The Simple Quote from James Finley That Brought Me to My Depths

The Simple Quote from James Finley That Brought Me to My Depths June 6, 2022

(UPDATE: My book, Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life has now been released! You can check it out here.)

James Finley Depths
Christopher Campbell/Unsplash

A few years ago, I sat in a packed auditorium, surrounded by hundreds of others listening intently to a disheveled looking man speaking on the stage. His hair unkempt and his body bent as if permanently in the middle of a grateful bow, he sat in a wooden chair behind a small table with a singing bowl resting atop it.

A clinical psychologist and former monk, James Finley speaks with a natural authority given him not just by training but by life experience. He carries not a posture of power or of domination but one of vulnerability and honoring the moment unfolding around him.

It’s a beautiful thing to witness in person.

But one thing you have to know about the man we (his students at the Living School) lovingly refer to as Uncle Jim: he speaks with a poetic cadence that will either lull you into one of the most wondrous slumbers or bring you the closest to enlightenment you’ve ever felt. 

When I first encountered him, I couldn’t stand it. I teetered between sleepiness and frustration, trying to extract wisdom from someone everyone else seemed to love and whom I couldn’t understand. 

Voicing my frustrated confusion during a break, a friend gave me the ultimate Rosetta Stone of advice for listening to Uncle Jim: 

“You can’t listen to him with rational ears. Sit down with an intention of openness and let his voice take your mind wherever your mind needs to go. Before long, a word or phrase he says will touch upon your unguarded heart and you won’t be able to lose attention again.”

And so, on that day in the packed auditorium, I sat lightly in my chair ready for either a good nap or a revelation.


The Depths

As he spoke, his voice fluttered through the air, gently encircling us in a way that only a poet can do. Within minutes, I was entranced as his words offered a vulnerability I so rarely see in older  men. He spoke of his own struggles and of abuse, of losing people he had loved and of gaining a sense of connection with the Divine moving through the universe.

Then he muttered a phrase that would change my life: “If you’re not careful, you can start to feel you’re skimming over the surface of the depths of your own life.”

This simple phrase touched upon my heart in a way I had rarely experienced before and I began to weep silent tears. Surrounded in a room filled with emotion and love and poetry, I sat as if on a small wooden boat, my life’s stories bubbling up from the depths all around me.

I thought of all the times I found myself just going along to get along: lowering my expectations and ignoring my needs in order to feel as if I belonged. Or of entering into romantic relationships and shapeshifting to become better in the eyes of those who looked at me. I thought of all the projects I had dreamed up and then laid aside because starting them would mean the potential pain of ending them.

In the midst of this crowded room of strangers, I began to recognize the ways in which I was skimming over the surface of the depths of my own life, constantly working to maintain a sense of composure and authority because the alternative was too terrifying.

As Uncle Jim’s voice continued to float through the air, I decided there was something in my depths worth exploring and while my body didn’t move and my tears didn’t slow, I jumped off my boat and began to sink.


Two Invitations

  1. Watch a small video of Uncle Jim speaking about this here.
  2. On June 16th, I’ll be hosting a free event with the brilliant poet, James A. Pearson. Similar to James Finley, his words and poetry find ways to evade and avoid the defense system, striking upon something deep and true within us. If you’re interested in attending, check it out here.

Pick up my free resource Wisdom Teachers + Body Practices to Guide Us here.

Get my Quick Guide to Engaging a Contemplative and Embodied Spirituality.

About Andrew Lang
Andrew Lang is an educator in Tacoma, Washington, an alumnus of Richard Rohr’s Living School for Action and Contemplation, and author of the forthcoming book, Unmasking the Inner Critic: Lessons for Living an Unconstricted Life. For the past nine years, he has led workshops on contemplative spirituality and community development throughout the Pacific Northwest. You can read more about the author here.
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