Category Archives: Peace and Me

Personal growth and personal peace.

When Privilege is Grateful

In light of the spotlight on humanitarian crises and injustices across the world this Thanksgiving, I’m finding it really hard to be grateful.

On the one hand, I feel like I should appreciate that most of these atrocities are not directly impacting me or my loved ones. I should be grateful not to be searching for safety like a Syrian refugee family. I should be happy that I know where my loved ones are, ecstatic that they all have homes, food, and relatively healthy bodies. I should be glad that my family and many of my friends are not targets of violence and hate that has been perpetuated by terror attacks and brutal police misconduct.

But, I’m not really grateful for those things.

I refuse to look at my privilege as something to be grateful for. I know and appreciate the advantage that I have been given, just because of my skin color and the family I am a part of. But, I appreciate it the same way I appreciate the ocean–a powerful, sometimes scary presence in my life that I can only interact with when I come from a place of seeking to understand.

To be grateful for things that so few people have in this world just feels off to me somehow. I want so much more for the beings that inhabit this earth, and so much of what makes my life ‘good’ and ‘safe’ comes at the expense of others who are less fortunate–humans, animals, and planet alike.

So how do I answer the quintessential Thanksgiving Day question? What can I say I’m thankful for without feeling the words eroding away beneath me before they’re even spoken?

I’m amazingly grateful for connection. I’m grateful for the beings in my life that have opened me up, taken me in, shared with me, created with me, touched me and others’ lives in beautifully spiritual and human ways. I’m thankful for the beauty of the mountains, the strength of the wind, the patience of trees, the quiet of midnight, the questions in the sky. I’m grateful for music, for dance, for prayer, for communities that share those gifts with one another. I am grateful for hope.

There are so many things in my life that are good, and a lot of them are the direct result of luck. But what I am grateful for has little to nothing to do with who I am or the advantages I have.

I am grateful, above all else, for the wonderful, awesome, exhilarating parts of existence and for the fact that, with or without me, these wonders are shared and loved among people everywhere. On the days when we hear so many negative news stories reminding us of all the things in this world that are grim, I can only hold on to the potential of the utterly simple beauty surrounding us and hope that with all this light out there, we’ll one day figure out how to lift everyone above the clouds.

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Notes about My Camino

It’s the darndest thing, but I don’t know what to tell you about the Camino.

I feel like no matter how I explain the journey, I’ll always be missing something important. I don’t want to focus on the hard parts because, in some ways, the Camino was the easiest month of my life. I also don’t want to make it sound like a walk in the park, even though it kind of is like that–if you were walking through a 500 mile long park over 30 days and were carrying all of your stuff in a 25lbs backpack.

Because of the huge complexity of a trip like this, I’ve decided to post a little haphazard series of entries about my Camino experience. Maybe that way I can give each item enough focus to start to create a fuller picture for you. And if not.. Well, the Camino is open to everyone. Why not see for yourself? 🙂

Part One: Walk Your Way

While walking El Camino, metaphors popped up everywhere. I’m sure that’s partly because of my general affinity for them, but I also think “the Way” lends itself to metaphor pretty unabashedly. Walking El Camino is a lot like going through life. Or, at least, it should be. I think I’ve found upon returning to Seattle that the Camino forces you to live better, whereas the real world often leads you more towards priorities and values that don’t actually matter. On the trail, it was very clear that your attitude will shape your day. We hear that all the time from psychologists and random self-help professionals, but it means something else when you know with a great degree of certainty that external mood-boosting factors each day will be few and far between. With so little in your control, walking the trail forces you to accept things you can’t change–like the heavy wind and constant rain in your face, just for example. Perhaps the best feeling on the trail was knowing exactly what your goal was for each day: walk to the next town. No frills, no worries, no feelings of inadequacy or uncertainty. Just walk, and you’ll make it there. A simple goal, met purely by patiently pushing yourself across the Spanish landscape.

These three little realizations came together in a big way for me on the Camino. Having a purpose, accepting challenge as part of the path, and intentionally looking for joy rather than waiting for it to throw its arms around me gave me a true sense of lightness that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. It came from trusting myself and understanding that the thing that mattered most (my spirit) was in my control. My body, the path, the people around me, the weather, the grocery stores (or lack thereof), the cars that occasionally zoomed past us–all those things may surprise and challenge me. But those things all felt manageable, and even exciting, when I could keep my spirit strong.

Another blessing of the Camino, of course, is the limited contact with those pesky aspects of adult life that make us all cringe. While in Spain, I barely needed to worry about bills, work, parking, taking the trash out, health insurance, taxes, etc. For that, I was lucky. I understand now what a real vacation is, and I believe we all need one every weekend. To turn off your mind from things that stress you out, and to turn off your access to more information than you could possibly need. To separate yourself from the pressure- and judgment-driven people that may be near you and to revisit the values that you hold most precious. To remember that being alive is alarmingly simple, when it comes down to it. To know that no matter what choice you make today, you’re going to be okay.

The Camino was beautiful for me because it carried my burdens, for a brief time. With every step, I felt small pretenses and unnecessary concerns slide off my skin and into Spanish soil. Some of these burdens returned with the realities of city life. But some stayed there, in the dew on the cloud-kissed mountains, in the dust of the rolling farms, under a rock at the Cruz de Ferro, next to the lighthouse in Fisterra, leaving me just a little more peaceful, and leaving pieces of me along the Way.

Being For Others

There’s something a lot of people talk about doing, especially here in the monastery and in my Jesuit school, but also very frequently in the “real” world that might require a little more examination. The way my school put it, “we want to be men and women for others.” A lot of people say it another way: we want to make the world a better place; we want to live God’s word; we want to do service; we want to go out and do good.

I once referred to my experience at the monastery as one of the most selfish things I’ve done—not in a negative sense, but in a practical, “this is really going to mostly benefit me” sort of way. Being here, I temporarily forgot about that realization until tonight. In evening prayer, I found myself combing through my day and trying to think of ways that I had helped other people, little ways I had made the world a better place. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t think of anything. Sure, I helped with dishes. I worked on projects to help promote the Monastic Immersion Program. And if I really wanted to stretch it: I smiled at people and said thank you.

But none of those really felt like they counted. I didn’t go out of my way to do them. They’re things that I kind of feel are obligations to living in a community, and most of them are technically assigned tasks. And did I really do anything to make the world better? Or did I just help the world continue on its normal track?

My days at the monastery often revolve around trying to find time to do things for me. I do my work quickly and plan time so I can pray, work out, have coffee, write, read, call friends, or send letters. I am constantly wondering when I’ll have time to sneak back to my room and write a few more sentences or do some more push-ups. No matter how I spin it, I can’t help feeling pretty sure that all of those things are not really helping anyone besides me.
What have I done for others besides loving and appreciating them as people—which may be a challenge sometimes, but I feel maybe ought to be the bare minimum?

And in thinking all of this, I began to look back at the last ten years (since I was 12 and slightly more aware of the world as an entity much bigger than me or my family) and ask the same kinds of questions. To my slight discomfort, overall, I don’t feel like I’ve done that much; I have consistently been pretty self-focused. I’ve focused on my own education, relationships, growth, work, and personal needs pretty exclusively, with volunteering thrown in every so often when I had some extra time.

I’m not ashamed of this. It’s not as though I think I’ve been a terrible person. It’s important for us to grow and learn in order to become the people who are informed and skilled enough to participate in positive change and to really be of service to others. It’s probably good that our early adulthood is driven by self-understanding and self-betterment. But, it does make me think.

What happens now? How can I truly be a woman for others now that I’m temporarily done with formal education? Most of the lives I’ve thus far imagined for myself don’t really seem quite up to that standard.

In our culture, we are trained to think that survival is really hard. Getting a good salary is really hard, finishing your projects on time is really hard, living a healthy lifestyle is really hard—we just don’t have the time to work for the good of others because we barely have time to take care of ourselves. How many times have I complained that I don’t have time to eat, or read for fun, or relax? (Quick note: I’m speaking specifically from an upper middle-class, white perspective, and I fully acknowledge that for many other people in our country, even simple survival can be incredibly more complicated and difficult than it has been for me.)

If we don’t think we’re taking care of ourselves, we feel fully justified in not doing things for others. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. I don’t think that mentality is wrong. After all, it is true that we can’t really love others without loving ourselves; if we’re sinking, we probably won’t help someone else stay afloat. But I think we are too caught up in how hard it is to take care of ourselves; the oxygen mask bands need to fit perfectly around our head, and the oxygen has to be flowing at just the right level, and we have to make sure the color matches our outfit before we can even consider helping the person next to us. In real world terms, it ends up being about accomplishing a certain weight loss goal, getting above a certain income level, having a house, actually managing to take up yoga, meeting the right person, making peace with our parents… How many things do you want to make better in your life that you’d prioritize over spending a few hours a week volunteering?

I sincerely don’t want to call others’ lives into question. I don’t think anyone is less honorable for living life primarily for themselves and their happiness. I personally believe that the more happy people there are, the better the world will be. So by all means, please practice yoga and learn to love your mother and take that extra business class that will earn you a promotion. But for me, I think I may need a little more. They say that the call of a monk is to ‘seek God above all else.’ If you think of God as peace and love in the world, then I want to be a monk. I have a body that works, skills to rely on, and a whole network of people who would be willing to help me if I needed it. With all that, I’d say my struggle to survive isn’t too hard to start spending a bit more time on something greater than my own needs. And if I have the time and the resources, I don’t think I’d feel right not living for others.

 Of course, figuring out just what that might look like for me is an entirely separate issue and definitely another blog post.

Praying for Rain

Prayers are, as I may have mentioned before, not exactly my forte. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of praying for something specific, like getting a job, clear skies, or some other particular outcome. It seems to me like prayer is not supposed to be about asking God for something specific to happen or not happen. That sounds simple enough, until you realize… What exactly do you pray for?

For instance, my personal qualms at the moment stem from my dad’s health. As much as I would love for my dad to not be going through what he is, and as much as I don’t want his life to be shortened, I can’t bring myself to pray for those things. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t see God as a master planner who can change the course of events at will. And, as counter-religious as it may sound, I don’t think of God as a ‘he’ who ‘answers prayers.’ Results-oriented prayer doesn’t seem too logical if you don’t think the force you’re praying to has direct control over results. So who am I asking? And what do I really expect to get from my asking?

Well, the best way I can explain it, I think, is in terms of the Spirit. I pray to the spirit, or the force, or God, that exists in and around all of us. So, in a way, when I’m at my most prayerful, I’m really asking myself for help–my innermost, intuitive, inherently natural and good self. When I ask for peace, I somehow know that I already have that peace within me. When I ask for love, I am tapping into the deep capacity I have for love as a spiritual being. And when I pray for other people… I suppose most of all I am hoping that they will be able to find the peace and love inside themselves that will make them happier and healthier individuals.

I believe prayer is really about being a better person and cultivating peace and love. That may sound hokey. But I do believe that energy is a powerful force and that the Spirit (or God) thrives on positive energy. And since I want to feed the good of the world and the good in me, I pray.

I don’t know what most people do. I am actually very curious about it, since most people don’t say their most personal prayers out loud. Plus, most people at the monastery have been praying their whole lives. It’s kind of assumed that everyone already does it. Admittedly, I don’t know how much my prayer style has in common with the Sisters’. Maybe soon I’ll pluck up the nerve to ask.

Building A Habit of Being

It’s officially my fourth week here at the Monastery, and I am surprised to admit, I actually feel less peaceful now than I did when I arrived. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why that is. Supposedly, a habit takes 21 days (three weeks) to form. I would have thought that three weeks of a more relaxed and simple lifestyle would leave me feeling, on the whole, more mindful, more content, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I did not expect to suddenly be some Yoda-figure, but given how comfortable and relaxed I felt initially, I think I had some expectation that my base-line peacefulness was going to remain relatively high.

But during the last week, I’ve found a lot of resistance to that sense of peace. My brain is constantly bouncing all over the place, during work, prayer, and even during my free time. In fact, the only time I truly feel at peace anymore is in the morning right after returning from a (very brief) trail run. So I ask myself, why is it that I am losing focus so easily?

In being honest with myself, I think a large part of it lies in all the goals I had set for myself for this 9-month period. I have become a little obsessed. It’s completely true that people who are used to being stressed will find things to stress about, even when they aren’t important or have no deadlines or are 100% self-imposed (#AllofMyGoals). While sitting in chapel, I’m thinking of song lyrics. While sealing envelopes, I’m memorizing names to add to my character-name document. While doing the dishes, I think about all the things I want to look up, from potential future jobs to symbols of the saints (I am very far behind on that particular area of knowledge). To reference Miley, I can’t stop.

But then, that’s the thing, isn’t it? I can stop. And I want to. The goal isn’t necessarily to stop doing those things. It’s okay with me if my mind is constantly producing new potential story ideas. But I certainly don’t want to be stressed about it.

Right now, I think that part of the answer to this for me is not forcing myself not to think about my goals. Rather, I think I need to place more focus on the ultimate, overarching goal—finding peace, being present, and appreciating each moment in an attempt to better connect with the people and universe around me. To do that, I think I may limit some of the things that feed my other goals at the expense of the bigger picture. This might mean less time online—but don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll still post once a week, as planned. It also might mean actually trying to concentrate more on meditation. But most of all, it’s going to be me giving myself the gentle reminders every time I lose track of the moment: Take a deep breath, look around, and be.

Taking Ownership

So, here’s an interesting thought that I stumbled upon the other day: the best way to maintain habits that you are trying to cultivate (i.e. working out, giving thanks, meditating, not procrastinating) is to alter your own perspective about your identity.

What this article argued was that by thinking of ourselves as the type of person who eats healthily, or the type of person who writes letters every week, we have a much easier time fulfilling those goals. It makes a lot of sense to me. Imagine having a goal to learn French. If you consistently tell yourself and others that you are the kind of person who is bad at learning languages, you’re automatically setting yourself up to accept failure. Success in that area is fundamentally ‘not you,’ and therefore much harder to achieve.

So where does this fit into my life here at the Monastery? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of person I want to be for the rest of my life–going to a liberal arts college tends to do that to you. Being here at the monastery is not only a chance for me to start over in a new setting, it is also an opportunity to be around people who are more like I want to be.

What I’ve learned, even in the first two weeks, is just how intelligent and traveled these women are. Benedictine sisters aren’t trapped in their isolated towers their whole lives, though I think some people hold that misconception. I’ve talked to women who taught for thirty years in five or six different cities. I’ve had dinner with women who are fluent in three languages (every Tuesday night there is a Spanish-language-only table). I’ve met women who studied art and Greek classics, women who had a career and then returned to school to pursue nursing, women who played three or four instruments and composed beautiful pieces. Most of them have been to another country. A lot of them have been to Europe. And they talk about politics, the news, canning, soap making, and all the people they know from all over the country.

These women inspire me. They continue to teach me new kinds of love, new kinds of gratitude, and plenty of new ways to wash the dishes.

So, what kind of person am I?

I’m the kind of person who listens and learns from others. I’m the kind of person who embraces every day. I’m the kind of person who takes care of herself so she can take care of others. I’m the kind of person who is so very grateful for the opportunities, big and small, that life provides. I’m the kind of person who will loves experiencing new places, new cultures, and new people. I’m the kind of person who finds beauty in everything and everyone. And I’m also the kind of person who writes, prays, sings, reads, thinks, and breathes deeply. (And it’s only the second week..)

The whole point is that I have to believe I am (or at the very least, can be) the type of person I want to be. Because that’s the kind of goal that is lived out every day, without guilt or pressure or shame.

So it’s time for you to decide. What kind of person are you?

Filling the Silence

Being a relatively non-religious person most of my life, I have never exactly established a personal relationship with prayer. Prayers were something my friends’ families said before dinner—a time when I’d bow my head and feel self conscious about not knowing the words. Any time I attended a Catholic mass, I found myself doing strange mumble-mouthing in an attempt to hide my ignorance. I much preferred the kind of prayer I found later, mostly on college retreats, that consisted of silence and personal reflection. But even that silence can be difficult.

Silence is a close friend of mine. I’m incredibly comfortable with silence. The reason the silence in prayer is difficult has a lot more to do with what fills my inner silence—my thoughts. After a few days of regular periods of silence (we have prayer service 3 times a day), I began to notice my focus drifting. No, not drifting. More like sprinting in four directions at once.

Prayer and meditation are similar for me, since ultimately I see them as ways to open your soul to forces within and outside your body. Personally, I tend to feel most connected with those forces when I feel strong emotions—or, maybe I feel strong emotions when I feel connected to those forces. Either way, based on this, I’ve taken up a new habit in my times of silent prayer and mediation that has been surprisingly successful for me: gratitude.

While I imagine the sisters’ silently listing off all the friends and family they are praying for, I run through memories. I see faces of loved ones, briefly relive times of struggle and sadness and conflict, recall joyous moments and all manner of tears. And over these images I can only think, “Thank you.”

My new method might seem a little self-centered, particularly given the number of people who I’d like to direct my positive energy toward. But since I have yet to figure out exactly how I feel comfortable doing that, for now I feel okay with simply appreciating. Ultimately, I can’t see any greater display of love and respect for the workings of life than to express gratitude for every piece of it. And isn’t love what it’s all about anyway?