Ways of Being

(Zoom Xplore Talk: November 05, 2020)

Welcome to our sixth and final session of “Life Sentences.” At the start of this final session, I want to thank you for your interest in this subject and for your encouragement and support as we have learned together in the Zoom sessions, on the Bountiful Journey website, and in a number of one-on-one e-mails. Our gatherings conclude today, but I trust that for each of us our life-story explorations will continue.  

In the year that I retired, the senior students at Garden Valley Collegiate invited me to be their Commencement speaker. It was a great honour…though I heard one businessman say, “Those kids have had teachers yapping at them for years. Couldn’t they find anyone better?”  He had a point, but I was called to serve. And one of the things I noted in my remarks to the graduating students was that “commencement” does not mean “the end”; it means a “beginning.” For us, too, I trust, the days beyond this final gathering will mark not an end but a rich beginning.

For me, this course has been a beginning, a ‘first draft,’ and though I may not teach it like this again, I anticipate there will be further drafts. I will continue to read and reflect and learn and write. The Bountiful Journey website will continue to evolve, as will the “Life Sentences” part of it. I invite you to continue using it and to share the materials you find with anyone you feel may find them of use.

Last week, we were fortunate to have Allen Harder share from his experience editing the memoir of his brother-in-law John Lewis Taylor, both the challenges and the lessons learned. Allen has kindly provided me with a copy of his remarks and you’ll find them on the website, linked to the Zoom session notes for last week. (Allen Harder’s Reflections on Memoir Editing)

This morning, I’m grateful to have yet another perspective on book editing, this time from Gladys Terichow. I first became aware of Gladys’ work as a journalist in the mid-1980s, when she was working for The Scratching River Post in Morris, MB. Since then, she’s written for CUSO International, for the Carillon News in Steinbach, for Mennonite Central Committee, and—these past seven years—for dozens of publications as a freelance journalist.

Thanks to Gladys for sharing, in person and in text, her perspectives on editing, including her work on the Along the Road to Freedom project. [Gladys Terichow:  “What Do Copy Editors Look For?”]

When we began this course, on Oct. 1st, I shared with you some of the directions I thought we might go and, for the most part, we’ve made that journey. I also invited you to share your hopes and expectations for the learning, and that for me has been a helpful guide. 

You may recall from your childhood years seeing at railroad crossings the words: “Stop, Look, and Listen.” Before the invention of mechanical gates and flashing lights, that slogan helped people to remember to stay alert in their driving.  The “Stop, Look, and Listen” advice also applies to our concluding reflections this morning, a perspective that I call the “Ways of Being.”  Before we turn our attention there, it may help to look back briefly at where we’ve come.

In Session 1—“Good Stories, Meaningful Lives”—I suggested that we ourselves are a story and that by writing about our experiences and memories we can gain a deeper appreciation of their richness, goodness and completeness, and that also we might see better ways to tell our life story than we have told it in the past.

One of the amazing changes in human history has been the extension of our human life span—a gain of about 30 years since 1900, what gerontologist Dr. Robert Butler has called “the gift of longevity.”  WHAT DO WE DO WITH THAT GIFT?

In Session 2, I drew on research about aging to discern three important tasks that older people now confront: evaluation, integration, and communication. In several lessons, we’ve explored their corresponding forms of writing: 

  • Writing for discovery (exploring and evaluating who we are at this age and stage of life)
  • Writing for wholeness (integrating our varied experiences and, perhaps, recovering our full sense of identity)
  • Writing for legacy (showing our love and concern for others in the reflections that we share)

We have talked about  “2020 Vision” and the importance of “Stories of Hope.” We have explored—much too briefly—the process of “Restorying Our Lives” (Session 4): collecting our memories, clarifying our thoughts and feelings through writing, seeking coherence as we assemble the fragments of our lives into a bigger and better picture, and searching for congruence that connects us to our society, our times and the Transcendent. 

And, last week in Session 5, we anticipated “A Call from the Future,” how we might speak to the needs and interests of our children, grandchildren and younger friends, those who wish to know how we’ve handled conflict, what has given us hope, and where we’ve found meaning, purpose, and direction in times that seem confused and uncertain. 

We may see our lives as ordinary, but they are as unique as our winter snowflakes. And I contended that when we write about our experiences and memories, it is not vanity; it is legacy. 

Last week I referred to our life stories as signposts for others to follow. I called them “narrative Inuksuks,” trail markers that provide direction.  Let me share now an “Inuksuk moment” that has done much to change my retirement thinking. Starting several years ago, I developed a course on “healthy aging” called “The Best Is Yet To Be.” And during the first delivery one of the men in our group, a successful farmer, talked about his father. 

The older man loved farming—the “Go-Go” pace and long hours his farm required. Even after turning over the operation to his sons, he continued to be involved, driving out to the farm most days to assist with the work. In time, he slowed down and though he felt frustrated with the “Slow-Go” change, he made a reasonable adaptation. 

Eventually, he reached the “No-Go” stage. He no longer could pull himself up into the combine cab. Nor could he run the tractor safely because he tended to fall asleep. In near despair, he said to his son one day: “Just put me in a ditch and shoot me. I’m useless!” And the son replied, “But you’re Dad.” What a different conversation! The father was talking about Doing; the son, about relationship, about Being.

That story has haunted me. It stands like a signpost, warning me—as I transition from the “Go-Go” stage into the “Slow-Go” one—that somewhere ahead is the “No-Go.” How will I deal with that? Will I manage any better than the old farmer?

In the course description for “Life Sentences,” I posed the question: “Who am I now, at this age and stage?” In the Writing Activities, we can answer this question in many different ways. But I’d like to look at it like a winter tree, stripped to its most basic form.

Throughout our lives, we have dealt with three modes of existence: Having, Doing, and Being. Each of them has a place in our life. There are things that we need to have. There are things that we need to do. And there are times and ways that we need to be.

Yet as we age, the appropriate balance may change.  When we no longer have the room or desire for all the possessions we once relied on, we need to downsize what we HAVE. And when we no longer can engage in all of the activities we once enjoyed, we need to step back from what we’re DOING.  The time comes when we need to explore the ways of BEING…and that is the focus of this final session, along with the role that writing can play.

What disturbed me, when I heard the story of the old farmer, is that I could imagine a future time when I would be just as unprepared. I enjoy working hard. I love being ‘productive.’ I suspect most of us desire to be active and meaningfully engaged. We get much satisfaction from ‘a job well done.’

Yet we can become so frantically busy that we not only forget to “smell the roses,” we don’t even notice them. We lose sight of the deeper meaning and purpose in life, and when the time comes that we no longer can be so active, like the old farmer we feel “useless.”  Then, we need to find our meaning in other ways, in what I call “the ways of Being.”  

One of the problems with too much emphasis on Doing is that it narrows our values to utilitarian ones. Our identity and our sense of self worth are tied up in what we do rather than who we are. 

There are other values:

  • Humanistic values that focus on family and community—companionship with people and animals; (our pets, our volunteering reflects humanistic values)
  • Moral values that sustain our spiritual pilgrimage and inform our ethical relationships; 
  • Ecological values that help us to understand and appreciate the natural world—wildlife and the variety of flora, whether it be in a wilderness setting or our backyard garden. And…
  • Aesthetic values—the array of visual, literary, and performing arts that enliven our imaginations. We listen to music; we view great art; we watch dance and dramatic performances.  And we write. 

What I have been exploring in recent months is how writing can be meditative, a way to go within and beyond ourselves, seeking a better sense of Self and openness to Transcendent presence. As yet, I do not have a regular meditation practice, so here I am drawing from my experiences in occasional classes and weekend retreats. I am convinced that just as we “learn by doing,” we also can “learn by being.” 

 When I studied the research on aging and discerned the three tasks—evaluation, integration, and communication—I think missed one. There is a fourth task, and I missed it in part because it pertains to all age groups. That is the task of evocation—to evoke or call forth what lies within us.

Most of us have some familiarity with the field of psychology. Likely we’ve heard of Sigmund Freud and his contemporary Carl Jung. Possibly we also know of Alfred Adler, Otto Rank and some of the other leading psychoanalysts of the early 20th century. What they were pursuing we now call “depth psychology,” an understanding of ourselves beyond our conscious mind. 

They had many different theories, of course, and we can get lost in the complex names and concepts that come out of their respective approaches. But essentially they were concerned with our inner health and well-being and with our personal growth—with how we become adult…and even wise elders.

The early practitioners were seeing people with significant problems—depression, phobias, hysteria, obsessions, compulsions, and so on. They believed that these problems stemmed from repressed thoughts and feelings and that if the person could bring them back into consciousness, the problem could be cured. 

There is value in that, but the process is time-consuming, costly, and often not effective.  It’s called psychoanalysis, and often that analytical mind is not conducive to calling forth the best of our inner Self. As well, many of these practitioners formed their theories about how our unconscious works based on people who were not well; they did not provide good guides for those who were healthy and who wanted to integrate their inner and outer selves, the critical conscious mind and the creative unconscious one.

For such people—and I count myself among them—a better approach to the unconscious comes out of the Contemplative tradition and its meditative practices. It can be as simple as this:

  • Find a place that is quiet and free from distractions. Have a notebook on hand or sit at your computer if that setting suits.
  • If you are used to meditating, or having a quiet prayer time, enter the silence in your familiar way.
  • If this is new to you, simply take a few minutes, sitting still and consciously following your breathing: in and out. “I am breathing in; I am breathing out.”
  • Then, for ten minutes or so, just write down whatever comes to you from the silence. 
  • After your time of writing, read back what you have written and record any additional thoughts that come to you.

If you are familiar with the Lectio Divina approach to scripture (it simply means Divine Reading), you can adapt it to meditative writing—reading the scripture passage, meditatively reflecting on it, responding to it (writing in your notebook as your means of prayer), and then resting in silence for anything further the Spirit might say.

I’ve described this Evocative process in two of the Writing Activities: 

  • In “Sentences That Give Life” I’ve noted that some people use the Lectio Divina approach with passages in addition to scripture. They will take a quotation from others or something that they themselves have written, read it repeatedly, quietly reflect on it, and then respond to it. 

It can be a significant way for those sentences to give life, speaking with the energy and creativity of our unconscious mind.

In the “Sentences That Give Life” activity, I mention in that an excellent short book—Simply Soul Stirring: Writing as A Meditative Practice. It is written by the late Reverend Francis Dorff, who was a specialist in holistic depth psychology.

  • In the “Turning Points” writing activity (Option B), I also describe the evocative recall of major events in one’s life. 

There I reference the work of one of Francis Dorff’s mentors, Ira Progoff, who is one of the giants in the field of contemporary depth psychology. Dr. Progoff was an American psychotherapist and early in his career he worked for several years in Switzerland with Carl Jung. 

As a professor at Drew University, Progoff led an extended study of people who were healthy and successful and, using those findings, he sought to identify the creative process by which others could grow and develop.  I first became aware of his work through a cousin in Kansas, who as a Mennonite pastor, had taken training in Progoff’s Intensive Journal Workshop approach. It is a very systematic and very powerful use of meditation, reflection and writing for transformative personal growth.

For years one had to travel considerable distances to take the Progoff workshop, but I was delighted to learn in 2003 that it was available at St. Benedict’s Retreat Centre north of Winnipeg. Sister Virginia Evard, the prioress at St. Benedict’s has extensive experience conducting the workshops.  I have taken both levels “(Life Context” and “Depth Contact”) and I will say that in terms of creativity and spiritual energy, it is one of the most transformative experiences I’ve known. (Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the workshops at St. Ben’s are “on hold” but when they are available again, I recommend them without reserve).

For me, the Progoff program and its training in  meditative writing provides one of the needful “ways of Being.”  Of course, there are other ways—less intense, less systematic—but I do encourage you to consider how you might use meditative writing to evoke the wisdom of your inner self and to experience the creativity and enrichment it can bring.

We began this course thinking about the title “Life Sentences,” how it can suggest confinement and punishment. Sometimes our writing is like that—at least mine is. I get stuck and, like a prisoner I stare at the wall. But I also know the excitement and joy that writing can bring when the words are flowing. It is my hope that in these sessions together, along with the Writing Activities and Writing Lessons, you may have sensed a way to move forward in your writing, that you will feel inspired to create sentences about your life and that you will find sentences that give you life.

In closing, I will repeat from Session 1 the words of the poet T.S. Eliot: “We shall never cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.” 

In many ways, we have come full circle. We may be back to where we started, Writing for Discovery, considered now not just with our analytical, evaluative faculties, but with our unconscious evocative mind. As you continue to recall, record and reflect, I hope that you might feel that you know your place and that you see your life in a new and fresh way.

Thank you again for your interest. May you have fun with your writing…and may we all find a good way of Being!