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.

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Listening Heart

“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, the wisdom of Gaia, or the voice of God. Prayer as listening is close to meditation, it is a way to centre ourselves, to clear our monkey minds of all the clutter and noise, and be present in the moment.

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.

At moments you will find that you can sit and not think and simply be. This is an on-going practice, so the experience will come and go.

Try a listening practice for a few minutes each day. Given how noisy our lives can be, 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!

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/Goddess, 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, if we wish, 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, the Earth, or to all beings around them. 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 So Say I, or another word or phrase that feels right to you.

Try to do this practice daily for the next week.

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 insects and bats.  I have heard that the Haudenosaunee 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 offers a variety of North American birdsong.

 

Every breath is a sacrament…

“Air is a matrix which joins all life together”, says scientist 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 neo-pagan author and activist Starhawk’s book 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 of life. Air is an invisible power, 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.

This March, as spring begins to emerge on earth, 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 like breath.

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.