Grace, Wellspring and Compass

‘Tis grace shall bring me home.         –Amazing Grace, Spiritual 

My Lutheran heritage brought me in contact with a theological tradition that talks about grace. We defined it as undeserved love. It was one of the things that demarcated Protestant faith—no penance, praying rosaries, no elaborate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Just grace, plain and simple, accessible to all, given to all, accepted by faith.

But it went deeper than that. It was a whole outlook on life, a way of being that gave forgiveness and compassion because you yourself were forgiven and deeply loved. I felt this from my parents. I was taught to look for it in scripture. I sang about it in church, and later, taught it from the pulpit.

Grace is a powerful thing. As a concept, its theological roots run deep, and it can be found across religions. As a practice, it is a both a spiritual wellspring from which to draw and a moral compass for how to treat others.

Christians anchor God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus. The importance of the crucifixion story, as I now understand it, is as an expression of a universal consciousness of grace as lived out in a singular life, in a particular place and time, and how that life and that time can be in a way redemptive for us all.

There is much to be gleaned from the Bible when it is read from the lens of grace. If by meditating on the Word we find grace, we are the better for it. When the Bible is not read from a place of grace, and for a message of grace, it is easily subsumed by fundamentalism and fearful, protectionist dogma.

But more than that: it needs to be said that the Bible and the story of Jesus are not the only narratives of grace. In a time that seems to be ruled by the grace-less (in every possible sense of the word), we need as many narratives of grace as we can find. I’m looking for them, from all sources of religious thought, as well as from atheist and non-believers.

~~~

What are your stories of grace? Take a moment and share one here. Especially if it involves a character from a non-Christian background or source, I’m deeply interested in hearing that story now.

 

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An Appetite For Possible Things

All happiness depends upon a natural zest and appetite for possible things.

from Bertrand Russell, “Conquest of Happiness”

When we lose our sense of the possible, our mood darkens.

That first inkling of the road stretching out to a point of light in the distance is about possibility. When we pick up a new book, this is what we hope for. When we embark on a new job, a new relationship, a new project, we draw motivation from the possible.

Inevitably, all people and all projects end up closing off some of the possibilities for us. Once we make a decision in one direction or the other, we commit to a path, and the rest of the options become unavailable.

Our own commitments and choices can thus make our lives seem bleak, like being enclosed in a possibility-less state, like a drab cubicle with no exit.

If we add to that a disposition to look at things fatalistically, it looks even bleaker. If this is the way it was, is, and ever shall be, then what is the point of hoping?

But within the world of constraints, there is still possibility.

We are endowed with creativity, which can find the cracks in the cubicle. We have, under even the most severe constraints, freedom to choose again tomorrow which direction we will go.

Let us open our eyes again to the possibilities, however faint or dimly lit they may be, so that we may be drawn to them, and feel our “natural zest” reawaken. If it is dark, let us be like the seed, and gently push up through the soil. Let us tap that deepest resource of our humanity, our creative spirit.

Claude Monet, Woman With Parasol (Detail) 1885.

Eyes and No-Eyes

Midweek Devotion #13

October 14, 2015

Claude Monet, Woman With Parasol (Detail) 1885.

Claude Monet, Woman With Parasol (Detail) 1885.

I came across this painting in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and I took this photo of it. The vibrancy and life of the painting is preserved almost entirely. I find it breathtaking.

I also came across a narrative recently, and I wanted to share it. It was written around the turn of the last century, by a startlingly good philosopher and writer named Evelyn Underhill. It matched the spirit of the Monet painting perfectly.

The old story of Eyes and No-Eyes is really the story of the mystical and unmystical types. “No-Eyes” has fixed his attention on the fact that he is obliged to take a walk. For him the chief factor of existence is his own movement along the road; a movement which he intends to accomplish as efficiently and comfortably as he can. He asks not to know what may be on either side of the hedges. He ignores the caress of the wind until it threatens to remove his hat. He trudges along, steadily, diligently; avoiding the muddy pools, but oblivious of the light which they reflect.

“Eyes” takes the walk too: and for him it is a perpetual revelation of beauty and wonder. The sunlight inebriates him, the winds delight him, the very effort of the journey is a joy. Magic presences throng the roadside, or cry salutations to him from the hidden fields. The rich world through which he moves lies in the fore-ground of his consciousness; and it gives up new secrets to him at every step.

“No-Eyes,” when told of his adventures, usually refuses to believe that both have gone by the same road. He fancies that his companion has been floating about in the air, or beset by agreeable hallucinations. We shall never persuade him to the contrary unless we persuade him to look for himself.

—Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism

This is the difference between really looking, really reflecting, really experiencing the world, and merely going about our business. Monet was on a walk with his wife and son, and “saw” through the ordinariness of it. Ironically, impressionism has always been thought to be about the “surface” of things – light reflected off surfaces, bright colors, and also “surfacy” subject matters such as high society walks through a garden. Yet I see what Evelyn Underhill, what Monet saw, a magic presence in the wind and in our consciousness of it.

Take a GoodMinute

If I am honest, do I act more like Eyes or No-Eyes?

Will today be a mystical or an unmystical day for me?

Peace of Mind (The Right Brain Way)

Midweek Devotion #12

September 23, 2015

My mind is not at peace. Please, set it at peace, master.

Bodhidharma replied, Bring me your mind and I’ll set it at peace.

After sitting exhaustively, Huike returned and said to the master, I’ve searched and searched, but I cannot find the mind.

There, said Bodhidharma, I’ve set it at peace for you.    —Zen Koan

How do we find peace? the moment we seem to know, it seems to slip our grasp again.

For me, when things pile up, when there are fifty different priorities to pay attention to, when relationships and kids and work and financial problems are all aligning in a perfect storm, I lose peace. At times in my life, anger has welled up so strongly that no peace ever seemed possible. At other times depression has taken hold.

It is easy to believe that peace is attainable by meditating, by doing yoga, by “sitting exhaustively” and somehow losing the self. If we “lose our mind” we can finally attain the peace we seek. While there is some truth to letting go and empty the mind completely, this way of approaching life does have its downsides.

Here is a possible solution. What the Koan refers to as “mind” is actually the left hemisphere of the brain. When we quiet that side of the mind, we can find peace.

The Left Brain (LB) is the side that is constantly chattering, criticizing, critiquing, analyzing, second-guessing, time-keeping, labeling, “tweeting,” fretting, strategizing, systematizing, categorizing, utilizing, optimizing. For the LB every person, place or thing in life is a tool to use for one’s own power, protection, and advancement. Many of the information processing skills of the LB are needed for executing tasks and being efficient, for ordering the chaos of life into something we can make sense of. The left brain is perfect for that. But left to run amok, it will destroy your peace of mind.

Access the Right Brain by drawing

Access the Right Brain by drawing

The Right Brain (RB) is opposite of all the above LB descriptors. The RB is non-linear, non-time-oriented, altruistic, creative, cooperative, empathetic, communitarian, connective, observant. It is willing to live without labels, categories, and systems. It looks at the self as an organic part of nature, rather than as a detached controller of the world. It is also the side of the brain that connects to sadness and emotions (which the LB tries to suppress).

For more on the LB/RB differences and how those apply to life, there are a few resources I would recommend. I plan to review them in future posts, but here are the ones that have had the most impact on me:

  • A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. How those who can access the right brain will ascend in the workplace as more and more left brained activities become automated.
  • The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. This is the most comprehensive work I’ve come across yet on what science knows about the functioning of the hemispheres of the brain. Well worth the time to study and absorb, especially since it bridges the scientific material to philosophy and culture, the history of the West, music, art, and religion.
  • The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron. A transformative program of self-exploration and recovery using a gentle process of journaling and “artist dates” to open the mind and form new paths.
  • The Van Gogh Blues by Eric Maisel. How creative people are susceptible to a unique form of depression that cannot be treated with pharmaceuticals. We enter a meaning crisis when we do not create.

I know from playing violin and painting, that the mind—that is, the LB—must quiet down in order to do these activities, and that I feel a wonderful sense of peace after attaining the quiet mental awareness required. When I teach drawing, I teach people to feel the shift between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It is like a muscle, that most people have forgotten how to use. It takes some work to train the muscle again.

Are There Many Tasks?

Many Things Or One? Copyright 2015 Edward Obermueller

You probably use the RB more than you are aware. The Right Hemisphere is the part of the brain that we access to go into the body. So anytime you are doing a bodily activity, whether a sport, or yoga, hiking in nature, or playing a musical instrument, you are accessing the right brain. Your RB is there whenever you are adapting to someone else’s point of view, really entering someone else’s emotional frame, or intuitively making a decision based on a big-picture understanding. If you have ever been in the shower and had an “aha” moment, that was your RB coming to the fore.

We do not and cannot ever really leave the mind behind. But when we allow our right brain more prominence, it actively quiets the chattering left brain. A side effect is peace of mind, guaranteed.

Take a GoodMInute

What can you do today that will help you access your Right Brain and quiet the Left Brain?

Why is it so hard for us, in our culture, to release the control, protection, and power that the Left Brain focuses on?

When have you felt deeply at peace? Can you identify the aspects of the situation that were quieting your Left Brain, such as being away from the constant stream of sound-byte media, from constantly being aware of the time, or being involved in a physical activity that absorbed your whole attention?