Welcome to Practice Makes Presence!
A Journey filled with candor and compassion
Podcast and Blog of Matt Sandoval
I remember laughing at the great 90s Saturday Night Live Skit where the two talk show hosts were so paralyzed by their need to be politically correct, that their dialogue became stretched thin and to the point of absurdity. Instead of Christmas carols, they sang holiday carols with language generic enough to mean almost nothing to anyone listening. This awkward comprise of language was played for laughs but many don’t find the humor in this type of cultural compromise. Some have even called the dialogue of the skit a representation of the so-called "War on Christmas."
In the last 24 hours the northern hemisphere has emerged from its longest night and its shortest day. Hundreds of years ago, when your livelihood depended on agriculture, and there was never a chance to head to the supermarket after work for fresh food, the return of the sun was a very welcome sign. How welcome was the sign? One worthy of a massive party (more like debauchery). Eventually, cultural pressure combined the solstice with the Christian observance of the birth of Jesus. This newly merged tradition was observed three days after the solstice. The goal was to contain the solstice party and make it a spiritual event that was more palatable to those who saw a threat in the debauchery holiday.
Today, December 22, the sun is starting our annual process of shortening the night, which has both literal and metaphorical meaning every year. For a desert dweller like me, the temperature dip of winter is offsetting and for many, the season is physically and emotionally depressing. The celebration of solstice recognizes the beginning of the end of the long nights, and its linkage to Christmas joins the expectation of more natural sun with emergence of another spiritually son, notably in just three days (as in the gospel stories).
As our days begin to lengthen, the advent and Christmas calendar implore us to find all of the contemporary areas of darkness and bring light to each of them. I believe that if the message of this season was one of offering the light of truth, justice, compassion, mercy, and hope there wouldn't need to be a discussion about the cultural disappearance of Christmas. Instead, there is ample proof for those with reservations, suspicions, and hostility about that the Christmas holiday has little to do with the end of darkness, literal or metaphorical. Sadly, there are too many heartbreaking and convicting examples that they can provide. There has been much harm done in the name of Christ, in defense of Christmas, and in defense of other professing Christians. These experiences need a solstice of the soul as well.
Tonight will be shorter than the last, and each day that follows will grow in warmth and brightness. Each day's new light is an example of the metaphor of the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus is the light of the world, not the "right" of the world. There are too many examples of where the right words about Christmas and Christ have created the same kind of paralyzed banter as the Saturday Night Live skit. We may speak all we want about values, but if the audience can only see, feel, and experience darkness, then we are perpetually at the solstice and never to arrive at Christmas. The energy spent on the "right" ways to talk about Christmas is better spent finding the means to extinguish the very real darkness that many live in spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
Happy solstice! Now, let us share the light where it is needed most. May the light of each day lengthen through our spirit driven action, may each person inhabit less darkness through our love, and may the light of the world shine without the distortion of our hypocritical words. May we all declare one last war, a war not on Christmas, but on darkness! That is what sun/son is for, after all.
I discovered mindfulness meditation in early 2016 and fully developed a daily practice this year. As meaningful as it is, it ought to come with a warning "Do Not Try This If You Are Not Ready to Work and Become Someone New." Sitting is the easy part, but staying seated and gradually opening space to become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and memories that come and pass is the hard part. This book helped me to develop new tools to offer kindness, care, and space for my experience in the moment.
As I have committed to my mediation practice over the past months, the most accessible analogy for the experience is to describe the practice as if you were developing an extra gear mentally and physically. Driving a stick shift is becoming a lost art, but in the late 90s I had as small Nissan pickup truck that allowed me to learn and enjoy this type of driving experience. Manual transmission have more "pep" when accelerating and that comes in handy getting in and out of tight or congested spaces. I used to wish that there was a gear between second and third on my truck, since I felt second was overworking while driving in residential areas and third made the truck drag. This type of extra gear would have made coasting without speeding require much less shifting. This is the feeling that began to emerge in the weeks and months after I committed to my practice. In moments of true anxiety, fear, and shame, following the prompts back to my breath became that coasting gear.
The book comes with practical examples of the meditations, sets of exercises, and encouragement through some of the common challenges. The author is psychotherapist and a Buddhist and his connection between both of these perspectives adds a great deal to the practice. With these tools, your reliance on external reassurances of safety slowly withdrawal and it's you and your acceptance and awareness that becomes the refuge. To borrow a thought, with mindfulness we can become "the ones we are waiting for."
Who is this book for?
I have heard that one of the most often repeated commands in the Bible is a version of the phrase "Do not be afraid." I have also never heard those words at a moment of personal fear and been able to appreciate them. In fact, I am so good at fear that I actually struggle with fear of strong emotions in general. I would like to propose we reinvent our fear language. Even though fear is a basic biological impulse designed to protect our safety, its daily presence erodes our enjoyment of life. My friends, what should we make of fear?
The strangeness of each of the accounts in the Christian sacred text leads me to think that the real issue behind our fear is something going on just below the surface. It is important to note the verb in "Do not be afraid" is "be" rather than the word "feel". The difference is regularly overlooked, but vital. Take a look at some of the accounts of individuals "being afraid", you'll find them running, hiding, collapsing, mute, catastrophizing, blaming others, etc. These are the same things that happen when we give away our sense of being and where we have been overcome by our darkest feelings.
Most of the commands to not be afraid come with a reason. When the truth is revealed, it's usually a unique combination of radical change and surprise. Let's reflect on that cause and effect relationship. The divine reassurance is provided exactly because the situation actually is terrifying. Why else would there be a need to give an explanation? It is senseless and even cruel to dismiss the fearful experiences of others, and even more cruel to do it to ourselves.
I suggest we make room for the feelings of fear, recognize its sense of alarm, and open our awareness to its source. We can make room by first recognizing the feelings present in our body. These feelings are the pit in our stomach, the quickening of our heart beat, and the sudden urge to fight or take flight. It takes real courage to sit (and only sit) and acknowledge these feelings in real time. As we make this our practice, something amazing happens - we can learn that our feelings are temporary. When we become a witness to their rise and fall, much like bobbing on the water from the safety of a boat, we allow temporary fear to switch places with a permanent peace that is laying just below our emotional surface. This is how we can "not be afraid" while still recognizing that our old annoying friend named fear has come for a visit.
Feeling fear without being afraid also means developing an awareness of true threat versus perceived threat. We cannot rid ourselves of fear, it is our body's alarm system and its warning can save our lives. For most, there have only be a few "life or death" fear inducing moments in life. The rest of these moments however, are often threats to our ego, despair over our lack of control, and frustration coming from our resistance to circumstances. Giving in and responding to these perceived threats can also fit the definition of "being" afraid.
When our sense of being has given over to fear, we have a choice. Living in constant reactivity to every ego slight or need for control does nothing more than induce more fear. A better choice looks like the process of accepting fear, re-framing our situation, and pursuing a new direction in real time (maybe this is what working out salvation with "fear and trembling" means). These choices will not remove fear from your life, and you wouldn't want that any more than having non-functioning fire alarms in your home. However, It will help you remember that there are real alarms and fake ones. The fakes ones are much more prevalent. Even as the alarms sound from time to time, it's possible to feel fear but not permanently overcome by it. When you doubt this check out some of my favorite fear encounters in the Bible:
Exodus 14:13 A time God followers feared that they were being led to their death by God
Deuteronomy 7:18 For the faithful and forgetful, a reminder to the same group who had already lived through the Exodus 14:13 incident
Proverbs 3:24 For the times the quiet of the night is what keeps you from sleep
Psalms 23:4 For the time it's your memory of God's previous acts that keep you alive
Matthew 1:20 For the time when one door shuts and another door doesn't open because God is removing the roof of the reality of your existence
Matthew 10:31 For the times we think we are invisible, inconsequential, and unimportant to God
Matthew 17:7 When you realize you had all the right facts but in all the wrong order
Matthew 28:5 A surprise reminder of God's opinion of nightmares like tombstones and mortal failure
Mark 4:40-41; 6:50 A surprise reminder of how God and nature relate
Luke 1:13 When a man named "Yahweh remembers" learns what the name means
Luke 2:!0 When good news became the victory of God
Parker Palmer is an established thought leader that I recently came across via the “On Being” podcast. In particular, I was drawn into the podcast episode as he described his various adventures in activism, the Quaker community, and his reflective poise in a complex and changing world.