Spiritual Life is All About Relationship

Opening Minds, Opening Hearts Podcast Season 2 Episode 5 with Gigi Ross

Episode Title: Spiritual Life is All About Relationship

“The unloading is what happens when we resist what is. We bring on a lot of pain and suffering trying to find ways to control. Residue comes up when we resist. We can keep fighting and create more things to unload or have open hands and let life be how it is and be in conversation and relationship with it.”

- Gigi Ross

On today’s episode we speak with Gigi Ross, who began practicing Centering Prayer after attending an introductory workshop in 1998. Gigi has been a Spiritual Director since 2000 and worked as an Associate Director at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Foundation. She also served on the leadership team for Contemplative Outreach of Maryland and Washington from 2003 to 2005. She is currently working at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) as the Living School Student Experience Manager. We are so grateful for our long standing partnership with CAC and the tremendous work she is doing there.

“Centering Prayer isn’t meditation, it’s prayer. And prayer for me is about relationship. I don’t know any relationship that is 100% bliss, helpful and restful. If you are going to be in a relationship, all the stuff you have not been wanting to look at is going to come to the surface. It makes sense that’s what happens in Centering Prayer. When we deepen the practice, it's the gesture of saying yes to all of life…..The only way to live through that is to trust that God wants the best for me and what’s happening in my life with God’s presence is ultimately pointing me to my already experienced union with him, even though I’m not necessarily conscience of it.”

- Gigi Ross

In this episode

After reading an article by Cynthia Bourgeault in 1998, she attended an introductory workshop. She took home the practice of Centering Prayer and fell in love with it. Attending retreats has deepened her practice and helped her find that Centering Prayer is a personal relationship. She returns from retreat restored and not just the practice is deepened, but how you live out the practice is deepened.

Gigi grew up in the National Baptist Tradition and she never felt like she was getting the full story, not because they were hiding it, but because they didn’t know it. At a young age she became curious about the deeper aspect of spirituality which led her to explore meditation and Eastern traditions and eventually led her to Centering Prayer. She shares how Father Thomas Keating helped her understand how Christianity framed the contemplative life and Centering Prayer. He simplified the practice while putting it into a larger context simultaneously. She shares that transformation happens when we struggle and challenges us with the question - What was it I thought was more important than God’s presence in that moment? Having those times to remember that this is who I am, this is part of my journey, helps us accept ourselves and our humanity. This helps us come to a more authentic place.

As a spiritual director, Gigi says it is her job to be a human standing in for God’s presence which works through her. She needs to discern when to speak, when to be quiet, and when to be honest about what we need to be aware of. Ego is a bunch of tendencies we have built up over time. Having someone we trust to bear witness and soften the struggle, helps us become aware of the invitation we are receiving and deepen the practice of Centering Prayer. We explore spiritual community with God at the center and why it’s important to share this space with others who are different from ourselves and support each other in the transformative journey. We reflect on how we can live this out, not just in a small group but in our lives.

We must remember that we are never one, we are not isolated individuals, collectively we are with God.

“Bring emptiness and freedom to each moment and its content. Then, you will be happy, even in the midst of suffering. Accept everything and everyone just as they are, where they are, and try to act as lovingly as possible in every situation. Hush the discriminating mind, dividing things into good or evil, for me. Fear draws us to the center we have created, the ego self. Love expands from our real center. The true self.”

- Father Thomas Keating

To learn more about Father Thomas Keating’s guidelines for service and principles visit www.contemplativeoutreach.org/vision

 To connect with Gigi Ross:
  • The Center for Action and Contemplation http://cac.org. To contact Gigi Ross directly, click on the contact us link in the footer of the CAC website, and put her name in the subject line when you submit the form. 
To connect further with us:  

Season 2 of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts was made possible by a grant from the Trust for the Meditation Proces a charitable foundation encouraging meditation, mindfulness and contemplative prayer.

This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana LLC www.crysandtiana.com
Opening Minds, Opening Hearts EP # 5: Spiritual Life is All About Relationship with Gigi Ross

[cheerful music starts]

Colleen Thomas [00:00:02] Welcome to Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, a podcast about the transformative practice of Centering Prayer. In each episode, we will talk to Friends of Contemplative Outreach about their personal practice. Listen in as our guests share insights about the teachings of Father Thomas Keating, how the practice impacts their work in the world, and their thoughts about how Centering Prayer connects to the living traditions of contemplation and meditation. We are your hosts, Colleen Thomas.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:00:35] And Mark Dannenfelser.

Colleen Thomas [00:00:36] Centering Prayer practitioners and contemplative life seekers who love to talk a little too much about how the practice of contemplative prayer transforms our inner and outer worlds. Our hope is to open the door for you to explore more deeply this powerful practice of Centering Prayer.

[cheerful music ends]

Mark Dannenfelser [00:00:58] Welcome to the Contemplative Outreach Podcast, Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. I'm Mark Dannenfelser.

Colleen Thomas [00:01:07] And I'm Colleen Thomas.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:09] Hello Colleen. 

Colleen Thomas [00:01:11] Hello Mark. It's good to be here with you again. 

Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:13] It's good to see you again and hear you again.

Colleen Thomas [00:01:16] Yeah. 

Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:17] This has been a wonderful season, hasn't it? 

Colleen Thomas [00:01:19] It has. I'm just so grateful to be expanding our relationships with the Centering Prayer community and learning more about Father Thomas, even learning more about Contemplative Outreach as an organism as we say. This season we've been having these conversations around just one of Contemplative Outreach’s guiding principles, which says, Contemplative Outreach is an evolving community with an expanding vision and deepening practice of Centering Prayer that serves the changing needs of Christian contemplatives. Today we're looking a little bit more closely at this idea of deepening practice.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:02:08] Yeah. And we have a great guest who will help us explore this, the practice and going deeper. I want to introduce our listeners to our guest, Gigi Ross, who's began practicing Centering Prayer in 1998 after attending an introductory workshop. Gigi also served on the leadership team for Contemplative Outreach of Maryland, Washington from around 2003, 2005. I think that's about right. Gigi trained to be a spiritual director through the Shalem Institute and has been a spiritual director since 2000. Gigi's currently working at the Center for Action and Contemplation as the Living School Manager. And we are so grateful here at Contemplative Outreach for our longstanding partnership with the CAC and the tremendous work that you are doing over there. So a hearty welcome to you, Gigi. Thank you for being here.

Colleen Thomas [00:03:04] Welcome, Gigi.

Gigi Ross [00:03:05] Thank you. Would you mind if I corrected one thing about the bio?

Mark Dannenfelser [00:03:09] Please.

Gigi Ross [00:03:10] Actually, I got my spiritual guidance certificate elsewhere. I was on the staff at the Shalem Institute and I was assistant director for the spiritual guidance program there.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:03:19] Great. Thank you.

Colleen Thomas [00:03:20] Yes. I wasn't sure about that. I knew that you worked with Shalem for some years and you're someone that I've been wanting to meet for a few years now. We run in the same circles. I live in DC and you lived here for years. You worked with Shalem, which for our listeners, if you don't know, Shalem is one of the oldest and most well-known spiritual direction training formation organizations in the US. I work for Stillpoint, which I like to say is the West Coast Shalem, and we've talked to a few Shalem grads on this podcast. Carl Mccolman, Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, even Keith Kristich did a formation program with Shalem.

And so today, as we talk about deepening the practice of Centering Prayer, I also found myself thinking that's fitting that we talk a bit about the importance of spiritual direction and other spiritual formation practices that can be supportive of the practice of Centering Prayer. We'll get into all of that. But first, Gigi, it's our custom on this podcast to begin all of our conversations with this conversation about when you were first introduced to the practice of Centering Prayer and how Centering Prayer has formed your contemplative life and prayer practice and how it continues to form your contemplative life. So can you tell us a little bit about when and how you were first introduced to Centering Prayer?

Gigi Ross [00:04:59] Sure. It was either 1997 or 1998. I was a subscriber to a journal that no longer exists now called Gnosis. It's a journal of Western Inner Traditions. And Cynthia Bourgeault had written an article on Centering Prayer. And I was really taken by it. And I, for whatever reason, I don't know why, but I felt like I didn't want to start practicing it until someone was actually walking me through it. And so then in November of 1998, there was an introductory workshop at Episcopal Church in Washington DC, and I went to that workshop and took it home, practiced it, and basically fell in love with it. And then what really got me was I had done lots of other kinds of meditation, but this was the first one that felt personal and relational. And that was what really hooked me on to Centering Prayer was that sense of a personal relationship.

And so that's how I got started and I continued to do Centering Prayer. I eventually decided I wanted to look for a group. There were two Episcopal churches that had Centering Prayer groups of equal distance from where I lived. I went to both of them and decided on one. And then interestingly from that, going to that group for a couple years, I hadn't had a church home, but because I liked the group so much, I checked out their Sunday service and joined that particular parish and then became an Episcopalian. As time went on, I just got more involved with Contemplative Outreach in metropolitan Washington as it was called then and eventually was on the leadership team for a few years and also did the training for leading introductory workshops. And so I was a lot very much involved and then my life just got too busy.

And so I pulled away from some of the leadership kinds of things that I was doing. And so that's pretty much my history with Centering Prayer. The other thing I would say is, for me, what's been very important to my Centering Prayer practice has been just going on retreat. I did a post intensive retreat in January of 2002, which was interesting because it was pretty much after the flights were being opened again after September 11th, 2001. And then after that, often as I could. So I went on my first retreat in January of 2002, which was interesting because of having been right after September 11th, 2001 and the airports just opened up and that I went there. I went to Snowmass St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass Colorado for that. And I really love just the way they held that container for retreats. And then after that, I've done as many of the post intensive, the fully silent retreats as possible.

The first one I did was in 2003 at Snowmass. And I did one of my post intensives at Snowmass. I think I've maybe done about eight or nine of them since 2003. And so for me, that's been extremely important for me to deepen my practice to be in that place. I think of Centering Prayers, a prayer of letting go, and then to deepen that by letting go into silence for so many days. I always come back restored for sure. But also there's usually something that happens in that time that you can't really name that really deepens, not just my practice, it's just how I live out what I'm learning in the practice.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:08:11] Gigi, you were talking about St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass that's the monastery that Thomas Keating, one of the chief architects of the Centering Prayer movement. That's where he lived. So I'm wondering, did you have much contact with Keating? You're in the movement in the fairly early days of it was not quite as large as it is now. I'm wondering if you engaged with Thomas in any way and what you might've experienced in being in contact with him.

Gigi Ross [00:08:42] I remember in the first retreat I went to in January, 2002, and since that was a talking retreat, I was actually pretty good on silent. When it was silent, I was silent, even if it was Thomas Keating. I was silent. But on the first retreat, was able to have dinner with him at the table. He would come and be at different tables and also had a discussion, a one-on-one with him about something that was going on with me in my retreat and just found him very open and just welcoming of my experience. 

I tend to be someone who likes to be in the background. And so when there's somebody who's really popular, I let other people do all the front ground stuff.  And so I didn't really spend a lot of time with Thomas. I just really appreciated what he brought. I would have to say that it's the framework and the way that he framed Centering Prayer and contemplative prayer that really helped me frame the Christian contemplative tradition. I was pretty much doing contemplative practices from other traditions, but didn't really have a good framework for how that worked in Christianity. And the way that he framed that was very helpful to me.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:09:48] You talking about the method itself, that he was able to distill all of that down to a few simple.

Gigi Ross [00:09:54] Yeah, the method itself, but also how he also put it into a larger context, for example, about prayer being relationship, about going into that inner room, using that verse from Matthew 6, what that means. And it's helped put some other things in context for me. I have come to see now that as Cynthia Bourgeault said, that Jesus's one gesture was kenosis, was that self emptying, was that letting go. And then that Centering Prayer, that's really what it is in many ways. It's letting go of our ego agendas, our programs for happiness and allowing that emptiness to be filled with our consent for God's presence and action within. To me, it was a way of practicing a lot of the things that were taught in the Christian contemplative tradition, but not necessarily always giving ways to practice it.

Colleen Thomas [00:10:41] And that seems striking because from a conversation I've had with you, I understand you weren't raised in the Catholic tradition. And so is this some of what I'm hearing you talk a little bit about? What maybe first drew you to the teachings of Father Thomas and how did some of what you're describing answer a longing that you had from within your faith tradition but weren't finding? Can you tell us a little bit about your upbringing, your spiritual journey before arriving at Centering Prayer and Thomas Keating?

Gigi Ross [00:11:18] I grew up in the National Baptist Convention, which is the largest African-American denomination in the US. And I have to say, I was never felt fully at home in that tradition. Both of my parents were very active in the church that I grew up in. I had siblings that were a couple years older than I was. And when they learned to read, my parents made sure I learned to read at the same time. And so I was four when I learned to read. And they were also making sure that what I read was the Bible. And so even though I was four, I was reading the Bible, and I don't know how this happens, but something in my four year old mind felt like I wasn't quite getting the full story at church. And I felt like it wasn't because they were trying to hide it from me. It was because they didn't know.

 And so I've been curious for a long time about that deeper aspect of spirituality. And I remember when I was eight years old, I went to the library and I was one of those people who wanted to read all the books in the library, which is of course impossible, but in the children's side. So I was also very methodical. So I started like from Dewey Decimal system, 200s. So that actually is where the spirituality, religion stuff is. And so I took out a book called Religions of the World, and it was one of those things that did a sort of survey in child language, lots of pictures and they had some prayers and some other little excerpts and stuff. And it was the survey of the five major religions. And the first one they surveyed was Hinduism.

And so I opened up that book and there was a picture of a Hindu monk before an altar kneeling in meditation. And something just really spoke to me and I really felt like I was coming home. One of the good things about my parents was they never censored what I read, if they knew I was reading that they would not have been happy, but they didn't know that they just were happy that I was reading. They figured it was from the library, it's okay. And that was actually began a search for me and looking at those deep contemplative places. And so a lot of what I learned, this was in the 70s, so a lot of what I learned was Eastern. And I just tried a whole bunch of things from books. I just tried it at home and did what they did, sit from books.

And then it was later when I got older as an adult, I moved to Washington DC and my way of looking for a spiritual community was to look for where the contemplative stuff was happening. And that led me to the National Cathedral and their Taize service, which I loved because not only because of the silence, but because there was no sermon. It was the silence and the chanting and the prayers. And that was just really all I needed that got just more involved in what the Episcopal church was doing. And the reason I found out about that introductory workshop was because the National Cathedral was doing a program on Christianity and Islam. And so I was attending that and there was a flier for that Centering Prayer introductory workshop. That's how I got, so that's my path in a nutshell. Yeah.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:14:12] As I'm listening to you you're being exposed to these different traditions and they all have some kind of meditative path. Let's talk maybe a little bit about the practice itself here, because I think in Christian contemplation and maybe particularly in Centering Prayer, I often hear people understand it as a meditation that's about taking a break and resetting or breathing and relaxing. But actually there's a lot going on. There's a lot of reconstruction going on in this kind of what we sometimes call unloading or as you said, emptying. There's this dismantling of the false self. And that doesn't sound very much like taking a break to me. If you don't mind, Thomas spoke about this a lot, but I found a quote from a short article he did in our Contemplative Outreach newsletter back in 2015, and he's talking about emptying ourselves.

So if you don't mind, I'll read just a portion and have you maybe react or respond to it. So in that article he says, “Bring emptiness and freedom to each moment and its content, then you will be happy even in the midst of suffering accept everything and everyone, just as they are, where they are, and try to act as lovingly as possible in every situation. Hush the discriminating mind dividing things into good or evil for me.” And then he ends it when he says, “Fear draws us to the center we have created the ego self, love expands from our real center, the true self.” I'm just curious if you could say more about that whole process, the unloading, the emptying and the transformation that happens maybe even in your own life, from your own practice even.

Gigi Ross [00:16:07] You know what I hear in that quote is something I've been trying not necessarily successfully the practice for a long time, that emptying for me is that letting go of our programs or happiness, Thomas would say, letting go of our agendas, of wanting things to happen the way that we want. I'd like to think of life as a conversation and often I try to monopolize the conversation by saying life has to be a certain way. And I think a lot of that, what Thomas would call unloading on the unconscious and other traditions, I'm thinking of Buddhism might call it suffering, is what happens when we resist what is. And when we resist what is, then we bring on a lot of that pain and suffering, trying to find all these ways to control. And so a lot of that residue comes up when we resist.

And so we have this choice to keep fighting, keep trying to control and creating more of this, these things that need to be unloaded or that emptying the idea of open hands and allowing life to be as it is and to be more in conversation with it, to see not only how I want life to be, but how does life want to be and trying to live in relationship. And for me, really, I do like the idea of, I don't really think of Centering Prayer as meditation, more so as prayer because for me prayer is about relationship and I think of Centering Prayer is about relationship. Going into those, that time of sitting, I don't know of any relationship that's a hundred percent bliss. It's all happy and you're always restful when you're in that relationship. If you're going to be in a relationship, all the stuff that you have not been wanting to look at is going to come to the surface.

And so it just makes perfect sense to me. That would be what would happen in Centering Prayer. And when we talk about deepening the practice, for me it's taking that gesture of saying yes out into all of life. And that to me, I also hear that in that quote. That's what I've been wrestling with. I am someone who really wants things to go my way and have spent a lifetime trying to maneuver so that lots of things go my way and then things happen, the bottom falls out and then I had to learn. But at some point there was something I couldn't control and that the only way I was going to live through that was to trust that God wanted the best for me. And that what was happening in my life with God's presence in it was ultimately for pointing that way toward my already experienced union with him, even though I'm not necessarily conscious of it. So that's the kind of thoughts that that quote has brought up for me.

Colleen Thomas [00:18:43] Yeah, I think that's one of the most common misconceptions about this idea of drawing closer to God and this sense of eternal happiness. It's a promise. And at the same time, we are invited into a deeper relationship to what is. And in that acceptance of what is, it can be very frustrating and accepting God's will versus our plans is not always a blissful feeling for sure. And a lot of this practice is about letting go of our attachments to our ideas about what life is supposed to be like. And I want to maybe connect this to one of the guidelines for Centering Prayer, which says, when engaged with your thoughts and Brother Thomas describes thoughts as feelings as well return ever so gently to your sacred word. And I'd love to get your experience and perspective about thoughts. And it's natural that when you practice something, you get better over time.

A piano player advances in their practice and they make fewer and fewer mistakes, or they learn to read more complex arrangements. But Centering Prayer practice doesn't necessarily get easier in that way, over time, at least with regards to thoughts, right? Keating talks about the wanderings of the imagination. He talks about a bright light about the spiritual journey or a psychological insight that will come up during our sit. And so I'm curious, how has your relationship with letting go of thoughts in the practice deepened over time? And maybe also then how do you see the fruits of that in life?

Gigi Ross [00:20:44] One of the things about that guideline is that I sometimes see people refer to, but not all the time it's about engagement. And so I would say what I'm really letting go of is the engagement, not necessarily the thoughts. And that was something I had to learn because when I'm first doing Centering Prayer, well, here's a thought, I got to let go. Let me go back to my secret word. But as I've gone into the practice more and more, I realized, often there's more than one level happening when I'm in prayer. It could be like on the surface, all these thoughts are going, they're rushing by and doing what thoughts do I mean, I don't know. We were created to think. So I don't know what we can actually turn off thoughts. There's also, I find in that, in my prayer, a deeper level and at that deeper level, often the thoughts are going by, but that's not where I am.

I may see the thoughts going by, but I'm really turned inward in that place of openness and surrender to what is, which ultimately is God. And so in that case, I'm just in the prayer. There's no need to go back to my sacred word because I'm where I need to be. But when I find myself getting kidnapped by a thought or a feeling or an irritation or something, that to me is a time to go back and to remember why I am here. I'm really here to be attentive to God and to be open to God's presence. And so that to me has been the difference. And even with that difference, I don't know I think I may have had in, I don't know, however long I've been doing Centering Prayer in the late 90s, maybe I've had two periods where there's been like, no, no thoughts that I can remember, but that's it.

And I do think that's a good thing because I think that's important practice for living. I really do think transformation happens when we struggle, when we have to say that, okay, I've made this decision, I'm going to go back to my sacred word. Or if I don't, then upon reflection what was it that I thought was more important than God's presence in that moment? And it's in coming to really look at how we are in relationship and we don't really know how we are until there's something that takes us out of it really. And so having those times, as Keating would say a zillion times to say yes to God, just having those times to just remember that this is who I am. And also to remember that I am going to lose it and get kidnapped by, that's just part of the human condition.

Can I be okay with being a human being at the same time? And that too, that's just that hymn in Philippians, that Paul quotes about Jesus emptying himself as his divinity in order to become fully human. That tells me that's also part of my journey is to just, when I forget about God's presence and think something's more important, like some thought is more important than saying yes to God and then remembering, oh yes, I do want to say yes to God. And just doing that over and over again as part of the human condition that shows up in a lot of ways. One, it helps me to accept myself as someone who is going to get up and fall and get up and hopefully know that even as I'm falling and getting up, I'm falling and getting up in God. And even as I'm falling and getting up, I'm falling up and being held by God.

Whatever happens to me is happening in God and therefore happening in love. And so I'm fine even if I don't like the fact that I may have in my eyes done something that wasn't perfect. In God's eyes I don't think God looks at something like that as being perfect or imperfect. And the other thing it does is that it helps me with my own struggles to let go of my agendas, to open up that place of trust and emptying and surrender. And when I do that, I actually find that I come from a more authentic place. So I'm actually more myself when I stop trying to control things than I am when I do try to make something happen and go my way.

[solemn music starts]

Mark Dannenfelser [00:24:48] In the Christian tradition, Contemplative Prayer is the opening of your mind and heart to God who is beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate contemplation. The method suggests four guidelines. 

One, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within you. 

Two, sit comfortably and relatively still close your eyes or leave them slightly open and silently introduce your sacred word. 

Three, when you notice you have become engaged with a thought, simply return ever so gently to your sacred word. 

And four, at the end of the 20-minute prayer period, let go of the sacred word and remain in silence for a couple of minutes. The additional time invites you to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life.

[solemn music ends]

That seems like such an important distinction when you said about it's not so much letting go of a particular thought, it's the engagement with thoughts. Because thoughts will come and go in every relationship, right? We're engaged if we're working in the world and we're in relationship with people and in relationship with God, there's stuff there. It's not about trying to keep all of that out, it's just not getting what biting down on the hook of engagement. 

Colleen Thomas [00:26:27] For some reason we accept that in human relationships, but it's harder to accept that in our relationship with God. It's interesting.

Gigi Ross [00:26:36] In some ways, letting go of that engagement allows the thoughts to be part of the relationship without me having to do anything about them.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:26:44] Yeah. And you said something in along those lines about that there's letting go and then there's letting be. And the way you were speaking so beautifully about things can be there. If you understand that they're held in love, then they can be there. You don't have to react or struggle or of course we do. But there's that promise that God is holding all of that in love. I wonder if you could say more about the relationship between the practice, say of Centering Prayer and of spiritual direction and our need for companions along the spiritual journey.

Gigi Ross [00:27:17] First, I would say that the practice actually helps me as a spiritual director be a better spiritual director in that it helps me to remember that in order to deeply listen, I have to let go. And as a spiritual director, thoughts come and go all the time. And I have to be in the place where, and just really do some discernment of is this a thought that's meant to be shared with the person I'm sitting with? Or was this just something that I just need to let go and turn away from? That same kind of idea of actually coming back to the fact that the real director and spiritual direction time is the spirit. And so going back to am I consenting to God's presence and action during the time of the spiritual direction? For me internally, there's a lot of that same kind of movement going on as I'm being serving as a spiritual director for the person.

And then the relationship itself, I tend to, and most spiritual directors, I know we start out by doing that kind of first date thing, having a get acquainted time with the person that we're going to check out to see if we want to be in relationship with and just talk about their journey. And I talk about how I do spiritual direction, then we do a kind of little trial time as I do just have some like three months just to see how this is going to work. And I learn a lot. People come to spiritual direction in all kinds of ways. They don't necessarily even know why they're there. And so some people have had more experience with spiritual direction, some people haven't. Some people are, it's very easy for them to talk about their inner life and some people it's not. And so as a spiritual director, my job is to accept people where they are.

There's this idea, I heard it more on Buddhism of bearing witness. And it's just to be a place where in some ways I'm more like a mirror because I know this happens for me and it seems to happen for other people. When I can talk to someone who's just there listening and bearing witness, I actually talk myself into things I never would have even known I knew. And so I feel like in some ways my job is to just be a human stand-in before God's presence and allow that presence to be what works through me. And so what I do is that place of deep listening and just being there and if something shows up and it seems to be coming from a place that wants to be shared, some kind of spiritual nudging, sometimes I have to let the thing come up two or three times before I okay, yeah, it keeps coming up then I guess I'll say something. 

Sometimes we actually, a lot of our time is just in silence. And I notice that I can see by looking at the person that there's actually stuff going on that the spirit is working through with that person and through that person in that silence. And that my job then is just to get out of the way and it just let that happen. So those are a couple of things that come to my mind that how it's relates to Centering Prayer and spiritual direction.

Colleen Thomas [00:30:02] In Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, someone asks a question about spiritual direction and Father Thomas response saying in Centering Prayer, every now and then you run into heavy weather. And I think that's somewhat of the tension in this ease in the way we're talking about letting be. And then the reality that the longer we're engaged in the practice, we become more engaged with this heavy weather. And so also in contemplative practice, we're invited to some really heavy stuff. I think about just this simple, but one of my favorite teachings from Father Thomas where he says repentance, he asks, in a talk, it means would you kindly change the direction in which you're looking for happiness? But this is big work because it leads us to one, to even consider where am I looking for happiness? Where am I finding my source of happiness? He says, at some point we have to face the fundamental problem, which is the unconscious motivation that is still in place even after we've chosen the values of the gospel.

And he calls this unconscious motivation the false self, which is made complex by socialization and reinformed by our over-identification, with our cultural conditioning. And all of this is happening in the prayer, in the sit. And I see very much from my own experience why spiritual direction has been so valuable. But I've also seen at times where I've wondered, is this process actually happening within us and are we able to resist that awareness of an unconscious motivation? 

Father Thomas calls them in invitations to love, obstacles to grace these mythic memberships that we form over time. And so I'm curious when and how all of this stuff that we over identify with comes to the surface in our prayer practice. I think it's especially important when we talk about deepening the practice in the context of the community of Contemplative Outreach where we can be very much attached to being American, being white, being straight. How have you encountered this confrontation with the false self and unconscious motivation within yourself or within people you're in spiritual direction relationship with?

Gigi Ross [00:33:03] One of the things about unconscious motivation is they're unconscious, you do need a way of bringing them to consciousness and you tend not to be able to do that yourself. And that's where someone you can trust who's willing to be honest with you and who's also willing and has some kind of way and knows how to point you to what might be going on. I tend to think of the heavy weather that you referred to. I tend to call them invitations more so than obstacles because I think that they are pointing us. They're letting us know that whatever's going on we aren't going in the direction that we need to go into. And that something somehow we are resisting. We're back to that resisting what is and the letting be is not easy because it's not something that we're used to and for very good reasons.

Because there was probably a time in our life if we, at least from our perspective if we let what be is, which could've been very harmful or at least it felt like we were about to lose something really very important. So it comes from a really place of love. But as we've gotten older, those threats aren't really, they're not really there. But we have these habits that we've built. I like to think of an ego as like a bunch of tendencies that we've built up over time and that we just got so used to them that we think that's who we are. And so I think of having someone to sit with you, to be with you, to bear witness to what you're going through and then to point out maybe there's an invitation here, what does this look like is very important in the deepening of the practice.

And the unloading of the unconscious. It comes up in prayer, but I think it comes up in life. It just comes up, I think we call them triggers when they come up in life. And so what I think that both that gesture and the prayer of coming back to the sacred word and having someone to be with you and to bear witness through those struggles with those unconscious motivations. I think what they do is they allow you to soften your struggle. Because I find that when I struggle against those unconscious motivations, I tend to make them bigger and larger than what they really are. But when I can accept the fact that there is this part of me that I don't necessarily like, because it doesn't fit my self image, but if I'm willing to accept that also is who I am is also is part of how I was made.

When I can turn to them and actually be in a place of love to those parts of myself that I don't like, there's a softening on all sides both in the way those unconscious motivations show up and also the way that I am with them. And I think Centering Prayer allows me to do that because it tells me that even those unconscious motivations, even those parts of myself that I don't like, are held in love. Then I can turn the healing of that over to God instead of resisting them. And I think both the spiritual director and a really deepening of the prayer practice can help with that.

Mark Dannenfelser [00:35:57] Yeah. And there's another aspect too I'm curious about when you talk about unconscious motivation and needing to bring it to consciousness and the fact that we need help with that, and that's what we're talking about, that's one of those relationships is spiritual direction as a way of helping for us to continue on in the journey. And traditionally spiritual direction has been kind of a one-on-one relationship. That's not entirely the case. There's a lot of different expressions, but you guys over at CAC and for our listeners, the CAC we're referring to is the Center for Action and Contemplation, some of you know of that's the organization that Richard Rohr founded way back when, 1987 I think it was.

But you're doing some really important work there. And that's through what you call the Living School and you're the Living School Manager. And to me that seems in a way that it's a kind of spiritual direction too in community. There's a lot of learning going on, but there's a lot of kind of processing. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you came to be the manager there and what you've discovered in your work there with people who are making a big commitment in terms of going deeper in the spiritual life and maybe even what you're envisioning for the future of the Living School and how things are developing. 

Gigi Ross [00:37:18] And first I want to explain that title of Living School Manager. It's actually been updated to Living School Student Experience Manager because that's what my concern is with the Living School is, is how the students go through the Living School and what kind of container do we have for them to support the transformative journey through the Living School. I came to the CAC in 2015 and it was actually after about a six year period of what you might call a really huge letting go. I had been let go from Shalem and I hadn't found another job. And so I spent about six years not able to afford my own place to stay. And so I had to rely on other people to do that. And eventually someone from my church saw that they were looking for someone to be the administrative coordinator of the Living School.

This was like the third year of the Living School was around. And so I started out doing that because I had done something similar at Shalem just doing the sort of logistical details for the program. And I guess it was the end of 2020, got the opportunity to do something different. And one of the things I noticed that the CAC has a lot of programs and so each program has a team. None of the teams are huge. And so the Living School team at that time was basically two people, a director and me as coordinator and then some support for other things. And so there wasn't a lot of space for doing an online presence for the Living Schools that existed then. And so often students would feel like the real Living School was all the in-person time and the stuff online was just like going to the library and just looking at books.

And so what I wanted to do was to make a space where we could deepen that online experience so that too could be more supportive of transformation. I think most people know by now that we are changing how the Living School is going to look. Next week we'll be having our symposium and it'll be the symposium for the last cohort of the original iteration of the Living School. And what we're doing looking at to do for the New Living School is to bring a more of an online presence to how the Living School works. And actually the major thing for me on that front as Living School Student Experience Manager, is to look at how we're going to have an online presence. And so I'm currently looking at having guides who've gone through original Living School to actually be working with smaller groups of whatever cohort that they're in.

And to be a place where they can learn how to be in contemplative community, get some tools and practices so that there's a way. One of the things I learned at Shalem about spiritual community is that spiritual community is different than just community. Often in community we come, we coalesce around some kind of interest, but spiritual community is really about coalescing around God in the center. And so often you can find yourself in spiritual community with people you would never, ever touch base with anywhere else in your life and how are you're in community with people who may be just very different from you. And so my job is to create the conditions where people can show up contemplatively in the community as well as it's also a learning community. So also being in a place where they can go through that journey and actually do the hard work of making mistakes as you come into your authenticity. And do that in a community in a way that is taking, borrowing two phrases I call it in a way that's a community that's safe enough for you to stretch and be brave so you don't get to be comfortable, but you also don't want to send you into the panic zone either.

Colleen Thomas [00:40:55] Yeah. I'm wondering for those who may not be familiar with contemplative practice and formation, is what you're talking about, the Living School is a formation program. What are the students at the Living School experiencing? What are the, I don't want to use this word, but like the ingredients for spiritual formation. I like how you talked about define spiritual community as coalescing around God at the center. So when you're on a spiritual journey and you're in a formation program with other contemplatives on the journey, what is that experience like for people?

Gigi Ross [00:41:41] I spent a lot of time in the last couple of years talking to maybe a little more than a hundred students from different cohorts of the Living School. And except for the first year of the Living School, there was always some kind of small group community. And even the first year people, the students made their own and they found almost, I would say maybe at least 95% found that it was the community that was the most transformative part of their experience in the Living School, even more so than the content. Although the content was very important. You couldn't really have anything to meet in community about without the content. But they talked about the, we call them circle groups. They talk about their circle groups as kind of like the place where you apply what you're learning.

And so we're back again to relationships. Because It's one thing to have something in your head because you learned about the mystics and you learned about a way of looking at what these different texts may mean. You've learned about various ways of prophecy and that can just be great hit knowledge. But how do you live that out? And small groups can be like a kind of intermediate step to how you live it out in a full life because these are people who are also going through that same experience and learning the same things and the same journey. And they all have that desire, that yearning, which I think is the heart of contemplation, that yearning for God, that yearning for that oneness, for that experience of oneness with God. Contemplation's one of those words that means different things to different people. And so I personally make a distinction between the practice of like a contemplative practice and contemplation.

For me, the practice is a way of opening ourselves up to the gift of contemplation. Contemplation for me is a gift that only God can give. And what I mean by that contemplation is it is that immediate being present to the moment in love. That for me is what contemplation is. And there's no practice that can guarantee that. And in many ways I think that almost any practice you do is a way of saying, yes, this is the gift I would like to have and it's up to you God and your freedom to give it to me or not. But people who come to the Living School, for the most part are in that place where that's a big yearning. 

And at the same time they are also have a yearning to be a way in which God's love is part of the world's transformation. So it's those two things together, contemplation and action. And so part of the community, the small group, the circle, is a way of, you can think of it as that another place where contemplation and action meet, another place where what we have opened ourselves up to that love of God, it hits the rubber, hits the road when we have to interact with other people who may somehow know how to push our buttons or maybe inadvertently do that or there's something that we projected onto them. 

But all these things that come up in relationship, they also happen in small groups. They also happen in spiritual community. But the thought with spiritual communities that we're all on the same path. And so that we all are looking at ways to again allow what is to happen in love and to respond to it from a compassionate, loving place supposed to having ourselves be triggered by somebody else's trigger. And of course that's not what happens most of the time. You really have to learn. Like again, it's another practice. A practice of learning how to be with others, how to show up contemplatively. And so hopefully, if we all know that we're all in this path together and that we're all are stumbling and filling our way, groping our way through to becoming who we truly are in God, then hopefully there's grace for us to make mistakes as well.

Colleen Thomas [00:45:18] Thank you. Yeah, that's so helpful. That's so helpful to hear you express it in that way. And it reminds me of what you said back in the beginning of our conversation about how you came to Centering Prayer in a group setting. You found a Centering Prayer group that the spiritual formation process happens in groups, it happens in community, it's all about relationship. Even that Centering Prayer as a method is about being in relationship with God. And I think that's so important to bring to light in this conversation, especially as more and more people are exploring meditation practices. And there's all of these apps where you can practice. 

But one of the things that I think is key that I maybe take for granted because I'm in these spaces, is how much of my spiritual practice is done in community. I'm in Centering Prayer groups. I facilitate groups. I participate in workshops and retreats. I'm not just having an individual experience of God, I'm experiencing God in others and in relationship with others. And I do think that is unique about Christian contemplative path, but maybe not. Maybe it's true of all paths. I think Buddhism, even though I haven't explored that, but the Sangha community is a huge part of how you express your relationship to your faith practice. It's good to be reminded of this in our conversation.

Gigi Ross [00:46:57] You are reminding me of one of the struggles of practicing Centering Prayer and other kinds of meditation in the West is because I'm going to use Harvey Cox term. Our civil religion includes individuality that can come to thinking that it's all about me and my spiritual wellbeing. But Christianity started out in a culture that was all about community. Judaism is really a communal, it was a communal culture. It's a communal religion. And when Jesus was talking, you know, it was God's so loved the world, not God so loved me. And so when Jesus was calling people out, he would always call out like groups. Maybe he did, but I don't remember him calling out an individual. And so Christianity started out as a religion about collective salvation. And when it met the culture of the West, and especially the culture of the US, which really goes heavily on individualism, it became more and more about my personal, I mean, and this is what I grew up with.

Jesus is my personal Savior. But at the same time, we're part of the body of Christ. And the body of Christ is not one. Body of Christ is many in the one. And so that it's an extra tension that we have, I think in the West going from this. And I think it's also we sometimes get sidetracked about how our prayer period went, because it didn't feel that good to me. Because it was all these thoughts, but it's really more about who we are in God. We're not just in God, just me. We're in all of us in community and collectively are in God. And so when we are in prayer, of course we're in prayer with a whole bunch of people. Whether we're sitting in our room by ourselves or in a group, we're still praying in community. 

And I think just remembering that, I think one of the big words more recently has been interdependence, is that we're never one. I'm not just me. I can only be me because you're you. 

[solemn music starts]

And so there's no way just to be this isolated individual, which is what the ego and just what all that unconscious motivation and this program for happiness come from is because they're trying to make us think that we're separate and we're isolated and when we're not.

Colleen Thomas [00:49:08] Thanks for joining us on this episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. Visit our website, contemplativeoutreach.org to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. You can also follow us on Instagram @ contemplativeoutreachltd. To learn more about our guests and their work, you can find info in the show notes for each episode. 

If you enjoyed this episode, you might want to check out our YouTube channel: C-O-U-T-R-E-A-C-H. Coutreach. 

Thanks for listening and see you next time. 

Mark Dannenfelser [00:49:54] Season two of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts was made possible by a grant from the Trust for the Meditation Process, a charitable foundation encouraging meditation, mindfulness, and contemplative prayer. To find out more about the foundation, go to trustformeditation.org. If you are a grateful listener and would like to support this podcast, go to contemplativeoutreach.org/podcast to make a donation of any amount. And thank you for your support.

Colleen Thomas [00:50:30]This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana.

[solemn music ends]