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How Christians can meditate without leaving the Church

Clouds can symbolize the stillness and restoration that are possible with a practice of centering prayer or meditation.  Image (c) color line via Flickr / Creative Commons.

If you’re a Christian or former or lapsed Christian, have you ever wondered what you’re supposed to actually be doing while praying?  Or perhaps you lost touch with the church after enduring life’s ups and downs, not quite sure how the stories and practices of your church could be applied to struggling with every day life?  Have you ever wondered about the mystery of feeling alive and attuned to yourself and the world, and why it seems that Christianity has so little to say about this?

This was my experience in my twenties, as I became increasingly skeptical about how relevant the practices I had learned in church — prayer generally comprised of asking for favors and protection from God, and stories and songs that felt they were created for people four or five generations before now — were to my adult life.  I stopped attending church service and only visited churches for weddings, musical performances, and funerals.

I’m touching on a number of themes, but the primary one I wanted to discuss here was the loss of practices and rituals that can help Christians cultivate a felt sense of aliveness with themselves, with a sense of the Holy Spirit within, and thus ultimately, with other Christians and non-Christians as they work to live by following the example of Jesus.

The good news is there actually is a practice within Christianity that can help you cultivate the feeling and awareness of the Lord in your daily life, and that can complement reading of scripture, attending church, and so on.  It’s called centering prayer.

Over the past winter holidays, I read Father Thomas Keating’s book, “Open Mind, Open Heart” at the suggestion of Professor Mark Muesse when, in a forthcoming interview, I asked him what he suggested Christians could explore if they were curious about meditation.  Father Keating is an American Trappist monk and priest (Wikipedia bio).  The book is a practical introduction to centering prayer: what it is, how to do it, guidance for overcoming challenges, encouragement for keeping at it, and suggestions for deepening your practice.

On important caveat, since many Christians have either left to church to find more meaning from so-called “Eastern” meditation and spiritual practices, or have remained Christians and integrated these other practices into their Christianity:  many meditation practices, especially mindfulness meditation originating from Buddhism, do not require disavowing any beliefs or adopting new beliefs.  As such they can be practiced within the structure of most Christian denominations.  That possibility, however, does not mean it sits well with many Christians.  What follows is an overview of a practice that has existed in Christianity for centuries and only in the last three or four centuries has gone underground as more purely mental or thought-based forms of prayer have dominated the mainstream instructions for prayer.

What is centering prayer?

Centering prayer is essentially a meditation practice for Christians.  It is part of a larger body of practice termed contemplative prayer.  The only preparation involved is to think of a one or two-syllable “sacred word” that you will use once you start your prayer.  Keating suggests a few that might work for you, such as “God,” “Jesus,” or “amen.”  Then, you will need a quiet place where you can sit comfortably along for twenty minutes.

The prayer begins by sitting still and welcoming the Holy Spirit into your awareness (that is to say, feeling the Holy Spirit that is already within you).  If you get caught up in distracting thoughts – as you inevitably will, and this is normal – you simply say the sacred word silently in your mind to help you return to the present moment.

Keating explains the essence of centering prayer and how it differs implicitly from thought-based prayer:

“Centering prayer is not so much the absence of thoughts as detachment from them.  It is the opening of mind and heart, body and emotions – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts, and emotions … We do not deny or repress what is in our consciousness.  We simply accept the fact of whatever is there and go beyond it, not by effort, but by letting go…” (p. 12)

In this sense, centering prayer is very similar to Buddhist mindfulness meditation, and again in our forthcoming interview, Prof. Mark Muesse (an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College) affirms that, in his opinion, there are no practical differences between centering prayer and mindfulness meditation.  These observations speak to the idea that all religions and spiritual practices really are pointing to the same place; they may just go about trying to get there a little differently.

Why do centering prayer?

Centering prayer, as popularized by modern teachers like Father Keating, aims to bring the spiritual – or the felt, intuitive, and practical daily experiences of aliveness, alertness, and attunement to one’s self and others – back into mainstream Christian practice.  He writes:

“Until spiritual leadership becomes a reality in Christian circles, many will continue to look to other religious traditions for the spiritual experiences they are not finding in their local churches or other Christian institutions.  If there were a widespread renewal of the practice of the contemplative dimension of the Gospel which bonds Christians together at a deeper level, the reunion of the Christian churches would be a real possibility, dialogue with the other world religions would have a firm basis in the spiritual experience of the Christian community, and the religions of the world would bear a much clearer witness to the human values they hold in common.” (p. 8)

In short, Keating believes this practice is fundamental not only to awakening God and living through the Holy Spirit in your individual life, but that it is the key to uniting Christians and non-Christians by focusing more on their common humanity than on the differences of doctrine and belief.  This is one of the fundamental problems of our modern, globalizing time.

In “Open Mind, Open Heart”, Keating offers suggestions for other elements of life that are critical to sustaining one’s path on deepening in centering prayer – having a dedication practice with God (i.e., the rituals of going to Church) and helping others through regular community service.  Keating states these are required to help ground a practitioner in the true practice of living with God in one’s life, and also helps stabilize a person as they go through the initial stages of deepening their awareness and connection with God through centering prayer, which can lead to the discharge of a lot of surprising and uncomfortable thoughts.  This again is similar to what it can feel like in the early stages of meditation, when our experience of life confronts the many superficial motives and actions we have taken in the past or desired for our future.

Keating argues that the practice of centering prayer, if followed diligently and for a long time, can lead one to deeper states of consciousness and attunement with oneself and God.  He writes, “For those who have attained this consciousness, daily life is a continual revelation of God.  The words they hear in scripture and in the liturgy confirm what they have learned through the prayer that is contemplation.” (p. 17)

Where can I learn more?

I’d suggest reading Father Keating’s book as a great starting point.  It ends each section with a Q&A format that can help readers deepen their understanding of the practices and concepts he introduces.

For those of you curious about the historical and/or theological origins of centering prayer, according to Father Keating:

“Centering prayer is based on the wisdom saying of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

‘…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret.  And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:6) “ (p. 176-177)

Here are other writers cited by Father Keating as inspirations for modern centering prayer (the specific suggestions are my own), and many of the below selections offer their own advice on the interior life:

  1. Thomas Merton, “The Seven Storey Mountain”
  2. Author unknown, “The Cloud of Unknowing…”
  3. John of the Cross, “Dark Night of the Soul”
  4. Teresa of Avila, “The Way of Perfection”
  5. Francis de Sales, “Introduction to the Devout Life”
  6. Therese of Lisieux, “The Story of a Soul…”

Editor’s note:  Sorry for the silence since our last article in December, but we prioritized resting and being with family over the winter holidays.  Because our main writer and editor (Andrew) struggles to juggle family, various work and writing projects, and just getting a good night’s sleep, we’ve decided to cut back on our publishing frequency for the near term.  Please look for a thoughtful article every 2-4 weeks going forward, and thank you for your continued support.


How to practice empathy in relationships and at work: 6 ways

In the holiday season, and in general, it would be great to figure out how to see the world from another person’s perspective.  This can help us become aware of the situations of others, which in turn can help us practice generosity.  Recently Steve Robillard wrote about how we can weather rancorous political debates over holiday family meals, and included some tips on empathy.  More generally, in situations with our families, romantic partners, or even work colleagues, how can we practice empathy?

One approach, based on John and Julie Gottman’s long-term research with married couples, involves 4 steps that anyone can take to understand another’s perspective.  Yes, you can use this even when your romantic partner or in-law or business colleague seems to be weaving webs of insult, devising deceptions, or making outrageous observations.  Indeed, what they mean is not likely what it seems at first.  Our job – as people who aspire to communicate skillfully – is to work compassionately to understand them.  Here’s how:

Steps for Empathy Gottmans Rapoport

1. Listen

This sounds self-explanatory, but listening attentively is actually quite difficult.  In a talk via Audio Dharma, Gil Fronsdal — a teacher of mindfulness meditation — recommended that you try to allocate half of your attention to the other person, and half to yourself.  The latter is so that you can monitor and regulate your reactions to the other person’s words, as well as keep yourself grounded in something like the sensation of your breathing of the feeling of your posture.  In doing so, you learn more about yourself, such as what topics or body language make you feel uncomfortable.  And you are more likely to keep an even keel if you feel grounded in yourself.

2. Ask

Instead of jumping in with snappy rebuttals and finely crafted counter-arguments, we need to help the other person feel that we understand their perspective.  Otherwise it will be obvious that we aren’t hearing them, and then in turn, our opinions will not be heard by them, and then soon the argument will escalate to World War III (Family Version).

How to ask questions?  The Gottmans, in turn distilling wisdom from mathematical psychologist and conflict resolution expert Anatol Rapoport, suggest we first ask open-ended questions.  These are the type that invite further explanation.  For instance:

“What makes that so important to you?” or “Can you help me understand this better?” (“And Baby Makes Three”, p. 68; see more on p. 70)

Second, we can take the most negative or undesirable element of the other person’s behavior and then imagine how we also have behaved that way before.  For instance, if your spouse is frustrated over a money issue, instead of rushing to a judgment like she always gives me a hard time about money!, we might reflect on the times we’ve felt upset about money, too: oh yeah, I remember once I gave her a hard time about the budget.  I was frustrated then.  Maybe she’s feeling frustrated now.

3. Restate

Once you’ve asked enough questions to understand the other person’s perspective, then try to restate their perspective.  This also takes practice.  You can use starting phrases like, “So what I hear you saying is…” or “Sounds like you’re feeling [emotion] about…” until you find words that work for you.  The Gottmans write about Rapoport’s findings:

“We need to be able to state our version of our partner’s point of view to our partner’s satisfaction before stating our own point of view.” (p. 68)

4. Validate

Finally, we can share why the other person’s perspective makes sense to us.  We don’t have to agree with their comments, of course, but it’s critical to fully honor that their feelings are real for them.  The Gottmans provide examples on page 70 including:

“I get it”

“Good point”

“Your views make sense to me because…”

“You have a right to feel [emotion].”

Please see the Gottmans’ book (pages 71-73) for helpful exercises to diagnose your romantic relationship and to practice empathy.

* * *

This is certainly not the only way to approach empathy in relationships and negotiations.  Here are a few others you can try:

  1. Meditate, especially using a practice (like Vipassana or Insight Meditation) that involves mindful speech and listening. Generally this is an awareness practice, but also can help you chill out over time.  For helpful secular introductions to meditation practices, see “Practicing Mindfulness: an Introduction to Meditation” (Mark Muesse; The Great Courses), and “Quiet Mind (Susan Piver, ed.).  These practices generally come from Buddhism but are, as described, stripped down to the practical basics and devoid of any required worldviews or beliefs.  As such, it can be explored by people of faith and atheists alike.
  2. Read the book, “Nonviolent Communication” (Rosenberg)  (see our article about cultivating emotional awareness]
  3. Practice contemplative prayer or centering prayer.  This path may appeal more to those with monotheistic religious beliefs, and the practices come out of the mystical branches of Christianity, and ultimately stem back to guidance Jesus provided, for instance, in Matthew 6:6.  See Thomas Keating’s, “Open Mind, Open Heart” for more.
  4. Read literature or well-written history (see this NY Times article about the benefits of reading literature)
  5. Write as if you were a writer of fiction about past events or how you imagine future events transpiring (e.g., see “Sources of Power” (Klein) and the above NY Times article).  Write as if you and other people were characters in a novel, and don’t worry too much about the polish or execution of your prose.  Get into your mind and the other character’s minds — what do they want?  Why would they have acted that way?  Have you ever felt that way?

Editor’s note:  This is our latest article in a “book club” series inspired by John and Julie Gottman’s book, “And Baby Makes Three.” Previously, we wrote about “4 ways to thank your loved one” and in the next article, we will explore ways to escape an out-of-control, rancorous argument before either one of you gets too hurt. 

Like what you’re reading?  Please become an email subscriber here to enjoy monthly emails with our latest posts and access to special content like full-length interviews, eBooks, and related articles we’ve been reading.

"For women figuring out men, and men figuring out ourselves." XY Culture. Image by Matt Hebermehl

Figure out men at XY Culture

We are excited to share new artwork by Matt Hebermehl, created for and inspired by our blog!

Stay tuned for a future post where we riff on the tree as a powerful metaphor for learning, connecting, evolving, and growing — be we men or women.

Also please bear with us as we make some formatting improvements to the site over the next few days.

Thank you!

Limantour Beach inspiration

Inspiration from music, books, and poetry (Inspiring Shorts #1)

(Image by Franco Folini of Limantour Beach (via Flickr and Creative Commons) at Point Reyes National Seashore, a location that has often inspired Andrew)

Editor’s note:  occasionally we’ll be too busy to write something of length (or quality!) — such as over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays here in the States — but we want to keep the cadence of weekly articles going out to you all.

As an experiment suggested by a long-time reader (JJ in Seattle), we’re testing out this new idea, and we’re calling it, “Inspiring Shorts.”  We’ll share good vibes from inspiring books we’re reading, poems we’ve written, music we’re listening to, or other sources of inspiration.  We hope that we pass some of the good energy on to you.

Original poetry:

“Sizzling Rain Curtain”

(J. Andrew McKee, MD; August, 2014)

Sizzling rain curtain,
Pointing the way to stillness,
in spite of gadgets.

(written during a downpour; it is now raining outside as I type, so I figured now was the time to share)

Inspiring quotations from books we’ve been reading:

On nurturing the positive energies within us:

“To better succeed at [exercise #10 of breath awareness*] we must know how to recognize and touch the positive mental formations that are already present in us, such as faith, goodwill, compassion, understanding tolerance, and equanimity.  Our mind becomes joyful every time we recognize these positive mental formations.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh with Annabel Laity, “Breathe!  You Are Alive: Sutra On Full Awareness Of Breathing,” (Parallax, revised edition, 1996, p. 62)

* In Hanh’s translation, the Buddha’s tenth exercise in his sutra (or talk) on breath awareness was, “Breathing in, I make my mind happy.  Breathing out, I make my mind happy.”

On the benefits of patient meditation practice:

“As we learn to be alertly and calmly present in our meditation, a deeper intimacy with ourselves and with the world will arise.  As we cultivate our ability to remain mindful without interfering, judging, avoiding, or clinging to our direct experience, wellsprings of insight and wisdom have a chance to surface.”

— Gil Fronsdal (“The Issue at Hand,” Bookland, 2001, p. 43)

Music we’ve been enjoying:

How to Debate the Family Idiot — 11 Tips for Surviving Holiday Politics

With the holiday season approaching, many of us will soon face the familiar joys of political debate at the family table. Perhaps the most productive and hallowed of holiday pastimes, debating politics and other social issues with family is an incredible chance to learn and an even better opportunity to draft real solutions for the tough problems facing our country today. If any of the previous sentences ring true, please call science and have them plasticize you and your entire family. You are worthy of future study and are indeed a greater miracle than whichever deity, animal, or sports team you will be celebrating.

For most of us, politics around the holiday table is unadulterated torture. The limited time we spend with family doesn’t allow for the finer print of our opinions. Instead we’re forced to cram our beliefs into a contentious headline — towing the party line and waging wars we didn’t feel strongly about from the start. Even our least informed relatives are somehow made more brainless and partisan by the advent of a holiday feast. It’s a shame. We’ve come together to connect with loved ones, but too often we find ourselves walking on eggshells or grinding old axes. Turkey makes ideologues of us all.

This year a perfect storm is in the forecast. Polarizing midterm elections, troubles in the Middle East, and a recovering economy promise an arsenal of social hand grenades, trembling at the pin. Even those of us blessed with largely apolitical families may not escape its wrath. There’s always an Uncle Bob or Aunt Sue on the guest list — a family member, just aching to blab on about the latest headlines.

Yes, at this very moment your Uncle Bob is collating the trendiest non-facts from his favorite media pulpit — readying for the right moment to ask you something dumb and aggravating about the Keystone pipeline. Uncle Bob likes his pie with pie charts and he won’t be satisfied until you are stuffed to the gizzard with every Reagan-era aphorism he can remember. In the other corner, your Aunt Sue is pulling all-nighters, absorbing old podcasts and reciting snarky quips from her favorite eCards. She’s been waiting all year to see the look on your face when she opens her MacBook Air and unveils the latest viral protesting anti-virals. Armed with empirical data so infallible, it could only have come from YouTube — Aunt Sue’s jarring segues are the only thing making that store-bought Butterball seem organic.

Yes, their arguments will be ridiculous and their evidence will be the lobotomized versions of stuff my dog thinks, but — by God — Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue are louder than you and by right of conquest, they are going to be heard.

We all experience this crushing dilemma: do I engage, crusading to make the world a better place or do I abstain — masking my nuanced opinions and keeping the peace? Save the world or save the meal?

As the night wears on and your polite wave/smile/sidestep loses its sheepish grace, you may find the choice is made for you. Often we are involuntarily pulled into the fray, tapping into the same righteous rage that fuels Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob’s collective bloodlust. It’s natural – even primitive. An adrenalized fight or flight mechanism takes hold and we’re caught in a mental gridlock with no hope of any real resolution. Suddenly, it’s 2am. We’re so mad we can’t sleep and for the last hour we’ve been muttering vague iterations of things we’ve never clicked from our Facebook feed. “Everyone knows Rand Paul is against traditional breathing.” “I heard Hillary Clinton wants to give financial aid to ghosts.”  

If disinterested, how do we forgo a political skirmish? If involved, how do we maintain our poise? And if cornered and depleted, how do we make our escape? To these questions and more, the following may prove useful…

  • Keep breathing – Let’s rewind to 5pm. The night is young. You still have your composure. Since rage begets rage, this is the best time to galvanize your serenity for the evening to come. Take each comment in stride. Visualize your breath. Practice right now. Breathing gives us perspective. It focuses our attention on the essentials and dissipates our reactive nature. You’ll be breathing whether you think about it or not, so use it as a mental home base. Keep breathing and not just because you’ll die if you don’t.
  • Prepare a mantra – While reading this article, you may find yourself laughing at the prospect of getting angry in a family debate. These mouth breathers can’t ruffle my feathers. Not this year, anyway. This thought is our friend. It’s a snapshot of you in a state of peace and tranquility. In this moment, make a mantra to act as your breadcrumb trail — something short and sweet to remind you of your current mindset. If you feel yourself getting upset, say the mantra. Let it be an avenue back to a calmer you. This season, mine will be “Top of the muffin to you.” Muslims hate women? Top of the muffin to you. Birth control causes homosexuality? Top of the muffin to you. 9/11 was a government conspiracy? Top of the muffin to you. Now, who’s ready for some discourse? …and for fuck’s sake, who is baking muffins?
  • Talk like a peer – Breathing hasn’t worked. Aunt Sue’s assertion that the lunar landings were faked by the Bush administration is getting the better of you. Her weaponized laugh is tearing at the fabric of your reality and her Merlot teeth are evoking a puritanical, witch hunting instinct. Worse yet, she seems to be winning over the room – indoctrinating your parents into her most unfounded beliefs. A lesser you would lash out: You’re the reason our country is going down the toilet.” You may say, “I can’t believe how well brainwashing works on halfwits like you!” Remember your perspective is unique, nuanced, and well researched. Though it may be tempting to take an aggressive, contrarian view as a means of “burning” Aunt Sue, you’ll find more luck expressing your authentic beliefs. Instead of, “you lefties blame the Bush Administration for everything,” try, “I saw a really interesting documentary about that, but there’s plenty of evidence that may challenge your thoughts on the subject.” Talk to her like a peer — not like a child, not like the enemy, and not like a witch. This isn’t The Crucible.
  • Do or Do Not – As previously stated, your perspective is unique. So much so, that it may require more than a gentle jab to explain. If you are going to engage, be prepared to commit. Only requiring one sarcastic barb to defend your entire worldview is both optimistic and naive. Make an active choice to participate or abstain.
  • Know your “enemy” – Political arguments are often derived from other unspoken conflicts within the family dynamic. Frequently, our belief that a relative is smug, prejudiced, or elitist is based on unresolved feelings that developed prior to the meal. Don’t let your preconceptions mute what your relative is saying. Step one in resolving any conflict is having both parties understand how the other feels. Let’s assume the best. Behind every smug simper is an insecure intellect who would like nothing more than to impress you. Behind every angry, bigoted prong is a person who fears their hegemony is at risk. It’s sympathetic, really. Beneath it all, they’re just people — flawed, scared, normal people. Know who you’re dealing with and use this opportunity to comfort and heal. 
  • Define your objective – It’s 8pm. Uncle Bob’s world view is so contrary to your own that you fear a mental Y2K shutting down your entire brain. Instead of drooling on the linoleum, you’ve opted to politely engage in the conversation. You’re in and that’s okay. Politics, religion, current events – these subjects are not poison. They only become deleterious when we let anger corrupt our ability to share and listen. Debating should be a source of insight and a quest for truth – not an exercise in strong-arming our opinion. Your “opponent” may not share this belief, but that will be his or her downfall. Debate with serenity. Discuss with clarity. You can do this and do it well.
  • Listening won’t make you dumber – Remember, this debate isn’t televised (hopefully, anyway) and you are not against the clock. Therefore, silence is your ally. There is nothing more disarming to a political opponent than quiet reflection. Listening is not an act weakness. It is an act of strength and deliberation and it will usually result in your opponent thinking, “I probably sound crazy right now?” Beyond its tactical strengths, listening makes the conversation a more fulfilling experience for you. Instead of thinking, “Wrong! He’s so wrong,” listening could provide you with an insight like, “Uncle Bob’s generation seems so untrusting of government organizations. I wonder where that comes from.” Your next response could then be a question, rather than an accusation.
  • Avoid inflammatory language – It’s 10pm. What is your goal? Truthfully, what would you like to see happen? Perhaps an ideal result has you winning the argument, converting Aunt Sue or Uncle Bob to your side of the political aisle, thus garnering an election-swinging vote for your favorite candidate at a critical time in human history. Does this sound accurate? Well, you’re not going to hurt someone into agreeing with you. So avoid using accusatory, slanderous, condescending, or otherwise absolutist language. Yes, they are fringe lunatics. No, you can’t tell them that. Avoid “you conservatives…” or “you liberals…” Avoid “news flash, hotshot,” and “wake up, princess!” Avoid “rednecks” or “tree-huggers.”  Don’t marginalize their opinions by assigning labels and don’t attempt to embarrass them by belittling their assumed ignorance. You’ll only make it worse.
  • Give the other side some credit – Most political donnybrooks take place between two diametrically opposed combatants — one liberal and one conservative. However, when asked in less contentious environments, most people describe themselves as moderate. Why is the nature of our political discussions so binary? I won’t attempt to answer that here. But I do know this is what your in-laws are expecting. Your relatives are quite comfortable with this type of duality, this black and white thinking. Pull a surprise attack and defend something that the “other side” has done well. “I don’t believe in this war, but that Obama has put together a great plan on net neutrality.” “Bush may have screwed the pooch with this Iraq mess, but it certainly took the war away from the homeland.” For whatever reason, we’re so used to conceding to polarized thinking that we forget to call a spade a spade. Try being pragmatic. It will take the conversation to a more nuanced and productive place.
  • No news is good news – Unfortunately our minds are so littered with half-baked news entertainment, we often forget the source of our information. In turn, we more frequently base arguments on headlines and blurbs rather than full articles and studies. This becomes exaggerated when our backs are against the wall. Use this to your advantage. Ask your kinsmen to source his or her information. Not to be difficult, but to gain a better understanding of how and why your relative feels the way he or she does. Perhaps focus your attention on the flaws in their news source. If you’re really ambitious, go a step further and show them a more credible place to receive information. Be honest and realistic about your own news outlets. I watch Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, and Rachel Maddow – none of which are disciplined sources of news (and are not pretending to be). I read the TPNN and AATTP. Pornography is better researched. It’s fun to read, sure — but we really cannot trust these corrosive candy stores of fiction as viable sources of fact. They are designed to inflame not inform. Perhaps try the BBC, Vox,, or The Economist. Missing the flashy, dystopian graphics and hot blondes? Guess what? News isn’t supposed to look like sports!
  • Plan the getaway – It’s 3am. This argument has lasted longer than you ever dreamed it would. Your voice is hoarse. You’re so exhausted (and perhaps inebriated) that you can’t even recall who you voted for in the last election. Aunt Sue looks like she may throw a chair. Uncle Bob has a constitution of 70% Klonopin. If you need an exit strategy, false equivalencies are a fantastic way to call it a night. “Well, there’s corruption on both sides.” “We really just need to kick all these turkeys out of office.” It’s a massive cop-out. It’s remarkably untrue. But go for it; you’ve earned it. Your relatives will buy it and there’s really no reason to cause more ire if tensions have reached a boiling point. Get some sleep. There’s always next year.

Sure, some opinions are just not worth hearing. We can’t be democratic about bad ideas. That doesn’t mean that the people who conjure these opinions aren’t deserving of our attention. We’re all products of our own life experiences and we’d like to see these experiences validated. Perhaps that’s service in a war or being victimized by a robbery. Maybe it’s a sexual orientation or a socio-economic situation. Often this is what your opponents seek: they’re not trying to be right; they’re trying to be heard.

As one organism living in a vast environment, we’re only privy to a small sample of data with which to establish our opinions. Personal experience can often prove insufficient in assessing universal truths. “Well, there can’t be global warming. We had the worst blizzard I’ve ever seen last year.” This, of course, is incorrect.

It’s important to listen to the experiences of our loved ones, but it’s also important to encourage them to seek information beyond the framework of their daily lives. Perhaps this is a more worthy aim than just belittling their stupid (and I do mean stupid) judgments and theories.

By being reactive and inflammatory, we force our family to solidify snap judgments on unfamiliar topics.  Stay cool. Help them see that there’s more than what’s in front of them. Guide them to consider that they’re not supposed to have all the answers. Explore. This year, foster reason and compassion in the ones you love. Instead of serving up some humble pie, perhaps consider baking a healthy portion of perspective and a nice side of scientific fact. Aunt Sue and Uncle Bob may think it has a funny taste, but if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else next year. Like straight to hell! Top of the muffin to you.

Take Away

-Keep Breathing.

-Prepare a mantra.

-Don’t settle for a simple contrarian view.

-Choose to commit or abstain.

-Look beyond the anger of your loved one.

-Define your goal. Why are you having this debate?

-Silence is an asset.

-Avoid inflammatory language.

-Give the other side credit.

-Pay attention to the information’s source.

-Have an exit strategy.

Like what you’re reading?  Please become an email subscriber here to enjoy monthly emails with our latest posts and access to special content like full-length interviews, eBooks, and related articles we’ve been reading.

White Snake Fairy Tale men community emotions

Why men need community and compassion: “The White Snake” fairy tale

(photo credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr / Creative Commons)

Fairy tales for men?  These four words seem guaranteed to turn off most men from reading any further.  But hold up – if you’ve ever felt alone, hurt or confused by a romantic partner, tremendously angry without explanation, or confused about what it means to be a man in our changing times – then please read on.

Fairy tales can teach us about our culture and what’s important for manhood.  We need a new understanding of manhood today, as in modern America we have almost no positive role models for men.  Instead, it seems that what’s been popular for the past several generations are celebrity and executive role models who are often chauvinistic, womanizing, ignorant of their children and/or spouses, hot-tempered, or even violent (in their words and/or actions).

Many men can feel stuck and not have the teachers, mentors, or advice about how to make positive changes in their lives.  Other men may feel tremendously hurt, for various reasons, and act out of that hurt in vociferous or even violent ways.  It is curious that almost all the domestic violence and public shootings are perpetrated by men.

One way forward is to dust off cultural stories that existed before the twentieth century and see what they have to teach us.  As odd as it may sound to anyone reading this under age forty, fairy tales have some credibility as reflection tools for adults.  Carl Jung, the psychiatrist who co-founded the C.G. Jung Institute Zurich and who pioneered “Analytical Psychology and Psychotherapy”, viewed fairy tales as helpful for revealing archetypes that exist in our subconscious and are informed by our collective experiences [see the Jung About page here].

Maria Tatar, in her introduction to her translation and annotations of “The Annotated Brothers Grimm” (2012), asserts that, “The tales not only reflect psychic realities and lived experience, they have also shaped lives through their construction of cultural anxieties and desires.”  In summarizing the work of scholars who have studied fairy tales, she writes that many fairy tales have been forged over centuries by a fascinating array of intermingling cultures:

“…each fairy tale presents us with a multivoiced [sic] discourse, blending the high with the low, combining the coarse humor of peasants with the bon mots of aristocrats, the racy style of a raconteur with the poetic turn of phrase from an author, the adventuring spirit of the seaman with the focused domestic concentration of the spinner.” (p. xliii)

In the nineteen eighties and nineties, a range of books emerged from writers like Robert Bly, Robert A. Johnson, and Marion Woodman– all influenced by Carl Jung – who explored the relevance of fairy tales to topics including self-awareness, masculinity, femininity, coming of age and initiation, and healthy families.  Examples include Bly’s “Iron John”, Johnson’s “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”, and Bly and Woodman’s “The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine”.

Philip Culbertson’s book, “New Adam: The Future of Male Spirituality” (1992), can appear to be aimed only at Christian men.  But the book may appeal more broadly to anyone who has lost their faith but grew up in a Christian setting or who is looking for refreshingly universal insights on manhood.  Dr. Culbertson, who is a trained psychotherapist, ordained Episcopal priest, and skilled translator, writes with a clarity and perspective that is welcoming to readers of various faith backgrounds.

In the early chapters, Culbertson provides a compassionate, compelling, and concise assessment of the challenges for modern men (my only caveat being that he makes some claims of the role of embryonic development that aren’t clearly referenced and as a result, sounded more like conjecture than science).  Then he moves into “texts of terror” for men.  These are stories in which men wound, shame, and violently attack other men and violate women – stories that, it almost goes without saying, men need to stop reading and letting themselves be influenced by.  Examples include King David and Absalom from the Old Testament(2 Samuel: 13-18).

Next, Culbertson highlights Biblical stories that he believes still point the way to modern, mature manhood, focusing on Jesus and the relationship between Jonathan and David.  Finally, he ends with recommendations for how men can reconnect and form male-male friendships and men’s communities concerned with developing mature men.

He also responds to Robert Bly and “Iron John: A Book About Men” (1990), which was a New York Times bestseller at the time of Culbertson’s book.  Bly was then one of the most prominent leaders of the so-called “mythopoetic men’s movement” [for a helpful overview, watch this documentary by Bill Moyers, with Robert Bly].  Culbertson kindly but astutely picks apart Bly’s use of “Iron John” (originally “Iron Hans”), a Brothers Grimm fairy tale in which a “Wild Man” from a dark and dangerous forest takes away a young boy and initiates him into manhood.  Then the boy continues on adventures and ultimately ends up satisfying the challenges of a princess to win her hand.  There are some interesting aspects of Bly’s allegorical interpretation of the fairy tale, including his exploration of descent for men and of the value of reflection and meditation for men.

But Culbertson has several valid criticisms of the use of “Iron John” as a universal example for men.  Culbertson argues that the Wild Man of “Iron John” signifies nothing more than the “rugged individualist” model that has caused men so much pain in the last century.  Second, Culbertson’s experience as a therapist and spiritual counselor suggests that men who attempt to seek their “Wild Man” can’t always find it, nor may they want to find such a primitive and un-disciplined force in themselves.  Bly also seems to ignore the value of men’s community and the nurturing and compassionate energies that Culbertson feels are essential for men to develop and mature.

Here’s how Culbertson introduces the fairy tale, “The White Snake,” as a better example of behaviors that men can emulate:

“Bly, then, seems off-base in thinking that contemporary American men need to connect with the primitive and isolationist myths buried deep inside ourselves…Instead we need to do this individual work within a larger body of like-minded males, in order to keep ourselves honest.  The first step then is to connect with the community of men.  Such connection will be facilitated by replacing our isolation myths with stories of the value of men’s working together in harmony with creation.  To this end, I offer one possible alternative to [“Iron John”]…that emphasizes creativity, dignity, the value of a nurturing response, and the importance of being connected to those who share with us [an awe for the wonders of life]” (p. 161). (Ed’s note: word changes in brackets to generalize the Christian perspective).

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Time to judge for yourself — here is “The White Snake,” as translated by Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes (public domain):

“A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdom through all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as if news of the most secret things was brought to him through the air. But he had a strange custom; every day after dinner, when the table was cleared, and no one else was present, a trusty servant had to bring him one more dish. It was covered, however, and even the servant did not know what was in it, neither did anyone know, for the king never took off the cover to eat of it until he was quite alone.

This had gone on for a long time, when one day the servant, who took away the dish, was overcome with such curiosity that he could not help carrying the dish into his room. When he had carefully locked the door, he lifted up the cover, and saw a white snake lying on the dish. But when he saw it he could not deny himself the pleasure of tasting it, so he cut of a little bit and put it into his mouth. No sooner had it touched his tongue than he heard a strange whispering of little voices outside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that it was the sparrows who were chattering together, and telling one another of all kinds of things which they had seen in the fields and woods. Eating the snake had given him power of understanding the language of animals.

Now it so happened that on this very day the queen lost her most beautiful ring, and suspicion of having stolen it fell upon this trusty servant, who was allowed to go everywhere. The king ordered the man to be brought before him, and threatened with angry words that unless he could before the morrow point out the thief, he himself should be looked upon as guilty and executed. In vain he declared his innocence; he was dismissed with no better answer.

In his trouble and fear he went down into the courtyard and took thought how to help himself out of his trouble. Now some ducks were sitting together quietly by a brook and taking their rest; and, whilst they were making their feathers smooth with their bills, they were having a confidential conversation together. The servant stood by and listened. They were telling one another of all the places where they had been waddling about all the morning, and what good food they had found; and one said in a pitiful tone: ’Something lies heavy on my stomach; as I was eating in haste I swallowed a ring which lay under the queen’s window.’ The servant at once seized her by the neck, carried her to the kitchen, and said to the cook: ’Here is a fine duck; pray, kill her.’ ’Yes,’ said the cook, and weighed her in his hand; ’she has spared no trouble to fatten herself, and has been waiting to be roasted long enough.’ So he cut off her head, and as she was being dressed for the spit, the queen’s ring was found inside her.

The servant could now easily prove his innocence; and the king, to make amends for the wrong, allowed him to ask a favour, and promised him the best place in the court that he could wish for. The servant refused everything, and only asked for a horse and some money for travelling, as he had a mind to see the world and go about a little. When his request was granted he set out on his way, and one day came to a pond, where he saw three fishes caught in the reeds and gasping for water. Now, though it is said that fishes are dumb, he heard them lamenting that they must perish so miserably, and, as he had a kind heart, he got off his horse and put the three prisoners back into the water. They leapt with delight, put out their heads, and cried to him: ’We will remember you and repay you for saving us!’

He rode on, and after a while it seemed to him that he heard a voice in the sand at his feet. He listened, and heard an ant-king complain: ’Why cannot folks, with their clumsy beasts, keep off our bodies? That stupid horse, with his heavy hoofs, has been treading down my people without mercy!’ So he turned on to a side path and the ant-king cried out to him: ’We will remember you–one good turn deserves another!’

The path led him into a wood, and there he saw two old ravens standing by their nest, and throwing out their young ones. ’Out with you, you idle, good-for-nothing creatures!’ cried they; ’we cannot find food for you any longer; you are big enough, and can provide for yourselves.’ But the poor young ravens lay upon the ground, flapping their wings, and crying: ’Oh, what helpless chicks we are! We must shift for ourselves, and yet we cannot fly! What can we do, but lie here and starve?’ So the good young fellow alighted and killed his horse with his sword, and gave it to them for food. Then they came hopping up to it, satisfied their hunger, and cried: ’We will remember you–one good turn deserves another!’

White Snake illustration men community

“White Snake 1” Illustration by Walter Crane (public domain)

And now he had to use his own legs, and when he had walked a long way, he came to a large city. There was a great noise and crowd in the streets, and a man rode up on horseback, crying aloud: ’The king’s daughter wants a husband; but whoever seeks her hand must perform a hard task, and if he does not succeed he will forfeit his life.’ Many had already made the attempt, but in vain; nevertheless when the youth saw the king’s daughter he was so overcome by her great beauty that he forgot all danger, went before the king, and declared himself a suitor.

So he was led out to the sea, and a gold ring was thrown into it, before his eyes; then the king ordered him to fetch this ring up from the bottom of the sea, and added: ’If you come up again without it you will be thrown in again and again until you perish amid the waves.’ All the people grieved for the handsome youth; then they went away, leaving him alone by the sea.

He stood on the shore and considered what he should do, when suddenly he saw three fishes come swimming towards him, and they were the very fishes whose lives he had saved. The one in the middle held a mussel in its mouth, which it laid on the shore at the youth’s feet, and when he had taken it up and opened it, there lay the gold ring in the shell. Full of joy he took it to the king and expected that he would grant him the promised reward.

But when the proud princess perceived that he was not her equal in birth, she scorned him, and required him first to perform another task. She went down into the garden and strewed with her own hands ten sacksful of millet-seed on the grass; then she said: ’Tomorrow morning before sunrise these must be picked up, and not a single grain be wanting.’

The youth sat down in the garden and considered how it might be possible to perform this task, but he could think of nothing, and there he sat sorrowfully awaiting the break of day, when he should be led to death. But as soon as the first rays of the sun shone into the garden he saw all the ten sacks standing side by side, quite full, and not a single grain was missing. The ant-king had come in the night with thousands and thousands of ants, and the grateful creatures had by great industry picked up all the millet-seed and gathered them into the sacks.

Presently the king’s daughter herself came down into the garden, and was amazed to see that the young man had done the task she had given him. But she could not yet conquer her proud heart, and said: ’Although he has performed both the tasks, he shall not be my husband until he had brought me an apple from the Tree of Life.’ The youth did not know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would have gone on for ever, as long as his legs would carry him, though he had no hope of finding it. After he had wandered through three kingdoms, he came one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. But he heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three ravens flew down to him, perched themselves upon his knee, and said: ’We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving; when we had grown big, and heard that you were seeking the Golden Apple, we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.’ The youth, full of joy, set out homewards, and took the Golden Apple to the king’s beautiful daughter, who had now no more excuses left to make. They cut the Apple of Life in two and ate it together; and then her heart became full of love for him, and they lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.”

(via authorama / public domain; for comparison, see the full text of “Iron John” / “Iron Hans” by the same translators)

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“White Snake 3” illustration by Walter Crane (public domain)

Why does Culbertson find this story so compelling for modern men?  He believes the snake is a symbol for a flaccid penis (unfortunately he cites nothing to confirm if this is a typical interpretation; Maria Tatar makes no mention in her annotations), and so by learning how to control his sexual impulses, the servant acquires a new awareness.  He practices humility, denying a tremendous promotion to a place in the court, and instead requests meager supplies to roam the land and find himself.  His journey appears to be distracted by various beings needing his help.  But he improvises and helps them generously, and it is only because of the “cooperative efforts of his community of support,” as Culbertson writes, that he finds new solutions himself and ultimately achieves an unexpected but wonderful goal of meeting a woman he loves, who has exercised her autonomy as well in reciprocating his love.

In Culbertson’s conclusion to “The New Adam,” he writes:

“Christian men may not find easy answers within our extant spiritual heritage about what the new relationships of [men] might look like, but they have a clear indication of the values these new commitments will reflect:  compassion, integrity, flexibility, humility, mercy, pacifism, patience, fidelity, generosity, cooperation, intellectual honesty, and dependence on others who are also within the new community of men.” (p. 167)

I agree that this reading of “The White Snake” is an improvement over “Iron John,” though there are elements in “Iron John” that still resonate with modernity.  Men need stillness and relaxation, and resting in Nature or even learning a practice of prayer or meditation can strengthen this stillness and bring it into daily life.  (Culbertson would agree, as he dedicates a few chapters to prayer in “The New Adam”).  Men need good mentors, usually male and not their fathers, and “Iron John” at least features an older man mentoring a younger one, albeit in a rather rigid and cold manner.  (I can’t see the Wild Man practicing gratitude with the boy, or a bro!)

Beyond either fairy tale, there is a need for men to cultivate emotional awareness – not so that they can mimic women, but so that men can at least interact with their inner worlds instead of repressing their feelings as generations of men (and even women) have taught them to for generations.  Related to this, we need to cultivate more tight friendships with other men where we feel comfortable talking about feelings and life’s genuine joys and difficulties, instead of the usual dusting of women-as-objects, sports, money, and the weather.  With how men hang out these days, one wonders when do the real conversations – fears of divorce, for instance, or of loneliness, or worries over a career-altering political battle at work – get talked about?

Readers, what do you think?  Please share below.

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