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Monk in the World Guest Post: Richard Bruxvoort Colligan

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Wisdom Council member and long time Abbey contributor Richard Bruxvoort Colligan’s reflection Work and Presence.

Show of hands: Who else slows down in winter time?

I used to resist it. Maybe I felt like integrity meant being productive all the time. Maybe good, responsible grown-ups should push through anything, including Midwestern blizzard season! 

During the pandemic lockdown, I noticed I was learning a thing I thought I had learned before: to notice my body, notice the pace of my mind, pay attention to my inner life. My life works best when I live out of this good and unique information. 

For Pete’s sake. I have learned and relearned this so many times. (I trust you have things like this for yourself, too). What a relief to understand one’s resistance to an area of life we feel dumb about. We can finally surrender the expectation that we’ll get it right for some imagined standard, and instead make the energy of that resistance an ongoing practice toward our wholeness.

Enter Winter. For many of us, it’s a time to slow down. It might even be a season to design our days to be less productive.

Is it just me, or is there a part of your mind that runs a delusional program when you’re vulnerable? My particular program sternly looks across the desk of my mind and tells me I really should be productive in order to feel good about myself. We’re good students of the culture we’re immersed in, and I was trained from a young age that work equals value and power. Part of me thinks Doing More is inherently better; putting in More Work Hours makes me more valuable. Yeah, but another part of me knows that’s not the Tao, the Way, the Dharma, the Gospel, the Path.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about work and presence. 

Work is our effort toward influence. Feeding your family, teaching colleagues your insights, performing a concert.

Presence is our influence that needs no effort. You walk into a room, and you’re golden. You’re being you is how the world works best.

Work, according to a physics definition, is the application of energy to an object so it moves. Your imagination fills a blank page that you fill with ideas from your unique imagination. You wheelbarrow the leaves from the front yard to the compost pile. In these activities, you feel the energy displacement in your muscles and in your mind, and you are doing something. Is there any better feeling at the end of the day than feeling pleasantly weary having poured yourself out in meaningful ways?

Presence, the other side of the coin, is a state of being. Be-ing. No application of energy to move anything. In certain cultures– hello, USA– this is somehow more difficult than work. 

To state it like my mentor Fred Rogers would, being a monk in the world means simply existing as your full, honest, kick-ass self which, when we’re at our best, requires zero effort. It also means the doing of things that, as Howard Thurman wrote, makes us come alive and gives life to the world. Being and doing. Your natural presence is gift. Your instinct to contribute work is gift.

One of my favorite Denise Levertov poems goes:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

©1984 Denise Levertov, New Directions Publishing Corp.

What words in Denise’s poem are significant to you today?

Every time I encounter it, I’m nudged by her last two lines. Six years ago, in an act of resistance against my well-trained American work ethic, I wrote myself a post-it note that remains in view of my desk: Try less hard. These three words quietly take a wrecking ball to my fear of deficiency. What would today look like if you tried less hard? Please appreciate the dimensions of you that are just naturally wonderful.

I invite you right now to look out the window for ten seconds and consider the nature of your presence and your work. 

Thank you for your presence and work that are saving the world.

Richard Bruxvoort Colligan is a freelance psalmist and cantor of the Olive Branch Community (ELCA) in Rochester, MN. He’s contributed songs for several Abbey of the Arts projects and hopes to do an Ireland pilgrimage in person sometime soon. Faves: purple, autumn, laughter, the Beatles, movies, and a good mango lassi. He lives in Strawberry Point, Iowa with his wife Trish, son Sam and Winnie the dog.

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