What Is Really Going On?

Tree Reflection DSC03816One fall, I was on retreat with other ministers, and our retreat leader was a priest, Rev. Ray Tetrault. He was a friend of one of my colleagues and known to us as a passionate advocate for social justice. Our task together was to reflect on the politics of our time, in light of our role as spiritual leaders.

He started us off with an unlikely reference from the gospel of Luke, familiar from the Christmas story. Luke tells us that a census was called during the time when Herod was the king of Judea, Augustus was caesar of the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Ray reminded us that they were the politicians in charge of the regional and imperial governments some two thousand years ago.

But what was really going on?” he asked. Something mysterious. In a small town, a baby had just been born—we know him as John the Baptist—and something new was beginning that would literally transform the world. This new thing emerged, not from those at the top, but from underneath, from an unexpected and hidden place.

Since our retreat was happening just before the national elections, all of us were sitting there with many stirred up feelings about the issues facing our country. It would have been easy to talk together about our political leaders, our concerns and our analysis. But Ray invited us instead to be silent, to listen deep in the quiet of our hearts, underneath our thoughts and feelings. He invited us to reflect on the question: “What is really going on?” What else might be happening here in our own time and country, underneath, unseen, and yet full of potential significance? What is really going on?

We kept the silence for an hour, and then we shared from our hearts. The next day we went back into silence, and then shared again from that deeper place. When I went into the silence, I felt something like a seed in my heart that was swelling and expanding, and also something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

I remembered an email that I had sent a few days earlier to my family members. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and my parents are both still alive. I have family living in Michigan, Texas, Montana, and West Virginia. I remember that my family was excited when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, but mostly we had not been very involved in politics. Now we have vast disagreements among us. In fact, the deep religious and political divisions in our country are directly mirrored in my family.

I had been moved to send an email to my family members about my feelings and concerns about the elections, and about the spiritual beliefs underlying my hopes and fears. Then others started replying: several of my sisters, my father, a niece and a nephew sent emails to all the others. Many began by expressing fear that if they shared their beliefs, others might reject them, but still they wanted to take the risk. And even those with very strong views kept repeating that, in spite of these differences, they loved each member of the family and hoped that everyone still loved them.

Somehow, in the midst of the cultural divisions facing our nation, we had ventured across the walls of politics and religion, painfully but hopefully, to share our truths with love. Our differences were deep, and our emails did not make them go away. But we were touching each other at a deeper level than our differences. And that gave me hope for facing the divide in our nation. In the silence of the retreat, I was realizing the mysterious unfolding that had taken place in our email conversation. It felt something like a seed in my heart swelling and expanding, something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

Growing a Soul

Fiddlehead New DSC00242Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies said “Life is just a chance to grow a soul.” He was known for standing up against injustice, and working on behalf of freedom, democracy and equality. For Davies, being fully alive meant living according to these values, and shaping the future toward a vision of connection and community. He spoke of the inner life at the heart of his actions:

“There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery… Fern Grow DSC03761_2In the mind’s dimness a light will shine; in the spirit’s stillness it will be as though a voice had spoken; the heart that was lonely will know who it was it yearned for, and the life of the soul will be one with the life that is God.”

For Davies, growing the soul means attuning ourselves to this inner light, becoming one with the life that is God.

The soul is not a passive object of salvation or protection, but a living capacity within all of us for a deepening awareness of connection and mystery. The Mystery Seed is another name for the soul. A seed is meant to be planted and to grow. To grow our souls means to foster our inner awareness of the connections between all beings, our inner awareness of the Mystery that is within us and within all.

Quotes from Davies from an article by Manish Mishra

The Soul Is a Doorway

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the soul as our capacity to directly experience the divine. He criticized the religions of his time for merely setting up rules and dogmas that followed the traditions of the past but offered no opportunities for today. He said,

…within this erring passionate mortal self, sits a supreme calm immortal mind, whose powers I do not know, but it is stronger than I am, it is wiser than I am…I seek counsel of it in my doubts, I repair to it in my dangers, I pray to it in my undertakings. It is the door of my access to the Father… It is the perception of this depth in human nature—this infinitude belonging to every man that has been born—which has given new value to the habits of reflexion and solitude.

Fern water rocks MJ DSC04376The soul for Emerson was linked to his understanding of the divine, not as a being external to us, but present within us, available to us. The soul was like a well whose depth kept getting deeper—there was no limit to this interior life, it was a doorway into the infinite.

The fifteenth century Indian poet Kabir also speaks about the soul as our capacity to experience the divine. He said:

Jump into experience while you are alive!
…What you call “salvation” belongs to the time before death.
If you don’t break your ropes while you’re alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten—
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next life
you will have the face of satisfied desire.

Kabir suggests that we can’t wait for some sort of salvation after we die. He reminds us that we must cultivate this seed—it won’t grow automatically. We must do the work of our souls now, right here, we must connect with the Mystery while we are alive.

The Mystery Seed

AcornsWhat shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?
                          David Whyte

Soul is another spiritual word with a lot of baggage. As a child, I learned that my soul was the part of me that lived after I died. If I was good, my soul would go to heaven. If I was bad, it might go to hell. If I was somewhere in between, my soul would go to purgatory before it could go to heaven. And the souls of babies that hadn’t been baptized went to limbo. There was a complex geography of souls to learn, and a lot of fear about what happened after we died.

Many churches tell us they want to save our souls, and I have heard old stories about people selling their soul to the devil in exchange for some favor. A while back, I heard a story of a young atheist who sold his soul on eBay. He got $504 from the highest bidder. I wondered how the highest bidder was expected to take possession of his soul? It turned out that what he actually auctioned off was the chance for the highest bidder to send him to the church of their choice.

Just what is the soul anyway? Is it something we can buy and sell? Is it something to be saved or lost? Just for a little while, try to set aside the definitions of the soul that you may have learned but that don’t work for you. Let us see if we can find some better uses for the word. I want to think of soul in the context of spirituality as we have redefined it. Our soul is our capacity to experience our connection to the larger reality of which we are a part. Our soul is our point of connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery within all that is.

Come with me into the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. When his mother and he are in desperate straits, Jack trades their cow for some magical bean seeds. The bean seeds grow overnight into a vine that reaches up to heaven. There he encounters an evil giant, who eats human beings, but Jack is able to escape with a magical hen that lays golden eggs, and a golden harp that plays by itself. He learns from a fairy that the giant’s castle is actually his very own—he is really a prince whose father was killed by the giant. In the end, he kills the giant, and recovers his hidden inheritance.

So what does this have to do with our soul? The bean seeds enable Jack to connect with who he really is, and with a larger reality beyond the small cabin he shares with his mother. The soul is like those magical bean seeds. We are so much more than we can imagine! We might say that inside each of us is a Mystery Seed, a seed of what we might become, fully alive. This Mystery Seed is our potential to connect with the larger Mystery of which we are a part. This seed is not just in some of us, not just in fairy tales or kings or saints, but in every one of us.

Poem from “What To Remember When Waking,” in The House of Belonging

Reality is a Dance

Kayaker Reality is a dance between making plans, and responding to small and large disruptions. So to embark on a spiritual journey is to grow our capacity to practice, to plan, to wait outside, and then to embrace all that reality offers.

A spiritual practice is meant to help us develop the skill of embracing what comes to us as an opportunity to wake up. A spiritual practice helps us to be fully present and to pay attention. If we have not been practicing, we can get thrown off by life’s disruptions, become grumpy and anxious, shut down or reactive. In fact, that can happen even when we have been practicing. Kayak Tipped OverBut I know from long experience that the more I practice this embrace of reality, the easier it becomes to shift from resistance to curiosity, from crankiness to compassion.

The spiritual journey is our search for an immediate, personal experience of the larger reality, our connection to the earth, to each other, and to the Mystery that connects and upholds life. Let us go back for a moment to an experiment.

Notice the energy in your heart right now.
If you wish, create an invitation in your heart, open your heart to experience the larger Mystery that connects and upholds all life.

As feelings come up, imagine your breath filling and embracing those feelings. Be present to what emerges in your heart. If you feel emptiness, breathe into the emptiness. If you feel joy, breathe into the joy. If you feel confused, breathe into the confusion.

The beginning and the ending of spiritual practice are in paying attention to the energy of the present moment.

After the wondrous, after the experience of Mystery, we must always come back to the everyday. In pagan rituals, they say we must “ground the energy.” We remember to eat food or have a drink of water. In Buddhism, there is a saying, “after the ecstasy, the laundry.” Sanity is being able to switch our consciousness from the mysterious to the ordinary. Life is not static, it keeps moving. We are not meant to remain in emptiness or in ecstatic feelings. We are meant to be fully involved in all that life is about. Says one Western lama, “What became clear is that spiritual practice is only what you’re doing now. Anything else is a fantasy.”

The most important grounding is how our spiritual experience affects the rest of our living. In the end, we may ask, What is spirituality for? I would answer that our experience of the Mystery that connects and upholds life is meant to bring greater power and resources into growing in community with all that lives. Authentic spiritual practice will energize us for greater kindness, compassion, peace, and humility. May it be so.

In the waterQuote from Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy the Laundry, (New York: Bantam, 2000). p. 126

Replacing the Floors

I want to share a secret about the life of a preacher. Preaching itself is a kind of spiritual practice, a paying attention to the present moment. I post my sermon titles and descriptions in our congregation’s newsletter at the beginning of the month, which means that they have been created in my mind at least as early as the end of the previous month. So the topics are hovering around my awareness for a few weeks at least, and they help me to notice things. So as I began to think about the spiritual journey, in preparation for talking about it to my congregation, I was pondering the practices of various religious traditions—things like Zen meditation, or journaling, or daily prayer, and what these might offer to us.

But then, the week before I was to preach, we discovered that our church building had a problem—people were reacting to some sort of mold or mildew in the air, and we needed to fix the problem. The people who volunteer their time on the building committee and the board of trustees responded. They decided to replace the old carpets with tile flooring. Of course this would mean a big disruption. Everything needed to be taken out of the rooms where the floors would be replaced, and put somewhere else. And if you take everything out of the church office, the church administrator can’t do her job. No computer, no copy machine, no email. No Sunday “Order of Service.” It all stops.

I had just gotten this news and I was driving to church on the Monday before the sermon, when suddenly it hit me: All of this disruption was also about our spiritual journey. Growth doesn’t happen just when we plan for it, but in what we do when our plans go awry. We can use everything. In fact, preachers always use everything when we are working on Sunday sermons. We use the books we read and the things that happen to us, and the songs we hear and the stories on the news. We can use everything. And we must.

House Destroyed DSC04194Because when we open our hearts to the spiritual journey, we open them to the larger reality of life. We embrace reality, and reality is full of disruptions. So the week that the floors were replaced was the perfect week to preach about the spiritual journey. The floor under our feet had been literally ripped apart, and we faced a new surface to stand on. People were sitting without any familiar order of service to guide them, and thus had an opportunity to embrace the uncertainty of what might happen next. It is called by theologians a liminal time—a time when ordinary events are suspended, and we hover on the threshold of what might come next. A time when we lose the illusion that we are the ones in control of our lives. We will either hang back, or take a leap.

Emptiness

What comes next? If we wait in the darkness, if we succeed in opening our heart to awareness of the present moment, we may discover within us certain empty feelings, a kind of spiritual hunger. That does not mean we have failed in our search. Rather, it means we have found the next step. An experience of yearning may feel like a hole deep in our being. Hole in RocksWe may be tempted to try to fill it quickly with some new type of ritual or escape into some other sensation. It may feel painful and lonely, like an absence of something we need. But this emptiness is itself a kind of window or doorway.

The Buddhist teacher Kinrei Bassis says:

“the deepest form of prayer is really just the willingness to be still and let the longing in your heart go out without defining or understanding where it is going. Meditation is the willingness to let go and learn to trust so that we may enter into this seeming darkness.”

The emptiness itself, if we embrace it fully, can become the doorway into the larger reality. The practice of paying attention to the present moment helps us to cultivate the capacity to remain present to our feelings. We grow more at ease with anger, fear, sadness, and longing. We are able to breathe into these feelings, rather than run away from them.

If we breathe into the longing, breathe into the emptiness, there comes a time when it may open up into an experience of communion, an experience of our connection with the earth, with each other, with the Mystery within all reality. It may feel something like dissolving into Mystery. This experience goes beyond the capacity of words to describe. We may feel deep joy, even ecstasy, an intense awareness of being one with Love. An old hymn described it as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Sometimes, that feeling may come unexpectedly, without any spiritual practice at all. The Mystery is funny like that. It surprises us. Sometimes it comes when trouble or grief has opened a chasm in our hearts and the pain of yearning fills our being to the core. It has been in the lowest moments of my life, that I most experienced the presence of the Mystery, holding me in love and connection and carrying me through.

Quote from “The Buddha Calling the Buddha,” by Kinrei Bassis, in Parabola, Summer 2006.

Waiting In the Dark

Milky Way

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I want to share with you a little story. I went outside to watch the meteor shower during an August night. I was just sitting in my driveway, on a reclining lounger, watching and waiting. Every so often, I would see a streak of light flash across the sky. But mostly it was just quiet and dark. I was thinking about the Milky Way, and how far the stars were spread out, and how long it took for their light to reach my eyes. I was thinking about the fact that the light from these stars was reaching my two eyes in an ordinary driveway in Maine. Suddenly the sky seemed so much larger than I remembered, and I felt so much smaller, an infinitesimal speck. And yet I was seeing everything, and my seeing was as large as the sky. I was a part of the mystery. What was inside of me felt as large as the sky.

To experience that feeling, I had to go outside in the night and wait. I had the intention of looking for meteors, but there were only a few of those. However, if I hadn’t been waiting in the dark, I wouldn’t have experienced the mystery of that night. To embark on a spiritual journey is like finding opportunities to wait in the dark, however we might do that—waiting in the dark, looking for what we think we are looking for, but sometimes finding so much more.

The goal of any spiritual journey is to lead us into that depth, that place where the known crosses into the unknown. There is a part of the spiritual journey which must be intentional. We must choose to wait in the dark. But the inner purpose of a spiritual journey is to move beyond the capacity of our own intentions, to discover something larger than what we could imagine—a larger reality, a larger love, a larger mystery.

The method by which we choose to wait in the dark we call a spiritual practice. It does not matter so much how we do it, but that we take the time to do it—that we take the time to be quiet with ourselves, or to pay attention to the world around us, or to stretch the muscles of our mind and heart in the questions that we cannot answer.

For some of us, silent meditation may provide a discipline for that inner attentiveness. For others, the practice of journaling may become a tool for deep reflection.
What did I dream last night? What am I feeling today?
What am I worried about? What am I thankful for?
Another practice is to read poetry and collect the words that inspire us, so that we can memorize them, and ponder them in our hearts.
We might walk in the woods or along the shore of the ocean.

Again, it does not matter so much how we do it, but that we take the time to do it.

No One Way

If some of this talk about spirituality doesn’t make sense for you, remember that we bring our diverse personalities to our experience of spirituality. We will not all resonate with every approach to spirituality. My colleague, Rev. Peter Richardson, outlined four possible approaches to spirituality corresponding to traits from the Myers Briggs personality inventory.  His framework is just one example of how our spiritual experience might be diverse. We all have natural inclinations to tune into different frequencies.

He suggests that those of a more intellectual bent may be primarily drawn to the search for great truths. Einstein is one such mystic of the scientific realms. He felt awe and wonder at the mysteries of life revealed through science. A first step for an intellectual might be to appreciate the intricacy and beauty of the natural world, to pay attention to those moments of wonder.

Those of a more practical bent may be drawn to the works of goodness. They might find inspiration in the path that Gandhi shaped, to live out the connectedness of life by organizing for justice on behalf of the oppressed. A first step might be to volunteer for a soup kitchen, to pay attention to the larger reality in the gift of soup that connects us to someone who is hungry.

Those of an emotional bent are more likely to be drawn by love and devotion to divine or spiritual beings. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote thousands of love poems to the divine Friend, whom he felt most closely through his relationship with his human friend Shams. These are the folk who might especially benefit by reading the poems of the mystics, by music and incense and sacred ritual.

Finally, there are those of an intuitive bent, who may be drawn to the unfolding and transformation of the self into the larger self. The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson might be a guide for those in this visionary orientation. These folk may be drawn to a diversity of practices and rituals, and may find their spiritual experience changing greatly over time.

There is no one way to practice spirituality. We begin by being aware of the present moment, by inviting our hearts to pay attention. We can notice those activities that help us to feel a sense of connection and wonder and gratitude, that help our hearts to feel most alive. We can invite the larger reality into our lives, by choosing to bring more of these activities into our daily lives.

Path

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Peter Richardson, Four Spiritualities, (1996.) Find it here.

Imagination as a Tool

Imagination can play an important role in shifting our attention. If we want to find that which is larger than words, that which we cannot define or explain by words, we need to access the playfulness of the non-verbal mind. Images are one way that we can experience the non-verbal realms. Carl Jung taught us about the power of dream images to express realities which could not be expressed in words. In my dreams, I have experienced the power to fly, to light candles from across the room, to heal with fire in my hands. Our dreams can be a pathway into a different consciousness.

Candle flameSometimes, people shift their attention by calling upon an image of the larger reality. Some people call upon God to hear them and to speak to them. Others invite the goddess to enter the circle. Or we might say, Infinite Light, be here now, and light a candle. These invitations are also called invocations. It might feel silly to us to call out to someone or something that we don’t even know is there. But any time we invite the larger reality into the room, what we are really doing is inviting our hearts to shift their attention. We are re-tuning our hearts to notice the light that is already there.

The images are meant not to be objects to grasp in our minds, but tools for the imagination to awaken the mysteries of connection within us. So, if I say, “Spirit of Life, please open my heart to the wonders of your world,” I create an intention, a form that can hold the energies in a certain rhythm or shape. I open a window in my consciousness, to see what my literal eyes cannot. When we open the door, there is something that wakes up, something beyond what we can expect or explain. If we don’t open the door, we will never know what is out there, or in here.