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Blog of the Grateful Bear

ramblings of a freelance panentheist {"all things are in God, and God is in all things"} . . . musings on Emergent spirituality, powerlifting, LGBTQueer issues, contemplative prayer, mysticism, cats, music, healing, and more. I like my coffee and my existentialism dark-roasted.

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Location: Marietta, Georgia, United States

I'm an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), in private practice in Marietta, Georgia. My writings on queer spirituality have been published in Whosoever and several other magazines. I live in a house-in-the-woods (Bear's Hermitage) in Marietta with Leonidas (Lenny) and Guy, Mighty Warrior Cats, and way too many books.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Compassion Training

“Try to be at peace with yourself and help others to share that peace.”
– The Dalai Lama

Last weekend I was grateful to attend a day-long conference in which one of the featured speakers was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Mind and Life Institute, held at Emory University in Atlanta, was on Mindfulness, Compassion, and the Treatment of Depression, and it featured a number of prominent medical doctors, psychologists, and researchers, in dialogue with the Dalai Lama and with each other. The presenters talked about the effectiveness of Buddhist-inspired techniques, such as mindfulness meditation and “seeing things as they truly are” (cognitive reappraisal), that are being used in cognitive-behavioral therapy – and which I’ve started to integrate into my own counseling practice.

What struck me the most were the reports on studies being done on the effects of compassion meditation on the brain. Meditation that is focused on experiencing compassion can activate areas of the brain that increase a sense of well-being, as well as decrease levels of stress hormones that can lead to depression and other diseases. Over time, compassion meditation can also lead to lower, healthier heart rates and lower inflammatory responses to stress.

The “compassion training” used in these studies is drawn from the lojong tradition of Buddhist meditation, with some modifications to secularize it for university research settings. There are several different translations of the words used in this type of meditation; the wording used in a book I’m currently reading, A Heart Full of Peace by Joseph Goldstein (with a foreword by the Dalai Lama), is as follows:

May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free of suffering.

The practice is, while paying attention to physical sensations (especially around the heart), to focus on alleviating suffering and sending loving-kindness first to oneself –

May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free of suffering

– then to others: to those who are close to us –

May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free of suffering

– to those for whom we have neutral feelings (strangers) –

May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free of suffering

– and to those who are enemies or difficult people:

May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free of suffering.

Finally we send loving-kindness to all sentient beings everywhere:

May all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful, may all beings be free of suffering.

Those of us who have been involved in the Dances of Universal Peace can recognize this practice as the basis for the beautiful dance and song, “May all beings be well, may all beings be happy.”

Positive effects on brain activity and other health indicators can be seen after only two weeks of doing “compassion training” on a regular basis. Although it wasn’t addressed at the conference, I imagine the same positive effects can be obtained by practices from other spiritual traditions that emphasize the sending of compassion to others: intercessory prayer, for example, or prayer for healing.

Of course the primary benefit of compassion meditation is spiritual – helping us experience our interconnectedness with each other, helping us in our relationships with each other – but it’s great to know there are positive benefits to our mental and physical health as well.

The Dalai Lama stated his belief that such training in compassion should be part of every child’s education from a very early age. Imagine what a different world we would live in if that were the case.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Wisdom & Healing

It has been quite a while since I’ve posted here, as several anxious emailers have recently reminded me. Going almost a month without posting is like an eternity in blogger-time! I’ve been keeping busy with my counseling practice – I left my salaried job back in August and I’m now self-employed on a full-time basis. I’m making the adjustment from having a regular weekly paycheck to having an income that rises and falls from week to week. I’m learning some deep lessons about my true source of security: not a job, not my clients, not my ability to attract business – my true source of security is the Divine Beloved. God alone is my Source of security and supply.

If God has truly called me to this counseling practice (as I believe), then it follows that God wants me to be successful at it. Not just financially, but in other ways as well. The sense of fulfillment that comes when I’m able to truly help a client. The sense that I’m no longer just dreaming about having my own counseling practice, I’m actually living that dream.

Several books have been helpful to me in making this adjustment, and I plan to write about them soon. One of them is 48 Days to the Work You Love, by Dan Miller. Among other things, this book was helpful in guiding me to clarify my vision and construct a Mission Statement, not just for my business but for my life as a whole. Miller recommends making a list of each of these components, then integrating them into your own Personal Mission Statement:

Skills and interests

Personality traits

Values, dreams, and passions

My primary skills and interests are counseling, writing, and leading workshops. The personality traits I listed are compassion, warmth, and humor. And my values, dreams, and passions, while many, can be boiled down to two broad categories: Wisdom and Healing.

I have long been a student of the ancient Wisdom traditions, primarily Sufi and Christian mysticism (see my blogpost for August 9th on how I integrate the two traditions). I am drawn to ancient texts and “lost gospels” like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas. I am fascinated by the archetypes that surface in dreams, myths, and Tarot cards. I am interested in esoteric teachings and interfaith dialogue, in the common thread of Wisdom that runs through all the great religious traditions of the world.

My training to be a Cherag (minister) in the Sufi Order International is rooted in this love of Wisdom, which is beautifully expressed in the Service of Universal Worship, in which candles are lit and scriptures are read from each of the major religions of the world. My year-long training will soon be coming to an end: I am traveling to Sarasota, Florida, on October 28 for the final week-long intensive, and I will be fully ordained as a Cherag on November 4th.

Recently I have been integrating the Wisdom traditions into my counseling practice, through Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This is a form of therapy that is rooted in ancient Buddhist teachings and practices of mindfulness. It’s a truly effective way to help clients deal with anxiety, stress, even physical difficulties like chronic pain.

My interest in Healing goes back many years, and I’ve been involved in a number of healing ministries. I’m a firm believer in the healing power of prayer. I am currently ordained as a Conductor in the Sufi Healing Order, which means I am authorized to conduct the Sufi Healing Circle, a beautiful ritual of healing prayer. And I view my work as a counselor, even the work I do with court-mandated evaluations, as a form of healing.

So here is my Personal Mission Statement, integrating my skills and interests, my personality traits, and my deep passions for Wisdom and Healing:

My mission is to be a Cherag (minister), a light of divine Wisdom, and to be a Conductor of divine Healing in the lives of many – through counseling, writing, and teaching; with mindfulness, compassion, warmth, and humor.

I invite you to craft your own Personal Mission Statement and to share it with us in the “Comments” section of this post.

blessings ~

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In the News: Templars & Gnostics

The Vatican has published secret documents about the trial of the Knights Templar, including a parchment – long ignored because of a vague catalog entry in 1628 – showing that Pope Clement V initially absolved the medieval order of heresy.

Here’s the news story:
Vatican to publish Templar trial papers

Above: A detail is shown on a replica document of the Latin-language minutes of trials against the Knights Templar in 1308. Lost until its rediscovery in 2001, it is being published by the Vatican Secret Archives at the end of October. The book and parchments cost 5,900 euros and its 799 numbered copies are destined for top libraries and medieval scholars. Picture taken October 9, 2007 (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters).

Another news story, from Reuters:

Also in the news . . .

The United States didn’t set out to eradicate the Mandeans, one of the oldest, smallest and least understood of the many minorities in Iraq. This extinction in the making has simply been another unfortunate and entirely unintended consequence of our invasion of Iraq – though that will be of little comfort to the Mandeans, whose 2,000-year-old culture is in grave danger of disappearing from the face of the earth. The Mandeans are the only surviving Gnostics from antiquity, cousins of the people who produced the Nag Hammadi writings like the Gospel of Thomas.

Here’s the op-ed article from The New York Times: