Then, Suddenly

In the story of the Pentecost, I am drawn to the experience of those who received the flame of the Spirit and then, suddenly, they could converse and praise their God in languages formerly not their own.

Our professor shared this image with us, which is Emile Nolde’s “Pentecost”.

Before being licked awake by flames from the divine, were they praying with eyes closed? Were they heavy lidded and desiring knowledge and understanding? How does this feel in their brains, this wash of knowledge and ability? I think it would be akin to how some psychoactive drugs must feel.

Or how about Paul who used to go by Saul? He was blithely on his way to persecute more followers of Jesus and then, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him” (Acts 9:3). He falls down blind and Jesus speaks to him inside his mind. Saul/Paul is instantly changed. Jesus tells him where to go and what to do and he is obedient and dedicates his every remaining day to serving Jesus.

This is the picture we got with that story. It’s Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul“.

Life will never be the same. What was happening in HIS brain? Here is the moment of his change; before this was he laughing? Telling a joke about Jesus freaks? After the flash of light and voice of Jesus, did Paul have a moment of “What the…?” Did he have to try to accept his changed state, or was he so changed, that it seemed obvious that this would be his new reality?

One thing that did not change for Paul is a near obsession on Jesus. He thought about Jesus and his followers all the time before the conversion. He thought about them just as much afterwards. Similarly, those present and affected at Pentecost were already followers of Jesus. In both stories, those affected were focusing hard on the thing that eventually changed them.

Now to be even more flippant and irreverent. I think the same applies to the concepts of flow, and about my learning juggling. I’ve been thinking about juggling, using my mind and my body-mind. It’s been weeks of thinkinging juggling juggling juggling.

This morning I picked up the balls and then, suddenly caught 53 throws of a three ball cascade.

Yesterday I was trying to connect to the emotional state of a client and I opened my mouth, not knowing what to say and then, suddenly, the right words fell out.

It’s not a flash of divinity – but I think it lands in the same spectrum of experience. And in a thematically beautiful flash of inspiration I recalled these images of Paul and of the Pentecost. Now, I have this paper to write that is actually past due because in a flurry of changed due dates, I got confused. Maybe though, maybe I needed this small dose of divine inspiration to finally get me writing.

the penultimate* day of July

I must have blinked once or twice; July is almost over. Classes are over I haven’t written anything remotely academic for two weeks. I’ve been learning new skills and engaging in almost daily new challenges. I volunteer for the Crisis Text Line once a week. I have psychotherapy clients over phone or video through my internship. I’ve been practicing juggling for the theology class that ended <time has lost meaning> months or weeks or ten years ago. I get afraid the new skills won’t stick – I’ll forget to write a paper when I try to write the juggling / spirit / community paper.

My puppy Valentine has been learning new tricks as well. Some of them are not entirely welcome; he has recently learned the trick of barking incredibly loudly without stopping at anyone who stops by to visit in the backyard. But he has also learned to jump through a hoop!

Look at that focus!
Look at that focus!

Which is to say I taught him to jump through a hoop, meaning I learned how to teach my dog to jump through a hoop. When the hoop and the kibble come out, he concentrates his energy on waiting for the command and then jumping through the hoop, and then getting his reward of kibble and praise. Nothing else matters. He’s a dog of course – what else could matter? I find I learn best of perform best when I can get into that single minded focus. When everything else drops away and nothing else matters and the essence of my mind and being is aligned with my purpose. Since COVID, and the requirement to learn and achieve all things in the same space, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to get that keen focus. That Mind of Dog. In the juggling, in my classes, in my job, internship, and volunteering; it is so hard to prevent the stressful elements of one from distracting me while I try to engage in another. I need a hoop and some kibble I guess.

What I need is community, and not online. I need a variety of spaces to live my life in again. We all need these things, to differing degrees. I find that this is another area where spirit and community are entangled. As community recedes, it is easy for spirits to fade. In our course we learned that for many cultures, community was needed to fully engage with the Divine, as each community perceived the Divine to be. Maybe this is true for reaching transcendent states in learning or arts or psychotherapy. Maybe we can’t always do our best work alone. We need someone to hold the hoop for us, so we can focus on the jumping.

*I wrote this last night but was so tired I forgot to hit publish twice!

Three Juggling Balls, Two Hands

Morgan, saying hello to everybody.

Video four done and we are ALMOST at the point of juggling with three balls. The rest of the videos aren’t up yet though, so I will have to get my daughter to teach me the rest in person. I just checked; my three-ball cascade has not improved. It’s something I learned years ago and just do the same way, when I do it. I think my core skills of throwing and catching are better, but now I’ve added thinking about it which negates the improvement in core skills.

Thinking about it is the challenge. Thinking about the ways that we do habitual actions can be a stumbling block, but it’s one we need to acknowledge and challenge if we want to change our behaviours or thoughts. If I want to get past 28 catches in a three-ball cascade, I am going to think about how I throw and catch and build better physical behaviours around those skills. If I want to lose weight as a middle-aged human, I’m going to have to think about my eating and fitness behaviours and understand them to rewrite them.

By the time I submit this assignment, I will not have mastered this skill. I’ll still be thinking about it. When my proficiency is such that I can perform the three-ball cascade with few drops and without thinking about it, I believe I will experience this as transcendent. I will have reached beyond effort and struggle by going through effort and struggle, and will have arrived in a place of flow. This flow state is one of “optimal experience” which author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Flow, 1990. Harper & Row, New York: NY, pg 5). I have enjoyed such optimal experience before in writing, acting, providing counseling, sports, and other arenas.

My experience of flow state has been akin to the spiritual state of transcendence. It is a mind state, a spirit state, an internal space where we touch Spirit, as we conceive Spirit to be. It is a state of harmony and ease; it is being one with everything. Which leads to the inevitable question:

What did the Buddhist monk say to the hot dog vendor?

Thud, Thud

I’ve taken in another instructional video and I continue to practice throwing the juggling balls to the appropriate height, and having them land <thudthud> in my hands. The videos are at a two-ball cascade right now; I tested my three-ball cascade to see if it has improved through my efforts. It has not. I’m OK with that. My life continues to be busy with counseling clients in my internship, getting back to working my actual job, and volunteering for the Crisis Text Line. Throwing and catching balls <thudthud> is a rhythmic escape.

I’ve been wondering if this academic adventure was going to skew more to Spirit or to Community. I honestly suspected community, as there is an active and vibrant juggling community. My daughter engages with her juggling and circus communities at least weekly online. For me though, the throwing and catching of balls <thudthud> blends well with isolation. I mostly prefer to spend the bulk of my time alone; I’m adept at entertaining myself.

I’m generally also skilled at keeping my spirit buoyed. This pandemic is challenging. Increasingly, clients are having panic attacks. People call in not knowing if they are angry or depressed; their emotions are confusing and scary. The ambiguous loss of not knowing when we will hug our friends again has gone to a more threatening despondency of accepting we might never. Sometimes, out of nowhere, I am angry, or frustrated, or hopeless. I’ll have a good flow happening, keeping my spirit up and pressing onward, throwing and catching my ambitions and intentions and then <thudthud> one fumble and they tumble to the ground.

In the instructional videos, to perfect the throws, you deliberately let the balls land on the ground. The placement of dropped balls gives you information of how they were thrown, and the transit they took before falling. When our spirits drop, can we learn from how they fall and where they land? Tracing their path from their drop spots, we might see what tripped us up; perfectionism perhaps, or maybe a tendency to doubt ourselves. “I should be exercising more with this free time” “They probably wouldn’t pick me for that job anyway.” <thudthud>

We can pick those balls back up. We can try again. We’ll drop them again. We can keep trying.

It might not be the Holy Spirit, but it’s sure the human spirit – and by my reckoning, that’s divinity enough.

mindfulness prosecco juggling

Today we had rain which is notable, so notable. The temperature dropped and for the first time in over a week, it seemed perhaps the town was not about to catch on fire. I celebrated with Prosecco, music that was suggested by a music-knowledgeable friend, an online improv showcasing another friend, and text conversations. A reasonably solid COVID Friday. But, still, there was a to do item hanging over me.

“juggling post”

OK. To be honest, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve tackled theology homework after some wine.

Only a professional juggles the actual bottle

Interestingly, my left hand is throwing less erratically. I think this might be that sweet spot that happens in pool halls – sufficient alcohol to stop overthinking, but not so much to lose track of your hands. I have a tendency to think too much.

Twice in this video Morgan emphasized listening to the sound of the juggling pattern and that was helpful. It was like unfocusing my somatic awareness, and instead leaning into the auditory component of the juggling pattern, the thud thud of the balls landing, hopefully in my hands but more often on the floor. The expectation was set that more balls would land on the floor than not. That reassurance allows for a personal non-judgement of my own performance.

On a more singular note, my puppy Valentine has fully accepted that the juggling balls are not for him to play with. He’s somewhat uncertain as to why I am throwing balls *not for him* but has relinquished the management of these particular balls to my care.

Soon the juggling practice will arrive where I thought I was starting from, but with more thought and rehearsal. Maybe I will up my three ball cascade count?

This is my left hand

This is my left hand. You’d think after fifty years my left hand would obey me better. But here I am, trying to learn to juggle properly and I’m repeatedly bending to pick up juggling balls on the left of me because my left hand is disobedient. I need to show my left hand the instructional video so it knows what to do.

This is my left hand.

My puppy Valentine finally believes me that the juggling balls are not for him and that this is not a fun game of keep away. Valentine can jump very high so I’m glad he’s got the message.

Each video starts with stretches. After a day of client conversations and studying and running online groups, it’s good to be reminded to stretch. I’m also finding that having the juggling balls around provides a quick stress relieving break in the day. These balls are like round bean bags; they make a satisfying thud noise when they land, almost like they are airborne drums playing themselves on my hands. I can see juggling being very meditative if you can get enough of a rhythm going. For now it is an exercise in non-judgement and equanimity. Actually juggling would make for a good mindfulness / Buddhist activity. It’s very somatic in that your body is focused and necessary, but it also engages the mind fully. One can not ruminate on what their boss is going to say tomorrow while one is focusing on making the spheres move from one hand to another.

Tomorrow I’m going to practice what we learned today. I need to figure out where my hands are more reliably!

JuggLearn

JuggLearn is the app that my son David and daughter Morgan are building. In the intro video, Morgan describes herself as a hobbyist juggler who has really enjoyed juggling for years and wants to “give back some of that goodness to the world.” Here’s a screen shot of Morgan from the intro video:

Morgan looks a lot like I did at her age and it’s a bit uncanny watching her on video at times.

The app isn’t released yet. I don’t know how many of us are accessing the videos; they’re looking for feedback on what is and isn’t working as we learn to juggle. Morgan wants to grow in her skills of coaching and educational design. David is always working on his app design skills and inventing new ways to make computers do what he wants.

The intro video said we’d be learning two patterns – cascade and…. another one. I can DO a three ball cascade but not with much reliability. I’d like to greatly improve that, and learn the second pattern. I should see how many catches I can get on a three ball cascade right now. I have some juggling balls I bought while visiting Morgan at a juggling festival once, hold on a second…

OK back! Thirty-nine catches! Where will I be at the end of this experiment?

Juggling: Summative Project

This “sprummer” term (as my University College calls it) I took a course called Introduction to Spirit and Community. Our final assignment reads as follows: “Learn a new athletic skill, keep a journal of your experience, and submit a 3-4 page theologically informed explanation of the project connecting it to Spirit and/or Community along with the journal.”

I’m learning juggling. I started earlier but have sort of noted things in my mind rather than journaling, as I have had other courses since and started a practicum etc, etc, in any case – I’ve been busy. I’m right now thinking “this is a journal entry so grammar is immaterial” so I’m just going to ramble without the governance of punctuation at times.

The to do item juggling post has been shifting from day to day for some time now. It makes me feel sad and guilty. So I’m just posting so I can scratch it off. I’ve already put it on tomorrow’s list; it isn’t gone forever.

I’m learning to juggle from videos recorded by and of my daughter who is using them in a ‘learn to juggle’ app she is creating cooperatively with my son. My daughter is (in my mind anyway) pretty well known in the juggling community. Learning or succeeding at a new juggling pattern lifts her spirit. Will I turn the focus of this assignment toward Spirit or Community? Spirit IN community? Community spirit? Time will tell. But not too much time because it’s due early August how did the summer suddenly get to be half over?