By Jan Engoren
Last month, the Peaceful Mind Peaceful Life wellness series at Boca Raton Regional Hospital hosted James Finley, an author, clinical psychologist and Christian mystic, to speak about “Exploring the Spiritual Foundations of Healing.”
Finley, 80, draws on a life’s worth of experience dating to his own childhood trauma followed by six years in a Trappist monastery that he says changed his life.
Barb Schmidt and Michelle Maros founded the nonprofit Peaceful Mind Peaceful Life in 2011, with the mission to bring mindfulness teachings to the community at large.
Schmidt has been bringing Finley to speak in South Florida for the past decade.
“As a spiritual mentor, James Finley has had a profound impact on my life,” she says. “His work integrates spirituality and psychotherapy while exploring ways we can recover from trauma. I believe his radically honest teachings and stories offer unique insights into how we can heal emotional wounds.”
Finley’s work focuses on the healing effects of learning to live a more contemplative way of life in which, he says, “we learn from God how to deepen our experience of and response to God’s presence in our lives.”
One of Finley’s main ideas is that humans suffer from “depth deprivation,” or the inability to go deep within themselves. His advice?
“Find a quiet hour at day’s end for a long, slow walk, meditate, pray, read a poem or a good-night story to a child,” Finley says by phone from his home in Santa Monica, California.
“Be intimate and vulnerable with a partner, be attentive to a dying parent, listen to a friend who is hurting, or watch the sun go down.”
“These are all places of groundedness,” Finley says.
He paraphrases renowned Christian theologian Thomas Merton, who became a mentor to Finley: “If we wait for the world to politely step aside for us, it won’t happen. We have to carve out a quiet time with no agenda to see what our heart longs for.”
Now retired from private practice as a psychologist, Finley taught clients how to slow down and drop down into that deep place inside, to breathe and sit for a time.
His own meditation practice includes writing in long-hand six hours a day — it took him three years of that to complete his latest book, a memoir called The Healing Path — and walking back and forth in his living room where he has a view of the ocean.
He is comforted knowing that the ashes of his wife, Maureen, who died three years ago at age 76 from Alzheimer’s, rest next to his writing chair. She was also a psychologist.
“Love is eternal,” he says. “I still love her, and she still loves me.”
Finley grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father. The day he graduated from high school, he boarded a Greyhound bus and headed from his home in Akron, Ohio, to the
Trappist Monastery of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. There, he met Merton and spent six years in silent contemplation.
“Merton guided me to a deep place that changed my life,” Finley says.
The oldest of six kids, he later earned degrees from the University of Akron, St. John of Cleveland and the Fuller Theological Seminary, where he received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
Although the monastery was Christian-focused, Finley says he studied the dharma, or the teachings of Buddha; learned from Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh and Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, both of whom visited the monastery; and from Hindu yogis and Sufi mystics.
“Each tradition has their own language and way of finding their way to the universal potential to awaken the divine within,” says Finley.
While leading silent contemplative retreats, Finley came to see how the world of suffering exists alongside the presence of God and how they touch each other. He talks about the paradox of “the love of God that protects us from nothing, even as it sustains us in all things.”
These days, Finley says he feels “old, sad, lonely, fragile, amazed and grateful.”
His best advice for living a meaningful life?
Learn to be true to yourself, he says. Accept your limitations.
“Each person is a unique addition of the universal story of being a human being,” Finley says.
“The details of the story are never the same,” he says, “but the underlying themes are the same — we are all part of the human story.”
To learn more
The Healing Path and Finley’s other books are available on Amazon. They include Merton’s Palace of Nowhere; The Contemplative Heart, and Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God.
More information about Peaceful Mind Peaceful Life is available at peacefulmindpeacefullife.org.
Jan Engoren writes about health and healthy living. Send column ideas to email@example.com.