Facing Shame: How Writing My Memoir Became A Spiritual Journey

Guest blog post by Laura Whitfield, who is writing a memoir entitled, All the Faces Looking Back at Me. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with her husband Stephen. You can follow Laura at laurawhitfield.com.

People write memoir for many different reasons—as a way to process trauma, find healing, or even take revenge on family members who may not have been as nice as they could have been. I didn’t start writing my memoir for any of those reasons. I began writing down my stories because I felt compelled to do so. It was something I couldn’t not do.

My story begins with the sudden death of my brother, Lawrence. He had been my True North and all at once I was catapulted into the Universe without a compass. Shortly after his accident, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and found hope and a path forward. A few years later, I graduated high school, moved away from home, and began taking a path of my own. I’d understood the Jesus as Savior part; making Him Lord was a different matter. So off I went, doing my own thing. For years. I never lost faith. I believed. I just wanted to do faith my way. And I tried, and failed, time and again.

My memoir has evolved into the story of my journey back to faith. As I began to write, I stumbled upon dark painful memories that I could barely confront. I’d tell my editor, I dread writing this next chapter. I’d procrastinate, take naps, read—anything to avoid writing down the “Terrible Awful” (acts of my own doing), like the one Minny finally confesses to in The Help. I hadn’t made a sh** pie, but, actually, I had. Lots of them. As I began to remember, I fell into shame. How on earth could I face my past, much less share it with the world?

I’d pray, and finally, type this or that onto a blank Word document. Why am I doing this? Because I must. Still, shame persisted. Then one day I ran across a passage from Frederick Buechner, a trusted sage whose wisdom I have leaned on over the past few years. When Buechner was a young child, his father committed suicide. As he wrote about this, he asked God to walk with him down the halls of his memory and, as he opened each door, to bless what he found inside. So that’s what I started doing. As I’d sit down to write each day, I’d pray that simple prayer and add, Okay, God, here we go. Then I’d begin.

That’s when something began to change. Not only with my writing, but with me. First, I realized I’d been walking around with baggage I didn’t even know I had. Secondly, I began to see my shame for what it was. Ephesians 5:13 says, “But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light” (NASB). Opening the doors of my memory released that shame and brought it to light, where it could no longer survive. In the process of discovery, shame lost its grip on me. I remembered Who I belonged to; who I was in Christ.

I thought I knew a lot about shame. I’d been following Brené Brown’s shame research for years. I’d read her book, Daring Greatly. I’d even taken her COURAGEworks class, where I spent weeks learning about shame. Brené puts it like this:

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It derives its power from being unspeakable. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. . . . Language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”1

When I began asking God to enter with me into my shame, that’s when it not only began to be exposed, but destroyed.

Buechner writes:

“The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are … but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret … the saddest things can become … a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. “

It’s through these memories, Buechner emphasizes, that “we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off.” In all that happens to us over the years, “God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.”2

These days I’m looking shame right in the eye and saying, You don’t own my story. I do. And I get to write the ending.* So, while I didn’t start out writing my memoir as part of a spiritual journey, that’s exactly what it’s become. And I’m grateful.

*Thanks, Brené.

1 Brown, Brené, (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Penguin.

2 Buechner, Frederick, (2000). Telling Secrets. New York: HarperCollins.

One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation

I do not have a quiet mind.

My internal dialogue consists of free association Google searches, where one idea leads to the next, and then the next, until I’m miles from where I started–and going in the wrong direction toward my destination.

This lack of concentration is why people like me (and perhaps you) feel stressed and overwhelmed. Our inability to focus the mind not only impedes our mental and physical health–but also our spiritual well-being. This is why we need meditation.

But what is it meditation? Can Christians meditate without being struck by lightning?

I ask this question in my third book, One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Meditation, to be released in February 2019 from Upper Room Books. The book chronicles my fledgling meditation practice, and how, with a little help from Jesus, I’m beginning to see some progress. One Breath leads the reader on a journey through scripture, theology, and science, and offers them a step-by-step 40-day guide to getting started.

So, can Christians meditate? The short answer is yes.

The English word, “meditation,” means to reflect, think, or ponder upon. It comes from the Latin, meditatio, from the verb meditari. The equivalent word is present in both the Old and New Testaments (the Hebrew word for meditation is hagah; the Greek is meletao). In the Christian sense, meditation refers to reflecting upon scripture and God’s presence. Did Jesus do that? Absolutely. Perhaps the most poignant account is in the Garden of Gethsemane, included in the three synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:35-36, and Luke 22:42).

But if Jesus meditated, and Christians have a model for meditation, how is Christian meditation from different Buddhist and Hindu meditation?

Meditation was birthed out of Hinduism, which is the world’s oldest living religious tradition. In Hinduism, the term for meditation is dhyana (pronounced dyaan), which is described as an uninterrupted flow of attention towards the object of meditation (The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali). Dhyana, the eighth limb of yoga (yoga the lifestyle–not the exercise class) is only achieved after the practitioner has completed the first seven stages of yoga, which include various practices to calm sensual desires, foster concentration, and practice pulling the mind away from its endless thoughts Then, concentration is uninterrupted and a person can fully meditate upon God . According to the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, one doesn’t attain the state of dhyana until the mind has been controlled and the senses reigned in.

In Christianity, there’s less overt focus on freeing ourselves from desires before attempting to concentrate on God. This attempt is often called theoria, Greek for “gazing.” “Gazing at God” helps us naturally quiet our mundane desires. Similarly, in the bhakti-yoga tradition of Hinduism, cultivating intense devotion through meditation on the names of God displaces material desires, culminating in love for God (bhakti).

How often do you gaze and meditate on God?

If you’re like me, not very often.

Christians have a robust prayer life, but often it’s fraught with formulas and lists for material things to God to take care of. Wordy, wordly prayers don’t leave room for listening for–or gazing at–God.

I’ve never stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon, but when I imagine it, I think of awe. In my mind’s eye, I don’t see myself prattling on without taking a breath amid such beauty. For me, meditation is supposed to be like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon–where I’m speechless–and unable to take my eyes off the magnificent scene. When practiced well, and over time, meditation is that word-less prayer that helps be still and quiet in order to make space to reflect on and gaze at the beautiful presence of God.

There’s not shortage of ways to begin a meditation practice, but One Breath will feature five modalities:

  • Breath Meditation
  • Lectio Divina
  • Centering Meditation
  • Loving-Kindness Meditation
  • Devotional Meditation

My fellow Upper Room Books author and yoga and meditation teacher, Whitney Simpson and I will be offering a sneak preview of One Breath and these practices this week at Festival of Faith and Writing. But if you can’t make it to Michigan, here’s how to practice the first one–breath meditation–at home.

  1. Keep you meditation sessions short. Start with no more than three minutes. You can always increase your time as you practice. Feel free to use the steps below, or listen to this guided practice.
  2. Open this sacred time with a short piece of scripture that centers you. My favorite is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”
  3. Practice the modality (see below).
  4. Close your sacred time with the same scripture.
  5. Reflect on what happen. What did you notice? What was hard? What do you hope for for tomorrow’s practice?

Modality One: Breath Meditation

All that is has been made by God, who breathed breath into the first human (Genesis 2:7). Our breath—our life source—is with God within us, every day, all day. But we often don’t think about it that way—until something goes wrong and we cannot breathe.

Becoming aware of this life force is the first step in any meditation practice. Harnessing and deepening the breath help us slow down our minds and helps us appreciate the very gift of air.

Here are the steps:

  1. Sit comfortably, either in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor.
  2. Close your eyes and notice your breath. Become aware your inhaling and exhaling.
  3. As you continue your breath awareness, try breathing deeply and slowly. Counting as you inhale: 1, 2, 3, 4, and exhale: 4, 3, 2, 1.
  4. Notice how the deeper your breathing becomes deeper, the calmer your feel. As you inhale, imagine God’s light and love filling your body—from your head to your toes.
  5. When your mind wanders or intrusive thoughts arrive, bring your awareness back to the breath. Do not judge yourself. If you wander away 100 times, come back 100 times.
  6. Continue your deep breathing until the timer goes off. Then, open your eyes and bring yourself back to full awareness.

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Your turn: Do you think Christians should meditate? Let me know how this practice goes! Enjoy this infographic on the many benefits of meditation.

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Unplug for Good Friday’s Sake: A Time to Quiet the Noise

Lent 2018 officially ends with Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus’s last meal with his friends.

 

You may remember that I pledged to keep “Tech Shabbats,” this Lent, a 24-hour periodin which I’d put away my smartphone. Guess how that went?

It’s hard to edge out the addictive noise that reinforces who we think we are. It’s a tough lesson, one I learn over and over:

 

“These stimuli aren’t going away; they are now a part of our everyday life. Sometimes, we try to tune them out—but it’s hard. Our modern culture and economy drive us to respond to noise, so stepping out for quiet may seem next to impossible.”

As we wrap up Lent 2018, we remember why this liturgical season is different from any other time in our church calendars. It’s when we are called to intentionally cut out all that gets in the way of moving through the wilderness with Christ into Holy Week. But I suggest that we keep our Lenten posture until Easter and beyond. Why?

What does it mean to be a Lenten people who continue to sit quietly and wait for the resurrection?

Because we need those moments of quiet practice to be still and reflect on what Good Friday – and ultimately Easter – means for us as individuals and as a community.

Read more here.

The above text is an excerpt from “Unplug for Lent’s Sake: A Time to Quiet the Noise,” found in the March/April edition of Devozine magazine.


Dana, with the latest issue of Devozine. Check out her article on quieting the noise during Lent, Holy Week, and beyond here.

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In the comments section below, share what Lenten moments of quiet, realization, contemplative practice, or sabbath you leaned into this season. What did you learn about yourself, God, and others?