Why am I posting this article now?
There was a week in early December when I experienced a rare inner peace. I was bursting to write about it, but the season’s general busyness prevented it.
There was no big change in my life that week in December; no move, no new job, no new relationship or break-up. No, sometimes there can be turning points that aren’t triggered by such obvious “real” events. Such turning points might be invisible to others, but we sense them happening through intuition and inner conviction.
A series of coincidences made me sense that I was growing and learning in a spiritual way. You might believe in God or you might not (more on that below), and each of us has to decide whether certain coincidences are meaningful.
The coincidences I mention had to do with conversations I had, and articles I read, that all had a common theme: they were about spirit. They gave me the conviction that peace comes from feeling one’s own spirit; accepting and loving this spirit at the deepest level; and also being able to recognize, accept, and love the spirit in others when they reveal it to us. Much of what I heard and read mentioned two words: awareness and gratitude. Without awareness—which comes from being open-minded and paying full attention—we can’t feel our own spirit or others’ spirits. Awareness—of others’ spirits, and also of the overflowing beauty of the world—can’t help but lead to gratitude, I believe.
Coincidence? Five “spiritual” experiences in one week
In a one-week period I was influenced by five conversations or articles that my mind insisted on connecting. Of course, as human beings we are designed, psychologically, to construct meaning out of the vast chaos of events, people, and other stimuli around us.
I also found meaning in the way these five examples were framed, in time, by two extremely personal conversations (with two different people). Both of them were about the other person’s strong Christian faith. The first conversation took place in October with a close friend of many years. He talked about how the Holy Spirit had intervened in his life at several critical times, and some of the things that happened would qualify as “miracles” by almost anyone’s standards. I don’t have space here for an extended article about whether God exists or not. The important thing is that my friend convinced me of the reality of his faith—his belief that the Holy Spirit is always with him. I can’t say that his conviction caused me to immediately feel the reality of the Holy Spirit myself. But what did happen was that after visiting my friend, I felt a deep peace that I believe was the foundation for what I felt in December.
My other conversation happened in January, with someone who is decades younger than I am. We unexpectedly got into a “deep” conversation.It’s wonderful when people who don’t know each other well make this “leap” into revealing themselves. This friend also talked about his Christian faith, and how his family’s finding Christianity had saved his parents’ marriage, shaped his life’s direction, and enabled him to help friends with drug and relationship problems.
One thing I thought significant about both these conversations is that my friends and I did not judge each other for having different points of view or being unable to fully comprehend the other person’s point of view. We were attentive, open to learning, not only respectful of the other person but grateful for the personal thoughts and vulnerability that were revealed.
So it is within the “framing” context of these two conversations that I will describe the encounters and reading that affected me that crucial week in December.
- Practicing mindfulness while running
One evening while I was working at the Running room, I had the privilege of hearing David Westorp give an unusual clinic talk. Most clinic topics are about the practical basics of running, such as nutrition, clothing, and the building blocks of a training program. However, this talk was meant to give new runners a glimpse into how their mental state can affect the physical act of running. To me it was valuable because its essential ideas about how body, mind, and spirit work together can be applied to any endeavor.
I was also struck by Westorp’s definition of spirit:
“A force that gives the body life, energy, and power.”
I’ve shared a version of the diagram he showed us below. The centre area, where the three components of body, mind, and spirit overlap, can be understood as a zone of awareness that encompasses all three components of our being.
I think the diagram is also meant to show that all three parts can work to strengthen and support each other.
We run at our full potential not only through physical talent and hard training. We also use our minds—meaning rational thought—to plan scientifically-based training programs and race strategies. But the more elusive contribution of the spirit elevates our running to the highest level. I would explain it this way: the spirit is the force behind motivation, whether conscious or subconscious, and it is also the source of a joy that can be expressed physically.
Another key idea I gained from this talk about mindfulness has to do with how our ongoing thoughts lead ultimately to our destiny, through this chain:
2. Kierkegaard and Camus on being busy
One of my favourite websites, Brainpickings, by Maria Popova (www.brainpickings.org ) had an article quoting Albert Camus which I read around the same day as I heard the clinic talk at the Running Room.
Popova prefaced Camus’ words by saying he was “echoing Kierkegaard’s unforgettable admonition — ‘Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.’’”
Here is Camus:
Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time if in doing one loses oneself… Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.
I understood Camus and the Running Room speaker to be saying the same thing: eternity is found in the moment, and through being fully aware in that moment.
I began reading Camus in high school, with L’Étranger in French class, but I guess I didn’t read him enough—I didn’t realize how much he loved life until I read Popova’s article (read it here).
3. Connecting with an old friend over decades and thousands of miles
That same week in December, I got an email from a friend from my teenage years, who now lives far away. He had initially contacted me a couple of years ago after finding my blog on the Internet, but I hadn’t heard from him for about a year. Something I had written in one of my most personal blog articles provoked him to write to me, expressing concern and giving me some wise advice.
That led to an exchange of a couple more messages. It’s a curious thing to encounter someone decades after you were close to them, to recognize that person is still the same in many ways—essence?—spirit? Moreover, you can see your “old self” reflected in the way they write to you and about you. I found it miraculous in a sense to know that I could still communicate with my friend across such a vast swathe of time and distance. There was great comfort in recognizing the permanence of our spirits.
4. Connecting with a stranger
Another kind of miracle takes place when you have an unexpectedly profound encounter with a stranger. At a Christmas party for an editors’ association that I belong to, I got into conversation with the husband of one of the editors. What immediately struck me about him was that he gave off an aura of peace, of being “at home” even though he was at his partner’s social event and didn’t know anyone there.
We talked a little bit about running. When I asked him what his profession was, he named a word I can’t remember, but it was something to do with yoga. He soon mentioned the poet Rumi, and that name was familiar to me though I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything by Rumi. He then launched into a long and personal story about his multi-year inner journey into a spiritual kind of yoga. The last part of the story was about his trip to Rumi’s mosque in a large Turkish city. He had cycled from Munich to Turkey; this was how he spent several months last summer. He spoke about Rumi’s writings, and about this mosque and the thousands of pilgrims who visit and pray there.
He spoke in a soft, peaceful, reverential way. I don’t know if he speaks like this, or about this, with everyone he meets, or if he just judged that I was open to hearing it. Does he have a mission to share what he’s learned? I am open to hearing about others’ spiritual experiences and beliefs. I had the same sense of awe in October when my friend spoke about the miraculous coincidences that have happened to him during his life.
I can tell when someone is sincere; I respect their experiences and beliefs. That doesn’t mean I think that they have all the answers for me. Each person has to find their own way—but I am open to receiving ideas and clues.
5. The writer’s spirit
A final contribution to my thoughts about the spirit that week came from an article I found completely by chance while browsing on Facebook. The article, published on the website WriterUnBoxed, is by writing instructor Donald Maass (read it here).
Maass says that what makes readers love a book or story, what draws them in, is the writer’s spirit. As he says, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how a writer transmits his or her spirit. It doesn’t have to be in the characters, the plot, or the setting, even though these are essential to a good story. According to Maass, the critical thing is that somehow the writer offers the reader hope—(the subject matter is irrelevant)—and this may be subtle. Here are Maass’s words:
Heart is a quality inherent not in a manuscript but in its author. It is not a skill but a spirit. Spirit may seem mystical but it’s not an accident. It can be cultivated and practiced. Every writing day it can seep into the story choices you make. The spirit you bring is the spirit we’ll feel as we read, and of all the feelings you can excite in your readers the most gripping and beautiful is the spirit of hope.
As I pondered all the experiences of that week in December, I felt a deep peace, and I had more confidence than usual that it wasn’t just an illusion that would evaporate. I wrote:
I feel the spirit. I feel my own spirit. It is a peaceful feeling. It is acceptance. Self-acceptance? It is also related to the increased appreciation and recognition I have for the goodness in others. Maybe I am becoming more aware of their spirits, too.
Has my inner peace from December stayed with me? Well, yes and no. But that’s fodder for other posts.