We are pleased to present a reflective writing/project by a current SGTI student, emerging spiritual guide, Kitti O'Hallaron. We hope you find it is meaningful and inspiring as we did.
One of the most painful twists of living in the era of COVID-19 is that, in the midst of so much trouble and uncertainty, we have been largely unable to do the first thing we humans do in times of crisis: turn to each other. Gather. Our inner wisdom knows, instinctively, that other people are the place to go for help and holding, for grieving, for hope.
Yet the situation we find ourselves in turns this all on its head. So many of the places we might normally find our particular slices of community—houses of worship, workplaces, schools, gyms, arts venues—remain closed. We know that staying in our homes when possible is itself an act of care, that obscuring our smiles with masks when we must venture out is love in action. Some of us have had no choice but to continue to report to work, or have kept working out of a sense of duty. Many have gathered in protest, affirming that systems of racist oppression are also a pandemic urgently in need of our collective attention. But most of us, most of the time, are living in worlds that are much smaller than the ones we knew in early March. Our hearts bear the weight of all that is missing. Our hearts bear the weight of all we have lost.
It is in this climate of isolation and heightened emotion of all kinds that I recently embarked on a small project of communal care. Spiritual direction training formally prepares us to offer guidance in one-on-one and group settings. Over time, the practice takes on a life of its own, finding new forms in the checkout line or the waiting room or, in this case, in a repurposed tree branch propped up by the street alongside some blank notecards, markers, and a poster posing a set of questions:
How do you feel?
What do you miss?
What do you need?
What is your wish for or promise to others/our city/the world?
I set these materials out in front of my home one morning, hopeful that the invitation to share would be of service. Before long, I looked out my window and saw the first response fluttering in the breeze. Soon there were many others. People stopped to participate, to read, and to talk to one another about what they were seeing. Responses have ranged from hopeful to despairing to deeply spiritual.
Here’s what I hear as I listen to this project:
Children miss their routines, and they really miss their friends.
Adults miss theirs too, and the family they can’t visit.
People are keenly aware of their need for physical touch.
Some people are lonely and frightened.
Some people find cause for hope in this time of slowing down and reconsidering.
A number of people are attuning to issues of racial justice and resolving to help make change.
It matters deeply to people to feel a sense of community.
As of this writing, the tree is still up. When I walk outside to check for new cards, holding them tenderly, reading them like small prayers, I feel my breathing deepen and my heart expand. Here is tangible, incontrovertible proof of the thing we are all a part of, and always will be, no matter what. As isolated as circumstances might lead us to be, we are not ever alone.
~ Kitti O'Hallaron
Her services and writing can be found at thresheld.com
Little boy. Knees so busy under your school khakis. Your dried millet stalk prods an old bicycle tire, bare of tread, along a rocky footpath.
You wear a cereal box on your head.
You are fearless! The magic of your cardboard helmet makes you bold, protects you.
Your tongue trills out machine noises, your body synced. You are an engine of movement, propulsion. You are a green dart of energy running towards me, flitting to the side when we intersect.
You come into focus, and I fold into laughter. Magic Sugar Flakes, imported from Ghana, now transformed. I know this box. Knock-off Frosted Flakes from the Muslim grocer. His store is Fridaos. Muslim Heaven. Did the wind carry the box out of the trash heap and lay it at your feet, like manna?
With the donning of colored paper with shiny letters, you metamorphose.
You take a scrap and animate it, let it animate you.
You are unstoppable, courageous.
Will anyone tell you this? Will you remember it if you reach adulthood?
Will you find other ways to protect yourself, to dodge harm when malaria and parasites and infection comes?
Later this afternoon, I drive the truck to another footpath. A new village. The rumble of the diesel an intrusion. The rhythms of this place are pestles pounding manioc, machetes chopping wood, women sifting chaff from rice.
I come to say hello, to visit. I approach a group of four women crouched on wooden stools where the path opens. There you are beneath them, the second little boy of this day. And the second mask of this day. You lie on the ground, atop a red and yellow pagne. You are all knees and twigged arms. Your face. What is this? Are you, too, wearing a cereal box? I double take, uncomprehending.
Then I see the older woman sitting closest to you. She tends an ochre paste in the scooped out earth. She is applying the mud to you. Not a mask. It is your misshapen face. Your jaw is longer than my hand. Your eyes bend and bulge through stretched, contorted skin.
You see me, too, and then you turn away. Is it a tumor? A birth defect? There is no box to contain what I’m seeing, not even Magic Sugar Flakes.
My tears start. Too many and too fast to swallow. Yes, this is happening. I go from watching to being watched. You and the women have no container for this, a white stranger who openly sobs.
We have scarcely exchanged the most threadbare of greetings. Nyanewisi: you and the sun. The afternoon greeting, followed by a litany of questions about the state of your health, your work, your children.
But no further questions will continue under this sun.
And only God knows how the years will unfold under suns back home, in North America. I will sit with people seeking spiritual guidance. I will encounter them--sometimes in the midst of great suffering--and it will unmask us both.
But for now, uneasy air stirs like a dirty swill of river water around us. None of us knows how to ease back into the everyday. I have seen you. And you have seen me seeing you. And we cannot unsee.
This is a place of suffering.
This is a place of bravado.
This is a place of brazen love.
Love in your unmasked faces, your downward gazes, bearing witness as you attend.
And while this day has been extraordinary, you are all preparing me to see others and myself more clearly as spiritual guide.
Little boy from this morning, you are preparing me to find bold, bald courage. To re-use the tools I have to leap into new worlds.
Little boy in this afternoon sun, you are preparing me, too. Preparing me to sit unflinchingly in waves of suffering and waves of love, in equal measure.
Women, you are preparing me. You teach me to turn my face toward what is before me, my attention more potent than any medicine I offer. You show me what it means to love until the end.
Author Jane Neal is a student with Cohort 2 The Spiritual Guidance Training Institute, graduating in January 2020. She lives with her family in Tyler, Texas.
Here at The Spiritual Guidance Training Institute we assist our students in developing "sacred listening." One of the tools we use to do so is a unique protocol developed by Dr. Janice Lundy called "Pure Presence™." The methodology and practices are intended to open one's heart to listen to others in ways that are "pure"— without bias, judgment, or hidden agendas. This allows us to transcend religious doctrine, cultural prejudice, or anything that could keep us separated from our fellow human beings. It enables us to create a space for connection and healing to happen within a spiritual guidance session.
We could say that we at SGTI are trying to foster "hearts as wide as the world." In our final learning module with Cohort 1 students we explored this concept, and invited them to share their understanding of "a heart as wide as the world." This is what one of our students, Jeffrey Phillips, wrote:
“The heart of the world” – what is that? Is it the social world misshapen by structures and systems that seem unchangeable, and that, more often than not, go unnoticed by people who have been taught to not see and question unjust schemes? Is it the world itself – beautiful, dying, the original body of God? Is it the world of creativity, imagination, science, curiosity, discovery, spirituality, primal experiences, social bonding, sexuality, and the arts?
Or it is God – that which beats (like a heart) at the center (the heart) of all things? The goodness, the joy, the love, the moral imperative to care? Being, Consciousness, Existence, Spirit, Mystery, Eternity – experienced in shared, sacred story, symbol, rituals, concepts, and completely unorthodox (“profane,” “secular”) and unexpected numinous, luminous places, people, and circumstances?
How does one listen to that Heart? By taking time in the daily practice, by stepping outside the ordinary routines to attend the festival of a different social group or take a new course. By paying attention to your toothbrush – really looking at it for the first time! By sitting when you could be busy. By resting when you could be working. By savoring a conversation, a meal, a day. By being when you could be doing. By reading a poem slowly – really chewing on it - rather than reading the news. By “praying the news,” and considering those stubborn social systems and the suffering they inflict on innocent folk.
And then by reflecting on that toothbrush-looking, that sitting, that being, that soulful reading, that news praying. And doing it again the next day – or doing something completely different. Or maybe by approaching a daily practice with no agenda at all other than to Be Open, and to see – and hear! - what happens in the moment, in the here, in the now. I have learned that this last year and a half.
by Jeanette Banashak, PhD, EdD
Is there an experience that you have had that you haven’t explored as a spiritual guide for yourself? What are some of the questions you could ask yourself as you explore the depths of your inner world? How might they help you create meaning?
I recently spent some time in South Africa, and as is the case with nearly anything I do, I witnessed the land and her people with the lens of an interreligious and interspiritual companion. As a spiritual guide, I am writing this reflection to re-live some beautiful moments in South Africa. As I journeyed across the land, I was not always aware of the interior land that was unexplored without reflective-reflexive expression. In other words, I want to be a spiritual companion for myself.
At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg (originally named Egoli or Gauteng, meaning the place of gold, by the first Africans), I read a quote in one of the exhibits from Nelson Mandela. He said, "The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity, and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.” Though I cannot fully comprehend Mandela’s 27 years in prison, it is with his pursuit of goodness that I write this piece.
My reflective expression (I chose one experience for the purposes of this blog): What did I feel as I biked through sewage, surrounded by tin "houses" in Soweto? What did I notice in my body as I learned that there are vacant apartments (for the past 8 years!) since Jacob Zuma changed Mandela's vision of offering free housing? What was my response to the children's memorial site that explained how, in 1976, 11-18 year old students stood up to their oppressors? Who am I in relation to the mothers and sons, the sisters and grandfathers? And, to quote spiritual director, Kaye Twining, who do I now know myself to be after such an experience?
Throughout the bike tour in Soweto, I felt deep grief, sadness, fear, surprise, amazement, respect. My sadness and grief were felt in my stomach; I felt surprise and amazement in my heart. I got choked up at the memorial site with the famous picture of Hector Petersen after he was shot. And yet, what were the other names of those peaceful protestors who also were shot or injured? At times, I had a difficult time feeling connected to the people of Soweto. I tried to notice when I wavered between pity and compassion, when I felt sorry for them or practiced loving kindness. As I ponder the experience and look back on photographs, I can embrace our common humanity while honoring their historical and cultural context. This is not easy! But, it is my way forward if I am going to have a reflexive expression fueled by compassionate action.
We live in challenging times, divisive times. How do we keep faith and hope alive? How do we continue to believe in the power of good? In the love and reconciliation of which each person is capable?
SGTI co-founder, Jan Lundy, believes it is "important it is that we help one another reorient toward the good, the higher emotion, the life-affirming virtues that we carry within us, especially during challenging times."
Read her essay originally published by Spiritual Directors International here:
As I sit in the non-violent communication (NVC) training, I am pondering any difficulties that I have with anyone who is not like me. I ask myself if there are individuals or groups of which I’ve made “static assessments” or written off because their differences seem too great for me to resolve. According to NVC, every action an enemy takes is an expression of feelings and needs. When my needs are critically unmet, I can make an enemy of others. Maybe I have lacked in historical competence because I do not know their cultural history. Or perhaps I lack understanding or hope for change.
Rather than humanizing the other, I have demonized and diminished them, creating distance between them and me. Accessing empathy and self-empathy lessens the distance and creates connection to meet both of our needs.
Non-violent communication (NVC) was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s. At once a communication practice, a spirituality practice, and a peace organization, NVC is deeply interspiritual. NVC practitioners see the other as sacred and having dignity; they see themselves in the same way. They practice mutual seeing – hearing each other at the core – and mutual assisting – giving and receiving without coercion and with freedom and gratitude.
The main intention of NVC is greater understanding and connection with the self and others related to needs. NVC defines needs as qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life – needs are ultimately the point of connection. A non-exhaustive list of needs has been created that fall under categories such as connection, physical well-being, honesty, play, peace, meaning, and autonomy. The key is being aware of my needs, being aware of your needs, and believing and living like each of our needs matters.
NVC is an interspiritual practice that offers a way to communicate what is alive in me (self-expression), connect with what’s alive in me (self-connection), and connect with what’s alive in you (empathy). It is a movement away from judgments, labels, demands, no choices, and towards inter-connection and intra-connection.
Even though I don’t fully comprehend the depth of compassion that exists in me, in you, in the world, I believe that what is required in this new era is, as Wayne Teasdale wrote, for religious and spiritual traditions to “pool their treasures of the spirit”. To any historical or current enemy: What gem do you bring to our open table?
Jeanette Banashak, PhD., EdD.
About this blog
Deepening the understanding, practice and importance of spiritual guidance-companionship across traditions.
Chat with us on Facebook