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  • Karl Thunemann

Is My Practice Static, or Dynamic?

When I first embarked on a loving-kindness practice, it felt like a gooey mass that kept slipping through my fingers. I would make lists of areas I wanted to focus on. Then I would lose them. When they reappeared, I would think, No, this won’t do, and I would start over. This process lasted for a few months, a time that was at once exciting and aggravating. I was not just creating something out of nothing—I was reading several books about loving-kindness and consulting frequently with my friend Adrienne, my unofficial meditation consultant.

Finally I hammered it down to seven basic subjects and created a format for the actual meditation. I would open each session by sounding “om” two or three times. Then I would work through the topics, one by one. This process included a simple ritual for closing each subject and clearing my mind for the next. They came in a particular order—or at least that was my intent. At first, I was prone to losing my place and skipping a topic, but gradually I entered a reassuring pattern. From day to day, my meditations would resemble each other—with, of course, much daily variation.

I had a practice, but soon noticed something missing. So I added an eighth topic—May I be loved—and made it my opening act. And soon enough I added a ninth—May I dwell in gratitude. I placed it in eighth place, just before May I be joyful. But it would not be buried. Just to make certain I kept my priorities in mind, I decided to name the entire practice May I dwell in gratitude. I felt settled. The practice hummed along with relative smoothness nearly a couple of years. Oh, I would fiddle with it, of course—I am an inveterate fiddler, which may contribute to the aura of disorder that sometimes shrouds this enterprise.

Some time passed, and, a new wind started blowing through my mind. I kept meditating, naturally, but I kept postponing work on new epistles.

I was raised by Methodists who did not often talk about soul, if ever. In any case, I managed to mature with the innate understanding that having a soul does NOT require belief in God.

The problem started with my attention to the thought that lies behind May I be loved. I hope I’ve made clear that the underlying theme of this topic is estrangement, an issue that has plagued several branches of my family over the decades and finally planted its agonizing self on my doorstep awhile back. At first I didn’t recognize it. Then I thought it could be addressed by intoning the words: May I be loved; may I BE love. It seemed to me that estrangement is, in effect, all about love: In the worst cases, it’s the absence or a shortage of love—maybe a contortion of love or even a sense of confusion over the topic. This turmoil can disguise estrangement, leading people to isolate one another with estranging behaviors without ever addressing the topic directly. They just avoid each other, or stop being open about their feelings. The initial thought behind my meditation was that if I could fill my life with love, it would at least mitigate the pain of estrangement. And it works—up to a point. I more freely express my love for people, and I’m certainly receiving love from many corners.

Although I have few rituals in my practice, I still think they are important.

Then one day I was taken by surprise. I found myself concluding the May I be loved segment by saying—or trying to say, as this was spontaneous and not well thought out—May all those who are or have been estranged find a path that leads through estrangement to reconciliation with the soul. After a week or two trying to sort this out, my inner explorer added a clincher: May I—yes, with emphasis—May I be reconciled with MY soul. The strangest thing is that when I say this—and I do SAY it, my entire meditation is voiced—I feel deeply moved. My meditative state deepens, and yet I do not really know what I am saying. Even lacking this understanding, I really DO wish to be reconciled with my soul. Are we really estranged? I write this despite having read a riveting book a few years ago: Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction, by Murray Stein. As I read the book, I was delighted and transported. Still, I never finished it. Lately I have picked it up again and find it fresh and new.

This particular concern for soul is not isolated. Many years ago a young friend of mine expressed a desire to create a performance piece called The Diary of a Soulless Girl. I encouraged her to embark on this project, even though I thought—and think—that she is unusually soulful. I did not think what would happen if she created the piece and still deemed herself lacking a soul. I don’t think it would affect our friendship. She has always explained that she was raised by atheists and had no grounding for considering the soul. The passing years have pushed my friend a little beyond calling herself a girl, but I would still like to see her make this work.

I don’t know exactly what the soul is, but I think that everyone (should I say nearly everyone? I can think of a few who seem not to deserve one) has a soul. I was raised by Methodists who did not often talk about soul, if ever. In any case, I managed to mature with the innate understanding that having a soul does NOT require belief in God. If any god were to threaten all disbelievers with cancellation of their souls, that god would not deserve to be taken seriously. The soul has its own realm—somewhere between us mortals and any deities that presume to be monitoring us. To my mind, this unknown soul is far more worthy of our attention than the devil. But there I go again—speaking as if I know what I’m talking about.

I embrace my ignorance and dedicate myself to making changes in my practice in the hope that someday soon I will truly know what I mean when the topic turns to soul.


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