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.




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.


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.

Riding the Waves of Change

Like most folks, I generally don’t look forward to Monday.  But after this last week, I’m ready to hit the reset button.  Now, as weeks go, I really shouldn’t complain.  The boys and I are healthy and whole.  We have a roof above our heads and food for our bodies.  The cats are back to the shelter, and the shower is relatively clean.  So why the funk?

It’s been an emotionally charged week, and I’m spent.  The boys helped their dad and his partner move into a new home this weekend, and while I’m glad to have the kids in a house and wish my ex well in his new relationship, I’m feeling rather fragile.  As my boys work their way through their rather intense and varied feelings about these coinciding changes, I’ve been picking up the pieces and trying to be a stable support.  That’s my job, after all. 

But I’m tired, sad, and a bit envious.  Tired from the emotional surges in this house as the boys prepare to start a new chapter with their dad and his girlfriend.  As much as they like her (and she seems quite kind), it’s a new relationship manage.  Just as the loss of their father from our home shook our structure two years ago, this change shakes the ground for them now.  It takes time to adjust when family size changes, and while my house isn’t the one directly in flux, the change occurring a half mile away is shaking my home.  We’ve all lost some sleep over the past few weeks, but strong feelings are more draining than the short nights.

I’m sad.  When my kids struggle with change, it’s hard on me.  I know they’re resilient creatures, but it’s hard to see my older son so anxious and angry (although he quickly admits he likes his dad’s partner, he struggles mightily with any change, especially such a personal one in his new home).  He’s cried himself sick this week, vented his rage at me repeatedly, and generally been moody, even for a thirteen-year-old.  Also, I’m sad at the loss of extended family that’s occurred since my divorce, although the relationships were never terribly close.  The loss is still painful.

Finally, and most bothering to me, is my envy.  I’m envious of the new start they share, of the excitement about forming family.  I’m envious of the rather carefree relationship they seem to have with the woman they’ll share a home with.   For my two years solo with my boys, I’ve been the one to remind them to practice piano and do their school work.  I’ve told them to brush their teeth, put away their dishes, mow the lawn, pick up their socks, get ready for church/karate/piano/errands/appointments/bed.  While their father puts them through some paces, the bulk of their responsibilities occur here, at home, under my charge.   In comes a new woman, not mom, not nagging, and, from all reports, fun.  What’s not to like?  And I do want them to like her, but I’m feeling a bit stale and boring in comparison. 

So I’m trying to just ride the energy of my feelings, allowing them to come and go like waves in the ocean.  The seas will calm, both in the boys’ emotions and in my own.  Like my boys, transitions are hard for me, and so many transitions have entered my life in the past few months.  As I’ve experimented with chant and have been reading Russill Paul’s book, The Yoga of Sound, I’ve learned the technique of picking a core mantra, a repeated phrase that I can use to enter meditation and to focus.  After some consideration, I chose Om Namah Shivaya, a Sanskrit phrase basically opening one to change.  So I’m trying to be open, to see these changes and inevitable and even welcome parts of life, which is personally challenging. 

But tonight I’m worn.  I’ll ride the wave, but I’m wishing for rest of body, spirit, and mind.  I’m looking toward Monday for a week with ordinary happenings but knowing that change will continue to stir our waters.  And that’s how it should be, even when I’m tired, sad, and envious.  Om Namah Shivaya.

Tender and Exposed

I’m suffering a bit of tenderness lately and feeling rather exposed.  Vulnerable exposed, not the other kind.  A credible source warned me that the price of opening the soul was a shedding of the shell that protects us from the harsh world.  He was right. Two weeks after kirtan, I’m finally sleeping (mostly) and finding the energy inside more manageable.  I’m able to move it a bit more easily, increasing it when desired and lower it when needed.  I’d call it containable now, although not controllable.

I doubt the energy of the universe, of the divine, of love, is meant to be controlled.

I’m further along in my exploration of chant, reading Russill Paul’s Yoga of Sound slowly, re-reading often, allowing this magnificent work sink into my mind and heart.  I’m sure more than one reading will be necessary.  Russill Paul explores chant from a Hindu and Christian perspective, which he pulls off authentically, since both are part of his religious tradition.  While I no longer consider myself Christian, I appreciate his use of the teaching of Jesus, as this is a religious man I know something about.  Leaving the Catholic church did not mean abandoning the teachings of Jesus, as his message of love and acceptance, his teachings of loving kindness and compassion, continue to shape my theology and spirituality today.

But I’m so raw and tender.  Harsh noises and smells still strike me in ways discordant with the continuing vibration of my soul.  Since my children and our foster kittens produce both in abundance, I’m challenged on both fronts to manage the irritability that comes with this discord.  More difficult is my tender heart.  Last night, while flitting between Facebook and an email while listening to chant, I found myself in tears.  For the past several years, tears have been a common companion as I struggled through my separation and divorce, but these tears were different.

After posting about a delightful meeting with new parents and their 2 1/2 week old daughter (as a La Leche League Leader, I occasionally meet parents face-to-face).  I’d spoken with the mom several times, and she needed more reassurance than could come through the phone.  The couple and child came to my house, and I spend an hour and a half giving some breastfeeding advice, chatting about their transition to parenthood, and encouraging them to trust their own growing knowledge about their child.  I think the visit helped them, but I know it touched me deeply.  I’ve always felt honored to enter people’s lives at this precious point of welcoming new life.  I’ve listened to many a mom cry in despair in those tender weeks after birth and listened to countless concerns, advising some but encouraging moms to listen to their intuition and trust their ability to parent.  This visit was different.

Perhaps it was the circumstances of the past few weeks, entering their lives at such a raw time for them when I was raw as well.  Perhaps they seemed familiar, facing challenges together with a new baby, so much in love and so overwhelmed at the same time.  Likely it was a mixture.  I posted a blurb about the encounter on Facebook, my social network of choice, and the response from my co-leaders blew me away.  The love started moving in my direction.  Tender and raw, heart already full, I overflowed with tears.  Not the tears of pain, anger, loss, and sorrow that had been my companions the past few years, but tears of joy.  Tears from a heart bursting with love for this family, for my friends who give me their love, and for, well, everyone.

Mystic Poet Rumi

Chant still playing, I read some Rumi.  This did nothing to stem the tears, of course.  Rumi, a mystical poet from the 13th century, writes prolifically about divine love, using romantic love as metaphor.  Almost a millenium later, his writings strike to the core of love — love from one soul to another, love with the divine.  So of course, my weeping persisted.

Sleep brought rest, and morning soon followed.  Still tender and raw, feeling completely without shell or shelter, I went through the day, yet still utterly exposed.  Tears sprung forth at seemingly random moments.  We’ve had some busy days lately, and today continued the trend.  While running errands with my younger, I turned on a Krishna Das CD and let the music and Sanskrit roll over me and into me.  The energy turned, and my sense of balance returned, yet I feel as vulnerable before.  I’d somewhat disregarded my friend’s warning about this tender sense:  I’m largely among friends and family, after all.  How could the world blindside me?

And now I know.  The magnitude of the soul, the divine, of love, our the true essence of each of us is nearly unbearable yet bear it we must if we’re to live fully.   It’s all louder now:  the sounds, the scents, the heart.  I’ve no desire for the music to cease, for despite the discomfort, I’m experiencing the world on a more intimate level than I ever had.  And that’s worth some tears, some pain, and a tender heart.