2020 Archives

Practicing Presence

Dave Brisbin 10.4.20
Have you ever been with someone who was so fully present and focused on you that you’ll never forget the moment? Someone who made you feel at that moment that you were the only person in the world? Or the room at least? Presence is an amazing thing. We can’t easily define it; it’s even harder to practice. But we know it instantly when it is trained upon us. Maybe because it is so rare these days that we instantly know it when we experience the difference. Years ago I had an elderly friend whose presence made me feel completely seen and accepted, and from that example, I can only image what it must have been to stand in Jesus’ presence and have those eyes trained on me. What a gift we give when we give our presence to another person. Why is it so hard for us? And how do become more present?

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If we look at the ways we can immerse ourselves in the day-to-day areas of our lives, maybe we can find the common thread between immersing ourselves in God, each other, in nature, and in our culture. In the stories preserved for us in the gospels, we see Jesus immersing himself in each of these areas, and through him, we can begin to find our own way to practice presence and become the person who can give it all away again, leaving each person we meet better than found.

Einstein’s Blackboard

Dave Brisbin 9.20.20
Still talking about presence as the foundation of Jesus’ Way and the contemplative prayer that will take us there. When Moses came down off the mountain with God, his face was shining, and when contemplatives and mystics come back from their experience of presence, they say strange things to try to express themselves: “Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.” (Rumi) What are we to make of such words? When Jesus says unless we hate our fathers and mothers, children and even our own lives, we can’t follow him, what are we to make of that? Truth is, trying to understand the words of those who come back from the experience of presence is like trying to understand the equations on Einstein’s blackboard—a dense wall of numbers and symbols that stops you in your tracks with its sheer incomprehensibility.

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It’s not until there’s enough of a change in our minds to allow the beginning of a change of habit, habitual action in the direction of the practice of presence, that we’ll get our first inklings of what Jesus, the contemplatives and mystics, and perhaps even Einstein are trying to express.

Present Service

Dave Brisbin 9.13.20
We’ve been talking about presence. Presence as the foundation of Jesus’ Way. Though Jesus doesn’t use the word presence in the gospels, he’s always talking about love, and love isn’t possible without presence. Love is the effect of being present—what it feels like to be present. To be fully present is to be in love. And what is the effect of being in love? Love understood as complete identification with another is a great definition of humility, fully realizing our position as equals in relationship. And what is the effect of humility? Service, of course. Jesus is always talking about service. For him, it’s the proof of a heart inclined toward his Way, kingdom. Service can be done for all sorts of reasons: duty, honor, obligation, reward. But service done for any reason not present in the moment of connection never reflects love or humility.

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When service is as automatic as breathing, as essential as good food, it becomes less what we do and more who we are. We won’t need to go looking for ways to serve as much as we’ll see opportunities for service in each moment. And though no one will pin a medal on us for these every-moment acts of service that simply leave people better than we found them…when service has become who we are and how we’re present, no one will need to.

Mistaken Identity

Dave Brisbin 9.6.20
I have been talking with people, so many lately, who have suffered tremendous loss. Seems almost like a flood of loss floating on top of the collective loss we’ve all been experiencing this year. Loss of parents and children to death, overdose, loss of jobs, careers and vocations due to Covid and financial downturns. Losses that fundamentally change the ground of a person’s life. Losses that ask a common question of all of us: who are we when we lose a defining part of our lives? We naturally see our identity in terms of the roles we play, the accomplishments we achieve, and the attributes we display as humans, but anything that can be taken from us is not our identity, and everything it means to be human is taken at death, which is why we fear it—who are we then? If you think about it, all our fears in life stem from the basic fear of loss of identity. When we assume we are the voice that talks to us in our heads, the egoic mind, the “false” self or small self of Thomas Merton, we are continually defining and defending ourselves. But it’s a case of mistaken identity.

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There is a deeper self that resides beneath our ability to describe or even think about. We can’t find it directly, because that would involve the mechanics of our minds, our small selves that limit such experience. Our true selves cannot be thought about, only experienced—because it’s only in the flow of present experience that we will connect with the ultimate reality we most often call God that reflects back who we really are. It all comes back to practicing presence. When we are truly present, the small self is finally silent, and in that silence we will find all we need to come home.

Present Prayer

Dave Brisbin 8.30.20
I was asked this week by someone who said he always asks this question of someone he’s meeting for first time: what is the most important thing you’ve learned in life? My answer was immediate. Presence. He was surprised and said that no one has ever answered that way before. I asked how most people answered, and he said either love or virtue. My spiritual journey has been many things over the years from truth to salvation to serenity and peace to love and joy, but at this point it’s all about presence. Without presence first, we won’t find anything else along the way. Presence is the foundation and the way to love—can’t have one without the other. But then, what is the way to presence? Prayer is the way to presence, but only prayer understood in the way Jesus actually taught and lived it. Jesus tells us not to make a show, not to use words, and not even to bring our needs to the table. To retreat to a secret place both interiorly and exteriorly and connect with a Father who knows what we need before we ask.

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David in 32nd psalm tells us to find God when he may be found, which is not in the midst of a flood of thoughts and activity. Jesus tells us to pray in his name, his shema in Aramaic, which means his essence and character. The essence of Jesus and by extension, his Father, is pure presence and love. To pray from that attitude and posture is to stand before God as Elijah did—a Hebraism for prayer itself—to stand in a place of spiritual perfection experienced as lacking nothing at that moment. What do you pray for when you feel no sense of need? Presence is the definition of answered prayer as it brings us face to face with the nonverbal Answer to everything.

Present Choices

Dave Brisbin 8.23.20
There are two basic ways we make choices. The first is with judgment—applying all we have experienced and learned to a particular situation or circumstance. We’ve been taught all our lives that it is wisdom to exercise good judgment. Then Jesus tells us not to judge. Are we supposed to throw out all the programming, the learned and experienced data of a lifetime that has helped us survive? Of course not. But when it comes to personal relationships and spirituality, a preprogrammed response necessarily brings the biases and stereotypes that kill relationships by allowing us to make decisions about people without ever being present to them. Which bring us to the second way to make choices: to choose what love requires. What does love require? First and foremost, it requires presence. Love is not possible without presence: being connected, one with the beloved.

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When it comes to our relationships with the people around us all day long, our relationship with the unseen spirit in all of creation, Jesus is asking us to throw out our programmed responses, our learned categories and distinctions and triggers so we can really see who and what is right in front of us. Love and presence is the same thing looked at from different sides of a relationship. To make loving choices, choices that define us as followers of Jesus—as simply decent people—requires presence and the willingness to throw out the rules if that’s what love requires. The Way of Jesus is the way of presence. Once truly present, we can’t help falling in love. And that’s our purpose as humans—falling in love. Not following rules.

All About Presence

Dave Brisbin 8.16.20
Watching a spider hanging for days motionless in its web up in a remote corner of our ceiling gets me thinking about the purpose of a life lived only to keep on living. Obviously spiders have purpose in the ecosystem, but many people have been telling me during this pandemic lockdown that they feel caught in a Groundhog Day time loop, where every day is like every other, purpose and meaning falling away, depression taking their place. While it’s true that may of the activities that used to give us a sense of purpose whether related to work, church, sports, or entertainment have been restricted or eliminated, where does meaning and purpose really come from? Purpose that survives any difficult circumstance or loss in life?

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When Jesus is facing his own death, he shows us what he craves most in the garden of Gethsemane. He takes his three closest friends with him and asks them to be with him the way a child may ask someone to stay with them till she falls asleep. Jesus has lost a sense of presence and connection and longs for it as support for his purpose. His friends can’t stay awake; he feels alone, despairing, and terrified to the point of sweating blood. He has lost a sense of presence with his Father, expressed as the need to reconnect his will to his Father’s, and by the end of that terrible night he has done so. It’s presence that brought him back to purpose and meaning that would make the suffering overcome-able. And its’ presence that will make our suffering overcome-able as well. It’s all about presence. At least ninety percent of our spiritual journey is just showing up to presence, because our purpose and meaning is only and always found in our presence to each other. Without presence, a life is only lived to keep on living, and every day is Groundhog Day.

Hinge Moment

Dave Brisbin 8.9.20
When I first began working in recovery, I heard an AA oldtimer emphatically say that he was grateful to be an alcoholic, and I couldn’t process that statement. How could alcoholism be a good thing? But now a couple decades later, I see how for him, the pain and trauma of his alcoholism created a hinge moment, a point in his life, because of his choice for recovery, that angled the trajectory of his life in a new direction, like an alternate timeline in those time travel movies. Hinge moments are usually only seen in retrospect, years later, but what if we could get a sense of them when they are actually happening? How would that help us step up to the challenges we face and put purpose behind the pain that allows us to overcome? If we consider the shape of the Hero’s Journey—the one story plot we’ve been telling ourselves since we’ve been painting on cave walls—we can get a sense of the shape of our longest journey from birth to death. But we can also begin to see that life is a series of journeys within journeys that always bring us back to our starting point, but altered, with more wisdom and depth with each passage.

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Every loss we face that changes the world as we knew it, is a call to a hero’s journey. Only question is whether we are answering the call or choosing to sit down in the road, too afraid to move forward and unable to go back. Jesus’ life as recorded in the gospels is a perfect hero’s journey. As is Dorothy Gale’s journey to Oz, Odysseus in the Odyssey, Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, and countless other stories. This COVID crisis is a worldwide, collective call to the journey. If we can begin to see ourselves as the hero in our own lives instead of bit players in someone else’s story, we can begin to see the hinge moments, the call to adventure that will take our lives in completely new directions.

On Non-Violence

Dave Brisbin 8.2.20
A public debate we’ve been having for past few months and past sixty or seventy years is whether violence is necessary to effect needed political change in our society and law. Or can non-violent methods work just as well? Better? Both sides have persuasive arguments, so the debate continues. Martin Luther King brought non-violent resistance to the civil rights movement in the nineteen fifties, but he stood on the shoulders of Mohandas Gandhi and his application of non-violent non-cooperation in his fight for India’s independence from Britain in the nineteen thirties. And Gandhi stood on the shoulders of Henry David Thoreau and his non-violent civil disobedience in response to institutional slavery and American imperialism in the eighteen forties. And all stood on the non-violent teachings of Jesus in the zero thirties. They all believed that non-violent protest and resistance alone had the power to both create fundamental change that would also provide the chance for healing and unity on the other side of that change. That the means we use must match the ends we seek or we’ll never achieve those ends.

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And these four also believed that non-violence was not just a tactic to achieve certain ends, but a way of life that had to come from deep within the hearts of those who practiced it or it was nothing at all. And this is where it touches us all whether we march in the streets and are politically active or not. We need to decide, regardless of the debate on how best to achieve lasting and needed political change, whether we believe that non-violence—treating each other with the respect and consideration we say we believe is everyone’s right—is the deepest desire of our own hearts. And whether we will practice that non-violence in our homes first and in every personal encounter. Until we do that, Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, and King would say we’ve missed the point.

Unfinished Business

Dave Brisbin 7.26.0
Ever wonder why the world is the way it is? Why isn’t it some other way? Why is life so difficult? Why do we have to eat other living things to stay alive? Why is there so much evil in the world? Death and destruction? Hate, bias, racism, greed? Would you have created the world this way? And if you wouldn’t and God did, what does that say about God? If you haven’t asked these questions, then you haven’t been very plugged in. Humans have been asking as long as there have been humans. And humans have been trying to create a better way, a better world—minimizing risk and danger, maximizing safety and security…but usually not for everyone. The fight we’re in here in our own country is basically over two competing philosophies for making the world better and more equitable for all. Same goal, but very different ways of achieving it, and all the angry voices are missing a deeper point and question: what if the world is just the way it’s supposed to be?

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What if our main purpose in life is not to change the world but to keep showing up to the work of change? What if purpose is realized in the work itself and not the outcome, and the world as it is propels us toward that true purpose? How we answer such questions will change everything about the way we experience our lives in this world. The world hasn’t changed much since we humans have graced it. And even as we work to make it more secure and fairer for everyone, we’ve got to find a way to see beauty and love in the midst of the chaos of our unfinished business.

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