Surprised by Grace

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How often are you startled by afresh spiritual awareness — a simple and unexpected new metaphor for your life journey? Discover 'nested meditation’ and experience how wordplay can open your soul.

This article appeared in our June 2004 issue.

Recently I was at a friend's new home on a gorgeous lake in Minnesota. As I walked around the neighborhood, I felt that familiar culturally conditioned longing for More. The line "I want to live on water!" dropped into my awareness like a stone, causing ripples through my spirit. At first, my superego moved in to judge: Be grateful for what you have; you shouldn't covet what others possess. But I opted to play with the line instead, and here is what emerged:

I want to live on water.

I want to live on. Water
stirs that up in me.

I want to live on. Water
stirs that up. In me
pulsates an eternal longing.

I want to live on. Water
stirs that up. In me
pulsates an eternal longing
for what a breaking wave may know.

In this piece, I was able to transform the negatives of coveting and self-judgment into a realization that my longing for beauty and abundance mirrors my ever-present thirst for the Abundant One. Writing this meditation was somehow healing. Simply moving the period in the first line from after the word "water" to after the word "on" -- I want to live on -- had opened my soul.

I've been writing meditations in this form for the past five years. The first one was the result of an afternoon playing with language to see whether, by repeating the stanza adding a line each time, I could get the meaning or direction to shift in subtle or surprising ways. This way of writing became a regular way for me to spend time with silence. I called the form "nested" because each stanza fits into the one after it like Russian dolls.

Unlike much modern poetry, which uses sophisticated language, nested meditations use plain, everyday words to evoke "aha!" moments. The idea is to let the holy, the surprising, the miraculous emerge from the ordinary. Because they use simple language, nested meditations are accessible to both readers and those who wish to write them. Since I published a first collection of 76 nested meditations, I've heard from people around the country and the world who are using this new form to get in touch with the sacred in their own lives.

Wordplay as a Portal to the Soul

The fascination of writing a nested meditation is that after the first line is committed to paper, one never knows where the piece will go. To play with words so that the piece changes direction almost guarantees shifts that will leave the writer wondering, "Where did that come from?" Wordplay takes us into the right brain where anything can happen. It's as though the sacred is dancing between the words or lines, waiting for our playful energy to reveal it.

Here is a personal story to illustrate the power of the nested meditation form. I am not a fisherman, but our five-year-old son Jim was insistent: "Let's go see if we can catch some bass with this purple scented worm, Dad! Can we? Can we?" I was pretty sure we couldn't, but his boyish wonder was too vibrant to quash.

We walked out onto the dock and I tied on the artificial worm, thinking, "We're not going to catch anything with this fake lure." In the dim light, about 30 feet from the dock, a fish stirred near the surface. To my surprise, our cast landed right where the fish had stirred, and a moment later the fish struck that rubbery purple scented worm! While Jim was fighting the fish in, however, the line snapped. We hooked into two more fish within minutes, but each time we tried to set the hook, the line snapped.

Taking my fishing frustrations to quiet time later, I wrote:

Prayer is casting awareness into silence.

Prayer is casting awareness into silence,
fishing for the Big One, waiting for the tug.

Prayer is casting awareness into silence,
fishing for the Big One, waiting for the tug
of the sacred -- setting the hook, reeling.

Prayer is casting awareness into silence,
fishing for the Big One, waiting for the tug
of the sacred -- setting the hook, reeling
with laughter when the line snaps again.

In the final stanza, the change in meaning from reeling a fishing rod to reeling with laughter suggests a resemblance between the Divine and the Big One that we can never quite land, hold in our hands, and put on a stringer. The three bass that got away reminded me that we live for those moments of being hooked into the sacred but that the line always snaps. In the 30 minutes it took to create this piece, I had also stumbled on a new image for prayer ("casting awareness into silence").

Creating Your Own Nested Meditations

To increase spiritual awareness using this method, one needs only some quiet time, a willingness to start with a single line from present awareness, and a playful approach to words. The rules are simple: Each stanza after the first is a repetition of the exact words that came before with a single line added. Shifts in direction occur through double meanings, punctuation changes, or hyphenations.

With pen and paper nearby, move into a quiet space with several cleansing breaths, and tune in to whatever threads of awareness are in your mind. Instead of treating such thoughts as distractions or manifestations of "monkey mind," notice them, no matter how simple or odd they are. Follow the meanderings of your marvelous, mysterious mind, and write down a few starter lines that bubble up. Then play with the words. Rewrite the lines if necessary to allow more possibilities for wordplay.

Suppose you've written down something apparently uninspiring, such as, "My life is boring." Can anything come from playing with those four words? What if you made the second line "through layers of rottenness" (or sweetness), the third line "to the core," and the final line "where the seed of a new life awaits"? Another person might make the second line "me to tears" and finish the piece as follows:

My life is boring.

My life is boring
me to tears.

My life is boring
me. To tears
I will add joy.

My life is boring
me. To tears
I will add joy-
filled years of healing and growth.

The piece moves from the absence of emotion to pain and hope for the future, an appreciation that an enduring sense of well-being comes only from engagement with life. The goal here is not to produce masterpieces, but to mine the ordinary moments of our lives for the nuggets they contain.

Repetition and Revelation

We live in a world obsessed with efficiency, novelty, and speed. In the nested form, repetition -- an element common to all forms of meditation -- encourages us to slow down, to waste some words in the interest of probing our experience. When each line of a nested meditation is read slowly, without hurrying to the end of the piece, each stanza can be a meditation, and the repetition holds the possibility of revelation. Consider this meditation written for my life partner, Claudia:

I picked you.

I picked you
to be my wife.

I picked you
to be my wife
and I didn't know you.

I picked you
to be my wife
and I didn't know you
were a wildflower.

The third stanza points us in a direction: How well do we know a person when we commit our lives to her or him? The final stanza implies that with time we become more aware of another's essence and beauty. Even the opening stanza ("I picked you") appears in a different light after the whole piece has been read. After all, when we pick wildflowers, their beauty is ours to enjoy for only a short time.

Repetition, then, can reveal a surprising richness. As with the lines in these meditations, so it is in our lives. Our days are full of repetitions -- waking, eating, washing, greeting, retiring -- that even after thousands of cycles can help us find the sacred beneath the surface of life.Repeating lines in the nested form models our own growth. Like it or not, we often work and rework the same issues, and our progress is incremental. Sometimes a shift occurs that lets us break through to unexpected potential or move in surprising directions. This is the hope the nested form represents -- that the lives we've already written need not limit where the story goes from here.

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