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It Didn't Use to Be Like This by Ben Sanders

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It Didn't Use to Be Like This by Ben Sanders

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


“It didn't used to be like this. I didn't used to be like this…”

It's the mantra that swirls in my mind when I'm having an anxiety attack. My neck lights up bright red and my brain starts shutting down. I feel my heart rate increasing and no matter what breathing techniques I try, I can't slow it back down. I'm so aware of it happening that I start grasping for things to say, questions to ask the people in front of me, anything at all so I can have a normal reaction with whoever is in front of me… but when it comes time to speak, my brain and my mouth aren't aligned, and even worse, my body is in a state near panic.

I didn't used to be like this.

Over the past decade I underwent the most dramatic internal growth spurt of my life. I was confident, funny, authentic, compassionate and didn't have to try so hard. I started my own video production agency, had great friends, great community, a wonderful wife, and eventually we started popping out wonderful children.

Once the kids entered the scene we were having the time of our lives in new ways, though those amazing times were also mixed in with some of the most heightened stressful times as well. Like when our oldest dropped off the weight chart entirely and we fought our gastrointestinal specialist on finding a different solution to weight gain than poking a hole in his stomach. The threat was that they would report us to CPS if we didn't comply with the only option the specialist suggested, even though we thought there was a less invasive alternative. They finally recommended a nutritionist instead, which helped get our boy back on the charts.

We had never experienced stress like this before, but even so, I handled it with relative ease.

Fast forward a couple babies later and the desire had grown to move back “home” to California. Some loss in the family sparked a renewed desire for our kids to live near their grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. We loved our families deeply but until then hadn't experienced a strong desire to live nearby.

We made plans and moved quickly because… well, because I don't have much patience when my mind is made up, but beyond that, if we didn't move quick, our preschooler would spend another year making friends at preschool, our roots would deepen even more, and uprooting ourselves would be even more painful. So the time was now.

We sold most of what we owned and moved across the country. Our family was loving and supportive, allowing the 5 of us to stay with them as we looked for a place to live.

We eventually got on our feet, but in the time being, some major shifts had happened in my video production business. I thought I was going to keep my Indiana office open while building a new California office, but the Indiana office quickly went into the red and unfortunately we had to shut it down. Everything now relied on swiftly and successfully starting up well in California. Welcome to the Bay Area.

It's in this season, with a combination of factors and stressors, that performance-based acceptance fired up in me in a big way, and with it came anxiety for the first time in my life (or at least the first time I was aware of it).

Performance-based acceptance lead me out of authenticity and into performing for approval. That meant it was rare for me to be living true to myself, and more common for me to be analyzing situations to figure out how I was supposed to behave. It was subconscious. It was automatic. It was new. Or was it?

I was in the thick of it. Life felt new in a bad way. I felt like I had entirely lost my previous decade of growth. I felt like I had no purpose except to exist and provide for my family. I felt confused and wandering and doubted my everything. I felt, most of all, shame about the totality of my being, and I couldn't even name why.

“I didn't used to be like this” swirled through my mind enough times to seek help.  My counselor helped me recognize what was happening within me and start tracing back the insecurity and anxiety I was feeling to their roots. I'm still unpacking that. 

So how do you keep moving when your internal world comes crashing down? Well, for me, I had to listen a lot. Deep within my soul, if I listened well, I noticed God speaking in ways that I've not often recognized as His/Her/Its voice. If I'm honest, I have to admit that I wish God would just text me. I would totally text back and we would be buds, even if God occasionally said something I didn't want to hear. But unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) that's not how God works.

I think God speaks to us all differently. I've heard people say that God speaks to them through the Bible. Not me. I've heard people say that God speaks to them when they pray. Not me.

I hear God when I simply shut the hell up.

But then I started learning that that was my new way to pray. Rather than trying to lead the charge with words that I say to God, I enter a space ready to listen. And when I do, God speaks. And when I hear, I try to continue the conversation in that direction. 

Sounds crazy right? Yeah, me too. But it's real, and that's saying something for a guy who has as many doubts about God as I do. But the more I listen, the less I doubt, because I hear and even more strangely, I see. I can't explain how God shows me my path forward, but the way forward becomes so vividly lit up that I've recognized this sense as a power beyond myself.

There are two new mantras playing in my head this year after being seared into my soul in a number of ways:

“Open yourself up to that which is beyond you.”

AND:

“God is out ahead of us, preparing the way for us.”

May it be true, and may I take the time to listen for the way.


Practice:

It's hard for me to recommend practices when I haven't mastered steady practice in my own life… but if you were to take a look at my business notebook you would notice that my business notes have been overtaken by personal journaling and messages I've heard from God. If you were to step into my bedroom, you would notice that my poor wife has to put up with a giant whiteboard that I hung on the wall to capture more of the soul messages I'm receiving. I also put my questions on that board, and jot down poems and stories I receive as well. 

So if I were to encourage you to do anything, it would be first, to listen. Listen for longer than you're used to. See how long you can listen for… 

My second recommendation would be to write.

It could be a word.

It could be a phrase.

It could be a story.

It could be your future.

It could be confusing.

Who cares. Just write.

One time I booked a conference room at work, closed the door, and wrote down every life event I could remember on a whiteboard. I found moments of my life that needed to be lamented, and I took some time for that. Other times I've hiked to a spot in nature, pulled my journal out and realized I have nothing to write. Then I accidentally listened, and eventually words flowed and new insights poured out. 

I can't explain it, but I know I need to keep listening and writing. Maybe it could help you, too. 


Ben is a husband, dad, and video productionist in the East Bay of San Francisco. When he's not losing wrestling matches at home with his 6, 4, and 2 year olds, Ben creates videos that help people #thinkfeelactnotice. In high-school Ben had a 32 inch vertical leap; now he struggles to roll out of bed. 

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Practice Makes Present by Paul J. Pastor

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Practice Makes Present by Paul J. Pastor

Why the timeless Christian discipline of listening is timelier than ever.

This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.


Heating with a woodstove is a gift from heaven. The crackle and snap of the dry logs, the smell of pine sap and woodsmoke, that radiant, deserted heat—it is wonderful. 

Until you have to do it. 

Downed trees to cut with a never-sharp-enough chainsaw. Rounds, knotted, to split with maul and wedge, all the time thinking just how much time each piece will take to season and how little to burn. Scraped fingers, smashed fingers, filthy fingers, splintered fingers, tired fingers. The constant math of cordage and BTUs as winter creeps up your calendar: I think we have enough wood. But it might be extra cold this year…

The woodshed fills, so does the kindling box. Your kids scurry the autumn woods, gathering up dry twigs to pad out the supply. I could have just called someone and bought some stinking wood, you think every year. But you never do.

But for all the romance of the fireside, and all the work of woodcutting, there is a third thing that the woodstove brings into your house. Rhythm. What most of the developed world does with a thermostat, you do over months and weeks. You eye dead snags in the woods. You find yourself knocking on stranger’s doors, leaving your pickup running, pointing to the tree the arborist just dropped. “You gonna use that?” 

The woodstove brings gifts of inconvenience into your house. And the gifts of inconvenience are not to be despised. 

.....

Truly being in the place where we are seems to be a dying art.

We are trained from birth in America to value the fast and easy. We have, after all, some kind of collective national destiny we’re supposed to be about (Living, and being Liberated, and frantically Pursuing Happiness). This, as you know already, creates minds warped against the true curves of time. So great is our focus upon our personal futures, that we find ourselves straining like horses bridled to a millstone—always pulling forward, in the same gritty circle. But it is our lives we are grinding away. 

In such a circle, we disdain the past and fear the present. We are never at peace. In the rare moments that we brush something truly larger than ourselves (such as True Love or Cancer), we awake for a moment. We hurriedly take stock of our lives, pledge to never again live “out of touch,” post some Rumi quotes on Instagram, and then, when the feeling wears off, return to the old Stockholm host—the promising bondage, the constant pull, the constant strain, the slow, never-landing leap forward into a future that never lets us land. 

This is all a long way of saying that we all love sitting by the woodstove. But how we hate the slow, everyday hassle of feeding a year-long fire.

This propensity creates A.W. Tozer’s “monstrous heresy” at the center of our modern religion. It is the lie that “noise, size, activity and bluster make a man dear to God.” 

How vicious this lie is! It cuts the good pith out of life and faith. It allows the shell to remain, while our insides drain away, leaving an ever-growing spiritual façade, and an ever-shrinking life to fill it up with. Like Sarah Winchester’s madhouse, we are forced to never stop building. But it is only and always for show; to divert attention from the shivering thing that crouches within. We are afraid to be alone with ourselves. We cannot stop. We must not. Who knows what will find us if we do? Forward. 

And slowly, the stone crushes out the things that call Christ into our lives, that make us wholehearted and pure. The things that make us happy.

The solution to this may be stated without many words. We must practice presence. We must assert our true selves—the selves that Christ and the truest parts of his Church seek to whisper out of us—against the lie of the age. We must gather what powers of attention are left us, and reclaim seconds, minutes, and hours from every day. Out of these pieces of time, true life may be rebuilt.

To be present is, at its root, to be attentive. To truly see, to truly hear. It is not only to listen, but to have the capacity for listening. It is not only to hear, it is to have ears for hearing. Against the lie of the constant future, we stop, we listen for a voice that can only be heard in this moment. And in that irrelevance, we find timeless life (but it is very slow, and not often impressive, and rarely yields quotes to pad the Twitter feed).

Lawrence the Carmelite found this practice in his monastery’s dishwater. So, I hear, does Ann Voskamp. For me, it has been the woodpile. For others it will be a commute, washing out diapers, weeding. Curiously (I do not know what to make of this), it is the chores that do this better than any “quiet time.” The only word for such a crusty, splintered kind of presence is surely “practice.”

Practice does not make perfect. At least not without a lifetime or so. But practice of this kind can make present, and present (fortunately) is the goal. God cannot be known in the past that we disdain. And we will never reach him in the future, no matter how hard we strain forward. We can only know him now, in the ever-present Present. We can only know him in the place where spirit meets life as it is, and (instead of forcing forward) invites God to say hello. 

God, in his own way, answers. 

To me, his voice usually sounds like popping wood and it smells like the dusky smoke of many pines. 

What does it sound like to you?


Practice:

Find some small rebellion against efficiency to insert into your daily schedule. Walk, don’t drive. Write a letter, don’t text. Make the coffee at home, don’t do the espresso drive-thru. 

Allow yourself to be present in the inefficiency. 

Ask God to speak through that time. 

Listen.


Paul J. Pastor is author of The Listening Day: Meditations On the Way (Zeal Books). Find him at www.pauljpastor.com. Twitter: @pauljpastor. Mailing address: P.O. Box 36, Bridal Veil, OR 97010.

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