Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unusual Spiritual Test

I'm back from my last trip of the summer.

The 5K went well. I did better than I expected. I ran a good portion of it, but walked up some of the hills. And I really enjoyed it. I felt I struck the right balance of pushing myself without ending up in utter misery. I needed to have some energy left over for more visiting and then travel home, arriving back at 1:00 am! So then I felt pretty wiped out yesterday.

The biggest adventure was on the flight out there. We landed in the midst of storms, and so the plane got tossed about a lot more than I've ever experienced. But I was just reading about body sensing, breathing and relaxation in an amazing book called Chi Running, by Danny and Katherine Dreyer. So the last half-hour of the flight put this learning to an unusual test. When the plane would suddenly drop, or shake from side to side, I would find that my whole body would go tense. Could I stay relaxed, go with the movement, slow my breathing? Could I trust the air, the strength of the plane, the judgment of the air traffic controllers, the skill of the pilots?

I must confess the thought did cross my mind that we could all die. The airplane was big and old and creaked a lot from the strain. In fact it was supposed to continue on to Alaska after this flight, but once we were safely on the ground there was an announcement that those continuing to Alaska had to change planes after all. I wondered then if they were worried about sending this plane back up through that weather.

But as we had descended for 30 minutes through the blank whiteness of the stormy clouds, I wasn't yet sure it would be all right. But inwardly, I felt amazingly calm. I didn't really think that this would be how my life would end, but what if it did? I found myself wondering about what people back at home would do if this happened. Would they cancel my courses, or quickly hire someone to take over? Would they break into my computer and my e-mail to check on what pending work I had, and who needed to be notified? Would my blog readers figure out what had happened? I calmly thought through all of my projects in process, and calmly realized that, even though there are ways I am still anxious about my life and future, I do still want to keep going with it all. Even though I'm particularly stressed about the likelihood of increased travel demands if I'm successful in some of my aspirations, I found myself realizing that I wanted the courage to meet that kind of change of life. It was as if God was responding, "ok, this is your test."

The plane suddenly dropped. Then it pulled up hard. Then a cross wind caught it and it shook from side to side while I watched the wings flap. (Yes, flap!) I closed my eyes again.

Then I noticed that even though inwardly I was quite calm, my body was responding with alarm: tenseness, short shallow breathing, heart pumping hard. So I focused again on relaxation, reminding myself that being tense would do no good, trying to dance with the churning air instead of fighting against it. Everyone was very quiet, and suddenly I felt I could sense focused, prayerful energy all around me. Everyone was praying! Everyone was lending energy to keep the plane strong and to help the pilots stay calm and focused. We were all consolidating our energy to bring the plane down safely.

After an eternity of tossing whiteness, we broke through the cloud layer. The air was still rough, but I was reassured to see the ground and watch the remainder of our descent. As we touched the wet ground and decelerated hard, I knew that much could still go wrong (we could still feel the wild wind), but we finally settled into the normal taxiing to the gate. There was a collective sigh of relief.

My return home was smooth and uneventful, and that reassured me (though I was sad then to learn of the plane crash in Kentucky that happened the same day I returned).

It still amazes me that this sort of thing is possible: that we can be lifted out of our normal lives, touch down in a place of our past, reconnect with old friends and memories, set in the same yet altered place, and then be transported back to our present home -- all in just a few days! It is unusual for me to make such a trip.

And it is dizzying. Yesterday the new students arrived for orientation. We had our matriculation ceremony. We got decked out in academic regalia, greeted each other with giddy enthusiasm, and then processed before the astonished looking parents and new students. We sat in the sun, heard the noble words of our administrators about the ideals of liberal education, and heard the characteristics of the incoming class (e.g., one of our new students ranks 15th in the world in sled dog racing). I felt dazed and exhausted afterwards. Am I really ready? Why does everyone else seem happy and excited? But I too had noticed that I never stopped smiling. The Dean had waved to me as I walked past the stage. I thought to myself that this was a better scenario than if I had just died in a plane crash.

The e-mail is quiet this morning. I think I am not the only one focused on finishing syllabi. Classes start Thursday. Ready or not, the new academic year reaches down and lifts us up and sets us on our way. It has begun.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Modified Running Goals

The 5K I'm running in happens soon -- Sunday. I depart tomorrow for one final summer trip before the academic year starts. No, it is not that I am so devoted to running that I travel far and wide to race. It is that this trip back to a place where I once lived is what inspired signing up for this 5K I used to run every year, which in turn inspired my coming back to running now.

All of this is a convoluted way of explaining why I am not really ready for the 5K. I won't be able to run the whole thing. I took a good hard look at various training schedules, and concluded (somewhat to my relief at this stage) that 8 weeks is just not enough for anyone to progress from no-running to being able to run 3.1 miles. You really need about 12 weeks for that, at least.

So, I've modified my goals. I'm not aspiring to run the whole thing: I can only do about a mile and a half in one go at the moment. So I'll do a run-walk. My goal is to push myself just hard enough to feel a personal sense of accomplishment.

This trip is a return to where I lived when I was in graduate school. The run in fact goes through my old neighborhood, past the house where I used to live! It overlaps with my old regular running route from those days -- back when I did feel fit and strong. So another goal is not to feel demoralized by my loss of fitness. No, wait, that is too negative! Let me rephrase: this goal is to celebrate the return to my runner identity! I am going back to the exact place where that identity finally took root. That was when I got serious. That was when I started running 5Ks. I was never competitive towards others, but within myself in those days, I made steady progress. So this trip is a very physical attempt to re-integrate this part of myself back into my current identity.

It's kind of fun to dash off like this for a quick trip just before the new academic year begins. In the past, I've been too anxious to do a thing like that. This year I'm feeling more adventurous. But also, this trip fits in symbolically with my life in many ways: as I make a new start in my academic life after tenure and after sabbatical, it seems fitting somehow to make a trip that helps me to connect back directly with my graduate school days. Somehow I sense that this will help empower me to keep to the changes I want to institute in my life: not only the return to running but also my resolve to keep my life focused more clearly around what I know I am feeling called to do.

So, wish me well! And I'll report back upon my return!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Another Quaker Philosopher!

I am delighted that another Quaker philosopher is now blogging! Welcome Richard M., author of "A Place to Stand"! I'm sure that there are more Quaker philosophers out there too...!

We had been having a longish discussion at my earlier posting, Does God Exist? I am delighted that he has started a blog of his own where he is exploring important questions about philosophy and religion in further depth.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

“Way Opening” vs. the Bad Luck Blues

Every time I open my refrigerator (or turn on my dryer, or unlock my front door, or turn my shower off, or drive in my car, or travel and actually find my luggage upon arrival), I think back over last year’s spell of bad luck, and find myself grateful that this year has been better. I’m still not entirely sure what last year’s spell of bad luck was really all about, but it did make me more aware of how much I was letting myself be pushed around by demands from the world outside of me, and how much I was letting self-determination recede.

Sabbatical has been good for me.

First I was inundated with lots of requests and felt “set upon” again; then I adopted the simple policy of saying “no” to everything. The world seemed to protest a bit (the requests shifted from “Can you do ___?” to “I know you are on sabbatical, but can you do ___? It won’t really take a lot of your time, and it’s really important!”) So I had to say “no,” and then I had to say “no” louder and more insistently. And this was hard on me, but finally it started taking effect. At last the requests tapered off, and finally vanished. After all, this world could survive perfectly well without me, thank you very much.

I moved to deeper and deeper levels of reflection: on the world, and on myself. Who am I really? What am I called to do? To what extent do the world’s requests tell me my calling, and to what extent are they temptations away from my calling? How do I discern?

Time opened up, and took on a new feel. I’ve lived in a new way: less driven by schedules and a chronic sense of urgency; more defined by my being than by my doing. Time was no longer passing. I lived in the eternal now, watching the world shift and change around me.

I cannot begin to describe how amazingly restorative such a state of being can be.

Still worried about the state of the world, alarmed about new developments, and eager to do something that would help, yet I felt detached from it all, but in a healthy way. I felt like I was observing from a distance, and needed to observe from a distance. I felt a deepening new understanding of the expression, “in the world but not of it.” I didn’t want to take on false blame and responsibility for all that is going on. That energy that lashes out with blind fury is not me. That energy that “produces” with frantic, environment-destroying and soul-destroying urgency is not me. I want to live a new way into being. I represent a different way of life, and I am outraged at a world that keeps trying to loop me into its destructive ways. I will no longer pretend to be guilty of what is not of my making. I hereby vow to stand solidly in a new way of life.

And I am not alone. My friends and Friends are with me.

Those who devote their lives to bringing forth beautiful music are with me.

Those who devote their lives to teaching peace are with me.

Those who develop new, earth-friendly economies are with me.

Those who are sensitive and gentle of spirit are with me.

Those who heal; those who cultivate; those who create; those who love are with me.

We all are living a new kind of life into being.

But will this sense of clarity and strength last as the academic year begins and my life gets intensely busy again? New requests will descend upon me (indeed, they’ve already started to appear). Do I trust myself not to get pulled back into the frantic energy of manufactured urgencies?

Saying “no” feels so negative. But is there a way of saying “no” by saying (a different kind of) “yes”? Before saying no, I need to remember what are the fundamental “yeses” that define my life and being. If a new request helps give those yeses more effective expression in my life, then I can say yes to it; if it takes energy away from my defining yeses, I must say no: but then saying no is to re-affirm the yeses that define my life. Such a “no” is therefore positive instead of negative.

As I’ve slowly learned to do this, way is starting to open up for me. I cannot yet give any concrete examples, because at the moment it is a subtle shift in my soul and in my attitude. I feel hopeful, though I cannot really say why.

After a long journey into and through distrust, learning that the world is not God and that human beings indeed can do great harm, I’m finally finding my way into a new and deeper kind of trust. I’ve always trusted God, but I’ve struggled to find the right ways to trust people. I’ve too easily been fooled into thinking that I can recognize what is God within them, and what is not. I’ve felt too hurt by people, when it is really my own discernment that has been at fault.

Very slowly, I start to perceive people differently. No longer do I implicitly demand that they be God in my life. They muddle along in their brokenness as best as they can – as do I. We need each other’s help and support: humans are interdependent creatures. But at the same time, it is wrong to expect too much of each other, or even of ourselves. Our fundamental grounding should not be in human society, human institutions, or human relationships (though all of these partially constitute our lives), but God.

What does it mean to live this way, from this kind of center? The answer is deeper than words. I cannot answer for another. I cannot even answer in words for myself. It is a quest. It is a journey of the soul. I feel the way with my feet in the dark. I take off my shoes.

Standing barefoot on the ground of God: my new way of being. Am I sure I’m really there yet? Can anyone ever claim such a thing without risking dangerous self-delusion?

But if God really is the ground of all being, all of us are already there. The question then is whether and how we recognize and trust and live from that ultimate ground that is God.

Each of our lives offers a unique answer to this question.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Jill Carroll Tells Her Story

The Christian Science Monitor is publishing Jill Carroll's story:

Hostage: The Jill Carroll Story - csmonitor.com

See also the editorial introduction.

All I can say so far is: this promises to be very interesting and illuminating!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Running Update

On a more positive note...

My running continues to go well. My latest “record” is running 17 minutes without a break. I’m pushing the schedule, since I’m up to phase VIII but have only been seriously at it for 6 weeks. It is generally not a good idea to push things, but the reason I am doing so is that I (perhaps rashly) signed up for a 5K at the end of August. My goal is simply to be able to run the entire 5K by then (I don’t care how fast).

The dangers of pushing things are: (1) you increase the risk of injury; and (2) you increase the risk of burnout.

Regarding the former, I’m simply trying to monitor my physical sensations very carefully.

Regarding the latter: I think I’m starting to approach the danger of burnout, because it’s all starting to feel very hard, and I’m almost feeling discouraged. I try to put it in perspective (I’m doing great! It just feels hard because I’m pushing myself a bit much, but after the 5K I can taper back again!) But it’s still hard.

In fact, I have a new theory: if you generally hold yourself back just a little, you keep up your enthusiasm and drive. This requires discipline and restraint. And I think this applies not just to running, but to all major endeavors in life.

I do tend to push myself hard. And I get myself into situations that encourage me to push myself hard (like signing up for a 5K but giving myself a little less time than I really need to prepare for it).

But I should also point out how much our culture encourages us to push hard. And I have internalized this cultural message too well. I’m starting to suspect that the truly successful people know how to strike the right balance. The rest of us just assume that they worked agonizingly hard to get where they are. Seeing their success, we don’t look too carefully at the habits that led to this success. Such scrutiny seems unnecessary, because success speaks for itself. But maybe if we did look more closely, we'd see that the real secret to long-term success is keeping the spirit of joy alive.

So, after this 5K (if I survive it), I will be more intentional about cultivating discipline, restraint, and joy, and will take more care not to get myself into situations that demand too much from me, if I can help it. Ok, now that I think about it, I should start right now to get serious about cultivating the discipline of restraint!

Meanwhile, I still am thrilled to be making progress! Even if I’m not feeling particularly sleek or fast yet, it feels very right to have reclaimed my runner identity. I really do want to keep this permanently in my life now!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dark Night of the Soul

Being in a bit of a dark night of the soul, I wandered over to my office yesterday, more to see if a friend of mine was in her office down the hall than to actually do real work, as such. She wasn’t. So I checked my mail, my phone messages (none), and the latest e-mail, all the while totally forgetting about one important time-sensitive e-mail I had recently received about someone trying to schedule a telephone conference. (Later I found a phone message at home politely informing me that they had not heard from me, so at least I haven’t missed the phone conference, which is important and happens today. I’m lucky. This little incident alarms me, because it shows that this depressive slump I am currently struggling with is starting to affect my work. My normal state of being is that of having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.)

So I left my office and wandered over to the bookstore. There’s a café there, and I was hungry, and I thought food might perk me up, but there in the café was a trim and beautiful faculty member I once heard commenting that “Americans eat too much.” So my path shifted, and I found myself heading for the philosophy books. I looked at them blankly. They seemed vaguely threatening. I went around the corner and found psychology and self help books. My eyes fell on one in particular: Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore. Thomas Moore is also the author of Care of the Soul and other related books. I have very much appreciated his writing. So I pulled Dark Nights of the Soul off the shelf, found a chair, sat down, and had a look.

An hour later I was walking out of the store having now purchased the book (but still no food, and I was still hungry).

This book is not for the faint of heart. Part of the reason I bought it was that I was finding it seriously challenging. Moore doesn’t give easy, rational answers. But I find myself deeply comforted by his great respect for the mysterious movements of soul.

Part of the reason I haven’t been writing in my blog as often as I would hope (or attending to my other writing projects very well, lately) is that I have entered some deep wordless state of being. In my concern about my depressive signs, I have started to see a counselor, but there too I find myself less articulate than I am used to being, and strangely reluctant to face the very issues that drove me to seek counseling. So, on top of my concerns about my problems has grown this meta-concern about my faltering ability to engage my problems. Even so, being in counseling feels very right. Just knowing that there is someone keeping an eye on me from week to week is itself enormously therapeutic.

In the face of my bewildering reluctance to face my own problems, Moore’s book reassures me. The movements of soul cannot always be easily explained. But that doesn’t make them irrational or malevolent. The sense I get (I’ve only just dipped into pieces of the book so far) is that Moore trusts that soul seeks balance and wholeness, and in this seeking, will sometimes move against the ways we try to rationalize and control our own lives.

I am fierce and stubborn. I lock strongly onto those paths I deem right and good. I push myself very hard.

And in this, I can exhaust myself.

It is not a surprise to consider that something deep in my soul is finally rebelling. It takes a peculiar kind of courage to relax my overdeveloped sense of responsibility and just let myself be totally frivolous in these few remaining days of my sabbatical, even though I haven’t accomplished all that I had hoped to accomplish.

My work is full of words: the spoken words of teaching; the written words of all of my writing projects. My work is full of rationalism as I explore questions about what knowledge is, about the role of science in society today, even as I critique our culture’s idolization of rationalism (with my oh-so-rational critiques: they have to be rational, if I’m not to preach just to the converted). And so it is no wonder that my soul moves me to wordless depths, and moves me to simply regard the patchwork of my dilemmas without trying to piece them together into pretty patterns or pictures. Instead, I keep them messily strewn about. I find their very incoherence strangely fascinating.

I will not be in this state forever. But Moore’s book has given me permission to admit out loud that I’m secretly having fun with this. No, I’m not feeling productive. No, I can’t say I’m exactly happy, as such. But it is a relief to let go of words, and to refuse to try to make sense of things or to solve all the problems. Just let them be. Just look at them. Or, better yet, avert my gaze from them. Glance aside. Move beyond even images. Listen to the deeps. Radically trust the world and God’s love to hold me even when I myself am feeling disoriented and ineffective. Trust that when there is something for me, uniquely, to do, I will know then and be ready. But, until then, just be.

All my life, I have lived apologetically. My soul perhaps is leading me to the more secure grounding of an unapologetic existence.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Coming Back to Earth

Slowly I’m settling back to earth after my Boxwood-induced high. When I was in Nova Scotia, I did take a real break from my normal life. I did not take my laptop; I never touched a computer; when others said they had to go find a way to check e-mail, I looked at them with amazement. For me, it was such a relief to ignore all of that, as well as the news, and immerse myself totally in the music and in hanging out with the people immediately at hand. I lived purely in the present.

I am more convinced than ever before that there is a deep, ever-playing music that holds the world together. Whenever musicians play, they tap into this and activate it for others to hear. I had the sense that we were all doing very important work last week, by strengthening our own connections to this great power, absorbing it more fully into our souls, and refining our abilities to share its inspiring and healing power with others.

Now I return and slowly bring myself to face the full complexity of my life again. It is August. At the end of this month, a new school year begins.

I find myself not as disappointed by the approach of a new school year as I might have thought. I feel ready, and almost eager. I want to check into where my students are, how they are reacting to this ever-shifting world. I want to inspire them and reassure them. I want to help them find meaningful ways to engage the world, both in terms of finding connection to what is splendid about our world, and in terms of learning how to effectively address some aspect of the world’s problems.

Humans are problem-solving creatures. We derive great satisfaction from finding ways to solve real problems. But that is not all we are. We are also playful creatures, and need to find and nourish sources of joy and creativity as well.

As I flew back from my trip, concerned, as always, about what my own flying was doing to further global warming, I was also amazed: at the ingenious creativity of human nature that made it possible for us to do this; at the beauty of our planet as seen from above the clouds; at the beauty even of many of the visible changes we have wrought upon the earth's surface. I found myself praying in a new way. I found myself full of compassion for this remarkable species called homo sapiens.

"We don't mean the harm we cause," I was explaining to God. "Have you really created a world that transforms our own restless energy into irreparable damage to our home planet? Have you really given us that much power? True, we've created systems that we don't really understand, and those systems have gotten a little out of our control. Ok, a lot out of control. But can't you see that we need your help in this? We really haven't meant the harm we have caused. It's really not easy for those who are concerned and want to restore a sustainable balance with the natural world to know how to engage the systems of power in order to do so. What are we to do then? So many of us are willing, even eager to help, but just don't know how. We need your help!"

The plane touches down. I've been transported from an idyllic land of perfect summer temperatures and sunshine, music and sparkling laughter, now through bumpy clouds into the unusual heat and humidity and grim seriousness of my life back at home.

I re-enter the complexity of my own life, clearer now than ever before that each branch of this complexity is a lever of engagement, with power to shift and change the world. If I play this instrument well--this complicated instrument that is my life--I can help activate the deep great music that has the power to heal the world.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Boxwood Flute Festival

I’m back.

I went to Boxwood, in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. It is a music camp for those interested in the traditions of the flute, especially featuring the Celtic traditions and baroque flute. Most of the players who attend play wooden flutes (baroque flutes or the 19th century wooden flutes that are used in Irish playing today).

This year’s flute teachers included Chris Norman (who runs Boxwood), Rod Garnett (who helped found Boxwood), Kevin Crawford, Jean-Michel Veillon, and Marten Root; other teachers included uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, Cape Breton and baroque violinist David Greenberg, harpsichord and piano player David McGuinness, and guitarist Andy Thurston.

As those in the know can tell from this line-up, it was quite a week! What extraordinary players!

The week began with an opening concert in this rebuilt church, St. John’s Anglican Church. It was burned almost to the ground in November 2001, but was re-built and reopened last year.

We had classes by day in this remarkable building (the Lunenburg Academy):

In the afternoons I would have coffee or tea in the Historic Grounds coffeehouse, often with Boxwood friends, overlooking the Lunenburg harbor:

After the evening events, we would gather in the fire hall for “sessions.” This picture shows Chris Norman, Kevin Crawford, Paddy Keenan, and Jean-Michel Veillon, along with many others:

Neither words nor pictures can really capture what it was like, because always there was the music (the haunting music of 100 wooden flutes!) pulsing in the background.

I learned a lot. I was greatly inspired by the brilliant playing of the teachers and many of the participants as well. I’ve always loved traditional Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton music, as well as baroque music, of course, but this time I also learned about the traditional music of Brittany, France, via the amazing playing of Jean-Michel Veillon. So now I have a new kind of music to love and explore and maybe even incorporate into my repertoire.

Here's a link to a review of the Finale Concert of the event.