Anxiety | Awareness Without Presence

Anxiety might very well be the most common symptom that people talk about during their time in therapy.  Anxiousness can be brought on by a myriad of reasons and can even show up without any identifiable initiator. Anxious feelings are familiar for all of us and can be irritating, exhausting and even at times debilitating.

My first memories of anxiety are from childhood, waiting in a doctors office and realizing I might very well be receiving a vaccine to cure my sickness. Fearful of the painful injection that was in my near future, I remember pleading with my mother to protect me. I can also recall the butterflies in my stomach during adolescence, standing in line to board my first roller coaster and how the amusement park fare of corn dogs and soda caused quite the stomachache. My first day as a freshman also provoked many uneasy and jittery feelings stepping into the momentous world of high school.

I know in my own life anxiousness has not disappeared and continues to show up now and again, even when I’m not at the doctor or anywhere near a roller coaster.

One of my favorite therapists from years past, Fritz Perls, described feelings of anxiousness as “the time from now to later.” In other words, when we are not living in the present and are busy focusing on future events, we feel anxiety as we are trying to be in a place which we have not yet arrived, the future. Such awareness without presence is the breeding ground for anxiety. The cure for such a problem would then be to return to the only time one truly has, the now.

Obviously living in the present isn’t the cure for all of life’s troubles and there is indeed a time and place to plan for the coming of future events. But over the years I’ve found much help in times of anxiousness, reminding myself to come back to the now. Often the simple task of re-focusing on the present and the experience of the moment can bring instant relief to my anxiety as I am reminded that in the present I am safe and that I am alive.

Sitting with one’s own existence brings a certain peace that is always accessible to us in the now.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons

Living in the Now

One of the issues I hear much about in the therapist’s chair and experience myself is the busyness of life. We all seem to desire deeper and more meaningful relationships but few of us seem to have schedules that would allow for deeper anything. Most of us have more than packed calendars full of vocational duties, familial obligations and many items in between that have to be done in any given week. Our home’s require cleaning, our refrigerators need stocked, our bills must be paid on time and often there are not enough hours in the day to fully complete our mental to do lists and be able to place our heads on our pillows and unabashedly rest.

Living this kind of life often keeps our minds running in overtime. We often can’t enjoy what is in front of us and connect to the moment because we are far too burdened thinking of the future and what needs to happen or regretting the past and how life didn’t work the way we needed it to. Often we move from place to place, accomplishing task after task on our to do lists, but miss out on the depth of life that is waiting for us in the present moment. As the sage philosopher Ferris Bueller once said,  “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

What might happen for us if we were to stop and look around? Is it possible that we might become unburdened and begin to experience life in the moment? In our high-speed world full of fast-paced relationships can we actually connect to what or who is present before us and experience life as it unfolds?

The Challenge of Living in the Now

As most people, I too wrestle with connecting with life’s moments and being present in relationships. At times I find myself pondering the past and how it shaped me, or thinking about the future and how I may be able to interact with the world in a way that gets me what I want out of life.

This usually looks like dwelling on a former circumstance that didn’t go my way, analyzing all the angles and replaying the experience over and over in my head. The next step that often keeps me from being present is pondering the future and how I might behave or interact in a way that might bring me a different outcome. Unfortunately this cycle of living in past regrets or fantasizing of the future keeps me from ever experiencing the life that is right before my very eyes. Like my body is too busy running from place to place hoping to suck every last drop out of life, my mind is too busy regretting or scheming to connect to what is happening presently.

Living inside my head and outside of the now forces me to miss out on the present moment, therefore rendering my desires to connect with others futile. When I over analyze the past or over think how to manipulate my future, I am not actually present in the moment to fully accept the care of others even if it were to show up. I miss out on the only real opportunity any of us really have, right now.

I realize that I am not alone with my difficulties. When I ask clients if they can identify what they are feeling during therapy an overwhelming majority answer that they cannot. People often recount difficult events as if they are telling someone’s story other than their own. When I ask the question, “Are you emotionally connected to the words you just stated,” the answer is often, “Not at all.” People often say that connecting to what is actually happening in the very present is too uncomfortable to bear. How can it be that we can go through life rarely experiencing the only time that we really have, which is the present?

Could awareness of the now bring a whole new lens in which we view life? Might our past wounds mend and current burdens be made lighter if we embrace the very moment in front of us?

The Risk of Living in the Now

Often what holds us back from taking the plunge into the depth of our present relationships is the uncomfortableness of living life so intimately. Make no mistake; fully connecting to others in relationships is often parlous.

Many of us have learned from our past experiences that relationships are often unsafe and to protect ourselves from further hurt we do not offer our true selves presently in relationships. If we were to show up, we would then be forced to deal with the real messiness of living in community and the idea that we might be let down, hurt or even rejected. Simply put, connecting deeply with others in the moment is risky.

We find that our impulse is to break away from eye contact. We are uncomfortable with the idea of fully stating our real thoughts and feelings. Our very bodies often tell us how nervous we feel at the idea of connection in the now as our hands yearn to fidget and our stomachs are often tied in knots. The risk in moving forward into deeper connection often keeps us stuck.

The truth of the matter is we have only two options. Our first is to continue to live out of protective postures that thwart us from actually connecting and having our relational needs met. This is, of course, the path of least resistance and such is the road we often choose. Our other choice is to move forward in risking to offer ourselves for who we really are, including the good, the bad and the ugly. In reality, truly being in relationship means to opening yourself up to the possibility of deep connection but also deep wounds.

One of my favorite pastimes as a child was riding my bicycle. The black and blue metal frame and the obscure words Night Chaser printed down the body in a font that resembled lighting will be a memory that will never fade. When recalling my time on it I am always reminded of the feeling of freedom as I rode with the wind against my face, moving at what seemed the speed of sound down the hill past my childhood home. During the summertime one would be hard-pressed to find me anywhere but on my bike. This was not always the case, as I had much fear and trepidation when it came to learning to ride.

You see Night Chaser did not come with training wheels. Nervous of falling and becoming black and blue, I chose to let my black and blue bicycle sit in the garage for some time before I gathered up the courage to jump on and risk learning how to ride. This pressure was compounded due to the fact that at the time it seemed everyone else in the entire universe already was proficient concerning the maneuvering on a bike. This left me with the option to sit at home and watch from a distance as all my friends joyously rode their bicycles or risk wrecking and jump on and give it a try.

I remember the anxiety and fear that came with learning to ride, as it often does when risking doing new things. The many times I fell off and suffered scratched knees, busted elbows and a bruised ego. There was much jeopardy involved in learning to ride. To be honest, I don’t recall the exact moment I was able to remain upright for more than a few seconds. I don’t remember feeling particularly relieved or un-burdened once I learned to actually ride. What I do remember is all the time after I learned spent actually riding. When I think back I recall all the time spent on the seat of Night Chaser rather than the few amount of times I hit the ground. In the grand scheme of things, the risk is not what has stuck to my bones, but rather the time spent enjoying the ride.

The Benefit of Living in the Now

We all on some level desire relationships that are full of care, intimacy and connection. We long for  our loved ones to fully engage our stories and be genuinely curious about how our day has been. In  friendships we look for those who not only share common interests but also those with whom we  feel a sense of connection. As adolescents, our desires are for our parents to attend to us and  maintain the role of safe caregiver, full of unconditional positive regard.

The challenge that comes with relationships is that if we haven’t experienced safe community in our past or practiced living in the depth of the moment, the vulnerability of connection can feel foreign and overwhelming. Communicating desires and navigating conflicts in a way that is connected to the present takes time to learn and foster.

The “Now” may seem abstract and difficult to maintain, but if practiced it leaves an impact on our souls like little else in our modern world. When fully present during conversations among friends we can receive their care and be able to reciprocate truth and care back to them in a way that is deeply satisfying and relationally edifying. When aware of ourselves in the present moment we are able to fully enjoy the moments of life that bring us tears of joy and soul saturating laughter. When we experience life as it is happening we are able to feel the depth of our needs not getting met and appropriately grieve rather than bottling up our loss.

Living in the now produces lives that are rich with joy and possibility. We can become aware of our needs and find relationships can actually meet them. Upon entering into the present moment life can be experienced for what is really there and we find a peace that is present if we would but take hold of it. We are able to let the past be forgiven and tomorrow worry about itself.

If we never fully engage what is happening to us in the moment, we are missing out on real life. Being able to connect to others in a simple yet deep way is full of risk but can lead to awareness of our longings and fulfillment of our desires. May we boldly hop on, fall off, get back on and ride.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons

The Voice of Grief

The Winter Solstice coupled with the beginning of a new year always makes me feel nostalgic and retrospective. Maybe it is the mental scrap booking of my life or cold air that hangs about but I always feel called to take a deeper look into the depths of my own soul. As I ponder a year in its passing and set my gaze forward to a new annum my heart fondly remembers all the ways I was able to connect with others and share many good moments in community and fellowship.

I am also readily aware of the ways in which life did not meet my needs. I recall being wounded in relationships and hurt from expectations that remained unmet. This doleful feeling is always unsettling and my normal reaction is to simply get away from experiencing grief of any kind. I am highly aware that I do not enjoy grief and if given the option, I will repress, run and shield myself from ever fully experiencing such difficult emotions. Left to my own devices I do not grieve well.

The problem with my self-protective posture is that in the long run, fleeing from these feelings does more harm than good. When I retreat from grief rather than embracing it in the present it does not simply go away but lingers in the depth of my soul. Not dealing with grief as it arises is not like tossing my own personal garbage to the curb but more like hiding it under the couch. Sooner or later, it will begin to stink and I will have paid a far deeper emotional price than dealing with the sorrow in the here and now.

What does grieving offer us? After all, it does not sound particularly fun or inviting to proactively engage life’s difficulties and less desirable moments. Why would any rational person want to flirt with sadness rather than let sleeping dogs lie? What is the benefit of taking the pilgrimage toward lamentation?

Taking the Road of Grieving

One author that I find imaginative and veracious is Cormac McCarthy. His writing style seems unique in that the protagonist is usually embattled in dealing with the grieving. A few years ago I devoured his novel titled The Road, which after reading, left me a changed man. It is a post-apocalyptic narrative in which the world itself has been scorched and tarnished to the point that little life remains and even less hope for the humanity fated to inhabit the bleak backdrop of the denude terrain.

The emotion that is continuously conveyed in this hauntingly grey tale is grief. Grief of a land that has been lost, grief of the wretched populace who are seeking to piece together life in an empty and broken world, grief of a father in hunger pangs and the never-ending struggle for survival wandering the wastelands with the unremitting lingering of death and grief of a child whose innocence is set against such expansive depravity.

McCarthy’s tale conveys that even in the midst of grief, bonds can be formed, beauty can be sought after, relationships can be fostered and hope can appear. Upon reading one finds that grief’s visitation does not necessarily lead to misery but is rather an appropriate response to the pain and depravity that exists in the external landscape and our internal worlds. Because real life is never experienced without broken relationships and the ache of dashed dreams, grieving provides a needed outlet for the reality of our complex emotions and relational experiences.

Many of us, if we were to look deeper underneath the surface would find some grieving that is in need to be let out and embraced. Life often wounds us. At times this wound is much too difficult to feel in the moment because if we were to truly feel the weight of the issue, it would be overwhelming and far too difficult to navigate. Rather than feeling in the moment we learn to ignore, self medicate and repress. Instead of embracing our less desirable emotions we learn to turn them off and lock them out.

We cannot move forward on the path of healing and maturation without first taking the step of grieving. If we never fully unpack the truth of what we have been through and look at all the ways it continues to shape us, we cannot honestly love and engage our families, communities or ourselves. Until we lament and emotionally address the ways our needs have gone unmet and our desires for connection have been frustrated, we will be stalled on the path toward personal and spiritual growth.

The Visitation of Mr. Sadness

What if we could live in a way where our sadness and grief had a voice that was able to commune with us freely as other emotions? Could we begin to foster lament and learn what unique insight it might have for our lives?

A good friend recently shared with me his coming to terms with his own grieving process. His exercise of honoring the shadowy parts of his own soul called for an un-muzzling of his grief and giving it back it’s voice.

He described imagining his suppressed lament as a mysterious stranger who would often come to pay him a visit, yet upon arrival would find his door under lock and key. This pilgrim he named Mr. Sadness, would seek visitation bearing wounds and emotions that were too unsafe to gain entrance. My friend was worried that giving Mr. Sadness access would mean his stay would be longer than he could handle and this unwanted guest might just move in for good.

Risking taking on a troublesome roommate, he let Mr. Sadness inside to speak his peace. Upon doing so, he realized that letting his sad parts speak did not overwhelm and consume him, but rather gave him freedom to feel and awareness concerning the deeper parts of his soul. Once invited to speak, Mr. Sadness did indeed have hard things to communicate. But upon lending his grief an ear and listening to his sorrow, his unwanted guest became a sage friend with valuable insight worth consideration.

The fears my friend had of his grief overcoming him and overstaying his welcome were also proved untrue. Once Mr. Sadness was free to come, visit and offer his words of wisdom, he was also free to leave. When he embraced his own grief and gave it a voice, Mr. Sadness departed and he said goodbye for a time to a new, old friend. When you are free to grieve, you are then free not to grieve.

Good Grief

Finding healthy ways to unpack our grief can be both important and meaningful to our spiritual and emotional maturation. Like my friend creating space for Mr. Sadness, we must find ways to give our deeper and darker parts a voice.

That might look like personifying one’s own lament and inviting him in to a deeper dialogue. It could mean we entreat safe friends to converse concerning the more melancholy parts of ourselves. Many find respite openly praying and disclosing their inner struggles and disappointments with God. Others find help setting aside a few minutes each day to simply ask the question, “What am I doing with my sadness?” or, “How might I live honestly and openly with my grieving in this moment?”

When we slowly make a place in our lives for the reality of our grieving process, we find that life is not instantly carefree and untroubled. Embracing the process of grieving is not a quick fix to get back to neutral or a means to euphoria, but rather a way to live openly in our communities and honestly with ourselves.

As we embark on the path of living in such a holistic and genuine manner we will find joy in the simplicity of our present existence. We can begin to see our melancholy parts as sage messengers who have counsel to offer us along our journey. The encumbrance of our heavily cloaked emotions just might be made lighter. We have hope to live an unburdened life with a full range of emotions at our disposal and can fully experience joy, sorrow, contentment, frustration, fulfillment and even a visit from our old friend grief.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons

Anxiety: An Expression of the Self

I didn’t learn to swim until I was around 10 years old, thus was one of the last among my adolescent friends to take the proverbial plunge. I remember feeling great fear and anxiety as I moved deeper and deeper into the swimming pool and was unable to do anything to help myself maneuver in the water. Every time I moved into the deep where my feet could not touch the bottom, panic would set in and I would struggle, kicking and paddling until I crossed back into shallow waters.

One of the first things I learned during swimming lessons is that our bodies float. The paradox of my own buoyancy did not make sense to me as a 10-year-old. The instructor warned me that wildly flailing about would not help keep my head above water but would rather cause me to sink. I was taught that the body naturally floats, but to experience this I would need to calm my anxiety and become reasonably still in the water. I soon realized that to move forward with swimming, I would have to work through my anxiousness. With the help of others and many attempts at the cusp of the deep end I eventually was able to move into the water and swim.

Learning how to face anxiety can also be like learning to swim, overcoming anxious feelings by being placed in anxiety’s waters and moving out of the shallow and into the deep. We must learn not to move away from anxious feelings, but dive in and embrace these experiences as an expression of our souls. Being placed in the midst of our anxiety we realize that we are buoyant. Once past the anxious shallows we realize that we just might swim.

Living with Anxiety

Our souls are very articulate. The soul finds ways to communicate with us along our peregrinations. A big presentation on the horizon can make us feel knots in our stomach. Problems in meaningful relationships can keep us awake at night in contemplation and reflection. Relocating across the country can put wear and tear on our vehicles but also on our psyche. We find that even when we are not directly focusing our attention on a particular issue, our souls still find a way to express what is troubling us internally. Often, this expression takes the form of anxiousness.

When we feel anxious, we often try to fight off the sensation, telling ourselves that it is uncomfortable or abnormal to feel so overwrought. As our struggle continues we begin to feel self-contemptuous and irritated with ourselves for not having the ability to flee from anxious thoughts and feelings. Sadly, moving away from anxiety does more harm than good, as this heightens our emotional sensitivity to anxiousness, setting up a perfect storm for anxiety to disquiet and impair. In this catch-22, the feeling of anxiety makes us feel anxious which leads to more anxiety and on and on.

Whether we fight, repress, medicate or just stay in bed, anxiety continues to show up in our lives. These feelings can at times be debilitating, as every move we make to escape leads us further entangled in our anxiousness. How do we begin to move forward when we feel caught in the webbing of anxiety?

One of my childhood friends had a great interest in puzzles and practical jokes. His favorite brainteaser is known as a Chinese finger trap. This cylinder shaped contraption is beguiling because of its paradoxical interlocking. When first given the opportunity to take off the bamboo gadget, the natural maneuver is to pull outwards. But this motion sets the ruse to work, as the apparatus pulls tighter around one’s fingers, further trapping them inside the mechanism. Simply put, the more one tries to get out, the more they are trapped. The way to escape is counterintuitive, as you must push deeper in to be able to free yourself from the device.

Dealing with anxiety can feel a lot like being stuck in a trap because no matter how hard we try to pull away feelings of anxiety continue to linger. The paradox is that the path through anxiety is not moving away but moving into the anxiousness. Could the action of moving towards anxiety then make things open up rather than close around us?

Listening to Anxiety

Every person has an internal dialogue among the various parts of their soul. Often when stressors show up in our lives, this discussion begins as we become cognizant and contemplate the issue. If we might begin to reframe our fears of anxiety and let ourselves embrace our anxious parts, we would find that anxiety has a voice that deserves to be heard. Feelings of anxiousness are significant, as it is one of the many ways our soul communicates with us.

Imagine while driving the engine light begins flashing in the car. The first inclination would be to look under the hood or find someone, a mechanic perhaps, who could help you look deeper into the issue with the vehicle. The unwise choice would be to simply ignore the engine light’s message. Furthermore, we would not want to simply have the engine light turned off, as that would silence its communicative ability. If this was done, all that was happening inside the car would continue and the driver would be heading for disaster. When the vehicle does collapse, one might be stranded, in an accident or worse. The engine light is not the problem. The engine light simply communicates to us that the vehicle needs to be further examined. The engine light is valuable, keeping us from driving our cars to the point of breakdown.

Anxiousness is one of our body’s engine lights. When these feelings of anxiousness arise, it is important to explore further and ask what might be happening under the hood. We must listen to what our soul is trying to convey to us during anxiousness and not foolishly drive ourselves to the point of collapse.

Engaging in the Soul’s Discourse

As a therapist, I have had the privilege to journey with many clients into the depth of their anxiety. The stressors that initiate anxiety vary among individuals and can be actuated by social situations, finances, romantic relationships, or the mystery of the unknown. The consequences of anxiety, however, are similar and include feelings of being stuck, fears of failure, loneliness, physical discomfort, panic and feeling out of control.

It is important during the times when we feel anxiety’s sting to remember that anxiety is a symptom of formation in that it shows that our souls are alive, feeling and communicating with us. We should not seek to silence the soul’s voice but rather be attentive when our souls speak to us in anxiousness. Seeking to listen to our souls during bouts of anxiousness can feel unfamiliar at first but with time and practice can be a comfortable and illuminating experience.

Often good help is found in community when feeling anxious. This might mean having a weekly time for a friend, group or counselor to help us interpret and put language to our soul’s communication and share the burden of our anxiety.

Others find that taking a walk, practicing breathing exercises, sitting in a quiet place or changing normal patterns and routines gives particularly fresh insight and ability to listen more carefully to the soul’s dialogue and desires. The path one chooses on the road of engaging the soul’s discourse is different for everyone. It is not the mode of transportation that is important, but the journey.

It is possible for us to keep from seeing anxiousness as an enemy but rather an important internal voice that possesses words we need to hear. The very anxious feelings we fear can be significant to us if we would but take the voyage of embracing our anxiousness and float into the deep end of the pool.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons

Invitation to be Childlike

There is a trail behind my home I like to jog in the morning hours. I often enjoy company on my route, as there is much wildlife that greets me along the way. Rabbits consume their breakfast grass, tortoises make occasional appearances, snakes tan in the morning sun, while insects and birds seem to entrance me with their song along my way. I take great delight in this scenic view. The beauty of the trees, the sound of the flowing creek, and the many animals and insects that live among the wild seem uncomplicated and immune to modernization. Not all the inhabitants and visitors are creatures such as these; the road is often home to children playing in a creek bed as I make my way over a trestle.

I am always blessed in hearing the sheer joy of splashing in the murky water below. The laughter and boisterous noise of childhood, being able to throw caution to the wind and indulge in play like no adult seemingly can. I am envious of this play. Children have an ability to let go of the non-essentials for a time and simply focus on the task at hand, in this case letting the waters of the creek wash over them like a baptismal fount. They seem not to be hindered by to do lists and societal norms that might inhibit anyone older. Nothing can deter their frolic in the drink.

Seeing children there, playing, living enchanted, reminds me of magical times when the world was full of myth and mystery. Through their eyes lives a world of fascination and beauty. Where I see an insalubrious creek they see a luminous pool alive with adventure. Where I see the everyday, they see the possibility of enchantment.

Repressing the Child

We often pressure our children to “grow up” and that message is often received, as most youth yearn to be older and experience the pleasures that come with age. Adolescents desire to pursue challenges of the early teen, staying up late, watching bawdy movies, and having the freedom to control their own diet and dress. Upon maturation to the early teen years, the simple freedoms once yearned for now seem insignificant by comparison to the freedoms that late teens enjoy. The experience of a driver’s license and the mystery of the opposite sex move to the forefront of young minds as they grow in both experience and stature. As young adults there is a longing for independence and a quickness to decamp from home and relocate both body and soul to find one’s own path in life.

Somewhere along the way we make choices to lay down the joys of our youth and take up the role of the adult. This, in many ways, is a good thing. We should individuate from our caregivers and grow into able adults. It is good that we learn to use a stove, tie our own shoes or operate a motor vehicle. But I wonder if in the letting go process we loose many sagacious practices of our childhood.

Indeed I am prodded and exhorted by the teaching of Jesus: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18: 1-4)

As we age there is temptation to let go of the enchanting view of the world of our childhood. One recalls the C.S. Lewis tale of Prince Caspian and the toll leaving childhood takes on Peter and Susan, as they are prohibited from returning again to Narnia because they are becoming “too old.” Lewis does not give full detail of this ban decreed by Aslan, but reminds the reader of the notion that as one ages they become less open to the world of imagination and enchantment and more attune to the concerns of adulthood as maturity takes hold.

We learn early on to “act our age.” And “stop being so childish.” Not to be a “baby.” Often these remarks are ways of pointing out ways in which people should act in a more mature, reasonable manner, but is it possible that children may see the world more appropriately? Could it be that the childlike nature we are taught to repress actually hinders our emotional growth and stunts our imagination?

A Zest for Life

There are points in all of our journeys when a nostalgic feeling is triggered that mysteriously transports us to a particular place or event we once experienced and cherished. Often these memories are of Christmas mornings, summer vacations or birthday rituals our families embraced. Thanksgiving would not be the same to me unless I was able to have cranberry sauce like I had in my home as a child.

Every time I see a firefly I am transported back to my childhood, overlooking my yard at dusk as it was filled with green flashing lights and the tiny insects my family affectionately called, “lighting bugs.” In my mind twilight from here to eternity will only compare to that night’s magic and splendor.

I, like most children, had my tree that I loved to climb. That mighty Silver Maple’s branches served as a spaceship, clubhouse, jungle gym and secret hideout for many years of my childhood. Could it be that we as adults still need places to retreat to, imagine in and to call our own?

We could all tell stories of fond memories that have served to shape our identities. As we meditate on the impact those events continue to have on our psyche, we realize that our childhood contains more than just wistful thoughts that evoke misty-eyed and nostalgic responses. Rather, the child is always open to new interpretations, feels deeply, has a penchant to say what they mean, risks valiantly in relationships and has the ability to be captivated by a world that is full of enchantment and grandeur. Should we not seek to foster such a perspective?

Embracing the Child

Last autumn my wife and I visited some old friends over a weekend and had the joy to lodge in their home. They are proud parents of two very beautiful and very alive daughters who stole our hearts. Their oldest daughter, around three at the time, was the most welcoming host we have ever experienced. She was the first to offer us the grand tour of their lovely home and paid particular attention to minor details that many adults might pass over (like her favorite toys, videos, how to use the refrigerator and introductions to the dogs). She also was hospitable in giving full disclosure of their latest vacation to the beach, and how she was delighted by the local cuisine and mystified by the ocean’s waves.

She would greet me with a warm hello from her room at night when she heard me getting up to use the restroom that was near her bedroom. My favorite memory of her comes from my wife, as she was reading a book to her (and yes, I mean the child reading her favorite book to my wife) she had an accident involving potty training. Her childlike lack of self-contempt was refreshing, as after she changed her clothing, she simply picked up the story from where she left off.

Her particular brand of care left a mark on both our souls, as we left desiring to welcome others into our own home as she had welcomed us. The more I pondered her unique personality, I stood in awe of how a heart that has yet to accumulate the wounds of life and be bent into protective postures can truly extend care and hospitality in ways adults usually can not. It is the childlike gift of uninhibited love.

As we live in all the complexities of our adult lives how might we embrace a childlike nature? One way might be taking a long look at how we play. Do we engage in leisure that stimulates all our senses and invites others to join? Do we make time to engage in creative and imaginative revelry? We might re-evaluate our own passions and friendships. We might seriously think about living in the moment and letting the world’s mysteries infatuate and at times puzzle us. Our posture toward nature might change as we meander in the outdoors.

We might rediscover embracing a childlike virtue helps heal the breach between the living in everyday and living out of enchantment. Living with the childlike ardor might serve our families, ennoble our vocations and foster a sacredness that stirs imagination and leads to tranquility of the soul.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons

The Gift of Solitude: Rest, Reflection and Return

Recently my wife visited London with her parents. Her travels overlapped with a transitional time for our family, which gifted me with some personal downtime and possibility of solitude. I am always perplexed at the beginning of unhurried time. It is almost uncomfortable. At first I anticipate the feeling of endless possibility that comes alive after lying dormant in the busyness of life. There seems to be opportunity that becomes uncovered in a way that just doesn’t present itself in the rush of the everyday. My guitar I rarely play begins to call to me; neglected books sitting on my nightstand seem to cry out to be read; projects that have long been on the back burner of my mind somehow move to the forefront.

We are all aware of the joys that silence and solitude bring. Some thickness hangs in the undisturbed air and surrounding stillness, as the only words being spoken are the ones that are quietly tiptoeing through one’s own head. Many have experienced the joy of waking up before everyone in the household and having the sunrise greet you noiseless and beautiful. Certainly, the morning’s glow through the windowpane brings a calm and peace like none other that I can tell. Being alone on the ocean’s coast has always enchanted me. Something about the expansive sea, the breakers recurrent crashing into the shore, the faint cry of gulls and the feeling of having such vast beauty to myself gives particular rest to my spirit.

Why does it seem that these life-giving moments are often few rather than many? Is solitude a scarce commodity or if invited, bountiful? Could it be possible to live a life that awakens and fosters moments of solitude?

Bon Iver and A Winter of Solitude

One story that seems to particularly lure me into solitude is that of Justin Vernon, but music lovers know him by his band name, Bon Iver (pronounced: bohn eevair; French for “good winter” and spelled differently on purpose). During the onset of winter, Justin sought solitude in a remote cabin in Wisconsin. What called Justin to the wild of the woods, one cannot say for sure. Some say it was due to parting ways with a lover and his longtime band mates that moved his soul to retreat. Others report that he had pondered such an escape for some time and life’s circumstances opened wide the door for his wintry escape. Some feel it was a spiritual invitation that he simply could not ignore.

He sought the silence of the wilderness, the work of his hands and the hauntingly cold winter to provide the answers he was seeking. For three months much of his days were spent gathering and splitting wood to be burned for warmth but also collecting his thoughts and hewing into the depth of his soul. He describes the process of laying down communal comforts and taking up the mantle of solitude as bringing change and solace to not only his craft of music, but also his soul.

As described in his biography, “This special time slowly began feeding a bold, uninhibited new musical focus. This slowly evolved into days filled with twelve-hour recording blocks, breaking only for trips on the tractor into the pines to saw and haul firewood, or for frozen sunrises high up a deer stand. All of his personal trouble, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss and guilt that had been stock piled over the course of the past six years, was suddenly purged into the form of song.”

Out of such solitude, Justin emerged with the album For Emma, Forever Ago. When you listen to the collection of songs you can hear the ache that comes from a broken man seeking to be restored. Close your eyes and you can envision the creaky cabin in the snowy woods of Wisconsin and, perhaps, hear the faint call of solitude. The melodic melodies produced by his monastic journey evoke a simple yet enchanting awareness that our souls crave such a time of contemplation and repose. Solitude gives birth to beauty.

Rest & Reflection in Solitude

Pursuing solitude requires certain boldness, an intentional choice one makes to enter into community with one’s self. There is a courage one shows in carving out such time in a world where productivity is championed and making time for solitude can be misconstrued as procrastination.

Underneath all the clamor of life we are faced with the requisite duty of unpacking what we store away. Like returning to an old trunk teeming with memorabilia from life’s former days, solitude offers us an opportunity to wonder at the internal workings of our hearts. It provides a stage for the act of self reflection, meditating on what is happening in the very present and letting the quiet of the external give space to ponder the internal.

Solitude was also a mainstay in the life of Jesus. We find Jesus seeking solitude in the wilderness during preparation for his ministry (Lk 4:1), rising before daybreak to pray in solitude (Mk 1:35), pursuing solitude to replenish from work (Lk 4:42), and often withdrawing in solitude to end his day (Mt 14:23).

Fostering solitude may mean enjoying a walk without our iPod. We might be inclined to use a day of the weekend for being satiated by a silent retreat rather than drinking in the spectacle of mass media. We could enjoy entering a labyrinth rather than the pleasures of a shopping plaza or pick up a journal over the New York Times.

Return from Solitude

Just as seasons change and the moon waxes and wanes crescent, so too changes our time in solitude. Like all gifts, solitude can become misappropriated when taken to extremes. Certainly we are not meant to be hermits. Though we are created to long for solitude, gaining rest and being fed by the experience, we are also called to life in community. We are benefactors of solitude’s gift when in our return we channel our rest and reflection and bear fruit in our communities.

Upon returning we will find a heightened sense of awareness and enjoy a deeper joy in community. After examining the internal processes of our own souls we can then extend our care to the external world and relationships therein. The gift of stillness somehow grants eyes to see and ears to hear.

Like the ocean there is an ebb and flow in solitude, a time for diving deeply into solitude’s vast waters and a time to return to the shore. May we hear the invitation to venture out of the shallows and swim.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons

The Redemption of Routines: Meditations on Ritual

I, like most people, have a certain routine concerning how I like to start my day. A glass of orange juice with my vitamins, take the dogs outside to do their business, and coffee while I mentally piece together my day. When I travel and my morning ceremonies are frustrated, it seems to send my very being into a tailspin. Even if at some point I still have my O.J. and coffee, I need to regroup from my morning traditions being upset. What is it about rituals that can mean so much to our disposition?

Whether we realize it or not we all take part in rituals. These may range from our morning observances, what we listen to on the radio during the drive to work or how we unwind at sundown. And while the word ritual can be intimidating, I might suggest that we see the sacred lingering around our daily lives and embrace an awareness of ritual.

The chief reason many people seek therapy is because life has lost its meaning. This may be in regards to loss of joy in one’s work life, lack of intimacy and connection in marriage or even manifest as an overarching depression that has reciprocity in body, mind and soul. This loss of fervor with life is quite common and many of us try to escape this by convincing ourselves that the world is no longer a captivating place. We buy into the idea that the foods we consume are simply calories to fuel our bodily machines. We convince ourselves that the items we purchase and welcome into our homes are nothing more than objects that serve a single purpose. We are deceived into believing that there is no longer a place in this world for rituals.

The Experience of Ritual

I recently visited friend while he was roasting his own coffee beans. The experience was enchanting to say the least. He began by showing me the berries that after the alchemy of roasting would become our drink. They were young, ripe and smelled almost grass like. As I foolishly placed one in my mouth, I was reminded that there was a process that had to take place before the beans could be used to brew the dark and rich drink I have grown to love over the years.

He placed the raw coffee berries into a roaster and as we sat talking you could hear the beans spinning while being toasted and rolled over heat. The hulls began to break off as the heat turned the coffee berries from a ripe green to a golden, oily brown. The aroma of the newly roasted beans filled the air.

As he took the warm, oily orbs out of the roaster he let me look at them. The transformation was staggering. When the beans were placed into the grinder the scent seemed to increase. They were crushed for us. How remarkable watching something so alive be burned and broken for me. It seemed almost spiritual.

The newly ground coffee was then put into a French press with hot water poured gently over the powdery substance that was round and ripe no less than twenty minutes before. I watched and waited as the water became oleaginous, black and beautiful. My mug was filled with the robust liquid and as I sipped I was thankful for the sacrifice of the once alive coffee beans.

Buying coffee at a chain java joint is a different experience. I want it instantaneously so I can get moving with my day. As I explained my quick fix mentality to my friend, he agreed that if the end product was all I was seeking, then yes, the convenience of a chain store couldn’t be beat. But if I was looking for more than simply having a need met, having my cup quickly filled and being out the door and on my way, then the ritual of roasting was far more appealing.

When I scoffed at the time it took he explained to me that this was one of his weekly rituals and that it was during this time that he would let the sound of the roaster and the smell of the beans wash over him. He carved out this time to reflect on life’s process and contemplate on what was going on deep inside him.

He used the time to ponder what husk might need to be burned and removed from his own life. Like the beans, he wondered what alchemistic process might bring his own hidden character out to be experienced and enjoyed. He not only used the time to refine and cultivate the coffee beans, but also his soul.

Can Ritual Heal The Soul?

What would happen if we were to re-examine our daily lives and embrace the everyday in a way that created room for ritual? Is it possible that we may be missing out on much in life that may be fertile soil for the experience of ritual? Upon looking we could find that the everyday in life is more deep and meaningful than we ever imagined. We might begin to feel displeasure with the hurriedness and speed of lives that make no space for lingering and possibility.

Dishwashing may seem less like a chore and more like a meditation on the practice of cleansing and what part of our souls needs washing. A drive to work may not include tuning in to listen to a local radio station but rather tuning in to listen to our heart’s longings. It could mean we miss checking our email during our lunch break and take a few minutes to meditate in silence or read the daily office ( Walking the dog may no longer be one more thing we have to do before days end, but a time where we can see the beauty of an animal enthralled with the very smell of nature.

Productivity or Peace

At some point in time we come face to face with a choice that does not have a clear answer; the so-called fork in the road of our journey. Embracing ritual may take repurposing of our lives and refinement of our souls. To walk the path of ritual we may have to forfeit getting ahead at work and maximizing our profits. The pursuit of ritual may go hand in hand with forsaking of productivity.

Embracing such a ritualistic life may mean refining our idea of pleasure and amending many habits. Living a life steeped in ritual may not lead to productivity but it could transform our hearts and bring peace to our souls.

– D. Jeremiah Simmons