The Thought Whisperer

A few months ago, after I had taken communion to a shut-in member in a convalescent hospital, I started back to my car parked in a remote parking lot. As I walked, I was suddenly confronted by  a most terrifying sight. A pit bull, squared off, was staring menacingly at me from the middle of the roadway.

Brooklyn-Street-Art-WEB-Beware-Dog-Copyright-Jenna-Duffy-MG_1152

Photo courtesy of yourhomesecuritywatch.com

My heart raced. My first instinct was to turn and run away. Instead of bolting, the thought came to me: “Stand tall! Make yourself big! Breathe in deeply! Relax!” I gave in to these ethereal instructions…

I made direct eye contact with the dog. I took in several breaths, and mercifully the fear began to lose its grip.

Emboldened, I made my stand before the dog. I became suddenly calm, and decided not to deviate from the direct path to my car. Strangely, I had no crippling thoughts about what might happen to me next. Instead I was fully present to that moment, continuing to breathe in deeply and calmly. Neither the pit bull nor I moved for what seemed like an eternal moment. I was able to maintain my ground, breathing deeply, standing erect. I was fully present, taking in the whole scene, not fixating on the intimidating canine.

Then, the dog simply walked away…

Suspended and perplexed by the epiphany of this unexpected calm and silent outcome, I continued the trek to my car and reflected on what had just happened.

Since that fateful day, I have wondered about the origin of these very thoughts that impelled me not to run away from the most feared breed of dog in urban America. I suspect that those thoughts arose from a number of sources, not the least of which was Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer.” About the time of the incident described above, I had been watching Millan’s hit TV show on National Geographic, titled “The Dog Whisperer.” Though his philosophy is disputed by some, Millan believes that dogs are pack animals. As such, a dog’s anxiety is roiled in the absence of a stable pack leader, one who maintains the pack’s essential hierarchy.

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Photo courtesy of cesarsway.com

According to Millan, most dog parents are unaware of this fundamental canine reality, namely that a dog is hardwired to both seek and maintain its position in a pack. Dog parents have no problem extending love and affection to their pets; however, they may overlook their dogs’ need for the vital discipline that must come from the human pack leader. This healthy pack-leader relationship is what a dog must have to feel secure in its world. Millan refers to this discipline structure as “Rules, boundaries, and limitations.”

Also, Millan points out that dog lovers are not aware of the energy behind the words with which they communicate to their animals. He explains that the ideal form of this energy from the human pack leader should always be “calm and assertive,” which when communicated through voice or actions, is most essential  to getting a dog to respect the pet parent as the pack leader.  According to Millan, rather than training the dogs, he “trains” people to better understand and care for their dogs in a more holistic way informed by love, affection and discipline—all facilitated through the calm assertion of the human pack leader.

Millan cautions that dog lovers must also be mindful of the energy behind the words directed at their pets. If such words are embedded in fear and anxiety, their dogs will sense this unstable psychic presentation. He teaches that a calm, confident, pet parent generates the optimal environment for a dog’s happiness. “It’s not the words you say,” Millan avers. “It’s the energy behind the words.”

It was with this calm assertive energy that I held my ground and communicated with that threatening pit bull…

The Hierarchy of Our Inner Thought Life

One can apply Cesar Millan’s philosophy to many instances of life where hierarchies matter. Parenting is one such example. Children require both love and discipline from a calm, assertive, benevolent hierarchy. The child who gets only love and no discipline becomes emotionally crippled, not prepared for the demands of adulthood. The child who receives only discipline and no love is equally crippled. It is wise parents who take the lead and provide their children with both love and discipline.

As with dogs and children, an even more important hierarchy is your own internal thought life.  The point of this article is that when you fail to recognize the power of this internal thought hierarchy, you ignore it to your own peril.

The highest part of you is Spirit/Self. This is your true self. This is the self that you have lived with all your life. It functions to steer you in the right direction. It is the inner voice of profound intuition that is in contact with you and God. It wants the very best for you. Some call it conscience; others, the higher self. Reigning in the heart in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians call it Christ.

The True Self is confident. It is calm and assertive. The True Self is the Thought Whisperer, the power that desires to govern the inferior parts of the interior self in a calm, assertive manner. The more investment in this Self yields empowerment over the lesser parts of your interior life.

How-to-be-calm-and-assertive

“The True Self is confident.  It is calm and assertive…” Photo courtesy of cesarsway.com

What are the lesser parts of your interior life that must be led by you?

They are your emotions.

Every great religion identifies your emotional life as the enemy within that you must seek to master. Your emotional life is the very source of confusion and deception. It is the darkness that needs both light and enlightenment. Your emotional life is the deposit of all your pain that seeps out when anxiety roils in your heart. Christians call it the flesh, the sinful nature, the false self. When it usurps the lead, it creates enmity, bitterness, rancor, hatred, addiction, compulsions of every type, and slavery. It is a deep well over which you have no power. You can never be free of it. These very feelings and emotions have their own life and they must run their course. To repress them and pretend that they do not exist is to invite other surreptitious ways by which they create chaos in your life.

Though you may never master the lower self of your interior life, you can certainly allow the Thought Whisperer to govern it.

The language of the Thought Whisperer is calm assertion. It is the way of intentionality. Every moment that presents itself offers you the choice to be led by the Thought Whisperer or to be led by your lower self.

What are the signs that you are being led by your higher self or lower self?

Matthew Williams, MD, author of the blog Mindfulness, MD, can enlighten us in distinguishing whether we are led by our Higher Self (a.k.a. Thought Whisperer) or our lower self.  In an article titled “Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Default Mode Network, Meditation, and Mindfulness,” Dr. Williams speaks of the “Default Mode Network (DMN).” It is the state of inattention to the world around you. He calls it the state of daydreaming, being generally ruminative about life. As believed, it is not typically a productive state; such inattention and mindlessness can produce a confluence of negative emotions. Dr. Williams connects this state with depression, denoting that people with mental illness are dominated by the Default Mode Network.Matt Blog

However, the DMN is not all bad. It serves the good; but like every good, it can be a virtue or a vice. The DMN is a virtue in so far as it allows us to review our lives and thereby change the course of our lives. According to Dr. Williams, this is a well-balanced use of the DMN. The DMN wreaks havoc, however, when it is relied upon to escape the pain of life through a preoccupation with one’s thoughts and feelings. Such preoccupation is the wheelhouse of anxiety. This is the realm of the lower self.

To positively balance the DMN, Dr. Williams explains the role of the “Task-Positive Network (TPN).” The TPN directs your attention to the external environment. Instead of being inattentive to the external world, the person led by the TPN is engaged. She is present. She is mindful of her internal bodily states and exerts her will informed by intentionality. When you are mindful of your body in your environment, when you are attentive to the smells of a spring walk, when you focus on your conversation with your beloved, then, according to Dr. Williams, your TPN made that possible.

At a retreat last Lent, I counseled a retreatant whose psychiatrist helped her to get out of the depths of depression by helping her to make one little change a day. His goal was to get her out of the house into the fresh air. He began by encouraging her on the first day to walk to the front door of her home. The next day, she was encouraged to open the door and stand in the doorway for just a moment. A few days later, she took a step outside. Then she walked to the driveway. The next day, she walked down the street. Now she is running marathons. Here was the TPN in operation.

One of the tools of the Thought Whisperer, your Higher Self, is indeed the Task-Positive Network. The TPN marshals the powers of intentionality, attentionality, and mindfulness.

Described here are two strategies to engage the TPN, one being a quick access and one that takes more time to cultivate…

Quick Access to the TPN:

There are many methods that may be used to take immediate control over negative, destructive thoughts—all have in common the sudden shifting of awareness, thus derailing the negative thoughts coming from the false, unconscious self.

To continue our Cesar Millan example, when a dog unconsciously reverts to bad behavior, Millan uses a strong vocal cue, “PHSSSTTT!!,” to achieve what he describes as snapping the dog’s mind out of the very state that produced the bad behavior. Through the pack leader’s role and authority, the dog is brought back to the present and out of the compulsion of mindlessness.

Pack Leadership Technique 3- Establish rules, boundaries and limitations

“…when a dog unconsciously reverts to bad behavior, Millan uses a strong vocal cue, “PHSSTT!!…” Photo courtesy of cesarsway.com

For a fuller context on the topic of quickly accessing the TPN, again we turn to Dr. Williams and his article hosted on Psychology Today‘s online site, “The Dangers of a Wandering Mind.” He provides two such methods which serve to instantly regain a state of mindfulness:

The next time that you are walking into work, briefly pause and complete the Five by Five exercise. The Five by Five exercise entails taking mental note of five items as perceived by each of your five senses. The exercise will purposefully engage you in focused thought and help you reconnect with your surroundings.

Another exercise is called the Take Ten. At some point during your day when you are feeling particularly distracted, I would challenge you to pause and take ten deep breaths. The power of this exercise is proportional to the amount of focus that you bring to your breathing. Focus on the cool sensation at the tip of your nose as you slowly inhale, the neutral point between your inhale and exhale, and the warmth upon exhale. (There are many more exercises that use mindfulness to engage focused thought, and I would recommend that the interested reader enter “mindfulness exercises” into his or her search engine of choice.)

Cultivating  Fuller Engagement with the TPN Through Mindful Breathing:

Focused meditation on your breath, a practice historically employed through the ages by mystics, is the way the ancients employed the power of the TPN. Your intentional deep breaths funnel the powers of the TPN in any given moment, for your intentional breathing places you firmly in the moments of your life.

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Photo courtesy of mindfulhappiness.org

The telling metaphor of intentionality, attentionality, and mindfulness is the breath. It is the access to the Higher Self. Your breath invites the Thought Whisperer to lead the disparate parts of your lower self—your emotional self, your fragmented self, your historic self, your false self, your lower, your inferior self–that must be led. In the book of Job, Job says, “The breath (spirit) of God is in the mouth.” God, as the source of empowerment, is in the breath.

Besides Cesar Millan, it was the very breath (Spirit) of God that quelled my anxiety in face of that pit bull. Breath (Spirit) was the Thought Whisperer that gave me courage, empowerment and enlightenment.

Would to God that we so discipline ourselves in practices that develop our own Thought Whisperer so that we may better deal with the “pit bulls” of our thought lives.

Principle 8 for Achieving Balance- You create the dogGÇÖs calm, submissive state

“…so that we may better deal with the “pit bulls” of our thought lives.”                                Photo courtesy of cesarsway.com

“…we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

2 Corinthians 10:5

 

Spirit and Synchronicity

He's been there for me forever

“His death left a void in her heart…”

A member of my congregation wanted to share with our prayer group an experience that she found most comforting, but was hesitant for fear of what others might think. She is an elderly woman who lost her husband the year before. His death left a void in her heart, a void that even her adult children and grandchild could not fill.

Speaking haltingly, she told the prayer group that she had a dream about her husband. She looked at each of us as though seeking our affirmation before continuing, and opted to take the risk and share her experience:

“I saw my husband in the back of the church. He was smiling; his aura was brilliant. I was in the front of the church working in the pews like I usually do on Fridays, getting things ready for Sunday. He didn’t startle me, but rather, I felt a real calm. It gave me so much joy to be with him again in the church.”

That was all she shared about her dream.

She smiled nervously, awaiting a response from the people in the prayer group who had gathered that Vigil of Pentecost Eve to pray together.  She most certainly took a risk by stepping out of the box to share her experience with us.  This traditional, Lutheran woman deviated far from her comfort zone and, because of the nature of this mystical experience, she felt vulnerable.

Photo courtesy of jeffcarreira.com

Photo courtesy of jeffcarreira.com

In my experience as a pastor for 30 years, many people have confided in me this same type of experience and I have no doubt that they happen with frequency in traditional churches throughout America.  People are having spiritual experiences they cannot understand, and these experiences are deeply meaningful and spiritually impactful.

Not having the words or theological categories to articulate such experiences, some people feel like odd balls when they relate them to their communities of faith.

Bereft of the proper theological framing for the experience, many keep to themselves their brushes with reality, which are profoundly meaningful and even mystical.  They are inclined not to share such experiences with their pastors for fear that they may be judged as theologically unorthodox or doctrinally unsound.  Or, their experiences are so meaningful that they keep them from their pastors for fear that their well-intentioned, spiritual leaders might dogmatically explain away an experience that is deeply meaningful.

The experience becomes their special secret, confirming that God can do infinitely more than we could ever imagine.

This begs the question: how might a doctrinally-sound pastor respond to this woman’s story about her dream? The conversation could go like this:

“Your dream is interesting. Dreams are strange things, aren’t they?  Who can understand them?  Your husband is in heaven with Christ, assured of his victory over death through the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection is your assurance that your beloved is alive in Christ.  Don’t fixate on the dream.  Fixate instead on the objective word.  That is your assurance.”

Of course this is true. Indeed it is the word of God that informs the cultural and psychic context that makes that dream even possible for this woman.  The image of the church, oneness in Christ with her husband, and the joy of working in the church that has been the anchor of their lives were all prompted by the Word.  The dream is her subjective expression of what she knows objectively through the Word.

But could this conversation from a pastor rob her of her experience?

These subjective, mystical experiences happen more often than we pastors think, and here is the rub…

We pride ourselves in making everything nice and objective so that we can control it.

We are quite adept at handling the objective reality.  That’s our currency in traditional churches.  At the same time, however, our subjective experiences have no context in traditional churches. We concede this subjective sphere of our lives to late night dinners, demons, and two-bit pandering psychics because we are uncomfortable with the spiritual and mystical experiences that may arise from the subjective realm.

I shall never forget what happened during a retreat I conducted at a Southern California abbey for members of my church. I had just finished doing a Lectio Divina exercise with the retreatants.  Afterwards, I invited them to share what God conveyed to each of them in this spiritual exercise.  A young man commented on what he had experienced.  He said he saw the sun, bright and warm.  As he gazed on its brilliance, a dove emerged from the sun, descended and landed on him. The symbolism was obvious, informed by the John 1:4 text on which we had just meditated, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

It was a powerful experience for him and the other retreatants concurred.

However, later that evening, an avalanche of thoughts that discredited the experience hit the young man.  He got the impression that he was doing something illicit by entertaining such a vision.  It was as if he had betrayed his allegiance to the objective word of God.  His culture and tradition had failed him—not being broad enough to accommodate this type of spiritual experience. He felt vulnerable by stepping outside the box in the manner in which he did.

I consoled him by encouraging him to rethink his reaction. I helped him to understand that his experience was not a threat, but instead a place of inspiration. It was the place of art and creativity.  We would not have Bach’s cantatas without such a place of inspiration.  The visual art that inspires us and heightens our devotion to Christ comes from the heart, that very same place of subjectivity.

Why do we fear this kind of mystical experience?

Photo courtesy of atbowles.com

Photo courtesy of patbowles.com

We are adept at dealing with what we believe is the objectivity of our religion, namely Word and Sacraments; but we are less adept at dealing with the subjectivity of it, namely the spiritual center, which invites us to learn the language and the movements of the heart in addition to the head.

We fear the heart and don’t trust it; we believe that it is woefully corrupt according to Jeremiah.  Yet, the heart, the center of the subjective sphere, is where we, together with the Holy Spirit, wage battle against the concupiscence (proclivity to evil) that remains in the heart subsequent to Baptism. The daily dying to this proclivity through repentance initiates spiritual movements of the Spirit in the heart, which create beauty that informs worship and devotion to God.

We must be OK with dealing with the heart and its stirrings; we must be OK with the subjectivity of the heart, indeed the unique way that God communicates to us in peace, love and joy, the very contours of beauty.

When you engage in spiritual practices like contemplation that silent your inner self-dialogue and other people’s dialogues in your head, you make room for God to expand your experience of reality.  One of the benefits of contemplation is that you begin to pay attention to the life around you, which you are all too prone to ignore when you are only in your head.  By spending too much time in our heads and being beset by a multitude of thoughts, we miss out on life; we fail to see its deeper connections.

As your restless mental activity is gradually silenced through the practice of contemplation, you are empowered to see more.  The universe comes to life.  You can appreciate beauty in all its manifestations.

Synchronicity 

Synchronicity is the ability to meaningfully connect unrelated events, people and things. It breaks down barriers, it stirs things up—it wakes you out of your “dogmatic slumber.”

Photo courtesy of http://starrystez.com

Photo courtesy of http://starrystez.com

The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) proffered the concept of synchronicity as a worldview to account for both the linear causality of the mechanistic world and the non-linear, non-causal world of meaning.  According to Jung, things can be causally connected; however, they can also be meaningfully connected.  Coupling Jung’s concepts with Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum psychics, synchronicity opens up the universe, making it come to life, making it a mysterious place that throws into doubt ironclad religious and scientific dogma.

Synchronicity gives you a glimpse into the world outside space and time, whose currency is meaning. It is in this resultant synchronicity that the causal world and non-causal world interlock and interpenetrate each other.

Synchronicity is best experienced and not talked about.  You know it when you see it.  Who hasn’t had the experience of thinking of someone and a moment later, that very person calls you on the phone.  Or, perhaps you had a dream that you forgot about in the morning that you remembered at the right time later on in the day.  At just the right moment, the dream gave you enlightenment about a situation that you were dealing with, yielding an “aha moment.” These experiences have a way of opening you up to other possibilities, breaking you out of the mechanistic linear world of cause and effect, from which vantage point we think that we might somehow control life.

Howard Thurman, the spiritual and theological mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, relates the story of his ardent desire to attend college as a boy.  In the early 20th century, his impoverished African-American family could not afford such a luxury, as indeed most Americans couldn’t in those days.  To cover their shame of being poor, his family tried to steer him in another direction.  But he could not be deterred.  He decided to apply to Morehouse College upon graduation from high school. When he boarded that bus from his home in Florida bound for Atlanta, he had no idea how he would pay for a college education.

When he arrived on campus, surprisingly Thurman discovered that his tuition, room, board and all fees were paid in full.  His poor circumstances, his desire to attend college and the provision of the money were not accidently connected; they synchronistically became deeply and meaningfully related in Thurman’s mind and heart.

Meaning can be a powerful nexus among people, things and events. There need not be an explanation in terms of cause and effect…

Photo courtesy of beautiful.coolphotos.in

Photo courtesy of beautiful.coolphotos.in

Another Member’s Experience

I have a member of my congregation who lost her father when she was 5 years old, a vulnerable age.  She told me about an experience she recently had while watching a TV program about a woman who also had lost her father as a small child.  The woman spoke of the impact of not being raised with a father, how it skewed her perspective on men.  Strongly identifying with the woman’s story, my member was touched deeply; she couldn’t take her eyes off the TV.

All of a sudden, the TV turned off.  Even though it was a still and warm spring evening, a small gale of wind blew through her opened sliding door, and she felt it on her face.  Attached to her patio cover, there was a wind chime with a central clapper surrounded by five elongated chimes.  Rather than the usual way a wind chime rings, the capricious gale wind did not ring all five chimes randomly.  Instead, only one chime tone rang distinctively and repeatedly for several moments.

The cutting off of the TV, the small gale wind, and the repeated ringing of one chime tone were not causally related.  As she told the story to me, my member was able to give value and meaning to the experience by relating the circumstances to each other as a single orchestrated, synchronistic event.

She was able to recognize and appreciate the spiritual synchronicity present in her experience.

A disciplined practice in contemplation teaches you to appreciate both the causal world and the world of meaning by teaching you to live and rest in both by conditioning you to be fully open and available to both.  No dualism!

You learn to negotiate in the world of cause and effect and yet be open to the mystery of the world of meaning, which is foundational to beauty.

Your eyes get opened, and you see more connections in the schema where the spiritual world interpenetrates the material one.

In short, you achieve a spiritual synchronicity, and the vehicle that enables you to create meaning is the Holy Spirit.  You learn that what may seem like a set of random events instead becomes related meaningfully to you through the Holy Spirit.

On the first Pentecost after Easter, an outsider looking at the group of 120 disciples of Jesus in prayer would have felt the wind, seen the tongues of fire and the subsequent ecstasy, empowerment and boldness of that motley group of illiterate Galileans. However, without the Holy Spirit, the disinterested outsider would not have been able to meaningfully connect that random set of events as the profound transformation of Jesus’ disciples that would alter their tragedy-laden consciousness and empower them to change the course of human history.

The Holy Spirit meaningfully connects seemingly random events that are non-causally related, thereby luring us to be in conformity with Christ. Authentic spiritual experiences are made so by the Holy Spirit.

If a spiritual experience opens you up more to Christ and you become like him in a life informed by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then that experience was tailor-made for you.  Who am I to dogmatically argue away such an experience that is deeply meaningful to you?

One of the many fruits of contemplation is that you give up the desire to argue and fight, insisting that things must go your way.  You come to see that God has the whole universe with which to communicate to humanity.  And, in God’s time, God can be most convincing.

The Spirit gives you eyes to synchronistically see.  Be open and ready to receive.

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church

Pastor Tim in the sanctuary at St. Luke Lutheran Church