Writing and Living

This is the fourth of a 4-part interview of me by Dr. Jackie Stinton – a psychologist and spiritual director who lives in Calgary. 

Jackie:   I would like to shift our focus slightly and talk about how you write and where your thoughts and ideas emerge from.

David:   I write for discovery, not communication. I write so I will know what I think. I start with things I am thinking about – usually, things I have been reading about or, in some cases, read about long ago and continue to think about. I write so that I can take those thoughts further – something I can only do in writing and in dialogue.

Jackie:   You say you write for discovery, and you are endorsed for your fresh, profound and enriching insights. How does this discovery process actually work for you? Does your writing emerge out of a spontaneous flow of thoughts, or do you start with some endpoint in mind?

David:   With one exception, all my books start with nothing more than a tight kernel of a thought – something that I know I have to write about to unpack. Usually the first thing I do is translate that kernel into a title, often also a sub-title. I certainly have thoughts about that kernel but they lack cohesion and are far from comprehensive. At that point, what I know is what I want to explore. For example, my trilogy on the spiritual journey started with a sudden awareness one day that the core of Christian spirituality centered on surrendering to love. I knew that to think this through I had to start writing. And that’s what I did – one sentence leading to the next, one paragraph to the next, one chapter to the next and, in the case of that little book, one book leading to the next. But there was no plan. I just watched with amazement as it unfolded.

Jackie:   Tell me about the one exception.

David:   Spirituality and the Awakening Self arose out of three decades of thinking and reading about the big picture of human unfolding. Whenever I wrote about the spiritual journey I realized I was describing dynamics of the journey – things like embracing the truth of our selves, surrendering to love, etc. – but that I lacked a comprehensive map of the journey. Ken Wilber’s writing had been a big influence on me but I knew I had to develop my own map of the journey, one that emerged from within a Christian framework. I knew this wasn’t something that would simply happen as I wrote. Too many things needed to be drawn together and integrated. And so I took a year to reflect on the transformation I had witnessed in others and, in a secondary way, in myself, and to begin to map that unfolding. The framework I developed for the journey became the framework for the book and by the time I actually started writing I had a general idea of where I was heading. There was, of course, still an enormous amount that I didn’t know as I started each chapter, but having a rough map in place before I started was the only way that particular book could ever be written. It was simply too big in its scope and ambition.

Jackie:   How did you feel about that process and the resulting book?

David:   I was happy with the book and continue to feel good about what it presents. However, I didn’t enjoy writing it nearly as much as I do when I am writing for discovery.

Jackie: How are you impacted by your own writing?

David:   As I watch what unfolds on the screen before me I am often filled with amazement – sometimes actually stunned. When I am not, I realize that I am trying to create something rather than let it unfold within me, and when I recognize this, I usually stop, erase that paragraph and go back to the point where I was clearly in the flow, not trying to generate or create something. I used to experience the same thing when I was lecturing. I would often stop and jot down something I just heard myself say. It was that same sense of discovery. How does that impact me? It always humbles me and leaves me with a sense of awe and gratitude. It’s the unbelievable gift of receiving understanding and insights related to things I have been thinking about and longing to better know.

Juliet tells me that when she was writing her book Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer in her study across the hall of our home from mine I was quite insufferable as she kept being interrupted by outbursts like “This is incredible!” or, “You wouldn’t believe what I just found on my screen!” I know that sounds arrogant but it is how I feel much of the time when I am writing. However, I do understand how annoying it is to hear that if you are someone for whom writing is more of a struggle. My struggle is thinking without writing or dialogue. That’s why Juliet tells me from time to time that, as a novel experience, I should try having an unexpressed thought.

Jackie:   Thinking about the impact of your writing, I wonder if you receive much feedback from people who are angry about some of the positions you take. How does it affect you and how do you deal with it?

David:   Periodically I hear from people who are angry, judgemental, and sometimes hateful. Although I wish I could say it didn’t bother me, dealing with this is definitely the hardest and personally most costly part of living my journey in a public way.

Jackie:   I am sorry to hear that, David but am glad you continue to write. Which authors have had the biggest impact on your writing and what has drawn you to them? Has this changed over the years you have been writing?

David:   Without question the authors who have had the biggest impact on both me and my writing have been the mystics. First and foremost this has been the Christian mystics – starting with Thomas Merton and then moving from him out through such people as Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and many others. Although I have dipped into the mystics of other faith traditions none have spoken to me so compellingly as the Sufi mystical poets – particularly Hafiz and Rumi. I don’t choose these people as much as I am grabbed by them. They speak to my heart, not just to my head. I know what they talk about even though I can’t usually understand it. I experience a resonance with their knowing, with their vision of life. In deep ways and places I experience it as something I already know. Re-membering myself in the light of the deep truths they communicate is why I keep rereading these people. For several decades my ritual for closing the day is to read a short passage from one of them before falling asleep. I don’t read them to stimulate thought as much as to again lose myself in wonder. I read them – particularly at this point each day – to remind my soul of its true home. As for changes over time in this pattern, I can’t say that I see any. I started reading the mystics in my early twenties and they continue to be my primary source of wisdom. I learned more psychology from the mystics than from any other single source than either Freud or Jung, and unquestionably they are the most important source of what I have learned about spirituality.

Jackie:   How about more contemporary authors? Who speaks to you in these ways from the 20th or 21st century?

David:   Well, Merton fits into that category. He was the first Christian mystic I encountered and he only died in 1968. I was led to him through Henri Nouwen’s writings and am eternally thankful to Nouwen for this gift. Of the other contemporary authors who speak to me deeply, most would fairly be described as modern mystics. I think, for example, of James Finley, Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, and others. I am not sure Thomas Moore would be appropriately called a mystic but his understanding of the life of the soul is profound and his books have been an important source of my own understanding of soulful living. James Hillman has also been an important influence me in terms of understanding what it means to live soulfully.

Poets deserve as special mention in any naming of writers who have had the deepest impact on me. I have already mentioned the Sufi mystical poets, Hafiz and Rumi. Although they lived and wrote in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, seldom does a week go by that I don’t reread one of their poems and reflect on it. But beyond them I should also mention more contemporary poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke, David Whyte, Mary Oliver, and Denise Levertov. Poets, engaged soulfully, have unique and astounding power to move us from our heads down into our hearts and so they have played an incredibly important role in helping me – someone who is still easily seduced by thoughts and other mental processes – make this journey.

Jackie:   How do you understand the soul? How have you learned to live more soulfully?

David:   In general I think of soul as our inner life. But since soul is always tethered to the external world as it actually exists, soulful living emerges out of this space between inner and outer realities – between experience and the self that is invited to generate meaning from life as it actually comes to us. An absence of soul is reflected in living from the surface of our lives rather than from our center, something that expresses itself in terms of a lack of depth and genuineness.

My journey over the last several decades has been all about growing my soul and grounding my spirituality in this deep center of my being. It might sound funny for someone who has spent decades working on the boundary of psychology and spirituality to admit, but for far too long, my spirituality lacked grounding in my body. In terms of the framework I presented in Spirituality and the Awakening Self, the platform on which my self was organized and rested was mental (associated with thoughts). It lacked genuine spiritual transcendence because I had neglected the soul work that always starts with an embrace of our bodies and the reality of the present moment.

How am I doing in living soulfully now? Unquestionably better. The clearest evidence of this is, I would say, increased presence, more willingness to accept the flow of life and more ability to experience the joy that can be found in the present but will forever be elusive if we have not made the journey of descent into a full embrace of the realities of our existence.

Jackie: What has been an example of a ‘heart-felt’ discoveries you have received?

David:   Ah, what a great question! The one I first think of is the sense of the sacredness of the self that I received as a gift while writing The Gift of Being Yourself. I suppose this is something I believed, or I wouldn’t have set out to write a book by that title. But it was a powerful discovery and I was quite impacted by the process of writing that book as it left me with a powerful sense of just how sacred my uniqueness is. This wasn’t a mental insight. It was a heart-knowing.

Jackie:   You mentioned that dialogue is another component of your writing. Does this include interactive conversations as well as imagined conversations with an intended audience?

David:   It definitely includes both. I learn through dialogue in exactly the way I learn through writing but real conversation is infinitely richer because it involves person-to-person direct engagement. This is why so many of my earlier books emerged out of lectures, and why my lectures became more and more dialogical the longer I taught. And it is why I value dialogue so highly and make as much space for it as I do in my life.

The best dialogue for me emerges from walking and I do a great deal of this with others. Juliet and I walk for at least an hour each day and we have been blessed to share these immensely generative times of rich dialogue now for nearly 50 years. But for at least the last 30 years I have valued dialogue sufficiently and been blessed to have other good soul friends living near enough by that I would schedule these people in for weekly extended walking conversations. Human Being and Becoming was dedicated to the two most recent of these ambulatory soul friends: Mark Muldoon, who walked with me every week for 7 years along the inner harbour of Victoria, British Columbia, and Larry Young who regularly walks with me now in High Park, Toronto or along the waterfront trail on Lake Ontario. My soul and my life would be infinitely poorer if I did not spend these hours each week in this way. It is one of my most essential and important spiritual practices.

But I also have rich inner dialogue with others when I am writing. When I start the first page of a new book I always identify my audience and one or two people who epitomize that audience. These people sit at my elbow as I write and I often answer questions I hear them raise about what is emerging at the moment on my laptop screen. So dialogue is always a part of the process of discovery for me.

Jackie:   How did you arrive at the framework you presented in Spirituality and the Awakening Self and how well does it reflect your own journey of awakening?

David:   Quite intentionally, I chose not to start with my own experience as I began to develop the map of the journey of the unfolding self that is at the core of this book. I first drew on the perennial wisdom tradition for the body-mind-soul-spirit framework that I ended up using. But then I had to figure out how well it matched the journeys of the dozen or so people I had worked with who had experienced the most profound transformation. Feeling confirmation with the big picture, I then moved to fill in the details of sub-stages and transitions, now broadening my data set to include people who I considered to be good examples of each of the sub-stages. Only then did I begin to consider how well it fit me. For good or bad I clearly had done a decent job of not bringing my own journey up to the front burner because now I was surprised how hard it was to be honest and not fool myself about where I was on this journey. I have frequently warned others not to be distracted by trying to figure out how they were doing and here I was trying to do exactly that. But, when I set aside judgments about where I was and simply use the exercise to see how well the framework fit my own journey I would have to say that it felt like it fit well. I would, however, quickly say, that I have not experienced the levels of transcendence that some of those I have been blessed to know well have experienced. I accept that with peace, no longer feeling that I am called to make progress on the journey but simply to be faithful to it. The progress all comes from the Spirit.

Jackie:   You have travelled from being psychologist to spiritual director to transformational coach and now wisdom teacher. What has been the thread connecting these various expressions of your vocation?

David:   The common thread connecting them all has been transformation. My interest in clinical psychology was never simply healing but the awakening and unfolding of the self. Clinical psychology provided me with a wonderful framework for this but I was aware that in many ways I was functioning like a pre-modern soul curate. Care of souls soon began to be indistinguishable from care of spirits and I became more and more interested in attending to both what I described as soul suffering and spirit longings. I was never comfortable calling myself a spiritual director because my training in it was informal and my interest always broader than simply helping people become better Christians. So when I retired from clinical practice I began to call myself a transformational coach as this better reflected the work I was doing with individuals who sought me out for accompaniment on the transformational journey. I now do very little of this direct work with others, the primary platform for my engagement with those who seek my accompaniment on this transformational journey being my books and social media.

Jackie:   What is a wisdom teacher?

David:   Let’s start with wisdom. Cynthia Bourgeault describes wisdom as the science of spiritual transformation. I would suggest that the scientists who have mined the transformational wisdom most deeply have been the mystics of the world’s major religions and the depth psychologists. Wisdom teachers are those who help others on the transformational journey, not simply by communicating the insights of this shared pool of wisdom but more importantly by helping them learn to walk the transformational path and live the transformational life.

Jackie: Are you now at rest in your journey, or do you anticipate further movement?

David:   Both. I have been increasingly at rest in my depths over the last several decades and I pray that this deepens ever further. However, since life is more like a river than a lake, I definitely expect further movement and change as long as I am alive. I can’t imagine a life of stasis. To me, that sounds like death.

Jackie:  David, thank you so much for engaging in this conversation. Finding more of the man living behind the writing gives all of us who read your books and follow your online posts a more personal connection. Please – from all of us – continue with your writing. More than communication, it offers a powerful form of communion for all of us on our own journeys.

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