Spirituality and this Unitarian Universalist

I’ve been delving into my spiritual and religious past lately, looking for connections and direction, watching for patterns, and pondering plenty.  So when  Rev. Alex Riegel’s piece, What Does the Word “Spirituality” Mean? (the first of three posts on spirituality), appeared a few weeks back, linking on to Doug Muder’s blog post, Spirituality and the Humanist, my mind started working on what exactly spirituality is.  I don’t expect to nail it down here, but perhaps rather work a bit on what it means to me now.  Since all I have is me and now, that seems appropriate.

Doug Muder, UU/Humanist and writer of Free and Responsible Search, sums up spirituality thus: Spirituality is an awareness of the gap between what you can experience and what you can describe.  Alex, Unitarian Universalist minister,  sees spirit as our true nature, hidden by our mental, emotional, and physical selves.  The spirit is what remains when the ego is silent.  Doug mentions meditation, and those moments of what can’t be described when sitting, breathing, and, well, doing nothing.  Alex mentions meditation, chant, and yoga as opportunities to touch the spiritual.  Alex maintains the paths to the spiritual are with us, in the spiritual texts that have survived centuries, millennia even. Doug, in contrast, references nature and mathematics, citing Archimedes instead.

Do those definitions of spirituality hold for me?  Well, yes.  And, no.

I’m not a theist.  I’m not an atheist either.  At this writing, I believe in something bigger than the individual yet not what some call God.  I’m  not terribly concerned about what to call it, or the true nature of that whatever that is actually is.  Our minds, amazing tools that they are, aren’t it.  Our bodies and emotions aren’t it either.  All are too fallible, to0 changeable, to be all that can be.   When we touch the something within us as individuals or as larger collections of humans that goes beyond our minds, bodies, and feelings, I’d say we’re in the realm of the spiritual.

Like Doug maintains, the spiritual is in that gap where words fail us.  Not that learning more words (or more science) can erase spirituality.  Understanding of the mechanisms of the human body or the cosmos (and on the latter my understanding is minimal), doesn’t decrease my sense of wonder of our existence and the existence of the universe.  If anything, the incredible complexity of this world and beyond deepen my wonder and reverence.  That reverence is spiritual.  In that moment where all drops away –when I drop away — is a spiritual experience.

It’s markedly similar to the lack of self sometimes present when gazing at my children.  For a moment, one will awe me, silencing my thoughts leaving only my essence that knows no words.  All the words, harsh and loving, fall away.  What remains is connectedness and wonder.  It’s not the rush of love that follows that moment of awe.  It’s what comes before my heart feels and my mind adds words.

I’ve found these moments in meditation, but not as often.  I’m hardly an accomplished meditator.  I’m inconsistent and impatient.  I’ve yet to practice with enough regularity to call my mediation attempts serious spiritual practice, and I lack the drive in that direction to make that change happen.  Chant has offered windows to the spiritual, longer looks, in fact, than I find in nature and my children.  Those glimpses of the transcendent part of life pull into longer gazes during chant.  Like meditation, I’ve only experienced that leap in fits and spurts.  Yoga, similarly, has offered moments of spiritual experience, but these are brief. My formal spiritual practice has been less than focused.

For me, spirituality is these tiny moments along with all that surrounds those moments.  Losing myself for even a few seconds while hiking through the woods makes the walk spiritual.  The flash of connection I sometimes experience in the meeting-house is deeply spiritual, as is the brief loss of ego in a generally fidgety sitting for meditation.  The brief connection sanctifies the experience.  Or something like that.

Those moments feed me, reminding me I am but part of a larger whole.  They remind me I’m more than my ever-changing thoughts and feelings, that we’re all more than the sum of those elements with which we most often identify. They are not, however, an endpoint.  Living a spiritual life, at least for this UU, means moving beyond those moments, taking the connections to the all gained in a spiritual experience with me to energize the rest of my life.  It fuels my quest to respect the dignity and worth of every human being, to strive for justice, to love unconditionally, to let go of transgressions, to care for this world.   So informed, those acts become spiritual acts — spiritual practice even.

For me, these internal and external spiritualities complement each other.  When I’m taking the time to quiet my mind, body, and heart, I touch the spiritual part of life.  The more I touch that part, even for an instant, the better I carry peace and love to those whose lives I touch.  When I ignore the internal, contemplative end, I’m more stingy with that love and peace, perhaps because it is just less familiar.  When I reach out, practicing love and peace, I find it with more ease when I turn inside.  And so it goes, spiraling outward and inward at once.

An internal spiritual fest without external expression in life is incomplete.  Whatever practice one chooses, whatever silences the bounding mind and those churning feelings, reminds one of the peace possible.  Keeping that peace to oneself is insufficient.  It’s in the living, our spirituality is fully expressed.

 

 

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Life as Experiment

From yale.edu

If it always works, it’s a demonstration, not an experiment.

That line appeared in a Yahoo group discussion about science curriculum recently, and it struck a chord with me beyond the homeschool science realm.  I’m highly critical, a trait I work hard to limit only to myself but spreads to those I love the most on a daily basis.  It’s not a trait I treasure, and I’m often critical of how critical I am of myself and others.  Productive?  Let’s see.

First, I’ll return to science.  The scientific method, illustrated on the left, dates back to the ancients in some form.  Years of scientists and philosophers (the line was thin between these back then) gradually shaped it into the process we know today.  We teach it to children when they study science, and it’s what scientists use to explore questions.  So what’s the scientific method doing here, on a blog about spiritual search and the ramblings of  my mind?

Explaining the experiments of daily living.

Because life is not a demonstration.  It’s an experiment.  It’s a long process of research, problems, hypotheses, experiments, data, conclusions, and new problems.  It’s a cycle that never ends.  If life were a demonstration, it would be far easier, although I’d have less fodder for writing.

In a demonstration life, we’d each have a manual for each situation and person in our lives.  In a demonstration life, we could gather what we need, looking at a complete list of people, practices, and principles before beginning, put those people, practices, and principles into action in the prescribed mix, and stand back and appreciate the results.  Think of the benefits of a demonstration life:  no pain without knowing all comes out right in the end, no trial and error, no critical thinking (or any thinking) required, stable relationships with family and friends, and peaceful satisfaction with life.

Perhaps I’m just missing the manuals.  My life is no demonstration: it’s 100% experiment.  Here’s the model:

  1. Research:  We research from birth on, watching how the world works.  As we grow, we research in a more traditional sense, reading the works of and listening to those who think they know how life works.  Our parents and teachers were our first sources of information.  Teens naturally push away from those sources as they realize their fallibility, expanding to their research sources.  Responsible research for adults requires critical thinking and evaluation of credibility of a source. Research can even just be observation, but done well, it is observation with conscious thought and an open mind.  Example:  I’ve read a fair amount on mindfulness as meditation practice and as a way of living.  I’ve observed mindful people, and they seem fairly content with their lives. Mindfulness practice appears to be a safe, effective way of cultivating inner and outer peace.
  2. Find a problem:  This is the easy step, and, so as not to be too depressing, should probably be reworded as “Find a question”.  Questions abound, and every day, I chase ones about spiritual practice, parenting choices, every day homeschooling options. This is the stuff life brings us that we need to deal with and the data we’re processing from all that research.  Example:  I’m feeling scattered during my day, frazzled and pulled in every direction, enjoying little and distracted constantly.
  3. Make a hypothesis:  Or, make and educated guess.  Take that research, that experience, and apply it to the question.  Example: Practicing mindful meditation daily might reduce that scattered feeling and increase my contentment with my life.
  4. Experiment:  Make your life the Nike ad.  Just do it. We experiment every day.  When a baby drops a cracker from his high chair, watching it fall, he’s experimenting.  When I change my route to work just to see if it’s faster/more peaceful/ less prone to back-ups, I’m experimenting based on a hypothesis.  Thinking about it alone is NOT experimental — experiments demand action.  Example:  I try consistent mindful meditation for a set period of time, perhaps ten minutes a day for a week.
  5. Compile data:  This takes objectivity that’s not easy in real life.  Look at what happened when you did your experiment, whether it was changing your route to work or greeting your partner with a smile and hug rather than a complaint at the end of each day.  Watch from the outside at the whole picture.  No judgements at this point, please!   Example:  My meditation period was more focused as the week went on, and I found I was more focused immediately after the time spent.  Much of the day was still filled with scattered thoughts and internal chaos.
  6. Form conclusion:  Still no judgement.  The conclusion refers back to the hypothesis, simply noting whether the hypothesis was supported or not.  Example:  Mindful meditation reduced my scattered feeling in the half hour immediately after my practice.
  7. Maybe find an answer:  Did you find your hypothesis fully hold up to experimentation?  Great.  That rarely happens in my life, however.  Generally, at this point, if I’m paying attention, I do find some part of an answer.  Example:  Mindful meditation helped a bit, although not to the degree I’d hoped.
  8. Maybe find another problem:  This is the chance to dissect the experiment and consider changes to make it more relevant to your questions.  It’s the time to examine all the variables, and unlike science, life has many that we cannot control.  Our lives aren’t in laboratories, and controls aren’t generally possible to have.  Outside of the lab, life is deliciously and frustratingly messy, so this process never ends.  Here’s the point to question again, generally not throwing the baby out with the bath water but instead taking what you can learn from that experiment and seeking the next step.  Example:  Perhaps I need to meditate longer each day, multiple times a day, or for many months before seeing benefits. Or perhaps living mindfully, staying in each moment with all my senses, might work better for me.
And so the circle continues: research, questions, experiments, analysis.  We do it all day, every day, sometimes with full awareness and often without.  Life, at least my life, is never a demonstration, turning out perfectly (whatever that would look like) with no loose ends.  Nope.  My life is an endless circle of scientific process in action.  And the self-critical part?  That can be quite helpful, at least in moderation.  Ability to think critically about oneself (in a healthy way) involves taking a step back from emotions and looking at the whole package that is self.  It can promote growth.  Critically evaluating what one sees and hears is just good, common sense.  Being critical of others?  This requires wisdom and discernment and a large step outside of the self.  It also requires restraint.  I’m working on appropriate use of that trait, via the scientific method.

Sloth and Diligence (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 4)

Part 4 in a series of posts reflecting on the vice and virtue sermons at UUCF.

Sloth is easy:  easy to write about, easy to identify in my life, easy to see in the world.   Heck, it’s easy to be slothful.  I do it every day.   Sloth as vice is not, as the sermon states, about being generally lazy.  I’m sometimes good at that, too.  Sloth as vice is, instead “falling asleep; being lazy about one’s spiritual agenda.”   Ouch.  Slothfulness, per the sermon, moves one in a direction away from the self and is a resistance to getting on with spiritual work.  Yow.

I spend a good amount of time thinking and writing about my spiritual life and matters of the cave of the heart.  I enjoy reading about spirituality, although little of that reading is of sacred writings.  I seek and appreciate time to discuss my musings in blog posts and with a few friends.  I consider myself a spiritual seeker.

I don’t spend much time in formal spiritual practice.  I don’t take time to shut down my brain and just be.  My meditation times are brief, and sloth is part of the equation.  I could set an alarm and start the day with yoga, chant, and meditation rather than waiting for my younger to wake me when he greets the day, sometime between 7 and 7:30 each morning.  I could seek refuge in my room midday, taking just fifteen minutes just be.  I could take a few minutes before bed for stillness in the dark, letting the day wash away before I drop into sleep and prepare to start all over again the next day.

Is that sloth?  Perhaps.  But as I’ve noodled on this for the last several weeks, I’m not so sure it’s the serious lack of attention to my spiritual self that I initially thought it was.  My spiritual practice extends (or should extend) to every encounter I have with self, other, and world.  My spiritual practice includes the way I respond to a crabby child, the time I take to listen to the birds outside my window, and the kindness I afford myself after I’ve done the previous two with less-than-ideal attention and compassion.  Lack of attention to my relationships is sloth as well, and, if sloth can be graded on a scale, I’d put sloth in right relations as a more serious voice than sloth in personal spiritual practice.

However, there’s a persuasive argument to be made that if you’re not in a healthy spiritual place that you’re unlikely to be able to be in right relations with others.  I can maintain my recycling and earth-friendly gardening practices even when I’m totally out of balance spiritually.  When I’ve neglected my spiritual practice for too long, I’m still a polite driver, pleasant customer, and diplomatic meeting participant.  It’s the closer relationships that suffer the most.  It’s the matters closest to the heart that are out of sorts.  My children and my beloved take the biggest hits.  And I’m not as peaceful inside, either.  Not that I’m a screaming lunatic when I haven’t meditated in a while, but I’m more likely to slip into a snarky or angry response just when love and compassion are for what the situation truly calls.

There is a connection, although how one reaches that place of balance is up to one’s choosing.  A good kirtan session carries me quite awhile, and chant on my own works nicely as well.  Maintaining a meditation practice still eludes me, but I know I’ve reaped the benefits of the practice those times I’ve put the time onto the cushion.  For others, prayer is the answer, while some silent the mind by running or biking. Writing is part of my spiritual practice, although it’s too “in my head” to be truly transcendent.  It’s a big player, however.  When I’m writing regularly, I’m more at peace and better able to maintain healthy, loving relationships with others.  It may not silent my mind, but it focuses my mind to a single point — the words on the page.  For me, that’s restorative and centering.

The antidote to and corresponding virtue of sloth is diligence:  sticking to the path of mindfulness.  Mindfulness, or focusing attention one thing at a time, is the essence of spiritual practice.  Whether the mind is on the breath or the step,  the dishes or the crying child, the mind has only one focus.  That’s hard to achieve, especially in a world of chirping cell phones, tinkling email boxes, flashing TV sets, and even black and white e-book readers.    By diligently monitoring our minds and our hearts, watching the rabbit trails that lead us away from the person in front of us or the task at hand, we takes steps away from sloth and toward a compassionate, attentive life.

UU Salon Big Question: What Do You Believe about God?

Finding the cave of the heart takes no more than yourself, but a singing bowl, candle, and chimes can inspire one a bit.

I’ve not posted a response to a UU Salon Big Question for some time, but this month’s poser caught my attention:  What do you believe about God?  Note the wording.  Not, “Do you believe in God?” but rather “What do you believe about God?”  Here’s my response.  Take it to be my view today, and while informed by my yesterdays it’s not a predictor of what I’d say on any given tomorrow.

I was born when my parents attended a Baptist church, grew up attending a Methodist church for Sunday school followed by a Catholic Mass at the University of Detroit’s very liberal, very atypical, and very Jesuit  chapel (yes, that’s two church sessions on Sundays).  At 12, I decided to be baptised Catholic, a choice I made while attending Catholic school and dutifully working on the task of fitting in.  Call it an informed choice or not, but I was then (and remain) satisfied with the decision I made.  Fast forward to marriage to a non-Catholic at age 25, our search for a Catholic church that resonated with us, the birth and Catholic baptism of two boys in two different churches, my ex-husband’s joining of the Catholic church, and our subsequent leaving of Catholicism, some 6 years ago.  We found temporary shelter in a liberal Episcopal congregation, but soon left.  The question of the nature of God was part of that choice to leave.

I’d always believed in God.  As a child, I believed in the Guy in the Sky who knew all and loved me.  I believed in Jesus, his son, who came to earth to tell us more about God.  For a number of years in my late teens and early 20s, I believed in a literal resurrection and was deeply attached to the idea of a personal God, always accessible , a comfort during some otherwise rocky and lonely years.

And then I wondered.

I wondered the usual wonderings.  If there is a God, how could God allow suffering?  How could there be a God who answered prayers if so many good, believing people’s prayers seemingly went unanswered?  How could God be three beings in one?  Beyond the God questions, I struggled with the basic tenets of Christianity.  It was time to stop church-shopping and start letting my mind work at the questions.  Three years later, I found my current church, a mid-sized Unitarian Universalist church with a minister with an active spiritual search which he willingly shares with the congregation.  The word God was used sparingly my first months there, and references to Christianity were even less frequent.  All the better, I felt.  I wasn’t ready to approach the God question.

Over the next year, my understanding of world religions grew.  My boys and I had explored  origins and major teaching of many world religions through our history studies, and we’d all learned quite a bit.  Their religious education classes at the time focused on the same, and the messages from the pulpit were often designed to broaden the congregation’s appreciation and understanding of the many spiritual paths of the world.
Gradually, the God question returned to my conscious mind.  But more than that, I learned how to quiet my mind a reach a place both inside and outside of me through meditation.  As I’ve posted before, this practice has been a struggle, and I’ve yet to practice on a daily basis.  But it has opened a part of my self that approached the issue of God on a different level Over the past three years, I’ve come to the following understanding about God.

God is not the Guy in the Sky pulling the strings.  God is not the property of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or any other religion.  God is not there to do our bidding, rescue us from our human condition, smite our enemy, protect our country, or help our sports team win.

To me, now, God is the energy of the universe, a palpable presence if we still our minds and feel the connection we have to others.  God is what is in each of us, regardless of creed or lack of creed.  God is ever-present but more easily sensed in those quiet moments or when we connect with others.  God is within is, around us, between us, over us, under us, to our right and left, in front of us and behind us, to borrow a Navaho prayer.

But I rarely call this presence God.  I’ll refer to the divine, a larger presence, my ground of being (gob, for short), the energy of the universe, and other longer, more convoluted expressions, but almost never as God.   Why not?   I’m not sure.  While I don’t feel, as some UUs and  other former Christians do, wronged by Christianity and angry at religion in general, my reaction to the word God is muddled.  That Guy in the Sky comes to mind, and moving from that to a broader definition takes mental effort and distracts from my understanding of what this divine being or presence is. The word God engages my mind and my feelings, but this isn’t where the divine resides.  Hindus refer to “the cave of the heart,” which refers to that in us that is not body, senses, feelings, or thoughts.  It’s what is left when we leave all those behind.  When I reach that spot, I am in contact with the divine, within myself and beyond myself.  And I can’t reach it when my mind is contemplating the meaning of the word God and my feelings whirl around those meanings.

While searching for a link to a better explanation to the cave of the heart,  I found this poem, written by Quiong practitioner, Satya, and her words are the clearest explanation I can find:

In the Cave of My Heart

by Satya Kathleen Dubay

In the cave of my heart

I am silent

 

In the cave of my heart

I am still

 

In the cave of my heart

I am the breath

of the One

that is breathless

Spiritual practice, meditation, prayer, or other, can take the willing to this cave of the heart, where the divine by any name resides in each of us.  At least that’s what I believe.

Addendum:  Thanks to Rev. Alex Riegel for today’s sermon on the heart .  I’d written most of this post prior to hearing this message this morning, and, upon finishing this reply to UU Salon, found the cave in the heart applied to this topic.  This sermon and others from the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington can be found at uusermons.com.   The divine can be found in the cave of your heart first.  Once you find it there, you’ll see it everywhere.

Namaste

Looking for God, Looking Within

A fine friend and  fellow blogger, Keith Yancy, recently mused on the following question:  What if people invested as much energy and patience in their spiritual relationship with God as they do with their human relationships with people? 

As a spiritual searching, not-so-sure-what-to-call the bigger forces, Unitarian Universalist gal, I might have worded the question somewhat differently, replacing “spiritual relationship with God,” with “spiritual practice:  Why do we invest so much energy in our relationships with others and so little into our relationship with the greater being/greater good/God/whatever?  One could state that pouring time into human relationships is pouring effort into a greater being, and, depending on the approach to relating to other, I’d agree.  But investing only in those external relationships is not the sole (or soul) answer.  Now I’ll take my turn to explore Keith’s question.

Much of the relationship improvement advice coming from books and the media seem centered on getting what one wants for him or herself.  They may talk about the other’s needs in the relationship, and a few really focus on the connection between two people built on compassion and unconditional love, but most are all about me, me, me.   When my marriage was crashing, I read a few of these advice books for couples in distress, but I found little that resonated spiritually.  Much of the advice focused on what to say to make your opinion/needs/desires known to the other.  Many did hold some standard but decent advice regarding communication, and I have no beef with any of that.  Deep listening is a skill that’s poorly cultivated by many in a time of email, tweets, texts and distracted cell phone conversations.  Sitting down to talk face-to-face with all those nonverbal cues present isn’t our norm any more, and I do think learning communication skills is helpful for any relationship.

But being in relationship is far more than reflective listening and “I” statements.  Being in relationship with others requires a solid relationship with something/someone beyond our ego, beyond what we generally think of as self.  I maintain these relationships need to be rooted in a sense of something beyond self and other.  Is that other God?  If you like, although I think any sense of connection with the universe and humanity will do, theistic basis or not.  That connection takes effort and time.  Whatever one calls that greater reality, cultivating a relationship with it/him/her/them takes work.  And, just like our human relationships, that relationship with the divine (that’s my term at this point of life — please substitute your favorite term, be it God, ground of being, the universe, whatever) isn’t passive and receptive. It’s an active, dynamic relationship, just like healthy human relationships are. 

Sure, the divine isn’t going to wander off and find new friends or leave you for a younger, more attractive partner if you blow the divine off for a few years.   In my (UU, nontheological) understanding, the divine is always there, available for that connection.  Not critical, demanding, father-like, mother-like, impatient, expectant, or any human trait, but merely existing.  It’s when I make the connection that the relationship blossoms. 

Again, I agree with Keith that folks on the whole just don’t work at that connection.  Sure, we may talk about what is bigger than us, read about the words and ideas people have used to label and limit the divine, go to church and hear about it, even spend time blogging about it.  But that’s not forming a relationship, any more than talking about a person, reading about relationships, naming relationships, going to talks about relationships, and writing about them is. 

The relationship is in the relating.  For me, that means meditation, generally mindful meditation.  It’s not a language in which I’m fluent (more on that in another post), but I’m learning how to touch that divine that connects the greater reality.  It’s awkward and slow, not always what I want to do, and yet incredibly enriching. 

And the relating change my relationships.  For in building a connection with the greater reality, the divine, I can more easily see that divine in others.  Our services at UUCF close with the word Namaste.  Namaste can be interpreted in many ways, but the interpretation that stick with is, “The divine in me recognizes the divine in you, and when we recognize the divine in each other, we are one.”  Note the order of that.  Recognizing the divine comes first.  Unity comes when that recognition occurs.   Our human relationships depend on that recognition of the divine in self and other, which, perhaps ironically, melts the division and self and other.

I don’t have this down perfectly or even close.  It’s not always easy to push aside ego and egoic agenda and reach toward the divine in myself, the stranger on the street, my neighbors, or even my children.  That difficulty is human, but the more I cultivate the relationship with the divine in me, the easier time I have recognizing the divine in others.  When I recognize the divine in others, I’m more likely to listen well, to be compassionate, to act and speak with love.  All that deepens my relationship with the divine. 

There’s a simplicity and beauty to the circular nature of the relationship with the divine and our relationships to each other.  I nurture my relationship with the divine, and I find it easier to see that divine in others.  As I attend to the divine in others, my relationship with that bigger reality deepens.  Both relationships need attending to, and I’m apt to find little fulfillment in either if I’m not giving that attention.  The fulfillment comes in giving the attention to each.

Perhaps that’s what it comes down to.  Attention.  We live in a fast-paced times, and fast fixes are the norm.  Fast, relatively effortless fixes.  But slowing down to give the attention to the greater reality, to sit and bathe in that reality, is by far a more sure fix to the disconnection and distance so many feel.  And this attention is, I’d argue, our soul purpose.

What follows is a list of relationship books.  Not the typical get-what-you-want relationship books, but books that, in my opinion, approach relationships  with a Namaste attitude.  All address mindfulness, some with more Buddhist than others.  Regardless of your religious bent, I’d bet you can gain from a mindful approach to the relationships in your life.

If the Buddha Married:  Creating Enduring Relationships on a Spiritual Path (Charlotte Kasl)

True Love (Thich Nhat Hahn)

Buddhism for Mothers (Sarah Napthali)

Everyday Blessings:  The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Myla and Jon Kabat-Zin)

Hand Wash Cold:  Instructions for an Ordinary Life (Karen Maezen Miller)

Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky:  A Buddhist Path Through Divorce (Gabriel Cohen)

Embracing Changes: Feelings, Opinions, and Michigan Weather

The Greek letter delta, used in math and science to indicate change.

 

Change happens.  In fact, change is the only certainty in our lives.  As they say around here, if you don’t like the weather in Michigan, just wait a few minutes.  It’ll change.  I’m sure plenty of places use that line, although it may not get that much play in Hawaii, but the line holds universally true for so much more than the weather.  Flowers bloom and die, children grow, illnesses wax and wane, feelings come and go, and our opinions shift with time and information.  Change is inevitable. 

I don’t really like change.   Transitions unnerve me, largely because I don’t know what to expect next.  As a moderately anxious and still somewhat controlling person by temperament, I tend to assume changes will be too uncomfortable, too difficult, and altogether undesirable.  Viva the status quo has long been a battle cry when confronted with change.  I spent a good portion of my marriage fighting change, which did me and my marriage absolutely no good.  In general, as stress increased, my resistance to change increased.  Batten down the hatches, maintain my position, and fight for all to stay the same. 

Except that doesn’t work.   All that resistance is exhausting and, frankly, futile.  Change keeps happening.   

I’ve blogged plenty about the changes I’ve encountered over the past few years, writing directly to the challenges of change itself on a few occasions.  When I look back to a post in May about the changes in family life we’ve encountered this year, I can see I’m growing.  And while I don’t seek big changes out (they keep coming my way all on their own, thank you), I’m approaching them with  more equanimity.  In other words, I’m not battening down the hatches as quickly at the first sign of storms. 

Not all change feels bad, of course.  A more centered person might see that all change is, in fact, rather neutral.  It just is, like the weather.  Sure, we call the thunderstorm that rips through our Saturday picnic plans bad, but it really just is.  Disappointing?  Sure, especially since we tend to be attached to our plans, full of expectation and desires.  But bad?  Probably not. 

Now, I’m not belittling the serious changes people face: life-threatening illness, death, loss of job or home, natural disasters, and violence.  I’m far from delighting in news that threatens to shake the world as I want it to be.  My first instinct is still to hunker down and demand a return to the status quo.  However, I’m starting to breathe a bit when faced with change.  I can more often take the mental time to step back and look at the situation with a bit more objective eye, seeing that (first of all) it’s not all about me.  Not the storm, not the family shifts, not the moods of the boys, not the myriad of alterations to plans that happen in my life.  During those breaths, sometimes (more often than before), I can see that change is the way of the universe.  It may be unexpected, uncomfortable, and downright scary, but it’s how the world has always worked and will be how it continues to work.  Fighting that is, well, pointless and futile. 

I’ve come to even count on change.  When I find myself angry at a person/vehicle/situation/myself, the inevitability of change works in my favor.  I have a choice to recognize the feeling and know with certainty it will pass.  Joy, sadness, worry, ecstasy, grief, and even anger pass.  Oh, sure, I can nurture that kernel of anger.  I can work a situation over and over in my mind, polishing my fury, heaping more upon it, justifying it all the way along.  And it responds by growing.  Given how strong anger can be, cultivating this emotion is unwise.  I’m gradually learning how to treat that kernel more wisely by acknowledging the feeling, examining the underlying thoughts of the feeling, and letting it pass.  It’s not easy, and I’m far from perfect at it, but when I manage to take this approach, the anger passes.  My mood changes.  Acknowledged, but not indulged, my anger wanes. 

Change works for opinions, too.  According to my sources, I’m a fairly opinionated and vocal woman.  And that’s okay.  As I mature (read: age, gain wrinkles, grow grey hair, and develop a bit of wisdom), I can look at my opinions in a more longitudinal way.  For example, when pregnant with my older son, 14 years ago, a friend handed me a copy of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, published by La Leche League International.  She rolled her eyes over the section on the family bed, and I nodded in agreement.  I wanted clear boundaries between my child and I:  sleeping with my child would violate that, I opined to myself.  My oldest was a so-called easy baby who happened to sleep for long stretches at night from about 10 weeks on, falling asleep in his crib, without tears or nursing to slumber (Luck.  Or perhaps the calm before the storm.).  While I recognized that some of his sleeping bliss was temperament and dumb luck, I attributed some of his good nighttime habits to our unwillingness to share a bed with him. 

Four years later, my younger son enters the scene.  And what a change he brought.  Unhappy with life outside the womb for his first year, he almost never slept when not attached to my body.  The transition was just too much for him (guess who still doesn’t do change well).  For five months, I nursed and rocked him for hours, praying for sleep for him and for me.  Separate sleep.  Desperate for rest and increasingly understanding that my baby’s relationship to the world was not a passing phase, I brought him to our bed.  And I slept.  My then-husband, however did not, so my baby and I moved our nest to the floor of his room, leaving the crib for a mattress on the floor.  Sharing sleep became my savior, allowing both of us rest and greater peace.  

A bit cliché, but the butterfly is another reminder that change is a beautiful life force.

 

What happened?  My opinion changed.  Okay, so it took five years.  But it changed.  Opinions do. Even deeply held convictions can change.  Not all do, and, I’d maintain, not all should.  My opinion and belief that all human beings deserve respect and dignity (there’s that first principle again) is unlikely to change, and it would probably would not be for the better if it did.  In fact, my opinion has changed about broccoli (yes), the divinity of Jesus (no), nursing a toddler/preschooler (yes), homeschooling (yes), and the best hair length for me (long).   And, long life permitting, many more opinions will change in the decades down the road. 

Change fills our lives and, in fact, defines our lives.  From our cellular level to the vast universe we inhabit, we exist in a maelstrom of change.  And I’m beginning to understand how embracing change deepens my comfort in the world and improves my relationships with the planet and those in it.  As for the weather in Michigan, if you’re not liking it, wait a few hours.  It’s bound to change. 

How do you approach changes in life?  How does your approach to big changes inform the way you view opinions and feelings?

Sitting Still

Madison, WI, Botanical Gardens: The Thai garden is the image of stillness and peace.

I sat still at church last Sunday.  I recognized that’s hardly noteworthy for a 41-year-old woman, but I’m rather pleased with myself.  It’s not before that day I was getting up and walking around or sliding under the pews each week, and I managed to stay in my seat (mostly) during 20 years of school.   But I’ve rarely been still.  I don’t tap my foot, drum my fingers, or, like a friend in college, rock back and forth.  I just fidget.  I wiggle.  I lean back, then forward, then to one side.  I remove my shoes and sit on my feet.  Then I dangle my feet back down, rubbing the asleep foot with the awake one.  I even whisper to my seat mate. week.

Until this week. About halfway through the sermon, I noticed I was still.  Back straight, head up (awake!), feet on the floor still.  And silent.  I was awed.

I’d spent the previous two days at a workshop/retreat led by Russill Paul, a teacher of spiritual chant and author of The Yoga of Sound and Jesus in the Lotus who leads similar sessions around the world, promoting interspirituality, meditation, and enlightenment.  I blogged four months ago about my first experience with Kirtan, a call-and-response Sanskrit chant experience that’s gaining momentum in the United States.   Since then, I’ve been to another local Kirtan evening, listened to chant CDs for more hours than my children would like, and found a mantra that works for me.  When the Russill Paul weekend of Kirtan and retreat opened, I was quick to sign up.

What a weekend.  The Friday night chant soothed me, but it was Saturday’s spiritual practice that touched my soul deeply.  Admittedly, I was a bit unsure about so much meditation and chant in a single day. I opted to stick to a chair, since my experiences sitting on the floor for longer than an hour or so have been far from comfortable (upper back and shoulder pain commences within minutes).  I felt, well, a bit wimpy with the chair option, at least for the first session.  Surely meditation would be more meaningful if I’d brought me cushion and blanket and seated myself properly on the earth.  I wasn’t the only chair-dweller, however, and I quickly let that go.

Granted, some of the meditations and chants involved movement, so it’s not like I sat the whole 7.5 hours.  But the room was just so still during the sitting parts.  Still and silent.  I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere (that contained people) that was so still.  Not wanting to disruptive, I worked very hard at not moving when we were to be still.  And, to my surprise, rather than getting harder as the day progressed, it became easier.  My mind still wandered and fidgeted away, but my body stayed put.

I didn’t give that much thought until Sunday morning, when I noticed mid-sermon that I was still.  And quiet.  Although seated next to a dear friend, I was quiet.  For the sermon.   And did I mention my focus?  With that still body came a more quiet mind, one that listened with more intention.  Hmm.

Since Russill Paul visited, I’ve returned to quiet sitting and meditating each day, generally twice a day.  Not for long.  Russill encouraged just sitting for a minute, which always seems manageable, and assured us the minute would grow.  He was right.  While some sessions are interrupted by a child or other distraction just a handful of minutes in, others go longer.  My mind is still leaping around, although I’m content to notice the leaps and return to my breath, again and again.  My body, however, is still, still in a way I’d never experienced.  There is a peace in that, and I’m certain my mind will learn to follow suit.

Processing Kirtan

Om (Aum)

Each time I turn my head, I catch the scent of incense from my hair and coat.  They are replete with the incense from last night’s kirtan event led by Mike Cohen, and I’m still rather wired from the experience.  Each whiff of the incense takes me back  to two hours of music, chant, connection, and meditation.  It feels, well, somewhat illicit.

Kirtan, a call and response chanting originating from India, crosses religious lines, although its strong eastern flavor and Sanskrit mantras probably limits its appeal, but chant practice occurs in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions as well.  While I doubt it will hit the humanist scene, chant is a diverse practice with a vast range of sound that can reach across religions.

Last night was my first kirtan session.  A month back, I attended an adult education session at church on chant.  Twelve of us, led by Unitarian Universalist minister Alex Riegel, spent an hour and a half learning some of the basics of chant including a sample of the call-and-response variety that is kirtan.  Even with that small number, minimal experience, and no instrumental accompaniment, the evening left me hungry for more.  The chants themselves quickly left my mind, but the experience left its mark.  I wanted more.

My prior experience with chant was limited to CDs from Benedictine Monks.  While the music provided a pleasant backdrop for other pursuits, it never elicited a spiritual response for me.  It simply didn’t resonate, spiritually or physically.  Other religious music did resonate, however, although the lyrics were always far more involved than chant, occupying the mind with images and ideas.

Chant allows all but the chant to drop away, allowing one to center.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m one with a very active monkey mind, and I’ve had little success with silent meditation.  Not that I’ve given it the time I’m sure it requires, but quieting my body and mind together’s been a stretch.  Chant, on the other hand, allows my body and mind a small, repetitive task.  The monkey seems entertained into silence, at least until my brain and body surface again.  It’s a start. A  powerful start.

But there’s more.  Kirtan brought me an energy unlike other energy I’ve  known.  Even that first class left me vibrating spiritually (and I learned that chanting in the car isn’t conducive to cautious driving).    That small taste left me hungry for more, yet I found myself a bit anxious about delving further into kirtan.  The power was a bit overwhelming, and the letting go of so much thought and motion to feel the pull of the spiritual gave me pause.

And the night was a bit overwhelming at times, but quite good.  The energy generated by fifty people voicing that first om ran right up my spine.  I found myself mentally pulling out quite often, surveying my surroundings and returning to my mind’s wanderings, but the chant process made re-entry to a single focal point easier to begin and maintain.  My mind raced as did my mouth on the thirty minute drive home.  I just couldn’t stop talking, although it was a wandering talk, as I recall.

Sleep eluded me.  My energy level was too high to maintain sleep, and I awoke several times during the night.  Come morning, I was still wired. If anything, my sense of energy had increased from the prior night.  Admittedly, downloading and listening to Cohen’s CD, Om Dattatreya Journey to the West, helped the buzz along, but some residual energy was certainly left from Saturday night.  And I’m not clear how I feel about that.  For me, this is intoxicating stuff, a practice I could really lose myself in (which is often a goal of meditation and chant:  lose the ego and be one with the divine).  However, like many, I identify strongly with my mind and the power of rational thought, although I’m also quite intuitive.  Setting down the thought, the monkey mind, challenges me.  Thus my somewhat conflicted feelings about my experience.   It seems like too much letting go to be good, right, or even legal, at least for this rational being.  On the other hand, it allowed me to pull further from constant thought, and that’s a goal I’ve had for some time.

For now, I’m delving into deeper into chant and the power it has in contepletive life and a spiritual practice.  Russill Paul’s The Yoga of Sound should bring me further along of understanding the practice forms further than kirtan, and I’ll share what I find here.  But now it’s time to wash my hair, knowing erasing the scent of the evening will do nothing to dampen the sound residing within me.

Zen and the Litter Box

This morning, I met peace over the litter box.  My younger son, a floor above me, was 15 minutes into a rant about damage to a Nerf sword, and I was working hard to keep my cool.  Not everyone may choose scooping cat poop during these events, but I’ve yet to find ways to consistently keep my cool during these loud, protracted tantrums, so I gave it a go.  It worked.

My younger’s tantrum verge on the legendary.  They’re long, loud, aggressive, and sudden.  Eight and a half years of these beauties should have inoculated me against their effects on my heart, but time hasn’t helped.  (Okay, they were nonverbal for the first year, but at what age does protracted unexplained screaming morph from colic to tantrum?)  He’s inconsolable, angry, and out of control during the events, and they generally just have to run out of fuel on their own.  On my best days, I can keep my cool for the duration, keeping my voice even and expressing what I imagine his feelings are (he doesn’t use those confusing feeling words often) while he interrogates me relentlessly, looking for the answer he wants and erupting more when I don’t give in.

Until today, ear plugs have been my best defense. I can hold my temper better when my ear drums aren’t threatening to explode.  While I wish a hug and open ear helped him, these tactics only fan the flames.  Answering a few questions to assure his understanding then refusing to continue the conversation seems the best tact.  So I often move around the house, cooking, cleaning, and tending to simple tasks while I wait out the storm.

Today, I headed toward the litter box.  With six kittens in my charge, there is no shortage of poop to scoop. Once by the basement box, I search through the sand with my blue scoop.  His voice fades a bit with the distance, and I sift through the box for telltale clumps.  It’s oddly soothing, and soon my mind is only on those stinky lumps of clay.  Too soon, the job ends.  After reluctantly setting down my scoop and tossing my findings, I return to the tantrum still in play.  It’s easier now to weather the storm.  His raging continues for another 20 minutes or so,  but my storm is past, thanks to the litterbox.