Monday, June 8, 2009

Sailing Into The Wind?

Suppose you need to cross a lake against the wind to a rendezvous at a cabin. A sailboat cannot sail directly to an upwind destination. It takes a series of alternating left and right turns, sailing 45 degrees left of the destination with a starboard wind, then “coming about” to sail 45 degrees to the right with a port wind. Does this zig-zag pattern have a parallel in the spiritual journey? Let’s consider how Scott Peck describes some of the directional changes in the spiritual journey.

Leg One - from Chaos toward Order: We all start our life journey in chaos; as infants we cannot even communicate well enough to get what we need or predict how people respond to our needs. If we’re fortunate enough to live in a stable home with relatively mature parents who do their best to understand us, we begin to learn to trust an emerging order. We learn how life works in the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions. We can visualize this discovery as an arrow, beginning at the lower left of a page, moving up and toward the right at a 45 degree angle, thus moving both “to the right” and “up.” Not everyone makes this move so smoothly, especially people whose environment doesn’t easily reveal the order of life. Peck notes that religious groups, in their evangelistic work, are quite good at helping these folks discover a sense of order in their beliefs. “Conversion” is the label often applied to this quick movement from chaos toward order. Perhaps you know someone who has made such a life shift. If so, you may appreciate how attached they can be to the value of moving “to the right,” with all the religious, social, political and cultural implications that may imply. The corrective progress for living in chaos is the discovery of order.

Can one sail too far in this direction? Can one become so attached to the journey “to the right” that it becomes more important than the destination?

Leg Two - from Order toward Questioning: People who grow up in an orderly environment (and some who convert to it) sometimes come to believe in so much order that they become certain about everything. That is until some surprising life experience shatters the illusion of certainty, opening up a question. In fact, the order (or “orthodoxy”) of virtually all religious groups is comprised of a mix of two elements. The first element is what I’ll call the “Laws of the Kingdom,” which are accurate descriptions of the fundamental laws of life, or “natural” laws, the created order. The consequences of choosing to live in harmony with, or of violating these laws, are automatic. No authority (other than the Creator who established this order) needs to enforce these. They apply to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or lack of such. The law of gravity, in the physical realm, is the iconic example. A spiritual parallel would be the law of sowing and reaping, or karma. The second element of religious order we’ll call “the rules of the club,” the club being whatever religious organization one relates to. These rules are constructed, established and enforced by religious authority. They are arbitrary, in that the consequences of keeping or breaking these rules are also applied by that authority. Only those who live under that authority receive the consequences. One example would be a rule that one cannot eat meat on Friday, which was constructed by the Roman Catholic church, then later rescinded, much to the dismay of those who liked “Fish Fridays.” The important point of all this is that when life calls into question the order under which one lives, that may raise some important questions. For one who lives in superorder (more order and certainty than what actually describes reality) the corrective experience is questioning. This movement can be diagrammed with an arrow moving right to left, again at a 45 degree angle toward the top of the page, beginning where the first line ended. As Peck noted, most religious organizations are not good at helping people make this move, often giving people derogatory labels such as “backslider” or “agnostic.” Actually, “agnostic” would be a good term here, because it simply means “without knowledge, or “I don’t know.” Perhaps you know someone who has needed to make such a shift in their spiritual life; perhaps you can appreciate how uncomfortable this shift makes those in the same congregation who are still pursuing more order in their lives. The big trouble here is that both groups tend to focus on the leftward or rightward aspect of the vector, rather than noting that both are moving toward the top of the page, which represents the movement “toward reality,” “toward truth,” and “toward the Divine.” Both are moving “into the wind” against the flow of unspiritual living, as a sailboat making starboard and port tacks toward its upwind destination. The correction for “too much order” is to question, to discern, to sort the true order from the false.

Can one sail too far in this direction? Can one become so attached to the journey “to the left” that it becomes more important than the destination?

Leg Three - From Questioning to Understanding: Once someone has sorted and abandoned false order and false certainty (or when someone who has grown up in a respectful agnostic home begins to seek truth) another shift can occur. This movement will again approach a life of order, another move “toward the right” but with a belief that encompasses both certainty and uncertainty, using both faith and doubt in a continuing dedication to understanding truth. Someone on this leg of the journey is likely to be clear that truth is “what is real,” not “what we believe” as declared by some religious council. A person well along this leg of the journey will become increasingly comfortable with paradox, with uncertainty, and with mystery. This person will believe in many of the same things as the person who appreciates order and orthodoxy but will understand them in a different way. Rather than being attached to a traditional observance of “Fish Friday” this person may understand the spiritual value of an occasional fast, a spiritual retreat or some other means of simplifying life long enough to become more clear about an important matter of spiritual progress. This person understands the important principles when they exist behind the “rules of the club,” and will live according to the principles, with or without conforming to the “rules of the club.” This person may even observe a “rule of the club” because of the recognition that a club has a right to make rules that define membership, even when this rule does not reflect some ultimate reality. Moving toward Understanding is a correction for too much questioning. This person is quite interested in living in harmony with the "Laws of the Kingdom," both because they recognize the authority of the Creator, and because it is recognized as a terrible waste of energy to fight reality. This leg of the journey can be represented by an arrow beginning at the end of the questioning arrow, pointing toward the top right corner of the page, curving upward at the center between right and left, toward the top middle, avoiding another pendulum swing to the extreme opposite side. This person has the destination clearly in view and is close enough to make the final turn and complete the journey with fine course corrections. It is this person we need in the room when those at earlier phases of spiritual development are caught up in arguments with each other about whether “left” or “right” is better.

Spiritual Assessment, the theme of this blog, will take into account each persons relationship to these possible movements along the way in their spiritual journeys. Let’s be clear: this is very different from religious judgment, in which someone on one part of the journey “labels” someone in a different place with a derogatory label. A good spiritual assessment will see whether the person needs help moving farther along in the direction they are going, or whether it is time for a shift, to “come about” and tack in the other direction (in sailing terms) to correct for where they have been, or to close in on the destination.

This description is an adaptation of M. Scott Peck’s observations, which I heard him present in a Community Building Workshop; these observations are also recorded in his book “The Different Drum.”

Saturday, April 4, 2009

O B B B C ?

Imagine folks sitting in a circle. Having a conversation about OBBBC. Or more precisely, about the OBBBC in one person's life. The circle could be around a fire in a primitive village; it could be around a small table in a modern hospital; it could be almost anywhere. That one person's OBBBC is the center of the conversation, and the purpose of the circle is to call forth all the wisdom available to understand the OBBBC.

OBBBC: One Big Buzzing Booming Confusion. Something has happened to this person's life that is out-of-the-ordinary. A sudden health crisis, onset of mental illness, addiction, or some other puzzling situation. A confusion that one person cannot unravel by themselves. So the circle is gathered, people with various kinds of wisdom, expertise and experience. The purpose is to develop a comprehensive understanding of the nature of this confusion and what may be done about it.

Paul Pruyser introduced me to OBBBC in Topeka, Kansas about 1980, where he practiced and taught at the world famous Menninger Clinic. Pruyser, a psychologist "wrote the book" on spiritual assessment: The Minister as Diagnostician. Pruyser and Karl Meninger (a psychiatrist and the clinic's founder), teaching a course by the same title, identified the value in including a chaplain in the circle of wisdom around the person with OBBBC. Every aspect of the person's life is important to understanding and planning a path toward recovery. The psychiatrist could use his specialized knowledge, experience and language system to diagnose the OBBBC and recommend helpful action. The psychologist's perspective adds more to the picture, as does that of the medical doctor, the nurse and the social worker. Each has a distinctive perspective, a wealth of experience and a language system to enhance understanding of the person's needs. Each specialist is able to identify resources that could be helpful. The interesting discovery, made by Pruyser, was that this was also true of the chaplain on their team. Pruyser was surprised to discover that the recommendations of the chaplain often closely paralleled those of the psychaitrist. In response he began to study the spiritual dimension of life, seeing that it was more than something completely mysterious.

Pruyser's challenge to us is twofold: To people with OBBBC and to treatment teams working with such people, his challenge is to make sure there is someone on that team trained to bring the specialized knowledge of the spiritual dimension of life to the table. Then he challenged clergy to learn to use their language and observational skills systematically so they could bring something significant and helpful to that conversation. Every person with OBBBC deserves to have someone at the table who can help them (and the others at the table) understand both the spiritual problems involved and the spiritual resources that will help in the person's journey toward wholeness.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Basic Needs

We all have certain basic needs, demanded by our mind/body/spirit vehicle. The body needs water, food, and sometimes shelter. The mind needs information, stimulation, expression and feedback.

What does the spirit need? Consider this a spiritual “basic food group” list. Regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof) we all need:
- Love and belonging
- Meaning and purpose
- Freedom from guilt and shame
Looking at your own experience, you may remember times when you had all these in abundance. What filled your cup? Where did the supply come from? How did you get what you needed? What resources (individuals, groups, systems, organizations, belief systems, world views, habits/disciplines) helped feed these things to you? Have there been other times when one or more of these were in scarce supply? What emptied your cup? What blocked your access to, or appreciation of, what you needed? Or what experience accentuated one of these needs? With these questions you are doing a spiritual self-assessment.

Listening to another person’s story, keeping these questions in mind, you can explore their experience to discover where their needs are greatest at the moment. Then you can compare the needs with the resources they know about. Are there gaps? What additional resources are needed to return to a state of spiritual well-being?

I adapted this three need list from Nurses Christian Fellowship. I like it because it’s easy to remember and to teach. I also use several other lists, some more complex, some even simpler. Each is a map, a simplified representation of reality, the spiritual territory of a person’s life experience. Like exploring outdoors, a map can be quite helpful in finding one’s way around unknown territory.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


"How fortunate you are; now you are wealthy" said a Chinese farmer's friends after a strong young horse wandered into his farm. Having a horse made all the difference between being a poor farmer and a wealthy farmer; the horse allowed one to till more land, to grow more food than the family could consume, enough to take to market.

"Perhaps!" was the wise farmer's reply, much to the puzzlement of friends.

Next day, as the farmer's son was working to train the horse, he was thrown so hard he broke his leg. "How unfortunate you are; your horse is no good and now even your son cannot help with the crops."

"Perhaps!" was the wise farmer's reply, again to the puzzlement of friends.

Next day the army came through the village, conscripting all the healthy young men, taking them off to war. "How fortunate you are; your son's broken leg kept him from being conscripted..."

"Perhaps!" was the wise farmer's reply, again to the puzzlement of friends...

The human is the meaning making animal. Making meaning is a distinguishing characteristic of the human being. In "The Meaning Makers" (Chapter 1 in The Life of Meaning) Bob Abernathy and William Bole trace the understanding of what distinguishes humans from other animals. Aristotle identified our social nature, but we share that with some other animals. Benjamin Franklin identified us as "the tool makers;" since then we've discovered that chimpanzees make tools, too. Our distinction, they conclude, is that we are the meaning making animal: "We manufacture meaning out of the rawest of materials -- out of sickness, war, death, as well as routine events."

Observing this meaning making process is part of Spiritual Assessment. Jerry Davis, one of my early mentors told us chaplain interns: "Chaplains aren't often here to treat the illness; we are here to treat the meaning of the illness." Patients and clients often benefit when someone carefully observes and reflects on the meaning they give to their experience. Some helpful curiosity may consider these questions:

  • What meaning does this person give to this experience?

  • How does he make this meaning rather than some other possible meaning?

  • Is the expressed meaning congruent with the context or does it depend on convoluted thinking, such as denial of the obvious, to work?

  • Are there patterns to meaning making like "awfulizing," minimizing, seeing a conspiracy in everything or a "devil behind every bush?"

  • Does this meaning come from early life conditioning, religious or cultural conditioning? (Think of the farmer's friends) Or is it fresh and dynamic, open to more possibilities? (The farmer's response comes to mind)

  • How well does this chosen meaning work for her? Does it lead to closed or open doors?

  • Does this meaning promote "lessness" or "fulness" (helplessness, hopelessness or resourcefulness and hopefulness)

  • How aware is she of her meaning making process? Is she a victim of meaning making patterns beyond her awareness ? Or does she have mastery of the process, to observe, evaluate and improve it?

  • If given the opportunity, can this person reframe this experience in other possible meanings? If not, can he consider another meaning someone else might offer?

I'm reminded of this ancient statement of Epictetus: "When anything external distresses us, it is not the event which causes us pain, rather,our response to it... ... and this we have the power to revoke at every given moment."

Monday, July 7, 2008

How's Your Courage?

If you saw my Dad in the busy San Diego area emergency room where he worked, his opening line was likely "How's your courage?"

If you were on the "knife & gun club"/accident/trauma side he wasn't there to treat you, but to help you deal with what had happened. It was shorthand for "How resilient and resourceful are you, and what spiritual/social/family resources do you have that could help you now?" If you were on the mental health/OD/alcohol side, he was there to assess your needs and resources and help determine whether you would be treated/released or need to be admitted for further care.

On the surface "How's your courage?" was timely and disarmingly engaging. Beneath the surface, it's a spiritual assessment question without being even slightly religious; the first spiritual assessment question I ever learned, in fact, without knowing it. My Dad was a hospital chaplain who specialized in mental health care. Like most acute care hospital chaplains, he also had his share of trauma duty. So he spent a lot of time in the ER, meeting people for the first time at some of their worst moments. Moments when they might benefit from remembering what had helped them get through tough times before.

Here's why "How's your courage?" is such a good spiritual assessment question:

  • It is an open-ended question that usually elicits more than a one word answer.
  • It is beyond religious boundaries, expressing no bias, preference or exclusivity;
  • It acknowledges a difficulty without focusing in it.
  • In acknowledging difficulty, it's more realistic than some forms of religious "helpfulness" which tend to provide religious answers that aren't connected with life's real questions. Remember Scott Peck's opening line in the phenomenal best selling book The Road Less Traveled? "Life is difficult." Any useful spirituality must at least acknowledge this reality; ideally it will even deal effectively with it. And perhaps one will discover, as Peck indicated further down page 1, once the difficulty is acknowledged, life isn't nearly as difficult as it is when pretending it should be easy.
  • In acknowledging the difficulty without focusing on it, it implies hope, looking forward, beyond the moment and the situation. "How's your courage?" is a question in line with the Appreciative Inquiry model of consulting. Building on research at Case Western Reserve University AI practitioners have discovered that consultants get more lasting results when they ask "What's right here?" questions than "What's wrong here? questions. "What's wrong...?" questions lead to local identification with the problem, lack of identification with external suggestions, increased helplessness, and result in short lived follow up. "What's right...?" questions lead to local identification with resources and strategies that have been used and been helpful, decreasing helplessness and resulting in enduring change and resourcefulness that is owned by the participants. It's more solution focused than problem focused.

The greatest limitation of "How's your courage?" is that it isn't appropriate where a difficulty isn't obvious and acknowledged. "How are your spirits today?" fits better in this case.

So, how's your courage today?