Allison M. Sullivan: Silence, Yoga, and Faith (Episode 37)

Allison M. Sullivan is a mom, wife, yoga teacher, author, podcaster, and spiritual companion. She is the author of Rock Paper Scissors: God’s Mighty Power, Jesus’s Covering Forgiveness, and the Snipping Refinement of the Holy Spirit. She is the host of the Sinner Saint Sister podcast. She and her family reside in Bryan, Texas, where she engages in ministry with college women.

We first connected with Allison through the Sick Pilgrim writers’ collective online, where we all grew admire her honesty, vulnerability, and faith. Allison and Cassidy made a pact to interview each other on their respective podcasts — so here the conversation begins!

I have this evolving definition of what silence is… before, all silence meant to me was just an absence of noise, you know, just kind of this literal silence — but now, as I seek it out as a discipline, whether it’s in an effort to know myself, or create, or get needed time as an introvert — it’s more about a search — and that can happen within noise, of course, but it’s a searching posture of my heart, that asks the question, “What do you have for me here?” so there’s an asking and receiving, or a searching and a finding, of silence. — Allison M. Sullivan

Allison shares her first discovery of silence (in the context of growing up with two “boisterous” parents) while encountering solitude in a swimming pool. She muses on the challenge of cultivating silence in the midst of a large family (routine and a prayer closet have been lifesavers), and silence has been integral to her experience as a Christian yoga instructor.

Allison shares how she has experienced silence both as a safe space and as a shield for avoidance, and shares how a bizarre moment while getting a root canal inspired her to self-care — and to explore her vocation as a writer. She approaches silence in terms like lingering and sabbath — and laments how such ways of being in time are so absent in so much of our culture.

I think it’s important to distinguish when silence can become avoidance — whether that’s avoiding a certain type of person, or that’s avoiding a certain type of emotion, silence can be avoidance. — Allison M. Sullivan

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

At the end of the podcast Carl speaks briefly about the trailer for Cassidy’s forthcoming movie, Day of a Stranger. Here it is:

I think about the word “linger” — our culture doesn’t allow for that, does it? We are constantly trying to achieve more, process more information, cross more things off the to-do list; but I think that linger is so connected to love. We cannot linger over that which we do not love, we cannot love that which we do not linger over. And when it comes to our bodies and maybe this is sensitive with women in particular, but I don’t know that we love our bodies and so there’s that desire to dissasociate. My desire with yoga and this full-bodied experience of life is to bring it all back into one being in a loving way, in a way that lingers and loves. — Allison M. Sullivan

Episode 37: Silence, Yoga and Faith: A Conversation with Allison M. Sullivan
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Guest: Allison M. Sullivan
Date Recorded: September 24, 2018

Kathleen Norris, Part Two: SIlence, Poetry, and Acedia (Episode 36)

In this episode we conclude our interview with poet and essayist Kathleen Norris. In part one of the interview, Kathleen and Cassidy explored topics such as poetry, creativity, silence (of course) and acedia — a spiritual malady that she wrote about movingly in her memoir Acedia and Me

This is part two of a two part interview. Click here to listen to part one.

Katherine Norris on Skype with Kevin Johnson and Carl McColman.

This week the conversation continues with reflection on the value of monastic spirituality, the question of whether religion can be a force for good in today’s world, how even monks can experience an overload of regulation, how toxic silence and self-censorship is a problem particularly for many women, and how a good writer moves beyond simple expression to caring for the reader.

Structuring a life around writing is as crazy as structuring a life around prayer. — Kathleen Norris

By drawing connections between poetry and prayer, or between liturgy and poetry, Kathleen Norris explores how a contemplative heart beats at the center of creativity as well as spirituality. She goes on to discuss the difficulties inherent in recording an audiobook, gives some pointers about reading her work, and offers a few thoughts on the challenge of using poetry while preaching.

At the end of the interview Carl and Kevin join Cassidy and Kathleen (via Skype), to ask a few final questions. She offers a particularly spiritual perspective on who her “silence heroes” are, and reflects on how one of the most important qualities for her as writer has been simple candor.

Liturgy itself is a poem — the daily liturgy of the monastery plus the eucharist, the mass, it really functions like a poem during the day — you know you’re going to be entering this realm again of the mystery and the poetry and all of that, and then you’re going to go and do your chores and do whatever else you’re doing, but there is a certain poetic quality to it, that is really refreshing, and I think that’s one of the big appeals to me — it was the poetry that drew me in. — Kathleen Norris

Katherine Norris and Cassidy Hall

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Episode 36: Silence, Poetry and Acedia: A Conversation with Kathleen Norris (Part Two)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Kathleen Norris
Date Recorded: September 17, 2018

Kathleen Norris, Part One: Silence, Poetry, and Acedia (Episode 35)

Kathleen Norris and Cassidy Hall

A self-described “evangelist for poetry,” Kathleen Norris explores the spiritual life in both intimate and historical ways, through her award-winning poetry and luminous works of literary nonfiction, including Dakota: A Spiritual GeographyThe Cloister Walk, and Acedia and Me. In addition to her distinguished literary career, she is a Presbyterian layperson and a Benedictine Oblate.

“There’s natural noise, like wind, that contributes to silence. It may be loud, in fact, but it’s not mechanical noise, it’s not human generated noise. It actually feels more like silence than not — like rain, or ocean waves, or wind in grass and trees. That has a silent quality to it.” — Kathleen Norris

This is part one of a two-part interview. Click here to listen to part two.

Norris launches into her interview by recounting stories of introducing children to silence, moving on to muse about “the terror of the blank page” and how silence is not always a comfortable presence. She muses on how the structured life of a monastery has been a blessing to her both as a contemplative and as a writer; how her earliest encounters with silence were bound up with family dynamics; and how silence became her ally as a young poet in college.

“Silence sometimes shows you what you’re really suffering from… just to sit there and let the silence sink in, and often that’s when you discover what it is you’re really worried about, what you’re really suffering from, what your real concerns are, because when you’re busy in the world either with activity or a lot of verbal stuff going on, you’re ignoring some of those deeper things, and sitting in silence for a while, it will start to surface.” — Kathleen Norris

Her conversation with Cassidy (Carl and Kevin join in later in the conversation, and will appear in part two of this interview) covers a wide range, from musing on the relationship between silence and the sounds of nature, to the ways in which silence can touch on situations like depression, vulnerability, and acedia. She muses on how noisy cities are (she spends some of her time in Honolulu) and reflects on how people in our culture have created a “coccoon of noise” that seems to  arise out of an existential fear of silence.

“Acedia basically means not being able to care, even to the extent that you no longer care that you can’t care. It’s this really weird mixture of restlessness, boredom, despair… I agree with the desert monks that it is a major human emotion, the same as anger or greed or envy; it’s just been ignored.” — Kathleen Norris

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Kathleen Norris on Skype with Carl McColman and Kevin Johnson. Listen to part 2 of this interview to hear their conversation.

Episode 35: Silence, Poetry and Acedia: A Conversation with Kathleen Norris (Part One)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Guest: Kathleen Norris
Date Recorded: September 17, 2018

Parker J. Palmer, Part 2: On the Brink of Silence (Episode 34)

This week our conversation with Quaker activist, author, and educator Parker J. Palmer continues. Please listen to Part One (Episode 33) if you haven’t already done so.

In this week’s episode, we explore the question of how sometimes silence can be toxic (a “silencing” rather than the silence that frees), and how Quaker spirituality has informed Palmer’s relationship with silence.  He examines the difference between “adversarial listening” and “consensual decision-making” which embraces silence as a way to foster community and healthy relationships. Perhaps most moving of all is Palmer’s heartfelt story about who is “silence hero” is.

One of the great things about poetry, the reason it’s so appealing to people who are on a spiritual quest, is that there’s a lot of space and a lot of silence between the lines, and between the words… poetry and silence have a great relationship to each other. — Parker J. Palmer

Palmer’s deeply contemplative approach to silence, to education, to politics, and to vocation make his voice more important than ever as we seek to navigate the challenging issues of our time.

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Episode 34: On the Brink of Silence: A Conversation with Parker J. Palmer (Part Two)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Parker J. Palmer
Date Recorded: July 13, 2018

Parker J. Palmer, Part 1: On the Brink of Silence (Episode 33)

Parker J. Palmer is a world-renowned writer, speaker, educator, and activist whose work explores issues and concerns related to spirituality, education, community, leadership, and social change. He is the author of many books, including Let Your Life Speak,A Hidden Wholeness,The Promise of Paradoxand The Active Life.

He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers.

“The impact of silence is not only solace, but disturbance. Silence forces you to look at your life in some very challenging ways. I think in our culture that’s once of the reasons silence is not popular. It’s one of the reasons we fill the air with noise, and
we fill our minds with noise, because we avoid having to take that deep dive into ourselves.” — Parker J. Palmer

Parker joined us in July for a splendid conversation including insight into his latest book,On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old — and so much more. He proved to be so generous with his time that our conversation extended well over an hour — and so we are pleased to present our first “two-part” Encountering Silence interview! Episode 33 begins the conversation, and the conclusion of the interview is found in Episode 34.

“First the silence broke me down, and then it gave me a context, once I understood what was happening, a context in which to rebuild a faith that was rooted in experience. That’s an incredible gift.” — Parker J. Palmer

He shares early memories of silence — from solitary hours in childhood spent reading and building model airplanes — and then muses on how silence accompanied his adult life as a social activist, community organizer, and Quaker educator. After a serendipitous encounter with the writings of Thomas Merton, Palmer discovered that silence was essential not only to his spiritual practice, but to discovering both the riches — and to the shadow — of his own soul.

“I began to recognize that the burnout that I was beginning to feel was about six months away as a terminal burnout, if I didn’t start practicing some things that would help me avoid it, and silence was one of those things.” — Parker J. Palmer

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

“Truth isn’t in the conclusions, because the conclusions keep changing — in every field I know anything about. It’s in the conversation. If you want to live in the truth, you have to know how to live in the conversation.” — Parker J. Palmer

Episode 33: On the Brink of Silence: A Conversation with Parker J. Palmer (Part One)
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
With: Kevin Johnson, Carl McColman
Guest: Parker J. Palmer
Date Recorded: July 13, 2018

Paul Quenon, OCSO: Silence and Poetry at Gethsemani Abbey (Episode 32)

Poet, photographer, and memoirist Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO sat down to chat with Cassidy Hall this past July when she was visiting Gethsemani Abbey.

Author of several volumes of poetry including Unquiet Vigil: New and Selected Poems, Br. Paul is also the author of a newly published autobiography, In Praise of the Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir. His memoir is a delightful and charming story of monastic life not only as a forum for deep spiritual exploration, but also as the foundation for a life devoted to music, art, and especially poetry.

Cassidy and Brother Paul

Brother Paul entered monastic life in 1958, when he was only 17 years old — back before the reforms of the Second Vatical Council, when the life of a Trappist was even more austere than it is today. His novice master turned out to be Thomas Merton, who eventually became an inspiration to Brother Paul not only as a monk, but as a writer.

In their conversation, Cassidy and Brother Paul discuss his life story, his experience as a monk, as a writer, and as a lover of nature. He enthuses on his special love for the poet Emily Dickinson, and shares the poem of hers which convinced him that she was a mystic (#315). He also offers a ‘sneak peek’ of his current writing, sharing some poems he is currently writing. Through it all, in the heart of his rich and cultured life, silence has been his constant companion.

There is a kind of silence which comes from stilling the mind, and you can develop that capacity, how to not fight thoughts so much as set them aside… if you want to be free, free your mind… instead of fighting the thoughts you just stand above them like on a bridge and watch the water flow by… but then there is a kind of silence that descends upon you, and it’s like the presence… it happens on its own, and that’s really special. You may get that, or you may not get it… it’s not a matter of looking for it, because if you’re looking for it, than you’re thinking of something, you have an expectation and you’re dealing with your expectation. — Brother Paul Quenon, OCSO

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

The opposite of faith is indifference. — Br. Paul Quenon, OCSO

Filmmaker Patrick Shen, Brother Paul, and Cassidy Hall on the porch of Thomas Merton’s hermitage, on the grounds of Gethsemani Abbey.

Episode 32: Silence and Poetry at Gethsemani Abbey: A Conversation with Paul Quenon, OCSO
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Introduced by: Kevin Johnson
Guest: Paul Quenon, OCSO
Date Recorded: July 4, 2018

Silence in the Summertime (Episode 31)

It’s summertime! How do you find silence amidst the droning of cicadas or locusts? What does it mean to be silent during the electric crackle of a late afternoon thunderstorm? How do we maintain our commitment to silence when we’re juggling family vacations, back to school to-do lists, or even more lasting and significant life transitions? We have this myth that summer is a laid-back time, but often we find it carries its own intensity. Where do we find silence then?

In the middle of this change… the silence really stirs up a lot. So it helps me to find a balance, a rhythm, but it also doesn’t allow me to run away from the fear, or the joy, or anything else. It’s right there in my face. — Kevin Johnson

Cassidy shares a provocative quote from an essay by Mary Oliver in which she talks about how poetry needs to “rest in intensity,” and uses this as her metaphor for navigating a very busy summer — a summer which she describes as being like a poem.

Kevin finds his summer to be both joyful and yet poignant, as one of his daughters prepares to go away to college for the first time. And yet this has been a time for him to find a new connection to his own practice of silence, and how an embodied sense of silence has felt like a friend reassuring him that everything is okay.

Carl, meanwhile explores how his relationship with silence this summer has been supported by two endeavors beyond his daily meditation practice: taking yoga classes with his wife, and writing poetry… just for joy.

I’m trying to look at my summer as a poem… just keep moving forward, just keep plugging away, but finding those pauses that often become shorter in times like this, that often become just the gaze out the window, or just the long stare into the coffee cup. — Cassidy Hall

We finish this episode with each member of the team briefly recounting the books we’ve been reading — and even share some insight into the t-shirts we were wearing the day we recorded this episode!

 

 

The silence is always there. And the question is, to what extent are we listening to it, or are we listening to whatever else is going on? — Carl McColman

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Cassidy talks about fundraising for research to help fight the degenerative disease Friedreich’s Ataxia. To learn more about this disease and to contribute to the fight against it, visit the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance website, www.curefa.org.

And finally, here is a glimpse of some of the handpainted silk scarves created by Fran McColman. These aren’t for sale (yet) — but stay tuned!

Episode 31: Silence in the Summertime
Hosted by: Carl McColman
With: Cassidy Hall, Kevin Johnson
Date Recorded: August 9, 2018

Leah Weiss: Silence at Work (Episode 30)

Unless you work in a library or a monastery, you may not intuitively associate “silence” and “work.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, our working lives have everything to gain if the workplace could become more hospitable to silence — and related mindfulness practices. Leah Weiss, PhD integrates Buddhist wisdom, mindfulness practice, and holistic management principles to articulate a vision of how it is possible to cultivate a more “sane” workplace. Dr. Weiss is a professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business and is the author of the New York Times bestelling book How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim Your Sanity, and Embrace the Daily Grind.

I think of silence in two ways. I think of it as the literal having periods in the day, intermittently, and sometimes they’re long, and sometimes they’re not, of having literal quiet. But I also think of it as inner silence that we can access (or not), and the world around us can be noisy, but if we have this ability to touch in with our own clarity and mental spaciousness… that’s another way to access silence, and you can do that no matter how loud it is on the city streets. — Leah Weiss, PhD

“Buddha” art by Leah’s son Caleb

Weiss talks about how Tibetan Buddhism provided the forum for her own journey with silence — and how the experience of having a family (three small children) has deepened and clarified her understanding of the power of silence in her life. Arising out of her work with persons who are trauma survivors, or who have experienced toxic forms of silence (such as their voice being silenced), she offers insights not only about the blessings of silence, but also the importance of addressing honestly problems related to how individuals and organizations use silence in unhealthy ways as well. She muses on how community and connection are important “adjuncts” to the exploration of silence: by being able to talk to others, we more efficiently facilitate healing in our lives.

There’s lots of people who are out there claiming all sorts of absurd stuff about how mindfulness is a silver bullet and if you teach people to meditate, all problems will be solved. I don’t believe that. — Leah Weiss, PhD

Leah Weiss’s book:

What does it mean to create an environment where we can skillfully build positive silence, along with connection, support and healing? Not all of us are survivors of intense trauma, but all of us have traumas in our lives, in places where there is pain that we don’t’ want to touch, that hurts, and we need to have ways to deal with it. — Leah Weiss, PhD

Episode 30: Silence and Mindfulness at Work: A Conversation with Leah Weiss
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Leah Weiss
Date Recorded: July 12, 2018

James Finley: Silence and Vulnerability (Episode 29)

Author, retreat leader, and psychologist James Finley brings his experience as a student and spiritual directee of Thomas Merton to his work guiding others into the mysteries of Christ and of silence. He is the author of Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of Godand The Contemplative Heart. He has also created audio learning series, including Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere and Meister Eckhart’s Living Wisdom.

“When we get involved in spirituality, we’re drawn to it, we tend to have a lot of questions, and that’s why we tend to read spiritual books or watch podcasts and well we should, and we should get spiritual guidance and so on. But then… we get a little deeper, here we realize that it’s not so much that we’re the ones asking the questions, but God’s asking the questions, God’s asking me a question… and I start to discover that not only do I not know the answer to God’s question, I don’t understand the question.” — James Finley

Cassidy met Jim through the International Thomas Merton Society, and discovering that they are neighbors in California, they made arrangements last month to get together to record this conversation. As they explore silence together, Jim tells Cassidy stories from his six years living as a Trappist novice (don’t miss the story of talking to Thomas Merton about the pigs!), and how his entry into the world of radical solitude and silence — under the guidance of one of the great spiritual writers of the past century — Finley learned to find his voice as a seeker of God, and eventually discovered his vocation even though it took him away from the cloister.

“We can’t with integrity claim to be on a spiritual path and turn our back on the suffering of this world.” — James Finley

He and Cassidy talk about the tragedy of how contemporary Christianity has abandoned its own mystical heritage, learning to discover the mystery of God beyond all “boxes” and definitions, the “infinity of the unexplainable,” learning to love the world as part of the contemplative project, the importance of paradox and perplexity, how language ought to be “in the service of the unsayable,” how the experience of trauma can impact our spiritual lives, and other topics along these lines.

“I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude-to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.” — Thomas Merton

Some of the resources and authors mentioned in this episode:

Visit Jim Finley’s website at www.contemplativeway.org. His newsletter which includes his recommended reading list can be accessed here: “Reading List for Beginners”

“Lovers cannot force the oceanic oneness, but can assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to the gift of that … The poet cannot make the poem happen, but the poet can assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to the gift of the poem.” — James Finley

Episode 29: Silence and Vulnerability: A Conversation with James Finley
Hosted by: Cassidy Hall
Introduced by: Kevin Johnson
Guest: Jim Finley
Date Recorded: June 7, 2018

Paula Pryce: Silence, Bodily Knowing and Ritual (Episode 28)

What happens when a friendly anthropologist conducts an ethnographic study of contemporary contemplative Christianity in America, looking at subjects both in monasteries and in secular life?

Paula Pryce does just this kind of work in her insightful book The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity. Spending several years of research with teachers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating, along with monasteries like the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Massachusetts, Pryce offers a detailed exploration of how contemplative spirituality is making a profound transformation in our time. From previous days when such practice was almost exclusively found within cloistered walls, to the increasing (if still marginal) presence of contemplation  in churches, centering prayer groups, online forums, and educational offerings such as the Center for Action & Contemplation’s Living School or Bourgeault’s own Wisdom School, contemplative practice is a vibrant subculture within Christianity — and Pryce, to our knowledge, is the first ethnographer to write about contemplative Christianity in a scholarly, yet accessible, fashion.

I always meditated before I wrote… I go back in my mind, meditate, and then enter in through memory to those places where I was doing research, and that allowed me to give language to these non-verbal situations. — Paula Pryce

What emerges from her research is a recognition that contemplation (and, by implication, the practice of silence) invites the practitioner into a new way of knowing, that is marked by qualities such as embodiment, community, humility, and ritual.

I’m always after trying to understand the beauty of humankind. We have lots of messages about how awful we are! And we can’t ignore that and I wouldn’t want to. But I honestly think we need to embrace how wonderful humans are. — Paula Pryce

In this conversation, Paula joins the Encountering Silence team to explore not only her own relationship with silence, but also how her research deepened her knowledge of contemplation as a transformational practice. She movingly speaks of her Anglo-Indian father as her silence hero, and draw connections between his lifelong meditation practice and his commitment to social action. She reflects on the paradox of writing about silence (expressing a non-verbal phenomena through the verbal medium of language), and on how ethnography, as a discipline, can help us to understand silence better.

One can use anything as a contemplative practice. That’s the main point of this book: people are trying to train themselves in everyday life as contemplatives, in every action and every way of being. — Paula Pryce

Some of the resources and authors we mention in this episode:

Episode 27: Silence, Bodily Knowing, and Ritual: A Conversation with Paula Pryce
Hosted by: Kevin Johnson
With: Cassidy Hall, Carl McColman
Guest: Paula Pryce
Date Recorded: May 29, 2018

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