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.

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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.

Everyone is Here

Lectio Universum is a spiritual practice of this century.

It has only been in the last fifty years that we have been able to look back at the earth from space and see far into the depths of the universe.  The universe is astounding, amazing, truly awesome in every sense of the world. Contemplating the vastness of this mystery which surrounds us helps us place our own lives in proportion.  There is something both humbling and inspiring in being reminded of our relation to one another and the planet.

This video begins with the image of the earth – a pale blue dot – taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it left our solar system in 1990.  Astronomer Carl Sagan asked that this image be taken, his reflections on the image narrate the video. Sagan’s words have inspired several videos, this is the simple one from his official site.

Take some time to sit in silence, breathing deeply, both before and after watching this video.

 

 

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.