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 at people’s normal pace may come out when you go slow or even 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 one fall, wild turkeys, lived in my old uptown neighbourhood in Waterloo.  When I sat quietly in the backyard, there would be so much life going on around me. Birds flitting and chirping, rabbits tentatively hopping out in the early evening, unafraid if I sat still.  I felt 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.

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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

A few years ago I was driving  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 for years 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, labyrinth, meditative walking, walkabouts in aboriginal traditions, and ritual walks.

For Unitarian Universalists, our version of the mindful walking experience – SpiritWalk – 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 neighbourhood. 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 minutes 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?

Writing Prayers

In light of this week’s tragic van attack in Toronto, writing a personal prayer may be a helpful source of comfort, as we deal with the painful legacy left by a hateful act of violence. Now is the time to seek to a better way of being.

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 UU minister 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) by Rev. Christine Robinson

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 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.