Dear Pope Francis,
During my Masters program at Sophia, I did some boundary-pushing things. I drummed and chanted with Afia Walking Tree. I practiced tai chi. I danced in a library courtyard. I read something I’d just written with Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows looking on (along with about 80 or so complete strangers).
But I think the most challenging thing I did at Sophia was during a weekend with Bill Plotkin. During our Saturday morning session, Plotkin talked about the need to fall in love with the world. He said that only by coming to love the world can you start to find your soul. Plotkin has a slightly different definition for soul than what some might be used to. For him, soul is an individual’s ultimate place in the world, their offering to the rest of creation. We’re all called to find our soul, says Plotkin, and that journey always involves a descent.
Before the descent, says Plotkin, we go through other initial stages. There’s the Wanderer, for example, where we go out into the world, searching for who we are. Part of that search, if I understood Plotkin correctly, involves coming to love the world.
In the spirit of that, Plotkin gave us an exercise: we were to go outside and allow ourselves to be led to any non-human part of creation. Then, we were to praise that non-human part of creation, as if we were speaking to a person. We were to do this out loud, emphatically and authentically. With a warning about watching for ticks and other natural hazards, Plotkin set us loose.
When I heard this, I looked around at the rest of the room. To my eye, everyone seemed not only fine with this, but absolutely ecstatic. Me? Not so much.
I’m so not doing this, I said to myself. Seriously? Go talk to a rock? Praise a rock? Did I actually pay for this?
This was my internal dialogue as I walked towards the door. To be honest, I dragged my feet a bit, both mentally and physically. I just could not fathom doing this. And, what if someone saw me?
But as I crossed the threshold of the door, I steadied myself. I was here to experience new things, wasn’t I? I was here to figure out new ways of seeing the world, seeing myself. If one of those ways involved losing touch with reality for 20 minutes and talking to rocks, fine. I’d give it a try. But nobody should expect me to enjoy it.
I emerged from the building onto a balcony of sorts that overlooks the rest of the Holy Names University campus, which is perched on the side of the Oakland Hills. And, right away, I was hit by gust of wind that brought me up short. I stopped, turned my face into the breeze, and inhaled.
I’ve always loved wind. I need moving air around me. When we shared a car, my sister used to always complain about being buffeted by the fan when she started it up. I always left the fan on full blast, with all the vents pointing at me. Still do, in my own car. When I fly, the fresh air vent is always cranked up full. The worst part of any flight for me is when the pilot shuts everything down, including ventilation, for a few brief moments when the plane pushes back from the gate. The wait for air to flow again always seems interminable.
Plotkin had said to let ourselves be guided to a non-human part of creation. I wasn’t just guided to mine; it smacked me in the face. A gentle smack, but a smack nonetheless. So, I faced into the wind and gave it praise and thanks.
And I didn’t feel the least bit goofy while I did it. It felt, pardon the pun, natural.
After awhile the wind let me go and roam, and I praised a few more non-human entities: a tree, the ground, grass, a Bird of Paradise. Then, as our time was coming to an end, I went back and praised the wind.
In addition to teaching me about the knowledge that can come by engaging in a conversation with creation, Plotkin’s exercise brought up something about myself as well. The main reason that I really didn’t want to do his exercise at first was not because I thought it wouldn’t be useful. No, I was worried about being seen doing it. I was worried about sticking out and looking odd. The fact that there would be about 30 other people doing the same thing all around me didn’t matter. I would stick out. I would look funny. I would be exposed.
In his book Soulcraft, Plotkin talks about some of the barriers to finding your soul. One of them he calls the Loyal Soldier. This is a part of our psychological make-up that was formed to protect us. He likens it to those Japanese soldiers from WWII who hid in dense forests and emerged, decades later, thinking the war was still on and ready to take up arms to defend their country. The Japanese did a smart thing with these men, says Plotkin. They welcomed them home, thanked them for their service, and told them they could now rest as the fighting was done. Handled this way, the soldiers were much more willing to accept that the world had changed while they were in hiding.
The psychological Loyal Soldier, says Plotkin, defends us against perceived threats. It leaps up, shield in hand, to provide mental protection. This is all well and good when we’re growing up and might need a little sheltering to get through the trials of youth. The problem, says Plotkin, is that the Loyal Soldier will remain on alert long after it should have retired to a quiet life with a little garden. What this means is we continue to view experiences for growth, that will prepare us to transition to another stage of life, as battles to be fought rather than opportunities to learn.
In my case, my Loyal Soldier is particularly attuned to situations in which I’m going to be exposed. I was teased a lot as a kid. I was smart. I was overweight. My Loyal Soldier got good at protecting me from this, and, he did his job well. I survived. But, in adulthood, his leaping to my defense gets a bit problematic. He sees every situation where I’m likely to look a little odd or provoke any kind of ridicule — even if it’s only from inside my head — as a call to action. He rises in his rusty mail, pulls his sword from its cobwebbed scabbard, and rushes in.
In Soulcraft, Plotkin offers a way of gently retiring your Loyal Soldier. You praise them. You thank them for their service. And then you point out that the threat has passed, the war was won long ago, and, really, wouldn’t a life of leisure be more inviting right now? Maybe the Loyal Soldier should take up stamp collecting or take that bus trip through Europe (skipping the battlefields and military graveyards, perhaps)? I’m giving my own spin to Plotkin here, but you get the idea. Slowly, the Loyal Soldier will catch on and realize peace as broken out and leave you to carry on.
So, since our weekend with Bill Plotkin, this has been one of my tasks. I’ve kept an eye on my Loyal Soldier, listening for the clank of armour that signals he’s about to intervene on my behalf. I assess the situation and give him the all clear. Sometimes he still springs into action, but it’s easier for me to back him off as time goes by. Hopefully I’ll soon be able to encourage him to move into that seaside cottage I’ve bought for him.
What about you, Pope Francis? What’s getting in the way of your being able to live out what you were put into this universe to do (other than the Curia)? What’s your own Loyal Soldier doing? What conversations can you have with him or her to convince them the war is over and they can be at peace?
(Note: If you buy a book via a link in my blog post, I get a little bit of money from Amazon. Full disclosure. But, it helps with little things like hosting, etc…)