or mother would offer perspective about the path of the spiritual journey. This process was understood to be one of healing.

Unlike many other approaches to spiritual direction common today, spiritual direction in Eastern Christianity is primarily known as the healing of the soul. Affirming that each person is at heart the image and likeness of the Divine, soul healing is meant to remove all obstacles that prevent the person from living fully in consonance with the Divine spark that animates each of us. From this perspective, spiritual direction isn’t just about prayer and spiritual practices or a set of exercises. Spiritual practices and disciplines do have merit in that they enable us to live into the truth of the inner light we carry. But the process of healing, of returning to wholeness, is the focus of spiritual direction. Healing and wholeness are the result of turning toward and reorienting ourselves to (Greek: metanoia) the Divine presence in us. In this process, every aspect of life is refocused to enable us to manifest the Divine light, to be transfigured into the image of God we were created to be. Healing is a movement toward integration from all the ways we each lead lives that are imbalanced or off-target (Greek: hamartia). This healing doesn’t come in an instant but is a process of growing into greater balance and harmony throughout all of life.

When I meet with others as a spiritual director, either in my study or by way of Skype, any aspect of life may be part of the conversation. For example, some people explore how the spiritual direction of life can be better integrated with work and career while others explore living compassionately in our complex world. In these conversations, my role is not that of a counselor or psychologist who identifies problems and establishes goals to solve those problems. Instead, my role is to be a reminder to return to the simple perspective of how the spiritual dimension of a person’s life gives form and shape to the other aspects of life. While only the person seeking spiritual direction can come to that kind of integration, it’s often helpful to have another ask questions or share perspectives on the process of integration. That’s what the fathers and mothers in the Sinai did when people sought their counsel.

While the spiritual dimension of my own life is rooted in the contemplative tradition of Christianity, many of those with whom I work in spiritual direction don’t share that same background. While some are Christian, some are Buddhist, and others describe themselves as spiritual but not religious or humanist. The metaphors for the integration of the spiritual dimension of life with the other aspects of life may differ because of our beliefs and practices. Yet, the essential process of healing the soul, of journeying with another along the process of wholeness, is very much the same.

Today, there’s a wide variety of perspectives on spiritual direction. Some follow a particular approach to prayer and spiritual practice, like the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, and others use psycho-spiritual tools, like the Enneagram. My approach is one of integration and is rooted in the tradition that understands spiritual growth and development as a process of healing and wholeness for all of life.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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