Monday, August 31, 2009

When Things Go Wrong...

Last week it seemed as if everything we owned broke. Two cars were in the shop for repairs; water (a large amount) started leaking out of the dishwasher; the dryer stopped working; and yesterday at 5 a.m. a section of baseboard heat ruptured with water pouring into our living room! This photo of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" captures my emotional state at 5 a.m.

This last malady was the worst. Although I shut off the water, gallons of filthy radiator water drained out of the baseboard and it took nearly 2 hours of wet vacuuming to clean it up. Now, carpets and drapes will need to be cleaned and the leak repaired.

After so much breaking down, I wondered: Were malignant forces in the universe conspiring against me? Should I hire an exorcist to drive out the evil spirits inhabiting our cars, appliances and heating system?

Upon further reflection, I decided against the exorcist. I really don't believe that the "universe" or "evil spirits" are conspiring to break my things. Rather, I believe that bad things sometimes happen in clusters. This is simply a case of "life happening."

When a cluster of bad things happen, it's an opportunity to practice some good ole Buddhist detachment. Rather than blaming malignant spirits, God, karma, the universe or yourself, it's much better to view these things non-reactively. These are simply problems to be solved, not personal attacks on our psyches.

Dealing with broken things helps us recognize that life isn't perfect and its imperfections can be opportunities to test and expand our souls. It's also an opportunity to express gratitude that these things can be fixed because some things can't.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Play Continued... Team Versus Solo?

A few days ago I wrote about the spiritual benefits of play. Since games and sports are the main forms of adult play, this raises the question of "team versus solo: which better nourishes the soul?"

One positive value of team sports is that of cooperation. When playing on a team, you must learn to play together with teammates. Often, a bond of camaraderie arises between teammates. This social connection can be soul feeding in a way similar to sharing a meal with friends. We enjoy sharing a common experience with a common goal. My participation in rowing competitions confirms this. As we pull together to do our best in a race, there is a bond of brotherhood and sisterhood that draws us closer together. We have the feeling that we’re in this together.

While playing with others has spiritual benefits, playing alone can also be soul nourishing. If you’ll allow me another example from rowing… I have found that rowing a single shell is a very different experience than rowing with others. When rowing alone, I am better able to focus on my inner self and, thus, able to be more mindful about what I’m doing. Rowing solo allows me to set my own pace, to stop and appreciate the surrounding beauty and to enjoy the feel of a shell gliding through the water.

So the "team versus solo" issue is a "both/and" rather than an "either/or." There are benefits to both kinds of play. What nourishes your soul more is a matter of individual preference.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"What Feeds Your Soul?"...College Students Answer

I'm back in school again (but not as a student)! The fall semester started on Tuesday at Iona College and I am teaching two sections of "Religion In the Contemporary World," a course that explores seven of the world's major religions.

I asked the question above to my students on the first day of class. I have about 80 students in the two classes and I received about 75 different answers. Some of the answers: working as a counselor at a summer camp, buying my first car, skydiving, hanging out with friends, participating in a "cancer walk" to raise money, traveling to Costa Rica, tutoring a special needs child, visiting Turkey, surfing, going to the beach, going on a work trip to Louisiana, and going to Las Vegas!

As you can see there was great variety in the answers. However, there was a common thread as well: nearly everything mentioned fell into the "active spirituality" category. Maybe it was because these were mostly active college freshman answering, but nobody mentioned traditional soul-feeding practices like prayer, meditation or worship (actually, one student said he went to church for the first time in several years).

My point is that, while what feeds our souls is personal and unique, doing can trump being when it comes to spiritual nourishment.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Soul At Play

I am interested in what happens to people who find the whole of life so rewarding that they are able to move through it with the same kind of delight in which a child moves through a game. Margaret Mead

The word “play” is such a complex and deep word that it has over one hundred definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. One of the linguistic roots of play is the Middle Dutch, plein, which means “to dance about, jump for joy.” Play is one of those phenomena that is difficult to define but easy to identify when seen. Who hasn’t smiled or laughed at children playing. We enjoy their exuberance and joyful movements. Play and fun are nearly inseparable in a child’s world.

Psychologists tell us that play is essential for a child’s development. Playing helps a child develop the physical coordination and social skills needed to function in an adult world. It’s no accident that playing video games has increasingly eclipsed the more physical kinds of outdoor play. When you look at our computer-dominated and cell phone saturated world, the nimble movements of the fingers needed to play video games is good preparation for adulthood.

Unfortunately, as we move into adulthood many of us forget to play. We don’t lose the ability, but time for play gets squeezed out by the responsibilities and demands of work and family. This is our loss, for playing is just as important for adults as it is for children, but in a different way. For us, playing sports and games is a way of exercising, relieving stress, making social connections and having some fun. We need to play in order to exercise our bodies and minds. But, how can play nourish our souls?

At the heart of play is recreation. Recreation is refreshing and renewing. The word “recreate” can also be expressed as “re-create.” When it comes to feeding the soul, recreation becomes re-creation. The first question to ask yourself when it comes to play that feeds the soul is: What do I do for recreation and relaxation? Answering this will offer clues to play’s soul-nourishing possibilities.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Acedia and Me"

One of the books I've been reading this summer is Kathleen Norris's excellent "Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks and A Writer's Life." Acedia is an archaic word that has several meanings. Most basically it means "an inability to care; indifference; apathy." Acedia was eventually absorbed into the category of "sloth" but it is more complex than simple laziness.

Acedia was considered the greatest challenge by the desert monks of Early Christianity. It was called "the noontime demon," an allusion to it being in plain sight but still very debilitating. The symptoms of acedia are very like those of depression. Norris believes that much of what is diagnosed as depression is really acedia at work.

For the monastic life the "cure" for acedia was to continue on with your life as usual, even if you didn't feel like it made a difference. This "fake it until you make it" strategy seemed to work. After a time of going through the motions, monks would report a return of their ability to care and their energy.

Acedia is still a threat to living a spiritual life. It can lure us into thinking "what I'm doing doesn't matter." That thought can plunge us into indifference or, worse, despair. At such times, it's important to keep pressing on and being patient with ourselves. These difficult times in this "spiritual desert" are preparing us for future times of renewal and spiritual fertility.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Soul-Trying Weather

While hiking in the rain over the weekend, I pondered the question: How does weather affect spirituality?

I have to confess that I love fair weather. Ideal weather for me is sunny, low humidity and in the 70's. Fortunately, in Connecticut we enjoy this kind of weather about half of the year.

However, for the past month, we've had to suffer with my least favorite kind of weather: tropical. It's been hot, humid and very muggy. After a rowing workout I feel like a rung-out washrag. After hiking, I have to change my shirt because I'm drenched.

Such unpleasant weather is a challenge for mindfulness and, thus, for spirituality. On my two hikes over the weekend, not only was it hot and muggy, small black flies were trying to bite my eyes (the only place where insect repellent couldn't be applied). Tropical heat and insects are not ingredients for finding a spiritual connection in nature!

These obstacles are challenges for the soul. My goal is to overcome these obstacles by employing mindfulness. But, it's not easy. When I'm distracted by physical discomfort, I tend to focus on the wrong things. Overcoming discomfort and experiencing a spiritual connection takes practice.

Such obstacles teach me that life doesn't have to always be perfect to experience gratitude and joy. In fact, if you wait for perfect conditions for mindfulness, you might only have a few opportunities a year! Overcoming obstacles and meeting challenges help the soul to grow in depth and richness. While it's not easy, it is worth the effort.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Grace in "The Soloist"

Last night I watched the movie "The Soloist." What an inspiring film! The movie is based on a true story of the relationship between journalist Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) and brilliant, but mentally ill, homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers (played by Jamie Foxx).

The relationship between Lopez and Ayers develops into a friendship that has many ups and downs. Lopez works for the LA Times, is dissatisfied with his job and life, and is looking for a meaningful story to write about. Ayers is a musical prodigy who dropped out of Julliard after developing schizophrenia, is living on the streets of LA and playing a two-string violin.

The friendship between Lopez and Ayers transforms both of their lives, which is the inspiring part of the movie. At one point, Lopez is telling his ex-wife (who is also his editor at the Times) about how he feels about helping Ayers. He says, "I can't find the right word to describe it." She answers, "The word you're looking for is 'grace'."

Seldom have I seen the word 'grace' so accurately and beautifully portrayed. Grace is that undeserved and unexpected love and acceptance we receive in life. It can come through a relationship with another person, with nature, or with God. Theologian Paul Tillich's synonym for grace is "unconditional acceptance." He believed that grace often strikes us in the midst of life's difficulties, "when we are in great pain and restlessness."

Discovering grace is one of life's transforming moments. When grace comes, we often don't recognize it, or call it by the right name. Yet, we know it as we experience it. It is the experience of wholeness, unconditional love and overwhelming joy.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Vacation Spirituality

Summer is vacation time for many of us. Vacations take us away from our home and community of faith. Often, when on vacation, we take a vacation from church, synagogue or mosque.

An article in today's New York Times describes finding an alternate spiritual home while on vacation. Titled, "Sea, Sand, Faith: Far From Home but Closer to Heaven," author Neela Banerjee tells stories of folks finding a deep spiritual connection while on vacation. Here's the link (cut and paste in your web browser):

Some find a deeper spiritual connection on vacation because they are in a place of natural beauty and because they are more relaxed. As the article says, "The beauty of mountains or the sea can open vacationers to a deeper spiritual experience."

I find vacations can be a time to discover a deeper spirituality. First, we're in a different context and that evokes different thoughts and feelings from within. Secondly, we usually spend more time outside and that offers opportunities to enjoy the beauty of creation. Thirdly, we are usually more relaxed and, therefore, more open and receptive to the sacred dimension of life.

When we go on vacation, we don't only take our bodies, we also take our souls. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." Vacations at their best nourish body, mind and soul.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Happiness In A Storm

Is it possible to have cancer and still be happy? The short answer is “yes”, according to several recent books by women and men who are battling cancer. The long answer is: it takes time to discover happiness in the midst of the storm called cancer.

There’s no question that a cancer diagnosis is one of the most devastating events that can happen in our lives. And fighting cancer can cause not only physical suffering but emotional pain. I’ve never heard anyone say, “I can’t wait for my chemo treatment.”

Yet, Betty Rollin, a survivor of two breast cancers writes in her book, Here’s the Bright Side, “I woke up one morning and realized I was happy. This struck me as weird. I didn’t have all kinds of things to be happy about—love, work, good health, enough money—the usual happy-making stuff… I realized that the source of my happiness was, of all things, cancer—that cancer had everything to do with how good the parts of my life were.”

If the above seems Pollyannaish, listen to what Ms. Rollins goes on to say, “It turns out there is often—it seems very often—an astonishingly bright side within darkness. People more than survive bum raps: they wind up stronger, livelier, happier; they wake up to new insights and new people... they often wind up ahead.”

Facing death has a way of awakening us to what is precious and important in life. There can be a sense of urgency to appreciating and enjoying each and every day. Often, we don’t fully appreciate the good things and people of life until we are in danger of losing them.

One woman with incurable ovarian cancer said, “I treat every day as an adventure, and I refuse to let anything make me sad, angry or worried. I live for the day, which is something I never did before. Believe it or not, I’m happier now that I was before I was diagnosed.”

Those who survive cancer often feel like they have been given a second chance at life. Lance Armstrong, survivor of testicular cancer and winner of seven Tour de France races, wrote in his memoir, “In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life.” Another cancer survivor, Fran Lenzo, echoes Armstrong, “Breast cancer has given me a new life. It was something I needed to experience to open my eyes to the joy of living.”

Recurring cancer and its treatments forced Dr. Wendy Harpham to give up her medical practice. She turned to writing about her experience battling chronic lymphoma. She writes in her latest book, Happiness In A Storm, “Without a doubt illness is bad, yet survivorship—from the time of diagnosis and for the balance of life—can include times of great joy among the hardships.”

So there you have it from those who are weathering the cancer storm. Happiness is possible. Even in the darkest times of life, there is light. The name I give to that Light is God.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Filling Your Tank

Lately, filling our gas tanks has become increasingly painful. Last summer, gas prices went above the $4/gallon level and prices are heading up again.

Yet, driving is unavoidable. Most of us need to drive to get to work or to shop for food. We might be able to cut down on our driving somewhat, but we still have to use gas if we’re going to drive anywhere.

Like our cars, we don’t have much choice when it comes to draining our human tanks. Do you know what saps your energy? My list includes: paying bills, doing chores, dealing with conflict, getting contractors to show up at home to do their jobs, and worrying about those I love.

Spiritually, we need to fill our tanks lest we run out of zest and energy. If our tanks keep getting drained without being refilled, we’ll run out of gas. When that happens, we find ourselves exhausted, discouraged or even depressed. We might experience burn-out or, worse, an emotional breakdown.

Each of us needs to discover what fills our tanks. At a recent seminar, I had to make a list of those things that fulfill me spiritually. My list included: hiking in beautiful scenery, rowing, leisurely dinners with my wife, traveling to new places, and having a daily time of meditation/reflection.

After I made my list I realized that, except for rowing, I didn’t intentionally schedule the things that recharge me. So I’ve resolved to schedule the things that fill my tank by writing them on my calendar. That way, they don’t become “things I do only after everything else gets done.”

To determine what fills your tank, ask yourself these questions when you feel energized: (1) Who am I with? (2) What am I doing? (3) Where am I doing it?

These questions challenge you to pay attention to your life and listen to your deepest self. Doing this helps us discover what is life-giving and soul-feeding.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Soul On Water

Yesterday at 6 a.m. I rowed a single shell out into Long Island Sound. Despite the warm and muggy weather, it was a soul-feeding experience. I witnessed a glorious sunrise; saw Canadian geese, swans, cormorants and herons; dodged two large oyster harvesting boats; and got a great workout. The photo on the right is an eight-man shell and I'm second from the top (bow).

I started rowing in 1990, nearly 20 years ago. My friend, Phil, taught me how to scull (rowing with two oars) and I was hooked! Since then, I have rowed competitively all over the world. Rowing is one of the most demanding sports I've ever enjoyed. It requires a very high level of fitness. To keep in shape, I row an average of 4 times/week for an hour.

My rowing club is on the Norwalk River, which admittedly is not the most scenic river in Connecticut. Upriver there is a cement plant that spews noxious smoke and a sewage plant that leaks effluent (steam rises off the plant’s spillage in colder weather). One of the busiest interstates, I-95 crosses the river and provides continuous traffic noise. Despite these deficiencies there is beauty; the Norwalk River flows into the Norwalk harbor and Long Island Sound, both of which are lovely and scenic areas filled with sailboats, light houses, small islands and parks along the shore.

Rowing out into Long Island Sound, especially at sunrise (our weekday practices begin at 5:30 a.m., allowing us the privilege of seeing many sunrises), is still thrilling. Nearly every time we stop in the Sound to turn around to row back, someone proclaims, “What a morning!” Watching the sun peek over the horizon and signal the beginning of a new day is a glorious, soul-enriching moment.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Spirituality of Flying

I spent seven hours on an airplane on Saturday and so had plenty of time to reflect on the spiritual dimension of flying.

Every time we step into a plane we are committing an act of trust. We are saying, in effect, that we have faith not only in the pilot but also faith in those maintaining the airplane and the air traffic controllers. When we’re passengers, there is no getting around this issue of trust.

Since becoming a passenger is an act of trust, it is an opportunity to grow spiritually. So much of the spiritual life has to do with trust: trusting in God or a Higher Power, trusting in others and trusting in yourself. Often, we understand the Christian concept of “faith” as “believing certain truths about God and Jesus.” But faith, as understood by Paul and other New Testament writers, is much more an “active trust” in the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

There is always an element of risk in an act of trust, especially when we can’t be certain of the trustworthiness of whom or what we’re trusting. For instance, before I board an airplane I don’t research the pilot’s credentials. Nor do ask to see the maintenance records for that particular plane. Yet, I still get on the plane. This act of trust is the result of having flown on hundreds of flights, as well as understanding that the risk of an airplane crash is negligible (much less than an auto crash).

What makes this act of trust in becoming a passenger an opportunity for spiritual growth is our awareness of what we’re doing. It’s easy to mindlessly board planes, trains or buses. But, if we do so mindfully then we are consciously exercising trust. And with exercise, the soul’s capacity for trust grows larger.

Friday, August 14, 2009

On the Mountaintop

My final hike of this vacation was to Deception Peak, an ascent of about 2,200 feet from the Santa Fe Ski Basin. This peak is 12,200 feet in elevation and is above the timber line. In the photo above, Deception Peak is the little hump to the left of the middle peak that is called Lake Peak.

Because of the high altitude and steep ascent, I found this hike both challenging and exhilarating. Because I live at sea level, I was breathing hard on the ascent. There is 30% less oxygen at 10,000 feet than at sea level and I had first-hand experience of this!

The exhilarating part of this hike was its rugged and natural beauty. On the way up I enjoyed large alpine meadows filled with wildflowers (Indian paintbrush, asters, sunflowers and columbine), granite formations jutting out of the hillside, and a gorgeous view of Nambe Lake about 1,000 feet below.

After I arrived at the summit (after 1.5 hours of hiking), I spent about 20 minutes enjoying views of landmarks of the Pecos Wilderness: the Truchas Peaks (all over 13,000 feet), Santa Fe Baldy, Trailriders Ridge and Horsethief Meadows. I felt like I was on top of the world and it was an overwhelming feeling.

I love mountaintops because you can see so clearly for so far. They serve as a metaphor for the high moments of life. A "mountaintop experience" is to enjoy a spiritual high. So many key events occurred on moutaintops in the Bible: Noah lands the ark on Mt. Ararat, Moses receives the law on Mt. Sinai, and Jesus is "transfigured" on a mountaintop.

The thing about mountaintops is that, eventually, we must come down. Life isn't lived on mountaintops but on the plains of daily life and in the valleys of difficulty and loss.

Yet, these mountaintop experiences sustain us in the mundane and trying times of life. The key is to revisit the memories of mountaintops for spritual sustenance.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Thin Place in the Land of Enchantment

Yesterday, I visited Tent Rocks National Monument, about 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. What an aweswome experience!

There were literally a few hundred of these "tent rock" formations, the product of a volcanic eruption about 6 million years ago and erosion since then. These conical formations are called "hoodoos" and look like upside down ice cream cones. They vary in height from a few feet to more than 90 feet. The cliffs out of which these formations are carved are white, which is why the Native Americans call this place "Kashe-Katuwe" ("white cliffs").

I took a hike up a "slot" canyon through the tent rocks. This 1.5 mile hike is one of the most unusual I've ever enjoyed. I felt as if I were in another world. At its narrowist the canyon is only a few feet wide and the walls go up a few hundred feet. The hike takes you to the top of a mesa where you can see nearly all of the formations from above. No wonder New Mexico is called "The Land of Enchantment."

The Celts have a term for places where you feel close to the sacred dimension of life: thin places. These are places where the veil between two worlds is very thin. Any place can be a thin place, but I find them in places of rugged and stunning beauty. Visiting such places is inspiring and soul-nourishing.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Nature Deficit Disorder"

A few weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, wrote about "nature deficit disorder" in a column about our need to get outdoors for the benefit of our physical and spiritual health. He wrote a follow-up column on August 9 titled "How to Recharge Your Soul" which is a how-to guide to backpacking (

Kristof contends that being in nature can recharge your soul in some powerful ways. I couldn't agree more!

The Desert Mothers and Fathers of the early Monastic movement knew this power of nature. They withdrew from urban life in order to connect with God in the most obvious place: God's creation. Their spirituality was rooted in deep gratitude for God-created beauty.

Many great spiritual leaders have gone into the desert, or its equivilent wherever they lived, to discover a spiritual connection. This list includes: Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Mohammed, and so many others.

Being in a place of natural beauty doesn't guarantee that your soul will be recharged, but it definitely puts you in a place where such renewal and refreshment is a greater possibility.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Stark Beauty

I writing this from Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the beginning of a week's vacation. This is a return to my boyhood home. I grew up in Albuquerque and lived there from age 3 to age 19. I left to go to college at Southern Methodist University and have returned for annual visits.

New Mexico is a deeply spiritual place because of its stark beauty. There are arroyos and mesas, as well as sparsely vegetated hills and plains. The upper Sonoran desert that surrounds Albuquerque and much of Santa Fe contains varied hues of brown, red and orange.

Yet, it is the mountains that are most spectacular. You can literally see "purple mountains majesty." And, at sunset, the mountains are so red they appear as if on fire. The mountains outside Albuquerque are named the Manzano's, Spanish for "watermelon" because of their red color at sunset. The mountains of Santa Fe are called the Sangre de Cristo's or "Blood of Christ," again a reference to their red color.

The sunsets are also glorious here, mainly because of the dust in the air. Often, the sunlight is filtered through cumulous clouds, making the sky seem alive with light and color.

Places of beauty nourish the soul. My response to such great beauty is gratitude to be able to witness it and praise to the Source of creation.

Friday, August 7, 2009


I went kayaking yesterday for the first time in a few years. Since I row an average of four times a week, that usually fills my "on water" time. But the day was cool and clear and I wanted to enjoy a different kind of boat experience.

Kayaking is a blast! While it's similar to rowing in some obvious ways, it's also different. First, in a kayak you face forward and can see where you're going. Also, you use your upper body, while rowing uses mostly legs and back.

What I most enjoyed was the scenery. I launched in Rowayton and paddled out to some deserted islands in Long Island Sound, about a mile away. By "deserted" I mean that no humans inhabit these small islands. However, they were filled with bird life. There were herons, gulls, cormorants and sandpipers. Since it was high tide, they were perched on rocks awaiting the changing of the tide to fish. I was able to get close enough to touch the rocks on which they were perched.

Can kayaking be a spiritually enriching experience? It certainly was for me. I loved gliding through the water with only a little effort. The scenery was spectacular. I especially appreciated the panoramic view of the sky: puffy culumus clouds were floating above me. Someone has said that clouds are "nature's poetry" and I agree.

Part of the beauty of kayaking is it's near silence. You can hear the sounds of nature (and of power boats, too!): water gently lapping the shore, the wind dancing on the waves, the songs of the different birds. It is definitely a soul-nourishing experience.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Summer Prayer

My favorite composer of prayers is Ted Loder, a retired United Methodist pastor. In his book, Guerillas of Grace (LuraMedia, 1984), he pens this prayer.

Let Me Live Grace-fully

Thank you, Lord,
for this season
of sun and slow motion,
of games and porch sitting,
of picnics and light green fireflies
on heavy purple evenings:
and praise for slight breezes.
It's good, God,
as the first long days of your creation.

Let this season be for me
a time of gathering together the pieces
into which my busyness has broken me.
O God, enable me now
to grow wise through reflection,
peaceful through the song of the cricket,
recreated through the laughter of play.

Most of all, Lord,
let me live easily and grace-fully for a spell,
so that I may see other souls deeply,
share in a silence unhurried,
listen to the sound of sunlight and shadows,
explore barefoot the land of forgotten dreams and shy hopes,
and find the right words to tell another who I am.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mindful Walking

This photo is of me hiking in Patagonia in January. I find that hiking can be a deeply spiritual experience. Yesterday, I took a 2 hour hike in Westmoreland Sanctuary in Bedford, NY. This Westchester County gem features mature forest with oaks, ash, cedar, norway spruce and sassafras. There are ponds, streams and swamps. There are some dramatic rock outcroppings as well as grassy meadows. In short, this is a place of great natural beauty.

There are several ways to hike. A hike can be a race against other hikers where the goal is to finish as quickly as possible. A hike can become a time trial where the goal is to do your best time over a specific distance. A hike can also be done purely for exercise—to burn calories. A hike can also be done for spiritual nourishment. I call this kind of hiking "mindful walking."

When hiking mindfully, I am more aware of the natural beauty surrounding me. I notice the pattern of sunlight on the ground that filters through the branches of trees. I breathe in the musty forest air, rich with aromas of earth: decaying leaves, pine needles and evergreen cones. I look at the sky above the canopy of tree tops and marvel at the varying hues of blue and the puffy white clouds floating effortlessly. When hiking with this kind of awareness, I feel connected to the aliveness around me and feel more alert and alive within.

Walking mindfully isn’t only about awareness of the outside world—it is also of what is happening within. Borrowing from Buddhist meditation, you can focus on your breathing. Are you breathing rhythmically, in tune with the amount of energy you are exerting? How hard is your heart beating? What concerns, anxieties and worries are you carrying within you? Are you feeling a sense of freedom and joy in being in a place of natural beauty?

My spiritual goal in hiking is to shed the anxieties and concerns I carry with me and free myself from them for that time. Since most of our anxieties and worries come from focusing on an unknown future, being fully present in the present moment can liberate us from such concerns and make us receptive to the glory and grandeur of God’s creation. To be mindful is to live fully in the present moment without allowing the burdens of the past or our fears of the future to dominate our consciousness. Mindfulness places us firmly in the here and now.

I admit that I don’t achieve this goal of mindful walking on every hike. Sometimes, thoughts dart and in out of my mind like electric currents and I pay more attention to them than I do to the beauty of my surroundings. At other times, when hiking on a trail littered with rocks or tree roots, I focus my attention on not tripping and falling. During yesterday's hike, several small insects were attacking my eyes, making it difficult to focus on anything else.

Yet, when mindful walking does happen, it's a soul-nourishing experience.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What Is "Active Spirituality"?

While there is no religious or spiritual tradition called “active spirituality,” it’s not difficult to grasp what this term means. The word “active” is the key. Active spirituality means finding your spiritual connection through motion or movement.

One way to understand this term is to look at its opposite. “Passive spirituality” involves spiritual practices that involve little or no movement. Such practices as prayer, meditation and contemplation are usually done while sitting still. The idea here is that outer stillness leads to inner peace. “Passive spirituality” is a good description of the vast majority of traditional spiritual practices.

For many of us, we need to be in motion to find our spiritual connection and to feed our souls. Active souls are persons for whom traditional spiritual disciplines like contemplation, meditation and prayer need to happen while in motion. These are persons who find it difficult, if not impossible, to sit still for minutes (let alone for hours) to pray. They connect with the Holy and Sacred dimension of life while walking, running, hiking, biking, dancing, driving, skiing, sailing, fly fishing cooking, gardening or rowing. Motion and movement nourishes their souls. I know this type of person well because I am one of them.

Because the field of spirituality is overwhelmingly tilted toward practices that involve being still and outwardly inactive, active souls can easily feel left out or, worse, marginalized. The inability to sit passively while meditating, contemplating or praying, can lead to the feeling that we are outsiders to the spiritual life.

This blog will focus on active spiritual practices that are already part of our daily lives. Stay tuned...

Monday, August 3, 2009


This is my inaugural blog entry. I've been thinking about blogging for about a year now, but have been too busy (and intimidated at what it might involve!) to launch my own blog. But, I've decided to overcome my excuses and fears and enter the blogosphere.

The theme of this blog is everyday sprituality. Some call it "active" or "practical" spirituality. My interest is in exploring what is sacred and soulful about daily life.

In this blog of active spirituality we will travel through the primary areas of daily life-- work, play, travel, home life, commuting, leisure and recreation—and try to connect with the spiritual dimension in and through these activities.

I believe that the foundational concept that enables persons to discover their spiritual connection is “mindfulness”: being fully present in the present moment. The focus in mindfulness is not so much on what we do, but how we go about doing it. Mindfulness transforms work into vocation, travel into pilgrimage and recreation into re-creation.

In nearly every major religion, there are threads of active spirituality. The Judeo-Christian tradition has several. Abraham sojourns from Ur to Canaan. David dances in joy before the Lord. Jesus is on the move so much he says, “The Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” Paul is in perpetual motion on his missionary journeys. Active spirituality also plays a prominent role in other major religious traditions: the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism, Karma Yoga in Hinduism, and Tai Chi in Taoism.

When it comes to spirituality, the key questions are: What feeds and nurtures your soul? What brings joy to your heart? What helps you expand your spiritual horizons and grow? The active spirituality of Soul in Motion explores these questions and (I hope) will help you discover joy and fulfillment in the everyday activities of work, play and travel.