The Darkest Day

IMG_0144Today is the winter solstice. This means that the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest period of daylight today (nine hours, 4 minutes, and 23 seconds where I live), with the sun reaching its lowest altitude of the year. Starting tomorrow, our days become longer, with what often seems like imperceptible increases in our daily allotment of natural light. We gain three seconds of daylight tomorrow. I’ll take it.

Winter is the rebound season, cold in these northern climes but offering more light with every earlier sunrise and later sunset. Therefore, the start of winter should bring hope. Honestly, I find that hope hard to find. I struggle with the holiday season, finding the period from Halloween through New Year’s Day to be filled with reminders of the rifts in my family of origin and family of choice. Divorce times two resonates loudest during these last months of fall and first days of winter, as I juggle those families, anticipating their absences to the point of missing the time I have in their presence if I don’t watch myself.  Healing continues, but I’ve still not adjusted to having my children away for part of each holiday.

Holidays are hard on my younger son, whose autistic way of being in the world makes breaks in routine akin to tossing him overboard in a leaky dinghy. Just when I’m wrung out from a semester of teaching my own and the children of others, when I’m ready to curl up with a good book and a beverage appropriate to the time of day, he’s losing his moorings. Between the surprises, gatherings, and laxity of the holiday season, he’s forever struggling to find the safety of a schedule. I’d like to say I do my best to make that schedule, but I can’t find my own rhythm during this time, and, frankly, I enjoy the directionless days this time of year offers. I provide some support, of course, charting individual days as they come, discussing what social events he feels he can manage while seeking a bit of form to our general formlessness. I could be more helpful, but the darkness of these days sucks me under.

The hope of the solstice takes some seeking out. This time of year, from now until the warmth of the sun brings us to spring, are hard for me. It’s easy to pull into an existential darkness that comes more swiftly the older I grow. It’s somewhere between an anxiety and depression, helped by exercise, light therapy, and just the right balance of social contact and solitude. (Some days it’s hard to know which I crave more, such is the indecisiveness that lurks with my winter darkness.)

It’s heavy, the blanket of winter. While my residual sadness about family divisions fuels the intermittent funk of late October through Christmas, the pull toward introspection draws stronger during these long nights of deep winter. I don’t know how much is influenced by the increased darkness of late fall, but it seems the lack of light outside encourages much scouting about into my interior. The older I become, the more willing I am to dig around in there, but come winter, my ability to look with equanimity decreases. It’s all too easy to see only the shadows, the failings, the humanness that without the light seems full of flaws.

I see the hurts I’ve inflicted on others, the good I’ve failed to do, all while hearing the roar of the endless motion I maintain to keep away from the silence which makes these wrongs scream their loudest. I keep moving, busy even when there is no busy to really be had, avoiding even a moment of stillness for fear that the sadness that descends with I think too much will just be too much. It’s a restless feeling, that undercurrent, rarely affecting my day-to-day duties but undoubtedly coloring my encounters with loved ones and strangers.

Ironically, perhaps, peace and hope can only be found in those silences. That’s the hope of the solstice. I spent much of this last semester feeling bombarded with busyness. What quiet I had I squandered with online Scrabble, Facebook, tasks that didn’t need doing, at least at that time, and other purposeless pursuits. I’ve rarely ever just been doing one thing, which is undoubtedly part of the problem. I model multitasking and the poor outcomes it produces. Mindfulness? Not even when I brush my teeth.

In an attempt to escape my daily patter, I scoured my bookshelves for some light fiction. Not wanting to reread, given the phenomenal number of unread books around here, I reached into my closet to a shelf holding marginal fiction that I might someday be desperate enough to read. (Yes, my shelving habits are that specific.) And thus Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo, came to bed with me several weeks back. This is not an amazing read. It is an easy read, however, about a man who takes a cross-country trip with a monk and the changes in that man as he makes that journey. He’s flawed, humans always are, and initially resistant to change. As he journeys, he finds awareness of that something is missing and discovers that stillness — meditation and mindfulness — fill what he did not previously know was empty.

Predictable? Yes. But it reminded me that I’d once tried to reach a more mindful way of being. Some years back, when I was more actively searching for meaning and solace, I reached toward a number of authors on meditation and Buddhist thought, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and others. After a scene where Otto, the ordinary man, attempts to meditate with Rinpoche, his traveling monk companion, I returned to my closet. This time, I reached for Pema Chödrön ‘s When Things Fall Apart, a book I’d read years back during my separation. This collection of talks explores, from a Buddhist perspective, how we tend to miss happiness in our rush to escape pain and suffering. Chödrön advocates staying in those fearful places rather than backing away, learning from them while being compassionate to one’s self. Of course, she advocates meditation as a tool to this end.

And so I started, in the darkness of my quietest time of day, that point just before sleep. I read some of Otto’s path and a chapter of When Things Fall Apart.  Or I reread the previous chapter, as Chödrön’s words sometimes need more time to seep in to my distracted mind. And then one night I tried what I’d not really tried for years: meditation. I’m embarrassed to say how unwilling I was to try again what I’ve often felt I’ve failed so miserably in the past. Yes, I know one doesn’t fail meditation, but I’m harder on no one than myself, and I’d left the practice I’d barely begun because I felt I’d failed at it. Starting again, watching my mind wander after a single breath, the greatest challenge has been not giving up at the first hint of perceived failure. It’s hard. It’s a noisy place, up there in my head, filled with ideas, judgements, plans, worries, desires, joys, passions, fears, anger, disappointment, and a good deal of random noise. The silent seconds (nanoseconds?) where it all silences are rare at this point, but I’m hopeful that they will gradually lengthen and become more frequent.

So I’ve started to use the darkness of winter to find some hope. I will sit in its silence and listen to my breath, letting thoughts go and finding what it is just to be. I’ll read from what feeds me and seek out a bit more mindfulness in my day, decreasing the chatter I’ve been using to push away my darkness within. Perhaps there I’ll find the light promised by the solstice.

Thankfulness, Fears, and Hopes

Aaron's Pictures 8 2010 038Not long ago, I posted about a spate of existential depression that hit this winter (Existential Darkness in the Dawning of the New Year). My mood has improved, perhaps due to news avoidance and regular use of a light box for my anxious, moody version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but perhaps also due to taking some advice from a friend. A friend from church told me she started each day with a simple meditation, asking herself three questions:

  • What am I thankful for?
  • What do I fear?
  • What do I hope for?

It’s a simple list, and it immediately reminded me of guidance I received on prayer some 25 years back. During my Catholic years, I was taught that prayer had four elements: praise, thanksgiving, petition, and listening. Fast forward to a time when I use the word divine to describe tiramisu, a passage of music, or that first sip of coffee in the morning, and that formula for prayer is hard to translate into atheist meditation. While I can sit in awe at a sunrise or a child’s sleeping face, I don’t believe in a being to praise for that natural wonder or rush of love. The lack of belief in a divine meaning leaves asking for help out of the question and listening an act of searching the silence and self rather than the whisper of a savior.

But this list I can do. I tried it at first at night, a few weeks before my artificial sunshine lamp was suppressing morning melatonin and lifting my mood. As anxiety mounted, I asked myself, “What am I thankful for?” I can’t recall my answer that night, but I know I didn’t ponder the question but rather answered immediately, in the privacy of my thoughts. “What do I fear?” came next, and in my anxious state, I could have gone on and on, but managed to name one, the first that came to mind. And in naming it, its power reduced. Not a lot. But enough. “What do I hope for?” was the last, and that answer was certain: I hope to not feel this existential angst and anxiety that had plagued so much of the previous month. And eventually, I fell asleep.

While I never managed to start each morning with that list,  I’m still  working through it most nights. Well, I work through most of it most nights. Often I fall asleep before getting to hope, a more positive outcome than it sounds in writing.

For me, the order of the questions matters: thankfulness, fears, hopes. Were I to start with my fears, I’d end up wound up in such a knot I’d never sleep, effects of my artificial morning light be damned. And leading with hopes would seem somehow greedy and ungrateful. And to end in fear? That seems, well, sad and scary. Thankfulness, fears, hopes. It works.

I’m often surprised by the answers to those questions, especially when I do this exercise as my rational mind is shutting down and allowing the more random selector of dream material to surface. At this tender spot between the harried day and sleep, I tend to consider more what lies at my core and far less of what “should” be. One night, after an exceptionally hard day with my boys, I may find myself thankful for the time I share with my children, reflecting on that gift that particular homeschooling offers despite the challenges the day presented. The fear follows but with a different note: Have I done enough and made the right choices, the ones that afford them plenty of options as they move into adulthood? What am I missing? What are they missing? My hope sandwiches the fear, and may be either a hope for peace within me or wisdom as I continue on that journey. Or perhaps even both.

Sometimes what starts as a personal reflection turns outward, away from me, finding focus on the bigger world. Just a few nights back, after again another medical bill was rejected by my expensive and questionably valuable individual health care insurance policy, the following answers to those questions came forth:

  • I am thankful for the coverage I have, which would probably protect me from financial ruin should something awful happen. I’m thankful for the resources to fill in those gaps in coverage and enough professional medical knowledge avoid unnecessary visits and their inevitable bills.
  • I fear for those without the safety net of good insurance, for those who go without care because they can’t afford it and for a society that doesn’t value its citizenry enough to see universal coverage as a right.
  • I hope for change in that society, from the top down and the bottom up. I hope someday we’ll get it right.

More often, though, the reflection remains more personal and, with no effort, focused on a concern in my life that often wasn’t at the forefront of my mind during the day.  The act of being grateful ameliorates the strength of the fear before it is even mentioned. Naming the fear, even if already weakened, reveals the hope behind it. Daring to whisper the hope in the quiet of my head makes it seem somehow less unobtainable — possible, even.

So each night (and sometimes during difficult patches during the day) I finish with a short reflection that often reveals more than I’d guessed was in my head.  It’s not prayer, and it’s not silent meditation, but for now, it’s a way to quiet the noise and focus my attention on the matters of my heart. It is a stillness that brings clarity and peace, and that’s divine.

And Then There Were Nones

The New York Times reported “Percentage of Protestant Americans is in Deep Decline.” The Washington Post’s take was different: “One in five Americans reports no religious affiliation.” USA Today worded it this way: “The emerging social, political force: ‘Nones.” And Maine’s Morning Sentinel reported it this way: “Study: Maine still one of the least religious states.”  The Pew Research Center of The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recent report on the U.S. attitudes towards religion hit the news circuit last week, albeit with a variety of focuses.

While I imagine it was lamented in many churches, I found it a bit of a relief. I’m not alone. Actually, since I identify myself as a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t actually qualify as part of the 19.6% of those claiming no religious affiliation, since I identify myself as a Unitarian Universalist. (UUs can be found under the heading Other Faiths (1.2%), then under Unitarian and other liberal faiths (0.7%), with 0.3% of those surveyed claiming that title.) That’s a mighty small group that’s been shrinking over time, so it’s nice to feel the company of the larger group of folks who sit outside the boundaries of Christianity (73% call themselves Christian in this 2012 study).

Only 29% of the Unaffiliated Americans call themselves Atheist or Agnostic with the rest being “nothing in particular,” thus the moniker “Nones.” I can’t say I feel any affection for the term, although I suppose it’s a bit snappier than “Unaffiliated.”  This is not a homogenous group when it comes to religious belief, either. While more lean left than right, they are a hard group to pin down. What this growing group does share is a lack of desire to sit in a place of worship on a Sunday (or any other day):  88% aren’t looking for a particular religion. This pool of Nones, it seems, aren’t ripe for the pews of even a Unitarian Universalist church. Why is left to wonder.

What I wonder is a bit different. I wonder what draws some nonbelievers (those atheists and agnostics who aren’t Nones), to church each Sunday. A nonbelieving friend of mine asks me often what draws me to my church, given there certainly is no threat of hell for not going and that it does involve getting dressed and moving on a Sunday morning. I’ve answered that question in enough different ways that I’m sure he wonders if I’m just shooting into the dark, hoping to hit the “right” answer by luck.

There might be something to that. Or perhaps my reasons keep changing.

Seven or eight years ago, I became a None. I’d left theism and wandered feeling somewhat lost, part of the 10% of Nones seeking a spiritual home or like-minded community. When I found my Unitarian Universalist church, I’d managed to shove some ritual and routine into the gaping hole that resulted from leaving church. At that point the hole from leaving a belief in God was not the problem. It was the hole of habit that loomed largest at Christmas and Easter, times when community with hymns, sermons, times of quiet, and community were what I’d always experienced. My UU church filled that hole, and, for a while, that’s all I needed.

Eventually, those holes started to close. As more of the trappings of my Christianity fell away and became further from my present moment, the need for those trappings faded. At some point, I was no longer at church for ritual and routine. I was there to discover something new. Perhaps at this point I was thirsting for something greater than myself. Deep into a failed marriage and climbing out of a painful divorce, the loss of God as comfort and purpose was smarting. Not that I had any remaining belief in an omniscient  omnipotent creator being, but I was missing the something beyond myself. Whether that was something to love, something to cry to, something to rant to, or something just to quell the fear and loneliness that threatened during those years, I don’t know. I was drawn to find a practice, and tried a host of meditative practices, including prayer beads without prayer, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and chant. Each one informed my search for meaning and my understanding about myself. None of them stayed with me, at least in their entirety, but through each I grew a bit more comfortable in my godless life and my own skin.

Sometime recently, I stopped my spiritual search. My lack of belief in God and the supernatural and corresponding appreciation of the strength and beauty of reason, as well as increasing wonder of the natural world and the beings in it brought me to a stillness. I’d not quite call it peace. I’m still separating emotionally from spirituality, and there is a tender spot that remains where belief once reigned. But at this point, it’s gone. I’m no longer attending my UU church as a spiritual seeker.

So why am I there? I’ve immersed myself into church life — teaching RE, running a book table, sitting on committees, attending meetings. We rarely miss a Sunday, a dedication I generally attribute duty to my children’s social needs and religious education. It’s more than that, however. I go now for community. This is my tribe. This group of potential Nones who instead decide to wake and dress on (most) Sunday mornings with no threat of hell nor promise of eternal reward. These sometimes profound, sometimes pedantic, always opinionated and passionate people in various stages of belief in God, science, humanity, the universe, and more. With these people I want to share joy and sorrow. With these people I want to stumble through life with more compassion and love than I did the week before. With these people I want to raise my children to think freely about what is important, what is true, and what is right. With these people I’m willing to struggle through the hard parts, sit through long meetings, and worry about growth and finances that stretch beyond my own walls. I’m in deep.

I’m five years from being one of the Nones — five years in a Unitarian Universalist community that feeds me, teaches me, listens to me, cares for me, and sometimes drives me mad. It’s the right place for me today, a previous None who is know comfortably tucked three levels into the list of religions on the Pew study. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years, in either church or belief. I may stay put or perhaps return to the pool of Nones. I might even find myself in some other tiny branch on the tree of religiosity and spirituality. But for now, here I sit, surrounded by my community of fellow travelers.

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.

 

 

Prayer Problems

This week left me ragged.  It left me exhausted, depleted, and shaken.  Full of personal and interpersonal trials, it tried my mind and spirit dearly.  It’s the sort of week that turned my thoughts to prayer.

That’s a problem.  Concerns about prayer contributed substantially to my conversion from liberal Christian to spiritual seeker and Unitarian Universalist. (Note:  Not all UUs agnostics or atheists.  Some are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Pagan, Humanist, and/or something else.)  I’d prayed for years.  I can’t recall a dinner at home that didn’t start with grace: “God is Good” or “Come, Lord, Jesus” were standby rhymed prayers in our home, with freestyle grace led by Dad on special occasions. Thanking the divine for was the first purpose of prayer I learned. Other rote prayers followed.

In my Methodist Sunday School class, The Lord’s Prayer was a third-grade memorization task.  While I wasn’t in the sanctuary much at that age, I had plenty of seat-time invested in the Jesuit-led, Catholic community that made up church part two on most Sundays, and I’d long learned their version.  My challenge in 9 a.m. Methodist Sunday School was to stick the ending, since that was different from what I heard each Sunday at noon.  Aside from the sung Doxology, the Protestant portion of my spiritual life provided only prayer as soliloquy, with the minister at the pulpit delivering it.

As I moved to Catholic school in my middle and high school years, continuing my religious formation there more than in the Methodist home of my elementary years, I picked up the other Catholic basics.  It was, however, a prayer class in high school that was instrumental into shaping my perception of prayer and its many roles.  We were taught that prayer had four forms:  giving thanks, intercession for others, praising God, and petitioning for one’s own needs.  We examined Catholic prayers, which promptly went from rote and empty to filled with purpose.  We meditated to mantras, focused on candles, reflected to music, studied the Psalms, and wrote our own prayers.   A year or two later, a Catholic youth group furthered that understanding, expanding my understanding as prayer as conversation with God.  Prayer moved from rote to intentional.

I believed deeply.  Not in a punishing, restrictive God, but rather in a loving God, one who wanted the best for us but left the details of that up to us.  God as father and mother appealed to me, perhaps since 19, I’d lived without parents in close proximity.  My view of God offered me the intimacy and security of a relationship with a being who would never abandon me and loved me despite what I saw as innumerable, fatal flaws (at least fatal to human relationships).  And, for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t.

Somewhere in the last decade, I started to question.  Not profoundly, but just in the usual ways that people question when they ask hard questions that are no longer satisfied by short answers.  Specifically, I questioned petition and intercession.  Why would a loving deity — unconditionally loving and forgiving — act for someone for whom I prayed?  What about all the people in hard times who had no one to pray for them?  Why would this loving deity only act for those who others remembered first?  What was the purpose of praying for what I wanted or needed — or even for guidance — if we have free will?  And again, where did this leave those who didn’t pray?  What kind of divine being would only respond and comfort those who contacted him/her first?

Prayer fell first.  The rest of faith soon followed.

Old habits die hard, however.  While my understanding of what exists beyond the individual human is still in formation, my long-held view of the divine no longer remains.  But in times of extreme stress, I often myself starting a prayer only to find myself stumped after the salutation.  Do I address my plea to the universe?  Do I take my delight in the sleeping form of my son  or the setting sun to the wheel of chance or to the universe?  How do I take another person or nation into my heart with love and wish them well?  And does any of that matter?  How do we reach out of ourselves to that which is bigger than the individual?  How do our depths touch those when we cannot actually reach out and touch them?   It’s intercession that, as much as it troubles me in theory, that tugs at me the most.

This week was one of those weeks, a week where I wished I knew how to make this part of my agnosticism work.  Plenty of my ilk rely on social action, on any scale, as the answer.  It certainly play a leading role.  It does not, however, answer every concern of this heart.  Sometimes there isn’t an action to take, aside from in our own hearts.  I’m playing with voicing concerns and intentions in two-word mantras, matching the words to my breath.  With this modified meditation, I can later bring those two words back in a stressful situation.  “Pause, praise,” increases my ability to not chew a child to bits during a rough homeschooling moment.  “Live love” is another pairing that focuses my intentions.

That’s not the whole answer, but it may be a start. Directing the heart and mind may be the bulk of prayer, creating a space within where one can listen to more than the firing of one’s own neurons and find meaning beyond the confines of the body of one.  I’m a big logic and reason fan, but loving isn’t about logic and reason, and neither is prayer.

Amen.

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.