practicing presence

What we think of prayer and speaking with God and how we practice such things may have little to do with how God speaks or communicates with us. Learning more of the nature of God’s communication and native language from the ancient Christian tradition can tremendously help point us in the best direction when it comes to unceasing prayer.

The Way of the Heart

Dave Brisbin 10.23.22
From third century Christian tradition…young hermit tells an elder: I know the objective of life, what God asks of us, and the best way of serving him—I’m just not capable of doing all that I should. The elder is quiet for while then says: You know about a city on the far side of the ocean, but you haven’t found a ship, loaded your bags, or crossed the sea. Why spend time imagining what it’s like to walk its streets? Knowing the objective of life and how to serve the Lord is not enough. Put into practice that which you think, and the way will be revealed all by itself.

Two hundred years earlier, the first Jewish followers of Jesus agreed. Calling themselves talmidey orha—Followers of the Way in Aramaic, they were making an emphatic statement. If their primary focus was on the Way Jesus lived and loved rather than the historical person himself, then their primary focus was on action rather than thought. A very Jewish trait. They were saying with their lives that they understood Jesus’ message to be a way of living, not just thinking or believing.

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Jesus said that we will be known as his followers by the way we love each other, that if we live as he lives and love as he loves we will do the things he has done and experience the truth that liberates. He is telling us flat out that our action defines us as followers, not our belief or belonging systems. He said he himself is the Way and Truth and Life and no one comes to the father but through him. This is the ultimate exclusionary statement for those of us who still see gospel as primarily a creed, a specific way of thinking and believing necessary for God’s approval, rather than the abandonment of self it takes to live the Way Jesus lived as necessary to realize we are approved already. Really good news.

The way of the mind—our thoughts and beliefs—can take us right to the door of the connected life Jesus calls Kingdom. But only Jesus’ Way—the way of the heart, contemplative practice—brings us through. It’s been seventeen hundred years since the Way of the heart identified Western Christians as followers of Jesus. It’s time.

 

Tragic Gap

Dave Brisbin 10.16.22
A wealthy man asks a Zen master to write a text that will inspire and remind him of his love and devotion for his family. The master returns with a beautiful calligraphy that reads: The father dies. The son dies. The grandson dies. The man is furious, but the master calmly tells him that this is his blessing. If his son died first, it would be devastating. If his grandson died, unbearable. But if his family disappears in this order, he will be blessed and his family will continue for generations.

There is a natural order that we see written in life or just in our own minds, and we are very attached to it as the way things should be. Any losses we suffer hurt, but when they violate the natural order, as the death of a child, we are devastated by both the loss itself and the offense against the natural order. We anguish and rage in a tragic gap between the way things are and the way we think they should be, a limit situation where we run headlong into the limit of our ability to control an outcome or even the narrative in our head.

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Call it moral distress—the conflict between what is and what should be, combined with the vulnerable powerlessness to bring the two together. Like burnout—responsibility without authority—we can only maintain so long before it eats us out from the inside with negative emotions, physical symptoms, and eventually cognitive distortions. We try to jump the gap by searching for rational answers or placing blame, anything to explain and relieve the violation…but there are no rational or emotional answers to the deep, existential questions raised there.

Jesus shows the way through the tragic gaps of life without losing identity or faith in the process. It’s the way of descent, becoming unattached, unidentified with the narratives in our minds that judge what should be. Those who were marginalized by life, the poor, those least invested in the status quo always followed Jesus first, were the most open to accept life just as it was with hope and gratitude. Because working for change without first accepting the limits of this day is just another tragic gap.

 

Choicelessness

Dave Brisbin 10.9.22
Thirty years ago, living alone, I was trying to be a monk in the city. Maintaining silence in apartment and car, reading all I could find on spiritual life, up at 5AM, prayerfully running through dark streets, meditation cool down by the community pool, back up to my apartment to journal, getting ready for work. Day in and out. Put that way, sounds like I knew what I was doing, had a sense of confidence in direction and growth.

A 1993 journal entry written after run and prayer asks, Where are you, Lord? Where do I go to listen? What do I listen for? How do I listen? Do I strain? Do I relax? Is it obvious? Subtle? Does it frustrate you that I am so deaf? A snapshot of the condition my condition was in: that despite all I was doing, I was not experiencing what I expected, feared I was doing it all wrong, anxious even despondent over ever getting it right. Yet the same entry also contained the seeds of answers breaking conscious ground—that God was not somewhere else to be found, but right in front of my face, trying to get my attention. That it wasn’t a matter of where to find God’s voice, but of thinning out eardrums too thick to hear the still, small voice already present.

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It would be years before such seeds grew into the full shape of a journey that was never about finding a voice, but thinning out distractions and attractions, expectations and fears that masked the always and ever Presence I was seeking. I didn’t need to understand what was happening as I showed up to all those runs and sits, only that I kept showing up. The fact of time spent in silence and solitude—allowing myself to diminish by choosing not to cling to my thoughts as the center of the universe, to let a wholly other perspective take center stage, was just the thinning out my ears needed to hear a voice that spoke without words.

To choose not to be distracted or dissuaded. To cultivate the daily experience of choiceless awareness was the shape of an inner journey that eventually convinced me I was already hearing God’s voice, but in a way I never expected, imagined, or even desired. Until I did.

 

Task Within the Task

Dave Brisbin 10.2.22
Remember the Karate Kid movie? Has to be the original from 1984. Kid asks the master to teach him karate, and the master tells him to wax his cars. But with this exact movement—wax on, wax off. When that’s done, sand the floor, paint the fence, all with very specific movements. After weeks, the kid is fed up with slave labor, screams at the master, and turns to leave. Then there’s this great moment where the master puts all those movements into context with the punches he throws, the kid deftly blocking each one with muscles hardened by the memory of each defensive motion.

Why didn’t the master tell the kid what he was really doing while he was doing all that work? Because the kid would have brought all he thought he knew about karate into the process and messed it all up. Only way to learn a pure motion is to separate the motion from the desired outcome, and only way to a desired outcome is to learn the pure motion. What a metaphor for life. What are we really doing when we do the things we do all day long? What really matters? What lasts?

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We have to believe that what we do matters, or life becomes intolerably absurd. But when we live long enough, we begin to question the meaning of all we do. How does it matter? Why does it matter? We need a moment with the master to put it all together, give us the context of a thrown punch to see how our muscles have hardened to a purpose, but not the one we first imagined. The tasks we do all day long are only temporal. They and their effects will end. But within those tasks is a deeper task that always points to the unseen connection between everything and everyone. When we can see that deeper task within, all our tasks become reinfused with lasting meaning.

Like the kid, if we focus too soon on the outcome we think really matters, we won’t practice pure movements long enough to build character and container for real meaning. But if we don’t eventually question the meaning of our movements, we’ll never learn that they are just containers for a deeper task—the one that shows us who we really are.

 

First Four Steps

Dave Brisbin 9.25.22
From the desert monastic communities of Egypt and Judea in the 4th century: a young monk asks his elder how he can come closer to God. Elder tells him to go to the cemetery and insult the dead. Dutifully he goes, and upon return the elder asks: did you go to the cemetery? Yes. Did you insult the dead? Yes. Did they respond to you? No. Now go back and praise the dead. Upon return: did they respond to you? No. When you can respond to the insults and praises of men the way the dead do, you will be closer to God.

The early church understood the value of unoffendability and unflatterability. Of learning that contentment, meaning, purpose, identity don’t depend on external opinion or circumstance, but a deep interior connection. Today, such values are not only lost, but our culture, both secular and religious, is built on noise, social approval, compulsive activity, and complexity. Re-establishing the deep interior connection Jesus calls being one with the Father means living salmon-like, swimming against the stream of our culture and our own minds

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Standing opposite the noise, social approval, activity, complexity of daily life, the Four S-es—silence, solitude, stillness, simplicity—are the launch pad for Jesus’ only Way to the Father. But their significance is much deeper than first glance. Silence is not just the absence of sound, but not thinking about the noise that is present. Solitude is not being alone, but alone with Presence, a sense of connection to something larger than self. Stillness is not just absence of activity, but detachment from the compulsive need for busyness. Simplicity is not absence of complexity, but no longer needing circumstances, opinions, possessions for personal validation.

Bringing these four states of being into our daily routine changes our fundamental relationship with life and each other in ways we can’t fully anticipate—only experience. Stepping away from internal and external noise, the need for activity, accomplishment, and possessions to show us who we are, builds a quiet confidence and humility, the ability to hear the utter silence of God’s voice.

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First Things

Dave Brisbin 9.18.22
A nurse, retiring after 44 years while also moving out of the home in which she raised her children, was feeling the anxiety of losing much of what had identified her entire adult life. I was telling her how important it would be to jump into the deep end of her new hometown, engage in community and really connect, when she flashed on her mother-in-law who had retired to Las Vegas seven years before. She had recently died, and the nurse was astounded by how many people attended the funeral…hundreds, including local store clerks and food servers.

In seven years, in a city the size of Las Vegas, imagine the kind of impression she must have made with even the most casual encounters. How she broke through the daily noise of life to leave people feeling seen, heard, validated, encouraged, loved. I wish I’d known her. I want to be her when I grow up.

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What does it take to overflow a funeral service? What does it take to have the kind of presence that leaves people better than we found them? First things first, it starts with awareness. Without awareness of our inherent connection with everyone who shares our moments, there is no presence. And in case we think awareness means thinking deeply about what we’re aware of, let’s stop and clarify. If we’re thinking about our awareness, we’re not fully aware. If we’re not fully aware, we’re not fully present. If this woman had been thinking, if I’m really nice to this cashier she will come to my funeral, the spell would have been broken, the connection unmade.

We can be aware of something without thinking about it. Without attaching words, naming it in our heads. To think about something separates us as from a picture in a frame. To be fully aware is to become what we are aware of. At first, most of us will need to consciously practice not thinking about our thoughts, but until we graduate mere consciousness, awareness always remains just around the corner. Awareness is not something we consciously do, it’s the state of being connected, a wordless presence that can’t be mistaken for anything less, even by store clerks and food servers in the midst of their busy days.

Satisfied People

Dave Brisbin 9.11.22
How many people do you know who seem satisfied with their lives? Are you? Every ad and commercial you see is betting that you’re not. Betting they can get between you and your money by hammering your dissatisfaction with your haves or have nots, your looks, your health, your work, your ride, and a million other issues.

What does it even mean to be satisfied with your life? Should you be satisfied? Isn’t there always something to work for, something that needs fixing, a hole that needs filling? Wouldn’t life be meaningless, purposeless, boring if we were satisfied with the way things are? I read an article that compared our lives to trees that shed their leaves in the fall, changing their priorities for the winter by deciding what to protect. Leaves take a lot of energy to maintain, and in the winter when energy is scarce, there’s only enough to protect the tree’s inner essence, to survive until spring. The tree is a lesson in choosing what to protect.

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I’m thinking that’s what being satisfied with life is. Knowing what to protect. How much of our energy is spent protecting our leaves—the outer, material accessories of life—at all costs and despite what changing circumstances should teach us about changing priorities? Of course it’s not so simple because some of these “accessories” are vitally important—family, job, career, vocation. But they are still leaves in the sense that without protecting our essence, how do they survive?

Being satisfied with life is not complacency. It is the successful balance of now and not yet: working hard to build what needs building and fix what needs fixing, but never at the expense of protecting our essence, which can only be experienced now, this moment. Realizing the most productive our work will ever be is when, disregarding outcome, we fully allow the working moment to be enough, an end in itself. Seeing significance in the smallest of things, and seeing our deepest identity apart from the leaves of our roles and accomplishments.

To allow a moment to be enough for us, to love it for itself while still amid the scaffolding of work undone makes us look a lot like trees.

 

Don’t Go Back to Sleep

Jesus’ Way, the practice of presence, of stepping away from the verbal use and abuse of the mind, is impossible to put into words. Since we are putting words aside in order to experience real presence, words can never detail what we find there. At least not directly. One of the best attempts to describe a transcendent, contemplative experience is a poem of course, A Great Wagon by Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic. It’s the one with the famous line: Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

Though that line gets all the attention, each line and metaphor points toward a going beyond everything we think holds life in place. Beyond law, morality, ethics, logic, theology, doctrine, material possessions, even the laws of physics and any illusion of certainty, there is a field. When we lie down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense. As humans, even after having such an experience of being, we will still wake the next day empty and afraid. But if we don’t fly back to our words, if we keep playing the music, even the breeze at dawn has secrets to tell. The poet then warns us three times: don’t go back to sleep.

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It’s all about awareness, about waking up inside our waking lives. Most of us are sleepwalking, barely conscious of the unseen unity at the core of life, the perfect love that alone has power great enough to cast out fear. Fears that make us crave those word-based enemies of presence: law, logic, material possessions, whatever makes us feel powerful and certain. But waking up takes time and a persevering desire for more than physical life seems to hold. As Rumi says, the music of a desire as widespread as Spring begins to move like a great wagon. Drive slowly. Some of us walking alongside are lame!

Waking up is a slow process, and we all go back to sleep at one point or another. Life is too traumatic at times to always keep eyes open. But to lie in the grass of that field out-beyond even once, is to have found the awareness and desire to wake again, eyes open longer each time we do.

Every Moment, Every Person

Dave Brisbin 7.24.22
A dear friend and colleague suddenly diagnosed with stage four cancer brings everything to a halt. Not just in her life, but in ours as well—at least for a time. And when we start breathing again, I know what I’m thinking, but wondering what she’s thinking in the dark hours. Her voice sounds strong; she’s talking about fighting and treatment plans, but also logistics and last wishes for her children and all of us.

She’s striking a strange balance between hope for life and admission of the possibility of death, the preparation for it. But isn’t that just a statement of the human condition? Don’t we all live out our lives, plan and dream, laugh and embrace, under the shadow of a death sentence? As long as there’s no date attached, no end in sight, we can pretend, but at times like these it all comes hissing in like a leak in a submarine.

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Her family is now experiencing an intensity they haven’t in some time. We all do this. Why do we wait until the possibility of losing someone becomes imminent before we feel and express their value to us? With our own lives, with the moments that make up our time here—why do we allow the urgencies of life to masquerade as important and distract us from the only moment that exists? This one that we’re in right now. What is urgent is not necessarily important and what is important rarely feels urgent. Relationship and connection, like life, appear open-ended—and without deadline or urgency, they feel reschedulable. Until times like these.

None of us wants to think about death approaching out of the dark at unknown speed and distance. But the value of life can only be experienced in the acceptance of death. In accepting that there are no answers to the deepest questions of life, to stop searching for meaning in the darkness of what we can’t know, we can see again what we’ve always known in the light of each living moment. To stop trying to import meaning into our moments with thoughts made of words and see that each moment is already just enough for us is the gift we can receive at times like these.

 

Still Small Voice

Dave Brisbin 2.21.21
On the first Sunday of Lent, after having been through how many Lents? How many Easters? We’re pretty sure we know what Easter is all about. Just ask us, and we’ll rattle off all our theological truths about the resurrection. But when you bring the certainty of your beliefs to Jesus, you’re in for a shock. What would Jesus say? Probably to sell everything you have and come and see how the big Easter you hold in your mind is blocking a life-sized Easter that can actually fit into your daily moments. Every follower of Jesus, every hero of faith in scripture who received a spectacular revelation, a mountaintop experience with God, was immediately plunged into a forty-ness, a wilderness period represented by the number forty that was a time of consolidation and assimilation, of bringing the hugeness of the experience down into the DNA of daily life. It’s the inevitable process in which the great doubt sets back in, but through the action of faith, the great truth distills down for use in real life, if it’s to be used at all.

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From Noah and Moses to Jesus, Peter, and Paul, the shape of the journey is the same. And in the story of Elijah, we see the full shape of his journey from the spectacular miracles on Mount Carmel to the humble silence of a cave on Mount Horeb. And what stood between those two mountains? Forty days in the wilderness… Forty days or years is not literal here; it’s the long-as-it-takes time to grow the “shepherd consciousness” of Moses, the humble anawim spirit that can recognize God in the smallest of things. When Moses is still and small enough, he can see God in a burning bush, and when Elijah is still and small enough he hears his God in the kol d’mamah daqqah, Hebrew for the still small voice or better, the silent sound, sheer silence of God that draws Elijah out of the cave of his wilderness. Lent is the church’s ceremonial re-enactment of the wilderness that precedes the new life of Easter, an opportunity to grow deeper into our own still, small selves and an Easter we’ve not yet imagined.
 

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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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