Sunday, May 2, 2010

Finding Inner Peace on Holy Ground

I recently bought a new pair of running shoes. I decided to buy top of the range shoes to save my back and knees some wear and tear. These things have so much padding in them that every step is like a foot massage. When I add in my orthotics it makes me about a foot taller. I’ve been bumping into equipment at the gym all week. The lime green laces close the deal on what are definitely the shoes of the century.

So you would think I would be all set to become the marathon runner I’ve never been. Think again. Not two weeks into my new shoes, I discover that barefoot running is making a comeback. Research suggests that all the padding might make the shoes more comfortable, but it may not be good for your body. Fully loaded shoes may take the soul out of running, when it would be much better to strip a few layers of cushion out of the shoe and get back to basics.

Do you see where I’m heading with this? If feet are what we use to stand on holy ground, then shoes are a metaphor for protecting yourself against the experience. To take your shoes off is to remove all the barriers to a complete and direct engagement with the moment. Your soul doesn’t need to be cushioned or protected, even if your soles do. What are some of the common and subtle ways you cushion your soul against a direct experience of life? Maybe you rationalize and keep conversations at a theoretical level like whether there is a God or not. That can be a subtle way of avoiding a direct experience. Maybe you get tripped up on language rather than focusing on the experience itself. Maybe you are mistrustful and skeptical and put barriers up between you and other people. Maybe you have self critical voices that tell you that you aren’t good enough or spiritual enough to experience inner peace.

There are so many subtle ways that we keep our shoes on and create an unnecessary buffer between ourselves and a direct experience of peace.

Removing your shoes is a common practice in many cultures. It generally represents humility and respect. It also signifies that you wish peace and goodwill on the home you visit. Remember that it was an ancient custom to wash feet, which implied sandals off. Foot washing is a radical act of intimacy. Finally, it is a mark of respect to the earth. If you leave your shoes at the door, you leave behind the toxins and also save on cleaning costs and the resulting costs to the environment.

There are multiple reasons why shoes off is a great policy for any home. If you don’t do it, think about it starting. It creates a culture of mindfulness and respect.

In 1999, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave a speech (National Press Club October 6, 1999) where he reflected on the courage of those who had testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Many of them had been treated grievously. They had every right to be angry and seek revenge. Instead they came and told their stories in the hopes of building peace and moving on. Archbishop Tutu said in this speech that he had such respect for their courage and humanity that he wanted to take off his shoes. It was as if “he was standing on holy ground.”

This morning I remove my shoes for today I am standing on holy ground. It’s not holy because it’s in a church. You could say it’s holy in spite of being in a church. So much of what religion stands for is divisive and elitist. As comedian George Carlin once said – “Religion is sort of like a lift in your shoes. If it makes you feel better, fine. Just don’t ask me to wear your shoes.” Tragically, Christianity has too often betrayed its roots as a religion based in mutual love and concern and claimed exclusive rights to the truth. This ground is not holy because it’s in a church. It’s holy because you’re here. I remove my shoes in honor of you, for in your presence I experience what many people call God. It’s holy because of our shared stories and our vision for universal love and healing in the world. We know that the world will know no peace until there is peace in our homes, and that there will be no peace in our homes until there is peace within. So I remove my shoes to bring me closer to the soul of life as Moses did when he stood before the burning bush. May I discover some of the inner peace that Moses found despite his limitations and his self critical inner voice. He had a job to do, and his motivation was grounded in the experience of what he called Yahweh.

Inner Peace and Nature

Taking your shoes off is a mark of respect for the place you are standing, and it seems that a connection with location builds a sense of inner peace. Where and when do you most often experience inner peace? Have you experienced it recently? Would you like more of it? Inner peace is something you recognize when you see it, like a burning bush. You see someone you may not even know and their peace is almost blinding. You find yourself saying, “I want what she’s having.” Or else “give me some of what he’s got.”


Studies have shown that nature is the most likely setting for an experience of inner peace. The second most likely time to experience peace is while viewing nature art. Almost half of all people who report having mystical experiences have them in nature. (For more information, see this book written by an atheist author Ecstasy; A study of some Secular and Religious Experiences by Marghanita Laski)

This has been a common theme in many spiritual traditions. A Zen Buddhist monk asks, “How may I enter into enlightenment?” His master points to a mountain steam and says, “Do you hear the murmur of the stream? There you may enter.”

The preeminent mythologist, Joseph Campbell, once said God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, “Ah!” I can see what he means, can’t you?

One of the early American wilderness preservationists, John Muir, described his experience of the Sierras, “Oh, these vast, calm measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.”

Possibly my favorite expression of inner peace through nature comes from Wendell Berry-

The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not
tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

There are so many examples of people who find inner peace in nature. Maybe you have your own experience of nature and peace.

There is a danger in thinking that inner peace comes only through the water fall moments of serenity. The Hebrew story of the burning bush offers a challenge. How do you maintain inner peace in the face of fear and struggle? Moses was so frightened that he had to close his eyes.

I woke up this morning to a really nasty and judgmental email. I had to pause for a few moments. After so many years in my role, I have learnt to separate out other people’s projections and frustrations from what is helpful feedback. I had to ground myself to put the message in perspective. Maybe you have had the same experience when someone else’s issues threaten your own sense of peace. How do you respond? Do you respond, or do you let it go and move on? There are no black and white answers to this question. But this I know for sure- if you are grounded in peace within, then whatever you do, whether you withdraw or engage, will be appropriate. On the other hand, if you are out of balance yourself then your words and actions will likely have a lot of projection and inappropriate reactions.

Inner Peace and Eco-Activism

This leads to a related question. What difference does the experience of inner peace make to the way you live your life? Does it make you retreat from life, or engage it more fully?

The eco-visionary and spiritual activist, Satish Kumar, initially thought that spirituality was a retreat from the world but he then grew into a new understanding. He grew up in India according to the Jain religion which is a very eco-friendly religion. At the age of 4 his father died and he questioned the meaning of life and death. At age 9 he was so moved by this experience that he left home. He spent 9 years just walking around the forest and the villages barefoot so that he didn’t leave too firm an imprint on the earth and with a cloth around his face so that he didn’t unconsciously inhale a living creature. He took his duty very seriously to live apart from the world, to renounce the ways of the world and to live in communion with nature. When he was 18 he had an encounter with Ghandi that changed his whole outlook on spirituality.

Ghandi told him that his spirituality should make him more involved in the world. Kumar set out on another walking pilgrimage. This time he walked 8,000 miles to visit each of the leaders of the four nuclear nations at the time. He took a tea bag as a gift for each of the leaders. As he arrived at each of the leaders he presented the tea bag and said to them “at the point where you attempt to launch nuclear war, I invite you to pause and drink a cup of tea.”

Aha! Drinking tea in some cultures is like taking your shoes off. It’s a sacred act to be undertaken mindfully. Inner peace that withdraws from the needs of the world is a pointless peace. Outer activism that is undertaken without inner peace will be ineffective. The inner and the outer go together. The approach that Kumar took with the world leaders was summed up with the Sanskrit phrase, “So Hum” which translates as “You are, therefore I am.” This relates to the earth as well.
You are, therefore I am. Wasn’t this the lesson that Moses learnt at the burning bush? In the face of an experience of the great I am, he simply said, “Here I am.” This is all that inner peace asks of you. Just be present.

Your Experience of Inner Peace

You don’t need to go to any special places to experience inner peace. You can do it in any moment that you are fully present and open to surprise. It might be in nature, or else it might be in a room full of people. Where do you experience inner peace in a special way? The incredible truth is that it can be anywhere and anytime. There are no limits to the possibilities.

Joseph Campbell made this point in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He tells of an ancient Hindu holy man who propped his feet on a sacred symbol by the Ganges. A Sikh passing by asked him how he dared to profane the religious symbol. “Good sir,” he replied, “I am sorry; but will you kindly take my feet and place them where there is no such sacred symbol.” The offended Sikh roughly grasped the man’s ankles and moved his feet first to the right, then to the left, but — to his amazement — in every place that the feet touched, a new symbol sprang from the ground. Finally he understood. There is no place that is not holy.

groundThere is no place that is not holy, if you are prepared to remove your shoes and open your mind. Peace isn’t present in some places and not others. Peace is present wherever you remove some of the layers of unnecessary protection and judgment and let your vulnerability touch the beauty of life.

With my shoes off and my soul laid bare, I greet you without pretense or defense. Namaste.

For Further Reflection-

Do you think that all places are holy?

Do you experience some places as particularly sacred?
What experiences bring you back to inner peace?
In what ways do you harmonize inner peace with outer action?


1 comment:

Brian said...

Wonderful piece!! Personally, I have always felt more inner peace in nature than I ever have in any church. I think feeling inner peace in nature shows that God is everywhere and does not reside in a building made by man. The whole Universe is God's house.
I have also come to realize over the years that it's all about communion with other people. It reminds me of the movie a few years back called Into the Wild about Christopher McCandless who took off to live a hobo like existence and ended up dying in the wilderness of Alaska. In the final days before his death, when he knew death was approaching, he wrote that he had finally come to realize, too late sadly, that true happiness is not real unless shared. Thank you for reminding of the twin truths that all ground is holy ground and that our inner peace should draw us out into the world and into a closer communion with people.