Living Well

What is a spiritual direction session like?

Good question! Often when I am first talking with people about spiritual direction, this is a question that arises. What does a session ‘look like’? What happens when we’re together?

I often begin by saying a spiritual direction session ‘looks’ something like a psychotherapy session in these ways:

  • it is a one-on-one conversation
  • we generally meet for one hour*
  • there is a fee that is paid for the time together
  • all that is shared is held in confidence

It is not unusual for a person in spiritual direction (directee) to also be working with a psychotherapist. While the format and framework might be similar between psychotherapy and spiritual direction, the intent and design of the sessions are different.

3 chairsSpiritual direction sessions are intended and designed to follow the leading of Spirit. This can be manifest in a variety of ways. We usually begin with silence, inviting ourselves to be attentive to the present moment. This can also be a time of slowing down from the, often, frantic pace of life, to breathe deeply, and to acknowledge the participation of God/Holy Love/Divine Presence.

Often the directee will share experiences that are calling his or her attention. Many times we will pause after some sharing to notice what might be arising from within. A guiding understanding is that the directee already has Holy Wisdom within, and that our shared intention is to listen for it. As spiritual director, I am paying to attention to where I notice freedom and aliveness in the words, actions, and spirit of the directee, trusting this is a place where she or he feels fully herself/himself, able to connect to deep truth and wholeness.

Sometimes, I will invite consideration of a spiritual practice or a resource that I believe will support the directee’s spiritual journey. As spiritual direction itself is an ancient practice, so also is there a rich storehouse of spiritual practices and resources that have been used by spiritual seekers for generations.

As the session draws to a close, we enter silence again, allowing some time to gather in all that has been shared, and to become aware of ideas, images, and themes the directee wants to reflect on going forward. We close in prayer – sometimes just me praying, sometimes each of us praying as Spirit guides us. Before we part, we schedule a time to meet again – usually in a month, though more or less often as need and intention inform us.

It is important to note that the process and approach to spiritual direction is unique to the one offering spiritual direction, and that the experience might be different with other spiritual directors. (More about this in an upcoming post).

*Most often, I meet with directees in person. However, more and more people are asking to meet by phone or Zoom, and this can offer more flexibility in time and resources.

“This God with whom we have to do, this God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, claims from us, I believe not static and confident belief but active and humble attention.”–Marilynne Robinson

 

 

 

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Living Well

What is spiritual direction?

(I offer this as first in a series of reflections on spiritual direction)

In the last few years, I have witnessed the proliferation of spiritual direction training programs both in my area, and around the country. For a vocation that, until recently, was either unknown, or known only in monastic and priest formation circles, it is exciting to see a growing interest in this ancient and life-giving practice. So, what is spiritual direction?

I first learned about it as I began my seminary training; and after finding a spiritual director (thanks to a referral from one of my professors), I began what has become an essential and ongoing commitment to reflect on every aspect of my life with the support and presence of a trained listener.

What comes to mind when you consider spending an hour each month with someone whose sole intent is to listen for what gives you life? And to help you listen for, and reflect on, your own deep questions and longings?

During the almost 20 years that I have met regularly with a spiritual director, I have become more familiar with my inner life; my core being; my wounds, my challenges, my shadow side; and my heart’s deepest desires. As a person who readily seeks a spiritual framework to engage these questions and concerns, I have found spiritual direction to be a homecoming of sorts. It has been a place where I experience Divine Presence and inspiration through the words, the silence, the listening that comes through the heart and soul of my spiritual director. I have felt freed to honor what my wounds have to teach me, and to pursue the passions and deep desires that draw me more closely to my true self. Spiritual direction has been a resource for healing and growth, helping to integrate body, mind and soul.

So I suppose it is no surprise that I felt a call to this vocation of listening and companioning, and after a 2-year program in formation as a spiritual director, I began offering this practice of sacred listening. I have been listening with people in spiritual direction for over 10 years now and continue to come away feeling like this is the work I was created to do. While my intent is to listen for divine stirrings in the words and heart of the individuals with whom I meet, I feel close to Divine Presence as well. I feel enlivened and restored in my own life with the Divine every time I sit and listen with another.

3 chairsThe image that is often used to represent spiritual direction – 3 chairs – expresses it best, I think. At every session, there are three listeners: spiritual director, the person who has come to reflect, and Holy Presence . . . God . . . Divine Love. Together, we seek to bring deep healing, to strengthen greater compassion for self and others, and to free the capacity for loving presence in the world.

“O, the comfort,

the inexpressible comfort

of feeling safe with a person.

 

Having neither to weigh thoughts,

nor measure words

but pouring them all out

wheat and chaff together.

 

Certain that a faithful hand

will keep

that which is worth keeping,

and with a breath of kindness

blow the rest away.”

–Dinah Maria Craik, 18thC British poet

Living Well

Overwhelm

IMG_1285This word – overwhelm – has been on the lips of so many people in my life these days. They seem to be describing a collective experience of suffering – too many tragedies, too much suffering, too many demands, too much rancor and division in the public sector. And many people also speak of the challenge of taking time to stop and care for themselves. It seems to be a toxic mix of overscheduling, physical exhaustion, emotional depletion, and guilt which stands in the way of pausing to rest, reflect, and rejoice in the precious moments that move through our days. These moments are crowded out by urgency, anger, competition, and isolation.

 

A wise colleague and friend recently said that he thinks the traumas we have recently witnessed – in Charlottesville, Las Vegas, Washington, DC, North Korea, NYC to name just a few – are really spiritual problems at their root. I couldn’t agree more. As spiritual beings having a human experience (Teilhard de Chardin) how do we, can we, respond?

More than ever, I believe, we need to take time to find and nurture connection – with self, with one another and with Divine Presence, however you experience this.

What feeds your soul? Being in the natural world? Listening to music? Creating art? Preparing a meal? Take a few moments to get clear on where your soul comes alive, and do more of that. Schedule time every day – even for 5 minutes – to feed your soul, your deepest self.

Who is your ‘village’? Identify the people with whom you feel safe, cared for, heard, affirmed. Spend time with them. Be intentional – in whatever way works for you – in scheduling time to be with your village. Care for one another.

How do you experience Divine Presence? God? Through prayer? Song? Reading? Silence? In community? By yourself? When and where have you felt a closeness with the world where “God shimmers in all things?” (Teilhard) How does your daily/weekly/monthly schedule reflect and make space for time with Divine Presence?

A couple of weeks ago, while on retreat, I attended a Contemplative Eucharist service at Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, MA. The generous welcome, the deep silence, the space embedded with prayer, were a welcome balm to my soul. As we moved toward the altar to receive the bread and wine, we chanted these words –

Return again, return again

Return to the land of your Soul

Return to what you are, return to who you are

return to where you are

Born and reborn again

The simple melody, the direct invitation, has been singing in me ever since. Return to what I am, who I am, where I am. Born . . . and reborn.

When overwhelm hits – when the aching of the world feels like too much to bear – return to the land of your Soul. Take time to turn your heart toward all that enlivens you, that frees you to see the ‘shimmering presence of God in all things’ . . . even you.

Click HERE to listen Return Again!

Living Well

A Peaceful Transfer of Power

shepard-equal-humanity-greaterthanfear“The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”—President Ronald Reagan, from his First Inaugural Address.

“Nothing less than a miracle.” Somehow, the transfer of power from President Obama to President Trump seems like a miracle, for sure. I omitted the word ‘peaceful,’ though maybe inappropriately so. Since President Trump’s election and inauguration, it has felt to me like we are flirting with the limits of peacefulness in our country. Near constant demonstrations, marches, tweets, media storms, and congressional wrangling seem to be pushing boundaries on all sides. I am deeply grateful that the public outcry has – at least so far – stayed within the limits of civility. But the question persists – how is one to respond in a meaningful and powerful way in the face of a national government gone awry?

I have not posted on my blog for one year. At this time last year, the primary season was in full swing, and the ugliness, the bitterness, and the shocking display of incivility was on display. My own heart and soul were challenged each day by new revelations; new torments; new worries about what might happen should the current President – then a candidate among many – actually be elected.

On election night, I was awake into the wee hours of the morning (and those who know my usual proclivity for early bedtime will understand the meaning of my late hours on 11/8/16), and my shock turned to disbelief and then to horror. What have we done?

Two days later, a close friend told me about the Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for 1/21/17, and asked if I’d join her. It was an easy ‘yes.’ Along with one of my daughters, we traveled to DC, we marched, we reflected, and we continue to hold the question: how is one to respond in a meaningful and powerful way in the face of a national government gone awry?

Here’s what I’ve discovered. There has been a peaceful transfer of power within me. Until now, until this election and inauguration, I have been one who observed the workings of government with interest and even local involvement. But I had not – until now – felt compelled to march; or to call my congress leaders; or to reach out and reach out and reach out again to friends and colleagues to keep the energy and action and reflection going. Until now, I have not known with such deep conviction, that I have the responsibility to be ‘we, the people’ – with my actions, my words, my letters, my phone calls. And with my prayers, my compassion, my work, and my spiritual community.

Yes, a peaceful transfer of power has occurred within me. Thanks be to God.

Living Well

3 chairs“Prayer is not just spending time with God. It is partly that – but if it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us – unmasks us, strips us, indicates where growth is needed. Authentic prayer never leads us to complacency, but needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads us to true self-knowledge, to true humility.” ~ St. Theresa of Avila

Wow. St. Teresa’s words are powerful, maybe even a little frightening. Prayer can do that? Be that? You mean it’s not just folding our hands, bowing our heads, and reciting familiar words? There is something that happens in us, because of prayer?

As many of you already know, I have an app on my phone that I talk about often. Called ‘Insight Timer’, it is an app I use every day. I was drawn to it many years ago because it provides a way to set a timer to begin and end my prayer time. I can choose the bell sound I want from a variety of different tones, and I can pre-set times and sounds I want to choose from.

Last Spring, another company bought the app, and late this Fall, they unveiled a number of new features. Now, when I open the app each morning to prepare for my prayer time, the first page that comes up shows a map of the world, with dots that indicate where people are praying at that moment. And below, it lists first names of people who are meditating or praying right then. They are from: Nackenheim, Germany; Paekakariki, NZ; Belmont, MA; Los Angeles, CA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Thailand; Buffalo, NY; Thunder Bay, ONT; Melbourne, Australia; Lexington, KY; Brownsville, TX; Dublin, Ireland . . . As soon as I see this map and these names and places, I am comforted and enlivened by knowing that I am praying and meditating with a worldwide community.

Because there is also a social network feature, sometimes I receive a quiet bell sound on my phone with a message “Thank you for meditating with me today.” When the bell rings to end my prayer time, a page opens with a cascade of small images filling the page. And at the top it says, ‘You just meditated with 4015 people’ . . . or ‘5140 people’ . . . or . . .

If I am going to engage in this powerful, maybe even a little frightening, practice that needles me, and makes me uneasy at times, and that also leads to true self-knowledge and true humility, I need this community of people with whom I pray and meditate each morning. I am reassured by their presence, by their participation, by their willingness to connect.

As well, I need to reflect on my experience of prayer, and of God, with a patient companion, who listens deeply, questions openly, and challenges thoughtfully. He is my spiritual director, and my spiritual life depends as much on his companionship as it does on using my Insight Timer.

I’m wondering – what supports do you have for your prayer life? For your spiritual life? I can recommend the Insight Timer app for your devices. And I also invite you to consider seeking the companionship and support of a spiritual director, who can listen openly, honestly, and spaciously for Divine presence in and through your life.

I have spaces available to receive new people for spiritual direction. Also, you can find a spiritual director near you by following this link: http://www.sdiworld.org/find-a-spiritual-director/seek-and-find-guide. Remember, “authentic prayer changes us, unmasks us . . . needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads to true self-knowledge, to true humility.” Let me know if you’d like to explore this together. (leave comments at http://www.susienallen.com)

Living Well

Sourcing the Soul for Vocational Transformation

UnknownOne of the ways we model and lead is through the way we speak; and our speech shapes and guides our work communities.  Our speech also communicates how the soul is manifest in our work.  Join me, and my friend and colleague, Sue Vincent Cox, for a 10-week program where we will focus on how we listen to, and speak from, the soul. The readings, exercises, and format are designed to help participants strengthen communication practices, and develop ways to bring them into their leadership environments for vital, energizing growth.

Click the link below for more information and to find out how to join.

Sourcing the Soul for Vocational Transformation-online

Living Well

Thriving

UnknownI have been thinking a lot, lately, about how easily I can get overextended – physically and emotionally depleted, cranky, judgmental, frustrated. I have, for a long time, been aware that I struggle to set boundaries in my life, striving to do more, be more, give more. How do I shut down? When is enough, enough?

I have studied the spiritual practice of saying yes, and saying no. That has given me an awareness that I need to find ways to say no more, though that, in itself, is a difficult thing to do. I am, by nature, a pleaser.

I have found myself wishing for a sanctioned day off, as though I somehow need affirmation or permission from the world around me, to stop.

I have tried a variety of ways to structure my calendar – different colors for different kinds of activities, trying to allow for space between activities, trying to allow for rest time after leading programs and retreats. But when push comes to shove, there is a voice inside that urges me to fit in one more thing. The same voice entreats – ‘You can do this. You’ll be fine. It will be good for you to do this.’

The Habit Journal that I have been keeping for the past 6 months has a daily reminder to visualize the life I want, the goals I have set. I discovered that I hardly ever check that box – I have struggled to know how to visualize it all. Where do I start? What is the paradigm?

At this turn of the year, I have been thinking a lot about this idea of visualizing. How can I prepare myself, in new and renewing ways, to live into the values and goals I hold dear?

It turns out that the Christmas holiday, itself, provided the doorway into new understanding. We had the great good fortune to spend a week with our grown children and their significant ones, coming and going. While they were with us, I gave way to my delight in being with them, and simply let everything else go. I didn’t check email very often, I didn’t excuse myself to tend to work things. I enjoyed every minute of our time together.

At the same time, I was also in the midst of some current work conversations and planning. When I did take a few minutes to check email, I discovered that my colleagues had been sending emails that were, now, days old. Feelings of guilt, regret, self-judgment crept in.

Somewhere in the middle of this joy and this guilt, I remembered some things I had read a few years ago, in a book titled, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, by Dan Buettner. Buettner identifies and investigates the happiest regions on four continents. I went back and re-read what he wrote about the people of Denmark. Here are some of the conclusions he reached about the happiness factors in Denmark: build an environment of trust; tolerance; care for the young and old; get the right job; work just enough (most Danes work 37 hours a week and then go home to their families); cultivate the art of living (develop an appreciation of art); make cozy, well-lit home environments; nudge people into interaction; optimize cities for activity; volunteer. All of a sudden, I found that this paradigm offered me a vision that, while unlike much of what I experience here in the US, allows me to see a way toward choices that feel potentially more life-giving to me. Part of what I need to do is more clearly identify and name what I value, and claim time to honor those values. They include doing the work I so love, time with my family, time with friends, time for new adventures, time to read and knit, time to exercise, time for music-making, time for retreat, time to ponder and just be.

I discovered that visualizing wasn’t about seeing from the outside – managing my calendar, goal-setting, strategizing. It was about seeing and experiencing from the inside – What matters most to me? Where do I experience deep joy? What do I need to thrive?

I’m off, now, to read A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, by Wayne Muller. Let 2016 begin!

What do you need to thrive?

 

 

Living Well

Coffee Cups and Community

UnknownI have watched with curiosity and confusion, at the ongoing commentary about Starbucks’ red cups for the holiday season. To me, they seem attractive, seasonal, and appropriate for the ever-more-diverse population in our society. While I am ordained clergy in the Christian tradition, I am ever more aware that my fellow community members represent a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Is it right that my tradition trumps any other during this, or any other time of the year?

As I’ve pondered the expressed outrage about Starbucks’ choice, I’ve been thinking: why don’t we express outrage that other faith traditions are never represented in the public sphere? Why don’t we express outrage that traditions dear to our neighbors who are Jewish, or Muslim rarely get expressed or celebrated by coffee cups or special sales or decorations? And why is it that loud voices from the political and news worlds seem to express either conservative Christian beliefs or no beliefs at all?

As I sat with mouth agape and heart broken as news of the Paris murders, now claimed by ISIS, flashed across my smart phone and my TV, I found myself wondering – will this, FINALLY, be the time that we can stop talking about coffee cups and start doing the very hard work of building community with one another to form bonds that connect us through our common humanity? Can we do the hard work of developing ways to talk about what matters to us as individuals, and listen with open minds and hearts, even if we disagree? Can we support political candidates who seek to empower local community, rather than harden the rhetoric of division, debate, and disagreement?

imagesHow long until we can harness our energy for good, and join together as world community, to stand together against the forces of violence and hatred? What would that be like? How much power and creativity would that generate?

I found myself turning, again, to Parker Palmer’s compelling book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. In his opening chapter, Palmer speaks of Diversity, Tension and Democracy. Here are some of the things the says that speak to me:

“At the deepest levels of human life, we do not need techniques. We need insights into ourselves and our world that can help us understand how to learn and grow from our experiences of diversity, tension, and conflict.”

“The civility we need will not come from watching our tongues. It will come from valuing our differences.”

“Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.”

“Violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering.”

This time, we Americans are looking in from a distance. But we are not immune or safe from these same forces. We must look within to our own potential for violence and hatred, and join with one another for support and vision for something better.

Please, please. Let’s stop talking about coffee cups. Let’s gather, one by one, a few by a few, and say to one another, and to everyone who will join us – NOW is the time to move in a different direction. NOW is the time to learn and develop ways to live in safe and supportive community; where we listen first and talk later; where we value community before conflict; where we stand together in light of our shared humanity, rather than apart because we have differences.

Jewish author and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, tells it this way:

“One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening: he no longer amused them, the killers went on killing, the wise men kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst. One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words: ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it is hopeless?’ ‘Yes, I see,’ answered the Just Man.’ ‘Then why do you go on?’ ‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’”

Living Well

Convergence

IMG_1718Over the last few weeks, I have been reading in two books. To continue my study and prayer on the theme of pilgrimage, I have been reading The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, by Phil Cousineau. And for my book group, I have been reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande.

It seems no accident that I’m reading these books in the midst of the move from our home of 17 years, to a small apartment. In preparation for the move, we have gone through everything in the house to determine if we want to bring it, or let it go (limited space is a big incentive here). We’ve gone through photographs, boxes of stuff from my parents, children’s toys and books (our kids are all grown now), college memorabilia, music, clothing, appliances, furniture, food cupboards. We’ve tried hard to stay focused on the task at hand, though there were many moments that I had to stop and ponder the memories that an item brought to mind.

As I read in Cousineau’s book each morning, I become aware of the sacred potential in this move. While our travels, as we packed and prepared, were no further – physically – than the next cupboard or the next closet or the next room, the memories that arose allowed me to recollect the ways in which I have struggled, celebrated, opened, defended, raged, and grown through the years. I have been reminded of the people and places and events which, and who, have been touchstones and milestones; pointing the way, leading the way, distracting the way.

I’m also aware that, at age 62, I’m looking into the last third of my life. This is a sobering thing to write and to look at. Gawande’s book, a powerful and challenging look at the strengths and limitations of modern medicine, offers a hopeful and life-giving set of questions to ponder as one faces illness and death. While I am counting on many years of good health and fruitful living, I have begun to think about my life’s pilgrimage with these questions in mind. What is most important to me? How does that influence my decisions – on what I do, where I live, and who I want to be with?

If I overlay the idea of life as sacred pilgrimage with the more present awareness of my mortality, what opportunities appear before me? Where do I want to go? What are the touchstones and milestones I am looking for? Who are my guides and companions? What is my guiding question?

I don’t see feel sad or morose or fearful about this. I feel enlivened and excited and eager to engage my life with a deeper gratitude, and a growing clarity. And to all who I know and love, I am thrilled that you are with me along the way.

~with thanks to Sarah Smyth Hauser for the photo

Living Well

susiesunLabor Day for Clergy and Church Leaders

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”—Matthew 11:28-30

As we stand on the cusp of the new church program year, it is not unusual for clergy and church leaders to feel a sense of weightiness, anxiousness, and anticipatory exhaustion. There are so many demands; so many concerns; so many hopes; so many challenges.

Rev. Judy Proctor and I invite you to join us for a 10-week program designed to offer a time to rest, reflect, and engage in spiritual practices and leadership principles to help you listen deeply for God’s invitation for your life and work.

Microsoft Word - Invitation to Soul of Leadership Mini.docx