I had no idea, over 30 years ago, what I was getting into when I accepted an invitation by a good friend to attend something called an Enlightenment Intensive. At the time I was getting ready to move with my wife and three-year old daughter to Berkeley, California to attend Pacific School of Religion. Admittedly I was put off a bit by the rather pretentious title of the retreat. However, I decided if my wise friend thought it might be a good experience for me, it was good enough for me. It turned out to be a life changing experience.
The intensive was three days long. We started Friday morning with some education about the process and what to expect. The leaders assured us that while we might face some difficult moments, they would be there to educate, support and encourage us, both as individuals and as a group. We were given some operating rules designed to bring about the best results. We were told to choose one question out of a list of three to work on for the entire retreat. They suggested that as this was our Intensive retreat, we should work on the question, “Who are you?” I know of no one who used another question.
So each day we would do 10 or 12 sessions for 40 minutes each with a different partner we chose at the beginning of each session. One partner would ask the other their chosen question, “Who are you?” and would then listen intently without any response. This continued for five minutes. In response to a chime, the talking partner changed roles with the listening partner for five minutes. That process was repeated for 40 minutes until there was a short break. After the break we would find a new partner and start the process over again.
Now if you have never done anything like this before, you probably cannot imagine what it feels like to try and tell someone who is really listening to you who you are for five minutes straight. Understand it is a monologue. There was no dialogue or comments to fill the spaces. We repeated this process 30 times in three days. Yes, I mean 30 sessions times 40 minutes responding to the same question.
After I got through the obvious things like, “I am a man, I am a husband, I am a father, a windsurfer, a life-time student, a lover of art, a sexual being…” I realized I had barely used up two minutes. At some point, I knew I was looking for things to say that were true but might make me sound a little more interesting. I wanted the listener to be impressed. As a man in his early forties I wanted the listener to know I was a former jock, was still tough—even even heroic—and was the man my father wanted me to be. But all of that started sounding really stupid by the end of the first round and I knew I had at least 29 more to go. By the end of the second or third round I could think of nothing to say about myself that did not sound stupid, irrelevant or silly. It all started to sound meaningless. I knew I had to dig deeper.
Like Alice in Wonderland I found myself going down the rabbit hole as I continued to ponder, “Who am I really.” Somewhere along the way I became aware of two things. First, I was afraid to go too deep. I did not want to let go of all of my accomplishments, all of my achievements, all of my ego needs. I was afraid to let go of those things that had given me a separate identity from the masses. And secondly, I realized that none of those things I was holding onto had anything to do with who I really was. In fact holding on to them, for whatever reason, was keeping me from discovering who I really was and am. It was a fascinating journey that helped shape not only my seminary experience but my life.
I may write more about this experience in another article. For now let me just explain that over the years I have come to realize that during those three days, I was rapidly moving through a spiritual path of kenosis—the process of self-emptying. At the time I did not know what was happening but I felt like I was peeling away phony or meaningless ways I identified myself, one layer at a time. It was both scary and freeing. If someone is willing to work the path or engage the process, they just may come to the realization that I am is not only enough, but it can be exhilarating to discover you are part of the Ultimate I AM.
Over the years I have discovered the kenosis path is central to almost every meaningful spiritual tradition including Christianity. Cynthia Bourgeault posits that this path was introduced to the West by Jesus (Wisdom Jesus, Shambhala Press, 2008). I agree and have published a couple of articles on this subject.
I share this experience for this month’s eBulletin because it focuses on the incredible opportunity we all have to turn the aging process into a spiritual path. Whether we like it or not, as we move toward our elder years, we slowly lose those things we assumed were part of who we are. Our titles, our prowess, our accomplishments, our competitiveness slowly fade. It may not happen in a three-day intensive and we don’t always give it much thought, but it happens. We can hang on, get angry or we can engage the process. It is really up to us.
I was doing a workshop a few years ago and referred to the story of the rich man. In that story the rich man had tried to do all the right things—all the things the Scriptures or the Law had required of him. However, he told Jesus he could not experience the Realm of God that Jesus kept referring to. Therefore Jesus told him he must give away his riches. Sadly the man could not do that. Why? Because he would have lost his identity. He would no longer be the respected rich man.
In this workshop I explained that sometimes, when we hold on to these titles and cling to labels, we separate ourselves from others, including the Ultimate Mystery we call God. One of the men attending the workshop just did not get it. He wanted the story to be about the necessity of giving one’s wealth to the poor. He happened to be retired clergy who had passed the requirements for a Doctor of Ministry degree and insisted that everyone address him as Reverend Doctor. His wife dutifully referred to him as Doctor. I asked him what he would do if Jesus suggested he give up his titles? He looked at me as if I had slapped him and did not speak to me for the rest of the workshop. I felt badly but several people told me later that it had helped make the point for them.
A few weeks after I retired from a wonderful church I served for 20 years as the pastor, I was sitting at a bar in Hood River, Oregon. It was an annual trip I made for over two decades for some of the best windsurfing opportunities in the world. At one point after a long conversation about windsurfing, life and relationships with a group of other sailors, a young man across from me asked, “What did you say you did again?” I looked at him and I tried to speak. I was so emotional I could not answer him. I had to get up, apologize and leave. It was the beginning of another journey and I had no road map.
We are not what we do or what we achieved. We are so much more and unfortunately too many of us miss the opportunity to discover that. Being aware of the aging process can offer us that opportunity as we willingly self-empty, as we give up, as we let go and in the process begin a different kind of adventure. As Lewis Richmond notes in his wonderful book, Aging as a Spiritual Practice, “Aging is beyond our control… Are you going to just slide or are you going to steer?”
There are currently several wonderful books out on the subject that offer a benefit to people of all ages. Richmond, a Zen Buddhist, touches on all the right issues to guide us in this journey with humor and insight along with meditations in every chapter. John C. Robinson, a retired therapist and an excellent writer, offers a trilogy of books that can help us ferret out the blocks that keep us from experiencing a new spiritual awareness. All three of his newest books are listed on the site, www.johnrobinson.org. Another wonderful surprise is a book written by one of my dear friends, Joan Chittister. Her book The Gift of Years is typical of her writing. It is prophetic, challenging, full of insight, and at times just plain delightful. Finally another new author we are introducing to our site is Carol Orsborn whose book Fierce with Age is receiving rave reviews. You may want to check out her website (http://fiercewithage.com).
All these books are not only helpful for those of us who admit we are elders or seniors, but they can be wonderful resources for people of any age who are searching for meaningful ways to live their lives in harmony with their friends, their families, their environment, their world and the Infinite Mystery we choose to call God.