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?

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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.

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.

Loving the Light

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”  Anne Frank

I can sit for hours by the flickering flames of a campfire. In the winter, I substitute candles in the living room, and try to get my family to dine by candlelight.  I was drawn to Unitarian Universalism in part because our essential symbol is the flaming chalice, the living light of energy.  This week’s spiritual practice is similar to last week’s fire ceremony, but here all we do is focus on a candle flame.  Not only is the flame beautiful to watch, this is a good practice for building concentration.  Your mind will wander, distracting thoughts will arise, just keep bringing your attention to the flame.  Try this for five minutes at first, then build up to a longer sitting period. I prefer beeswax or soy candles to the more common tealights. Beeswax has an especially lovely smell.

If you wish to do this as a family, have a candle for each person.

Candle Meditation

Find a quiet place and dim the lights.  Candle meditations work best with some darkness. Set the chalice or candle so that it is close to eye level, you don’t want to strain your neck looking too far down.  Make sure it is about 50 cm away, so it isn’t too bright. Get into a comfortable seating position, whether that is on cross legged on the floor or in a comfortable chair, one that you can hold for 5 to 15 minutes.

Breathe deeply.  Light the candle in silence or with words such as “I honour the light”.

Look into the flame.  Breathe quietly.

If you find your mind wandering, study the flame, consider its colour shadings, explore its heat carefully with your hand. If you have a particular worry that is persistent, try to hold it lightly in your mind without focusing on it,  you may find some insight as you watch the flame.

Watch the flame for at least five minutes, breathing steadily, deeply, softly.  Then blow out the candle in silence or with words such as “I honour the light”.

Sit for a minute more.

If you can’t access an actual candle, this meditation video offers 10 minutes of a burning candle.

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.