For over a quarter century of marriage and family life, I lived in a self-chosen, dog-free zone. Allergies and a peripatetic lifestyle have always led Lisa and me to keep a pretty tight leash on childhood hopes for canine companionship. And then, like so much else, along came COVID.
Just like the rest of the world, school and work became virtual. Socializing with classmates evaporated, leaving in their place Harry Potter-like talking portraits of classmates, boyfriends and girlfriends on Zoom. Next, after four months of sharing a quarantine pod, it was time for my oldest two adult children (and a surrogate adult child) to break camp and graduate from our four-month-long quarantine pod. Lisa and I heard my sixteen-year-old’s ten-year request for a pet that could “hug her back” (as opposed to fish and birds) in a brand-new way. We are now poop-bag carrying, Milk-bone-treats-in-the-suit-jacket toting, torn-up kitchen garbage cleaning, dog-Snapchat sharing parents of a full-grown hypo-allergenic standard poodle named, “Winnie” (as in “Winnie the Poodle”). Except for the days, when I have had to induce, and then, later, clean up dog vomit resulting from poisonous purloined raisins, I would say our family expansion has been a success.
The last three SMC posts have reflected upon those practices (Lenten, or not) that have the potential to set in motion a virtuous cycle of one good thing leading to another good thing. Resilience research has indicated that a daily practice of meditation is a solid way to initiate a virtuous cycle. Mindfulness meditation has been found to reduce depression and anxiety, while boosting measures of happiness in its practitioners. Meditation has a way of sorting out and cleaning up our cognitive landscape by simply becoming more aware, and non-judgmentally curious about the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that flow through us. An existential psychologist might say that mindfulness meditation brings an awareness of the inherent radical freedom of the human subject who is never reducible to a particular feeling or thought. To put it another way, meditation provides the lived experience that I am more than my feelings, more than my thoughts. In other words, it gives a solid way to have my thoughts and feelings, rather than letting them have me. For those with a spiritual interest, the practice of contemplation (e.g. Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina), along with meditation, holds the potential of increasing intimacy with God, and enhancing a sense of Ultimate Meaning (see Paul Tillich).
In 1987 I took a two-week retreat with Basil Pennington, who along with Thomas Keating, and William Meninger created and promoted the practice of Centering Prayer. On-and-off since then, I have intermittently engaged in it. The technique is known as an “apophatic,” or “letting go” form of spirituality. It is based upon the insight that the presence of the Divine pulses at the deepest part of the human spirit below consciousness, below feelings. By focusing upon a mantra (like a sacred name for God, a word from scripture, or a prayer), and letting go of thoughts, feelings, and emotions one-by-one over the course of a twenty-minute session, one can simply rest in that deep-down Presence. During those stretches of time when I have practiced this methodology faithfully, I have found subtle changes occurring in my life. I tend to get more creative in loving the people in my environment. I find myself able to sooth my heart down better. I listen to my clients and family members in a deeper way. I am more available to the words of a sermon, a piece of poetry, or scripture. I am more easily moved to tears by generosity, kindness, or beauty. So why is it that over the course of my life, I have cycled in and out of this incredibly rewarding habit?
Nine months of observing a puppy up close and personal has convinced me, that when it comes to spirituality, my dog and I are littermates. On any given session of prayer, my mind wants to wander puppy-style, chasing the footsteps of any stray thought that crosses my pathway. For my dog, Winnie, rather than walking calmly next to her master, the internal thought process must sound like this, “Is that a squirrel in the distance? I must give chase! Immediately!” My thought process in prayer and meditation is not a lot more sophisticated. Maybe it’s not a squirrel I’m chasing after, but under the right set of circumstances, it could be. In years past, my own frustration with my distractible mind has led to this conclusion: “I suck at this!” That is when I break my leash, stray from the path, and leave my life-giving habit of meditation for those “other people” who are good at it.
Over the years, I have known and counseled many people who regularly practice meditation and contemplative prayer. I have yet to meet one who has said that they do not have to contend with a highly distractible mind. I have come to see that the only difference between those who stick with a daily practice of spirituality, and those who abandon it, is accept of the distractible, puppy mind that comes hard wired into human consciousness. To put it into the words of Thomas Keating, one of the founders of Centering Prayer, “If your mind wanders 1000 times in a twenty-minute session of meditation, what a lovely thing that you return to God 1000 times!” In other words, to succeed in the spiritual life, you must first come to accept, and finally come to love the puppy-like dimension of your mind and yourself.