The Beauty of Diversity

“This is my fundamental conviction: diversity is beautiful.  All people in all their colours, all the flowers in the sunlight, this is beautiful.”  Rev. Matthew Johnson-Doyle.

Each spring  Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America celebrate a flower ceremony created by a Czechoslovakian Unitarian minister Norbert Capek.  Capek wanted a ritual which would be acceptable to both the Jewish and Christian members of his congregation. He turned to the universal beauty of nature, asking people to bring in local wildflowers, he blessed the overflowing vases of blooms, then invited each person to take a flower home. Capek asked people to remember that we are all brothers and sisters, all connected. We are all different, yet we are beautiful together.

We offer our chalice communities the gifts of our unique selves, and we receive the unique gifts of others. The flower ceremony is a symbol of the value of diversity, the necessity and beauty of our differences that fit together to create a thriving system. It is a joyful service, with lightness and gratitude. I love that the flowers also connect us to the land, as people bring the flowers of the season, from delicate buttercups to rich irises, reminding us of the riches of nature.

For our spiritual practice this week, I invite you to create an at-home flower ceremony.

With Friends
Host an informal get-together and ask each friend to bring their favourite flower, whether from their garden or a florist. Have a communal vase and ask each person to speak about their flower and what it represents to them. Is it their favourite flower because of its associations with a memory?  Does it’s colour or shape symbolize a meaningful attitude? Is it an aesthetic choice? Ask them to reflect on what their choice says about them in this moment in time.

At the end of the evening, gather around the vase and ask each person to choose a different flower to take home.

With Family
If you have a garden with flowers, go outside and ask each person to pick a few flowers.  If not, bring home a variety of flowers from a florist.  Place them in a vase and have the family sit around it.  Take a minute to sit quietly and look at the flowers.  Ask each family member to talk about which ones they like the most.  Parents may want to point the differences in the flowers, how well they look all together, or how a healthy system has room for lots of different kind of plants or people.

Invite the family to take a favourite flower and place it beside their bed. Ask them to look at in the morning and before bed time.

Solo Flower Ceremony
The UU flower ceremony is a celebration of community. As a personal spiritual practice it can be a way to honour people who matter to you. Using a bouquet of flowers, place each stem into a vase one at a time. With each flower, connect it to a person within your life. Reflect on how that person contributes to your well being. These may be your closest friends and family, or who provide you an essential service you deeply value, or an acquaintance who has had a positive impact on you in the last few weeks.  Silently or out loud thank that person as you put the flower into the vase. Continue adding flowers until you run out of people you wish to uphold and appreciate.

Sit back and appreciate the abundance of people and beauty in your life.

 

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Looking for Blossoms

More than anything, I must have flowers, always, always.  Claude Monet

At this time of year we are surrounded by flowers, in public and private gardens, along roadsides, even in the cracks of the concrete sidewalk. Walking the dog in one short block I saw tubs of pansies, geraniums, and begonias. There are forget-me-nots, iris, peonies, columbine, poppies, periwinkles, and even a few dandelions almost gone to seed.

Living flowers aren’t the only flowers we see. Images of flowers abound in our society, from desktop backgrounds, to coasters, to paintings. I have a photo of tulips and and a drawing of sunflowers on my study walls.

For our spiritual practice this week, flowers will be a cue to focus our attention on the world around us. Choosing a common object as a trigger for our attention expands our ability to be present in the here and now. It is a way to wake up our consciousness and sharpen our senses. This is a good spiritual practice for experiencing a sense of connection to the greater whole.

Using flowers as a trigger to awareness and presence offers an opportunity to slow down for a moment.

The directions are simple:  Pause, Notice, Open.

Pause:  When you notice a flower or an image or reproduction of a flower, pause and breath slowly and deeply. Check in with yourself, stretch and relax. Shake out your body. Re-direct your thoughts to the present. How are you feeling? Take a few moments to sit with what ever emotion you might be experiencing.

Notice:  Come into awareness of the flower.  What kind of flower is it? Look at its colours. Consider its petals and leaf formation. Breathe in. Does the flower have a scent? Touch the flower if you can.  How does it feel? Appreciate the flower’s beauty. Notice your response to the flower – how do you feel as you pay attention to the blooms?

Open:  After focusing on yourself and the flower, expand your attention. What else is around you? What is attracting your attention? Try to keep your eyes “soft”, don’t stare or focus too intently, let your eyes roam and gaze at what captures them. Open yourself to the environment surrounding you. Then take one more slow, deep breath and return to your activity.

Try it for a day this week: Pause, Notice, Open every time you encounter a flower.

Flower Gazing

“If you pass by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it, God gets real pissed off.”  Alice Walker

In our final month of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practices, we return to the practice of observation of a particular element, in June, flowers. For UUs, flowers, which are part of one of our of annual rituals, symbolize our planet. Flowers represent the marvelous diversity and beauty of the earth, reminding us of how much there is to see and learn if only we pay attention. Each flower is unique yet part of the larger eco-system, just like people. We all belong.

So we will notice – not just the colour purple – but all the colours of the flowers.  By turning our awareness towards flowers, we might see the great beauty of this world.

Taoist Flower Gazing

Although I am doubtful that this is a formal taoist practice, this concept fits into a Unitarian sense of engaged meditation – bringing our attention towards a single flower. This 10 -15 minute meditation could be done alone, in a small group, or with children. You might have a single flower that everyone considers, or have each person choose a flower.

Find a flower. Set up a space that allows you to have the flower at eye level. Put it on a coffee table and sit on a cushion on the floor, or pile some books on the table so that when you sit on a chair, the flower is high enough you don’t have to bend your head up or down to see it.

Once you have set up the space, get comfortable, close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Let your breathing slow down and your body relax.

Open your eyes and gaze at the flower. Try to keep your focus soft. Look at the flower, at the shape of its petals, at the stamen, at the stem and leaves. See how they fit together. Look at the colours.  Smell the air and see if there is a scent.

Keep bringing your focus back to the flower but try to allow your vision to be wide. See the flower in the context of the space, but keep the flower in the foreground.

If you would like to touch the flower, do so, but move your hand slowly and gently.

Take your time. When you feel you have seen as much as you can take in, thank the flower (through a nod, through words, through silent appreciation). Close your eyes. Think about what you saw and how you responded.

When you are ready, open your eyes and go about your day.

 

This mediation has been adapted from about.com.

 

Walking Together

“There is an art to wandering. If I have a destination, a plan – an objective – I’ve lost the ability to find serendipity.  I’ve become too focused, too single-minded. I am on a quest, not a ramble. I search for the Holy Grail of particularity, and miss the chalice freely offered, filled full to overflowing.”  Cathy Johnson, On Becoming Lost

For the final SpiritWalk, simply wander. At some point in your day, decide to take 15 minutes for a SpiritWalk. Even an indoors walk can be rewarding. Stop what you are doing, ground yourself in your breath, then simply start walking slowly, looking around. What you see might surprise you!

Life is All Around

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” Henry David Thoreau

This week, go for a SpiritWalk in nature. Be aware of all the creatures that live around you. Go quietly and slowly, looking around you. Stand still for a few minutes. Birds and animals that shy away when you walk – however slowly – may come out when you stand still. Few of us will be as privileged as Thoreau, but you might be surprised by some of your bird or animal neighbours. Blue jays, cardinals, voles, mice, squirrels, robins, chickadees, rabbits, raccoons, merlin hawks, bats, seagulls, ducks, snails, ants, and many more live in my neighbourhood in Waterloo. While I often hear the birds and see the rabbits at night, more appear when I sit quietly in the backyard. I feel refreshed by the reminder that life goes on all around me.

If you feel like you aren’t noticing any creatures, take a good look down at the ground. You might see spiders, ants, beetles, and snails busy going about their lives.

As always with this spiritual practice, centre yourself before going on the walk.

Be still and take some deep breaths, let out any tension from the day, shake out your arms and legs, stretch your neck, and straighten your spine.  When you feel quieter and calmer, take one last breath before you go.

When looking for the wildlife that lives in urban spaces, I suggest not taking a camera, at least the first time you try this SpiritWalk. If you want to remember the creature, take the time to tell yourself some of its details like colour, shape, sound. Careful observation will help you remember the details, and make it easier for you to identify the animal next time.

Note: As I missed posting a spiritual practice last week, there will be another SpiritWalk post later this week.

Walking into Day

“It is not talking but walking that will bring us to heaven.” Matthew Henry

This week’s SpiritWalk is about seeing your home place in a new light.  Go for a slow mindful walk at a time of day that you aren’t usually outside. That may be early in the morning, as dawn breaks, or late at night under the stars. It may even be at noon; instead of running errands at lunch time, take fifteen minutes to explore the area around your workplace. Bring fresh eyes to this everyday area. How is it different at this new time of day?

SpiritWalk Practice

Before leaving, sit quietly with your eyes closed and your feet firmly on the floor. Breathe deeply and slowly.

Feel your feet on the floor.

Get up, in silence, and go outside.

Walk slowly, glance around you, up above, down below.  If something catches your eye, stop and examine it.

Look at the sky. Notice the clouds, or the stars, or the colour of the sky.

Look at the ground. Notice the sidewalk, the cracks in the concrete. Notice any green life that is growing.

Take your time to see all that is around you. Pay attention.

When you return inside, sit quietly for a few minutes in reflection.

 

 

Walking with Spirit

Several weeks ago we were driving our son to hockey along a road we have driven many times over the years.  As we passed a small strip mall, I was astonished to see an old weathered barn tucked in between the mall and the sea of residential backyards that backs onto the road. Obviously the barn was from the original farm, it had probably been there for a hundred years, yet despite driving on this street regularly I had never noticed it.  It can be so easy not to notice our surroundings, but what are we missing?

For the month of May, mindful walking will be the weekly practice. Walking, moving in the world has long associations with spirituality.  Spiritual walking practices include: pilgrimages, labrynith, meditative walking, walkabouts in aboriginal traditions, and ritual walks.

For Unitarian Universalists, I suggest a mindful walking experience – SpiritWalk – that is intended to tune your mind and your senses to the present moment, to encourage attentiveness to the world around you. 

The emphasis is on experiencing being in the world, to the here and now, letting your attention linger on whatever catches your eye.  A SpiritWalk can be done alone or in a group, but is walked in silence.  Take fifteen minutes to half an hour walking, moving slowly, stopping to examine what catches your eye.  You won’t get very far.  Take a camera and take pictures if that helps you notice things. It can feel like a luxury of time, to simply wander slowly and pause, like a toddler, whenever your fancy takes you.  After the walk, sit in reflection for about fifteen minutes. You might write in a journal, review the photos, or simply sit and consider what you have seen.

Mindful walking is a good spiritual practice for grounding.  It opens your senses while soothing the spirit.   For Unitarian Universalists, it allows us to integrate our mind, body and spirit.  Walking moves the body while quieting the mind, allowing our busy minds to slow down and let go of the usual worries.  It isn’t about emptying the mind, but allowing it to refresh and focus on the present moment.

This is a great activity to do with children as they often notice interesting objects adults miss. Choose a shorter route and stay on quieter streets or try a park, where the kids can move more freely.

In Your Neighbourhood

This week, start close to home.  Walk two or three blocks from your front door. See what is in your immediate neigbhourhood. Are there trees? Wildlife? What is the architecture? Notice the condition of the sidewalk.

Check a map and choose a route before you go. A route you can walk briskly in 10 minutes will take about 25 in a SpiritWalk. Bring the map with you if you don’t know the area well. Knowing where you are going allows you to relax into the walk, instead of looking for signposts.

Before leaving the house, sit for a minute in silence, breathing slowly.

Leave as quietly as you can.  Remember the walk is done in silence.

After 20 minutes to 30 minutes outside, find a quiet place to reflect. Consider what attracted your attention. What was compelling about these items?  What did you see that you hadn’t seen before? How did you feel during this mindful walking?

Portions of this post appeared previously on emptychalice.com

Writing Prayers

UUA President Peter Morales says that “prayer can be a time… when you and I open our hearts, open our awareness. Prayer can be a time when we reaffirm our concern for other people. Prayer can be a time when we connect with what we hold sacred…”

In Soul to Soul, a UU small group ministry guide, prayer is a word that encompasses many different practices, all with the same goal of quieting the mind so that we connect to ourselves or to God. Written prayers are helpful in putting our thoughts in order, allowing us to reach some insight or understanding about our hopes or our pain. As we write out a prayer or speak one aloud we may reach the wisdom that lies within each of us.

This week consider writing out your own prayer about what you need right now in your life. Be honest, be open, write from the heart. If you are unsure what you might write about, this prayer by Christine Robinson can be a starting point. If you aren’t comfortable praying to the Divine, then write a prayer for something. Write a prayer that you can say each day, perhaps a morning prayer which sets your intentions for how you want to be during the day. Or write a prayer each night, reaching out to sacred. Once you have written a prayer, say it out loud.  Give yourself some time to sit with the prayer.

Psalm 17 (adapted)

Great Mother, hear my prayer,
the love, the longing in my heart.
Hold my life, be with me in the night,
melt me down to my essence.
Help me live in love and justice. Guide me –
teach me your love.
Shield me from those who would hurt me.
Help me to leave this world a better place
And see your face in it all.

Wow!

Writer Anne Lamott suggests that there are three essential prayers:  Help Thanks Wow.  She writes “The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder. We click into being fully present when we’re stunned into that gasp, by the sight of a birth, or images of the World Trade Centre towers falling, or the experience of being in a fjord, at dawn, for the first time.”Wow” is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanos.”

Being wonderstruck as prayer is a practice of being open to the world around you. It is a moment when your own self both fades away yet also makes a connection to the greater whole. Experiencing the “wowness” of the earth is experiencing a sense of belonging to this amazing mystery of life.

This week, practice being open to the Wow of living.

This is a hard thing to explain, but it requires being present and paying attention to what is going on all around you. Notice what is around you when you are walking and working your daily round. If something catches your eye, stop, take a deep breath,  and look more closely. Every moment won’t be a wow, but life may surprise you.

Listening

“There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening, we shall hear the right word.“ Ralph Waldo Emerson.

This week we will consider prayer as a way to listen deeply to our innermost voice, whether we hear that as our own voice or the voice of God. Prayer as listening is close to meditation, it is a way to centre ourselves, to clear our monkey mind of all the clutter and noise, and simply be.

Listening prayer is about learning to sit and simply be.  Of course, your thoughts will go all over the place, but let them.  Repeating a short word or phrase, or focusing on your breath, can help you note your thoughts and let them go. Just notice and don`t focus on any particular thought. This isn`t easy to do, but it can be learned. UU Minister Erik Walker Wikstrom, author of Simply Pray, suggests this exercise:  set aside three minutes to send your gaze around your room without resting too long on any one thing. As you look around steadily note what you see – this is an armchair, this is a table, this is my child. Try to give equal weight to all you see, and keep your eyes moving. Listening prayer is like this, noting your thoughts, big and small, but not giving any of them too much attention.

Eventually you may find that you can sit and not think and simply be.

Try this practice for a few minutes each day. Given how noisy our lives can be, try and find a quiet place where you can be undisturbed. Sit comfortably. Find a word or phrase that works for you, it might be `peace` or `honour the light`, or use a focus on your breath to help clear your mind. It will take practice!