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.


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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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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.


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

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

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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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

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

2 Corinthians 10:5


The Mindful Christ

The film Gravity is a spiritual tour de force.  Sandra Bullock plays the part of “Dr. Ryan Stone,” a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission to space.  The commander of her shuttle crew is “Matt Kowalski,” played by George Clooney.  While on a space walk, debris from an exploding, Russian satellite destroys the shuttle.  Dr. Stone and Commander Kowalski are the sole survivors of their shuttle crew.  They are completely alone in space.  They are tethered to nothing but each other, spiraling in the darkness of space.

I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film.  He is curious, calm, centered and collected under pressure.  The veteran astronaut appreciates the beauty of the cosmos as though he were seeing it for the first time. In the end, like Christ, he accepts his death with equanimity, trusting that he would die into something bigger than himself.

"I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film.  He is curious, calm, centered, and collected under pressure." Photo courtesy of

“I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film. He is curious, calm, centered, and collected under pressure.”
Photo courtesy of

Dr. Stone, all alone, tries to get to the International Space Center and from there to the Chinese Space Center.  Facing one crisis after another, in a most poignant scene in the film, in a fetal position Dr. Stone cries, “No one taught me to pray!  I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”

“No one taught me to pray!  I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”  Photo courtesy of

“No one taught me to pray! I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”
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Amid all the technological wizardry, Dr. Stone’s spontaneous burst of human emotion reveals that the human heart has needs that the head will never understand.  Her cry is an indictment against a whole generation of parents who have taken a laissez-faire approach to their children’s spiritual development, not intentionally inculcating in their children spiritual traditions.  Many Christian parents have not even taught their children the Lord’s Prayer.

Dr. Stone’s cry indicts the church in the West, which has not taught people how to pray in a way that is enriching, in a way that would give them a sense of gravitas in the world, especially as they face life’s endemic pain.  Churches have been more concerned with institutional matters that keep them solvent and growing numerically.  They have been more obsessed with what to believe than how to live.  Christianity has long been a theologically-laden religion.  It is for this reason that it comes off as arcane and inaccessible in our postmodern world.

The preponderance of theology and right thinking has gotten in the way of living mindfully in the present with a sense of joy and satisfaction that every moment brings.  Christianity too often looks back at the fall of Adam and Eve and ahead to the end of the world, when everything will have been made right.  Too often we have forgotten about the dash between the beginning and the end.  That dash between the beginning and the end matters because God became a man in Christ Jesus.  That dash is validated by the incarnation of the Son of God.  How we live matters.  Jesus is not only Cristus victor over sin, death and the devil.  He is also Cristus victor over life.  He shows us how to live.

Can we emulate how Jesus lived?

I have recently come across a counseling method that has enriched my pastoral counseling and affirmed my long-held thought that everyone’s psyche yearns for healing and wholeness.  Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, combines the therapeutic model of family systems theory with the view that the mind, rather than being a single entity, is instead made up of various parts with their own viewpoints and ways of expressing themselves.  IFS therapy tries to understand how the various parts are organized to protect the psychic system from pain.

In the IFS model, there are three main parts that most people have.  First, there are the exiles.  These parts are informed by lingering pain, shame or hurt from childhood.  Second, there are the managers.  Managers are protective parts that keep the pain of the exiles from coming to the forefront of consciousness, so we can manage our daily lives and get through them with a semblance of order.  And, third, there are the firefighters.  Firefighters avoid the pain of the exiles through compulsive acting out.

Both manager and firefighter parts are protective in nature. Firefighters cause a variety of rash behaviors from drinking binges to inappropriate sexual behavior, or any other compulsion that tries to extinguish the pain of the exiles. In my case, when I feel pain surging in my psyche, my firefighter impels me eat a carton of ice cream. Firefighters try to keep the pain and shame of the exile parts from coming to consciousness.

Everyone’s mind is configured in such a way to avoid pain and trauma; however, there cannot be any meaningful and authentic spiritual growth without facing the pain that is endemic to being human in this chaotic world. To engage your own pain is what it means to pick up your cross and follow Christ, and in the IFS model, that is where the “Self” comes into play.

In the IFS model, Dr. Schwartz identifies the spiritual center as the “Self.”  The therapist’s job is to get people to unblend from their protective parts in order to allow the pain of the exile to come into contact with the healing compassion of the Self. Our parts with their various agendas are a source of so much mindlessness. Rather than responding mindfully to a given situation, too often we are instead reacting in one of our parts.  To the extent that we do, we are limited, not living fully from our true, authentic Self.

What does the Self look like?  It looks like a person who has been long engaged in mystical and spiritual practices.  It looks grounded and wise.  It has a definite personality, a modus operandi. The true self can be characterized by what Schwatz calls the “Spiritual C’s”: calm, curiosity, compassion, confidence, clarity, courage, creativity, connectedness, centeredness, capacity for choice and communion.  The Spiritual C’s are the product of a regular, disciplined spiritual practice that is authentic. They produce a mindful person, fully available in the moment to oneself and others.  The Spiritual C’s are what mindful people look like; it is how they live.

“Matt Kowalsky” in Gravity was the epitome of a person informed by the Spiritual C’s.  He was a most compelling figure as are all contemplative types.  Did Jesus look and live like a person informed by the Spiritual C’s?  Of course.  The Gospel of John reveals that Jesus had these qualities. Granted, you will not find a spiritual practice in the Gospel of John that would foster mindfulness, but you will certainly find the Mindful Christ with whom you are invited to come into communion and be conformed through the energy of his Spirit in the sacramental life of the church.

Jesus certainly faced threats to himself and his ministry with calm.  Unlike Moses and other prophets in the Old Testament, he did not get rattled.  He interviewed Nicodemus and calmly answered his questions.  He did the same with the woman of Samaria.  Ultimately, Jesus faced his own death with calm and equanimity.

Jesus approached the world with curiosity, which is fundamental to learning and an essential openness to the world that facilitates learning and gaining wisdom.  The precocious child Jesus was in the temple questioning the religious leaders and the experts of Torah.  He was curious about the things of his heavenly Father.

Jesus was the epitome of compassion, which is what he demonstrated to the thief on the cross who was crucified together with him.  While on the cross, he shows compassion to his beloved mother when he commended her to John’s care.  He especially showed compassion as a better Moses in John chapter 8 when he refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery.  In the Old Testament, the law was written in stone by the finger of God demonstrating its unyielding inflexibility.  In obvious contrast, Jesus writes his new covenant, the Gospel, in the sand of the ground.

As a mindful person, Jesus was confident.  Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus demonstrates confidence in his Father to give him what he needs in any given moment.  He was satisfied and could live confidently in every moment.

As the true light coming into the world, Jesus taught and acted with clarity.  People were amazed that he did not teach like other religious experts.  He had clarity of thought and motives.  He demonstrated clarity when he spoke about the relationship between sin, illness and misfortune.  Life’s setbacks can be occasions to experience the glory of God.

Jesus was courageous.  He never wavered from the consequences of where his commitment to his Father would take him.  Inevitably, his teaching of God as loving Spirit would ram him into conflict with the status quo.

Jesus’ teaching demonstrated his creativity.  He taught with parables; he used art to illustrate and communicate spiritual truths that would have otherwise been lost in linear, univocal language.

Jesus had connectedness to his Father and to others.  His teaching on the Trinity reveals God as an essential connectivity of the three persons to each other and to the world.  Jesus could speak profoundly of such a spiritual truth and, yet, in a down-to-earth manner enjoy the presence of people in whatever occasion brought them together.

Jesus had a center to which he was connected.  His centeredness was informed by his relationship with his Father.  He was fully grounded in his God and Father.

Being so centered, Jesus had the capacity for choice.  Having a centeredness through Self actually frees one up to choose without the flailing of the arms in high anxiety.

Finally, Jesus sought communion. He gathered around himself 12 men to mentor and with whom to have a constant communion.  He had other connections with people that afforded him profound communion, namely Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

In the Gospel of John, Christians are invited to come into communion with the Mindful Christ.  There are no standard practices leading to an increase of mindfulness and focus in life.  The assumption is that together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life, so that over time you will reflect the Spiritual C’s.  At the center of all such practices is the incarnation. God becoming human means that this world matters; your body is important.

Everything that supports your body is a gift from God.  All the extensions and connections of the body prove that you live in an interdependent world, at the center of which is God.  To be mindful means to be aware of yourself in your body, in the space and time in which you find yourself.

". . .together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life…" Photo credit:

“. . .together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life…”
Photo credit:

I believe that contemplation is most necessary for the development of mindfulness.  Mindfulness is one of the fruits of contemplation.  Over time, a regular practice and discipline in contemplation make you adept at ignoring thoughts and not running off on mental and emotional wild goose chases.  Granted, given the way that our brains are wired to produce thoughts, we cannot ever stop them. But, we can ignore them, making them as objective to us as the noise of the street traffic in the background as you read this.  We need to objectify our thoughts so that we do not identify with them.  This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 10 when he encourages us to take every thought captive. Your true self in Christ has power over all such thoughts.  A disciplined approach to contemplation empowers you to discipline your mind.  You do not let it drift and split in a multitude of directions.  Anxiety comes on the heels of such splitting and cascading to worst-case scenarios.

Through contemplation you become adept at bringing your mind back from the far country of anxiety and grounding it in the moment in which you are living, to let thoughts and feelings flow through you, not clinging to or resisting thoughts or emotions. The fruit of contemplation is a more mindful life, more focused and engaged. Contemplation can so discipline your mind that when you are ready to deal with a thought or an emotion, you do so at your choosing, on your terms; you do it thoroughly so that you can be done with it.

Too often we are “in our heads.”  Being in our heads, life rolls by unnoticed.  It is a most liberating feeling to achieve the awareness that you are not your thoughts.  The Gospel of John invites us to become one with the Mindful Christ, to be born from above through water and Spirit.  Living with the Mindful Christ opens up possibilities to live the way that he lived, to live the abundant life of the Spirit.

There is no reason to carry heavy emotional baggage through life. That abundant life looks like the Spiritual C’s of Internal Family Systems.

The final denouement of the film Gravity finds Dr. Ryan aboard a space capsule she boards at Chinese Space Station.  Her return to the earth’s atmosphere is risky.  Her life is hanging precariously in the balance.  Dr. Ryan’s re-entry plunges her into a vast lake with a shoreline nearby.  She emerges from the space capsule, swims to the shore and crawls onto the ground in elation.  Now the ground and  gravity have become holy things for her.  She beholds the mud in her hands; she kisses it.

"Her return to the earth’s atmosphere was risky."  Photo courtesy of

“Her return to the earth’s atmosphere was risky.”
Photo courtesy of

She has gained a new appreciation for the mud even though it cannot compare to the beauty she had seen in space. Unlike Commander Kowalski and before her experience, she could never have seen and beheld the beauty of space.  Eventhough she was one of the few privileged to gaze upon such beauty, she was not mindful; she was not a contemplative; she could not see it.  She was focused more on how her knowledge could exploit the cosmos.  After her figurative death and transfiguration, she would no longer ignore life and the grace that each moment brings.  The barriers removed, she could now be mindful.

Why does it take a crisis to wake us to a mindful existence?  Often, God wakes us spiritually through a great love or a great tragedy.  The Mindful Christ is both a great tragedy and a great love.  He teaches us how to die as he accepts his imminent death with equanimity.  He especially teaches us how to live, being open to what God the Father gives us in every moment as a gift at which to wonder.

Living with the Mindful Christ, we become mindful in life and death, more aware of every moment as a gift of grace and an occasion to experience peace, love and joy.

Resource:  Internal Family Systems:  The Center for Self-Leadership:

Trash Talk

Muhammed Ali, the great heavyweight boxer, was a prolific trash talker.  As an athlete that talked trash, Ali was not unique.  Trash talk is standard operating procedure at any sporting event.  Opponents on the

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Photo courtesy of

gridiron, the diamond and the court conduct a quasi psychological warfare against each other, intentionally distracting their opponents, causing them to lose focus, and commit mental mistakes for one purpose: to get the edge.

Ali took trash talk to a poetic level. On February 25, 1964, before his big fight against boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonny Liston, Ali emerged on the world stage rhapsodizing:

           Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat.

           If Liston goes back an inch farther, he’ll end up in a ringside seat.

           Clay swings with his left; Clay swings with his right,

           Look at young Cassius carry the fight.

           Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room.

            It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.

            Now Clay lands with a right, what a beautiful swing.

            And the punch raises the Bear clean out the ring.

            Liston is still rising the ref wears a frown,

            For he can’t start counting till Sonny goes down.

            Now Liston disappears from view; the crowd is frantic,

            But our radar stations have picked him up over the Atlantic.

            Who on earth thought, when they came to the fight,

            That they would witness the launching of a human satellite.

             Hence the crowd did not dream, when they laid down their money,

            That they would see a total eclipse of Sonny.

Capturing the heavyweight title, trash talk would become Ali’s staple.  Ali mesmerized his opponents and the world with his facility for words.  The sole purpose of his trash talk was to distract and intimidate his opponents, to keep them off-balance—if he could get his opponents to hate him, then he would have the edge over them.  The most vulnerable people are those who hate, for being enmeshed in the emotional muck and mire of hate, they lose their concentration. Competing maximally in a sports competition is just as much mental as it is physical.  The athlete who places mind over matter emerges victorious.

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“The athlete who places mind over matter emerges victorious.”
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Each of us has a quasi Ali inside of us that has a facility with words.  This inner Ali talks trash.  He talks incessantly.

Spiritual growth involves gaining mastery over the inner voice that is adept at trash talk.  When we begin something new, the trash talk starts right up: “You can’t do that…You failed before…What are you trying to prove?…Just give up…Don’t work so hard.”  So, we do give up. Trash talk can show up at the most inappropriate times, when our focus should be on the sublime.  It drags us through the dirt.

Last August, I performed the wedding service for someone whose wedding I had long wanted to do.  I first met Cynthia at UCLA when I was a campus pastor and she was 18 years old.  She became a part of our campus ministry as a freshman and remained active through all four years as an undergrad and a grad student.  Over the years we kept up with each other.  She would end her emails reminding me that, when she married, she wanted me to perform her service. She wanted to be married—it was only a matter of finding the right man whom she found a couple years ago.  And so, I had the pleasure of marrying her in her beloved city of Boulder, Colorado last summer. The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.  It was a most beautiful wedding.  The setting was inspiring.  As the ceremony began, I was eager and ready to enjoy myself, which is hard to do as an officiant.  Nevertheless, I made a conscious effort to be present to the ceremony, to savor every minute of it.

“The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.”

“The ceremony took place in a mountain pavilion that overlooked the city of Boulder and the University of Colorado.”

All of a sudden, it started.  In my own head, I heard such trash talk that I could not turn off: “It looks like it’s going to rain. …Why is that guy smiling at me like that? The music should be louder…Why is the flower girl stopping…Kids are fun but unpredictable—they can really mess up a ceremony…I hope my robes hide that few pounds I’ve packed on…”

The trash talk went on and on.  I could not stop it.  I was literally being taken from the moment. I was being robbed of the joy that I had long anticipated savoring.  I took a few breaths to gather myself, to firmly place myself in that moment.  Then I proceeded and performed the wedding trying to be fully aware of what I was doing, trying to get out of my head to serve Cynthia and Phillip.  This had never happened to me before. . .

Contemplation is the best way I know to deal with trash talk. Time in contemplation will expose the inner trash talker that we all have in us.  This trash talker is known by many names: the ego, the false self, the old Adam. I call it the historic self, because it is a composite of many voices and experiences.  It has so much ammunition to use in unending ways to frustrate you and to enslave you. The theme is always the same: a wall of resistance that interferes with action you take to better yourself, to become more spiritual, to grow into what God wants you to be.

It is this trash-talking self that we have to engage on a regular basis, taking on a life of its own, a judgmental life, a negative life that at times seems foreign to us; yet, it is very much a part of who we are.

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“…it is this trash-talking self that we have to engage on a regular basis…”
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It highjacks moments and keeps us off balance in the way Muhammed Ali engaged in psychological warfare against his opponents: to weaken them, to wear them down, to make them surrender their will to fight.

This is the voice we have to quiet.  How so? You confront this trash-talking voice in contemplation, which gives it a platform, allowing it to be revealed.  It is exposed, reaching your awareness. You become adept at watching it.

Through contemplation, you are able to watch that voice from your true self in Christ Jesus. You watch at rest.  The author of Hebrews says something quite profound in his letter.  He says, “Let us strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  (Hebrews 4:11-13)

The word of God is Christ in you, your true self.  He is living and active.  Your true self enables you to objectify and look at yourself, so that you can see what thoughts are from your true self (spirit) and what thoughts are from your false self (soul), the trash talker that talks incessantly.  This is the self that exhausts you, keeps you off-balance, keeps you locked up in guilt and shame.

We over identify with this trash-talking false self.  It is not you.  Thoughts are not you, least of all ones from this false self.  It was liberating for me to come to know that I am not the sum total of the thoughts that I have, especially the ones from my false self.

We are not our thoughts, but we place a premium on our thoughts.  Rather, we need to put all thoughts in perspective: they are not the essence of who we are.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

The 16th century French philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think; therefore, I am.”  With that statement, Descartes and other idealists made thoughts all-powerful.  That is not true. Thoughts are mere objects that can be ignored.  We do not have to pay attention to every thought that comes down the mental and emotional pike. “Take every thought captive to Christ Jesus,” said Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians.  The true self clearly separates in us what is from the true self and what is from the false self.  Too often the two get merged in us. The true self begins the process of objectifying thoughts and feelings so that you can ignore them.

Contemplation empowers you to look at trash-talking thoughts and then let them go.  The key to overcoming trash talk is to realize that it is trash. It is not you.  It is not true. You are much more than merely a composite of historic thoughts and feelings acquired from your childhood home, your culture, your tribe. You are eternal in Christ Jesus, made such through God’s personal invitation to divinize you through the sacraments.  A church father said it best, “God became what we are to make us what God is.”  Nothing is hidden from this divine self in Christ Jesus.  It is this self that gives you rest from the compulsive, incessant trash talk of your false self. In contemplation, you let the trash talk come as it may; you face it, but you ignore it. You watch it and let it flow by as a boat floats down a river.

It is most liberating to believe that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts can come from anywhere.  Thoughts arise that you should ignore. The more you do contemplation, the more adept you become at identifying the origin of trash-talking thoughts and the deficient parts of you from which they arise.  You are not depression.  You are not anxiety. You are not fear.  Be wary of the trash talk that these produce and ignore them.

What brought on my trash-talking episode at Cynthia’s wedding, with its endless commentaries that were petty and negative?  The episode was informed by the pressure I had put on myself to perform a perfect wedding for her. I wanted her wedding to be flawless.  The idea of achieving perfection fired up my fears.  That fear showed up as trash talk that muscled its way into my thoughts as I awaited the procession of the bride.  I couldn’t run from the trash talk; I couldn’t shut off the endless, insidious commentary.  I had to let it run its course and just not identify with it.  Had I identified with it, I would have brought fear into the occasion and ruined it for all present.

The boxers that were victorious over Ali were the ones who could ignore his trash talk and focus on the task at hand.  They knew his psychological warfare was meant to distract and make them vulnerable to him. The key is to sit in the seat of your higher self and watch the endless parade of thoughts that only abate when you face them and yet ignore them.  That is your true power over the false self.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Van Glider

Photo Credit: Jennifer Van Glider

Motorcycle Mindfulness

For the first time at a public venue, at the August 2013 Teen Choice Awards when he was awarded the Ultimate Choice Award, Ashton Kutcher revealed his real name. Jettisoning his first name “Chris” at the age 19, Kutcher divulged that he changed his middle name “Ashton” to be his first name when he became an actor at that age. Kutcher went on to dispense wisdom to his teen-packed audience—wisdom that would help make them happy and content in life,

advice from which people of all ages might benefit. He is convinced that sexy is more about being smart than it is about being attractive: it’s not the hot girl or cute guy but rather it is the intelligent geek who is the sexiest person at the party. The media’s definition of sexy is externally driven and exploitable. He challenged them not to buy into the media hype of what is sexy and beautiful. According to the 35-year old actor, sexy and beauty are internal qualities, informed by intelligence. Finally, quoting Steve Jobs, whose professional life he portrayed in film this summer, Kutcher told the teens to be proactive: “Build a life; don’t live one.”

Everybody has glommed onto those words, because on their face they make sense. Tough-minded entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs live by that credo. They are proactive in life; they do not wait for opportunity to come to them. They discover opportunity in the process of creating a business, a lifestyle, a future, for themselves and their families. Avant-garde entrepreneurs witness the same truth: while active in one thing, focused on their purpose, opportunity sneaks up on them. For conservatives, “building a life” is a worthy, hard-nosed proposition that is commensurate with life at its barest: the spoils of life go to those who pull up their own bootstraps, who are not passive, not dependent on others to care for them.

Steve Job’s words, “build a life; don’t live one.” Photo credit:

Steve Job’s words, “build a life; don’t live one.”
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Steve Job’s words, “build a life; don’t live one,” denote something else. They reveal the spirit of the age in which we live, where the available tools for building a life are many. Knowledge is disseminated through the internet and thereby available at the stroke of a key. People have tools with which to mold the kind of life they want informed by their desire and ambition. Long gone are the days when the Latin Bible was chained to a desk and very few had access to it. In those dark ages of Western Civilization, the cathedral was the place where the illiterate masses learned the stories of their faith through stained-glass windows. In this Information Age on steroids, anyone can make for oneself the kind of life one wants. All they have to have is intentionality.

We live in a hybrid world where people build themselves by picking and choosing from an infinite swatch of experiences and traditions. The flip side is that people do not trust the ready-made life, a life that is prepackaged by tradition, especially a tradition that they consider bigoted and limited in universal scope. They distrust such packages and the recognized authority figures behind them who barter them as wisdom from a golden age that transcends space and time. Today people are too sociologically sophisticated to be impressed by the notion that people who did not drive cars or use smart phones have a profounder take on the human condition than they.

Furthermore, many people refer to themselves as spiritual, not religious. The religious person is the one who lets life passively come to them in the prepackaged forms of tradition. The spiritual person is intentional about building their

The spiritual person is intentional... Photo credit:

The spiritual person is intentional…
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own relatedness to God and using many sources to do so. This presents a challenge to the church as a tradition-laden reality. Tradition says that we have a connection to the past and the wisdom that is inherent in it. Yet, to one living in this Steve Jobs era, tradition means merely living a life; letting life come to you, not really engaged in building one.

We who value tradition and believe that it can communicate wisdom have to become mindful of our tradition and mindful of ourselves. One of the many fruits of Christian contemplation is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is not merely paying attention to the world around you. It is how you pay attention. An adrenalin-induced hyper-vigilance is certainly not mindfulness because it is closed off to the full perspective. Mindfulness is not merely psychological awareness or consciousness. The real issue is how you are aware and conscious in the world. Mindfulness is being psychologically aware and conscious from the perspective of the whole—your whole self, body and spirit. This calls for an illustration.

Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana Photo credit:

Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana
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I attended seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Once I arrived at seminary, I did not leave the campus much except to attend worship on Sundays. Every Sunday, a few of my friends and I would load into the car and travel to worship at the various churches in the city and its suburbs. As we drove along to our appointed places of worship, we would talk, share our concerns, joke around, do all the things students do to ease their anxiety when not studying. I looked forward to traveling through those rural areas and worshipping at those churches, some built in the 19th century. I especially liked attending a German service at a church in the country some 20 miles from the seminary. For those long drives, all along the way, our focus was solely on each other. I would pay hardly any attention as I passed by peaceful meadows, glancing at them in only a perfunctory way, for I was absorbed by what was going on inside the car.

One Sunday, I had the pleasure of riding a friend’s motorcycle to the German church service.  Even though it was a trip that I had made many times before, by leaving the bubble of the car’s confining interior, I experienced this same Fort Wayne countryside from a different perspective.  I almost didn’t recognize my surroundings, like I’d never seen them before.  I experienced a new beauty.  No, I was in the beauty, fully immersed. Traveling on that familiar road was now a feast for all my senses: the wind kissing my face, the colors rich with the visual tang of spring flowers, the change in air temperature from warm to cool as I traveled in and out of the sun through the shadowy comfort of trees. The changing perspective brought that countryside to life, which I could not have experienced in the isolation and distraction of the car. Same trip, different experience—a paradigm-shift because that motorcycle ride made me suddenly mindful.

Riding to the German service on a motorcycle was a feast for all my senses... Photo credit:

…leaving the bubble of the car’s confining interior, I experienced this same Fort Wayne countryside from a different perspective….
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Mindfulness causes a change of perspective. Mindfulness helps us slip the thoughts, the comforts, of the conscious mind. It allows us to experience the world through the perspective of all the senses, the whole self, the true self who sees in wholes. It is the conscious mind that limits by parceling out the experiences of life in a piecemeal way. The conscious mind focuses on the trees and ignores the forest. The true self sees and experiences both the trees and forest as a whole.

Mindfulness is informed by intentionality. It is the intention of being fully available and present to life, which comes to us in many forms. Indeed everyone is challenged to build a life. One must do so in some kind of context. No life is built de novo, out of thin air. There was a context to Steve Jobs that predisposed him to pursuing the activity that he did. And, in a sober moment, I suspect that he would be grateful for the context that gave him the possibilities to actualize himself in the way that he did.

From genetics to culture, your life’s context is informed by many things. These are realities over which you have no power. In all the alacrity to build a life for yourself, you have to concede that you are the product of a culture and

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Same trip, different experience—a paradigm-shift because that motorcycle ride made me suddenly mindful.
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history that continues to inform your thinking and being. You are always living out of some context. The issue is: can you be aware of it? Can you be mindful of it? Can you be mindful enough to appreciate it as you would appreciate life from the perspective of a motorcycle ride?

Time spent in contemplation creates in you a striving to be integrated with your whole self, your whole environment. Contemplation lessens the rub between the life that comes to you through tradition and the life that you intentionally build. Those two aspects of life need not be at odds with each other in some dualistic way. The intentionality to create yourself anew can coexist with the self that has come to you by way of history and environment, namely your context. How is it that we do indeed become mindful of our traditions and mindful of ourselves?

Contemplation is living with your true self... Photo credit:

Contemplation is living with your true self…
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Contemplation is living with your true self. The time that you spend in contemplation is an occasion to live in your true self in Christ Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This self is infinite and full of possibilities for peace, love and joy. In contemplation you sit with this true self. You learn to respond to its movements, to listen to its voice of love. Over time you get to know this true self. In contemplation, you become adept at intentionally ignoring the thoughts from your everyday context. That everyday context can be shrouded in lies, deception, falsehood and sin. The false self, whom Paul calls the Old Adam, has its origin there in that context. You sit in the presence of your eternal context in Christ Jesus. The more adept you become at sitting with your true self in Christ Jesus, the more you realize that you are firmly grounded in Christ. You take him wherever you go, for there is nowhere you can go that he will not be with you. Taking this divine person with you wherever you go is the true life that you build, for wherever Christ is, life gets amplified by the fruit of contemplation.

Saint Paul says in Philippians 4:8f, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true; whatever is honorable; whatever is just; whatever is pure; whatever is lovely; whatever is commendable. If there is any excellence; if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” These things are Christ. Whenever we engage Christ in worship, in study and in

prayer and in contemplation, these things amplify life, heightening possibilities, enabling you to intentionally build a life based on these Christ-like qualities that come to fruition in your life because they at the front and center of your life in your true self in Christ. Mindfulness has its beginning in the contemplation of Christ in you, your true self. The mindfulness that is spawned in contemplation spills over into your everyday life.

Throughout the day, a few deep breaths and the saying of your sacred word will center you on Christ, and make you mindful. It creates space in your day to fill with the fruit of contemplation. The more mindful you become throughout your day, the more spaces of peace and quiet you will experience. When confronted by a an angry driver, you will know how to step back into this space of peace and handle the situation with a kind and solid spirit, which you cultivated through being with your true self in Christ in the practice of contemplation. A few deep breaths and a saying internally your sacred word can put you in the present, fully in the now. Have the intentionality to live by this self and you will build your life and you will not just live a life. When feelings of anxiety overwhelm you, you are just living a life. When any overwhelming feeling highjacks you and takes control, you are merely living a life that is the byproduct of that feeling. But, you are bigger than that feeling. You are not that feeling. You are much more in Christ. Accordingly, there is peace in you. There is love in you. There is joy in you. They all are possibilities for you in any situation, for your true self transcends all circumstances and yet is fully available to you in all circumstances.

...she would smile with the joy of the Lord.  She transformed everything that she touched... Photo credit:

…she would smile with the joy of the Lord. She transformed everything that she touched…
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Though they are in the worst of circumstances, there are people who glow with peace, love and joy. Esther Trahms, the wife of the pastor who confirmed me, was one such person. She was always teeming with the joy of the Lord. Even in the last stages of her life, when she was confined to a wheelchair, she would smile with the joy of the Lord. She transformed everything that she touched; her wheelchair was a mere staging ground from which to disseminate the love of God. She is the perfect example of one who built a life. She was always in the process of building a life, for she was very mindful. Traditions come to life when you are mindful. Everything that you say and do gets heightened when you are mindful, fully present to the experience you are in. The liturgy is an invitation to be mindful and experience Christ who is present in fulfillment of his promise where two or more are gathered in his name he is present. Where Christ is there is peace, love and joy in that place. These are the products of the true spiritual kingdom through which he rules in our hearts. You come to life when you are intentionally mindful. What is presented to you in your body through the vehicle of your five senses, you receive as the gift of God. A moment, a gift. You come to appreciate even the breaths that you take in all such moments.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

In 1985, Steven Spielberg directed a great movie titled The Color Purple. “Shug Avery,” an attractive, charismatic singer played by Margaret Avery, tells “Celie Johnson,” a downtrodden woman with a low self esteem played by Whoopie Golddberg that it must make God angry to walk by the color purple and not notice it, to ignore it. Too often we do that in life. We walk by so much that God offers us as gifts. We let life’s significant moments pass us by because we let emotions highjack us out of the present.

With more mindfulness, you discipline yourself to be fully available in the present. A significant engagement in contemplation teaches you to sift through the noise and lies of the false self to be fully available to the true self in Christ Jesus. This engaging of the true self fosters a profound mindfulness that enables you to experience every moment of your life as the gift that it is.

Resting in Peace


Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream”
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On August 28, 2013, our nation commemorates to the day the 50th Anniversary of The March on Washington. As a six year old, I watched the march on our black and white, six-station Philco television with rabbit ears to boot. Of course, I had no idea what I was watching, but the singing grabbed my attention. I heard songs that I had heard in church. Indeed the music and lyrics of We Shall Overcome, the emblematic song of the Civil Rights Movement, were so indelibly imprinted on my psyche that when I learned to play the clarinet some years later, We Shall Overcome was the first song that I learned to play by heart, actually teaching myself based on the tune that I had carried in my heart throughout the 60’s.

We shall overcome; we shall overcome

We shall overcome someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall overcome someday.

We shall live in peace; we shall live in peace

We shall live in peace someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall live in peace someday.

How we yearned to live in peace in those turbulent times when things seemed to be unraveling before our eyes! Three months after The March on Washington, President John F. Kennedy would be gunned down in Texas. Commenting on Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King noted that America was sick. The real question to entertain, according to Dr. King, was not who killed John F. Kennedy, but what killed him. King had a premonition that he, too, would undergo the same fate as the 35th president.

President Kennedy meets with Civil Rights leaders.

President Kennedy meets with Civil Rights leaders.
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What killed Kennedy is still a relevant question to ask. The question of what killed Kennedy gets at the systemic reality whose tentacles have reached into every aspect of our lives. That systemic reality is the trauma of sin, which undergirds various forms of psychic trauma. We all share in it in one way or another and it keeps us in a state of unrest until we come to terms with it and garner a semblance of peace. Though we are keenly aware of the ways that we are damaged and traumatized, yet we yearn to live in peace. Peace is a possibility for us because in connection with Christ we have overcome. Christ is our peace. He is our peace with God. His cross is the sign that the condemnation of the law has been broken inasmuch as he took upon himself the law’s condemnation. The law’s condemnation was our yoke to bear. Yet, motivated by love, and desiring to reconcile us to the Father, Jesus took the yoke of the law from us. There is peace with God in Christ Jesus. This tangible peace in Christ Jesus is personally offered to us in the sacramental life of the church. What Christ accomplished many years ago is given to us individually in the waters of Baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist and in the evangelical words of Confession.

There is peace with God. How do we rest in that peace deep in our hearts? The practice of contemplation can assist us here. Contemplation is a many-splendid thing: it means many things to many people like most things in life. Also known as centering prayer and mindfulness, contemplation is not the sole possession of any one tradition. There are many ways to do contemplation and each practitioner molds it based on their worldview and what they deem valuable and what they hope to gain out of the practice. There is, however, one fruit of any serious and disciplined practice of contemplation. That fruit is silence. The noise of the soul gets shut off or, at least, becomes manageable. It is out of that silence that we act in disciplined ways because the disparate parts of the soul are integrated by the love of God that is experienced in the silence. Once we are readied by the love of God in silence, we are ready to hear from God in order to act in the world in a way that is informed by discernment. Howard Thurman, noted mystical theologian, said, “Prayer is getting ready to pray.” The same could be said of contemplation. Contemplation is getting ready to pray, getting ready to worship, getting ready to work, getting ready to study, getting ready to play, getting ready to hope and to dream, for silence makes us available and present to those experiences.

There are two dominant voices that need to be shut down, namely guilt and anxiety, for these take us out of the present. Guilt has to do with the past; anxiety has to do with the future. We are to live in neither. Silence emerges out of resting in the accomplished work of Christ, which imbues us with love, which empowers us to live now in the present. Love gives us the courage to face our own pain and society’s pain. There is no getting around pain; you cannot avoid it, though we try through various distractions. But, the distracted soul is most noisy. To rest in the accomplished work of Christ is to rest in God’s love, for God is demonstrably love in Christ Jesus. Think of a session of contemplation as basking in love that gets you ready to live in the present with all its noisy pain and trauma. Love unfolds in peace, the peace that passes all understanding. The disparate parts of our traumatized souls cannot give us this peace; they are frozen in their trauma and speak out of that perspective and make our hearts noisy. Deep in our hearts, we do believe; we shall live in peace, especially in our noisy souls. That is a possibility for us in the love of God that we experience in contemplation. The experience of the love of God in contemplation is the pure experience that we seek.