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Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times by Robert Wicks

by davesandel on November 8th, 2012

Riding the Dragon: 10 Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times by Robert Wicks, 2002

160 pages

Read 10-2012, reviewed, 11-2012

Thoughts on Riding the Dragon

Robert Wicks is a former U.S. Marine.  These days, he teaches psychology and counseling at Loyola University in Baltimore.  He has written several easy-to-read books about living life well.  They focus on “ordinariness,” humility and simplicity.  He does this partly in self-defense, because the stresses in his life require that he follow his own advice.  His clinical work is with professional helpers, ministers and counselors who are always taking on the pain of others.  Wicks takes on their pain.

This is very difficult.  Serenity, courage and wisdom about how to get honest and how to get real with himself is precious for Robert Wicks.

But all of us are helpers.  When others need our help, we try to be there for them.  And often, we are exhausted by the work we do as listeners.  Whether we listen to relief workers from Rwanda or a young son or daughter who has had a bad day at school, over time we begin to take on the pain, brokenness and exhaustion of those we listen to and care about.  And the real difficulty begins when we do not sit down regularly to take the measure of our lives, especially when the times are tough.

In spite of his best efforts, Robert Wicks slid down this path into psychological and spiritual darkness. Riding the Dragon is an easy-to-read discussion of what he did in response to his own near-collapse, the lessons he learned and wants to share with us.  It is a kind of how-to book for helpers.



What follow are quotations from Riding the Dragon, sometimes drawn together over a few paragraphs or pages.  The book consists of acknowledgements, introduction twelve chapters , readings and notes.

Enjoy …

“These days we are apt to seek out a therapist to help us get the dragon back into its cave.  Therapists of many schools will oblige in this, and we will thus be returned to what Freud called ‘ordinary unhappiness,’ and temporarily heave a sigh of relief, our repressions working smoothly once again.  Zen, by contrast, offers dragon-riding lessons.”  — David Brazier in Zen Therapy.


Several years ago I remember returning home after a day of seeing patients in my private practice.  When I came in my wife Michelle asked me how my day was.  I was ready to say the usual, almost automatic “Fine.”  But I was overcome with such a deep sense of sadness that I said, “Terrible.”  “What makes you say your day was terrible?”  “Because as I went to answer you, I realized I just felt like crying.”  – p. 12-13

I began to see that over the past few weeks, without realizing it, I had begun to absorb people’s anxieties, sadness, helplessness and hopelessness until I could no longer continue to help them.  A student once wrote, “I am amazed that so much sadness can fit into my body.” – p. 13

Balancing compassion for others with a deep kindness and reverence for our own inner self can actually be quite simple and powerful if we take the time to do it right. – p. 15

My clients are very challenging people – professional helpers and healers.  When physicians, nurses, psychotherapists, ministers, relief workers or educators become temporarily lost or overwhelmed, I walk with them. – p. 15

I write this book, however, after an experience where the person in peril was me.  My slide into darkness was surprisingly swift.  It began at work.  After fighting what I felt was unfair I slowly felt defeated and began to let go, descend into the basement of my soul.  Being an optimistic person at heart I thought, “As long as I am down here in the spiritual basement, I might as well look around.” – p. 20

I learned a lot about myself down in the basement.  I had forgotten about faithfulness and replaced it with a shallow desire for success.  I was too involved in competition and no longer appreciated the real joy of achievement.  This self-knowledge made me feel somewhat exhilarated, because I was learning something new. – p. 21

Following this, metaphorically I climbed the stairs out of the basement armed with new knowledge to help myself and others.  But surprisingly, when I tried the door to the first floor, it was locked.  I thought I was done, but I wasn’t.  As I turned around in my mind’s eye, I saw a glimmer coming from the basement.  There was yet another place to go. – p. 22

As I descended again, I could see there was a spiritual and psychological sub-basement where I must go.  As I went down there, for the first time in my life I felt like I might NEVER return to a place of perspective and peace.  As I sat I knew I had nowhere to go to escape.  Slowly, steadily, in the dark I began to see the hurt I had caused people close to me – family, old friends, new friends, acquaintances, those who had worked for and with me … and the only thing I could do was stare into the darkness of the truth and let it soften my soul. – p. 22

I knew that when you add humility to knowledge you meet wisdom.  And when you let wisdom meet the grace of God, love and freedom in love become possible.  But at that point, there were just nice words.  – p. 22

I knew I had to stare into the truth of my failures.  I started to see all the harm I had caused others in so many ways during my life.  Every time I tried to get up, another wave of awful realization would hit me.  I remember sitting quietly and thinking, “Am I really such an awful, hurtful person, and if so, is there, was there never any real good in me?  Is there no way out of this terrible experience of darkness?” – p. 23

These new truths, if faced, would enable me in some mysterious way to be a better person for others.  What would I use to guide myself and others who found themselves in darkness and wanted to “take advantage” of the darkness they were in?  Riding the Dragon is a result of attempting an answer to that question. – p. 24

Even in the darkness there are many gifts present if we have the courage, faithfulness and humility to see them.  The temptation is to push the dragon of truth back into the cave.  If you wish to do this, and still can, stop now and you’ll still probably have a life filled with nice experiences.  But if you want to live as fully as you can in the short time you are here, then “riding the dragon” is the only path worth taking. – p. 25

Enhancing Your Use of the Lessons

  1. Read daily with an open heart.  Don’t underestimate their power because they are simple.
  2. Carry the quotes and stories within.  They are not intended as throwaways.  They help us see things differently.  Usually that’s all it takes to make big changes.
  3. Overlearn the lessons.  Write out a one-line lesson and review it again and again.  Use it in conversation.
  4. Form a nest with meditation.  Follow a few minutes of reading, perhaps in the morning, with meditation.  If you don’t have twenty minutes, then take two.  This minimum will help you get into a regular rhythm of centering yourself quietly before becoming busy.
  5. Mix with daily life.  Practice the lessons you value with family, friends, coworkers and strangers.  Act as if the lessons exist already as part of your style.
  6. Discuss with spiritual friends for the journey.  Good friends keep us faithful.  Different voices help you avoid getting off on a tangent.  Encouraging, teasing, prophetic and serious voices should all be a part of your circle.
  7. Persevere in faith when doubt and failure occur.  Doubt and failure are part of every serious inner journey.  Both are tools used to see where our inner challenges lie and to remember that humility is one of the major cornerstones of the spiritual life.

If any of the above ideas interfere or weigh down the way you flow with the lessons in this book, drop them.  Trust your own intuition. – p. 27-31


Lesson 1: Prune Carefully … and Often!

One of the greatest gifts we can offer others is a sense of our own peace.  Paradoxically, a serious obstacle to doing this is failing to limit our giving.  We can be prone to undisciplined activism prompted by anxiety, duty, and guilt. – p. 32-33

When does the cost of approval become too psychologically and spiritually expensive?  The reality we must face is that what we do for others is often not enough to satisfy them.  There are many great needs, and there are many needy people. – p. 35

Not having a sense of what we should do and be in life makes us prey to the undue influence and control of others, and we can become manipulated by guilt, the reactions of others, and a distorted sense of duty.  Little peace is experienced by either the giver or receiver when this happens. – p. 35

Personal exhaustion and feeling overextended calls for simplifying life, not only the externals but also internally.  When we feel overwhelmed, we can take a “step back” to search our motives, fears, expectations and habits.  This might not be easy, but pruning poor motivations is crucial to being consistently available to others.  When we do this the natural beauty of our life will spontaneously emerge and nurture others. – p. 36

It is not easy to withstand the influence of a world so bent on overt accomplishments and public achievements.  Still, when we are able to set aside the ned for ongoing successes and ceaseless praise, not only will we feel a sense of joy, but we will touch many others with that same joy as well. – p. 37

This first lesson on pruning relies on our ability to gain perspective by ensuring we are clear about our goals, especially when we are exerting more and more effort but feeling less and less satisfied by what we are doing.  It is stepping back and reflecting on our motivations that makes all the difference. – p. 38

Lesson 2: Recognize Your Renewal Zones

What good can you be to others if you’ve let yourself burn out in the process?  As I become aware of my own negative mood I step back and realize how important the gift of a listening presence is.  I think about how I care for myself and appreciate that.  By availing myself of the safe zones in my life, I can stay afloat to both relish and share my life with others who are undergoing tough times. – p. 40

Truly unavoidable stresses can combine with irritating complaints to swamp and overwhelm us – especially if we don’t have renewal zones to protect us, places and times for inner refreshment and reappraisal, and a chance to have some good old-fashioned fun. – p. 45

The absence of the chance to be a kid again, to be free and spontaneous, to laugh, joke, and tease people, is psychologically dangerous. – p. 46

When we have to watch every word, when we have to walk on eggshells, when we have no relationships in which to be ourselves, then burnout is sure to follow.  The self is limited.  It has only so much energy. – p. 46

My friend dying of brain cancer asked me, “What good things are you doing now?”  As I started to launch into an obsessive, well-organized list of recent academic and professional accomplishments, he interrupted me.  “No, not that stuff.  I mean what really good things have you done?  When have you gone fishing last?  What museums have you visited lately?  What good movies have you seen in the last month?” – p. 47-48

Try the following as renewal zones:

  1. Quiet walks by yourself
  2. Time and space for meditation
  3. Spiritual and recreational reading – including the diaries and biographies of others whom you admire
  4. Some light exercise (as approved by your physician)
  5. Opportunities to laugh offered by movies, cheerful friends, etc.
  6. A hobby such as gardening
  7. Phone calls to family and friends who inspire and tease you
  8. Involvement in projects that renew
  9. Listening to music you enjoy

(Notice that watching television is nowhere on this list!) – p. 50

This might be a question we need to ask every day: If we don’t take primary responsibility for the care of ourselves and model healthy self-renewal for those who respect us, then who do we think will do it? – p. 51

People who can encourage, challenge, and be fun-loving companions can go a long way in preventing or stemming burnout.  On the other hand, if all the places in our life – work, home and recreation – and the people who inhabit them are filled with worry, anxiety, anger, or angst, the interpersonal space we occupy will always be gray. – p. 51


Lesson 3: Catch the Slide

After an intense encounter, and at the end of the day – every day – I spend time in a “psychospiritual countertransferential review.”  I get in touch with my feelings by asking myself: What made me sad?  Overwhelmed me?  Sexually aroused me?  Made me extremely happy or even confused me?  I try to be brutally honest with myself. – p. 55

If distorted thoughts and beliefs have been triggered and I recognize them, I not only learn things about myself but also appreciate the people and situations I encounter in new ways. – p. 56

Ministers can do a “theological reflection” at the end of the day:

  1. Picking events during the day that stand out
  2. Entering into the event and describing what happened (the objective) and how we felt (subjective)
  3. Avoiding the temptation to be discouraged, blame others (projection) or ourselves (self-condemnation), and instead seeing what we can learn from the event about ourselves and our vulnerabilities, needs, addictions, fears, anxieties, worries and desires
  4. Reflecting on these learnings in light of what we believe (our philosophy, ethics, theology)
  5. Deciding on how these learnings should change us personally, interpersonally, professionally
  6. Changing the way we behave – p. 56-57

During meditation hurts, shame, questions and needs will come to the surface.  Jack Kornfield’s meditation teacher, Achann Chah, describes this as “taking the one seat.”  He said, “Just go into the room and put one chair in the center.  Take the one seat in the center of the room, open the doors and windows, and see who comes to visit.  You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable.  Your only job is to stay in your seat.  You will see it arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come.” – p. 57-58

A full, balanced “catch” involves discovering what we were feeling at different points of the day, what we were thinking that caused us to feel that way, and what we were believing that made us think or come to the conclusions we arrived at. – p. 59


Lesson 4: Seek Hidden Possibilities

I appreciate success, but in the midst of my failures I feel things in the deepest way and have discovered the most lasting lessons.  One of them is the value of small gestures of kindness and the need to resurrect them as a means of support when all is lost. – p. 66

The more we are involved in life, the more we can expect failure.  So we’d better be able to put failure in perspective.  Otherwise, we risk responding to failure with denial, avoidance, projection of blame onto others, burnout, or self-blame.  These are not good choices when failure and darkness can teach us so much if we are honest and patient. – p. 67

Thomas Merton once said to a friend who was experiencing spiritual darkness: “Courage comes and goes … hold on for the next supply!” – p. 67

Worrying is a Waste.  Concern is a Compassionate Gift.

Even if worry is a “natural” response to life, we can and need to do something about it.  Powerful religious figures all teach the opposite.  Mark Twain wrote, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” – p. 68

Steps to reduce worry: 1) remember the image of Jesus and other serene religious figures, 2) keep close at hand words that debunk the value of worrying, and then 3) catch ourselves and see how our worry is hurting not only us but those around us as well. Because one of the greatest things we can share with others is a sense of our own peace. – p. 68

Our culture encourages worry.  It is as though worrying is the right thing to do.  Somehow worrying is seen as something that will prevent or control terrible events. – p. 69

When my daughter was sick, the message I often got from my neighbors was: “If you are not always looking unhappy and burdened with crippling worry, and show it, it means you don’t really care.”  This is pure nonsense, but I still put on a grim face when I left the house. – p. 69

Once out of the neighborhood, though, I turned on the radio and smiled.  On the way to the hospital I listened to fun music so I would be refreshed when I arrived.  I wanted to be able to share peace and joy with my daughter. – p. 69

We are pretty good at diagnosing and planning to deal with problems.  But few of us take the next step consistently, to simply do what we can with a sense of joy and freedom.  Instead, we focus on how little or inefficient our actions are. – p. 69

Once we are done with recognizing, diagnosing, planning, and acting, very few of us remember to let go. – p. 70

Concern is different from worry.  Both remind us to care, exercise our compassion.  But unlike worry, concern leads us to identify appropriate actions we can take, then lets us relax and be at peace.  Concern sits alongside the problem; worry glues us to the problem. – p. 70

But we worry anyway.  Replacing worry with concern is a way to accomplish more with the same emotional muscles.  It acknowledges a problem, and then musters the thought, “How can I sit with this trouble in a good way?”  How can I show mercy and respond with compassion?  This attitude of mercy, coupled with a spirit of humility, is at the heart of true concern. – p. 71

I can worry about losing weight, and worry about what I eat.  Or I can concern myself with healthy living and eat a little less, eat a little more slowly, enjoy a sweet now and then, and walk a little more.  These “littles” add up to a lot.  A little concern goes a long way. – p. 72

Discerning between worry and concern and making the transition from worrier to concerned person is an enjoyable, intriguing, and worthwhile project to undertake.  – p. 73

Hidden possibilities emerge out of darkness as our worry decreases.  Hopeful attention and patience, truly good companions, let us tell ourselves that even in the worst of times hidden growth is going on. – p. 73


Lesson 5: Engage the Spiritual Darkness

Most of our troubles are avoidable.  However, sometimes the sense of helplessness, confusion, loneliness, and near despair we encounter at certain periods in our life is unavoidable.  This spiritual darkness is not mere sadness, nor is it clinical depression, or the result of poor coping skills.  It is an existential confrontation with ourselves and with God about what we believe about life and death. – p. 74

Spiritual darkness may have a very discernable precipitating event.  Common triggers include loss of a spouse or friend, realized childhood abuse, dramatic decrease in another’s confidence in you, a serious illness, infidelity, a job loss, or repeated misunderstandings or hurtful comments by someone you love. – p. 75

Or the beginning of the darkness may not seem linked to a cause.  Either way, this darkness is both a devastatingly lonely experience AND an opportunity for new spiritual and psychological growth.  It is awful.  It is unasked for.  AND it is an unusual opportunity to be graced with radically new ways to relate to ourselves, others, to God. – p. 75

How do recognize the opportunity within the suffering?  How can we let the possibilities blossom in the darkness and not run away to self-medication (work, alcohol, sex, religiosity) or bitterness? – p. 76

Some benefits of staying the course:

  1. Increased motivation and determination to face the darkness in ourselves and others
  2. Greater insight into one’s personality style, defenses, values, gifts, spirituality, and areas of vulnerability
  3. Less dependence on the recognition or approval of others
  4. New skills and styles of behavior to complement our usual – possibly habitual – ways of interacting with others
  5. A sense of peace that is independent of external success, comfort, and security – p. 76

Spiritual darkness is most often viewed as a problem to be solved.  So people try harder to solve it.  But spiritual darkness is unsolvable.  It must instead by faced directly, trusting that new possibilities are present even if still unseen.  But once we realize that we can’t return life to normal on our own, we often react with deep sadness, helplessness and feelings of failure, shame and anger.  And we feel alone and terribly lost. – p. 78-79

In this lostness we are given several alternatives:

  1. Continue trying approaches that have worked in the past even though they are not succeeding now
  2. Run away from darkness through denial, rationalization, or minimization
  3. Medicate ourselves through work, drugs, sex, excessive religiosity, or some other compulsive behavior
  4. Face the darkness directly with a sense of trust that life will provide a new way for us – even if at some level we doubt this – p. 79

If we and when we can face up to alternative #4 and face the darkness directly, ironically we will experience a sense of peace.  When we stop flailing, we surrender in trust. – p. 80

“When will all this end?” is never the right question to ask when in spiritual darkness.  Instead ask, “Given all this darkness, what can I learn?”  But this learning is not done with your cognitive, logical, left-brained efforts.  Imaginative, new paradigm, right-brained ways of perceiving come into their own. – p. 81

Quiet times, sitting in meditation, give us the space to be in the darkness without preconceived notions of what to do.  Constance Fitzgerald, in her article “Impasse and the Dark Night of the Soul,” wrote, “It is precisely as broken, poor, and powerless that one opens oneself to the dark mystery of God in loving, peaceful waiting … At the deepest levels of night, in a way one could not have imagined it would happen, one sees the withdrawal of all one has been certain of and depended upon for reassurance and affirmation.” – p. 81-82

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron points out that “our fear and trembling can be a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” – p. 82

In facing my own darkness, I realized I was able to enjoy the “now” more.  It was the only place to go or be.  When I looked toward the future I was hit with another wave of realization as to how I had failed others again and again in big and small ways.  The only place to go was in the now and to experience life as best as I could. – p. 82

I also realized that life is “chronic.”  I knew at that moment that my darkness would never totally leave me.  As a professional helper I had been conditioned to see life and its problems as “acute,” problems to conquer and then move on.  Now I saw that there are times when this approach isn’t appropriate.  In fact, in times of this kind of darkness is downright delusional. – p. 83

No matter, most of us still live by this delusion, and when it collapses in the darkness we deny, ignore, or run away from the new wisdom sitting there. – p. 83

One lesson learned in the darkness is that we must face all of our life with trust and courage.  We must do this until it no longer takes courage because we realize that we can hold on.  Life can only be appreciated for what it is, as it is, now.  This is not defeatist thinking at all; it allows us to enjoy what we have. – p. 83

When we embrace spiritual darkness, it allows us to gradually embrace the following essential lessons.  In the rest of the book, it to these powerful lessons that we turn:

  1. Learning takes place when we join clarity and kindness.
  2. Great love is usually found in small deeds – not dramatic gestures or achievements.
  3. We must toughen our souls so we can deal with things that upset us even though they really shouldn’t.
  4. We need to travel light by erecting a “barrier of simplicity” between ourselves and the world.
  5. We need to come home to ourselves more often in a spirit of meditation and know why we sometimes avoid this beautiful prayer experience in our lives.  (And no, it’s not because we’re too busy!)


Lesson 6: Pair Clarity and Kindness

We need both.  If we have just kind people around us, we can become complacent, narcissistic, and uncritical of ourselves.  If we have only people who clarify, we may feel overwhelmed and disheartened. – p. 86

Kindness is essential for clarity to effect change.  Gentle kindness is especially important in the way I treat myself.  Kenneth Leach says, “You do not want to know someone whom you despise, even if, especially if, that someone is you.” – p. 87

But being gentle with ourselves is the last thing many of us think about.  We often find it much easier to be kind to others rather than to ourselves.  It’s even OK to feel sorry for yourself once in awhile. – p. 87

In the spiritual darkness, be kind, be gentle with yourself.  This kindness smooths out the difference between high and low, between good and bad feelings, between darkness and light.  There will be a return to light, and it will bring healthy new insights and behaviors, but in your deepened acceptance of yourself, this new success can simply be “fun” rather than necessary for your deep peace or sense of joy. – p. 88 (summary)

This kindness accompanied by clarity also subtly changes how you help others.  Because you have been kind to yourself in your own darkness, you might more gently describe another’s state of affairs and let them find their own way.  Confrontation will not be so much a tool to get someone to change. – p. 89

I knew I still failed miserably sometimes at helping others.  Even though I liked myself and was doing some good things, I knew I was still quite limited in so many ways.  Paradoxically, I felt more limited now than ever, yet I knew I was doing better than ever! – p. 90

This unusual awareness and feeling gave me a quiet confidence that sat alongside the ever-present residue of sadness I felt from the memories of my failures in life. – p. 90

Schopenhauer once said, “We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.” – p. 90

Clarity involves simplicity and directness.  It doesn’t hide behind complex defensive positions or excuses.  We are tempted to project blame (arrogance), beat ourselves up (ignorance), and expects results in self-awareness and growth too quickly (discouragement).  Those choices keep us from clarity. – p. 93

Clarity requires that we slow down our lives for meditation and reflection.  Most often we swallow the day’s activities whole without tasting the experiences or appreciating the interactions.  When we slow down, this gives us a bit of time to see through negative training and habits that disable us. – p. 94

Honest with ourselves is very difficult even when we proclaim loudly that we are open.  Kindness with ourselves makes it much easier.  True remorse for past errors becomes a path in the present toward a much better future. – p. 95

Am I balancing clarity and kindness?  Which gets more weight, which gets less?  Asking and working with this question is a simple step, often overlooked, which helps us more quickly adjust our attitude toward ourselves and others, in a way that can have immediate positive results. – p. 95


Lesson 7: Find Love in Small Deeds

Other people are also kind to us.  We can become more open to the gentle presence of others in our lives, and not take what they do for granted.  Being grateful for previously unrecognized graces changes our behavior toward the people loving us.  Sometimes a memory of being loved like this is a true touchstone, something you can return to again and again to be reminded of God’s loving presence every day of your life. – p. 96-99

How sad when we miss opportunities to encourage and support each other because we are lost in our own world of tasks and agendas.  To dismiss such chances is to fail to be awake to the real challenge of true good-heartedness.  Feeling and sharing both joys and sorrows in our lives is a good and simple challenge – but unfortunately because of our compulsive conditioning, it is not a very easy one to meet. – p. 102

When I absorb the love of God and family and friends in new ways each day, I will find enough inside myself to be in even the most difficult situations and not turn away.  Great love is more often found in small deeds done than large actions about which we only dream.  Don’t wait for the glory – do the small thing now. – p. 105


Lesson 8: Seek Perspective Daily

Years ago I met a fascinating negative character.  She was a true silver lining for a cloud.  But she had many wonderful traits as well.  By not personalizing her intermittent negative comments, and through the use of humor, I was able to actually enjoy her inner beauty.  Her family repeatedly attempted this and only ended up being frustrated and quietly resentful of her.  I simply stood back and let her be herself.  Then, I would let her know I realized the trouble she was having.  She responded to this by being grateful to me for appreciating her plight. – p. 107-108

By having a little distance from her constant negative comments and by decreasing the expectations I might normally have for someone truly interested in change, I did not often get pulled into her negative cloud. Later I helped her famloy to enjoy her more as well.  As they pruned their expectations their availability was richer and more consistent to all involved. – p. 108-109

A Russian proverb says, “When you live next to the cemetery, you can’t cry for everyone who dies.”  But most of us tend to personalize too much.  We absorb the sadness, anxiety, and negativity of those around us.  Sometimes we even feel this is expected of us; if we don’t get stressed out and upset, we think others – or perhaps ourselves – will believe we just don’t care. – p. 109

There are three basic principles involved here:

  1. Everyone gets overwhelmed once in a while.  Then I might pick on myself for getting caught in a web or anger and stress, or I might blame the other person for upsetting me.  Instead, I can work to recognize the emotional signals of being overwhelmed and take a quick step back.  Be quiet, excuse myself for a moment, even leave the room to get some temporary distance.  Probably the other person is also experiencing negative emotions about our encounter.  I don’t need to condemn either myself or them.  Instead, I can be curious about my reactions, so I can learn from them and change in the future.
  2. Caring means being willing to keep enough distance from those we love or are concerned with so we are able to avoid drowning with them in their problems.  This takes a willingness to forego the “luxury of being upset” while a person is sharing his or her problem.  I can put my feelings on hold until later, when I can sit and think with them.
  3. Knowing the signals of over-involvement helps avoid burnout. This is much easier when we have a learning paradigm for distressful moments.  What are the red flags of being overwhelmed?  The more we use our reactions to learn how we are giving away power, the more vital we will become.  The ultimate goal in picking up our red flags of emotion is to change our spontaneous negative reactions into spontaneous neutral ones.  This leads to a life where both positive and negative events can be greeted as teachable moments.  – p. 110-114


Lesson 9: Build a Barrier of Simplicity

People without guile and little children live in simplicity.  They are disarmingly honest.  They do not get lost in the complexity of motivation analysis.  This is not something reserved for a few.  André Gide once said, “I am erecting a barrier of simplicity between myself and the world.”  Choose asceticism, gratefulness and honesty instead of consumption, entitlement and hype. – p. 116-117

Asceticism and Gratefulness

Thoreau wrote, “A person is rich in proportion to the things he can afford to let alone.”  Kathleen Norris connects this with gratitude: “The deprivation of life (in the Dakotas) tends to turn small gifts into treasures.  Asceticism is a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person.” – p. 118

Clark Strand wrote in The Wooden Bowl of his first meditation teacher, an elderly Chinese hermit who lived out his final years in rural Tennessee: “Being with Deh Chun was like dropping through a hole in everything that the world said was important – education, progress, money, sex, prestige.  Sitting there in the little house, listening to the water boil, to the twigs crackling in the wood stove, I was temporarily removed from the game.  He didn’t say a word.  His was a state of complete simplicity.  Like water, the direction of his life was downward, always seeking lower ground.  When I met him he lived in a ramshackle two-room house heated by a wood stove the size of a typewriter.  There was no furniture, only a few turned-over crates and several cardboard boxes in which he kept his clothes.  His bed consisted of two sawhorses on top of which he had placed a three-foot by five-foot sheet of plywood and a piece of packing foam.

A similar structure in the other room served as a desk for writing letters and for painting his ink-wash Chinese landscapes.  Propped against the back door were spades, a shovel, and a rake, tools he used to tend a plot of land the size of two king-size beds laid end to end.  With the exception of tea, soybeans, peanut butter, molasses, and occasional wheat-flour, whatever he ate came from there.  He would talk about his garden, or more likely we would remain silent for a long while and then it would be time to leave.

My experience with De Chun was like floating weightless on the Dead Sea and looking up at an empty sky.  There was a feeling of tremendous peace and freedom, but that was all.  I didn’t “learn” anything.  Trying to pin him down on some aspect of meditation was as pointless as trying to drive a stake through the air.  He taught one thing and one thing only, and that he taught to perfection: meditation happens now.

Although I knew nothing pivotal was going to happen, I kept coming around.  I was a 19 year old college student, usually not interested in spending time with someone four times my age.  Especially someone who by ordinary standards, was little better than a bum.

He taught only by example.  A friend said of a priest, “He practices what he preaches, so he doesn’t have to preach so loud.”  Deh Chun practiced so well he didn’t have to preach at all.  – p. 119-121


Honesty feeds simplicity.  As well as external simplicity, we have a great need for simplicity within.  Honesty with myself about myself wastes little energy on defenses and makes more energy available for creativity and generativity. – p. 123

When I am simply myself this becomes a gift to others.  I am not totally empty of problems and immature behaviors.  Rather, my whole life consists of continual mistakes and encounters that can teach me.  When I know where the psychological furniture is, I don’t trip over it as often. – p. 123

By facing ourselves directly with clarity and kindness and not seeking to hold on to anything but the pure unvarnished truth, a certain inner simplicity of spirit results. – p. 123

Pema Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart, “When my marriage fell apart I tried hard – very, very hard – to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place.  Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off.  Instinctively I knew that annihilation of my old dependent, clinging self was the only way to go.” – p. 124

Though we may not get there often, most of us recognize that this “annihiliation” is actually a coming home to self.  This is where most psychology and spirituality points – to be at home in your inner self, with yourself, others, and with God.  The simplicity that encourages this requires that we travel light. – p. 125


Lesson 10: Come Home Often

Coming home to ourselves is often difficult, because we have forgotten how to do it.  We have received the gift of birth and the time to pass into adult life to gain wisdom, to share love, and to see God who is so present to us when we are at home in ourselves.  But to be at home with ourselves requires the disciplines of solitude and silence. – p. 126-127

A saying from the desert mothers and fathers sums this up, “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell with teach you everything.” – p. 127

Anthony Storr points out in his book Solitude Admiral Robert Byrd was not only looking for the South Pole in 1934.  He also sought something within himself.  Later Byrd wrote, “I took away something I had not fully possessed before: appreciation of the sheer beauty and miracle of being alive, and a humble set of values.  I live more simply now, and with more peace.” – p. 128

When feeling lost, overwhelmed, and looking for a direction that contains a beautiful spirit of love and simplicity, the natural question is “Where do I begin?”  The best answer is “start in the silence.” – p. 131

Simply sitting silently alone or in a group is not easy.  For when we sit in silence we create a vacuum in our consciousness.  The preconscious rises into it to expose our lies and our games.  But doing this is not a luxury.  If you wish to live a simple, clear, full life, it is a necessity.  Meditation is the food of life.  To appreciate it and allow richly quiet periods to nourish life, several little steps must be taken:

  1. Recognize its value.  Life becomes dangerous and aimless without times of silence, even if it is just ten minutes during a busy day.  Henri Nouwen writes of this in his own life: “What was driving me from one book to another, one place to another, one project to another?  Maybe I spoke more about God than with him.  Maybe my writing about prayer kept me from a prayerful life.  I realized I could only know by stepping back and allowing the hard questions to touch me even if they hurt.  This was not easy, because I had created a web of busyness.  While complaining about too many demands, I felt uneasy when none were made.

“ While desiring to be alone, I was frightened of being left alone.  I saw how much I needed to step back and look for a still point where my life is anchored, from which I could reach out with hope and courage and confidence.” – p. 133-134

  1. Take time out regularly.  Time is precious.  We take time for granted and even disrespect the very limited period we are given in our small lifespan.  The Dalai Lama writes, “Not taking any essence of our precious human existence, but just wasting it, is almost like taking poison while being fully aware of the consequences of doing so.  It is very wrong for people to feel deeply sad when they lose some money, yet when they waste the precious moments of their lives they do not have the slightest feeling of repentance.” – p. 135

Taking time out helps us come home to ourselves.  Silence offers pristine aloneness. We can come to appreciate this space and then seek it out like cool water on a hot day or a cozy fire on a frigid night.  We will seek to do it regularly.  It’s like meeting an old friend for breakfast, not out of duty or guilt, but rather for our own fulfillment. – p. 135

  1. Honor your resistances.  The quiet spaces we treasure in our fantasies will never become a reality in our schedule unless we come to know and honor our resistances.  These resistances take the form of: worries about what we need to do or didn’t do, resentment of others, shame about ourselves, boredom and restlessness because we are always on the move, a stream of “great ideas” that we must write down now, regrets about how we have lived, fears about living differently because, after all what will people think?  How will they react?, concern about how hard change will be, discouragement that our prayer or meditation doesn’t seem as good, refreshing, or as natural as that of those who teach or write about it, feelings that meditation is a luxury, lacks importance, or isn’t as practical or as effective as action.

Because no one warns us about these natural resistances, many people are discouraged at the very onset of a life nourished by quiet prayer.  This is an unnecessary shame.  The reality is that everyone has an imperfect prayer life.  We will all always be beginners.  There is no spiritual graduation. – p. 136

Loneliness is a part of life.  We are born alone and die alone.  Our fears, angers, sorrows, and hurts are all our own.  No matter how well someone knows or loves us, he or she will never see us or the world through our eyes.  This is true, but as Thomas Merton says in The Vow of Conversation, “Why desperation?  This is not necessary.” – p. 138

Know the benefits. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to his young friend in Letters to a Young Poet, “You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do.  Go into yourself.  If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches, for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” – p. 139

Solitude, when joined with silence and a meditative spirit, will produce 1) a decrease in driven, grasping and other compulsive behaviors, 2) an opportunity to refocus and let the day settle down, 3) a chance to laugh at ourselves, 4) a chance to be more gentle and friendlier with ourselves, 5) an opening to new space and freedom within as our self-imposed demands and expectations of others release their chokehold, and 6) a new vision of how each day – even apparently tough ones – can become invigorating for us. – p. 139

Rinpoche writes, “Our lives are lived in intense and anxious struggle, in a swirl of speed and aggression, in competing, grasping, possessing and achieving, forever burdening ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations.  Meditation is the exact opposite.” – p. 140

There is also a new gratefulness that comes with a life of prayer and reflection.  My daughter Michaele moved to South Florida and, for a long time, felt quite lost and abandoned by God.  She began to practice a  constant “discipline of gratefulness.”  One evening when I was visiting, she said to me, “Every time I look up at the sky here in Florida, I feel like I am on a vacation with God.” – p. 140-141

  1. Have a simple practice.  Here are some basic ideas:
  1. Find a quiet place, alone if possible.
  2. Sit up straight.
  3. Close your eyes or keep them slightly open looking a few feet in front of you.
  4. Count slow, naturally exhaled breaths from one to four and repeat the process.
  5. Relax and let stray thoughts move through you like a slow-moving train, repeating themes; observe them objectively, then let them go.
  6. Experience living in the now.
  7. Put yourself in the presence of a living God and wrap yourself in gratitude.  If you don’t have these feelings, pray for them as you continue.
  8. Repeat (occasionally) either a centering word (e.g. “Jesus”) or read a few passages from the Bible or a spiritual book.
  9. Sit with the spirit of what you have read or quietly repeat the centering word.  When you become aware of distraction, just let the issue move through your mind and out.  If it persists, then pray it over to God rather than pre-occupying yourself with it, which, after all, serves no purpose.
  10. Sit quietly and lovingly like this with the Lord for ten or twenty minutes a day on a regular basis. – p. 142-143

Coming home to ourselves in prayer and meditation brings much more than wisdom.  It helps us soften life’s tempo, encourages us to be understanding of and friendlier with ourselves, helps us to see and accept the simplicity of life, and tempers our arrogance.  Our ambitions, schedules, expectations, worries, plans, and anxieties don’t seem to have such a grasp on us.  We become a little less uncomfortable with ourselves. – p. 143

We want to live more fully and simply and are not put off from this by the complaints, fears, and spirit of entitlement to which so many in the world seem to fall prey. – p. 143


Epilogue: Be a Dangerous Listener

Listening within to sense unpleasant feelings such as anger, anxiety, or great stress helps us grasp areas where freedom is lacking in our lives.  In addition, how we listen to or experience life helps us recognize that most often it is life’s ordinary – not extraordinary – elements that contain holiness and peace. – p. 148

How we listen to our lives determines whether we simply categorize things as bad or good, whether we spend our lives running toward or away from certain people or interactions, or if we greet the possibilities in all of life. – p. 148

Any occurrence that keeps us from taking life for granted is a gift. Drama, adolescence, menopause, trauma all bring possibility with the pain.  How do we take advantage of these periods of imbalance?  Few people do.  Just look around.  If all suffering led to wisdom and insight without any effort or strength, we would be surrounded by a sea of saints. – p. 149

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes, “once you get into the desert, there’s no going back.  And when you can’t go back, you have to worry only about moving forward.  The rest is up to Allah, including the danger.” – p. 150

The journeys of inner wisdom and compassion that have been encouraged in Riding the Dragon are actually the key elements of a faith-full journey or pilgrimage.  The difference between pilgrim and tourist is the intention of attention, the quality of listening. – p. 150


Some Readings I Have Found Helpful

Inner Journeys: Autobiographical Fragments … There are periods of people’s lives when exploration of their inner self parallels the cahgnes occurring in their daily public lives as well.  Examples by Lamott, Norris, Albom, Dillard, Crane, Harvey, Matthiessen, Rilke, Grumbach, Bode, Johnson and Nouwen.

Contemporary Biographies/Autobiographies … Relaxing with a well-written book about a fascinating person of substance is one of my favorite joys.  Their lives stir me to respect the grandeur of my own so I can risk living it fully with a sense of care, compassion, gratitude, and commitment.  Examples by Mott-Merton, Coles, Chadwick, Wallach, Dalai Lama, du Boulay.

Quotes from the Masters … Powerful wisdom in short doses has quite an impact if we read and absorb quotes from people we admire.  Examples by Heschel, Dalai Lama, de Mello.

Wisdom from the East … I have been deeply affected in the past ten years with recent books on American and Tibetan Buddhism and Zen.  Examples by Brazier, Chodron, Kornfield, Rinpoche, Schuller, Ram Dass, Merton, and Kabat-Zinn.

Desert Wisdom … The spirituality and sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries.  Examples by Merton, Nouwen, Nomura, Leech, Wicks, France, Lane, Gruen, Luth, Mayer, Ward, Waddell, Stewart and Burton-Christie.

Some additional gems … by Frankl, Burns, Ciarrocchi, Herman, Storr, and Cousineau.

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