Nature Immersion

My final spiritual practice – after gratitude, meditation, and journalling – is being in nature. This is probably the most meaningful and restorative practice for me – spending time walking in the woods always lightens my spirit –  and the one I find hardest to experience living in the surburban Greater Toronto Area.  I typically drive so much I don’t want to drive more to get out of the city, and while there are some good trails nearby they are short and haunted by the sounds of traffic. Walking there helps, but it isn’t the same as a longer walk or bike ride away from city sounds.

Reading nature writing helps fill in the gaps when I can’t get out, so today in this time of social distancing I offer you this poem by the brilliant thinker Wendell Berry.

Return 

Through the weeks of deep snow
we walked above the ground
on fallen sky, as though we did
not come of root and leaf, as though
we had only air and weather
for our difficult home.
But now
as March warms, and the rivulets
run like birdsong on the slopes,
and the branches of light sing in the hills,
slowly we return to earth.

Wendell Berry

icy crocus

Write Away

 

A Quaker women once described the silence in Quaker worship as the time “you were to go inside yourself and greet the light” (in Vecchione, Writing and the Spiritual Life, 2001, p.6).  Writing, for me, is a similar moment in time and place to go within myself and, if not greet the light, at least diminish the darkness.

I journalled extensively in my twenties and early thirties; I found writing regularly was an excellent self care practice. It helped me to understand my actions and sense of the world, but also to stabilize myself.  Through writing I was able to find the ground of my being, and be able to stand more firmly in the world.

Since the fall, when I began participating in a UU Wellspring group, I have returned to journalling – not consistently but regularly, and I have been reminded of its value for my spirit. The writing is largely stream of consciousness, I begin with whatever is on my mind at the moment I begin to write.  I have no agenda to the writing, I am not trying to record my days in detail, or examine myself in any particular way.  I follow the writing wherever it goes.  While it occasionally leads to an insight or epiphany, I find that it is most valuable in helping me let go of anxiety or worries or concerns about having doing something wrong or not lived up to an expectation.  Writing those anxieties out helps me to release them.  Writing out an experience gives me distance and perspective, takes it out of my self in a way that talking about it doesn’t necessarily do.

While I don’t write to the divine or use writing as a prayer, I do find that journalling is a spiritual practice.  I feel better after an extended period of attentive writing: lighter, refreshed, more content.  I don’t always feel like I am “greeting the light”, seeing it clearly, but I feel like I am making room for the divine light within me, clearing out some of the darkness that shadows it.  May Sarton, in her memoir Journal of a Solitude, quotes Jung: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”.  Writing for me is often about paying attention to the dark, making it less scary and more normal, which allows it to fall away.  If I have been able to write through a difficult experience and come out to a place of integration, then I will write about who and what I am grateful for in my life, where I find joy and wonder.  Writing helps me be more open and present.

In this new era – the COVID-19 pandemic – in which the future seems not just uncertain but dangerous, with infection increasing daily here in Ontario, writing has become a necessary spiritual practice to cope with stress. What is helping you make the darkness conscious?

(this post is an adapted excerpt from a personal essay written for a class in seminary in 2011)

All the feelings…

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky… Conscious breathing is my anchor.” Thich Nhat Hanh

With the COVID-10 pandemic hitting Ontario with rising cases and increasing closures, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with all the feelings;  most days I meet worry, fear, anxiety, anger, grief and all their friends, whether it is over breakfast listening to the news or during afternoon tea with CBC.  These are all healthy, valid and to-be-expected ways to feel as normal shifts under our feet, but some days my house feels too crowded for comfort.

Over the years I have learnt not to shut painful feelings out, but I do try to soften their intensity with mindful meditation.  Sitting with a guided meditation from the Calm app has been my go-to in times of struggle. Mindfulness helps bring the emotions into focus while breathing with intention, the breathing brings in just a bit of distance from the feelings, which helps soften their impact.  This is a spiritual practice that is especially useful in these uncertain days when we don’t quite know what is going to happen next. Who is going to get sick? How bad is it going to get? We just don’t know what it is to come.  I can’t change that uncertainty, but I can manage my reactions, so I turn to mindful meditation.

There are many good meditation apps for phones and tablets.  Calm and Headspace are the most well known and worth the subscription cost (I subscribe to Calm, which has series on managing emotions, sleep stories, and more), but there are some that are free or have good free access such as Stop, Breathe & Think, Insight Timer, and Smiling Mind, which has a special focus on children.  Experiment and find out what kind of mindfulness works for you.

The uncertainty of the pandemic means anxiety and stress are spiking.  Days of increased isolation, the loss of steady schedules and predictable plans, and worries about loved ones and livelihoods, all this wears us down.  Spiritual practices like mindful meditation – just sitting and breathing – helps us accept all of our emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

This is a time to tend to your spirit.

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Filling up the Chalice

It’s time to fill up the empty chalice again. In the coming days and weeks I will be using this blog to offer spiritual practices, poetry and readings, music and videos, and humour to help people centre themselves in this new world of COVID-19 pandemic living.

As a Unitarian Universalist I know that the way we get through this is together, with people sharing their gifts and talents with one another.  My hope is that as a UU minister I may be able to provide some insights and practices that help you breathe and find your way back to your inner core of wisdom and strength. One of the fundamental truths of UUism is that we are not alone but part of the web of all life; the COVID-19 virus is painfully showing us how interconnected we are, but that interconnection is also a source of comfort, even when it can only be realized at a distance.

I am at home in self-isolation – well – couple isolation – until the end of March. We came home last week from a week of holidays in Cuba, spending time in close proximity with international tourists and returning through Pearson International Airport.  We are following the government directive to stay home except for walking the dog, and we avoid people when we do go outside.

It was overwhelming to come back to a surge of emails, facebook posts, UU responses, government directives and news coverage after our limited internet access in Cuba. It’s been an anxious few days trying to absorb this new normal, and I have found myself forgetting my usual spiritual practices, when they should have been the first things I resumed!

Today I’ll begin with one of my go-to practices:

Gratitude Journal

For years gratitude journalling sounded a little silly to me; how could saying I like ice cream make any difference to my life? However, in a particular trying time, when life felt bleak I decided to try writing down three things I was grateful for each day.  Each one had to be as specific as I could, not simply “sunshine” but the sun’s warmth shining on my face as I walked the dog in the woods.

At first I couldn’t always come up with three, which shows how much I was struggling, but over time things shifted and I found it hard to stop at three! Taking five minutes each day to sit and think about what was good in my life did re-train my brain to seek the positive.  Each morning after breakfast I sit in my favourite chair and review the previous day, choosing three people, events or experiences. Keeping it specific helps to evoke the positive memory.  Even on sorrowful days there are shafts of light.

When things are going well I can get careless, either not writing at all, or falling back in generalities, but when I am feeling off this practice helps me to remember the good in my life, so I feel like I have solid ground to stand on instead of being stuck struggling in quicksand.

My dog Tikko is a constant in my gratitude journal, so here he is!

Tikko March 2020 2

Tikko is missing his groomer!

 

The Kind Commute

This month at UCM we are considering kinship.  Here’s a spiritual practice to build connections.

Build up your sense of being part of the whole – a sense of kinship with all that is – simply through being mindful on your daily commute.  Whether you drive, take the bus, or use the train to head into work; or take the same route daily to drop the kids at school, or have a regular routine to head to the gym, or walk the dog, use that daily travel to practice kinship.

Make an effort to be hospitable, welcoming and respectful to all the life you meet on this regular commute.  Smile, wave or nod at the people in the other cars, at the cardinal perched in the tree, at the dog barking in the window.  If you can, take a moment to wonder about their lives, or simply look them in the eyes and smile.  If you use a car to commute and get frustrated by other drivers, try to slow down and make space, let them into the lane with a wave.  Try to remember that we are all in this together, and make an effort to connect, even in a small way, with some of the other beings on your daily commute.

Even if you feel a little silly, keep on with this intention for as much as you can over the month.  Relationships take time to develop, but if others share your schedule, over time you will become familiar to each other.  Be present and try to connect with your kin.

(adapted from Rev. Scott Alexander’s kinship practice).

Reminders that Matter

As we explore memory this month at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga, this practice helps us to remember the wisdom that guides us through the dance of life.  What matters to you?  What are your dearest values?

Make a wisdom list of 10 thoughts that help you be yourself, whether that is positive affirmations or sage advice from a beloved grandparent.  Don’t worry about trying to get down 10  all at once, start with a couple and fill in the list over the next couple of weeks.

Some examples might be:

  • Remember to be kind to yourself.
  • Remember that Granny always said you catch more flies with honey then with vinegar.
  • Remember to take time to appreciate that first cup of coffee – slow down and savour.
  • Remember to make choices based on values, not just wants.

Make this list your own – write the specific pieces of advice and wisdom that have resonated with you throughout your life.

Adapted from Soul Matters Memory packet.

Precious Autumn

“I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house. So I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

This week’s spiritual practice is to pause, notice, open to the beauty of autumn.  Last week there were some glorious fall days with azure skies and tangerine leaves, leaving me amazed and delighted as I walked the dog.  It was impossible not to see the intense colours, so strong and alive in the sunlight.

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Pause, Notice, Open is a simple practice that brings us into the moment.

Go out for a walk around your neighbourhood or a local park, during the day, in sunshine or not.

Pause, breath slowly and deeply.  Check in with yourself, stretch and relax. Shake out your body. Re-direct your thoughts to the present. How are you feeling? Take a few moments to sit with what ever emotion you might be experiencing.

Notice, after checking in with yourself, look outwards.  Look at the vegetation around you, at the trees and shrubs, even down at the ground. Try to keep your eyes “soft”, let your eyes roam about you and then return to whatever tree or shrub captures your attention.  Look more closely, study the leaves, look at the light.  Move around to see the tree from different angles. Take photos if it helps you focus.

Open:  Once you’re satisfied with the looking, stand still and breath deeply.  Look a little more, take the experience into your body, and offer some gratitude out in return – to the trees, to life, to God, whatever works for you.  Then take one more slow, deep breath and return to your walk.

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Find a Stillness

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.

I have always like this song – 352 in the UU hymnal, – words by Carl G. Seaburg – a tribute to the potential of silence.  Silence is a simple and always available avenue into a deeper contemplation of the self, the universe, the sacred.  Or it can just be a breathing space, a moment to simply be in a busy world.  This month, as we explore the theme of Sanctuary, let’s practice the lost art of silence.

Make room for silence in your life, find short spaces where you can be quiet – take a minute of silence before turning on the car, take a minute at your desk before beginning work, stop yourself before turning on a podcast or the tv, and simply sit for a moment.  Try to stay silent for at least a minute.

This silence includes not checking your phone or reading a book.  Just breathe and be and listen. What do you hear? What do you feel?  See if the silence within is mirrored by silence outside of you.  If you are disturbed by outside noise, you may have to be more intentional in seeking quiet places. Or you might appreciate the life going on around you, either way, keep to your silence and simply listen.

For couples or families, consider a silent meal.  Make it an occasion: turn down the lights, dress up the table, and light candles.  Eat the whole meal without speaking.  Share your experiences afterwards.  Did silence impact on your awareness of the food?  Of each other? Was it enjoyable?

William Penn wrote:  True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.   

 

From October to May, I will offer UU spiritual practices twice a month, based on the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga theme or the season.

Seeing Flowers

“If you pass by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it, God gets real pissed off.”  Alice Walker

In our final month of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practices (we take a break for July and August), we return to the practice of observation of a particular element, this time flowers. For UUs, flowers, which are part of one of our of annual rituals, symbolize our planet. Flowers represent the marvelous diversity and beauty of the earth, reminding us of how much there is to see and learn if only we pay attention. Each flower is unique yet part of the larger eco-system, just like people. We all belong.

So we will notice – not just the colour purple – but all the colours of the flowers.  By turning our awareness towards flowers, we might see the great beauty of this world.

Flower Gazing

This is a Unitarian style engaged meditation – bringing attention towards a single flower. This 10 -15 minute meditation could be done alone, in a small group, or with children. You might have a single flower that everyone considers, or have each person choose a flower.

Find a flower. Set up a space that allows you to have the flower at eye level. Put it on a coffee table and sit on a cushion on the floor, or pile some books on the table so that when you sit on a chair, the flower is high enough you don’t have to bend your head up or down to see it.

Once you have set up the space, get comfortable, close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Let your breathing slow down and your body relax.

Open your eyes and gaze at the flower. Try to keep your focus soft. Look at the flower, at the shape of its petals, at the stamen, at the stem and leaves. See how they fit together. Look at the colours.  Smell the air and see if there is a scent.

Keep bringing your focus back to the flower but try to allow your vision to be wide. See the flower in the context of the space, but keep the flower in the foreground.

If you would like to touch the flower, do so, but move your hand slowly and gently.

Take your time. When you feel you have seen as much as you can take in, thank the flower (through a nod, through words, through silent appreciation).

Close your eyes. Check in with your body, mind, and spirit.  How are you feeling? Think about what you saw and how you responded.

When you are ready, open your eyes and go about your day.

 

 

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?