Practice Makes Presence
I was eight or nine when I first remember my parents watching the John Ankerberg TV series. He was a well known christian televangelist that would hold a talk show that would invite experts on the Bible to defend the accuracy of christian faith. Watching this show had a powerful effect on me and now, I recognize that it was the public attention these experts received that hooked me into wanting to enter christian ministry. In every church I have attended the pastor was a pseudo-celebrity and I wanted that kind of attention. Over the years, it became evident that the kind of attention these families gained was actually a serious burden. Each church I have attended in the last twenty years has suffered a leadership scandal, usually of an illicit sexual nature. One pastor I knew coldly preached his morning sermons then met his girlfriend that Sunday afternoon and never returned to the church or his wife and kids. His choice was devastating to his family, sad for the church, and was met by strong condemnation from those who knew him. I kept wondering, what about the position of pastor made this type of desperate escape so necessary?
I graduated from Bible college and briefly attended seminary while I worked with youth at a local church. I enjoyed the connection with teens and young adults and I have continued to work with them professionally for last twenty years in various organizations. What I didn't enjoy was the hierarchical leadership structure that usually gave one person (usually a man) vast power over the organization, its mission, as well as regular access to the most fragile and hurting members of the community. By design, church ought to function in a community as a beacon of hope. Unfortunately, I began to see that the so called spiritual elite were still saddled with the same human traits of selfishness and impulsiveness as everyone else. It is hard to see hope in that.
I do not intend this post to serve as a pro/con statement about church attendance. I do accept, however, that my experience resembles the suffering called "special person" by Tara Brach. In her book True Refuge she describes the attitude of special person as someone with strong desires to be in charge, to be looked up to, to be revered. When It becomes a near obsession, it creates separation from others and eventually a form of emotional emptiness. Much of this attitude led to my initial desire to enter ministry and still fuels a lot of my professional goals. To be clear, I am not saying aspiring to or even holding leadership or authority positions are wrong, per se, or that this special person suffering is only found in church communities. It just happens to be were it first awakened in me. Regardless of the cause, I think we could be better served by examining the motivations we have for wanting (or needing) that kind of attention.
I once heard a retired CEO answer the question "what was the biggest adjustment to your retirement?" His answer was "accepting that my phone had stopped ringing." This leader acknowledged that we can unconsciously build a career that makes the approval of others the mirror in which we see ourselves. When that mirror leaves, loneliness is what enters. The special person suffering comes from the separation and need for protection that it creates. If we are what other people say we are; then what people think and say of us must be guarded. Handing over control of your self understanding is a recipe for misery.
One challenging mediation I have been doing for a couple of weeks is called "I am." It lasts fifteen minutes and involves you mentally repeating "I am" while not filling in the blank that follows the phrase. As thoughts come and go, my role is to gently return to the mantra without resisting any intrusive thoughts. Its goal is to help you connect to your fundamental state of being. In a cosmic sense, its like filing out a bio and listing occupation as "here" or "being." This grounded look at existence takes a lot of work. I can't help but think it would matter a great deal to those suffering from the endless and dependent feedback loop of special person. After all, the most special people I have known have three things in common: comfort with self, a relative awareness of their deepest needs, and a developed sense of inner refuge that grounds them.
This week's practice is to meet the desire for validation with a repetition of "I am". Finding our deeply (often ignored) sense of being is the connection to truly living in the present. This sense of being is independent of our circumstances and I welcome it as foundation to my inner refuge.