Searching for a Social Practice

What do I want from a social practice?  I want to broaden and deepen my circle of acquaintance.  Yet, we are all limited in the scope of our acquaintance.  I don’t really like to admit that to myself, but it’s true.

So let’s look at the first aim: to broaden my acquaintance. In the course of our lives, we will meet people who fall across our path.  Some will be interesting, some less so.  We can learn from all of them, but occasionally one will particularly attract our attention, or draw us in.  The conversation will be particularly interesting in terms of content and level of trust and vulnerability.  We want to pursue these people.  Write them into a list.  Keep track of the times we contact them.  Make notes of our conversation.

And we want to deepen our relationships.  What does this entail?  Well a deep relationship is based on trust and vulnerability.  It can’t be deep otherwise.

To build trust we have to be trustworthy.  We can’t betray a trust by telling tales out of school.  Moreover it requires being reliable, by doing what we say we’re going to do, and accomplishing the task in a timely manner.

A person has to feel safe before they will be willing to make themselves vulnerable.  I think trust comes before vulnerability.  We have to have already built trust before a person in going to bare their soul to us.

I think a person is more likely to be vulnerable with a listener than they are a talker.  We want to know we are being listened to, before we share the shadows of our soul.  We need emotional space.

A deep relationship is both encouraging and challenging.  We don’t humiliate each other with the other’s shame.  But we do challenge each other, “Hey, you said you wanted to write, so why aren’t you writing?”  We encourage each other to move forward, to face our fears, and to act in the face of them.

Wisdom’s Apprentice

Who is wisdom’s apprentice?  What sort of person is on the path to wisdom?

  1. A person who is self-aware, and has a longing to understand her place and connection with God and the Cosmos.
  2. A person who longs for goodness, truth, and beauty.
  3. A person who seeks to walk in equanimity, gratitude, and awe.
  4. A person who seeks to live empathically and compassionately.
  5. A person who acknowledges their need for grace, and seeks to be full of grace: forgiveness, acceptance, and completeness.
  6. A person who seeks a vocation they enjoy by which they can bless themselves and others, and by which they can earn a living.
  7. A person who seeks to live simply and within their means; who is moderate in all things.
  8. A person who enjoys a civil discussion about ideas that matter; who can bless a person who disagrees with her.

Is the wise person an expert?  I don’t believe the qualification of expert is either necessary or sufficient to be wise.  Oftentimes experts are arrogant.  Their skill can lead to hubris that leads them to believe they are beyond the need for grace, compassion, or empathy.  But neither do I believe it keeps them from being wise, or seeking wisdom.

It takes discipline to stay on such a path.  It takes community to stay on such a path.  Since the dawn of civilization, persons have formed communities to help one another pursue these very ends in one form or another; whether as political communities, religious communities, or academic communities.

We need each other to grow.  It is hard, if not impossible, to grow alone.  Can we form such a community online?  Could such an online community meet face to face?

Emotion: the Fifth Circle

You may not think of your emotions as a domain of practice.  I know I didn’t.  I just thought life sucked.

But experience has taught me that emotions aren’t just experienced.  They are influenced by practice over time.

I haven’t always believed this.  For most of my life I believed my emotions were beyond my control.

I’ve seen psychologists and psychiatrists since college.  I’ve memorized scripture about the peace of God that passes understanding.  I’ve prayed.  If there’s a self help book, I’ve read it.  These all helped in their way, but there didn’t seem to be a “cure.”

I struggled with anxiety in particular.  There always seemed to be some general nonspecific anxiety in my body whether I had anything to worry about or not.  Nothing seemed to turn it off, not medicine, not scripture, not prayer.

Finally a friend referred me to an Emotional Polar Therapist.  The practice seemed strange to me, but has proven effective.  In addition to the office visits, she gave me various meditation and yoga exercises to do at home.

The short of it is I’ve finally found an off button to that anxiety.  And I no longer take medication.

But we all are different.  What worked for me may not work for you.  But then again, it might.  The idea behind a practice group is that we can learn from each other, from our mistakes and our successes.

Some questions for discussion might be:

  1. How do I feel?  Where in my body am I feeling my emotions?
  2. How are my emotions affected by my diet?
  3. What am I feeding my head?  How does this affect what I feel?
  4. What am I specifically practicing to improve my emotional health?

Mind: the Fourth Circle

Mind, the fourth circle of practice, tries to answer these questions:

  1. What am I interested in, or curious about?  What holds my attention?
  2. What is good, or true?  How can I increase my knowledge and understanding of the world?
  3. How can I appreciate or create what is beautiful?

Once we begin to find our answers to the questions of the spiritual domain, we naturally begin to raise these questions of the mind.  We want to spend our time, and find purpose and meaning in, those things that interest us, that pique our curiosity, and that fully engage our attention.

We want to pursue those things we perceive to be good, and believe those things we know to be true.  It brings pleasure to the mind to grow in knowledge and understanding.  It also gives opportunity to apply that knowledge and understanding in the world around us, from which come reputation, compensation, and power.

Beauty arrests our attention, whether by symmetry, or rhythm, harmony, or melody; whether visually, aurally, tactilely, or fragrantly.  In some respects it is subjective; in others objective.  We know it when we experience it.  It fills us with awe, with longing, with desire.  To appreciate it is to grow, like a plant toward the sun.  To create it is to bear fruit that blesses the world, like an apple that falls ripe from the tree.

When we can answer these questions with clarity and confidence, then we have marked out an intellectual path before us as plain as the yellow brick road.  To read about and apply those ideas which fully engage us, to grow in knowledge and understanding, to appreciate and create beauty, is to walk the Elysian Fields crowned with laurel.

Spirit: the Third Circle

I’ve written about building a practice group, beginning with the first circle of talk dancing and the conversational space, and answering the second circle question of why you have come to the group.

I start with the premise that everyone lives in the “domains” of spirit, mind, body, emotion, community, household, vocation, and finance.  And while we may not have the same amount of focus or interest in any one of them, none of us can avoid living in any of them.

I believe the domain of spirit seeks to answer three questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How am I connected with other human beings, with life, and the cosmos itself?
  3. How can I create a meaningful life for myself, and bless those I care about?

I think it’s important to answer these questions as best you can before moving on to the other domains, because it is easy to get lost in those other domains only to “wake up” one day and realize you don’t know who you are, or how you are connected with the cosmos, or whether your life has any meaning.  Having no answer to these questions is almost the very definition of an existential crisis.

Notice that while I’ve said nothing about a person’s “faith,” it is faith that attempts to answer these questions.  Our faith consists of the assumptions our life is predicated of; of our self-awareness; of our experience of connectedness or isolation, whether with God, or nature, or with other human beings; of whether our lives have any meaning.

The practice group can help us draw out answers to these questions from ourselves and from one another.  We don’t need to be of the same faith, but we do need to respect one another’s faith.  We don’t need to have the same answers but we need to try to understand each other’s answers, and challenge each other to formulate the best answers we can.

Children as Practice

Maybe nothing in life is more painful or rewarding than raising children.

As a parent, I wanted to teach my children all the things I had learned from life.  Instead, my children taught me all the things I had yet to learn about it.

I acted as if my children were lumps of clay I could fashion into my own idea of beauty, of character, and of excellence.  They acted as if I knew nothing of beauty, of character, or of excellence.  They seemed to think my ignorance was only exceeded by my arrogance.

Nothing has humbled me more than being a parent.  Nothing has taught me patience like being a parent.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from being a parent is when to bite my tongue, which is often.  When it comes to words, less is more.  There is no quicksand like that created by an exchange of angry words.  What started out as a misdemeanor is quickly turned into a felony; what was at first a consequence is shortly made into a bombing run; what was a life lesson becomes a lifelong scar.

The other important lesson I’ve learned is to accept who my children are, and not try to turn them into who I think they ought to be.  This is a hard lesson, one I am constantly in the process of learning.

Sometimes it is hard to separate “the good,” “the beautiful,” and “the true” from our opinion of what those are vis-a-vis our children.  The best I have been able to do is to model what I believe the “three verities” are, and to discuss them with our children when I have the chance.

Our children are a constant source of feedback to us, as we are to them.  If we keep that channel of communication open, we can all grow as individuals, and grow as a family.  But if that channel is closed, we lose the feedback, lose the connection, lose eventually our sense of family altogether.

Interplay Between Domains of Practice

The different domains of practice inform and strengthen one another.  My spiritual practice involves my mind, my mind is invigorated by the practice of my body, my body is relaxed by the stilling of my emotions, etc.

The book Spark discusses the connection between aerobic exercise and cognition.  In nearly all of his books, Mortimer Adler explores the relation between a liberal education and “the good life.”  Plato thought mathematics so important that he inscribed above the door to his Academy the words, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”

Life is a systemic network of connections between disparate entities, even in our own quintessence.  We function best as chorus singing in harmony, whether as facets of the self, or as facets of the community.

When one part grows out of control, or out of balance, a cancer develops.  Unregulated growth is almost the very definition of cancer.

Oftentimes we want to group like with like.  We may seek out those who share our interests, our beliefs, our culture, etc.  I have talked at some length about doing that very thing in this blog.

However we need the balance of opposites to keep our lives in proportion, to give perspective to our world view, to bring our melody into harmony with the world around us.

Wisdom is a melting pot of praxis, of faith, of art.  It is seeing, listening, and feeling at multiple levels, with multiple modalities.  It invites challenge, invites discussion, and allows for disagreement.

Seek out a variety of voices to sing in your group.