“Beholding” as a Spritual Practice

            Last week I attended a leadership conference featuring David Brooks, PBS commentator and columnist for the New York Times.  He covered many issues in his three talks, and one I want to share with you concerns the attention we give other people.

David said he recently was working alone at home one evening when his wife came in the front door. He looked up to see her and realized she hadn’t yet noticed him sitting at his desk in the adjacent room.  He decided to simply watch her for a minute.  After she closed the door behind her, she put her things down, and paused.  The house was quiet. She then turned and walked into the kitchen.  In that unplanned moment of simply observing her, he realized how much he loved her. He said the experience of seeing her this way was not just a visual act, but something more: he felt as if he was beholding her.

He contrasted this moment with what we experience often in modern life — looking at each other without really seeing each other.  When we meet someone, we quickly form assumptions about them before they even speak and filter whatever they say through our assumptions.  When someone we know is talking – even someone we know well – our busy mind often isn’t listening carefully to them, but instead preparing what we are going to say in response.  “We are not good at “reading” others,” he said, which has created “an epidemic of social blindness.”  The quality of attention we bring to someone else is a moral act.  If we are truly paying attention with humility and genuine respect, we are granting that person dignity.   We are beholding them.

I looked up the origin of the word.  In Old English, the word bihaldan meant “give regard to, hold in view.”  Modern definitions include, “To hold by, keep, observe, regard, look” and “To look upon, view, consider as (something); to consider or hold in a certain capacity.” If I was to add my own definition, it would be “to give reverent attention to a particular person or experience.” I kept turning the word around in my imagination and was intrigued with the possibility that to “behold” someone could be to “hold” that person’s “being” with a particular sense of awe and care.  We are not looking at them with our “busy mind” but opening ourselves to the mystery and wonder of their living presence.

            In Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor described the factors that led her to leave parish ministry. One reason was that she had become weary of people wanting her to tell them what they were supposed to believe.  She said her spiritual journey had not been so much about believing the right thing but inviting others into experiences of beholding —“beholding life on earth in all its glorious and terrible reality.”

            Being with someone when they die can often evoke a feeling there’s something sacred in the room. I remember my sisters and I spending time at our deceased father’s bedside before the mortuary arrived.  We weren’t just looking at dad, we were beholding him.

            And I recall what it’s like raising young children.  You’re busy all day long with them – talking, listening, dressing, negotiating, feeding, bathing, reading a story — and it’s a big accomplishment to finally get them into bed. A little while later you come back to their room to check on them.  You carefully, quietly open the door and see if they’ve fallen asleep. Seeing they are, you sometimes stand there and keep looking at them. You now “see” them for the miracles they are. You may even think, “When they are asleep they look like angels.” In those moments, you’re not just looking at them – you are beholding them

            Maybe we can try beholding one person today and see what we experience.

Imgage: Sleeping Child Covered With a Blanket, Henry Moore, 1942

Your Membership Card for the Spiritual Gymnasium

            Speaking at the Lobero Theater fifteen years ago was the great scholar of world religion, Huston Smith. Almost 90 years old, he had difficulty walking on stage. 

Once he reached the lectern and stabilized himself, he looked out at the audience, smiled, and said, “I’m going to make five statements tonight that I think you will disagree with.”  People shifted a bit in their seats. 

There’s no such thing as progress” was one of them. 

            He acknowledged that, of course, there have been significant improvements in our lives over the centuries.  Plumbing, for instance. Or scientific advances in many fields, including those that have improved health care, eliminated many deadly diseases, and reduced mortality rates.  Not many of us would argue with that.

            There’s been some progress in human rights, particularly regarding race and the status of women.

            But with all our material advances, have we resolved the problems that create human suffering?

            He finished by saying:

            “If you go through life feeling you must solve the problems facing humanity before you die, you are going to come to the end frustrated and discouraged.  But if instead you see life as a spiritual gymnasium – a place designed to learn timeless truths – you will find it’s perfectly equipped.”

In my twenties I realized how deeply embedded the illusion of progress is in our society – that every generation will make things “better.”   Clearly there’s been great material advances.  But would we say there has been “progress” in the arts? Has anyone “improved” on Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis, the Beatles, Van Gogh, Aretha, Bruce Springsteen, or Bob Marley?  New artists come along and delight us with their creativity, but that’s not “progress,” that’s just new expressions.  There is a timelessness to great art that is very different from a new washing machine model or a television with higher resolution.

            The same can be said about great spiritual teachings.  New insights and interpretations emerge, but core teachings endure. The importance of awe, wonder and gratitude.  The call to love and serve your neighbor and guard the inherent dignity of others.  To participate in a caring community. To treat the earth as a sacred gift.  These values are ageless, and life offers us endless opportunities to practice them.

I find this helpful to remember when events challenge my assumptions of how we should be able to “fix” things.

            When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many of us thought America might be entering a “post-racial” America.  We were wrong.

            Until the 2020 election, we took it for granted that a president who had clearly lost an election would never call it a “big lie” and encourage a violent attack on the Capitol. We were mistaken.

            Europe has  not seen large-scale armed conflict in 77 years and it seemed we were beyond such events. But Russia attacked Ukraine in February and millions of people have become refugees.

            Ten years ago, after the Sandy Hook shootings, many Americans were determined to do whatever it would take to prevent further tragedies.  Now we have this unfathomable event in Texas just days after the shootings in Buffalo.

            Human behavior, it seems, is not as easy to upgrade as a cell phone.

            But do we give up and disengage?  Absolutely not.

            First, we realize not everything that comes to us can be permanently solved, particularly when it involves human behavior and motivation.  But everything can be addressed and engaged with a desire to make a difference and sometimes advances are made.  That’s how social progress happen.s And it’s always a chance for a work-out in the spiritual gym. 

            One year I worked in inner city Philadelphia with an African American pastor who had grown up in the neighborhood. I once asked her how she kept going.  “We just keep on keeping on,” she said.

            Maybe it’s like practicing medicine.  You can be a faithful physician or nurse without believing every disease will be eliminated in your lifetime.  You just keep bringing your best efforts to every patient while hoping for new advances and better treatments.

At La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, we regularly welcomed people who were striving to make the world a better place. They often arrived discouraged, depleted, and burnt out.  They unplugged and spent a few days resting and reflecting amid the 26-acre natural sanctuary. They’d leave renewed. Father Richard Rohr describes the dynamic:

One of the reasons I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation was to give activists some grounding in spirituality so they could continue working for social change, but from a stance much different than vengeance, ideology, or willpower pressing against willpower. Most activists I knew loved Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on nonviolence. But it became clear to me that many of them had only an intellectual appreciation rather than a participation in the much deeper mystery. The ego was still in charge, and I often saw people creating victims of others who were not like them. It was still a power game, not the science of love as Jesus taught it.

            When we begin by connecting with our inner experience of communion rather than separation, our actions can become pure, clear, and firm. This kind of action, rooted in one’s True Self, comes from a deeper knowing of what is real, good, true, and beautiful, beyond labels and dualistic judgments of right or wrong. From this place, our energy is positive and has the most potential to create change for the good.[i]

Welcome to the spiritual gymnasium.  There’s no enrollment payment or monthly fees, and it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week. 

“Where do I get my membership card?” you might ask.

You’ve already got it – it was given to you at birth.

Photo: Huston Smith and me at Esalen, October 2010.  He was born May 31, 1919, in China and died in Berkeley in 2016 at age 97.  He continues to be an abiding inspiration in my life.

[i] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, “The Root of Violence,” May 1, 2022:  https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/ – search/jspohntwomey%40gmail.com/FMfcgzGpFgwXkxtbHMLVmRqMDsRphSGf.  Thank you to my long-time friend and La Casa colleague Juliet Spohn-Twomey for calling attention to this post.

Silver Keys, Mean Moms and Compassion in the Workplace

…and from beneath his robe he drew two keys; the one was made of gold, the other of silver; first with the white, then with the yellow key, he plied the gate as so to satisfy me.     

 “Whenever one of these keys fails, not turning appropriately in the lock,” he said to us, “This gate of entry does not open…”

            “One is more precious, but the other needs much art and skill before it will unlock – that is the key that must undo the knot.”

                 Dante, The Divine Comedy, Puragatorio, Canto 9:115 – 126

            I first began exploring Dante’s The Divine Comedy fifteen years ago.  It’s an imaginary journey through the afterlife, drawing on the scientific and religious knowledge current in 1300 AD, formed by and filled with Dante’s extraordinary imagination.  Despite being written long ago, I’ve found it contains fascinating spiritual and psychological insights.  I’m currently in a year-long Dante study group meeting on Zoom every Monday afternoon.  I want to share with you a brief passage we read recently.

            Dante is being led through different stages of the afterlife by his guide, Virgil. At this point he has passed through the underworld (Inferno) and is at the foot of Mount Purgatory. If we want to get to paradise, we need to make this trek — a final chance to overcome our personal shortcomings.  

            Dante and Virgil come to the entry at the base of the mountain. They meet an angel who guards the gate, possessing two keys given by St. Peter.

            As seen in the passage above, the angel pulls them out from his robe: one is gold and one silver.  He says the gold one is “more precious.”  The silver key is not as valuable, but you can’t open the gate without it, and using it takes “much art and skill.”  Scholars have long believed the gold key represents the pure gift of divine love; the silver symbolizes how that love is actually applied in the real world.

            I love this distinction.  Here’s why.

            Last week my posting was “Uncover the Love,” which focused on a personal experience I had in a sweat lodge.  I saw how love is always present in our lives, even if we don’t recognize it.  I linked that to the Buddhist concept of “metta” (compassion) and the Christian concept of “agape.”  In light of the Dante passage, these are represented by the “gold key” — love, grace, and compassion in their purest form. 

            It’s one thing to receive this gift. But how do we apply it in the complex situations we face in everyday life, including family and work? For that we need the silver key: the art and skill of applying love and grace in the here and now.

            Reflecting on this theme, I was reminded of a Mother’s Day sermon about being a “mean mom” I once heard from my long-time friend, LuAnn Miller. I contacted LuAnn this week to help me remember what she said that day.  She replied with a summary:

            “Thanks for checking! Sometimes I needed to be the “mean mom” and set boundaries. Nobody gets to do everything or get everything they want! Possible short-term scowls usually lead to long term steps to being a responsible, kind, loving citizen of the world.

            She has always loved her boys. But sometimes loving them meant not letting them do what they wanted. Compared to lenient moms they knew, she was “mean.” She gladly accepted the label, knowing she was doing what was best in the long run.

            This is an example of using the “silver key.”  You love your kids, and you don’t want to disappoint them. But the art and skill of being a loving parent includes setting boundaries and expectations kids may not appreciate at the time.  Your love for them is good as gold, but to make it real you need to be a silversmith.

            I also thought of a story I heard at a business and spirituality conference.  The speaker affirmed that many of us want to be compassionate, but that’s not always easy in the workplace. 

            There was a woman in his company who loved to make conversation. The problem was that she shared a work room with six others. Her constant talking made it hard for them to get their work done, and they asked him to do something.

            He noticed another company had an opening for a front office receptionist.  He encouraged his employee to apply for it and he put in a good word on her behalf. She got the job.  Two months later, he visited that office and she greeted him. She thanked him for helping her get a job she loved. And her former coworkers were relieved they could work in peace.

            The right thing to do was not to simply feel compassion for everyone involved, but to find a solution to the problem. That took “art and skill.”  

            My friend LuAnn added a bit more about what she had said: “The other part of my talk, as I recall, was the importance of having other adult people in our kids’ lives. Teacher, neighbor, auntie or uncle, grandparent, LOG (Love Of God, our youth program) …I believe each person has the opportunity to be “that person” to make a small difference for someone. With a smile, word of encouragement or a loving reminder of a boundary.” 

            Love, grace and compassion are divine gifts, I believe. But it takes “much art and skill” to apply them in life.  We benefit from any “silversmiths” we may know:  teachers, neighbors, friends, and family when we are raising kids, and wise colleagues when the challenge is at work. 

            “One is more precious, but the other needs much art and skill before it will unlock – that is the key that must undo the knot.”

Top image: William Blake, Dante, Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto 9, c 1827

Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 9, Bodelian Library, Oxford, c. 1350
Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 9, Franz von Bayros, Vienna, 1921
The gold/yellow and silver/white “keys” on the Papal flag. In Dante’s time, the gold represented the “supernatural powers to administer God’s grace” while the silver represented the church’s power in political affairs, as well as issues like excommunicaiton.

Uncover the Love

For several years, my wife and I participated in a week-long summer yoga/hiking retreat at the foot of Mt. Shasta. Day 2 always involved a day trip to Stewart Mineral Springs, where a Native elder would lead a sweat lodge ceremony.  In the first three years, I had been reluctant to try it.  My stubborn self told me that, having grown up in San Bernardino, I’d experienced enough heat to last a lifetime.  I’d had a TIA stroke, brought on by blood pressure issues, and was wary of getting my heart rate racing.  And having lived seven years within the boundaries of the Yakima Reservation, I was skeptical about non-Native people appropriating Native practices.  But in the fourth year, I decided to give it a try.  I joined the two-dozen people huddled inside the small, dome-shaped tent that was covered in blankets. I sat near the door so I could make a quick escape.

            The elder explained the sweat lodge can be a spiritual opportunity because it forces awareness inward.  As the temperature rises, your everyday busy-mind will say, “This is getting HOT! Let’s get out of here!”  Your only hope is to totally focus your awareness within.

            And, the elder said, a good focus can be love. He told a few humorous stories about how he frustrates his wife daily.  But, he said, beneath those day-to-day issues, and beneath everything, love is present — a gift from the Creator.

            His assistant pulled down the flap of the door. We sat in darkness. The heat from the fire began to build.  I tried turning my attention inward, looking for love.

            For some reason, my mind seemed ready.  I began seeing faces of people in my life.  It began with me as a child. I saw the face of my mother, then my father, then each of my siblings.  The images weren’t specific photographs — just the calm face of each person. 

            I started seeing my teachers, starting with Miss Kelly in Kindergarten, then Miss Potter for first grade, and on up. I hadn’t thought about them for years and was surprised I remembered their names and faces. I had never thought of these teachers as particularly “loving.” But it was as if I could see that, within each one, they had been teachers because they had a fundamental love for students.

            I next saw childhood friends. Then more teachers. Then it was professors in college with whom I’d worked.

            At one point, I became aware of the unusual experience I was having. But that broke the spell, and I felt the searing heat.  I returned to the safety I’d found in this inner state of meditative receptiveness.

            I saw my wife when we first met as students in Isla Vista.  Then I saw the faces of each of our children as they were born. 

            I saw other significant people from my adult life.  After a while, the vision was completed. My awareness returned to the present moment. 

            I discovered it was very hot, and sweat was running off my face.  But I felt a great calm and sense of wonder.  Love was underneath everything and had been all along.

            The elder announced the ceremony was concluded. His assistant opened the flap.  We were told we had the option of going to the nearby creek for a dip in cold water.

            As I reflected on what had happened, I realized what Native people had known for generations: that a sweat lodge can be a powerful place for spiritual visions.

            Two years later I was participating in a five-day retreat for hospice workers led by Frank Ostateski, a Zen mediation teacher and director of the Metta Institute. Frank was discussing the Buddhist term of “metta,” which is often defined as “loving-kindness” or “compassion.” At one point, he noted that metta is not something we create in our lives, but something we uncover. It’s here already, everywhere, always.  Spiritual practice is simply the act of uncovering metta, and letting it enter our life.

            That certainly resonated with my sweat lodge experience.  That love I sensed was there all my life?  No one created it, but each person reflected it.

            This is close to the New Testament concept of agape (agápē).  In English, we use the word “love” to describe a positive emotion for many different experiences: romantic relationships, friendships, family, and treasured activities (Baseball! Popcorn! Swimming in warm ocean water!). But these can come and go, rise and fall, emerge and disappear. Agape is not subject to our immediate context, our mood, or whether we’ve got our act together at this moment.  It’s simply there, like a calm, pure light that “never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:8) And we instinctively know it’s available to everyone.

            I think of an elementary school principal we knew in the small town of Wapato, Washington. Before I met him, he’d had an accident while farming which had severed his leg. He got along well with his wooden leg, and he’d invite kids to knock it with their knuckles to hear the sound.

            Jim was an elder in my church, and one day I went to the school so he could sign a document. It was recess, and I found him on the playground. As we were talking, a little girl came running to him, upset by something a playmate had done.  As she started to tell her story, he put his hand on her shoulder, gave her a big smile, and listened.  He didn’t interrupt her. He didn’t try to solve it. He just kept looking at her and smiling. Eventually she calmed down and finished her lament.  As if nothing had happened, she ran back towards her friend.  Simple, genuine love was what she needed.  His name was Mr. Devine.

“A Big Unseen Current”

Dear Reader:

            I didn’t prepare a personal blog post this week and figured I’d just take a pass. But this morning I came across a column by long-time New York resident Peggy Noonan and want to share a portion of it with you. She’s reflecting on 9/11 as a “Day of Grief and Human Glory” and towards the end writes:

            …There was Welles Crowther. Remember him? A young guy, 24, just starting out, worked as a junior associate at an investment bank on the 104th floor of the south tower. He always carried in his back pocket a red bandanna, and they teased him. WHAT ARE YOU, A FARMER? He’d laugh and show bravado: WITH THIS BANDANA I’M GONNA CHANGE THE WORLD. And that day as the world exploded he did. He led people to safety, carried them down to lower floors. He kept going back for more. To protect from the smoke he put the bandanna over his face. He never came home from the towers that day or the day after, his parents were anguished, hoping against hope. Then one day, three days in, his mother was at her desk at home in Nyack, N.Y. Suddenly she felt a presence behind her. She didn’t look, didn’t move. She knew it was Welles. She knew he was saying goodbye. She said: “Thank you.” She knew now he was dead. Months of mourning, no word on how he’d died. And one day, Memorial Day weekend 2002, the New York Times had a story about the last minutes in the towers, and they mentioned survivors who spoke of a man in a red bandanna who’d saved them. And Welles’s mother thought she knew who that was. She got a picture of her son to the survivors and they said yes, that was the man who saved me. Some time later they found his remains, near the command post the firemen had set up in the South Tower. When his family opened his apartment they found an unfinished application to become a New York City fireman. 

            Just a few days before 9/11, on Labor Day weekend, Welles, visiting his parents, was unusually subdued. He told his mother he had a feeling he was going to be part of something big, had a role to play in it or a job to do. 

Isn’t it funny how the mind works, how it knows things it does not know? 

            “Courage comes from love,” was my summation in 2016. “There’s a big unseen current of love that hums through the world and some plug into it more than others, more deeply and surely.” It fills them with courage. It makes everything possible.”

I love this:

“Courage comes from love…There’s a big unseen current of love that hums through the world and some plug into it more than others, more deeply and surely.” It fills them with courage. It makes everything possible.


Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/grief-glory-september-eleventh-9-11-firefighters-memories-twin-towers-terrorist-attack-11631224282

Photo Credit: New York Times