What Would Happen If You Dropped Everything?

What if you were asked to drop everything and go in a different direction?

It’s amazing how often this crops up in ancient stories. To wit:

  • The Hebrew prophet Jonah preaches destruction to the Assyrian city of Nineveh; the inhabitants drop what they’re doing and repent of their wickedness.
  • Jesus calls a couple of fishermen to follow him; they drop their nets and go where he goes.
  • Wealthy Indian merchants encountered the Buddha, heard his wisdom, and instantly joined the Sangha (the community of his followers).
  • A young Jewish man named Saul persecutes the followers of Jesus—until a heavenly vision inspires him to drop everything and become a follower of Jesus.

What gives here? It’s hard to make sense of these stories when seen through the lens of 21st-century America. Even if we sensed a need to switch directions, most of us would consider it carefully, weigh options, draw up pro-and-con lists, consult family and friends, pray or meditate on it, and draw a conclusion. That’s a pretty mature way to do it. So why all the drop everything bit?

I have no idea what these stories say about decision-making techniques specifically. I do, though, hear a larger message that the immediacy of the stories dramatizes: this thing—whatever you’re dropping everything for—is more important than anything you’re doing, so stop NOW and pay attention.

To put it another way: every now and then, something—or, I would say, someone—breaks into the routine of our daily lives, no matter how good and virtuous those lives are, and commands us to listen, reflect, rethink. On occasion it changes our lives, whether immediately or (more often) over years.

If that sounds scary, well, it is. The good news: we always have the option to say no. The better news: there’s one great reason to say yes—one thing that turns the uncertainty of it all into adventure, and the worry into joy.

That one thing is the essence of the One we’re dealing with here: God, the Universe, Emptiness, whatever term you use.

In short, we’re dealing with Love itself, or the Reason to love. So wherever we go, whatever path we follow, we follow Love. Wherever Love leads us, it may be bumpy, it may be challenging, it may terrify us, but it will be good—for ourselves and whatever corner of the world we influence. No wonder the Bible’s First Letter of John tells us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Many people have done this sort of thing, more than you’d think. It’s what moves a New York financial executive to become a monk, or a successful copywriter to write more fruitful things for much less pay (no one I know, I assure you ; ), or a young gourmand to follow Jesus into the wildest wastelands of the Algerian desert. Sometimes it’s not even as outwardly dramatic as this: the new direction might look “normal” but represents a profound shift for the one who’s called to it.

Has this sort of thing happened to you? How did you respond? What difference has it made in your life?

Finally, an invitation. I’m starting to collect stories of people like this for a book project. If you’d like to share yours—or if you know someone whose story might fit—feel free to get in touch.

Dialing Down the News Intake to Sane Levels

I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. That’s because, well, they sort of made me, bubbling to the surface early in the morning of January 1. And they quickly coalesced into a catchy slogan:

More zazen. Less input.

Zazen is a form of Zen meditation in which you sit and focus on the breath. We can talk about that some other time. Today it’s the less input that occupies me, because it drew my attention to an aspect of media that drives people crazy—and, possibly, a simple way to manage it.

I like news. Typically, my wife and I would wake up to NPR, check headlines during the day, and settle down in the evening to our daily dose of BBC World News America and The PBS NewsHour. In between we’d read our excellent local newspaper and a newsmagazine or two.

Last year it all became too much. The daily drama. The endless coverage of the daily drama. The extraordinary depth of punditry over a presidential tweet.

For someone who’s hypersensitive to mental overload, this was like a tidal wave. So when less input came to mind as a resolution, it pushed me to consider ways to reduce the input. And I realized something about today’s news reporting:

There’s a lot of repetition.

Take the current Russia investigation. In a hypothetical week, media outlet X might kick off Monday by reporting what happened over the weekend. On Tuesday, you hear analysis of the latest developments from a U.S. senator. Wednesday brings three historians drawing on the lessons of past investigations. On Thursday someone from the White House leaks a small detail relating to recent developments, and reporters interview other reporters to find out what it means. To wrap up the week, the president tweets about the investigation, and the analysis machine goes into overdrive.

Does your head hurt yet?

Very little of this is bad in itself. Each bit of reporting can be invaluable to someone, sometime. But no one needs all of it.  

So I’m trying a different way to consume news—to stay aware and save my sanity—by eliminating the repetition.

In this new regime, we’ll focus on a concise weekly summation of the world’s news from The Economist. If something calls us to dig deeper, there’ll probably be an article on it in that week’s issue. Or a segment on the NewsHour. We can lightly scan the headlines, educate ourselves on local news, and screen out the rest.

These are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. I’m sure we’ll vary it once in a while. And obviously, I don’t know if this approach will work. But it’s simple to try. What do you think?

The Day God Became Not Special

Dear Reader: this post is about Christmas, and it may strike a chord with you especially if you struggle with Christmas. Or if you’re struggling in general. It’s dark at first, but if you know dark like I do, that won’t faze you. The second half gets brighter.

This past year, I’ve been led repeatedly to one big lesson.  I didn’t think of it in terms of Christmas till this morning.

The big lesson is, weirdly enough, summed up in the words of a bumper sticker: Always remember that you are wonderfully unique…just like everybody else. It’s the everybody else part that’s captivated my soul this year. Despite all my delusions to the contrary, I keep coming back to the truth that I am not special. I am just like everybody else.

Two-thirds of the way through my natural life span, it seems likely that I will live out my years like everybody else—breathing, sleeping, eating (preferably at diners), working, taking up space, trying to make my one-person’s contribution to the world. When I die, I will almost certainly fall into the category described by the writer of Ecclesiasticus:

 There are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.

In other words, not special.

Now here’s the breathtaking part. The Christmas part.

Christians believe that in an average backwater on a contentious fringe of the Roman Empire—in a stable, no less—God became a human being.

In other words, God became not special.

Think about that. We’re talking the Source of all that is, the Ultimate Reality, the One who is special in a way no other being can possibly claim. Becoming not special.

That’s pretty amazing all by itself, but there’s more. Having become not special, God knows what it’s like to feel one’s not-specialness in one’s deepest self. So we can peer into our own not-specialness and sense that God is with us in it.

It is hard to express how much we need this withness.

You see, our not-specialness can lead us to despair. We’re born, we live, we’re average, we die. Ultimately, we do a lot of this alone. What’s the point, especially when life is so difficult?

The Christian tradition has answers for that—good answers—but they’re not part of our story today. The story today is that God responds to the question, to our temptation toward despair, with withness. With a connection, a communion that is closer to us than our own breath.

No one wants to be lonely. We all want to be with. This is being with at the core of our being. Being with the Source of all that is. The answer, in so many ways, to the deepest longings of our hearts.

We could hardly ask for more.

Joyous Christmas, everyone.



Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

If You’re Concerned About Listening, and You Want to See Dublin…

I just wrote this for an email list I participate in, and I thought some of you might want to know about it too:

If you’re concerned about the future of listening in today’s noisy world, think about joining me at the 2018 International Listening Association Convention, June 20-23 in Dublin, Ireland.

Travel to Dublin may be more affordable than you’d think. I’ve found airfares in my area (via Norwegian Air) around $400 round trip.

If you’d like to know more, by all means email me.


*ILA members come from academia, business, education, healthcare, spirituality, even music, and live in 19 countries around the globe. I’ve also found them to be remarkably warm and welcoming to new folks.

Our Manifold Sins and Wickedness, Reconsidered

There’s this old prayer of confession in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition that feels, well, out of step with today’s world. In older versions, we “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Even in today’s Book of Common Prayer, “we do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”

By and large, postmodern folks don’t think this way anymore. We regard it as shaming, twisting ourselves into a pretzel of self-flagellating guilt. As children of the psychotherapeutic age, we’ve seen—and often felt firsthand—the corrosive damage shame can cause, so we naturally recoil from prayers like this. I think that’s a good instinct.

But what do we do with our dark side? Many of us still feel shame for our failures, though perhaps in a more generic, secular way. Because of that shame, we often suppress our shortcomings in any way possible.

Or, perhaps more accurately, we ignore them. We choose not to think about the way we use people, or the times we compromised our values and shouldn’t have, or the lies we’ve told. Instead, we present a pleasant façade to the world.

Over time, we may even come to believe the façade ourselves. We bury what Carl Jung famously called our shadow.

I think there’s a better way, and it came up in silent prayer recently. It goes like this:

It’s OK to look at our own failings and shortcomings and simply accept them as part of ourselves—at least as part of ourselves for now. It’s an acknowledgment of the hot mess within us that makes us human.

So when I say, “I often keep quiet to avoid conflict when I should speak up,” I’m not speaking from low self-esteem, or looking for comfort. Rather, I’m acknowledging a painful truth about myself—honestly, with sadness, but without shame. Do I wish I didn’t avoid conflict in this way? Absolutely. Do I hope to be better? Yes. But is this me, right now? Yes, it is.

This is the kind of thing that Holy Cross Monastery (the place where I’m an associate) talks about when it describes the virtue of humility: “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else. We start from there, remembering that God loves each of us with a unique but equal love.”

When we do this, we are closer to our true selves—all of our true selves.

We are also closer and more compassionate to one another. When I see myself honestly, with clarity, without shame, I realize the deep truth of that wonderful bumper sticker (based on a quote allegedly from Margaret Mead): always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everybody else. We see our humanity in all its aspects, which enables us to see one another’s humanity in all its aspects. The more we identify with someone, the more we can empathize—and love.

And God knows we need more love in the world.

Change Making for Introverts, or, Is There Only One Way to Address Injustice?

I have this friend who’s, well, colorful. He’s a simple fellow, tells you exactly what he thinks, makes me laugh like hell, cusses like an unrepentant sailor, and is as openhearted and generous to his friends as anyone I know.

He’s also a racist.

His attitudes toward people of color have always felt like a thorn in my finger: sharp, painful, dipped in poison. I know I should say something direct, but confrontation is my weakest suit. Instead (in my better moments at least) I deflect: my responses don’t confront him, but they do let him know I stand somewhere different. When he says, “This neighborhood’s changed since the blacks moved in,” I say something like “Oh, that’s cool” or “So it’s more interesting now.”

In today’s zeitgeist, such an approach would brand me as complicit in racism. Perhaps that’s true. But there might be another way to think about it.

All of this came to mind when a TED Talk appeared in my inbox yesterday. The speaker is Sarah Corbett, an activist and introvert, who explains that traditional activism is typically loud, quick to react, assertive, confrontational—an introvert’s version of hell, in other words. She goes on to describe ways in which introverts can engage in activism.

At about the 7:10 mark of the video, she uses the term intimate activism to describe a style that’s nonconfrontational, that involves lots of listening and bridge building, that speaks directly when needed. It allows introverts to serve as (in Corbett’s words) “critical friends, not aggressive enemies.”

It’s like she designed it just for me.

OK, so I’m still not good at the “critical” part of “critical friends.” But I hear Corbett validating an insight that keeps nagging at me: name a social problem of our time, and there’s more than one way to contribute to the solution.

In fact, there may be as many ways to contribute as there are people. When you contribute from your strengths—no matter how inadequate they may seem to you and others—you may make an impact that can’t be made in any other way.

I’ve been wondering about this ever since riding in a car with my friend this past fall. For the hundredth time, he made a disparaging comment about people of color, and for the hundredth time I deflected. And he said to me, quietly, “Are you OK with them?”

I didn’t say much: something like “yes” or “absolutely.” But in his question I felt something shift, something important and deep within him. Maybe all my “lame” responses had, over the years, made a not-so-lame impact.

What I’m trying to say is that every form of activism has value. All those folks who call people out and march in protest and speak loud and angrily in news reports—we need them to do what they do best. But it’s a mistake for me to try doing what they do best. Doing what I do best, on the other hand, might just make a difference.

What about you? How do you address big social issues like racism when they come up in your life?

Silent Prayer Made Easy (Sort Of)

Quick: what does contemplation mean? (No fair peeking at this post.)

If you’re drawing a blank, don’t worry. It took me forever to understand it even a little—and I’m trying to live it. Contemplation doesn’t come up in everyday conversation. But as the focus of this blog, it’s worth trying to describe.

Today, let’s look at a central practice of the contemplative life: silent prayer.

Silent prayer may sound like an oxymoron to some folks, who think of prayer as talking to God. That’s one form of prayer, but there are many others. In silent prayer, we make a wordless connection to God.* How, exactly? Whole books have been written on the topic, but I think it comes down to this:

You sit and gaze at God.

God sits and gazes at you.

That’s it.

Allow me to unpack that a little. The word gaze is intentional: not look, not glance, but gaze—“to look steadily and intently, as with great curiosity, interest, pleasure, or wonder,” says dictionary.com. It implies a sustained, relaxed attention. Ever just stare at a breathtaking sunset, or vista, or painting, for minutes on end? It’s like that.

I could have added some elements to the “instructions” above: God and you gaze at each other with hearts wide open, or with boundless love. But for one thing, God’s heart is always open, and God’s love is always boundless. For another, if you gaze at God long enough, your heart will open too. It comes with the territory.

Now, to get at the essence of silent prayer, I’ve made it sound simple. In one way it is. Practicing it is not.

One big thing: distractions. Our active, annoying minds glom onto whatever thought happens to pass by. It takes a while to learn not to suppress the thoughts, not to feel guilty and promise God you’ll do better, but simply to notice the thoughts and let them pass. It helps me to know that God will make something fruitful of our time together no matter what, even if my mind is focused on the pie in the refrigerator the whole time.

Over the years, people have developed techniques to support silent prayer, and they’re both fruitful and beautiful. Centering prayer. Gazing at icons. I’ve found that silently saying the Rosary gives one part of my brain something to occupy itself—the words of the prayers, the feel of the beads—while the rest of my head enters into contemplative silence. Zazen hones the mind’s ability to focus while approaching the Ultimate from an entirely different path.

These days, more often than not, I just sit in my favorite spot and gaze out a high window at the maples beyond. Over the years I’ve watched those maples sprout leaves and lose them again, explode in color and stand stark against the brilliant winter sun. The cycle of the seasons seems to fit well with silent prayer.

If this intrigues you, give it a whirl. Try different practices, icons, what have you. Or sit in your favorite spot and gaze at God.

When you sense God gazing back—well, that is a moment like no other.

*An aside: the one I call God you may call Reality, the One, the Ultimate, Brahman, even (kind of) Buddha-nature. They are all names for what, or who, is behind and beyond all things. I use the word God here for simplicity’s sake, and because it’s part of my home tradition. But feel free to insert your preferred term as you read.

Why I’ve Hit the Pause Button on Dialogue

Not so long ago, most of my writing was devoted to dialogue. Dialogue and Donald Trump. Dialogue and the debate over guns. Dialogue and why my website isn’t called Dialogue Venture anymore. A whole book about dialogue.

All of which makes my current approach to dialogue so curious—and maybe fruitful. For the past year or so, I’ve hit the pause button on dialogue and everything related to it.

This pause has gone through many iterations. Right now it’s in something like a steady state. I’m avoiding political conversations with friends and relatives. I have myself on social media brownout, following my beloved hobbies but little else. I’ve found an inner emotional “set point” for news intake: I keep abreast of current events up to that point and no further.

The reasons for the pause may sound familiar. The shock following the U.S. presidential election last fall. Repeated attempts—and mostly failures—to find dialogue partners on the other side of any issue. The viciousness in too many social media messages. The damage to my mental health that all of this wreaks.

Strangely, several things dialogic are occurring even within the pause.

For one thing, I am trying to listen selectively—for depth and the ring of truth and the “story behind the story.” So my attention is drawn to God, to my deepest self, to the few media I trust to articulate the world to me. I am shunning noise, like the sensationalism and repetition that characterize much of today’s news (and social) media. I find myself reading books more than tweets. I am writing less and reflecting more.

The medium of all this, where it takes place, is solitude and silence: large stretches of time and space to let the news turn over in my soul. This is a distinctly contemplative approach to dialogue—the way nuns and monks, sages, Zen masters, and their counterparts might practice it. Solitude, silence, prayer, meditation, listening, and then acting in the world are what we do.

Must everyone do it this way? Not at all. After the election last November, a great deal was said and written about the need to stay engaged: to redouble our outreach to the “other side,” to confront the president’s excesses at every turn, to oppose injustice. We need people to do that. Conditions could get very bad very fast without that kind of presence in the public square.

But such activity is not the only response. The pause is no less important. It fosters the depth and perspective that can transform activity into something more soulful. It raises larger, deeper questions than we can get to otherwise. It serves as a corrective against shortsighted or impulsive reactions that inflame and do little else.

We all bring different gifts and character traits to whatever issue comes before us. Why would we assume that only one set of those can generate the “proper” response?

So my colleagues in dialogue may engage and mobilize. I pause—perhaps for weeks, perhaps for years. I cannot imagine I’m the only one. We need both. More than that, we need every offering of every individual gift to see our species through such dark and difficult times.

Hurricanes, Prayer, and Gazing at Barbuda

Before Irma, I had never heard of Barbuda. How could I have known it would alter the way I pray?

The hurricane had sent my wife and me scurrying to Google Maps for a crash course on Caribbean geography. For whatever reason, I had never got round to figuring out the names of all those islands and exactly where they were. I had heard of Antigua but never knew it was part of something called Antigua and Barbuda.

Like millions of others, I learned more about both islands, and their many neighbors, as Irma thrashed its way across them. I heard the reports of total devastation on Barbuda and other islands.

At one point, wearied by the wall-to-wall TV coverage, I switched from Google Maps to Google Earth and zeroed in on Barbuda. The view was not up to the minute, so no effects of the storm were visible. But it did show what had once existed and now, presumably, was devastated: low, flat buildings with metal roofs, dirt roads, churches with names like Living Faith, a marina, a small airport, acres of forest.

For a while I simply gazed at the view—clicking around to look at the island, take it all in, and absorb what it was.

Eventually it dawned on me that what I was doing was prayer.

One thing I learned in my training program to become a spiritual director: pretty much anything can be prayer. Asking God for help, giving thanks, liturgy, yes, but also sitting in silence, journaling, drawing—anything done while sitting in, and paying attention to, the presence of God.

That’s what this felt like. Me, sitting on my sofa, gazing at Barbuda before the storm, holding the island and its people in my heart, all while connected with the God who was there with me, closer than my own breath.

Some might call this a useless first-world response to a catastrophe. That criticism is worth pondering in many contexts, but I don’t think it applies here. Far from being “self-absorbed navel gazing,” my experience illustrates how many contemplatives approach the world.

Here’s what I mean. My experience of prayer that day connected me, in a deep part of myself, to a place I’d never heard of. That connection seems lasting: when the news cycle moved on to Cuba and Florida and then to the next hurricane, I could not get Barbuda out of my mind. Just now I returned to the view from Google Earth, expecting the same view of Barbuda, only to be sickened by new views of the decimated landscape.

Right now, as a result, I’m seeking out organizations through which I can support Barbuda recovery. My wife and I have talked about going there in a year or so; we are not first-responder or disaster-recovery material, but maybe our tourist dollars can help in some tiny way. (Apparently, this is a legitimate form of tourism if done ethically.)

So we take someone, something—like an island, or its people, or its natural resources—into our hearts, and that “taking in” fuels compassion. And action born of compassion. That’s one way contemplatives act in the world to make it better. And sometimes it starts with praying by looking at a map.