thank you, thank you, thank you

This month we will explore the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer can be tricky for Unitarian Universalists, if you don’t have an experience of God, then to whom are you praying? We’ll look at different ways to understand prayer – as gratitude, as listening – as we try this ancient practice.

Prayer is traditionally understood as a petition to God, a request for help from a deity. If you don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world, then what does praying to God mean? What does it mean for atheists and others who have a different sense of divinity? For some, prayer is a way to relate to the greater whole, a way to connect to that which is beyond us. It is about being in relationship with the sacred, not whether the sacred will answer.  Poet Czeslaw Milosz in his poem On Prayer describes prayer as a bridge:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold…

I like this sense of prayer lifting us up. Some people who pray regularly feel a sense of lightness, of openness. We must each decide for ourselves whether prayer is a meaningful exercise, and to whom we might direct our prayers. There is no one answer. Many UUs who pray don’t think of their prayers as being directed towards a Being, but to the Universe or to all beings. Others use terms such as Spirit of Life to enlarge their understanding of God.

Through out this month, consider who or what you might be praying to, but try to take a few moments each day to pray. It may be the practice itself reveals the relationship. I won’t be offering written prayers to be recited, but encouraging you to take some time to think/feel/be each day, with your own words or even in silence.

Prayer as Gratitude

Gratitude as prayer is as simple as the words “thank you”.  Gratitude as a daily practice comes easily to Unitarian Universalists, it has even been argued that our theology is based on an ethic of gratitude.

For this week, our practice is to name our gratitude in prayer. Rather than writing down what we are grateful for, or posting it to facebook, take some time to sit with gratitude.

If ritual helps you move into a more spiritual mode, light a candle before beginning, and end by extinguishing the light.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. What made you thankful today?  What should have made you thankful, but you were too busy to notice? What was difficult but ended with something positive? Sit with your gratitude until you feel you have acknowledged everything you are thankful for.

You might be directing your gratitude towards God (thank you God), or to the people or creatures or land itself (thank you first robin of spring), or you may be letting your gratitude out into the world without a particular direction (I’m grateful for sunshine). Experiment and see what feels right.

End with a final thank you, or an Amen, or another word or phrase that reflects your spirituality.

Try to do this practice daily for the next week.

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Creatures of Air

“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 we consider the element of air through the beautiful songs of birds. Air is the home place for many creatures – birds and insectsI have heard that the Mohawk people say that songbirds sing about the place they live in, if we pay attention, we can learn their knowledge. Learning the language of birds is a life long process, it requires time and patience to be outside and to hear, identify and understand bird calls. Birds have several different types of call, and songs vary by time of day, weather and change of season.

Bird Observation

If you live in an area with birds, plan to spend 10 minutes outside listening to birdsong. Find a sheltered place where you will be undisturbed. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and listen for the birds. Do you recognize any species by their song? How would you describe their songs – are they alarm calls or mating calls or something else? Can you locate them and identify them by sight? Watch how they fly and follow the air currents. Let your mind wander over any questions without trying too hard to find the answers. If you don’t know the name of the bird, simply make one up. Don’t worry about figuring anything out, just listen to the birdsong, breathe and wonder.

You may wish to check a bird identification book after the observation time, but don’t bring it outside with you. Simply sit with your wonderings.

For those of you with limited access to the outdoors, this video is a relaxing meditation with birdsong.  The image is largely static, but the birds sing continuously.

 

Every breath is a sacrament…

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“Air is a matrix which joins all life together”, says science communicator David Suzuki. “It is constantly changing as life and geophysical forces add and subtract constituents to the composition of air, and yet over vast stretches of time the basic composition of air has remained in dynamic equilibrium. The longer each of us lives, the greater the likelihood that we will absorb atoms that were once part of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ, of Neanderthal people and woolly mammoths. As we have breathed in our forebears, so our grandchildren and their grandchildren will take us in with their breath. We are bound up inseparably with the past and the future by the spirit we share.

Every breath is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things…”
from The Sacred Balance, p.38

Breathing Gratitude

This simple breathing meditation is an exercise in thankfulness. Find a quiet place and sit comfortably, either on the floor or on a chair, with your hands lying loosely on your knees. Close your eyes.

Breathe in with gratitude for your parents, grand-parents, great-grand parents all the way back to your early ancestors.  The air rushing into your lungs was their air too.

Breathe out with love, a gift to all the children of the planet, those with us now and those still to arrive. The air leaving your lungs will be their air too.

Breathe in with gratitude, breathe out with love.

Remember that each breath connects you to all has lived, is living, and will ever live.

Breathe in with gratitude, breathe out with love.

Sit with this meditation for five to fifteen minutes.

as the wind blows

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade. Charles Dickens

This month our spiritual practices focus on the element of air, as we pay attention to the vital force that exists unseen all around us. This week we consider the wind. This observation practice comes from Starhawk’s The Earth Path. Try this practice two or three times, at different times of the day, with different levels of wind. As you learn the various ways wind moves, you will become more aware of the earth around you.

Wind Observation

Go outside to a place where you can sit and observe undisturbed, in your backyard or in the park. Sit with your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands on your legs with your palms face up. Close your eyes and sit for a minute breathing deeply. Open your eyes.

Focus on the air and wind around you. Where is it coming from? What direction? What can you smell in the air?

Feel the air on your skin. Is it moving or still, gentle or strong? Is it cold or warm?

Listen to the sound of the wind. What is it moving through? Is it moving through trees, houses, concrete walls? It will sound differently depending on the landscape.

Stand up and move around.  Find a place where the wind moves strongly. Contrast that with a place sheltered from the wind.

Learn what the wind is telling you about the place where you are.

The Air Aware

We live immersed in air. We can’t live without this most essential element. Invisible, we can only see it through its effect on the planet: trees bending in the wind, ripples in a pond, a plastic bag tumbling in a parking lot. This month we turn our attention to the atmosphere.

As Unitarian Universalists we honour air as a vital life force that infuses the interdependent web. Breath is part of our weekly practice of meditation within a service, it represents the greater whole to which we all belong. Even an empty chalice is filled with air. Air is both within and without, oxygenating our blood, filling our lungs, surrounding us. We are not separate from the air which we breathe, through it we are connected to all other beings. We will explore the element of air through various meditations and physical activities.

Video Meditation

This week’s practice is visual meditation. You may watch one or both of these short two minute videos. Consider watching the videos twice through. Find a quiet place and turn the sound up on your computer. Put the video to full screen. Let your eyes go soft as you watch the images. It`s okay if your mind wanders; the point is not to empty your mind, but to not get caught up in your thoughts, to let them flow in and out of you as you breathe.  Take a minute to steady your breath before you begin a video. Breathe in, breathe out.

This first video explores the power and beauty of the atmosphere and uses instrumental music.

If you are interested in a neo-pagan understanding of the element of air, the video below provides details of its associations.  The sound track is a recording of the wind and is especially evocative if you listen without looking.

 

The Road Takes You

“Every time you leave home/ Another road takes you/ Into a world you were never in…”  John O’Donohue

For our final February writing practice, we consider the theme of journeys. Find a quiet place where you can sit without interruptions for fifteen minutes.  See the first post for the basic outline of the practice.

Theme: Journey

So much of our lives is spent travelling, moving from place to place. For some that may be within a limited geography, others wander the world.  All of us, however far we range, are also on an interior journey.  This journey of spirit meanders, goes around and comes around, taking long breaks then suddenly leaps ahead, but it spirals ever onward as we live.

Describe your greatest journey. It may your spiritual journey or it may be a physical journey, or both. Where did you go? How did you get there? What did you do? What did you learn? How did it change you? What did you leave with? Spend the time with the question which seems to need answering the most.

Describe your greatest journey.

 

Dark into Light

A Quaker women once described the silence in Quaker worship as the time “you were to go inside yourself and greet the light” (Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life). Writing, for me, is a similar moment in time and place to go within myself. I find it helps me to put all the pieces of my life in their proper order.

May Sarton, in her memoir Journal of a Solitude, quotes Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”. Journal writing for me is often about paying attention to the dark, making the darkness within (and without) less scary and more normal, which helps it to fall away.

I feel better after an extended period of attentive writing: lighter, refreshed, content. I don’t always feel like I am “greeting the light”, but I feel like I am at least making room for the light within, clearing out some of the darkness that shadows it.

Putting pen to paper helps move me into a place of integrated wholeness. In that grounding, I am, if only temporarily, more open and responsive to the wider world. Writing is a creative response to the divine mystery of living. It helps me be open to the beauty and wonder and spirit present in the everyday; it helps me to be curious and delighted by life.

This week we will explore our struggles with the dark. Spend at least 10 minutes writing in a quiet place. Light a chalice before you begin and take a minute to breath before beginning. See this post for details of the practice. If you begin with the image of darkness and find your writing goes somewhere very different, let yourself follow. If after 10 minutes, you have more to write, please continue.

Theme:  The Dark

Describe the dark.  What does it look like? Does it have a sound? A smell? What does the dark feel like? Where is it located? How do you feel about the dark? What scares you about the dark? If  your fear is strong, spend some time examining that fear. Where does the fear come from? Can the dark also be friendly? What do you appreciate about the dark?

Describe darkness.

wondering and wandering

“Wonder is the basis of worship.” Thomas Carlyle, philosopher (1795 -1881).

For this week’s spiritual practice of writing, we explore the theme of wonder. Author Brian Doyle says “Nothing could be as useful, as generative of joy and mercy, as energizing and refreshing, as nakedly holy, as a faucet of wonder that never shuts off.” Moments of wonder for me include: making snow angels under the northern lights in Saskatchewan, watching a baby blue jay learn to fly in my back garden, even watching the epic paintball battle of season one of Community. All these experiences were intersections where my spirit met the greater whole and said “wow”. The vastness of the universe, the beautiful life surrounding us, the comedic brilliance of humanity, all remind me that this planet is an amazing place to live.

Please see last week’s post for the protocol of this spiritual practice.  Find a quiet place and plan to take at least 10 minutes for writing.

Theme:  Wonder
Where and when and how have you experienced wonder? What moments of wonder have you had? Describe each experience in detail: where you were, who you were with, what it looked like, what it sounded like, and what it felt like.
Where have you experienced wonder?

Writing the Spirit

“Writing can be a way we connect with the spiritual forces that support our lives, a way to be in the presence of holiness and to honour the mystery of life and creation.”  Patrice Vecchione

Writing is one way to access the depths of your spirit – all those things you know but may not be aware of.  It is a way to access that “still, small voice within”, the voice of wisdom and insight that can be so hard to hear in our everyday lives. This February we will use writing as a spiritual practice, as an avenue to awareness. Each week I will offer a different question or theme to consider through writing for 10 minutes. If you have another question that you want to explore, or find the writing takes you someplace very different, please follow that path.

The Basics

Begin in silence. Before you begin writing, take at least a minute to sit in silence. Take deep breaths and centre yourself. Let your thoughts rattle away and slow down. If ritual helps you, before the silence, light a chalice or ring a bell, to shape this moment with intention.

Use a notebook and a pen. While most of us are used to the fast typing of a computer, using a notebook and pen slows us down, offers less distractions, grounds us in the physical world, and helps define this writing as a spiritual practice. If you use a computer, close all the windows and turn off e-mail and media alerts.

Keep your hand moving. Once you start writing, don’t stop, keep your hand moving to help keep your thoughts flowing. Writing without stopping also helps stop your inner critic from deciding some language or thoughts are best unwritten. Don’t step back and analyze your thoughts. Let the words flow. The reflection time comes afterwords. Set an alarm for 10 minutes.

Embody the word. Be concrete in your descriptions. Be specific. If you mention a bird, identify it – a robin or a falcon? If you are writing about exhaustion, explore how you feel. Drill down to the details. If you are writing about something abstract, describe it through the senses – taste, touch, sound, smell, sight. Giving your ideas a physical presence helps create connections.

First Theme:  Belonging

This week’s theme comes from the Rev. Karen Hering, a UU minister who runs Faithful Words, a literary ministry. Belonging is a key understanding of Unitarian Universalism, we belong to this planet, we are part of an interconnected whole. But it can be very difficult to feel like we belong, we often forget, or neglect, the ties that keep us together. Other connections we might not be consciously aware of. Not everything we belong to is healthy or right for us. After writing, take some time to reflect on what you have written. What stands out? What surprises you? What do you wish you did not belong to?

“The bird belongs to the sky, even though it cannot sleep there; the egg belongs to the nest even though it will not stay there.”  To whom and to what and to where do you belong? Hold these questions as you begin to write. If you feel stuck ask yourself the question out loud. Don’t editorialize your answers but simply write them down, develop each belonging with some detail.

To whom and to what and to where do you belong?

The flame within

There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.  Rumi

In Unitarian Universalism our chalice light symbolizes the spark of life within all beings. The light within each of us doesn’t always burn steadily. At times we might feel our light burning strong and steadily, at other times it might be fiercely ablaze, at others a dim glow. Today’s practice is intended to provide insight into the state of the flame within. Do we need to nourish our spirit with more self care? Do we need to channel some of our energy out into the world in more productive ways? This practice involves drawing and can be done with children.

The Flame Within

tools:  chalice with candle, paper, pencil or black pen, red, yellow, orange crayons and markers

Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably and draw easily.

Light the chalice with the words “I honour the light within me.”

Sit and watch the flame for a few moments. Find your pulse on your neck or your wrist. Feel its beat.

Let go of your pulse. Close your eyes. What does the flame within you look like? What does it feel like?

On the paper, draw your inner light. Don’t over think, choose your colours quickly and draw with loose strokes. The drawing is just for you.  Is your light bright and bold? Is it soft and steady? Close your eyes or focus on the chalice light again if you feel stuck in drawing. (For those who are truly reluctant to draw, you could also write out your response, quickly with the first words that come to mind).

When your drawing feels complete, sit back and close your eyes. Focus on the fire within. Open your eyes. Does your drawing reflect your sense of your inner flame? Describe it to yourself. If you feel your flame needs tending in some aspect, what might you do to feed the fire?

Sit a moment more in silence.  Blow out the chalice flame with the words “I honour the light within me.”