Lent 2021: Explore Playful Practice

“…Lent is a speed bump in the church year, inviting us into reflection, confession, and prayer as we approach Holy Week and Easter, a time when we remember the profound costliness of God’s abundant love for us.” –Susan Phillips, PhD, Executive Director of New College Berkeley

Image by Trevor M from Pixabay

I love the image of Lent, the 40 days before Easter (Sundays not included), as a speed bump. Even in this strange pandemic time when I go nowhere to do nothing and see no one, apparently I’ve still managed to speed my life along and oh wow here comes Lent and – wham – I’ve hit it too fast. I need to slow down. Lent will help.

Often Lent involves giving something up (chocolate) or taking something on (acts of service) as a way of identifying with Jesus as he journeyed toward his crucifixion in Jerusalem. Yet I’m already daily working my habit tracker, and let’s be honest, this has been an unusual year to say the least. Which calls for an unusual response.

Last week when I encountered a list of words related to purpose in writing, three leaped off the page: Explore. Play. Practice. They get along well together, and I believe I will enjoy watching them frolic in the long green grass of this Lenten season. 

I want to Explore. To strike out on an expedition. To take twisty-turning side roads and unexpected paths in the deep forest. At one time I might have felt afraid, but I’m leaving timidity behind. I have confidence that my soul will guide me with yes or no responses along the way. I welcome everything, everyone, every occasion I encounter today, because I trust it will be for my healing.

I’d like to say I’m packing light, but that’s not true. Even if my backpack contains little more than snacks, a sweatshirt, and a flashlight, my head and heart are overstuffed. That’s part of the point, of course: I need to get lost to be found. To empty myself and create space for what may come.

Exploration will tuck new tools into my backpack I didn’t know I’d need. It will fill my eyes with breathtaking sights I could only extrapolate from travel books, imagination, and dreams. It will fill my heart with experiences that amplify my joy. I will encounter prophets and teachers, leaders and fellow pilgrims who swell my love to overflow. I may come home weary and changed. I expect to come home grateful.

I want to Play, and I’ve traveled enough to know that exploration can be hard work and playful, too. In my tendency toward contemplation, I naturally find myself alone, deep in thought, immersed in words – mine or others as I move between writing and reading. It can get a little heavy, and my mental muscles grow weary as my physical muscles grow itchy from sitting too long in our overstuffed recliner.

I need playful movement. I want to skip along new trails, and also to crouch low and watch the fascinating tiny creatures I’d miss otherwise. Maybe I’ll pull out the crayons and draw as I observe them. Maybe I’ll journal with colored pencils. Maybe we’ll find a deck of cards and play together, right there in the woods.

After all, I am walking toward Good Friday, not racing. There’s no rush. I need to move slow enough to remember Jesus, my companion. To walk hand-in-hand, noticing what he points out about this lovely world he made, about my life in this time, about his love for me. What’s coming will be devastating, though not paralyzing: Sunday always comes after Friday; Easter always follows Good Friday. Joy in the morning means I can play joyfully now.

I want to Practice. When I first read Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline in the early 1990s, it was life-changing. Foster advocates for ordinary followers of Jesus, not just spiritual giants, to engage everyday disciplines that help them connect with Jesus and add joy to life in the midst of laundry and lawn-mowing. Disciplines such as meditation and study, simplicity and solitude, confession and celebration. I became something of a spiritual discipline junky, and as I type those words I’m not sure how to feel about being addicted to paths that connect me to God… Is that healthy addiction, or inappropriate metaphor?

Yet these days I find myself substituting “practice” for “discipline.” Discipline feels exacting, harsh, rigid. When I practice yoga, I listen to what my body needs. Some days parts of me feel strong or wobbly, and tomorrow will be different. Some days, certain poses require modification because I can’t bend that way; it hurts, I need props, gentleness, maybe a slight wiggle to ease into place. It’s a practice, not a perfection. And it’s my practice, not up for comparison with others. It’s communal and personal, imperfect and improving. As with physical practice, so goes spiritual practice. Even the wobbles find acceptance so long as I keep at it. The practice itself imparts grace.

I can’t tell you today, on this Ash Wednesday as Lent begins, what this season will hold. I will read and write for sure. I will engage solitude and time with others. It may look a lot like life in any other season. I can tell you, however, that I will listen for whispers of invitation to Explore Playful Practice and follow where they lead.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Creativity as Spiritual Practice

I read in The Artist’s Way:

Are you contemplative? Yes.
Do you allow yourself to go on retreat? Oh, well…

Shortly thereafter, I saw a magazine ad for a nearby retreat center. An ad for the same center popped up on social media a few days after that; I clicked, and Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, would be speaking there soon. It was expensive.

A week later, I randomly received a yoga catalog in the mail. I flipped through, and saw that Cameron would be leading a retreat at a yoga center on the East Coast. Even more expensive.

Interesting: I’d considered retreat-ing, and opportunities popped into view.

About a week later, another ad appeared on social media: a FREE online retreat with Cameron and one of my favorite artists, SARK, plus five others. The topic: Creativity as Spiritual Practice. In my wheelhouse, do at my own speed, and free? Sign me up!

I’ve listened to two of the seven speakers so far and gained wisdom from both. As I took notes on the second speaker, though, a rather obvious thought grabbed me:

Creativity is a spiritual practice.

The speaker talked about being told as a child that she couldn’t draw, so she should find something else to do in life. She cut herself off from creativity and became a successful doctor instead. But she wasn’t whole until she recovered her creative self.

I want to write, “Who tells a child they can’t draw, so find another career?” Except, how many of us heard the same message? Art’s just not your thing, honey. You’ll find your thing, don’t worry.

Hogwash.

First of all, Art and Creativity aren’t necessarily the same thing. Too often we get all high and mighty about Art. Art hangs in museums, so the average human can’t make Art. Maybe not, but we can all create. And it doesn’t have to be your career, although it might be. It can be a hobby that fulfills you in ways you never imagined and influences who you are in all spheres.

Secondly, creativity is spiritual. At the least, it connects us to our own spirits. Creative activity is pure self-expression. As a Christian, I believe that humans have been created in the image of the Great Creator. We join God in co-creating our lives, and we image God most fully as we engage with Him in body, mind and spirit. I regularly practice my faith, praying/meditating, worship, etc. Why not fold creativity into that mix? I connect with God in new ways as I create.

Whatever you believe, creative work is less work than flow, getting things down rather than thinking them up. Receiving, not straining, and expressing. Poet Jon Fosse said, “To compose poetry,” he might have said, to create, “is about listening…it is, so to speak, about bringing forth something that already exists…”

Thirdly, creativity is about practice, not necessarily mastery. It’s not something you do just like anyone else. You do you. Not everyone can be Picasso, Matisse, O’Keefe, but everyone can express themselves. It doesn’t have to look like anything specific, and it doesn’t have to look like anything else anyone has made.

When I practice yoga, it’s my practice. I don’t have to do it perfectly, because the best I can do is breathe and stretch my own body, imperfect and healing and differently balanced each day. I don’t compare, because someone else’s breath and stretch makes for their practice. I don’t practice towards an end, but for the sake of my presence in the process.

When our kids were young, we expected them to participate in a sport most seasons: soccer, basketball, baseball, swim. Hiking and biking with family and friends on weekends. We didn’t expect them to be champions, but to enjoy movement, play a game, be active, learn good sportsmanship. Eventually, they’d tried enough sports to know what they liked and didn’t. They understand that physical exercise is a practice, a discipline for overall health.

Why don’t we treat creativity similarly? So what if you can’t draw, try painting. If not painting, ceramics. Try music or writing or collage, mosaic or poetry, jewelry making or sewing or cooking or…

Why oh why do so many young children hear the message that they’re just not creative, especially at, arguably, the most creative stage of their lives? No wonder so many adults don’t believe they are creative. We lose part of our humanness when we cut off our creativity.

Like playing sports, we can play at creativity. And like anything you practice, it gets easier over time.

Creativity is a spiritual practice. I’m all in. How about you?

Humble. Yoga. Go!

Friends opened a yoga studio and invited me to try it.

I’d never tried yoga and, other than mandatory (despised, humiliating) PE classes all the way through college and some neon jazzercise in the late-80’s/early-90’s, group exercise—team or class—hasn’t been my thing.

To be honest, exercise hasn’t been my thing. I’m branching out in middle age! (Literally: tree pose, growing branches)

I would have chickened out, but I bumped into my friend. She looked at me, pointed dramatically, and declared: “YOU! It’s time!”

I went. I loved it.

Because my son took a year of yoga in high school, I had heard that final savasana (lying flat on your back as in sleep) is supposedly the hardest yoga pose. Seriously, what’s so hard about lying still?

Proud of myself for making it through an hour of yoga, I was surprised when my yogi-friend grabbed my foot, then lifted, wiggled and pulled on one leg and then the other. I realized: I didn’t even know how to properly lie still. My body had been holding in stress and my legs weren’t fully stretched out. Talk about humbling…

At the end of class, I gulped one big sob: I had found a form of exercise that could unite body, mind, and spirit. Through this practice, hard and humbling as it might be, I could physically practice the greatest commandment: to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind.

Though my body ached, I had to go back. This time, I couldn’t keep still during final savasana as sobs shook my shoulders. Yoga tapped so deeply into my inner being that I felt like I should go home and journal. I knew I needed more yoga in my life.

One of my favorite things about this studio: humility is built into its name. Humble Yoga. As a total newbie, I have no choice but to enter in with humility. And when I wiggle or shake or fall flat on my rear, I laugh at myself. No judgment, always options to modify, and at least I’m trying! (One of our yogis said, “Oh, you just laugh all the time!” With humility I agreed, and laughter is good for the soul).

Another favorite thing about yoga: what I learn on the mat applies to life off the mat. Listen to these phrases I hear in most classes:

What is your intention?
Where is your foundation?
Ground down.
Inhale your intention. Exhale, commit a little deeper.
Engage your core.
Notice your body. Release any feelings of tension.
Grow tall through your crown.
Drop your shoulders.
Find your edge. Breathe through your edge.
Relax your face.
Shake it out.
Find your active pose.
Find something new in each familiar pose.
Gaze up.
Find a focal point.
Are you still breathing?
Option to modify.
Come back to your breath. Come back to your intention.
Give yourself a gentle squeeze.
This is your practice.

I’m sure you can imagine countless scenarios where those phrases would be helpful advice… In a tense work meeting, or conversation with a neighbor, spouse, or grumpy teenager. Any time life feels challenging. Any time you feel stumped or stifled. Any time you feel run down or discouraged. Any time you need a gentle nudge towards growth. How many times off the mat have I reminded myself to notice my body, to remember my intention, to relax my face and drop my shoulders, and just breathe?

Yoga reminds me to be present to this moment. This breath. This stretch. To breathe into the pain or pleasure of this moment without anticipating what will come next. Whatever’s next will surely come, and I will breathe into that moment as it comes, but this is Now. We can do hard things if we are present to what each moment requires and remember to keep breathing.

We do together what we would not do alone. I still walk or run most days in between yoga work outs, but yoga pushes me in ways I wouldn’t push myself. And in the studio I make new friends and connect in new ways with people I’ve known for years. In the studio we build community within our community, and it will strengthen the community beyond its doors.

Currently, my goal is to go 2-4 days a week; eventually that will become 3-5 days a week as I get stronger and ache less between. Still, even the aches remind me to breathe; that I have done and will do hard things; to be intentional.

I may not have a “yoga body,” but this body does yoga.
I am not strong. I am growing stronger.
I am stronger than I was. I will grow stronger still.

With practice.

[Yoga with me! gohumbleyoga.com]

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