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.

 

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.”

The Energy Around Us

The element of fire surrounds us in the form of energy use.  Sunlight is the greatest grace our solar system offers us, sustaining all life on earth. Sunlight is a gift of endless abundance, with the plant life of earth converting that energy into forms we can use (Starhawk, p.99).  As endlessly inventive humans, we continue the conversion by creating electricity, powering our lives in ways unimaginable a century ago.

This week we will use sensory awareness (as in September for the element of water) as a spiritual practice. Sensory awareness or “reverential contemplation” is a Unitarian Universalist way to access our first and sixth sources. Through deep breathing, grounding the self, and paying attention, we can increase our connection to the world around us, reminding us we are part of a “great conversation” among all life on earth. It is intended to help develop observational skills and awareness of place. We will focus on the physical energy active around us, the lights and power we use all day.  This practice will focus on indoor electrical use, but could also focus on the natural energy outdoors (in warmer weather!).

Physical Energy Observation

Choose one room in your house, preferably one you spend a fair amount of time in.

Breathe deeply. Feel your feet firmly, yet loosely, planted on the ground. Let your worries and stresses sink down into your feet and into the ground. Breathe deeply.  Stay with this until you feel centred.

With your eyes closed, what does the room feel like? Do any images come to mind? How would you describe the space? What can you smell?  What do you hear?  How do you feel?

Open your eyes. Look around and notice everything in the room that uses electricity. The overhead light. The lamps. The television. The computer. The kettle. The radio. The blender. The radiator.

Now turn each energy user off one by one, starting with the smaller users. Pause after each one. Close your eyes. See if you notice any difference in sound, light, the feel of the room.

Turn off everything you can and stand in the room. How does it feel now? How do you feel?

Turn each energy user back on. Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Shake out your arms and legs. Open your eyes.

Take a minute to reflect on the experience.

This exercise is adapted from Starhawk’s The Earth Path.

The Element of Fire

Flickering flames. Silence. Paper set alight. It flares brightly and then dissolves into sparks, leaving no trace.

The fire ceremony is an annual January ritual for Unitarian Universalists. Based on the neo-pagan ritual of writing on paper, then burning the paper to release the words, UUs use the light of the chalice to move towards beginning again. Some fire ceremonies focus on letting go of the regrets of the past, others focus on hopes for the time yet to come. The flame represents that spark of life, of divine light, that is present in all beings.  The power of life is embodies in fire which can create or destroy, a force of transformation that is  dangerous, intense, and beautiful.  We need fire:  the light of the sun, the heat of the furnace – we are all dependent on the energy of combustion.

In honour of our UU fire ceremony, in January our spiritual practices will focus on the element of fire.  We’ll turn our attention and awareness towards fire, grateful for its life giving energy, respecting its power.  This week, our practice is the Fire Ceremony itself.  This can be done alone or with the whole family.  While meditating on the flame of a candle, we’ll  focus on letting something go or to focus on a hope for the coming year.  What do you need to let go over to move forward?  What do you wish to bring into your life?  While UU communities hold a fire ceremony once a year, as a personal ritual it can be done more often, when you need to release a burden or when you are seeking a new approach to a relationship or activity.

Fire Ceremony

For this ceremony you need a chalice, candle, matches, paper and pen.  Flash paper  – which flares quickly and leaves no ash – can be found in magic stores, but you can use normal paper too. If you use regular paper, have a bowl beside the chalice to drop the paper into.  Be sure to have some water close by.  Decide on the focus of your attention and choose a question before  you begin.

Clear some space on a table so that nothing else is nearby.

Light the chalice with simple words such as “I light this chalice as a symbol of the light within all life.”

Sit quietly watching the flame.  Hold the question in your mind and let your thoughts flow over the question, returning to it.

When you feel you have an answer to the question, whether it is a word, a phrase, an action or image, write it down on the paper. (You may also simply hold the paper in your hand without writing).

Sit and watch the flame and when you are ready, light the paper and let it go into the bowl.

Sit for a few more moments, then extinguish the chalice, with words such as “I carry the light within me”.

With Children

The fire ceremony is simple to do with children, just be careful to keep young hands away from the flame.  You may want to practice a few times before carrying out the ritual.

Ask a question in simple terms – what are you looking forward to?  What bad thing do you want to put away?   If they haven’t mastered small print, have them whisper their answer to the paper.  Take the paper to the flame together, so you can release it quickly.

Try a Little Loving Kindness

Our final December Meditation practice is arriving in January, fortunately it is all about loving kindness.  The January Fire practice will begin next week.

There are many variations of this classic Buddhist meditation known as the metta bhavana meditation from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. This version comes from meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg.   An ancient meditation, it was first heard over 2,500 years ago.  It is intended to cultivate compassion and empathy not just for others but for yourself as well.  As Unitarian Universalists, this meditation can be seen as an expression of our first principle, a way to honour the inherent worth of all beings, as well as our seventh, our connection to the interdependent web.

Loving Kindness Meditation

Find a quiet place where you will undisturbed for 15 minutes.  Sit in a chair or on a cushion.  Please get comfortable, closing your eyes. Settle your feet on the floor and get your back straight without tension.

Take a few deep breaths, relax your body. Feel your energy settle into your body.  Feel your energy settle into this moment.

The phrase to repeat: “May I live in safety.  May I be happy.  May I be healthy. May I live with ease.”

Gently repeat these phrases as you hold yourself and then others in your heart.  If you find your attention has wandered, don’t worry.  Just begin again. You may say them out loud or quietly to yourself.

Hold yourself in your mind and heart.  Hold an image of yourself, say your name.  Feel yourself be present in this moment. Repeat:
May I live in safety.  May I be happy.  May I be healthy. May I live with ease.

Call to mind somebody that you care about–a good friend, or someone who’s helped you, someone who inspires you. Visualize them, say their name. Get a feeling for their presence, and then direct the phrases of lovingkindness to them.
May you  live in safety.  May you be happy.  May you be healthy. May you live with ease.

Call to mind someone you know who you find difficult: to appreciate, to accept, to love.  Someone you have trouble with. If somebody like that comes to mind, bring them here. Imagine them sitting in front of you. Say their name. Get a feeling for their presence and offer the phrases of lovingkindness to them.
May you live in safety.  May you be happy.  May you be healthy. May you live with ease.

Think of someone who plays some minor role in your life, that you don’t have a particular feeling for, or against. Maybe the checkout person at the supermarket or the tim hortons staff. If someone like that comes to mind, imagine them sitting in front of you, and offer these same phrases of lovingkindness to them.
May you live in safety.  May you be happy.  May you be healthy. May you live with ease.

When we connect into these phrases, aiming the heart in this way, we’re opening ourselves to the possibility of including, rather than excluding, of connecting, rather than overlooking, of caring, rather than being indifferent. And ultimately, we open in this way to all beings everywhere, people, animals, all creatures, without distinction, without separation.
May all beings live in safety, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.

Take a final deep breath, and when you feel ready, open your eyes.  May this energy carry through into your daily round.

To listen to an audio version of a loving kindness practice, go to this Mindful page.

 

Just Breathe

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
Sylvia Plath

From long standing family tensions to the financial strain to the present giving pressures, the Christmas season can be difficult to navigate with grace. This week’s meditation is a time to stop and breathe. Mindful breathing is an ancient meditation practices, easy to learn and a powerful tool to calm the mind. With renewed calmness, we are better able to deal with all this season may bring.

Breathing meditation directs your attention to the breath, not making yourself breathe, but noticing it. You may find your mind wanders quickly off. The practice is to keep returning to your breath, without guilt or struggle or shame, after each distraction. Slowly, the distractions become shorter and it is easier to return to the breath. With regular practice, your mind will settle and you may become calm, steady, and peaceful.

While beginners can best practice breathing meditation at home, for 5 to 15 minutes, you can also tune in to your breathing at your office desk or at the mall. Taking a few moments to pay attention to your breathing can help ground and center you.

If you like support, look for a meditation site that has a voice you find soothing.  You can try the app Calm (which requires signing up, but has some good free meditations) or Headspace which has a wide variety of meditations. Meditation Oasis is a good website for guided meditation.  This page explains breathing meditation and offers a nine minute meditation. The link directly to the audio clip is below.

Breath Awareness Meditation

The Magnificent Universe

Spiritual practices are an avenue to experiences of awe.  Awe is our emotional response to things perceived as so vast and overwhelming that the experience of them alters the way we understand the world.  Awe is one way to gain perspective, a sense of our own lives in relation to the greater whole.  Cultivating awe helps us feel more satisfied with our lives and have a more expansive sense of time.  As Unitarian Universalists we celebrate the mystery; experiences of the universe remind us of just how much true magnificence and mystery surrounds our planet.  Contemplating the wonders of the universe is a core practice for contemporary Unitarians as it brings together the results of scientific exploration and spiritual reverence.

The final Lectio Universum uses classical music and images from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field to pull us into the infinite universe.  Without words, this meditation video by youtuber Jakub Barabas provides a glimpse of the astonishing beauty of the universe, at a scale that is almost incomprehensible. Watch this video in a quiet place in a dimly lit room.

The Universe is in Us

The spiritual practice of lectio universum speaks to our first and fifth sources.  The first source is Wonder: direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder…. and the fifth is Reason: humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science….  This video by Max Schlickenmeyer captures the deep wonder that can be found in scientific knowledge.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist who speaks eloquently on science, the universe, and everything. His words frame this beautiful video meditation about our connection to the greater whole.

Please find a quiet place to watch and take some time to sit afterwards in contemplation.

 

Dwell on the Beauty

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Awe awakens us to the world. It heightens our sensitivity to the greater whole which encompasses all life. In November, our spiritual practice is lectio universum, or contemplating the universe. The universe we live in is an ever unfolding mystery, staggeringly beautiful and astonishingly large. To look at the night sky and understand that each tiny point of light is a blazing sun humbles and amazes me, I am struck by wonder every time.

This month, I will be posting videos and readings about the glory of the universe. This week’s offering is The Known Universe, from the American Museum of Natural History. Created from a four dimensional atlas of the observable universe, its perspective moves out from the Himalayas to the edge of the universe.

I suggest the following steps in watching will help shape this as a spiritual practice; please adapt to your own needs.

Watch the video in a quiet place with no distractions. Sit for a moment and breathe deeply before starting the video.

Sit and consider your response to the video. Go for a walk, wash the dishes, fold the laundry – do something with your body and let your mind sift through images and feelings.  You may also sit in silence, eyes closed, for a minute or two.

Journal your reflections, noting feelings as well as thoughts.  Or, if you watched with someone else, share your responses.