Kathleen Hirsch | Mindfulness
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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Mindfulness

My Private Session with Thomas Moore

Friends,

I am grateful to have been granted a breakfast meeting with one of my all-time living wisdom teachers, Thomas Moore, a month ago.  The interview was just published in the journal, Anchor.  Enjoy!

My Personal Session with Thomas Moore

MY PERSONAL SESSION WITH THOMAS MOORE
BY KATHLEEN HIRSCH

Twenty-five years ago, in his best seller, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore gave mainstream America permission to use the word “soul” and not get laughed out of the party. Offering an avuncular conduit to the inner world, the monk-turned-psychologist became a catalyst for a holistic vision of human potential. His book re-energized the mindfulness movement, the re-discovery of the body as source of sacred wisdom, and an activist stance towards psychological inquiry. Outlier practices like yoga, meditation, and reiki became du rigueur.

My personal copy of Care of the Soul joined my collection of writings by Jung and Jung’s luminous descendants, Marie von Franz, James Hillman, Marion Woodman, and others. What set Moore apart was his kindly approachableness. Drawing on the writings of his Renaissance muse, Marcilio Ficino, Moore encouraged over-committed westerners to attend to our dreams, create daily rituals, and practice conviviality. Moore saw us as essentially good, if uptight, materialists in need of a more holistic vision of the self in order to live lives of true dignity, intent and joy. For a generation, his voice was a warm welcome out of the wilderness.

Even as he moved into the role of columnist (Spirituality Today) and guru (a regular at Kripalu and Omega), with his Van Dyke beard, bright eyes, and compact, natty mien, sharing workshop billing with Deepak Chopra, Joan Borysenko, and the like, he continued to spin out books—some two dozen since 1992, on topics ranging from sex to bathing to golf.

Now, at the age of 75, he has taken up the topic of aging.

I found myself wondering what he makes of his legacy. How do those of us committed to consciousness and restorative justice reckon the results of our work in these troubling times? Where has mindfulness gotten us? And what remains to be done?

We met for breakfast in Cambridge, MA a few weeks before Ageless Soul was scheduled for publication (St. Martin’s Press). Moore arrived in a navy blazer and a plaid shirt, easeful, relaxed, and prepared to be interested. I felt as if we were old friends just picking up a conversation left off a while back. After ordering berry smoothies and a bit of small talk about his recent New Testament translations, we turned to my questions.

Care of the Soul gave us a language for the vitality of the inner life in the culture’s public space. What can we say about its contribution to our advancement in the intervening 25 years? Was our progress an illusion?

“We haven’t improved,” he admits, by way of understatement.

“The forces arrayed against the humanity of the person permeate every aspect of our lives.

“Simply put, it is the quantification of life. Materialism, treating the body as a mechanism, a system of chemical reactions, and the ‘mind’ as an object that is somehow ‘fixable’ by Big Pharma, have taken hold so completely that alternative views go nearly unheard. We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago.

“We live in this insane society that treats everybody like a thing. Even in psychology, now, we are quantitative. The validation for the inner voice is almost non-existent.”

In the bleak context of these materialistic time, Moore speaks of age as much more than just the last stand against the abyss.

Age in these times—perhaps in every time—becomes, for Moore, the opportunity to counter empty busyness, acquisition, and the domineering ego (the cornerstones of materialist philosophy), and instead embrace a deeper spirituality. If we accept this challenge, and its attending renunciations, age can serve as the threshold into one of the great transformational archetypes, that of elder and sage.

“When you are older, what you do is extremely useful. The young need the refined intelligence of age. They need our mentoring, our modeling, and our life wisdom.”

This journey demands nothing less than the transformation of the ego.

“We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago”

“Jung moved close to it when he said we need a new kind of center. Not the ego. It’s something that’s more at home in the unconscious. Hillman called it ‘an imaginal ego,’ by which he meant, a poetic ego, one that sees layers in everything. Layers and depths. Whatever you look at, no matter what it is—a thing, an object, an animal, a person, a plant. You see these layers. A poet always sees layers.”

This is the “work” of age.

“It isn’t about productivity, but a different kind of work. When the outer world becomes less pressing, the inner world ‘increases.’”

The way into this work, for Moore, lies in grounded acts of creativity, activities that engender reverie and an opening to the imagination.

“I think Jung would suggest that what we need to do is find a way to be more comfortable with intuition, divination, artistic expression, with image and metaphor. All the things that aren’t taken seriously in this culture. Jung was trying to suggest that we need to develop an ego that can live that way, on a deeper intuitive level, trusting intuition, reading poetry, reading the signs.

“There is a natural spirituality that comes with age, a natural contemplative attitude that doesn’t have to be some system or formal ‘way.’”

In a public sphere overtaken by cell phones and angry speech, it is helpful to remember the special alchemy of simply being with others in a state of receptivity. Travel, knitting, spending time with friends for the pure pleasure of it are all contemplative activities.

“Whatever we can do that allows the inner matter of our souls and imaginations to take form in the outer world in ways they haven’t until now is the process of soul-work. This is the invitation of age. It is an alchemical process, this work on our ‘beings.’ If we could do that, we’d be a different kind of person.”

It is clear that Moore is more concerned with individual consciousness than he is with social critique. Or, to put it more precisely, though he passionately rues the materialism of western medical practice, and the obsession with “fixing” symptoms that rules much modern therapy, his concern is less with repairing broken systems than with continuing to live out his life’s work of lighting the journey of souls.

“In the monastery, I learned that ‘to work is to pray.’ What you do is prayer. That got through to me. I’ve always viewed my individual work as drawing out a person’s inner excellence. This was what the Greeks meant when they used the word, ‘therapy,’ which they did quite a bit. Plotinus added the element of beauty. These are my sources. And my writing is my personal daily spiritual practice. As soon as I wake in the morning, I go to my desk.”

“Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I reflect on the humble, hidden nature of growth and transformation. It is so easy to jump off the rails into a sort of sociological analysis of matters that are essentially sacramental. It is, indeed, one of the temptations of the times. Moore is mindful, gentle, corrective, ever concrete, ever grounded.

The conscious man and woman needs to locate those guides and images that can enable them to do the essential inner work.

“You can do things when you are older that you can’t do when you are younger. If you travel, don’t be just a world traveler. Travel because you really want to have an experience. Paint. Make music. Write. These are all pretty good options. Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I am reminded of Hillman’s observation: “Aging is a mystical struggle between the progress of a civilization forward and ‘the little man at the end of the road.’” If the human task is complete insofar as we have committed ourselves wholly to a cultural good larger than ourselves, then Moore has made a good journey. As we finish our smoothies, I think perhaps we reckon best the gift that has been our years on earth not in the marquis issue of “legacy,” but by remaining in conversation with one another, sharing what we have learned and loved with those we befriend along the way. §


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Kathleen Hirsch is the author of A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness (North Point Press, 2001), Songs from the Alley (Anchor, 1990), and several other books. She currently teaches social justice writing at Boston College and serves as a spiritual director at Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, Massachusetts. She blogs at kathleenhirsch.com.

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Welcome to The Conversation

Welcome to the re-launch of my blog!

The past two months have been a flurry of travel and work, visits to beautiful places and connection with friends not seen in years.

All have made me aware that beyond the realms of the daily strivings – even, the hours of creativity and actions to better the world –  friendship is the most precious thing that we share, something so valuable that I have changed this site to reflect it.

The change is towards dialogue.   My hope is that this will become a place where we pool the insights of our passing days to sustain us on our journeys.   I hope my stories and reflections will inspire yours, that you will chime in, and that this will become a space of gathered wisdom for all who care to visit.

I am calling it: The Conversation.

The Conversation will rely on your Comments – please note the added feature here.

Stay tuned.  I am in the process of creating other opportunities for gathering – in person and virtually.

But now, a brief offering from my time away.

A dear friend passed away yesterday after four valiant years of battling cancer.  I can still see Deborah at her 50th birthday party, twenty-odd years ago.  She had rented a small performance space in Boston, set up café tables for us, her audience, and for an hour dazzled and delighted us with her virtuoso piano playing and singing from on stage.

I’m sure that night most of us were thinking,  “Wow – would I ever have the guts to do this?!?!?”

But not Deborah.  She was fearless, exuberant, sensational – bold, humorous, and delighted by life.  Always.  Mostly, she was thrilled to be with friends, giving us the pleasure of her talents, capabilities, and vast stores of Texan humor, that lit up every room she ever entered.

All of us who knew her will carry her light to the end of our days, and hopefully cast a bit of it for others before our last breaths.

Rediscovering the grace and original blessing of friends had been the gift of these past few months for me.  I’ve gathered with old high school friends also struggling with illness, pulled out wedding albums and newspaper clippings from childhood, shared meals and stories, reacquainted with their children, and done those silly, remarkably meaningful things like recalling the flavors of lollipops at the amusement part we frequented as 12 years old.

Can it get better than this — that I have friends with whom I can share such memories?

None of these conversations were about who’s right or wrong, who’s up or down, who has been to the latest restaurant or has something to say about the book they are reading.  They haven’t been filled with obsessive worrying.  They haven’t even been about the ample topics we’ve made the time to catch up on.

Not at all.

These things are fine in moderation, the wholecloth of our daily rounds.  But the “conversations” I’m describing have had value chiefly in the words beneath the spoken words.

They’ve been about vulnerability, trust, and self-disclosure.  Even when we’ve been talking about coconut-flavored lollipops, we’ve been engaged in exchanges of the heart, a flow of communion, support and love that words just dress in temporal garb.

I hope that such meaningful conversation will continue here, and become a wellspring for us all.

Please join me!

Happy Summer

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Breaking Cookies: A Story of Necessary Conversation

Over spring break I gave my students an assignment:  Find someone who holds opposing political views and conduct a civil conversation.

Ask questions, I told them.  Listen without judgment.  Try to find common ground.

Predictably, some chose roommates.  But a handful did the difficult thing.  They talked to strangers.

One travelled to Kent Country, MI, to build a Habitat home.  There, on a rooftop, she met an 82 year old who uses his skills to help neighbors in need.

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The All New “Attention Collection”

I spent some time this week with a smart, provocative book by David Dark.  It’s called life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious.

Dark is an unlikely prophet for yours truly – an evangelical former English teacher turned theology professor in Nashville.  But since he teaches college-aged seekers as I do, I was interested in his take on things.

If you like being challenged to consider the autopilot mode that keeps sending you back to your church, or the Starbuck’s on the way to work, or the Internet – that self-satisfied voice that keeps telling you you have it all together – this is a book for you.

His best wake-up call is one I want to give a shout-out to here.

Dark tells us that we all need an Attention Collection.

I love this.  It makes me think of the little figurines my grandmother gathered when she had a few extra pennies.  The quarters from every state my son once painstakingly collected (he never quite got to all 50).

Dark says that we need to see what we see.

Easier said than done.

We need to pay better attention than we do just hurrying through our daily lists and hop to the addictive techno-twitches that offer instant gratification and long-term emptiness.

We need to notice the hawk on the bough, remember the inspiring poem we heard on the radio, the look in the eyes of the 10 year olds along for a college tour with the sibling they would too soon have to say goodbye to.  What we truly attend to seeps into our beings and forms the mind and soul that we are.

As a lifelong keeper of writer’s notebooks, a hoarder of overheard conversations, lines written on the back of receipts, I can’t say enough about this concept.

Dark writes,  We have an obligation “to make sure you’re still taking on this business of being awake to yourself – to be a witness to your own experience, to listen to your own life, to see what you’ve seen…What could be more socially essential, more sacred?”

Once we begin to see the sacredness of the smallest particular (Blake’s great cri du coeur), we start to have a better sense of how good work gets done.  (As opposed to a lot of the work we actually do, by the way.)

Attention is a miracle.  It is the gift we are given, first, to see what we see, and then to share it.  We get to sift through our grab bag of impressions and insights each and every day, and decide which items are worth passing along.  In the process, we get smarter and better about what we don’t need to erode our precious, miraculous attention on.  A major fringe benefit.

Sharing our “attention collection” is the ultimate act of collaboration with the great project of consciousness.  We give little gifts of goodness, value, hope by sharing what we have been fed by.  Daily bread.

I’m seeing what I see much more vividly, thank to Dark.

“The surest evidence of what we believe is what we do,” Dark writes.

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Burning Bush

 

Today at dusk red tongues

appear along the dripping boughs

so vivid that

even I, in my distraction

am forced

to stop.  Here you are

in a burning bush

at the edge of a park at rush hour.

Horns, and hankering for a drink,

an end to measured day,

the yen for something more.

 

Precisely, you, where I least expect you,

tethered strength

in a wandering time.

Here on a dying day

at the dawn of a dying season

you offer

a scrap of scripture

such as I found at every turn

in childhood,

a robin, a green frog, the crook of an elm

in which hide with a book.

 

Here you are

beyond the carnival

of cant and apprehensions,

abiding in the old story,

stopping us in our tracks,

that we might wake

to the real life around us,

see past our present doubts

the voice of truth,

a quiet flame, calling.

 

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Guides for a Dark Time

Guides are good.  I learned this when I was nine, lost in a downpour in the southern hills of New York State.  Were it not for one counselor, and her confidence in the few   green blazes barely visible through the drenched woods, I would be tramping still.

I am rereading May Sarton’s journal, At Seventy.  Her almost religious devotion to her annuals garden and the daily reinforcements that arrived in spring for her to plant, would make a green thumb out of an armadillo.  Her labors, punctuated by asides from Emerson, Virginia Woolf, or Camus, is seductive.  Reading it, I want her life, with its stream of visitors, its letters, its amplitudes.

One entry has lingered with me.  Sarton describes a friend just turned fifty as “imaginatively kind.”

The phrase throws a gauntlet to the reader.   Imaginative kindness.  It has an entirely different quality than the ordinary, dutiful, run-of-the-mill.  It is kindness that anticipates.  It strives to go deep towards the well-being of another – looking for occasions for surprise, delight, for hitting the mark, instead of just glancing the periphery.

We know it when we see it.  The considered gift, the innovative reading program, the art class where last year there wasn’t one, using recycled materials.

In these days of disastrously crude public discourse, and the waves of almost equally bad reactions with their rhetoric of accusation, victimhood, and anger, kindness can easily seem too frail and meager a thing to matter.  Care lives in the small details of attention – and who has time for that when the country is imploding?

We do.  And we must.

I cherish the memory of a neighbor’s “imaginative kindness” on a day long ago when, like a scorched-earth patch of earth, I was sorely in need of tending to.   Recently retired, she spent many hours of every day in her extensive gardens, replanting, raking, weeding.  They were so lovely that cars would slow to admire her handiwork.

It was a time in life when I was overwhelmed with child-rearing, more work than I could reasonably manage, and a busy husband.  I had neither the time nor money to do anything about my weed-ridden, depleted yard.  One summer day, without a word, she disappeared into the jungle behind my house with her tools — a rake, an edger, and a hoe — and set to work.  She edged the beds, raked away moss and leaves, pulled out weeds.

I hadn’t realized how low I’d been until I felt the lift of her amazing transformations.  It was as if someone had changed my sheets, opened the windows, and let in a whole new season.  It was a gift, imaginative and incredibly kind.  Easy to say that it didn’t change history, but I disagree.  It changed my day, my month, and probably my year, with its ripples.  It is changing things, even now; like all acts of kindness, it is a gift that keeps on giving.

For her 50-year-old friend, Sarton composed a poem, because her friend’s journey was, she writes, “partly about coming to a place where life has grown more important than ambition…”

I suspect that this is precisely the change required of us if we are to be “imaginatively kind.”  And it is perhaps why such kindness is in such short supply.   Ambition blinds.  It is a distraction that, for years, we mistake for the main event.  Kindness sees.

And seers are the guides we need now.  They aren’t household names, most of them, or people we recognize from the news.  Most of them are poets and gardeners of one ilk or another, pottering away in classrooms or clinics or in forlorn places somewhere very near us, shaping life in a vision of hope for those too burned out or too far underwater to be able to do so for themselves.

It is a good exercise in awareness to think about who these guides have been, or who they may be, in our lives today.  Then to learn from them to slow down and pick up our own rakes or paint brushes, write our own poems, paint our own canvasses, practice a kindness that stretches the frame of us.

 

 

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