On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.

Rational and Reverent

 I’ve written about the Nones (And Then There Were Nones), or religiously unaffiliated. With almost 20% of Americans fitting this description (and the majority of them socially liberal), is it any wonder that the Unitarian Universalists would consider how to attract these folks? Add that we’re a shrinking community (Growing Pains: 161,502 UUs), and it’s easy to see why all those unaffiliated people might seem like ready converts to Unitarian Universalism.

IMG_0144Can the rational and the reverent co-exist? A recent sermon about the Nones set me thinking about the relationship between the rational and the reverent, mindsets that at first glance seem to be in opposition. The sermon, Watering Down the Wine, by Rev. Alex Riegel,  focused on this population of the religiously unaffiliated and played with the idea that we could attract some of these people to our fold if we changed our language and mindset. True, we have a relevant and rational message of compassion and inclusivity that likely does appeal to many of those Nones (as well as liberals happily ensconced in their own faith traditions). But there are barriers. According to the Pew study, 88% aren’t looking for a church. Why they aren’t isn’t covered in the study, but I’d imagine it’s a mixture of feeling wounded from previous church experience, feeling no need to collect on a Sunday morning in a traditional setting, and a preference for Sunday morning in jammies with the paper and a cup of coffee.

We have coffee, and jammies would likely be fine with most congregations, but for the most part, we’re still all church, and rather traditional church at that.  And wounded? Some, but not all. Many have simply decided that they don’t believe what they were brought up to believe. They’ve embraced the rational, what can be thought and touched and turned around in the mind. Others, like me, arrive seeking, questioning the beliefs of youth or just wondering what is out there. Or wondering what isn’t. Either way, we’re theoretically in it together for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” (4th principle, for those keeping track).

So here we are, built around the idea that the search is the real work of life. That said, I’m not sure how many UUs are actively seeking spiritual answers. We’re a rational bunch, sometimes ruthlessly, stubbornly rational.  Rational thinkers, wounded or not, make up the majority of those in the pews of a UU church, with spirituality and spiritual language largely abandoned or faced with skepticism. In his sermon, Alex suggested relaxing that tight rationality and considering adding some reverence. And he suggested re-thinking opposition to God, or at least to the traditional God. Replace some of the rational with the reverent, seemed to be the call.

I’m deeply rational. I’m also an agnostic who readily admits that I just don’t know the answers and am okay with not knowing. There is so much unknown in the universe, after all, and truths about it we take for granted today were the stuff of fantasy just a generation (or even a decade) back. I just don’t know, and that’s okay with me. I’ve long given up the “easy God” of James Kavanaugh, scholar, poet, and once-Catholic priest. I’m not bitter about the time spent with that comfort but not drawn back to it either. That’s the rational end of me at work. It’s the same part that doesn’t refer to being blessed and will commit to holding someone in my thoughts but not to praying for them. That rationality runs deep and strong, and it’s not wont to be pushed aside.

I don’t think that my rationality gets in the way of my reverence. There’s no need to suspend the rational when staring in awe at the moon, realizing the smallness of me in the grandeur of the Universe while understanding the moon’s physical makeup and relationship to the Earth. My reverence is just as profound when I catch the profile of my younger son, still child-like but on the cusp of adolescence, and the catch in my throat that comes is from the wonder of a world that entrusts us with the lives of the helpless and trusts us to figure it out. And it’s reverence when I meet my dear friend’s eyes and am reminded that love is not limited to those who’ve never known pain or fear but is fully available again and again.

It is reverence I feel when I sit on Sunday morning in a room of other people on their own journeys. Not reverence for something outside of us but rather something among us. It is reverence for our strength together and for the power in community that should only be used to bring more love, compassion, and justice to the world. It is reverence for the freedom I have to believe or not believe in whatever God, spirit, or presence that speaks to me. It is the reverence for the individuals in that space, each coming with his or her own view of what sacred and what brings meaning. It is reverence for what makes us different and what makes us the same.

The rational may be the easy part for many of us, but the reverence is what keeps the rational from running losing our heart, reduced to reason only. The rational and the reverent balance each other, the latter reminding us that despite all we know, we don’t yet understand it all yet.  Our rational mind wonders and weighs, while our reverent mind celebrates the mystery, respecting what has been wondered and weighed and what remains unknown. It is the act of being reverent of the child, the community, the beloved, the stars, and humanity while understanding the rational underpinnings of it all that makes us more fully human than with either sentiment alone.

Rational and reverent. The Unitarian Universalist church appreciates both. This may not be obvious in our services and social time, with the rational language for more comfortable for most of us. So perhaps Alex is right. Perhaps we need to find the language of reverence to temper the rational. While that may be spiritual language, I don’t think it has to be. Perhaps more regular talk about awe and amazement, respect and appreciation, will bring us closer to expressing what we are more likely to note in the quiet of our hearts. Rational and relevant. Truth and meaning. This is the stuff of Unitarian Universalism.

Namaste.

Existential Darkness at the Dawning of the New Year

IMG_0149This morning’s New York Times brought the usual sort of news:

I’d go on, but I’d just get more discouraged.

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m feeling an increasingly familiar set of feelings as I wonder the meaning and purpose of my life and of life in general. No, there has been no crisis in my life. No sudden loss of a loved one or other such personal tragedy. Life has been quite generous lately. Thanks to the holiday break, I have had some time on my hands, an unusual situation given the tempo of much of my life. While I sometimes dip into the existential in this busy life, there’s usually enough that must be done to distract me from my growing angst. Thank goodness. Time on my hands has created time to stay with these thoughts, and the thinking has gone south.

I could blame it on my age. It’s not unusual for folks my age to have bouts of existential depression. The kids are growing, the amount of remaining life seems shorter by the moment (because it is), and the people who are doing amazing things in the world are often my age. Or younger. And the world seems increasingly chaotic, cold, and fragmented. It’s hard to maintain a sense that it’s all somehow okay. I’d imagine strong theism could be somewhat protective, but that’s not something I have plans adopting.

I do think theism protected me from this crisis during my childhood and younger adulthood. When it all seemed awful in the world or just within myself, belief in an omnipotent, loving deity provided an answer. Okay, not a concrete answer, but a vague sense of comfort, even if only the comfort of rote prayer. In my late teens and early twenties, I worked hard to cultivate the sort of belief that would offer the deep comfort I desired. I sought out experiences and spotty practices that might dull the loneliness and fear that lurked in my soul.

It worked. Or at least it gave me a place to run and something to do when the world seemed to dark and cold, providing solace. It also provided a community of people looking for explanations for the unexplainable and a bit of reassurance that they weren’t alone. And, according to psychologist Dr. James T. Webb, feeling connected and letting go are adaptive coping methods of managing these existential events.

I know pushing through these crises became harder as I let go of my theism, a process that happened gradually and somewhat reluctantly beginning in my early 30s.  Finding a community of like-minded people seemed unlikely after leaving two churches and wondering where the doubter belonged. I did find those people in the UU church I’ve attended these past several years, and they do offer community, albeit a community of people prone to the same sorts of doubts and depression. That’s perhaps too dramatic, as these same people work through those issues, moving though life determined to make it a bit better for those they touch directly or tangentially. There are no answers or perfectionism, but there is acknowledgement that there are big questions, plenty of big problems in the world, and a paucity of easy answers.

But it’s not really enough when this angst brings me down. I feel so small and ineffective in a giant world that frankly overwhelms, saddens, angers, and scares me. My life occurs in a but a tick of the second hand on the cosmic clock. My reach is so small, my grasp so loose, and my strength so inconsequential. And to top it off, I’m really not trying. The chaos continues around — people are born, they suffer, they die, and for what?

I don’t know. And I don’t know what I can do about any of it. Webb recommends several additional antidotes to connectedness and letting go. He advocates knowing one’s self, being involved in causes, maintaining a sense of humor, touching, living in the moment, cultivating optimism and resiliency, and being aware of “rippling,” the way our lives affect those around us. I’d agree that all of those can help ameliorate some of the pain associated with the existential crises that continue to punctuate my life.

I do think there is goodness in the existential angst. It serves as an honest acknowledgment that there is deep pain the world: divisions that need healing and people who need compassion. It reminds me that despite the reality of our aloneness, we are stronger together. And perhaps best of all, at least when I can turn a bit of light to the darkest of the gloom, is the reminder that love matters. The way we treat each other — the way we love each other — matters. If for nothing else, showing those in front of me love and compassion lightens their load and tightens the connection between us. And, if Webb is right about the ripple effect, it’s then worth knowing the love we show can carry to those not in front of us.

Does that matter, in the long arc of the universe? I don’t know. But it gives me a bit of comfort and lifts me back to the moment I’m in, making it an effective antidote for the time being. It lightens the quality of the inner dialogue and warms something within me that I’m willing to call my soul. It informs a course of action when the headlines are bleak — connect with others and simply love them. It’s the only purpose to this life that resonates with me, and if I’d look at the back of my car more often, I’d be reminded of that. Love. It’s our soul purpose. The rest follows. And a bit of the cloud lifts.

For a fine article on existential depression, read Dr. James Webb’s piece, Dabrowski’s Theory and Existential Depression in Gifted Children and Adults

Institutional Thoughts: Musings on Marriage

I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not actually getting married, mind you, since that’s just not on the radar. But since my divorce, I’ve thought about marriage: what it means, whether I’d enter one again, and why I feel so conflicted about it.

So why write about it now?  A good friend recently remarried. She’s utterly, completely in love. Both that love and the service were lovely to witness. Her wedding was the first I’ve attended since my separation (4.5 years ago) and divorce (3 years ago), and the months before it and the actual event brought me to wonder a bit more about marriage and whether I’d ever enter one again. I was surprised at how much my friend’s wedding caused my mind to tumble.

I was married fifteen years, spanning from the too-young twenty-five to a far-more-mature forty.  Some of those years were happy. Some were not.  I entered that marriage with the hope and confidence that typifies youth. When it finally ended, I walked away from the courtroom with sadness at what could not be and relief that what was had finally ended, I was also older and wiser and somewhat jaded. I left wondering about trust, lasting love, the fallibility of humans, the messes that result when our loving selves get lost to fear, and whether I could ever risk my heart again.

Sure, I’ve pondered the what ifs. What if I’d waited until I was older? What if I’d not seen marriage as bridge to be crossed to the world of adulthood? What if I’d entered it more certain of myself and with some years living alone (and not college-dorm-room alone)? But during that wondering, I’ve never desired to turn back the clock. That marriage brought me my children, after all. Beyond that, it was during the worst parts of that marriage and the time that came after that I learned about me and how my head works. I learned how much strength I had and what I truly valued. I learned I could go through what was unthinkable (divorce) and come out, well, better.

So with those positive outcomes from my first marriage’s end, why the sour expression when thinking about ever entering it again? The trite answer would be along the lines of “once burned, twice shy,” but that really doesn’t touch the tender heart of the issue. It’s not because I don’t trust men or because I wonder about my ability to judge character and suitability. It’s not because I’m waiting for marriage equity — when all are free to marry then I would partake. And it’s not because I’m a commitment phobe or prefer to live alone. (Or at least as the only adult in the house, although that does have some advantages. The empty side of the bed holds plenty of books and my iPad.)

Some of it is a bit of cynicism. Marriage, Catholic marriage as sacrament with plenty of forethought and a bit of counseling, didn’t safe-guard my relationship with my then-husband. The words said that day, the paper signed, turned out to be just words and paper. Human frailty set us asunder, and an expensive legal system undid the paper end. Now, as the child of divorced parents, I wasn’t naive enough to think that words, a priest, and a signature would guarantee happily ever after, but I did think that the intention that went into those words and those signatures would persist through the hard times. But for a myriad of reasons, sometimes that isn’t so. And sometimes, it’s better that way.

But as my father says, all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, this human construct consummates in separation. And, generally, a fair amount of sadness, at least. I’ve led a fairly easy life, void of death of those close to me and blissfully full of an abundance of friends, food, and good fortune. Those years before and during the end of my marriage were miserable, frightening, painfully sad ones. The sense of loss was only buffered by the presence of my children and the intervention of friends, and the hurt the former suffered created a pain in me I’d never known before and hope to never know again.

But back to marriage. Our culture holds high expectations for a spouse: lover, best friend, housemate, nurse, cook, cleaning crew, parenting partner, confidant, and more. It’s a tall order. Marriage is no longer simply a pairing based on logical arrangements and tangible benefits to a family. I’m not advocating the return to the purely utilitarian marriage, although there are days that my first criteria for a partner would be a willingness to clean the insect carcasses out of the porch light and a dedication to shower cleaning. I’m just wondering what the right balance of expectations looks like.

Truth be told, I’d like to partner again, even if that person didn’t clean bugs out of lights or scrub showers more often than I. My father often reminds me that we’re social animals, and the desire to pair extends beyond the biological end of procreation. (And there will be no more of that, mind you!)

Our culture seems to carry conflicting messages about partnering. On the one hand, it tells us that pairing is essential. Consider the number of articles on and off-line about how to find and keep a partner. Look at movies and TV, many which focus on partner acquisition even while hunting down the bad guy. Find someone who “completes” you, who is your soulmate, and all will be well. Being alone? That’s a situation to be fixed, preferably as soon as possible.

Countering that is what I’ll call the “whole people are happy alone” maxim. As a society, we also value independence and the individual over the group (politics and sports aside), whether that be the group at work or the group that is a committed couple. Saying one is lonely is viewed as weakness, with admonitions to know one’s self and be comfortable in being alone. I’d wholly agree that being comfortable in time alone is part of being a healthy human. Being able to sit with the self without restlessly searching to fill the void of other indicates a level of acceptance of one’s nature and being. But one can be quite comfortable being alone and yet feel still lonely. Heck, one can be inches from one’s spouse and still feel lonely. I’ve been to both those places.

So where does that leave me with the institution that is marriage. It’s not a magic-maker nor a guarantee. It’s not the answer to loneliness or lights filled with bugs.  It isn’t a protection against pain and hardship. It is in part a piece of paper that comes with legal protections and social acceptance (and it should be open to all, regardless of the gender pairing, but that’s another essay). At its best, it should be a commitment of love, friendship, and deep compassion.

Perhaps its the pain of ending part that has me stuck.  Perhaps it’s doubt that I could do a better job at my part, despite knowing myself better and seriously working on the parts of me that did nothing to help as my marriage unwound. Perhaps a bit of it is about trust, as much as I like to think it’s not. I just don’t know. That’s not much of a conclusion, but today it’s all I have. I’m open to thoughts about marriage, good or bad. Share away.

One Rule to Bind Us

Poster available through Scarboro Missions.

I can’t recall when I first learned the Golden Rule, but I’m sure I’d heard it plenty by kindergarten.  I didn’t know it had a biblical basis until a bit later, and I was well into adulthood before I realized Christians hadn’t cornered the market with their primary rule of engagement:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:1).

It’s a fine rule, from preschool through old age.  It works in a variety of circumstances including, but not limited to, the sandbox, the schoolhouse, the home, the church, the workplace, Congress, and social media.  Its versatility is complemented by its clarity: if you like being treated with respect and kindness, treat others that way.  No caveats, no disclaimers.  The Golden Rule is elegant in its simplicity. Continue reading

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.

 

 

Transition Lenses

Truth be told, I don’t transition easily.  That’s no shock to my friends and likely explains a bit for my acquaintances and meeting cohorts, but somehow, my reaction to shifts in routine, location, or even the weather still catches me by surprise.

This time, I’m just a few hours back from a fine three days away with my One Good Friend (main squeeze, significant other, whatever).  Three days of hiking through the woods and fields of the middle of southern Michigan, canoeing on the Kalamazoo river, eating meals neither of us had cook, and enjoying general companionship with one of my favorite adults.  While the trip relaxed and renewed me, by the last day, I was itching to write.  While we delightfully drew out the last day, taking the long way home to hike Hidden Lake Gardens and stalled the journey’s end with a meal just minutes from home, I was eagerly anticipating an evening alone at home before my boys return tomorrow morning.  I had it all planned out.  I’d unpack enough to throw a deserving load of laundry in, read through the mail, check for phone messages, and settle into write.  An impromptu trip to a small publishing company in Marshall reignited my book-writing fire, and sleep had challenged me the previous two nights as I tried to recall my outline for my book, a list written last summer and revisited since only by accident when shuffling through my files.  With a few chores out of the way and a full stomach, what barriers between me and writing could arise?

Me.  That’s the barrier.  Not the house.  Not the return to responsibility.  Not the shift from half of a duo to all of a solo.  Just my general difficulty moving from one mindset to another.  New shoes?  I need several days or more to adjust.  Expecting oatmeal for breakfast and find the canister empty?  Briefly consider a run to the store, ruminate about toast, and eventually make do.  My ex-husband has to swap a planned night with the kids for another night?    Silence.  Long silence.  Perhaps a verbal pause or so, all the while mind whirling and readjusting expectations, with (generally) calm acquiescence.   While I handle transitions far better now than even ten years back, I still find they leave me stunned, either speechless or overflowing with (generally the wrong words).

A few years back, my older son, tired of bright sun in his eyes during soccer games, tried those lenses that transition from sunglass-like in the daylight to almost clear glass inside.  Data indicated that they’d shift in a minute, making for visual comfort in no time at all, no matter what the lighting.  My son was excited, at least initially.  It turns out a minute is a long time when you walk into a dimly lit house after being out in the sun.  It turns out to be too long, at least for my then 11-year old son, who ditched the transitioning lenses for good-old clear polycarbonate at his next annual exam.  Seems the transition time just didn’t work for him.

My brain often feels like those glasses when a sudden change occurs.  I knew that the move from vacation to home would be rough.  I knew I’d likely feel at loose ends and a bit lonely after several days of companionship.  I planned accordingly, parsing out chores and writing, planning for a glass of wine at 7 or so, with a snack at 9.  Surely, with all that planning, the transition would be barely noticeable.

Upon arriving home, I stalled my reentry a bit longer, chatting with a neighbor for a while before even opening my front door.  Once she returned to her gardening, I unpacked the car, cleaning up a bit as I went.  Since that process was surprisingly swift without two boys to prod along, I quickly moved to laundry and guinea pig care before settling down to write.

But my mind went silent, dark as could be.  The stillness I’d sought quickly became unbearable.  Unwilling or unable to let my emotions and thoughts adjust, I read email, surfed Facebook, checked my voicemail, and generally fidgeted in body and mind, fighting the angst.  No luck.  My tension continued to mount, and I continued to fight.  I was furious and took myself to task.  I’d been eagerly anticipating this time without child or One Good Friend to start work on a writing project (at best) or to blog (not a bad choice either).  I’d spent two days with my mind flooding with ideas and energy, and here was my chance.  And I was blowing it.

But I was sad and lost.   A bit lonely, even. And simply out of sorts, dark lenses in a dark house.

When I could acknowledge that pain, the tears came.  Not the long, jagged tears soul-wrenching events evoke, but just some sad tears to honor change.  I also messaged a few friends, sharing a bit of my sorrow and quickly moving on to other subjects.  Before long, the lenses had cleared, just a hint of tint from my trip remaining, enough to remind me and bring a smile.

Like my younger son (although to a lesser degree), change challenges me, stalls me out or induces stonewalling and anger.  Sometimes, that emotion flies out.  Often it turns in, tying me up in knots until I face it and allow it simply to be.  Disapproving of my feelings during my transition today didn’t alter the feeling.  Acknowledging it, sharing it, and letting it pass on its own did.   I’m not ever likely to be free-wheeling and easygoing with transitions, and that’s okay.  Just honoring that part of me makes all the difference and makes that transition time less distressing.

 

 

 

 

Planning for the transition didn’t ease the transition at all

 

‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the season of advent candles, trimmed trees, colored lights, stockings hung with care, greeting cards adorned with a family picture, too much food, even more shopping, and Jesus. So far, I’ve only managed the advent candles (demanded by younger son), lights around the house (courtesy of older son), and a good deal of shopping (that’s all me). It’s my third year as a Unitarian Universalist at Christmastime, and I still haven’t figured out what to do with the season.

Despite approximately 50% of my church’s congregation avowing secular humanist status, Christmas makes a big splash at my UU church. The meeting hall sports a decorated tree next to the altar and garland graces every window. Sure, a menorah (electric) at on the altar the Sunday enveloped by Hanukkah, although no mention was made of the symbol or the eight days it represents. And, as I’ve been told past years, the decorations on the tree are largely Earth-based. Still, the place practically screams Christmas. But no whisper of Jesus, the non-commerce reason for the season.

My struggles with Christmas began about five years ago. My mother had converted from Catholicism to Reformed Judaism. I’d left a liberal Episcopal church, both for reasons of poor fit with place and a crisis (or reconsideration) of faith. Perhaps my mother’s move away from Catholicism, which we’d long shared, gave me the permission to think more deeply about what I believed. Whatever the spark, I started to think differently about Jesus and the holidays and holy days around him.

My younger son asks it this way: “Mom, if we don’t believe Jesus is the son of God, why do we celebrate Christmas?” For the past few years, I’ve given him the same non-answer, turning the question back to him, “Should we skip it this year?” The answer is always a definitive, “No!” But the question nags at me.

Let me clarify that I deeply respect the teachings of the historical Jesus. Jesus taught and practiced unconditional love and radical inclusivity. He advocated for the poor, the downtrodden, the prisoner, the sick, the captive, and all the others society pushed to the margins. He practiced equanimity, patience, and peace. His teachings, if followed carefully and en masse, could result in a profoundly loving and peaceful world. Love one another. All the others. Now that would be radical.

Past years, I’ve found myself hung up on the divinity issue. If I don’t hold that Jesus is the son of God (okay, I’m a bit in limbo on the God question, too), then what business do I have celebrating the holiday. I know seeing it as a secular holiday only or as a solstice tradition are options others take, but I’m uncomfortable with those options, probably because for most of my life, Jesus was the reason for the season, as the saying goes.

Perhaps he still can be the reason. Perhaps the divinity question isn’t the key, at least for this Unitarian Universalist. Perhaps I can still celebrate with authenticity, given I still see Jesus as an amazing spiritual leader with a message of love that has power even 2000 years later. Perhaps the advent candles I’ve been lighting with more than a flicker of discomfort, feeling somewhat the fraud, still hold meaning, as I anticipate the birth of quite the liberal religious leader.

So for 2010, I’m dropping my non-Christian-but-still-celebrating-Christmas-anyway guilt. Okay, so I may not celebrate the birth of Ghandi or Confucious with the same vibrance (and spending) that I celebrate the birth of Jesus, but, hey, this is the celebration I know and it is about a person worth celebration and emulation.

May you, too, know love and compassion this month. After all, ’tis the season.

Namaste.

The Road We’ll Travel

This is now my son's favorite book, for now he knows he's not alone.

It’s been quite a week. My younger son, now nine, was formally diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome a few days ago. Finally. It’s a relief to have the formal diagnosis, since it gives us some direction when trying to help him interpret and understand the world. Appointments are already lining up: a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a social skills group are all finding spots on the calendar, and having a formal diagnosis greases the wheels needed to get that support.

So if I’m so relieved, why can’t I sleep? Why do I feel, even more than a few weeks ago, that I’m depleted and ready to go to bed by 4 pm? Why is my patience so short with my children, just at the time I should find deeper tolerance and acceptance for their universe-given quirks? And, above all, why me?

Why not me? It’s the sort of question, as a divorced mom with a kid with ADHD and a bad case of being 13 and another kid with AS, both homeschooling, that anyone might be prone to ask. I’m not a believer in karma in the formal sense, although I do think giving positive energy via attitude and action, compassion and unconditional love, does good for more than the receiver and giver. But times like this make me wonder. Did I do so well in a previous life that I was deemed to handle all this? Or did I do so poorly the last time around that I’m receiving challenges to strengthen my being?

It’s not really worth long consideration, given I don’t hold to reincarnation. Perhaps it’s the concern that I could come back in much more trying form the next time around: a mother in subsaharan Africa with five mouths to feed, HIV, and the constant risk of become a political refuge; a girl from a multitude of countries sold into the sex trade before puberty; a head of beef cattle living my short life on a factory farm up to my cow knees in my own excrement. You get the picture.  Besides, the reincarnation thing just seems too neat and tidy. And I can’t see how it takes into account the ever-changing number of living things on the planet. Or perhaps one could reincarnate elsewhere in the universe? Too muddy and full of details for me. But still, I sometimes wonder why me, then think, why not me?

I’ve always maintained that I’d never change another person’s troubles for my own. As challenging as I find my life sometimes, it’s mine, and I kinda get it, from the quirky kids to the temperamental hot water tank. I know my stuff.  And while I know my path so far has made me who I am today (and I’m basically okay with that person, except in those fleeting moments of crushing self-doubt), I wouldn’t have minded a few less obstacle in the past few years.  It’s a bit of a downfall to a faith without a deity and a comfortable stance on the uncertainty of what happens after death:  there’s just no higher power to ask nor to whom to wail and gnash teeth.  Placing faith in the universe and the love we create when we’re compassionate beings has its upsides, but one-to-one conversation with the powers that be (and that’s my sticking point) are a bit of a loss.

Enough whining.  I’ve been vamping with my younger for so many years, nine and half, to be precise. Now I have a label that offers a path. I know there’s no cure and the path is still full of washed out roads, rocks, and (my worst) snakes, but at least I’m not on my own in the wilderness brandishing my machete in virgin jungle. There’s relief in that, respite even, however brief.   As far as we’ve traveled, there’s so much more ahead of us. Asperger Syndrome isn’t going to disappear at 18, although he’ll likely learn skills that help him navigate what he admits is a pretty odd world for him.  And as we go, I’ll hold to unconditional love, radical inclusivity, and compassion to guide us through this universe in which I place my trust.

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)