For those of you who have been following my blog since the beginning, you’ll know that I went through a massive deconstruction of my faith from August-December of 2015. There are many others who are experiencing the same thing right now. Many have gone before me and many will follow.
I have talked with a lot of you whose deconstruction periods lasted a lot longer than mine. I’m not sure if the swiftness and abruptness of my deconstruction made it more painful than if it had lasted longer, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case. It was extremely disorientating, uncomfortable, lonely, painful and full of grief.
While the deconstruction process is important to go through if you can no longer ignore the doubts and questions you may be experiencing, I don’t believe it’s a healthy place to remain in forever. Sooner or later, there is nothing left to deconstruct. It’s easy to become negative and overly cynical and skeptical.
As the old saying goes, “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.”
So, since the beginning of last year, I’ve been in the process of reconstructing my faith. While this has presented itself with an entirely new set of challenges, it’s been a beautiful and humbling journey. The pressure is off as I’ve come to realize that God desires my trust more than my “correct” beliefs.
Since my reconstruction began, there have been two particularly difficult pieces to put back together in a new way:
- The practice of prayer.
- The idea of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” – a phrase and concept found nowhere in the Bible, but became a popular 20th century evangelical tenet.
While I’ve come to see how these two pieces are more connected than I once thought, today’s post will primarily be about the first. However, the second may very well be the main topic of a future post.
So, when your entire construct for God comes tumbling down and you begin to reconstruct new ideas, how you connect with God naturally changes.
Essentially, my idea of God growing up was that of the Genie in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. God was not only there to grant me wishes, but to be a real and personal friend who I could talk to about anything, hear clearly back from, would make me feel better about everything and guide me through life.
While not all of those attributes are necessarily untrue, “the Genie model” wasn’t really working within my new construct. It was too small and my concept of God was expanding rapidly.
Apart from sharing what I was thankful for, my prayers began including a lot less talking and increased in moments of silence. I learned to meditate and I began to walk down the road of contemplative mysticism. However, I was doing this alone and would often ask myself, “Am I doing this right?” I began to hit the wall of self-doubt and felt as though I needed a guide.
At the same time, I had been thinking about going on a spiritual retreat. While my deconstruction period seemed quick, my reconstruction period seemed to go by even faster. I was thinking, reading and talking this stuff out constantly. It was exciting, but I felt the need to get away alone, push pause and let it all simmer a bit.
But I didn’t want my first retreat to be a silent one off in the woods somewhere. It’s not that that doesn’t sound appealing to me, but I live in Houston; the fourth largest city in the country with lots of noise and distractions. If I’m going to learn some new practices, I want to learn them in a context where it’ll be easy to bring them home and practice in my everyday life. I needed to go to another city.
So, about five months ago, in the middle of all this, I got an email saying that someone whose journey and work I respect very much was going to start offering personal, private spiritual retreats in his backyard, which he turned into an ‘urban monastery’, in Los Angeles. The retreat would primarily be self-directed, but would include guided meditations every morning and night.
This was perfect. I was already looking for some help and I knew I wanted to go somewhere urban. I applied, was accepted and scheduled the retreat for the second week of May.
As I flew to Los Angeles (the first time traveling alone in 11 years), I had few expectations – not low, but few. I had no idea what to expect and I didn’t want to expect something unrealistic, miss out on something and come home disappointed. All I knew was that I needed some extended time alone in a new setting (something I never get) and some new practices and rhythms in my life.
I arrived, met my hosts Michael and Lisa and settled in to their little back house that I had to myself for five days. Michael and I then met to discuss a little bit of my story and what I hoped to receive out of my time there. He then guided me on a 25 minute meditation where we focused on our breaths to stay present; something I had tried before, but only by myself.
For the record, I find it very difficult to live in the moment. I’m not one to dwell on the past, but I’m constantly thinking, planning and worrying about the future. Sitting still in silence and embracing the present moment isn’t something that comes natural to me.
That first day on the retreat ended up being one of the longest and most difficult days of my life.
There was no work for me to do.
There were no kids to take care of.
There was no wife to hang out with.
There were no friends to grab beers with.
There was no familiar city to do familiar things in.
I was alone.
By the late afternoon, I was almost in tears. I was lonely and bored. I thought I had made a mistake by coming. I wasn’t ready for this.
After taking a walk and reading for a little bit, my fatigue from the early morning flight on central time collided with my loneliness and boredom, so I took a nap.
Michael and I met up that night and I was honest about how I was feeling. As I tried to describe it, he smiled and said that he understood, based on the spiritual retreats he himself had been on – one of which had been a personal one with Ram Dass.
He then shared a metaphor with me, which was extremely helpful:
He told me to imagine a bottle full of water rolling down a steep hill. It’s rolling and rolling and rolling, picking up speed until it can’t go any faster. All of a sudden, it hits a curb at the bottom of the hill. It has come to a complete stop.
“That’s what happened to you today”, he said. “You’re life has come to a complete stop. The problem is, the water inside the bottle is still turning over and over and over. It’s trying to keep going even though the bottle isn’t going anywhere.”
This made complete sense to me.
Life as I knew it had come to a rapid halt, but my monkey brain was still trying to move a million miles an hour. I was so conditioned for busyness and thinking about tomorrow that I realized I didn’t know how to be present or alone anymore.
I stayed up thinking about what Michael had said. I didn’t know how to slow my mind down any other way than to acknowledge that it was moving too fast and I wasn’t present. I remember surrendering that night and being more open than ever to embracing the moment and spending time alone. I read for a little bit and fell asleep.
Michael and I convened in the morning, as we did every morning I was there. We also met every night. Our first few times meeting consisted of him leading us in a guided meditation before we spent anywhere from 20-40 minutes in silence. We concentrated on our breath in the mornings and concentrated on a flickering candle in the evenings. Both practices were very helpful to me.
There’s nothing astonishingly profound I can share with you about our meditations, but I could feel something changing inside of me. Having a guide was helpful to encourage me that I was on the right track and “doing it right”. Michael and Lisa would share some helpful tips they had learned along the way. Both of them helped tweak many dials inside my brain ever so slightly, which caused an aligning I cannot explain.
In the early afternoon of the second day, I walked about three quarters of a mile to rent a car. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was listening to good music. I was about halfway to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car when an overwhelming sense of thankfulness for the present moment came over me. Here I was, 24 hours after being on the verge of tears and I was on the verge of tears again. But this time, for a complete different reason. For the first time in a long time (maybe ever)
And grateful. For today. For this moment. At this time.
I wasn’t pondering yesterday and I wasn’t worrying about tomorrow.
I was 100% in that moment, happy to be where I was and on my own.
It was overwhelming.
I rented the sexiest vehicle Enterprise had left – a white minivan – and headed to Runyon Canyon Park for a multi-mile hike in the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking L.A.
The next morning, Michael and I went floating.
This is something I had been wanting to try, but hadn’t had the chance yet.
For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, basically what you do is step into a private, oversized tub filled with less than a foot of warm water saturated with 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt.
You float, with no effort required.
We did this for one hour and it felt like 15 minutes. I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to unplug, relax and de-stress. It’s like hitting the pause button on life for an hour.
I spent my time that afternoon in West Hollywood. I went for a long walk before I parked myself at a cafe. I drank coffee, read, wrote and people watched.
The next morning, Michael and I drove up Mount Washington for our morning meditation. We spent our time in a beautiful garden which overlooked the entire city.
I spent that afternoon hiking Mount Hollywood, close to the Griffith Observatory, before heading back to the meditation garden on Mount Washington to do some writing.
I haven’t journaled in over 10 years, but I wrote 35 pages that week.
I also read a lot, but the two books that really stood out to me were:
New Seeds Of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
The Way To Love by Anthony De Mello
I highly recommend both. Especially ‘New Seeds Of Contemplation’. I had had it on my reading list for a while, but I was saving it for this trip and I’m glad I did.
If you’re interested in learning more about contemplation and mysticism, it’s a great resource.
Well, the last day arrived and I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I didn’t want to leave, as I had experienced a spiritually enlightening transformation due to learning new practices, slowing down and living in the moment. On the other hand, I didn’t come to L.A. to stay. I came to learn some new rhythms and bring them home. I wanted to incorporate them into my everyday life and share them with others. I was sad to leave, but excited to be home again at the same time.
That morning, I grabbed an espresso at the coffee shop I had been walking to every morning with Lisa and Amelie (their six-year-old daughter) and then met up with Michael for one last time. I was (and am) eternally grateful for their hospitality, guidance and love they shared with me for those five days. I will never forget it.
When my plane touched down in Houston, I was more excited than I thought I would be. I had already been looking forward to my wife and three sons picking me up at the airport, but my excitement for continuing these practices at home and sharing them with those interested was continuing to grow.
On our way home from the airport, I was talking with my wife and I kept hearing our almost two-year-old in the background saying,
I finally turned around, smiled at him and asked, “Yeah, buddy?”
He answered, “I wuv you.”
I believed him. I felt it.
It’s been three weeks since I’ve been home and my prayer life is completely different. There’s only a few things practically that have actually changed about it, but I feel a whole lot more confident in what I am doing…and what I’m not doing.
My spiritual retreat taught me how to be.
My meditation practice strengthened.
My connectedness to the Divine in everything expanded.
And I’ve been able to share it.
My wife and I have been meditating in silence together in the evenings. We’ve also brought our seven-year-old son into the practice and he is embracing it on his own in a way that is beautifully surprising to us.
I’ve continued to start my days off in 15 minutes of silence and the more I do it, the more I can’t imagine a better way to start any day.
It’s good for my mind, body and soul.
So, I encourage you; if anything I’ve written strikes a chord in you and you have the slightest inclination that a spiritual retreat of any kind might be helpful for you.
I highly recommend the same one I went on.
It just might change your life.
It most certainly changed mine.
And for that, I am grateful.