The Catholic University of America

Reflections by Center Staff

 This is a new feature of the CSSW Website inspired by Erin McCarthy's development of a blog for the Center, which is posted on tumblr ( Erin is writing a series of reflections on various topics for this blog, which will also be posted here.  In addition, reflections by other Center staff will also be included.  We hope these brief offerings inspire your own deeper considerations of life and practice through a spiritual lens!


Offerings from Erin...

Erin McCarthy is an advanced year MSW student in the Clinical concentration at the National Catholic School of Social Service and a Graduate Assistant Fellow with the CSSW.


We're Just Meditators

One common misconception about meditation or mindfulness is that the “experts” have it down. They can sit for hours on end in a blissful nirvana state, while us mere mortals, more accustomed to gridlocked traffic and the practice of busyness, struggle to come back again and again to the present moment. Compared to those Buddhas with their serene smiles we feel like we’re losers at meditation.

In bringing Eastern mindfulness techniques into Western culture, we insert mindfulness practice into our competitive, individualistic schema. If we can’t achieve everlasting peace on the first try, why even give it a go? Feelings of failure and apathy are more comfortable than this new, sustained effort of gently bringing attention back to the breath. Patterns of success and failure loom large in our minds, triggering memories of past failed efforts and cautioning avoidance of new opportunities for failure.

Buddhist teachers like Pema Chodron and Tara Brach encourage us to bring a gentle smile and an air of lightness to our meditation practice. We need not beat ourselves up if we jump into the thought stream and swim around a bit. It’s normal. What matters is noticing that we’re doing it, and at the same time holding ourselves in unconditional high regard. As social workers, we practice holding our clients in this unconditional high regard, no matter what they might do to annoy us or seemingly betray us or themselves. As we extend this compassion to ourselves, we are empowered to try again in bringing our attention back to the present moment, without the heavy attitude of failure and worthlessness. We step out of the thought stream and watch the action with a smile.

I had an opportunity to serve lunch this week in the dining room at my field placement. My assigned task was to place a slice of bread on the plates as they came down the line. My task was easy, and I noticed thoughts of mild dissatisfaction and control habitually rise in my brain. Ugh, why did I just get bread. I’d rather serve beans. Bread is too easy. This will be boring. But as the plates came more quickly down the line, the task of grabbing the plate, placing the bread, and passing the plate required my full attention. I committed to placing the bread with intention, in each moment noticing the weight of the bread and the feeling of goodwill that I had for these ladies and gentlemen in our dining room. I smiled as my mind busied itself with debating who should receive whole wheat or white, and wondering why the woman serving the rice was so slow. But each plate arriving in front of me brought me the opportunity to snap back to the present moment, placing each slice of bread with compassion and positive regard.
Modern neuroscience tells us that fixed patterns and responses in our lives become more and more engrained with continued habitual action. One teacher described these pathways like highways in Tokyo — concrete structures upon which habitual thoughts and reactions travel quickly, brightly and easily. But neuroscience also tells us we have the ability to build new neural pathways. Given the context, they might be made of wood or bamboo. The pathway might be new, slow and probably bumpy, and it sometimes just might work better for us to jump on the highway to familiar territory. But regarding ourselves with compassion gives us the courage to keep building — to try again in bringing our attention back to the breath and to the present moment, no matter how many times we fail, have failed, or might fail in the future. We’re not losers at meditation. We’re just meditators.


 An Evening with Eckhart Tolle

 I had spent the day of the Eckhart Tolle event on the go from an early hour. I rushed downtown from class, chattering with classmates — comparing notes about our lives, personal and professional. Upon arrival, we stopped in our tracks: a long line snaked out of the Warner Theater. Some faces reflected mild irritation — the event was supposed to start at 7:30 and here we were at 7:45, still waiting outside. But it was an Eckhart Tolle event! I smiled at the contrast. Here was a spiritual teacher who makes his living in cultivating presence, reminding people that there is only one moment, NOW. Here we were, delayed and irritated by the incompetence of the theater, another time we had to wait like this, wondering about how late this weeknight event would really go. Talk about a teachable moment: we were anywhere else than the now! 

Upon entering, Eckhart gently drew attention to the delay of the event, apologizing and saying that he too, had to continually surrender into being late cause he “hates being late”. The theater roared with laughter. As with many mindfulness approaches, the key process is to notice, and then accept what is going on, rather than spinning off into an emotional reaction. It doesn’t come easily. For us audience members, there was a comfort in hearing that even this spiritual teacher experienced discomfort at the day to day inconsistencies and happenings of our human world. 

Eckhart spoke about the duality of human beings and the misconception that we own our life. You don’t have a life, he said — you ARE life! You can’t lose your life because you don’t have it. You are it! Stress, he said, is wanting results before you get there. As a second year MSW student, I could identify. Balancing work, academic and social obligations can feel so heavy sometimes that I almost feel like I’m losing myself. But surrendering to this moment in my life, rather than rejecting it by complaining or indulging in it by planning compulsively, can be so powerful and soothing to me. I don’t need to wonder, yet, about how I’ll find a job or pay off my loans. If I just focus on being present now, I’ll be able to give my full attention to what’s in front of me, which in turn will engender future positivity.
When Eckhart brought up the topic of God’s existence, he paused for a few minutes. In this room of hundreds of people, a resounding silence bounced off the ornate walls and filtered through the chandelier. God, he said, was this noble silence — this spaciousness.
When Eckhart brought up the topic of God’s existence, he paused for a few minutes. In this room of hundreds of people, a resounding silence bounced off the ornate walls and filtered through the chandelier. God, he said, was this noble silence — this spaciousness. 



Offerings from Michael...

Michael Sheridan is an Associate Professor with the National Catholic School of Social Service and the current Director of the Center for Spirituality and Social Work.


 Earth as Source of Spirit


Human beings have known since the beginning of time that interaction with nature can be a source of healing and renewal. Direct and mindful connection with the earth provides sustenance, comfort, wonder, challenge, peace, beauty, and nurturance in a way that cannot be found elsewhere. Social workers and many others are increasingly recognizing this ancient and ever-abiding well-spring of transformation by proposing practice approaches that directly engage the human with the non-human world (Besthorn, 2002; Besthorn & Tegtmeire, 1999; Coates, 2003; Cohen, 1997; Durning, 1995; Roszak, Gomes, & Kenner, 1995; Winter, 2003).

One example of earth-centered approach to practice is Besthorn's (2003) Eco-Spiritual Helping (ESH); a multifacted model of healing concepts and practices that is based on three overarching principles: 1) "healing individual alienation from the earth by enhancing openness to being nurtured by nature in a manner that is both intentional and frequent," 2) enabl[ing] clients to become more aware of the spiritual or transpersonal dimension of their experience with the natural world," and 3) assist[ing] clients in adopting more earth-caring lifestyles and belief patterns that focus on contributing to an ecologically and socially just and sustainable society" (pp. 10-11). This third principle of ESH explicitly links "ecological, political, and economic personal or familial pain" (p. 11). The overall goal of this helping approach is to deepen clients' sense of their connection with nature, with themselves, and with their communities, and thereby, facilitate a process toward healing and wholeness.

Another example of employing earth as a healing modality is Chard's (1994) engaging book titled "The Healing Earth: Nature's Medicine for the Troubled Soul." He provides several descriptions of employing earth as his "co-therapist" with wonderfully transformative results. In one case, he sits with a woman in a state park listening to the sounds - the lullabies - of nature to help her heal her profound feelings of homesickness and aloneness. In another instance, he sends a man out into the country during the dead of winter to answer the questions: "What is alive? What is dead? What is the difference?" In yet another story, a woman who had suffered many losses finds a way to grieve and heal through digging a garden with her bare hands. Chard offers several earth-centered, creative exercises and ceremonies for use with cients in their journeys toward healing that could easily be incorporated into social work practice.

In my own experience as a social work practitioner and educator, the powerful potential of nature to inspire, restore, and transform has also been evident. I share the following "snapshots" as simple examples of earth as source of spirit.

Snapshot #1: In a maximum security prison, a circle of men are discussing how they keep going within a world of concrete, locked gates, razor wire, and guard towers. This is an ongoing group for inmates with substance abuse problems who are trying to put recovery into their lives. I am facilitating a guided imaging session with them about finding a "safe place" inside, asking them to deepen their sense of this place - its visual details, its smells, its textures, its sounds, how it makes them feel inside.  When it is time to share what they've found during the exercise, the pervasive power of nature comes through.  "Well, my safe place is a particular spot by the river near by where I grew up. Me and my brothers would go there in the summer when it was really hot, you know. And we'd jump off that river bank into the cool water - over and over again until it was so dark we had to go home 'cause we couldn't see anymore. Man, I loved that place." "I went in my mind to the grassy space beside the Washington Monument. There's just lots and lots of pretty green grass there. I used to lie on my back and just watch the sky and clouds for hours. No one thought to look for me there." "Mine is this tree in a park. I could climb up there and hide out. I could watch all the craziness going on below me and still feel safe." "I talk with the moon here every night, when I walk to the main building to polish the floors. I always pause and see if I can see her and how big or small she is and, I don't know, it just makes me feel kinda peaceful and like I can make it another day."  One by one, every man - most of whom had grown up in inner cityscapes and who had been behind bars for at least ten years - brought forth a cherished image of earth that make them feel safe, made them feel connected, made them feel whole.

Snapshot #2: I am working with ten adolescents in an urban summer work program. The program is designed to be a work opportunity, a lesson in ecology, and a mentoring program for "at-risk" youth. The task at hand is to clean out a creek that runs through a city park, which also houses various animals and birds. We are to start at the part of the creek that begins in the bison pen and end by the seal pool. The creek is full of all kinds of trash and debris and is so grown up in some places that the water barely trickles by. All ten youth live in various housing projects in town; homespaces of concrete, sparse grass, litter, and asphalt. All ten show up the first day in their most fine, "look at me" clothes.  I am in old jeans, t-shirt, and rubber boots, with a shovel in my hand. I point to a pile of boots and shovels and tell them they all have to get into the water and the mud - up close and personal. "Man, are you crazy, lady? I ain't messing up my clothes in that mess!" The guy from the city tells me I'll be lucky if I get them to do any work at all. I punt that day and get them to wear different clothes after that. The first couple of weeks are spent trying to get them to not automatically kill every living creature that they come across. Slowly, ever so slowly, the fear of nature is replaced with awe and curiosity about her wonders - fish, flowers, bugs, rocks, little magic pools of water. A major breakthrough comes when we spend an entire afternoon transporting fish from a shallow part of the creek to a deeper part. I'll never forget the look on each face as they lovingly carried each creature in their hands, careful not to drop them or the precious water that surrounds them. And as the reverence for the wild life they encounter grows, the care for another another emerges. Less harsh put downs, less fake profiling, more honest expression of affection, more opening of painful stories. We sit one day and listen to a young girl explain why she has a scar down the whole midsection of her stomach, a mark left by a drunken stepfather with a knife. She is the only white youth among the other nine African-American kids and had struggled to belong. They listen, they witness, they do not judge. They create sacred space for her and for each other among the grass, the critters, the mud, and the water. At the end, we finish the project ahead of time and have to ask for more work to do. The sense of pride and ownership is palpable.

Snapshot #3: A specialized group is being offered for women in a residential, drug treatment center. The group is being facilitated by two graduate students who are both scared and excited about doing this "meditation nature thing" with a group of real clients as part of their research project on stress reduction. I am their research teacher - I am a little scared and excited, too.  This kind of project represents "new ground" for the research sequence. The students have developed an 8-week program and have worked very hard to create what they hope will be meaningful exercises. They enter the process with fearful questions: Will the women be willing to try the exerices? WIll they think it's just too "fruit-loopy"? Will it make any difference in their lives? Each week, a report comes back: "They had a little bit of a hard time getting the meditation part, but the recording of the ocean sounds helped a lot." "We actualy got to outside today, and they loved just being able to relax out there." "They're really opening up a lot about their lives, especially the pain of not having their kids with them." "They're telling us that the connection to nature is really helping with the stress of being in treatment." At the end, the data show some statistical significance and the students are elated. But the real findings are in the stories, the reflections on the part of both the women and the students. The lines between helper and client have softened as each person has shared in the healing powers of the natural world.

Snapshot #4: I find myself to be a tired, overworked, running-on-empty academic. I feel joyless, dispirited,  unconnected to anything of real meaning. A thought occurs to me one day - a frightening thought. I realize that I get up every day, walk out of my city house onto the sidewalk, get in my car, drive to my office, step out onto sidewalk again, and into the concrete building. And reverse the process in the evening. I become profoundly aware that I have done this day after day, never putting my feet on earth. No wonder I am feeling "groundless." How did I left this happen? I make a vow to put my feet on earth every day and I discover a tiny, vibrant world of nature in my back alley - complete with an over 100-year-old elm tree that is just magnificant and gives me wise counsel when I ask. I start noticing the sky again. Feathers find me, one coming to rest on the threshold of my front door. I bring in images of nature for opening meditations prior to the beginning of each class session. I bring in elements of nature for closing ceremonies in my classes, and bring my students rocks from my various travels. And with each inclusion - each recognition or remembering - of my true home, my earth home, my spirit begins to recover and I have more to give.

In these brief snapshots, the capacity of the natural world to bring power, counsel, joy, comfort, and a sense of belonging is hopefully evident. The sacred gifts of nature are truly "sources of spirit" that social work must recognize and utilize as we simultaneously address the very serious threats to existence that face us now. Some speculate that we could manage to figure out a way to continue human life on a treeless, airless, waterless, creature-less, earth-less planet through techonological processes that somehow maintained physical life on some sort of bizarre, snythetic bubble-land upon a totally destroyed planetary rock. I assert that even if we could continue to exist without the natural world, much of what constitutes life would be lost. I believe that we would lose the very essence of our being, because the natural world is as much about nurturing and protecting our spiritual selves as it is about maintaining our physical selves.

As Chard so eloquently states: "there is more wisdom in the voices of wind and water that can be found in any talk show, self-help tome, or politician; there is as much spiritual sustenance in a night sky or a misty morning as an ornate cathedral or charismatic sermon; and there is more life purpose in growing a garden than in many careers, and more education in exploring a marsh, pond, or prairie than can be gained from months in a classroom" (1994, p. 14). Earth is truly a source of spirit in all its manifestations."

Besthorn, F. H. (2003). Eco-spiritual helping and group process: Earth-based perspectives for social work practice. Presentation at the 49th annual program meeting of the Council on Social Work Education, Atlanta.

Besthorn, F. H. (2002). Natural environments and the practice of psychotherapy. Journal of the American Psychotherapy Association, 5(5), 19-22.

Besthorn, F. H., & Tegtmeier, D. (1999). Opinions/perspectives/beliefs: Nature as professional resource -A new ecological approach to helping. Kansas Chapter NASW News, 24(2), 15.

Chard, P. S. (1994). The healing earth: Nature's medicine for the troubled soul. Minnetonka, MN: NorthWind Press.

Coates, J. (2003). Ecology and social work: Toward a new paradigm. Halifax, NS; Fernwood Books.

Cohen, M. J. (1997). Reconnecting with nature: Finding wellness through restoring your bond with the earth. Covallis, OR: Ecopress.

Durning, A. T. (1995). Are we happy yet? In T. Roszak, M. Gomes, & A. Kanners (Eds.). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind (pp. 68-76). SanFrancisco, CA: SIerra Club Books.

Macy, J., & Brown, M. Y. (1998). Coming back to life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our world. Stony Creek, CT: New Society Publishers.

Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. SanFrancisco, CA: SIerra Club Books.

Sullivan, W. P. (1992). Reconsidering the environment as a helping resource. In D. Saleeby's (Ed.), The strengths perspective in social work practice (pp. 140-157). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. 

Winter, D. D. (2003). Ecological psychology: Healing the split between planet and self. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Citation for original article:  Sheridan, M. J. (2004). Earth as source of spirit. The Spirituality and Social Work Forum, 10(2), 14-15.