The Art of Listening

I’m sure if you asked each of us who volunteered at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation lastIMG_5752 week to distill the week into one word it would be different for each of us. Mine would be listening. You see, rather than building bunk beds, digging outhouses, putting on trailer skirting or building decks and steps, my “job” last week was to listen and learn from a Lakota elder. His name was Cornell. He grew up on the reservation, he was taught the Lakota language, traditions and spirituality in secret (because the government outlawed all those things for about 120 years, up until 1978), went to law school, trained with the FBI, was a Vietnam vet, taught all different grades of school and was currently teaching at the Lakota College. We had many, many things to learn from Cornell.

It is a struggle for me not to do, but to listen. Listening is an art that requires moving beyond the face-value, literal words to the context, the feelings, the emotions, and the background. It insists we remember that we don’t know everything. To listen means letting go of our judgments and stereotypes. It means letting go of our defensiveness in the face of new facts or information, or opinions that don’t jive with ours.

Cornell made it clear that he believed that each person has the right to tell their own story. Sometimes that means moving past our own indoctrination… what history or viewpoint have we been programmed with? Do we understand there is another perspective? As part of our class, Cornell took us to Ft. Robinson and to the Crazy Horse monument. He encouraged us to listen to the guides there and to read the information, then he’d tell us the other side of the story… the Indian’s story.

Mark Nepo, in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, talks about listening until we see “the beauty of older things”… in other words, until we see something deeper and wiser, until we see the shadows of the spirit and feel the breath of the Divine.

I wonder what frame of mind we need to be in to truly listen? For me, I need to be open, patient, secure in myself (so as not to be judgmental or defensive). And yet I need to be humble enough to remember to stop talking, as I am liable to be forming my response or my next question in my head before someone else has finished talking. I can be so intent on making sure to get my two cents in that I’m apt to interrupt if I’m not practicing awareness.

It seems there is always something we can’t hear and so, Nepo says, we need to cultivate the humility to recognize there is more to life than we know. Can we listen to where the universe is nudging us to look and learn? Nudging us out of our comfort zones? Can we listen to what appears in our path over and over? What do we block with our judgments? What do we ignore because it is the harder path – even if it is the better, higher path?

Finally, can we allow ourselves to be touched and changed by what we hear? The stories of Pine Ridge shatter the stereotypes and the white man’s history that we’ve been taught. The stories of suicide, genocide, depression and discrimination will break your heart. But will we let them change us? Soften us? Or strengthen our resolve to stand with the Indians?

To honor life we must hold it as sacred and listen to what it teaches. What we learn must become part of our “geography,” as Mark Nepo says.  What has become visible and true must not become invisible again. What we learn about ourselves and our truth we cannot allow to become invisible again. To honor God, once we become aware of something, we cannot pretend to be ignorant of those things. It is often easy to lose touch with what we’ve gained, so we must be committed to “retrieving the ever-present sense of the sacred.”

Listen to the movement of the wind between the grasses.
Listen to the spaces between the words.
Listen to the story inside the person.
Listen to your inner reactions to life around us.
Listen to your heart and intuition.
Listen to the gentle touch and guidance of the Spirit.

Love & Light!




This is the final message in a series on the four elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

Elemental Spirituality is the concept that reconnecting with the four elements (Earth, Water, Air and Fire) can connect us to the Divine in new ways. Through the elements we can see, touch, taste, and experience a Sacred Essence that isn’t just present in supernatural events, but is present to us everywhere at all times. The ground we walk on, the water we drink and bathe in, and the air we breathe are part of the sacred web of life. Bringing this back into the forefront of our consciousness will hopefully prompt us to walk through our daily lives more aware, alive and whole, no longer taking for granted the essence of the Divine all around us.

So, we turn today to Fire…

Fire is somewhat different from the other elements… we don’t have to preserve it. fire1It’s very useful in life, but not absolutely necessary. Where religion is concerned we light candles, maybe burn some incense, and in certain traditions light funeral pyres, but fire seems to be primarily associated with that mythological place of fire, brimstone, pain, suffering, and eternal torment – hell. Our hats should be off to Dante and his Inferno for shaping our traditional concept of hell.

(To watch the entire sermon, click here.)

And yet, we have stories in the Bible that lead us to see the Spirit at work through fire. Consider Moses and the burning bush, or the Pentecost story where the Spirit, in what looked like tongues of fire, descended upon the disciples (we’ll get back to this).

In Luke 12:49 Jesus says, “I’ve come to light a fire on the earth!” What did that mean? Clearly he didn’t come to start a campfire, so how do we understand that metaphorically. It could mean that he came to bring change, light or direction, destruction in the form of getting rid of the old, transformation and new growth, energy and passion to spread his teachings (like wildfire)

So, it seems to me that all of these things happened to the disciples in the story we know of as Pentecost. (By the way, Pentecost was a Jewish holiday 50 days after Passover that we’ve simply adopted as a Christian holiday.) The disciples were doing what they were supposed to be doing – waiting. Suddenly the wind whipped up and “something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.”

And then they were changed. Their fear was destroyed, burnt up. They were emboldened, filled with energy and passion for the task of sharing the stories of Jesus. The fire pushed them out of their old space and onto new paths.

We always talk about bad four-letter words (like “work”), but there is a 6-letter word that no one likes: CHANGE.

Have you ever watched a wood match burn? The flame changes it chemically into something else, and it can never go back.  Spiritually, when we allow the Fiery Spirit to work in our lives, change and transformation will happen. I’m not speaking of the nice comfy fire we snuggle next to with our mug of hot cocoa in the middle of winter, this spiritual movement is more like a raging forest fire burning away fear, old habits, notions, beliefs, baggage, guilt and shame. Then from the life-draining, broken parts of our lives comes a new understanding, a new path with energy to follow it, a deeper wisdom and more compassion.

The book, The Hidden Meaning of Dreams, uses Carl Jung to explain the spiritual meaning of the symbol of fire: “Jung said that fire represents the process of psychological transformation. Just as the alchemists used fire to transform base metal into gold, so the symbol fire is the trigger for the inner transformation. It purges the decay of the past, yet gives light and spiritual truth. It is the eternal flame in the temple of the soul. It is from the fire that the phoenix of hope arises.”

So, walking through the fire in our lives, facing the difficult situations and emotions with awareness and compassion, working through whatever is burning at us usually has one more step… letting go.

Fire is often used in the ritual of letting go as an agent of liberation. When we don’t let go of things that are holding us back spiritually and psychologically we suffer from the holding on – just like playing tug of war with the Spirit and getting rope burn.

One can write down on a piece of paper something you passionately want to burn out of your life – insecurity, self-doubt, anger, guilt, shame… or a bad habit – nail biting, cutting yourself down, smoking, swearing, being negative. Or maybe you want to let go of old rigid belief structures that have held you back from a more expansive spiritual experience. You place the paper over the fire, give your problem over to the fire (Spirit) and allow yourself to feel lighter as it goes up in fire and smoke. This is a physical ritual to aid a conscious decision. Some people use fire on New Year’s Eve to burn up the “old” stuff of the previous year and to start new.Sometimes burning old files or mementos, pictures or journals from a difficult time in life can be a meaningful ritual of letting go.

The spiritual metaphor of fire helps us to see how that which doesn’t serve us is burned away, yet we are not consumed. Instead, we are transformed by the warmth, light and comfort that is also fire and spirit. In the process of this spiritual transformation and growth, we can experience healing and lightness.

The fire of the Spirit can be difficult, but necessary along this crazy spiritual path.

Love & Light!



This is the third in a sermon series on Elemental Spirituality: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

Air… wind… breath…Ruah… Spirit

In the second creation story (Genesis 2), God molds and fashions and forms and breathes life into the earth creature. (Adam in Hebrew, literally meaning human being or earth creature. Soil is adama in Hebrew.) Judaism and our Old Testament refer to God as Ruah, the holy wind moving through life. Islam also understand God’s breath as an extension of God’s being in the world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on his followers and imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit, thus beginning another creation story – the creation of Christianity and the church. In the New Testament, the Greek word pneuma (meaning breath) is used almost 400 times to describe a sacred wind, divine breath, or the holiness of life. Pneuma is personalized as the Holy Spirit. For Buddhists, to breathe is to achieve mindfulness, the awareness of one’s breath within the breath of all. Hindus say that “Every single movement in the cosmos is a movement of the Cosmic Breath.” Native Americans speak of the four directions and the four winds that unify the natural world.

Spiritually we almost can’t think about God without thinking about air. John O’Donohue air-03wrote, “Air is an intimate element… it gets right into you through your breathing and your blood, into the heart of your life… God is breath and tenderness.”  Our understanding of air is both spiritual and scientific, soul and body. From the standpoint of faith, the spirit of God moves around and through us and breath and wind. From the viewpoint of science, plants create the oxygen for us to breathe and we exhale carbon dioxide for them in a symbiotic relationship.

(For the full video sermon, click here.)

Just as with our discussions about earth and water, we can’t physically live without air and we can’t spiritually thrive without a connection to the Divine.

Here in Racine we typically don’t have to worry about air pollution… at least not compared to China or LA… but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or it doesn’t have an effect. If you have asthma or COPD, you probably know when the air quality is getting worse. The rest of us take breathing for granted. It is clear from that statistics that it is so important that we continue to advocate for emissions restrictions and try to reduce air pollution.

When I think about the breath we breathe, I think about that first breath a child takes, and the last breath we take before we die. Being present at each of those moments is very sacred.

When a child is born we hold our own breath while we wait to hear that first cry, or the doctor tell us that they’re breathing just fine and didn’t even whimper.  My second child, Sam, was born looking a bit blue with the cord wrapped around his neck. As they wisked him away to get him in an oxygen hood, the importance of breath was taken to a whole new level. That first breath is such a miracle as it transitions us from the womb (the world of water) to the world of air. It is no wonder it was seen as God placing breath within a body.

Then there is the last breath a person takes. Yes, it’s difficult for those of us who wait as breathing slows and becomes more and more labored. There is nothing to be done, but to be present with love.  It is a different transition, but if you have ever been present during those last moments, you may understand what a sacred moment it is as well.

Cait Johnson, in her book, Earth, Water, Fire, & Air says, “Western religions see the powerful breath as primarily belonging to the Divine. But in Eastern traditions, breath can be a way of knowing the Divine in our own bodies, of changing consciousness and even attaining enlightenment.”

We know that what happens in our minds, manifests in our bodies and our breathing. When we get scared, anxious or tense our breathing becomes short, shallow, and faster. Or we hold it! When we are relaxed and comfortable, our breathing is slower, deeper and calm.

All meditation and forms of yoga begin with a concentration on one’s breathing, to pay attention to it, to deepen it and relax one’s muscles while releasing the tension in the body.

At his monastery and retreat centers, Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches a mindfulness practice that focuses on the breath. At random intervals someone rings a bell, and at the sound everyone stops briefly to breathe deeply and focus their awareness on the present moment. Simply pausing for a moment helps to recenter and ground us, instead of rushing frantically through our days without thinking.

I’m sure you’ve heard someone along the way tell you to count to 10 when you get angry and to take a deep breath. It gives our souls a moment to catch up with our egos and then we are better able to determine how we want to act instead of react. Someone in our women’s group refers to this as “mindful breath before strangulation.”

Pema Chodron said that “some people have told me that they find it unnerving to pause. One man said if he pauses it feels like death to him.” It may feel like we’re wasting time, or letting go of control or power. But perhaps the reality is that we don’t pause because we don’t want to be present. And, yet, being present to the moment is what truly connects us to life and living. Taking a simple deep breath or two to remember, reground, reconnect with self and Spirit.

So, here’s an idea for you: pick something for the next day, or week, that will be your trigger to stop and breathe. The phone ringing, opening the refrigerator, or checking your email. Whenever that trigger comes stop whatever you are doing, take a deep breath and take inventory of the situation and how you are feeling.  Or, did you know you can download an app on your phone to help you do this? I found a number of mindfulness apps and downloaded a Mindfulness Bell that can be set to ring at set or random intervals. It reminds me to stop for just a moment to breathe and take account of my state of being (whether I want to or not!)

Air… breath… Spirit… scientific and spiritual… body and soul… it gives us life, it brings us back to center, it heals us, it calms us, it fills us. It is sacred.

Love & Light!