Every breath is a sacrament…

“Air is a matrix which joins all life together”, says scientist David Suzuki. “It is constantly changing as life and geophysical forces add and subtract constituents to the composition of air, and yet over vast stretches of time the basic composition of air has remained in dynamic equilibrium. The longer each of us lives, the greater the likelihood that we will absorb atoms that were once part of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ, of Neanderthal people and woolly mammoths. As we have breathed in our forebears, so our grandchildren and their grandchildren will take us in with their breath. We are bound up inseparably with the past and the future by the spirit we share.

Every breath is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things…”   from The Sacred Balance, p.38

Breathing Gratitude

This simple breathing meditation is an exercise in thankfulness. Find a quiet place and sit comfortably, either on the floor or on a chair, with your hands lying loosely on your knees. Close your eyes.

Breathe in with gratitude for your parents, grand-parents, great-grand parents all the way back to your early ancestors.  The air rushing into your lungs was their air too.

Breathe out with love, a gift to all the children of the planet, those with us now and those still to arrive. The air leaving your lungs will be their air too.

Breathe in with gratitude, breathe out with love.

Remember that each breath connects you to all has lived, is living, and will ever live.

Breathe in with gratitude, breathe out with love.

Sit with this meditation for five to fifteen minutes.

As the Wind Blows

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light and winter in the shade.” Charles Dickens

This month our spiritual practices focus on the element of air, as we pay attention to the vital force that exists unseen all around us. This week we consider the wind. This observation practice comes from neo-pagan author and activist Starhawk’s book The Earth Path. Try this practice two or three times, at different times of the day, with different levels of wind. As you learn the various ways wind moves, you will become more aware of the earth around you.

Wind Observation

Go outside to a place where you can sit and observe undisturbed, in your backyard or in the park. Sit with your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands on your legs with your palms face up. Close your eyes and sit for a minute breathing deeply. Open your eyes.

Focus on the air and wind around you. Where is it coming from? What direction? What can you smell in the air?

Feel the air on your skin. Is it moving or still, gentle or strong? Is it cold or warm?

Listen to the sound of the wind. What is it moving through? Is it moving through trees, houses, concrete walls? It will sound differently depending on the landscape.

Stand up and move around.  Find a place where the wind moves strongly. Contrast that with a place sheltered from the wind.

Learn what the wind is telling you about the place where you are.

The Air Aware

We live immersed in air. We can’t live without this most essential element of life. Air is an invisible power, we can only see it through its effect on the planet: trees bending in the wind, ripples in a pond, a plastic bag tumbling in a parking lot. This month we turn our attention to the atmosphere.

As Unitarian Universalists we honour air as a vital life force that infuses the interdependent web. Breath is part of our weekly practice of meditation within a service, it represents the greater whole to which we all belong. Even an empty chalice is filled with air. Air is both within and without, oxygenating our blood, filling our lungs, surrounding us. We are not separate from the air which we breathe, through it we are connected to all other beings.

This March, as spring begins to emerge on earth, we will explore the element of air through various meditations and physical activities.

Video Meditation

This week’s practice is visual meditation. You may watch one or both of these short two minute videos. Consider watching the videos twice through. Find a quiet place and turn the sound up on your computer. Put the video to full screen. Let your eyes go soft as you watch the images. It`s okay if your mind wanders; the point is not to empty your mind, but to not get caught up in your thoughts, to let them flow in and out of you like breath.

Take a minute to steady your breath before you begin a video.

Breathe in, breathe out.

This first video explores the power and beauty of the atmosphere and uses instrumental music.

If you are interested in a neo-pagan understanding of the element of air, the video below provides details of its associations.  The sound track is a recording of the wind and is especially evocative if you listen without looking.

 

The Journey Matters

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” Ursula K. Le Guin

For our final February writing practice, we consider the theme of journeys. Find a quiet place where you can sit without interruptions for fifteen minutes.  See the first post for the basic outline of the practice.

Theme: Journey

So much of our lives is spent traveling, moving from place to place. For some that may be within a bounded geography, learning the deep details of place, others wander the wide, wide world.  All of us, however far we range in body, are also on an interior journey.  This journey of spirit meanders, goes around and comes around, taking long breaks then suddenly leaps ahead, but it spirals ever onward as we live.

Describe your greatest journey. It may your spiritual journey or it may be a physical journey, or both. Where did you go?  How did you travel?  What did you do? What did you learn? How did it change you? What did you leave with? Are you still arriving?Spend the time with the question which seems to need answering the most.

Describe your greatest journey.

A World of Wonder

“Wonder is the basis of worship.” Thomas Carlyle, philosopher (1795 -1881).

For this week’s spiritual practice of writing, we explore the theme of wonder. Author Brian Doyle says “Nothing could be as useful, as generative of joy and mercy, as energizing and refreshing, as nakedly holy, as a faucet of wonder that never shuts off.”

Moments of wonder for me include: making snow angels under the northern lights in Saskatchewan, watching a baby blue jay learn to fly in my back garden, even watching the epic paintball battle of season one of Community. All these experiences were intersections where my spirit met the greater whole and said “wow”. The vastness of the universe, the beautiful life surrounding us, the comedic brilliance of humanity, all remind me that this planet is an amazing place to live.

Please see last week’s post for the protocol of this spiritual practice.  Find a quiet place and plan to take at least 10 minutes for writing.

Theme:  Wonder
Where and when and how have you experienced wonder? What moments have made in awe at the wonders of the world?
Describe each experience in detail: where you were, who you were with, what it looked like, what it sounded like, and what it felt like.
Where have you experienced wonder?

Writing the Spirit

“Writing can be a way we connect with the spiritual forces that support our lives, a way to be in the presence of holiness and to honour the mystery of life and creation.”  Patrice Vecchione

Writing is one way to access the depths of your spirit – all those things you know but may not be aware of.  It is a way to access that “still, small voice within”, the voice of wisdom and insight that can be so hard to hear in our everyday lives. This February we will use writing as a spiritual practice, as an avenue to awareness. Each week I will offer a different question or theme to consider through writing for 10 minutes. If you have another question that you want to explore, or find the writing takes you someplace very different, please follow that path.

The Basics

Begin in silence. Before you begin writing, take at least a minute to sit in silence. Take deep breaths and centre yourself. Let your thoughts rattle away and slow down. If ritual helps you, before the silence, light a chalice or ring a bell, to shape this moment with intention.

Use a notebook and a pen. While most of us are used to the fast typing of a computer, using a notebook and pen slows us down, offers less distractions, grounds us in the physical world, and helps define this writing as a spiritual practice. If you use a computer, close all the windows and turn off e-mail and media alerts.

Keep your hand moving. Once you start writing, don’t stop, keep your hand moving to help keep your thoughts flowing. Writing without stopping also helps stop your inner critic from deciding some language or thoughts are best unwritten. Don’t step back and analyze your thoughts. Let the words flow. The reflection time comes afterwords. Set an alarm for 10 minutes.

Embody the word. Be concrete in your descriptions. Be specific. If you mention a bird, identify it – a robin or a falcon? If you are writing about exhaustion, explore how you feel. Drill down to the details. If you are writing about something abstract, describe it through the senses – taste, touch, sound, smell, sight. Giving your ideas a physical presence helps create connections.

First Theme:  Belonging

This week’s theme comes from the Rev. Karen Hering, a UU minister who runs Faithful Words, a literary ministry. Belonging is a key understanding of Unitarian Universalism, we belong to this planet, we are part of an interconnected whole. But it can be very difficult to feel like we belong, we often forget, or neglect, the ties that keep us together. Other connections we might not be consciously aware of. Not everything we belong to is healthy or right for us. After writing, take some time to reflect on what you have written. What stands out? What surprises you? What do you wish you did not belong to?

“The bird belongs to the sky, even though it cannot sleep there; the egg belongs to the nest even though it will not stay there.”  To whom and to what and to where do you belong? Hold these questions as you begin to write. If you feel stuck ask yourself the question out loud. Don’t editorialize your answers but simply write them down, develop each belonging with some detail.

To whom and to what and to where do you belong?

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.