contemplative way

The contemplative way of spirituality is the way of stepping aside from anything and everything we think or feel that would distract us from what is present right here and now–the conscious awareness of God’s presence.

Ashes

Dave Brisbin 2.18.24
We’re still in the first days of Lent. If you didn’t grow up in a liturgical church, you may not know about ashes on foreheads, confession and penance, fasting and giving up candy bars or some other treat for forty days. And even if such memories are part of your past, you may have as much to unlearn as others have to learn about Lent.

For nearly 1,800 years, the forty-day period before Easter is meant to be a time of preparation. Originally the preparation for baptism of new converts, it was ported over to Easter as an annual time of preparation for the new life of rebirth. Mirroring Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, the deprivation and suffering of Jesus’ experience is emulated, but why? As children, we understood it as punishment and penance for our sins, wiping our slates clean for God, but this relatively passive and vicarious approach is not what Jesus experienced during his fortyness.

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Forty in the bible means a difficult time of trial and testing leading to a transformative rebirth. Think Moses on Mount Sinai, Noah in the ark, Hebrews wandering in the desert. Jesus faced three trials in the wilderness that correspond to every human’s biological needs for security and survival, power and control, affection and esteem. Jesus’ three temptations symbolize the unconscious drives every human must transcend far enough to gain the emotional regulation and awareness the rest of Jesus’ Way requires.

The fortyness of Lent is meant to be a similar, ritually difficult preparation for transformation. But if that’s our intent, we need to reframe it: not as a negative punishment or penance, but as positive, affirmative action we intentionally take to clear out distractions, take a dive into our shadow selves, and create an ideal interior environment for spiritual breakthrough. The fasting and deprivation of Lent is not punishment, but an opportunity to lower our egoic guards and awareness threshold—allow God’s presence to show through. We can use Lent as a crash course to silence and simplify enough to see what is really meaningful in our moments and any interior limitations keeping us from that meaning.

Training Wheels

Dave Brisbin 2.11.24
What churches and religion inevitably forget—as does every human group—is that their laws, doctrine, and practice are not ends, truth in themselves, but pointers, guides to non-rational truth that must be personally experienced, never bestowed.

Thomas Huxley said that new ideas begin as heresy, advance to orthodoxy, and end in superstition. Belief systems practiced for a length of time follow this curve, and Christian thought is no exception. The practices that Jesus taught and his followers called the Way, heretical to most, were understood as a way of life that prepared individuals to experience the paradoxical truth of God’s love. But as the movement matured and institutionalized, life practice became ritualized, and the theological ideas that had grown around them were legalized into orthodoxy. Eventually, law and ritual were believed to have supernatural power, ends in themselves rather than pointers to spiritual experience.

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The original Hebrew meaning of law—torah—was instruction, guidance, like training wheels on a bike. But that in no way diminishes its importance. Jesus said he was not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it—that even the smallest letter and stroke would remain until heaven and earth pass away, which in Aramaic means to cross a boundary. We need the guidance, restriction, and discipline of law and ritual until the oneness of heaven merges with the individuality of life on earth in our own hearts. When heaven and earth merge in us, we no longer need law and ritual as training wheels, but will live them from the inside out as expressions of the love we have experienced along the Way.

Jesus is teaching us that law is not fulfilled in obedience or righteousness in ritual practice. Legal compliance and ritual observance mean nothing in themselves, but everything when they have become the deepest purpose of a transformed heart. To believe otherwise is to miss the Way entirely, remain focused on conformance rather than transformance…as if training wheels are permanent, the highest expression of riding a bike, and not a limitation—the outward badge of an inward inability to fly.

 

Teach Us to Pray

Dave Brisbin 1.28.24
Familiarity breeds contempt usually means that the more we know people, the more we can lose respect and judge more harshly. If contempt seems too strong a word, at least the more familiar things become, the more they blend into the wallpaper until we don’t even see them anymore. And when those things are religious scripture and doctrine, we may be so saturated that we believe we know things we have never considered on our own: accepted as children or under group pressure, such teachings became familiar before ever teaching us how to live spiritual lives in a physical world.

And what is more familiar than the Lord’s Prayer? Even those not steeped in Christian tradition are familiar with it. We learned it as kids, recited it—but what is this wallpaper saying? Is there anything to learn beyond mere recitation? We know the words: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth…

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But when Jesus’ friends asked him to teach them to pray, he would have said something like, abwoon d’bwashmaya, nethqadash shmakh, teytey malkuthakh, nehwey sebyanach, akanna d’bwashmaya aph b’arha. Transliteration alone gives a sense of the unfamiliar otherness of a teaching from as far out of modern Western experience as humanly possible. But beyond mere translation, when we put these Aramaic words back in their ancient Eastern context, we discover this “prayer” is actually a blueprint for living a spiritually aware life.

The five lines of the prayer form the steps of a process that starts with becoming unfamiliar again with everything we think we know. Clearing an interior space allows us to see the reality of the sacred in the ordinary details of life and begin to match our values to God’s, only knowable when our sense of separate self is lost in present action. Released from that sense of separateness, the victimhood of the past, we realize a new connection, always herenow.

If we can become unfamiliar again, see these words again for the first time, we can stop reciting them and start living the path they describe. Or better, recite them as a reminder to really live.

 

Growing Up

Dave Brisbin 1.21.24
Disciples of a spiritual master come to his home only to find him on hands and knees in the front yard. He tells them he lost something of great importance, so they fall in to help search, hands and knees, eyes straining. After some time, they ask where he had it last, where he might have lost it. Oh, he says, that was inside the house. Then why are we searching out here? Because the light is so much better…

We laugh, but as crazy as that sounds, isn’t this exactly what we do spiritually? The master is trying to teach his students that we all want to conduct our existential search where it’s comfortable…how it’s comfortable. In our strong suit, under conditions where the light is good, and we can hold on to the illusion of control. We want to dictate the terms of the search, and even the nature of the thing searched for. Much safer to search for a god we imagine we understand.

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In our need for absolute answers, we construct questions in the light of our dualistic worldview, setting up straw man opposites so we can knock one down as false and say we’re certain the other is true. Our human insecurity requires this manufactured certainty, but we’re setting up opposites in a world that Jesus says is one—a oneness that can only be seen once we’re searching in the house, where we can’t control the light and must trust a process and spiritual muscles that we can’t see.

In his famous love chapter, Paul said when he was a child, he acted and reasoned like a child, but when he became a man, he put away childish things. He places this metaphor against the fact that we can only see spiritual reality dimly, but when the “perfect” comes, face to face. We think he’s talking about heaven, but Jewish context is always this life herenow. When the perfect comes is any moment our house of cards, our world of opposites collapses, and for an instant we see the oneness, the sole substance behind our opposites.

For Paul and Jesus that substance is what we call love, the ultimate reality we’ll never find until we grow up and out of the need for certainty—willing to search in mystery where the light is not so good.

 

Engaged Contemplation

Dave Brisbin 1.14.24
Dualism is a sneaky worldview. Worldviews themselves are sneaky. We don’t often realize we have one, that we experience life through cultural and self-imposed filters—it’s just reality as we’ve come to believe it is. Dualism divides our view of reality into opposed and contrasted aspects. The most obvious is mind and body or material and immaterial. But once you have drunk the dualist Kool-Aid, you see duality everywhere: right/wrong, male/female, now/not yet, secular/spiritual, heaven/earth. As if everything we experience is reducible to two opposing aspects.

Since we are focused on contemplation as a primary tool for spiritual growth and Jesus as a Hebrew contemplative—working interiorly to step away from cognitive and emotional distractions in order to experience pure presence—another dualism presents. Contemplation and action. If we’re focused inwardly, using silence, solitude, stillness, and simplicity to quiet our minds, hearts, and the world around us, how are we of any use in our relationships and communities?

Our world is falling apart, and we’re meditating in the corner? Inactive? Uncaring?

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One of the main benefits of contemplative practice is to strip away our preconceptions, both conscious and unconscious, to see reality as it really is. See past our worldview’s filter, past imagined dualities to the unity beyond. Life is not about either/or. It’s both/and. Contemplation is the preparation we must go through in order to see what is really needed, what love requires in our relationships and communities so that our action is appropriate and part of a true solution. Not just an expression of what our egos and unresolved traumas need.

Paul appears to uphold inaction toward slavery and subjugation of women in his biblical letters, but I see him trying to help people prioritize. To fight the interior revolution first, prepare hearts and minds before we strike off to fight the exterior revolution. Contemplation and action together. In that order. We train before we compete, wipe windshields before we drive. Must see reality as it is before we engage action that is clearly our duty to perform.

 

Trusting Mystery

Dave Brisbin 1.7.23
Psychology tells us that all human neuroses are caused by our intolerance of uncertainty. Think about that for a minute. As children, everything is unknown, uncertain, but we don’t know we’re naked so we accept each moment as it presents without question. Everything is as it should be until we get hurt, and when old enough to conceive of tomorrow, we first fear the uncertainty of next time.

When fear is great enough that we can’t tolerate the uncertainties of life, the need to create or at least imagine certainty becomes overwhelming. The strategies we use, mostly unconsciously, are our neuroses—attempts at control that emotionally feel better than uncertainty. Intellectually, we know there are no certainties in life, at least not in the big things: life and death, health, wellness, relationship, spirit. But can’t we carve out little certainties for ourselves in the spaces between the big things that can add some tolerance for the rest?

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Think of a child growing up in a home with solid family rituals—times for rising and resting, eating, playing, schooling, birthdays and vacations. Safe, comforting. Holds the world at bay. As adults we create our own rituals built around work and play and families of our own. Society and church build their rituals around a calendar of secular and religious events, while the world provides the clockwork of days, months, years, seasons, the interplay of sun and moon. Small comforts within larger uncertainty.

Repeated cycles imply a conscious creator, someone who set the cycle in motion and cares to keep it going for the sake of those who need a solid place to stand. And that care implies the love from which all else is derived. Once aware of such love, we can make friends with the uncertainty at the core of life and finally begin to let go of our neurotic attempts at control that keep us grounded in fear. It’s all about the balance. Celebrating the cycles of sun and moon that make life possible while creating cycles of daily ritual that hold life in place and make learning to love uncertainty possible—trusting the mystery that gives life its ultimate interest and meaning.

 

Crazy World

Dave Brisbin 12.31.23
Another new year that’s promising to be as crazy as they get. After the past three years, that’s saying something, but a contentious election on top of escalating world events make it a contender. Anticipating this, we wonder why things can’t just settle. We look for resolution to contentions and contradictions, but when does life ever resolve?

There’s something deep in us that knows that life only and ever resolves in death. That like ignoring a spoiler alert that makes a movie uninteresting and unwatchable, to know the end, the resolution of life would make it pointless and unlivable. The mystery, the crazy contradictions, the missing pieces keep us guessing, interested and alive…and afraid. There’s the rub. Our fear keeps us obsessing and grasping for the very certainty that would drain the life out of our lives if we could ever actually achieve it.

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So what’s a human to do? Forever caught between the horns of a paradox—between intolerance of uncertainty and a world specifically designed to make certainty impossible. We’ve known this at the quantum level for nearly a century, but what we know rationally and need emotionally are another paradox we can’t resolve. A forty-year-old song captures it: Crazy world, full of crazy contradictions like a child. Just when I believe your heart’s getting warmer, you’re cold and you’re cruel, and I like a fool try to cope, try to hang on to hope. Oh, how I love this crazy world.

Jesus said he came to teach us to live abundantly. How do we do that in a crazy world, a crazy new year full of contradictions? The world is built on the uncertainty of its smallest particles. To believe that the world is not as it should be is to live in scarcity. Waiting for the world to meet our expectations before life feels safe enough to live is a train that never comes. If we can’t accept the world as it is, the work we do for change will carry the obsession of scarcity.

Abundant life begins the moment we realize that we love this crazy world and its unresolvable contradictions. That it is as it must be, and even as we work for change, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

Risking Small

Dave Brisbin 12.11.22
Woke up out of a dream in which a couple agreed to adopt triplets, but as soon as the adoption was final, found out all three infants were blind. Doctors told of a procedure that could repair the optic nerves, but no guarantee. Husband was furious, accused the bio-father of fraud, wanted to annul the adoption or add contingency for successful surgery. His wife turned to him—said when you have a baby, you don’t know what’s coming and whatever arrives is yours and you can’t give it back. She reminds him that he’s built businesses from the ground up, that he should know that a life being lived without risk is not being lived at all. Then I woke up.

How do our minds come up with this stuff? My wife wanted to know the end of the story, but I suppose that wasn’t the point. The non-ending leaves the choice midair. What would we do? What place does risk hold in our lives?

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We’re all at risk, even before we take our first breath. The question isn’t whether we can live without risk, but whether we can accept the risk of being alive. Security is an illusion we pile around ourselves in money and material until it dawns on us just how fragile we are. Maybe Christmas can help, understood as the story of small, risky beginnings—Jesus born a helpless infant to a helplessly poor couple, risking being small to reveal a big truth.

We may be willing to risk big, hoping to acquire enough to become risk-free. But there is no such thing. Human control always fails. Jesus was willing to risk small, a child who never grew out of childlikeness. If we want to find something hidden by a child, we must get on our knees to see the world from a child’s height. If we want to find a big truth hidden by a childlike God, we must get on our knees, let humility empty our illusions of control. The story of Jesus’ birth is the story of our rebirth. Jesus, born into the vulnerability of a child, risked the smallness of never growing out of it. The story of our rebirth is to risk growing back in.

 

Patience of Job

Dave Brisbin 12.4.22
We’ve all heard of the patience of Job. Book of James called it to our attention in the West when King James translated it that way in 1611. But the word that James originally used primarily means endurance that is at least a bit stoic if not cheerful; when he means patience, he uses a different word. Question is, how cheerful or patient was Job?

To refresh, Job was a righteous, blameless, and incredibly wealthy man with a large family who, for no reason known to him, is stripped of everything he owns and loves including his children and his health. His wife tells him to curse God and die, but though his heart is broken, his integrity is not. He curses his birth, but not God. Three friends come to comfort him, but end up only debating, maintaining that Job must have done something secretly wrong to have earned such punishment. As their arguments escalate, Job grows increasingly angry, sarcastic, biting as he verbally attacks them, shifting his focus to God, complaining, criticizing, even berating God for targeting him and letting the wicked continue to prosper. He feels and says everything we’d imagine he would, everything we ourselves would and have at times of our own greatest loss.

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When God finally speaks to Job, it’s from a whirlwind—the power, mystery, uncontrolled chaos and uncertainty of everything we can’t understand. In breathtaking poetry, God never addresses Job directly, neither explains Job’s suffering or defends his own justice. He doesn’t respond to Job’s plea of innocence or enter into debate. There is no debate. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Life can only be accepted as it is, not explained or understood.

When Job replies, it is in full submission. But more than that, it’s in full release of his illusion of control—being righteous, pledging allegiance to God, assuming he knows how life works. Accepting what the moment brings is his first step toward trusting what he may never understand. Job had to travel kicking and screaming through pain and loss, through his own impatience to anything that would look like patience to James. Or King James. Or us.

 

That Simple

Dave Brisbin 11.27.22
The older I get, the simpler things look. I used to love complexity. All the words, diagrams, contingencies, choices. Now I love that my wardrobe has come down to one basic uniform—black shirt, jeans, alternating pairs of shoes. And I love that I’m caring less what anyone thinks about my fashion choices. I’m convinced that the things in life that remain complicated are less important than things that don’t. And becoming aware of the complexity to which I remain attached is one way of knowing where my stone is not yet smooth.

Jesus was a master of simplicity. Pared everything down to the fewest possible words. An image or metaphor. We imagine God’s kingdom to be filled with laws, rules, doctrine, rituals, good works. Those are all parts but not the point. Jesus boils it down to one thing. Love. Of God and each other—which in turn become one thing in the act of loving. Seek that and all else will be added. Live that and all else is commentary. And when we do, what does that feel like? Just one thing.

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If I say the word we attach to that feeling, you’ll probably shrug, maybe roll your eyes, yawn. Think you’ve heard it all before, a cliché. How to get across the impact of this word? Maybe look at it’s opposite, the effect of its opposite. Have you noticed people are getting angrier? Anger is affecting every part of our lives, personally and societally. But anger is a top level emotion always driven by something deeper. Expectation, insecurity, envy, victimization sum into a sense of entitlement that fuels our anger. The belief that we’re owed something, the anger when we don’t get it is the complex mix that is the opposite of the simplicity of gratitude.

The one thing to which Jesus is pointing feels like gratitude. Gratitude is what love feels like. We can’t be grateful and angry at the same time. Or insecure, envious, victimized. Gratitude embraces the humility of receivership, acknowledges a gift we could not give ourselves. We can’t manufacture gratitude. We become it when we let go of the complexity of entitlement. It’s that simple. And that difficult at the same time.

 

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Embedded in the fun and laughter of each of our gatherings and events is the connection and accountability as well as the structure, discipline, and opportunity for service that authentic community is all about. We help create programs for physical support, emotional recovery, and spiritual formation that can meet any person’s needs. Such programs work at two levels: first to address a person’s physical and emotional stability—clinical, financial, relational,professional—anything that distracts from working on the second level: true spiritual formation centered around the contemplative way of life defined by an original Hebrew understanding of the message of Jesus.

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