In the January 2020 edition of Lion's Roar, a Buddhist journal, there is an article that caught my attention right away (even though I originally bought the magazine off the newstand because of feature articles on Thich Nhat Hanh). At first glance, the article seems to be about design concerns. It discusses the concept of wabi-sabi, first articulated by Murata Shuko, a fifteenth century Zen monk. He was reacting against the obsession of Japanese elites of his time with absolutely perfect symmetrical tea pottery. It was fashionable but it was also very expensive. Instead, Murata Shuko advocated for the use of second hand tea services that were often old, chipped or cracked.
The words "wabi" and "sabi" were originally two terms. "Wabi" referred to poverty, even forelorness while "sabi" referred to leanness. In time the two terms came together and evoked a kind of rustic aesthetic freed from the goal of perfection, the idea of changelessness, and undue expense. Sandra Hannebohm comments in the Lion's Roar article ("Perfectly Imperfect," Lion's Roar, January 2020, p. 32) that originally wabi sabi "was a defiant response to elite materialism. Drawing on Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, and Daoism, wabi-sabi is a path towards freedom from the prison of perfection."
As appropriated now in the West, wabi-sabi seems to refer mainly to style and interior design. I get that! My living room--in fact, my entire house--is an example of forced wabi-sabi. Since I never had enough funds for new and fashionable furniture, I got gently used and aesthetically pleasing items at antique marts, used and thrift stores, garage sales and even by the road awaiting the dumpster. If you look at the picture I am placing in this blog, you will see that my coffee table is a beaten up trunk. In 1966 when my dad gave it to me and stenciled my name on it before I departed for Peace Corps service in Brazil, it was already an old beat up thing. But I think it is beautiful because it reminds me of my dad, of great international travel and it serves as an excellent coffee table where I don't ever have to worry about coasters under glasses or hot coffee cups to maintain the sheen.
As I reflected on the concept of wabi-sabi I realized that it is a deeply spiritual way of looking at life and death. There is impermanence in everything. People and things end up looking worn and sometimes broken. That is just the way of life and, for humans, no amount of Clinique products can stave off that reality. At the end of her article on wabi-sabi, Hannebohm quotes writer Elizabeth Farrelly in another Lion's Roar essay as saying "Wrinkles are earned. Why throw them away?" Hannebohm concludes that these biological signs of imperfection and change "signify a process of growth and death that makes this life worth living" (p. 33). Wabi-sabi is a spiritual way of thinking about life and death themselves.
So, here we are in January, just out of the annual national binge that Christmas in America has become. Lots of consumer stuff out there and we are exposed to fantasies of piles of beautifully wrapped presents ranging from tiny objects to expensive cars and furniture. I remember in elementary and middle school that my friends would talk about what they got for Christmas and I was jealous of the kids who got so many presents.
Now I know that all of those things and consumer products can't add happiness. Sure, some are fun. I like having some of those items. But, happiness? That seems to come from intangibles that can't be wrapped and put in a box: kindness, community, common purpose, actions for social justice, loving friends and family, purposeful work that makes a difference, a sense of legacy.
How much is enough? What is that sweet spot that allows me to moderate, balance and know that things are just right?
Recently I was in Chicago and ate at the Kronor Svensk Restaurant swedishbistro.com/ in the North Park neighborhood. Wonderful and simple fare! All of the servers wore the above t-shirt that celebrates the Swedish concept of Lagom (La-GOOM) often translated as: just right, perfect, no need for more.
This seems to me to be a profoundly spiritual concept. How can I rest in the just rightness of this moment that the Holy One has offered me? How can I stop the rat race of wanting and needing yet one more thing and settle into the beauty of now?
Swedish culture offers me this gift of reflection on cold, almost Scandinavian days and nights as we move into the New Year. Yes, I look for 2019 to be just right, enough.
Over the past few years I have been noticing cairns. Simply described, cairns are stacks of stones that often serve as markers on trails. Even though some national and state parks use modernized signage to keep hikers on the right path, without getting lost, cairns are more time-honored, ancient structures. They are still used in Acadia National Park in Maine today.
While cairns have a utilitarian purpose, cairns may be seen in high-end artsy gift shops. In 2017 I found a remarkably heavy cairn (held together by a wooden dowel rod through holes) at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Gift Shop. I liked it so much that I bought it. I have always enjoyed looking at and collecting rocks (maybe a habit that I developed while growing up at the foot of the Rockies in Denver). On a recent trip to Canada, I enjoyed seeing cairns that individuals had placed for no practical reason on beaches (see pics above). One of my spiritual direction clients commented to me today that cairns, such as the ones pictured above, are little altars that people leave. Yes, they are decorative in a rough and primitive way but they also articulate spiritual yearning that is basic to the human experience.
Cairns might serve as a metaphor for spiritual direction. Over the months and years, the spiritual director and her client examine and probe one lived experience after another. Each of these often gritty or even very unpleasant lived experiences is piled one upon another over time. The accumulated discussions and probings point in new directions and new paths. The composite work--stone carefully placed upon stone-- can serve as a marker for the seeker's on-going journey. Most often, this is slow work whose results are mostly visible in the long term.
My spiritual direction practice uses the motto "Taking the next step on the spiritual journey . . . ." What are the markers or metaphorical cairns that guide you as you take this journey? What are the experiences that bring you to where you are now? What are the experiences that give you energy to take that next step on the spiritual journey?
If you would like to see a video of the beach on the Cabot Trail where I saw many cairns, follow this link to a vacation video: pix.sfly.com/5cjmyO
For me, art is often an exercise in spirituality. I am not an art-maker. But I am definitely an art-looker, Many years visiting some of the world's great museums and viewing much canonical as well as emerging art has helped me look into the soul of the artist, myself and the world around me. In art galleries and museum exhibitions, I have learned to look deeply, rather than scan the surface. What is going on in this painting? What inner concerns are expressed by the artist? What comment on society is contained here? What questions does the painting ask me, as a viewer? About myself? About society? About cherished beliefs?
All of these questions, and more, were on my mind as I viewed an exhibition last month at the Weisman Art Museum on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. It was titled: Jizi: Journey of the Spirit. This remarkable artistic experience highlighted the work of the Chinese artist, Jizi, who died in 2015. He is not as well known as other internationally acclaimed Chinese artists of our times such as Ai Wei Wei. Unlike Ai Wei Wei, who is known for both beautiful craftsmanship, great photography and incisive social challenge, Jizi attempted to meld traditional Chinese art practice, or Zhongguohua with modern some select modern methods. He melded the old and new, finally developing an approach which he called "Dao of Ink painting". This practice is deeply spiritual combining huge scale with traditional Chinese aesthetics. He sought the unification of the self and the universe.
Unification of the self and the universe has a mystical sound and tone to it. And, indeed, when I walked around the gallery (pictured above) displaying the massive 165 foot ink painting on paper titled "The Epic of Nature" (1994, 2006), my mind visualized in a new way the Hebrew creation story focusing on formlessness, the waters . . ."In the beginning" . . . In this painting,Jizi envisions a primordial world of waters, oceans, swirls and culminating, finally, as the adjacent museum caption states "in a new creation surrounded by flashes that suggest other, invisible forms."
Here is one panel of the scroll:
As I looked at this and the other panels, I realized that the world of a Chinese artist who is not Christian but who is clearly deeply spiritual, has contributed images that help me understand my own specifically Christian faith heritage. And, at the same time, I am able to look with appreciation at this work of art on its own terms.
There is a good deal of talk about interspirituality these days and I hear it mentioned frequently in Spiritual Directors International. The late Br. Wayne Teasdale noted that interspirituality "rests on a vast community of insight and experience available to humanity at all times and in all places. Behind this vast community of collective awareness is the one Spirit, inspiring breakthroughs to its realm, opening minds and hearts, transforming attitudes and wills, and encouraging growth in compassion, love, kindness, mercy, and sensitivity" (A Monk in the World, p. 175).
I am convinced that interspirituality does not just happen in settings of formal so-called "great religions" . . . . it occurs also between cultures and of artistic expression in visual and performing arts of diverse peoples and religions.
For sure, on the dismal November day in Minneapolis when i viewed the Epic of Nature, I was grateful that it shed a new light on my own tradition and its creation text/story.
On October 29, 2017, Dan led a short workshop at the annual convocation of the Community of the Gospel at the Transfiguration Spirituality Center, Glendale, OH on conversatio morum or conversion of life in traditional Benedictine monastic practice. This talk was aimed at those living under monastic vows or promises. But there are wider implications for any Christian. In terms of my spiritual life what did I want at a certain point? What do I want now? This PDF attachment will give you the same handout as was used in the workshop. Be sure to share your comments, if you have any, with others so that the discussion continues in this wider stage.
Since the 1990’s spiritual direction has spread from Roman Catholic and Orthodox settings, where it had existed since the times of the early church, into mainline and some evangelical Protestant churches as well as Jewish and other faith traditions. At the same time, parishoners continue to discuss personal and faith issues with their clergy in the context of pastoral care. Therapy attracts millions of Americans as a fundamental wellness practice. Many persons are involved in a combination of one or more of these practices. What are the differences between them? What are the similarities? How do I know when I should seek spiritual direction or pastoral care or therapy?
On October 15, 2017 an adult forum was held at the Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis, IN, to explore these questions. A panel of All Saints clergy and members discussed therapy, pastoral care and spiritual direction as viable and available options for all persons. The panel was composed of Mother Suzanne Wille, rector; Linda Ferreira, long-time Indianapolis therapist; and Dan Hoffman, spiritual director. Short presentations were followed by Q&A.
In Dan's comments on spiritual direction he relied heavily on the work of well-known spiritual director, Maureen Conroy, RSM, D.Min., especially her important book: Growing in Love and Freedom: Personal Experiences of Counseling and Spiritual Direction (Order from Upper Room Spiritual Center, 3455 West Bangs Avenue, Bldg. 2, Neptune, New Jersey 07753, 732-922-0550, www.theupper-room.org).
One listener to Dan's statement noted later that Dan spoke of spiritual direction as always having God as the hub or center and as the main actor alongside the directee. He noted that Dan's spiritual direction practice includes not just persons of Christian faith but others who are unsure of their religious affiliation but nonetheless sense the Mystical and Sacred or Holy in their lives. Some of these persons are compassionate humanists. Others consider their spirituality as "God-optional".
Dan's comments were directed to a Christian faith community and he was reflecting his own Christian and Anglican identity. However, in his spiritual direction practice, all narratives and places of search and spiritual expansion are welcome. He suggests that for persons who have difficulty with the word "God" that the following terms be considered instead: "the Sacred", "the Holy", "the Source", "Being", "the Ground of Being", "the Mystery" . . . . . . . the word "God" and all of the above terms point to more than what we know right now and invite a person or seeker into the spaciousness of spiritual direction.
Now you are invited to listen to a recording of this discussion. Several of the handouts that were distributed can be accessed through the attachments below. What comments and questions do you bring to this discussion? Add them in the comments box and expand the exchange of ideas and information.
In 1970, German artist Kurt Vostell created "Concrete Traffic," a Cadillac almost totally encased in a shell of concrete. There is a sister to this piece in Berlin. The short-lived Fluxus art movement privileged happenings and this mummified car, a symbol of privilege and status in its times, is one of the most famous relics of Fluxus. You can see this conserved artifact now at a garage of the University of Chicago.
In June of 2017 I viewed this piece in person. Honestly, even though I appreciate emerging art generally, I had to ask the question: Is this piece really art? In what sense? The piece is, in all its bulk and heaviness, troubling.
But I began to see it as a metaphor of how we become encased in our egos, our carefully protected and conserved selves. Truth be told, I spend a lot of time re-running my own image and narrative of myself. One Buddhist author I am reading these days even uses a verb "to self" as a description of the constant self-referential buzz that goes on in our heads. Yes, I am most often encased in selfing.
In spiritual direction, a challenge to both the seeker and the spiritual director is to gently and compassionately break through--chisel through--the encasement and mummification that our souls, our spirits seem to prefer. There is nothing really porous about the mummified Cadillac that Vostell created. Yet, in spiritual direction we are looking for porousness, the ability to expand and to breath. Spirit and breath become almost synonymous.
When someone tells me that "God will never forgive me" that is a Concrete Traffic moment. Or, when another person retires but continues to try to live the busy life of whatever she or he did in the work place, that is also a Concrete Traffic moment. Encased. Mummified. Unchanging. How can I get out of my encasement, whatever holds me from exhaling and inhaling, whatever keeps me from spiritually expanding?
I wonder: What does this metaphor of the concrete encased Cadillac from the seventies say to you?
The November 2017 issue of Connections, a newsletter of Spiritual Directors International, published a revised version of this article titled "Encased--What Ego Does to the Spirit"
From April 19th through the 26th, I traveled from Indianapolis across the Canadian border to Toronto, Ontario for the 2017 conference of Spiritual Directors International.
The opening plenary began with a lively and often humorous dialogue with full audience exercises led by the Inter Faith Amigos (www.interfaithamigos.com). These are three clergy from Sufi Muslim, Christian (United Church of Christ) and Jewish traditions who have been dedicated for over fifteen years to "supporting more effective interfaith dialogue that can bring greater collaboration on the major social and economic issues of our times."
Following the opening exercises by the Inter Faith Amigos, Rene Thomas Hill of the Mohawk nation shared the Mohawk story of the beginnings of all that is. Rene Thomas Hill is a teacher at Hamilton University and is a traditional counselor and healer. What I found most impactful in her presentation was a sense of gratitude for all that is, living and not living, including things I might not normally name such as mud, cauliflower, carrots, beans . . . . she noted that we must be grateful to these parts of creation because they care for us.
In the following days, I enjoyed especially the workshops that were offered. I attended four of my selection. They included one on group spiritual direction, another on "the appreciative way" or a posture of welcome and affirmation of directees and another describing a very innovative way of helping individuals work through discernment issues when they have a number of options and are stuck with a glut of possibilities.
One workshop that I particularly enjoyed was on Lectio Media, which is a way of dealing with and praying with images that come to us through the visual media. The leader of this workshop portrayed it as a kind of divine interaction with mass media. I think that for some persons, it would provide a way to be in touch with media and to pray the news that we receive. Maybe there is a Saturday morning "Souladventure" (informal occasional gatherings that I host in my house) on this where a number of us could practice the method. What do you think?
Even though the conference was held at the Lester Pearson International Airport, I opted for financial reasons to stay at Victoria University guest housing right in downtown Toronto. Since I was downtown anyway, there were some opportunities to see Toronto again (I was last there in 2013). The interfaith theme jumps out everywhere in Toronto because of the incredible diversity of the population.
One intercultural and interfaith connection that was very powerful was my visit to the Aga Khan Museum just before the conference began. Opening in 2014 and designed by Pritzker architecture award winner, Fumihiko Maki, this wonderful building and grounds constitute an aesthetic and spiritual oasis. The museum highlights Islamic art, Iranian art and Muslim culture. The five hours I spent in the building and on the grounds felt almost cleansing and life giving. I was appreciative of the clean lines of the building, the simplicity, the attention to detail and, above all, the attention to light everywhere. And I learned a great deal about Islamic artistic traditions and medias.
In addition to the conference, I met an old friend of the United Church of Canada, Rev. Jim Kirkwood, from my African mission days for breakfast; went to a wonderful exhibit of Georgia O'Keefe works at the Art Gallery of Ontario; and attended the beautiful sung Sunday morning Eucharist at St. James Cathedral.
Throughout the experience in Ontario, I was aware that this is Canada's 150th anniversary. There were celebratory references all around. People arriving at or leaving from Lester Pearson International Airport were greeted with this huge banner commemorating the event.
Actually, I did not travel to the Spiritual Directors International Conference by plane but opted for the much grittier and (not insignificant) cheaper means of Greyhound travel. Before I left I started wondering if I--a 73 year old--should embark on an a fifteen hour one way Greyhound adventure. But as a young person and in Peace Corps and international mission, I traveled often by bus and feel used to it. So off I went! What I learned very quickly was that the interfaith motif was present most of the time in the buses themselves. I remember on the way home that I noticed Muslim women, a Hindu woman from southern Asia, an Orthodox Jewish youth sitting just next to me and Latinos, African Americans and even a French couple. There were several Amish who, at their stop, were met by horse and buggies!
So, not just the conference but Toronto itself and the travel to and from reminded me that I am a spiritual director in a world of many identities and cultures and religions. I know that all of these rich expressions of humanity provide materials for good discernment of the Spirit's movement and presence . . . . .. . . I came home knowing of the presence of the Spirit in each person.
I first found this tree on the On Being broadcast with Krista Tippett. It is produced by http://www.contemplativemind.org which kindly allows its use in educational situations.
I decided to post it here because it is a way of imagining the spiritual or contemplative life that is visual and powerful, using the roots and branches of a tree as the central image.
If you go to the above link, you can download a blank chart for you to use in visualizing your own contemplative life.
This is another way of charting a Rule of Life or Rhythm of Life that for two millenia monks and nuns as well as many others have found to be essential.
What do you think of this chart?