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On the spirit of love (and how psychospiritual work helps us find it)

Sparrows with Mandala, by Guido Vermeulen-Perdaen

About eight years ago I had the honor of preaching from a pulpit once frequented by Ralph Waldo Emerson and other spiritual and philosophical luminaries, at the First Church in Boston (Unitarian Universalist), on the topic of love, and how, practically, to have more of it. While some of my perspectives have evolved since that time, those reflections do a pretty spot-on job summarizing my current approach to psychospiritual work, and how it helps bring more of the spirit of love into our lives.

The sermon gives a holistic introduction to my preferred modalities -- namely, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Internal Family Systems (IFS), meditation, and prayer (I incorporated EFT, or tapping, more recently in my career), and how I use them to promote love and harmony within oneself, in relationships, and with the divine. And it shows how, even from a skeptical, agnostic, and scientific worldview (as many clients and practitioners I've encountered espouse), faith and prayer are a reasonable and powerful part of life.

So, I invite you to click below to listen to my preaching on that sunny day in Boston, summer 2013. Below that you'll find the readings from that Sunday's service (not included in the audio), and a transcript of the sermon.


First Reading: from Song of Myself (Walt Whitman) 51.

The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them. And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,

(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.) Do I contradict myself?Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door­slab.Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper? Who wishes to walk with me? Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

Second reading: Matthew 22:35­40 (King James Bible)

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.


Sermon, originally entitled: “Go to your room (and talk to yourself)”

Good morning.

My message today is about love. Unconditional love for everyone. Loving everyone means that in every major and minor interaction that we have with anyone, we feel the spirit of love in our hearts. This spirit of Love, which I'm going to refer to a lot today, is known by many different names. In Christianity, it's the Holy Spirit, or the Holy Ghost. In positive psychology and many forms of Buddhism, it can be called "happiness," or enlightenment. Joseph Campbell, a life­long researcher of world mythologies and their commonalities, concluded that you should "follow your bliss," which I would translate as "follow the Spirit."

You probably have a sense of what I'm talking about. When I feel the spirit, I feel sober, grounded; I feel compassion and openness towards others, I feel hopeful and light, and vibrant with energy, and I feel joyful and grateful for life. When I'm full of the spirit, I'm full of courage and motivation to do what's best, even if I don't yet know what that is. And decisions that I make when in this state are pretty much never ones I regret. Over time I've come to view the spirit not only as a source of joy and fulfillment, but also as a guide ­, a signal that I'm on the right path, a path of goodness and beauty.

Can you think of a time when you felt these feelings? For me, some things that bring me into that state are music -- especially sacred music, doing favors for people, teaching kids something new and important, and reading scriptures. You might feel the spirit of love when you hug your kids, or share your talents through your job, or prepare a delicious meal. Unfortunately, there are a lot of times when, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to feel that Spirit of peace and love.

One of the best techniques I've found to invite the spirit of love into my life has been through the Nonviolent Communication technique, developed by Marshall Rosenberg. I've been involved with the Nonviolent Communication, or NVC, program at First Church for the past two years, as a participant the first year, and as a facilitator the second year.

The stories of NVC's success are impressive in deepening friendships, increasing job satisfaction, healing marriages, and even fostering understanding and forgiveness between survivors of violence and rape and their perpetrators. NVC has changed my life, and it's one of a very few things I'm convinced of enough to recommend it to other people.

While NVC focuses primarily on relationships between ourselves and other people, there are two other kinds of relationships that I think are indispensable for practicing NVC and for cultivating our hearts, in general. Today I want to share with you my testimony of the goodness and fruitfulness of communicating not only with other people, but with ourselves, and with God.

The second reading today captures perfectly this trifecta of love relationships that I believe is necessary if we want to live and love fully. I want to read one more time what Jesus said to his disciples. "The first and great commandment is this: thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy strength. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these hang all the law and the prophets." In Jesus's short summary of his gospel, he underlines the three loving relationships that I believe we need. He says, love God, and he says, love your neighbor as you love yourself.

For me, and probably for most of us, the most natural kind of relationship to seek is relationships with other people. Loving others and being loved by them is often, with good reason, what people care about more than anything else. However, forming and maintaining loving relationships can also be the most challenging part of life.

Relationship expert Terence Gorski describes two requirements for a healthy relationship. First: looking inside yourself and identifying your inner experiences (thoughts, feelings, imaginings), and relating those to the other person. Second: being quiet and listening to the other person.

When I heard Gorski's formulation, I couldn't help but think of Nonviolent Communication. Observing what's alive inside of yourself, telling another person, and then listening to the other person. It sounds so simple, but in my experience, it's SO hard.

I'd like to take a moment to ask you all to try something. I'd like you to close your eyes, notice what you're feeling inside, and think about how you would describe it to someone else. I'll give you seven seconds. Go.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7...

How was that?

When I tried this, during Terence Gorski's relationships talk, I found it very difficult. I knew there were things going on in my heart and mind, but I couldn't say what they were, really. Yet expressing our feelings and wants is essential in any loving or compassionate relationship, and that's why it's such an important part of Nonviolent Communication.

And Terry Gorsky's second relationship requirement is basically the other half of NVC -- ­­ listening to someone else express their feelings and needs. I don't know about you, but for me, that can be even more difficult than the first requirement. I mean, it's easy enough to keep my mouth shut while someone talks. But to be in a state of mind where I can actually hear what the person is saying, understand it, and let them know that I've heard? A lot of times I want to listen in that way, but my own emotions and racing thoughts get in the way, or I try to fix the person's problems, and just make them feel worse.

So how can I succeed in practicing compassionate, Nonviolent Communication when my own confusing, conflicted emotions and ignorant thoughts keep getting in the way?

About four years ago, I was introduced to a revolutionary method of psychotherapy called "Internal Family Systems Therapy," which was developed by psychologist Richard Schwartz. I've read about the method, I've had it used on me in therapy, and I've practiced it on myself, and the more I practice and learn about it, the more amazed I become at its power to cultivate love, to invite the spirit, and to heal and transform my life.

The basic premise of Internal Family Systems therapy, or IFS, is that you are made up of many different sub­-personalities, or parts, and each of those parts has its own feelings, desires, strengths, and fears. And your parts relate to each other in all kinds of ways, just like members of a family. IFS is a unique method of psychological healing because it is based entirely on love. Its goal is to help people live with the spirit of love, and it uses love as its power for transforming and healing people.

IFS encourages you to get to know and understand each part, in the best way there is to get to know and understand something: which is to love it. And IFS encourages you to love those parts of yourself by the only means there is for really loving anyone: by communicating with them.

Now this is where my talk might start sounding crazy. And this is where my dad, when I was recently reading him my book about IFS, said, "That's pretty weird. I don't know about that."

But according to what I've read and what I've experienced, it really works. We have to talk to our many selves, and love them, as though they're people. Just like other people, our inner parts are alive, and we can't kill them off just because they bother us. We have to love everyone in our internal family, just as we must love everyone in our external human family. Like children, the more we try to put down our parts or shut them out, the more upset they become, and the more they will take over our minds and lives until they get what they need. Often the more annoyingly persistent our parts are, the more they need our love and understanding. And when we listen to what they have to say, they usually reveal surprisingly helpful perspectives and wisdom once we get below the surface.

But parts can be very subtle, and often we're not aware of them. For example, in a therapy session, when I would say something like, "I don't know what parts of me are active right now, I just feel foggy and confused." My therapist would then say, "I'm curious about that part of you that's feeling hazy and confused."

Or when I would tell the therapist, "this procrastinating part of me is so stupid," he would say, "tell me about that part of you that thinks the procrastinating part is stupid."

It sounds simple, but it takes a lot of practice to learn to think of the human mind, as

IFS psychologist Jay Earley puts it, as not "a unitary thing that sometimes has irrational feelings. [Rather, the mind] is a complex system of interacting parts, each with a mind of its own."

However, along with requiring a lot of practice, this view of ourselves as a bunch of different little people isn't complete.

My favorite thing about Internal Family Systems therapy is its concept of the Core Self. Beyond being a collection of parts, the IFS view of the person includes a concept of a Core Self. Jay Earley describes our core Self as "the agent of psychological healing in IFS. It is, by nature, compassionate and curious about our parts. The Self, in IFS, is described as having qualities such as wisdom, calmness, clarity, compassion, connection, courage, joy, and love."

The Self, as I understand it, is another word for the Holy Spirit, which is described in the book of Isaiah as "the spirit of wisdom and understanding," and described by the apostle Paul as bearing the fruits of love, peace, and joy.

In the Self­-communication process of Internal Family Systems therapy, as well as in the practice of Nonviolent Communication, the more we practice, the more we awaken in ourselves the spirit of Love. (It really just takes a lot of practice!) But successful practice of these methods requires us to have a certain measure of the spirit already with us in order to get started.

There are times when I'm so stressed out, and not loving, or so discouraged, that all I want to do is sit in my room eating junk food and not thinking about anything, especially not anything to do with love or healing. And there are times when I'm so angry that, as I remarked to my significant other in an email a few months ago, "I don't want to use stupid NVC right now."

This brings me to the crux of my message today. The techniques I've described to you, which have brought so much love and clarity to my life and relationships, have not actually been as life-­changing as the last thing I want to talk about, which is prayer. For me, prayer undergirds every other kind of practice that seeks to cultivate love. Prayer makes it easier for me to practice IFS and NVC, and prayer is there when I can't get myself to practice anything, or nothing seems to be working to get me out of a mess or bring love back into my heart.

I started praying daily about two years ago, after living for a summer with my Mormon friend Rebecca. My prayer has taken a lot of different forms, but it's largely been influenced by my experiences with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-­day Saints (which I talked about last summer when I was here!). Some of my prayers are without words, some are words of thanks, and many are requests. All of my prayers are an attempt to communicate with the Divine, the source of love and of the Holy Spirit.

At times I’ve struggled with prayer because I’ve wondered what the point is of praying. First of all, it was difficult for me to conceptualize who God was, or is. Over time I've learned that if I call upon God for strength, love, wisdom, or inspiration, I do receive what seems to be an answer to my prayers. I still don’t know for sure whether I’m communicating with a God outside of myself, or just tapping into some usually inaccessible part of my psyche, but I have definitely found that when I pray to God as though God is someone beyond myself, the source of all good things, who desires what’s best for us, my prayers are answered, and I am blessed with love, inspiration, peace, and insight that I otherwise wouldn’t receive.

Despite these affirmations of the effectiveness of prayer, I’ve continually struggled with its paradox. When I kneel alone in my room and ask to receive the spirit of love, and when, subsequently, I feel the spirit in my heart, it would be logical to conclude that it’s all by the power of my own mind. Yet directing my prayer to a force and source outside of myself is infinitely more powerful for me than when I think it’s just in my own head.

It is possible that there is a God outside of myself, even if it can’t be proven. But I never liked the idea of trying to believe something is true just because it’s a nice or helpful idea. I want to respect reality, and live according to what really seems to be true.

But I think I’ve had some confusion about what it means to believe (and I'm still trying to figure it out). A Humanist friend of mine told me a few months ago about religious writer Karen Armstrong’s explanation of the word “belief”. According to Armstrong, when St. Jerome translated the New Testament from Greek to Latin, there was an untranslatable Greek word, “pisteuo”. It was the verb form of the Greek word for loyalty. And since there was no such Latin verb, St. Jerome invented the word “credo,” taken from “cor­do,” meaning “I give my heart.” When the King James Bible needed an English word for “credo,” they used the word “believe,” which was originally related to the German “beliebe,” which meant “to love.”

So under this old-­fashioned conception, to believe in the idea of God is simply to love the idea of God; to speak with God, listen to God, and have a relationship with God -- because communication, as I believe, is at the heart of love.

The question of God’s objective reality is certainly still there. Similarly, we might question the reality of the little people living within us, the multitude, spoken of in Walt Whitman’s poem that Steven read for us, and experienced in Internal Family Systems therapy. Jay Earley, in his book about IFS, makes an interesting comment about belief in the premise of IFS.

He writes,“You may treat the idea of sub-­personalities as simply a useful metaphor for viewing the psyche, which it is, but it is much more than that. If you treat the components of your psyche as real entities that you can interact with, they will respond to you in that way, which gives you tremendous power for transformation. Are they actually real? I believe so, but I invite you to...make up your own mind.”

In the same way, I have come to believe in God, and in the power of communicating with God. I'm far from having a complete understanding of who God is, or how prayers get answered, but I have definitely experienced the power of prayer for cultivating love in my own heart, and clarity in my mind. At times when I've felt overcome by bitterness, two seconds after kneeling down I've found myself weeping with a completely changed heart. Even when it seems like my whole being wants to be angry and destructive, earnest prayer will, without fail, sooner or later change my hardened heart into a loving one. At other times, when my mind is a foggy mess, overwhelmed by complex and difficult decisions, appeal to God for guidance has led me to refreshing inspiration and surprising solutions.

For me, prayer works when I do it sincerely, with as much energy and intention as I can, and with a real belief in the power of the Being I’m praying to. Sometimes it can be hard to believe in the power of God to grant me the desires of my heart. But it helps me to think of God as both the force and the source of all things. What I mean is that not only is God an energy of love, but God is the source of every blessing that has ever made me love life, the source of every dream that has ever given me hope, and, most importantly, God is the source of the spirit of Love that comes into my heart when I pray for it. Counting my blessings and giving thanks to God has strengthened my relationship with God and made my prayers more powerful.

I’d like to close with telling you about a powerful kind of meditation that I learned about this summer in a meditation seminar I attended with my mom. The theme of this seminar was “coming to dwell in the heart,” and the teacher, Kumar explained that the heart is the place where our personality and the divine can come into contact. He said to close your eyes and envision the heart as a chamber full of golden light, with a pulsating wall. With every inhalation, imagine the divine taking three steps down to enter into your heart, and with every exhalation, imagine your personality, your whole being, taking one step up to dwell in your heart, and meet the divine.

I've found this meditation especially beautiful with the sun coming onto my closed eyelids; it makes the gold-­lit heart chamber a lot easier to envision. But in any kind of light, this meditation always fills me with the peace and love of the spirit, and I really recommend it.

I’ve just shared with you a few of the most precious gems of my spiritual journey. But if you remember nothing else, or nothing else really touches you, I'd like to share one last quote by the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. He said that “one conscious breath is a meditation.” And I believe that a breath of meditation, of any kind, is a step into the heart. So I encourage you to keep that in mind, whenever you are wanting for love. Thank you.


- Audrey Fernandez­-Fraser


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