River Swim

River SwimI went into the river this morning!  This little access gem is only ten minutes from my house.

When I lived on Cape Cod, I discovered the possibility of taking a quick dip in the water every morning.  Cliff Pond was a ten minute drive from our house, so I’d drive over, jump in, honor the beautiful water, and I created a ritual to let go of all sorts of worries and troubles and joys and gratitude into its refreshing hold. One year I did this starting in April and continuing through the beginning of November. It was a central spiritual practice for me during that time.

When we moved to Maine 11 years ago, that was no longer possible where we lived in North Yarmouth.  The nearest water was a tidal bay about 20 minutes away. We could only swim there 2 hours before and after high tide.  It was great in its own way, and we loved paying attention to the tides.  But I had to find new morning rituals and new spiritual practices. Sitting in the screen tent.  Walking.

Imagine my surprise, after our move to Portland, when our friend recently told us about this access point for river swimming.  Margy and I went there to swim with her a couple days ago.  Thank you! And today, I got up my courage to go on my own.  Courage because, as a woman, I always carry a little fear about going to solitary natural places on my own.  But then I remembered–this is the River!  I need to take that risk and go into the water.

I have been astonished at the blessings that have been unfolding in our new place, unexpected treasures like the creatures passing through, and now the return of old lost rituals. My heart is full of gratitude and wonder this morning.

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Sacred Space

Screen TentI am wondering, what is it about a screen tent that is so perfect for creating sacred space outdoors?  It is somewhat sheltered from the sun and rain, and from biting insects.  Yet, it is open to the earth beneath our feet, the air moving through the trees, the sounds and sights of creatures all around. So much of my connection to the land at our old home came from sitting outside in the screen tent hour after hour, day after day, paying attention, listening, sometimes lying on a blanket, often praying.

A couple weeks ago I put up a screen tent in our new back yard.  This one is green–our old blue one had disintegrated after last summer.  We had purchased this one several years ago on our last camping trip to Winslow Park–someone was selling it used at the campground, and since we loved our own so much, we bought it.  So glad now that we did.  Finally, this morning of the new moon, I came outside to pray and read my journal of this moon. Inside the tent there is a chair and a little milk crate table, and I brought a blanket to sit or lie down upon.

Today I have seen tiny sparrows chattering and feeding in the grass–I think it was a mother teaching her young one, because she gave it some food directly.  I saw the shadows of cardinals jumping from branch to branch in the underbrush.  The wild turkey came into the yard and rested beneath the pitch pine tree several yards away, and then while I was resting with closed eyes, she walked around, coming within a few feet–maybe checking me out.

I am reminded that I need to come out here more often in order to make a connection to this land which is new to us.  And this is my sacred space, this little tent, this beautiful yard. I feel so grateful!

Ducklings

Ducklings at the pond

Every time I walk to the ponds at Evergreen Cemetery there is some new life unfolding. Today it was these four ducklings swimming with their mother near the edges of the pond, almost out of sight. But I also saw turtles sunning themselves on a log or a rock, frogs laying in wait for breakfast, and some goslings who are now adolescents still under the watchful eyes of their parents.

I don’t have enough time for this particular walk every day, but when I do take the time, my heart is enlightened by such beauty and vitality. Thank you!

Life and Death in the Back Yard

Yesterday I was sitting in a recliner in our back yard, just soaking up the sun, and listening to the birds and other critters. Suddenly, a hawk flew to the ground about 20 feet away from me and landed awkwardly. Its wings seemed to be splayed over the ground, and it was facing away from me. I didn’t have a chance to get a good enough look to identify it, but got an impression of a light color. I was surprised it was so close to me. Then it flew away toward the back of the yard, and I saw it was carrying a chipmunk in its talons.

I was astonished and humbled to witness this moment of life and death in the world of nature.  Perhaps the hawk was taking food to its young.  Perhaps the chipmunk was the one who, earlier in the day, had been startled to see me in the screen tent, when it poked its head under the fabric at the bottom.  I thought it would run off, but then it scampered right under my foot on its way to the other side of the tent.

Two years ago, just a little later in May, I had seen four baby chipmunks in the yard, in about the same place.  I went outside and sat down near them and watched them play.  They were completely unafraid of me and didn’t mind my presence close by.  At one point, they heard an alarm call from their mother, and ran to the hole to their underground homes, and sat right nearby looking around and waiting to hear if they must go back inside.  But mother must have given the all clear, because they resumed their play.

I wonder if today there are babies underground waiting for a parent to return. The yard became utterly quiet after the hawk attack, except for an alarm cry from a bird or another chipmunk–I wasn’t sure. No birds at the feeder, so squirrels chasing each other up the trees, no chipmunks emerging from the rain spout. But later in the evening, life went on.  At least two other chipmunks were dashing back and forth, and gold finches lined up to get their turn at the feeder.

What a gift to sit outside each day, learning what the land wants to reveal of her secrets.  What secrets have you discovered, just sitting outside being quiet?

Chipmunk babies

Chipmunk babies

A Bowl Full of the Universe

There are helpers and elders all around us; there is wisdom, if we open to it. There are animals and plants and fungal networks, and rivers and mountains and the wild winds. We can enter into relationship with all beings, and find help from them for the great struggles of our time. We have not been looking to our relatives and our ancestors for connection, and so we often are unaware of the powers that exist all around us. When Paula Gunn Allen speaks of consciousness as an attribute of being, it helps me to move beyond the narrow vision of my own culture, and claim my own experience of relationship with other beings.

Once, after the difficult ending to a relationship, I was rocking in a hammock on the back porch of the home I would soon have to leave. In that place of loneliness and unknown futures, I saw something like an image, felt a presence. Later I described it in a poem:

How can I trust my senses
in a moment full of loneliness
when the old dark woman appears
gray hair gathered in a bun in the back
squatting near a fire holding
a bowl full of the universe?

It was an ancient Innu grandmother, my ancient Innu grandmother from many generations ago, and in her hands she was holding a bowl. I could see the darkness and the stars swirling inside.

Image from the Hubble Telescope

Image from the Hubble Telescope

What is a bowl full of the universe? What did it mean? I am continuing to learn about that.

I know that a bowl is a container, a shape that can hold something. When we are facing the great mysteries of the universe, we need some sort of container. That might be the definition of a spiritual practice. We create a container to be able to connect with the earth, with each other, with Mystery. And even though the container is small, humble, it opens up to so much more―the whole universe is there, the oneness of everything, the larger whole of which we are a part, infinity.

The Innu grandmother says to me, “The universe is in your heart, and you are in the heart of the universe.”

 

What If Prayer Doesn’t Work?

Misty Winslow DSC04484What if prayer doesn’t seem to work? What if our desire is not fulfilled? Here is what I have found in my life. Sometimes, not always, something is awry inside my own heart. Maybe I begin to realize that I haven’t really discovered my deepest desire, and prayer helps me to find my true center. Maybe I discover I was afraid to take action on my own behalf. By opening our hearts to the movement of desire, of risk, of imagination, of action, we release great energy. In this way, the work of prayer fosters transformation in us that may go beyond our initial desire.

But sometimes, if our prayer is not fulfilled, it is just that there is no match out there corresponding to our desire. There was another time when I was praying for housing in Jamaica Plain, and it took four months before I found something. During those months, I’d often imagine a particular solution, and something amazing would show up, but then it wouldn’t be quite right.

I remember one day I did an errand on St. John’s Road, and thought, this would be a nice street to live on. Then later that day, a person came into the bookstore where I worked, and told me about an apartment there. I followed the lead with excitement, but found out it was too expensive.

Four months went by with such near misses and close calls. I wondered sometimes if the universe was playing games with my hopes and needs, but eventually I decided to blame a tough housing market. Prayers can’t work to find housing for all who need it, without our taking some collective action to create more affordable housing.

Sometimes, when we release our desire into the universe, the answer comes in ways we didn’t believe we wanted. I think about my last year at my previous church. I had been the Associate Minister there for several years, and then the Senior Minister decided to move on to a new church. When that happens at Unitarian Universalist churches, it is extremely rare that an Associate Minister can remain, or be promoted to the Senior Ministry position. But what I felt in my heart at that time was a deep desire to stay in that place, and grow my ministry there. So I pursued that possibility, and prayed for that possibility, even as I did the necessary work to explore other options.

When it didn’t work out for me to stay, I felt very sad about it, but then I interviewed for my current church, and was chosen to be their minister.  I believe that pursuing the desire of my heart as I understood it then, created a certain strength in me that enabled me to come to this new place and start a new ministry which was an even better fit for me.  I sent that arrow into the universe, and it landed in exactly the right place, even though it was a different place from what I imagined. It felt like my prayer was answered.

We are human beings limited in our ability to understand or control our lives, even though we’d like to sometimes. Prayer is our experience of yielding to the larger reality, the larger kindness, the larger goodness, in which we have our truest being. We can only pray what is in our heart. All the emotions, all the suffering, all the hunger, all the turmoil, all the joy. As Elizabeth Cunningham says, we must pray our “heart into the great quiet hands that can hold it like the small bird it is.”

In the end, it reminds me of the power of being heard. The best listener is not the person who tries to solve our problems or fix our dilemmas. The best listener is the one who cherishes us just the way we are. Who lets us talk and feel and sort something out by being present to us in compassion. So it is with the best prayer as well. We open our hearts, and we feel heard, we feel held, we feel cherished by this great quiet kindness. I hope that it may be so for you.

Does prayer work?

First of all, what does it mean to ask if prayer works? Usually, by that we mean that our appeal for help is answered in a way that we get what we need or want. But sometimes, prayer works because it connects us to the larger Mystery, and we feel the deep peace of that connection. We feel seen and understood. When that happens the specifics may start to become unimportant.

However, sometimes prayer also works on a very practical level. To take away pain, to heal, to find something we need. Once, I placed my hands on the head of my friend, and her headache disappeared. I was curious. Why does that happen sometimes and not other times? Are there ways to pray that make prayer more likely to work?

When I look back at my experience, I see that there have been certain qualities that were often a part of such prayer with tangible results. The most powerful prayers in my life included the experience of becoming aware of the deep desires and yearnings in my heart. I would even say that desire or yearning or felt need are the root of the power in prayer, the source of its energy.

It may take a great deal of introspection to know what we truly desire. Some of us have learned to pay so much attention to the needs and desires of others, that we don’t know how to imagine our own. Or we have been misled by advertising, which manipulates our desires toward the pursuit of consumer products and stuff. Some of us may feel we don’t deserve what we desire. Others of us may have felt that religion asked us to give up our own desires. But I believe our deep desires come from a sacred place. We are all sacred beings and worthy of receiving good things from this world. In prayer, we must welcome our true desire, our yearning, our need.

Drawing by Benjamin Crowell, Creative Commons

Drawing by Benjamin Crowell, Creative Commons

And then, in these most powerful prayers, comes the experience of sending that yearning or that desire out into the universe. I imagine it like shooting an arrow from a bow. A big part of shooting an arrow is letting go of the arrow. Letting go of our desire does not mean abandoning it, or giving up on it. Letting go means not clinging to the need. An arrow can’t reach its mark if we hang on to it. We must trust that if we send out the arrow, it will have an effect.

Prayer is not the same thing as worry. Worry is a kind of hanging on, imagining the worst future, rather than being open to the possibility of something good. We are finding a balance between feeling our desire, and letting it go into the universe as it will. So we send it out and let go.

All desire, all need, all prayer, has a risk attached to it. If we let ourselves feel desire, we risk the pain of its not being fulfilled. That becomes easier when we understand that our desire is holy whether it is fulfilled or not. Desire is only unholy if it harms other people, or disregards their freedom. We must hold a deep respect for all beings. Prayer is not coercive. For example, if a person is romantically attracted to someone, they can honor that desire as holy. But they can’t force the other person to be attracted back. Letting go of the arrow honors the powers beyond us, as well as the powers within us. We are joining forces with the universe, not trying to force the universe to do our bidding.

Sending out the arrow is a symbol of asking for help from the larger reality. Here again, the arrow is just an image. There might be other images to help make it real. We can send forth our desire into the hands of God, or imagine it being received by an all-encompassing Love. We may imagine it entering like one small channel into a great river of life. We can also send forth our prayers into the care of our friends. We can tell other people what we desire and need. When we join our power with the power of others, it grows stronger.