Archive for category: Aha Moments

Wonder

02 Mar
March 2, 2017

If you come to the windward side of O’ahu, you are welcome to visit “Akua’s sanctuary” there. (Akua is Hawaiian for God.) Today the weather is rainy and windy. However, you can still see the waterfalls flowing down the 2000′ cliffs of the forest-covered Ko’olau mountains. Their surface looks like a green shower curtain with white streaks in the folds, whenever it rains abundantly. Rain is considered a blessing, as are rainbows, whale-sightings, views of honu (sea turtles) and other things.

If it were not so rainy and windy today, I would invite you to go for a recreational paddle on Kane’ohe Bay, the green, turquoise and blue ocean surrounded by the Ko’olau mountains. We would gather at the beach and take out our outrigger canoes to paddle to Coconut Island, where we stop to swim around in the marine sanctuary. It is like a gigantic tropical aquarium of colorful creatures feeding around the coral reef. It is a sanctuary, a good place to be, not do. We are in a cathedral of nature, expressing the grandeur of the ocean and mountains. The view reminds me of the Welsh fisherman prayer, “My boat is so small and your sea is so great.” As a community, we visit this place and enjoy a moveable feast of the eyes and soul.

During this season of Lent, I do not feel compelled to give up desserts or dairy or meat. Instead, I am drawn to the soul food of active wonder. Where is God being revealed and known? Where is God acting or persuading? I want to pay attention to wonder and awe.

Let me, let us be in nurturing relationship with God in wonder, awe and beauty.
May we be fed by appreciation of nature’s creativity and complexity.
May gratitude come easily to us.
Let our behavior follow in generosity and love.

Breath

06 Nov
November 6, 2016

Usually, I have trouble sticking with a meditation practice. Even five days in a row feels pretty good to me. A new phone app has been helping me to approach mindfulness with fresh enthusiasm by getting instruction from Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist teacher. This is probably my eighty-fifth try with mindfulness, since it became very popular in medical centers. I used a body scan meditation with cancer patients in 1990 as part of my doctoral thesis. John Kabat Zinn, Ph.D., had just published a best-seller “Full Catastrophe Living” about meditation for everyone based upon his chronic pain studies. Harvard researcher Herbert Benson, M.D., also came out with “The Relaxation Response,” describing his study of physiological data from meditation practices. So, taking a type of meditation, which is embedded in the Buddhist tradition, and using it with a general audience is not new.

Like flossing teeth, sticking with any practice that I know is good for me is not easy. It is simple, but not easy. (Although, prayer comes pretty naturally after forty-seven years as a Christian.) Today, my focus on my breath was mildly disturbed with random thoughts of my “To Do List.” I let them pass like the white clouds overhead. I successfully ignored all the election news; that never even entered my mind during the meditation. I returned my focus gently to the breath, like returning a wandering puppy to his bed. It was restful.

It is wonderful to be meditating on my polished coral lanai in Hawaii, which is a very spiritual place for me. There is an unhurried, relaxed sense of time here. The warmth makes it easy to be casual in shorts, tank tops and “slippahs.” Next to the green-ridged Ko’olau mountains, I hear birdsong, feral roosters’ crows and an occasional airplane in the distance. Tall red wax palms, taro, red ginger, pink anthuriums, ornamental pineapple and more vibrant plants thrive in our garden. Grace, spaciousness and calm inform these surroundings. Beauty lives here. Beauty indwelling with nature is another name for God.

Focusing on my breath brings me to a sense of grounded-ness. I live here with God’s creation; I am also a small part of God’s creation. In my own spiritual tradition, God breathes into humans to give them life. “Ruah,” a feminine word in the Hebrew Scriptures, means wind, breath or spirit. In one biblical story, God appears as a gentle breeze. Ruah is both imminent and beyond us. In the Christian Scriptures, the Greek word “pneuma” has the same translation. God appears quite notably in the Spirit. So, this focus on the breath is rich with meaning and common to Judaism and Christianity as well as Buddhism.

Whatever your spiritual tradition, may you breathe easily and deeply today.
Wherever you live, may you find Beauty today.
Whenever you pause, may you be grateful today.

Transformation

02 Jun
June 2, 2016

Beginning a new work is a hopeful time.  I am teaching Spiritual Care this summer at a hospital in Billings, Montana.  Of course, I feel hopeful about all the learning that will take place.  We are studying cultural humility as a theme for the summer by visiting the Crow and Cheyenne people on their reservations.  Seventeen per cent of the hospital’s patient population is Indigenous People.  Serving the people here will require a better understanding of their perspectives.  Being in relationship ethically takes entering into the worldview of the people one serves.  So, a strong desire to get to know people in their own culture is a benefit.

This is a Spiritual DNA trip for me too.  My father and his family come from the Crow reservation in Hardin, Montana.  After my Dad died, I visited the area once.  Coming upon the Little Big Horn Museum, I thought it might be interesting and stopped in.  Upon entering, I immediately saw a huge poster-sized photo of my grandfather and my father, who had been black-and-white photographers.  I began to cry.  My Dad never told me about this museum, if he even knew about it.  Here it was, full of his photography of tepees, Crow men and women on horseback, handsome Chiefs, fancy dancers, women in elk-tooth shirts and children dressed in beaded leather clothing.  This was the photography of my childhood home; I recognized it.  The family logo marked the bottom corner of the enlarged photos adorning the museum walls.  The elderly docent came rushing over after seeing me in tears, “Can I help you?”  She was alarmed until I explained that it was a shock to see all these photos, especially the one of my grandfather and father, which was new to me.  She was excited to see a relative of my grandfather, the mayor of Hardin in his day.  She looked up some newspaper clippings about my family.  This was part of my last visit to the reservation.  Will I learn more about my Dad and my lineage this trip?

I am also in the midst of writing a book about Spiritual Care and stories of patients who are at the end of life.  Enjoying the work, I am now rewriting several chapters for my literary agent, so that she can sell the book to a publisher.  Several coffeeshops in downtown Billings will be my new workspace, as well as a desk in our little apartment across from the Federal Courthouse.  Although I have written chapters in books before, this is my first full-length book.

Thomas Merton has this advice: “Do not depend on the hope of results.  You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.  You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people.  In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

Merton recalls me to the personal relationships, which will be the heart of my experience in Billings.  Ultimately, the meaning of these three months will not be in the work accomplished in teaching, learning and writing.  What is written in the heart as we get to know and care for each other is what matters most.  There lies the value in what we are making – life together, encounter by encounter.

Life on O’ahu

23 Feb
February 23, 2016

Hawaii has always been a place where I feel connected to what is beautiful, spiritual and made by the Creator. The ocean water is warm near the shore and the air is pure. My body, like Goldilocks, loves the climate on windward O’ahu, where it rains often, but not long. I was drawn to Temple Valley for its connection to the ancestors, since mine have passed away and my love for them remains significant in my life. Wherever one lives, there are ups and downs. However, nature is truly outstanding and inspiring in Hawaii.

I wrote a poem about the life of God in me in this place. It does take a few notes to understand, if you are not familiar with O’ahu:
“Akua” is God in the Hawaiian language.
“Na Mokulua” are two islets off Lanikai Beach.
“Ko’olau” are mountains on the windward side of O’ahu.

 
Orbiting around anxiety,
feeling powerless to do more,
I do what I can and
surrender the situation again.
I speak to Akua.

A monk seal’s black head pops up
from the surface of the sea.
Bright and curious eyes, white whiskers,
he stares and seems to smile
at us in the outrigger canoe.
Akua speaks to me.

Swimming in gentle, turquoise ocean,
the sun is warm on my back.
The watery sand is white beneath me.
Na Mokulua sit proudly on the horizon.
This moment is perfect.
I speak to Akua.

Sudden dark clouds catch us driving.
Torrents of rain begin to fall
and quickly pass over.
The sun appears across the Ko’olau;
a giant rainbow, a blessing is bestowed.
Akua speaks to me.

– Michele R. Shields

New Year’s Resolutions

01 Jan
January 1, 2016

C.S. Lewis wrote, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” Now is the time for New Year’s resolutions.  Do you groan inwardly or do you greet this idea with enthusiasm?  If you are ready to set some goals for the next year, I have some tips to help you be successful.

Schedule time for your New Year’s resolutions.  Happiness guru Shawn Achor says that it takes twenty-one days to develop a habit.  It helps to do a new practice at the same time of day for the practice to become a habit.  I have found that writing, for example, at the same time of day helps me to be more regular about it.  If I cannot manage that, I can still schedule into my calendar the time to write.  I do not go crazy if I miss a day, but scheduling definitely improves my ability to put my bottom in the desk chair to write.

Set realistic and attainable goals.  I sometimes fail to exercise, but only if it is a rare sick day or travel day.  So, I do not mind setting a daily exercise goal.  However, if I were not an athlete, I would set a more moderate goal, such as every other day for exercise.  I would also suggest picking an exercise which you enjoy and find easy to do (i.e. you do not have to regularly drive to a ski resort). I am aiming for lifestyle improvement, not perfection.

Why do you want to resolve to do these things?  What is your motivation? It could be to improve your relationship or health or spiritual life.  Getting in touch with your inner motivations helps you stay on track with your New Year’s resolutions.  This year, I thought about what is most important to a sustainable, enjoyable life – being present in the moment and being loving to God, others and me. I also thought about why I want to write my book – to help other people to care spiritually for loved ones and friends at the end of life.  It is all about what makes the resolution so important.

If you write your resolution in the form of a question, you will be fourteen percent more likely to accomplish it, states a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.  Will you give up sugar in 2016?  Will you lose ten pounds this year? As you look at your questions, you feel compelled to answer them every day you see them on your mirror or refrigerator, “I will.” Ask a friend to become your accountability partner and to question you with your New Year’s resolutions.

At this point, I would like to ask your best wishes and prayers for me with my New Year’s resolutions.  Please feel free to ask me how I am doing with these:

1. Will you focus upon truly listening to Jim (my husband)?

2. Will you slow down to be present and to love? (See my last blogpost “True Confessions” for background)

3. Will you finish writing your book?

4. Will you have a daily quiet time and exercise time?

May you make meaningful New Year’s Resolutions and stick to them.  And may God bless you in the New Year!

 

True Confessions

23 Dec
December 23, 2015

At holiday time, there seems to be more frenetic driving on the city streets than ever. People zoom through yellow-to-red lights and block crosswalks in the next block. Quickly changing lanes without signaling is common, while cutting off other cars. On a one-way, three-lane road, seeing someone make a left turn from the far right lane always surprises me. These folks must be very stressed or hurried. I have felt that way, when I was working for a regular paycheck job with plenty of responsibility. I know my driving got sloppy, but was it that bad? No. Instead, I banged up the car while parking in our assigned spot of the apartment building garage. Several times!

Today, I came across this and it hit me right between the eyes:
“There is a close connection between speed and impatience. Our culture has become so speeded up today that no one has time to be patient. People in a hurry cannot be patient – so people in a hurry cannot really love. To love, we need to be sensitive to those around us, which is impossible if we are racing through life engrossed in all the things we need to do.” (Eknath Easwaran in “Blue Mountain Journal,” Winter 2015)
I had to read this again slowly. How often am I in such a hurry that I cannot really love? How often am I so engrossed in all the things I need to do, racing through life, that I cannot be sensitive to those around me? This brought up my character traits of impatience and self-centeredness, which I know as rather unattractive parts of my personality. These traits prevent me from being truly present to others.

My husband Jim and I participate in a couples group intent upon improving our marriages. At our last meeting, we focused upon communication and truly listening to our partners. We each shared about the barriers to truly listening, like being preoccupied with smartphones, televisions, computers, iPads and other electronics. Putting work first or the “to do list” or hurrying also get in the way of what we say matters most. During the following days, this conversation made me focus on slowing down and putting down my electronic devices, when Jim started speaking to me in order to really be attentive to him. I was not 100% successful, but I improved. I could tell that Jim was making an effort to listen well too. “Love is an act of the will. That’s why you say, ‘I will’ at the wedding ceremony, rather than ‘I do,'” I tell couples whom I am going to marry. (I am a clergyperson.) And love takes time. My New Year’s Resolution this year will be about slowing down to be more present in the moment and to love better.

May you live life at a sustainable and healthy pace.
May you intuitively learn how to balance your needs and the needs of others.
May you be able to love yourself, your neighbor and your Higher Power in equal measure.

Expect the Unexpected

15 Dec
December 15, 2015

When I was jogging across Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, I had crossed four of six lanes on the green light when suddenly, a driver in a car zoomed through his red light nearly hitting me in the crosswalk. My life did not flash before my eyes. There was no time for that. I registered only surprise. After that, there was anger at the driver for running the red light and then gratitude that my life still went on. I thanked God that I had no resentments toward anyone. And the people about whom I care knew that I loved them. If life had ended just then, my relationships were set straight, as far as I knew. I felt relieved deep down to know that. After all, I do not know of any spiritual traditions that recommend carrying resentments or fostering broken relationships.

This is the time of year in my faith tradition that encourages us to look for the unexpected. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann said, “Pray and watch…Expect the unexpected,” in a film by The Work of the People (www.theworkofthepeople.com). We are meant to look for the surprises in everyday life. Be attentive. We might see something Divine at work in the world, and not only have a brush with mortality! For example, my little Havanese dog just came over to lick my face in a gesture of affection as I write this. My spiritual director Diane always calls him one of God’s messengers embodying the welcome of God. This dog surprises and delights me.

The biggest surprise, the most unexpected thing of all, is the embodiment of God. At the end of this season of Advent, God comes to us in the form of a helpless child, born to a totally inexperienced mother, who is a teenager and homeless at the time. (We need to be shown how to live and love in relationship with him.) It is a very strange story, surviving for thousands of years, being celebrated by lots of people who do not even believe it. Yet, for those who believe, it reminds us that God does surprising and unexpected things for which we would do well to watch.

May you expect the unexpected.
May you seek the surprises in everyday life.
May you welcome the Divine in whatever form God comes to you this season.

What’s The Fear!

30 Nov
November 30, 2015

Jesus was a brown-skinned baby born into occupied territory, saved by his loving parents. They fled across a border into a safer country to escape King Herod, who felt his power threatened and who mass-murdered infants. That made Jesus and his parents refugees. As an imperfect follower of the refugee Jesus during this season, I have been wondering, what in the world is going on?

So, what are the senators, governors or presidential candidates, who have claimed to be Christian, doing when they oppose welcoming the longstanding biblical admonition to welcome the stranger? (Leviticus 19:34, 24:22, Exodus 22:21, 23:9, Hebrews 13:2, Romans 15:7, 1 Peter 4:9) Jesus told his disciples, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in…? Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:35, 37-38, 40)

The condemnation of the refugees and the strangers (e.g. the old “not in my neighborhood” attitude) is fear-based. Logically, do we need to be so afraid? Far more Americans have been killed by homegrown gun violence than foreign terrorism. Yet, we seem to be disempowered by congress to do anything substantive about that. Any individual’s chance of being killed by terrorists is simply not that great. (And I will certainly report anything suspicious.)

My husband Jim and I have a friend, who I will call Alex, who spends his time listening to a radio station while he drives his truck and works as a painter. This particular station’s programs predict gloom and doom for the world twenty-four hours a day. Alex believes it all. His entire world view is shaped by his listening to these talk shows. Whenever we see Alex, Jim gets into a discussion with Alex about the fact that Hawaii, where we all live, has not seen any Ebola cases or Daesh fighters and the likelihood that it will not. Alex’s fears seem partially assuaged. However, the next time we see him, he is full of fear and worry. He has continued to massage the messages of the radio station in his mind, listening to it constantly. I have learned something from Alex.

What we pay attention to is a matter of choice. Do you need a mantra? “Fear not” is such common advice in the Christian scriptures. Do you have a purpose today? It could be doing your work to the best of your ability. It does not have to be complicated. To show active good will to everyone you encounter (i.e. to love) is a purpose. Thérèse of Lisieux prayed, “Help me to simplify my life by learning what You want me to be and becoming that person.” Focusing upon what is ours to be and do brings a sense of calm intent.

Along with many others, I imperfectly follow my refugee teacher and my calling. I welcome the stranger because who knows? All of us might be changed for the better. And we might be entertaining angels without being aware of it!

Standing One’s Ground

20 Nov
November 20, 2015

A most amazing video went viral this week following the terrorists’ attacks in Paris. At a memorial site, a father named Angel Le and his little son Brandon were interviewed by a reporter from “Le Petit Journal.”
Reporter (R) to Brandon: Do you understand what happened? Do you understand why those people did that?
Brandon (B): Yes, because they’re really, really mean. Bad guys are not very nice. And we have to be really careful because we have to change houses.
Angel (A): Oh no, don’t worry…We don’t need to change houses. France is our home.
B: But they are bad guys, Papa.
A: Yes, but there are bad guys everywhere.
B: They have guns. They can shoot us because they’re really, really mean, Papa.
A: It’s ok, they might have guns, but we have flowers.
B: But flowers don’t do anything. They’re for…they’re for…
A: Of course they do, look, everyone is putting flowers. It’s to fight against the guns.
B: It’s to protect?
A: Exactly.
B: And the candles too?
A: It’s to remember the people who are gone yesterday.
B: The flowers and candles are here to protect us?
A: Yes.
R: Do you feel better now?
B: Yes, I feel better.

I, too, stand with those who have flowers and candles. Angel has the love and compassion to comfort his son, who was so frightened by the mean, bad guys and the guns. I stand with those who would spread love and compassion, not fear. I take a lesson from those flowers. My spiritual teacher said, “See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?…So do not worry…” (Matt. 6:28b-31a) I make a choice where I stand and I choose not to worry and to trust that my life is taken care of forever by the Eternal. This is not to deny the reality of the evil that people do or the possibility of bad things happening. Instead, it is choosing to acknowledge a deeper, more profound reality – that love and compassion win in the end. Love cannot be destroyed by hatred. Love is greater. The Ground of Being is love. And this is the beautiful truth.

Parker Palmer wrote this in 1999, which seems so wise today:
“We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.”

May you stand with those who have flowers and candles.
May you stand and spread love and compassion in the face of fear.
May you stand on the ground of trust and hope and faith, knowing that the Ground of Being is Love.

Losing the Narrative of Your Life

13 Nov
November 13, 2015

Angus Deaton won a Nobel prize in economics for his study on intricate measures of human well-being, but his latest study has created more buzz than any other published work he has done. What is the topic of his latest study? Since 1999, there is a dramatic and unique increase in the death of middle-aged white Americans, while other ethnic, racial and age groups’ death rates have declined in the U.S.A.. This pattern does not exist in other high-income countries.

This study was co-authored by Deaton’s fellow Princeton economist Anne Case, who is also his wife. They researched causes for this white middle-aged American pattern and found: a big increase in suicides, a greater reliance on opioid painkillers leading to horrible health/mortality outcomes, poisonings (prescription drug-related deaths), and chronic liver diseases from drugs and alcohol. It added up to substance abuse.

As an economist, Deaton explains that this demographic group is facing greater economic insecurity over the last decade or more. These Americans may have had higher expectations for their futures about getting ahead, having a secure and comfortable retirement, and being able to be generous with their families. Their dreams may be dashed by a harsh economic climate. Deaton said in an interview that middle-aged white Americans have “lost the narrative of their lives.” This poetic phrase grabs me.

What is the narrative of your life? How much of it depends upon economics? Or relationships? Or accomplishments? Or service to others? Or creativity? Or something greater than yourself? Or what?

Are your best days behind you? Or are your best days in front of you?

*Note: Absolute mortality rates in the U.S.A. are highest among African Americans, followed by whites, then Hispanics, and then Asian Americans.