Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Spiritual Creativity (Oriah Mountain Dreamer)


In "What We Ache For" I write about the process of finding and doing your creative work. For me,
writing is the creative expression that allows me to touch and co-create the meaning and beauty
I ache for. I know this because when I am writing I never feel I should be doing anything else,
be anywhere else or be other than I am. And this is joy. Although I am usually alone when I am
writing, I never feel lonely; writing connects me to both my essential inner self and the world
around me. Loneliness is a loss of connection with the self that knows its belonging. It can be
felt when we are with others. It can be banished when we deeply engage in creative work that
feeds us.

How would you complete the phrase: I never feel I should be doing anything else when I am…?
Can you think of more than one way to finish this sentence? If so, is there a common element
to what you describe? Is it the nature of the activities, what motivates you to do them, how you
feel when you are engaged in them, where they take place, or some other aspect? What does
this tell you about your own path to happiness?

Set aside a set period of time (minimum ten to fifteen minutes) and repeatedly complete the following phrases, substituting for the word “write” the things that came to mind when you considered the question above.

When I write, I feel….

When I write, I see….

When I write, I discover. . . .

I am never lonely when I am….

I ache for….

Write in response to the question: Why do I write? (or paint or
compose or dance . . . . or do any form of creative work.)

Mirror Image

Many years ago I apprenticed with a spiritual teacher who used to hand out what he called
Warrior Task Assignments. This was a very grand sounding term for tasks given to students
to help them shift out of their habitual ways of doing and seeing in order to become more
fully present and available to life’s experiences. One of these assignments was to do your
normal daily activities one hundred and eighty degrees from the way you were used to doing
them for one whole month. The only rule was to do no harm to yourself or someone else. So,
if you normally slept in until the last possible moment, you were required to get up an hour
early. If you were habitually early for things, you were to arrive late. If you usually planned
your meals carefully, you were to eat whatever happened to be available when mealtime
rolled around. If you normally went to work well coifed and stylishly dressed, you went in
without make-up in an old sweat suit. You get the idea.

Write a story about spending one day doing every-
thing opposite to your usual habits. It may help to
write in the third person. Imagine how others around
you would react. Fill in the sensory details and let
your imagination conjure the experience. How would
it feel to do things differently? Liberating? Oppres-
sive? Depressing? Sinful? Disorienting? Where would
it not matter and where would it be very difficult? In
what things would it seem almost impossible? Let your
writing allow you to step away from your habitual
ways of doing things and imagine things differently.

Imaginative Games

Just after my ninth birthday my family moved to a
town in northern Ontario. Many of our belongings
weren’t delivered until a week after we arrived and then
remained in boxes until my mother could find places to
put everything in the four-room house we had rented. I
remember playing with debris scattered around the yard
of the new house—old boxes, bits of wood, and metal
parts of things I could not identify. Separated from my
toy cupboards and dishes and plastic replications of
various fruits and vegetables, I spent days constructing
an imaginary bake shop—stoves, counters, cash registers,
and baked goods—with all the junk that was lying
around. I had a great time, and what I remember most was consciously realizing that when
it comes to playing, less is more. I had more fun with that junk than I ever had playing with
the prefabricated toys I’d received for Christmas. I remember feeling a little confused about
this. After all, I had asked for those toys and I continued to lust after the Easy Bake Oven that
would cook real cakes by the heat of a hundred-watt bulb. It wouldn’t be right not to play with the toys once they were unpacked, and indeed, when the boxes were emptied I abandoned the
junk I had collected. But I never forgot what I’d realized but not quite understood that day. I
am reminded of it every time I hear a parent complain that their kids seem to have more fun
playing with the empty cardboard cartons they get when new appliances are purchased than
they ever do with expensive toys they have been given.
   Imagination needs room. Creativity flourishes when the possibilities are infinite and open-
ended. The cardboard carton the refrigerator came in can be a house, a fort, a truck, a nest, a
puppet theater . . . the possibilities are endless.
   Use this writing exercise to dip back into childhood memories of imaginative play, to touch
the magic of how the mind can construct whole new worlds from what is at hand. Write a
story about a game you played as a child, alone or with others, preferably one that involved
creating roles and worlds from the items around you. I remember making houses by raking
up leaves into the walls of intricate floor plans. I remember being a mother, a nurse, a doctor,
a soldier, an actor, a teacher, a shopkeeper, and a restaurant owner (serving soup made of
LifeSavers floating in ginger ale). Let yourself relive the memory as you write, describing the
specific details.

The Place Where You Are

Daniel Ladinsky writes wonderful translations of poetry by eastern and western mystics. His
book Love Poems from God is my constant companion and a great source of inspiration. This
year, Daniel sent me a calendar featuring the poems of Hafiz, a fourteenth-century Persian
mystic. On the front of this calendar, which hangs next to my refrigerator, are two lines that
always make me stop in my tracks.
        This place where you are right now
        God circled on a map for you.
    Some days, when things are going well, I can effortlessly give an internal nod to the idea
behind this quote. On other days, days when I am suffering from a migraine headache or am worried about a friend or family member, I am less pleased with the idea that This Place is where an all-seeing divine intelligence has put me or wants me to be. And when I think of the idea applying to anyone and everyone, I feel even more uncomfortable. Is the orphaned child suffering from AIDS in an African village devastated by the disease in the place God circled on a map for her? Were the Jews in the death camps in a place God had designated for each of them? Surely these and many other situations of suffering are due to human failings and are not to be dismissed as “the way things were ordained to be.” I cringe at the possibility that we could use the idea of all things being in alignment with a divine will to justify not acting to prevent or alleviate suffering.
    The mind cannot make sense of paradoxes it cannot see beyond. If all things participate in one divine presence, a sacred life force that runs through and is inseparable from everything, then on the level of the truly Big Picture they participate in what author A. H. Almaas calls Holy Perfection. This means that all situations offer opportunities for the optimum unfolding of the soul—are the place God has circled on the map for each of us. At the same time, from the perspective of our smaller human lives, there is real suffering—in ourselves and in the world—often caused by human choices, and we are called to alleviate it to the best of our ability. One truth does not negate the other simply because the mind has trouble holding them both at the same time.
    So, for am moment, focus on Hafiz’s idea that there is an underlying intelligence, a
goodness guiding us to this moment, wherever we are. Take a couple of deep breaths and let yourself truly be where you are. Then, with a genuine curiosity, ask and write in response to the question,
    Where is the place I am right now? How is it with me in this moment?
    Write about this place where you are, how it is with you physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually right now. Be specific. Add sensory details. No need for back story. What is this place where you are right now? How is it with you right now?
    Then, reread the Hafiz quote:
        This place where you are right now
        God circled on a map for you.
Write in response to the questions,

What if where you are right now—no matter how difficult or
easy, pleasant or unpleasant, eventful or empty—is the place
God (the Great Mystery, the Sacred Mother, the divine life
force, or whatever you want to call that which is both within
you and yet larger than you) has “circled on a map for
you”? Is there something here, right now, that might assist
your soul’s unfolding, enabling you to touch and live from
the deep center of who and what you are?

A Spy in Your House

A friend of mine recently went through a mission statement review at her place of employment.
She recounts how the entire staff sighed and sunk down a little deeper into their chairs when the
consultant told them they were going to start by articulating the core values that shaped their work
and the company. The staff had been through this process many times before, and they weren’t
too enthused about doing it again. They thought they knew their core values:
communication, cre-
ativity, fairness, service, teamwork, honesty . . . the usual
good stuff. But the consultant just shook her head and asked
them to forget about what they thought their values at work
should be and to focus instead on values reflected in the way
they actually worked together. Then the consultant, who
had been observing their workplace procedures for several
weeks, started naming some of what she had seen: people
looking the other way or whispering secretly about those in
positions of power demanding personal favors and padding
their expense accounts; people agreeing with collective de-
cisions at meetings and then going ahead and doing things
their own way; disapproving eyebrows raised over people
taking paid sick leave to tend children who were ill despite
the fact that company policy confirmed this as legitimate.
Now she had their attention. According to the consultant,
these and many other practices reflected the real values peo-
ple operated under when at work. Although never spoken or
printed on any piece of flip-chart paper, power, individual
autonomy, and a willingness to sacrifice family needs for the job were clearly some of the actual
values dictating behavior at work and shaping the company’s structure.

Sometimes you have to be a little sneaky to see past what you think you value to find out what values and concerns really shape your behavior. Sometimes you have to set up a situation, if only
in your imagination, so you can spy on yourself.

So try this: imagine you are walking up to two or more people who know you. Don’t put faces on
the individuals in the group; it could be friends, family, or co-workers. They don’t see you coming,
and they’re talking about you. What’s the worst thing you could imagine overhearing someone say
about you? Complete the phrase:

The worst thing someone could say about me is

I’ve done this exercise periodically over the years, and I’ve finished the phrase differently each
time. And each time I’ve learned something about myself, what I value, and my soft spots the
places where I am unconscious, not as enlightened or as wise as I want to be. Recently when I did
this I wrote, The worst thing someone could say about me is that I am self-indulgent. Makes me
cringe to write it even now.

Them and Us

Many years ago I was part of a social justice group that worked to challenge and change economic and political systems that cause inequality and suffering. It was good work. But it was difficult for me to do this work without seeing my fellow human beings as either us or them. Those who disagreed with the position or work of the group I was with, those who sometimes actively opposed the changes we thought were desirable or created and perpetuated situations we saw as the causes of injustice, became, in my mind, them, people separate from us.

Separating ourselves from others we see as wrong in some way seems to be a common human tendency. They don’t think women are equal. They allow their desire for profit to fuel wars and violence in the world. They don’t clean up after themselves. They don’t care about others but simply want their families to be safe and comfortable. They are fanatics that hate our way of life and want to destroy it.

Whether we are talking about individual disagreements, differing political parties, or those who have taken actions we find abhorrent, the temptation to see some others as fundamentally different from ourselves cannot help but make finding solutions to common problems in a shared world more difficult (even as it makes us feel morally superior).

So, here’s the challenge: think of someone who irritates you or some group of individuals with whom you disagree. Start small. Think of the neighbor who puts pesticide on his or her lawn every spring, causing your cat to have seizures. Think of the co-worker who gets attention by talking about people behind their backs and stirring up drama in the workplace. Now, write a couple of sentences about them. For example:

They just want to find the easiest way to have a perfect lawn and don’t care about animals or the
environment or others.

They get attention and stir up drama by talking behind people’s backs.

Move on to bigger issues. For example:

They don’t believe in democracy and freedom. They just want to feel secure and have things stay the

Write as many statements as you can in ten minutes about those you disagree with. Don’t hedge. Let the pen fly.

Now, rewrite the statements and substitute the word they with the phrase some of us. You may want to make the sentences less specific, aiming for the essence of what you have seen as offensive. For example:

Some of us just want to find the easiest way to have a perfect lawn and don’t care about animals or the environment or others may become:

Some of us just want to find the easiest way to do things according to the standards we feel are right and don’t care how it affects others.

Notice how you feel as you change the statements and create less distance between yourself and the other. Now go a step further. Replace the phrase some of us with and preface the statement with somepart of me of the time.

Some of the time, part of me just wants to find the easiest way to do things according to the standards I feel are right, and I don’t care how it affects others.

Some of the time, part of me gets attention and creates drama by talking about other people.

Some of the time, part of me doesn’t believe in democracy and freedom and just wants to feel secure and keep things the same.

Some of the time, part of me does not want to clean up after myself.

Is there any truth in these statements? Chances are that part of us
behaves and/or feels the same way they do, although it may be in
different circumstances than the ones we originally found offensive.
When and where do you feel political ideals are not worth the
trouble, are not as important as feeling secure and keeping things
unchanging? How does it feel to acknowledge this aspect of
yourself? Write about what you know is happening when part of
you feels or acts in a way you find offensive in others.

Three Breaths

Sometimes we just need to take a breath to bring ourselves fully into the present moment. Lately,
when I have completed my daily practice of meditation and contemplative prayer, I take three breaths,
each with a different focus. After each breath I take up my pen and write. Sometimes what comes out
on the page surprises me in ways that delight or disturb. Always, the breath and the writing bring me
more fully into my life in this moment.

Sit in a comfortable position with writing materials at hand. Take several deep breaths and let yourself
just be where you are. Then, when you are ready, take a full slow breath, and for the full length of the
inhale and the exhale focus on the world outside of yourself- the sounds, sights, smells, and feeling
of the world around you. See what you can notice in one breath and then write it down in sensory
detail. This is not a test to see if you can notice and write down everything there is to sense about
the world at this moment. If you noticed one thing, write about this one thing. If you noticed several,
write about them all. Allow what comes during the one breath to be enough.

Then, sit back and take another conscious breath. For the full length of one complete inhale and one
complete exhale, notice all that you can, within yourself. Let your attention leave the world outside
you for a moment and focus within. There may be sensations, feelings, thoughts. Then write what
you noticed about your inner world during the course of this one breath. Again, you are not trying to
catalogue everything that is going on inside of yourself. You are simply describing/discovering what
you noticed during that one full breath.

Finally, sit back and take a final conscious breath, focusing as
completely as possible on the breath itself. Feel the air come into
your body and leave your body. Now write what you noticed
about this one breath. What was the quality of the breath? Was
there a pause at any point? Did you notice the temperature
or smell of the air, the sound from within? There are truly an
infinite number of things to be noticed about a single breath.
Just write what came to your attention today as you focused on
this one breath.

The more I do this writing practice the more I find I am able
during the course of my day- when things get busy or when
I am waiting for the traffic light to change- to simply bring
myself fully into the present moment by consciously taking
three breaths in a row, focusing first on the world around me,
then on the what is happening within me, and finally simply on
the breath itself.

What We Love

Last spring, at the end of a talk I had given in Kelowna, BC, I asked for questions from the
audience. Someone asked, What do you love most?

I answered without thinking, God.

Sometimes jet lag and tiredness let the truth just slip out past the usual defenses and second-
guessing. Later I wondered if I should have used the over-burdened G-word. I wished I had
explained that for me God isn’t a male or female being but the sacred presence that flows
through every moment. I wondered if I should have described my experience of this divine
presence as a loving heart that holds me, that holds the whole ball of wax together excluding
nothing and making sense of it all even when I cannot see that sense. Later I worried that I
should have pointed out that I do, of course, love my sons
and my husband and my friends and the world. But when I
sat down to answer the question in writing, as I described all
the particular places, people, activities, moments, sensations
etc. that I love, I realized that my answer had been accurate.
I love God in the way I love particular people, places and
moments but, for me, love of the sacred, the Beloved, is at
the center of who I am.

    So, pick up your pen and write in answer to the question,
“What do you love most?” Whatever comes, let your passion
fuel your words. Let it be one thing or many. Describe with
the eyes of the Lover what you love, why you love and how
you love.

Gratefulness and Thankfulness

Since the previous writing exercise (February) delved into expectations and disappointment, I have been exploring the antidote to disappointment: gratitude. Seems simple enough: if I don’t want to let my disappointments rob me of happiness I need to look around and appreciate the good that is in my life right now. This is a practice I highly endorse. One of the things I regularly do is write notes to my husband, Jeff, with statements that begin “I appreciate. . .” letting him know that my complaints about dirty socks on the floor and a scummy bathtub don't blind me to the wonderful gifts he brings into my life by being who he is.

As I started to explore gratitude I came across the website, http://www.gratefulness.org. It contains, amongst many other things, some writing by Brother David Steindl-Rast. In one of his articles Brother David explores the difference between gratefulness and thankfulness. To read the full article go www.gratefulness.org/readings/dsr_areyou.htm but in the meantime, let me tell you what I got from reading it.

Steindl-Rast begins by talking about the kind of experience we have gazing at the night stars or watching the sunrise. He quotes Eugene O’Neil describing such an experience when he wrote:

For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the...high dim-
starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within
something greater than my own life...to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.”

This, Brother David explains, is gratefulness, “…the full appreciation of something altogether unearned….” Gratefulness is the mystical experience of belonging to a oneness that excludes nothing. Thankfulness, on the other hand, he describes as the thoughtful appreciation that breaks that oneness down into giver and receiver.

Clearly thankfulness and gratefulness are both things that enrich our lives. When I express my appreciation for Jeff I am expressing my thankfulness. But, if I let this thankfulness, be fueled by an on-going awareness of gratefulness- an experience of my belonging to something larger than myself- I will be able to appreciate it all: the neglected tub and the thoughtful gesture; the dirty socks and the quiet moment together in front of the fire; the disappointed expectations and the delightful surprises. Gratefulness, because it opens us to the mystical experience of the unity of being, helps us hold it all with appreciation.

Write a story about a moment of gratefulness in your life, a moment when beauty took your breath away and reminded you of a mystery beyond our small knowing. This is a tough one because in these moments we generally have no words. Know that your words can only point to what that experience is like, but write them anyway. How did it feel in your body? How was it different from the moments that came before and after? What was in front of you, around your, within you?

When you have finished, reread the story and sit with it. Does
it convey the feeling at of the center of that experience? If
not, find the words that do. Go deeper. Remember. Taste the
experience again and write it on the page.

Reread it again and then think of the people in your life who
touch and effect you. Now write about your thankfulness.
Thinking of things you are thankful for with each person
repeatedly complete the phrases, I am thankful for. . . . or I
appreciate. . . . .

Oriah Mountain Dreamer © 2005

Based on her book "What we Ache For".

Selected extracts above from

You can also read some of her beautiful poetry, which I shared in an earlier blog:

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