Lucy Reid ( January 21, 2007)
I've been talking on a common theme around spirituality and activism, not so much just my personal spiritual journey but ours. I've talked already last fall about sacred activism and some of Andrew Harvey's writings and then I talked about activism and non-violence. And it seems to me there are 2 wings that need to be in balance ? the wing of spirituality - that often very inward personal, private thing, and the wing of activism ? being out there in the world.
What I want to talk about today is the concept of spiritual practice. It's really a concept that originally comes, I think, from the monastic tradition, from the East and the West. Spiritual practice in that context was where certain disciplines were embraced for life. And often they were disciplines that were associated with particular vows that were taken, which is why they were associated with monastic traditions. So for instance in the west, some of the classic spiritual practices that are embraced would be poverty, chastity, and obedience ? they would be the top 3 that you've probably heard of. Stability is another one ? Benedictines are vowed to stability, which is a very interesting concept as a spiritual practice: that you won't flit around ? physically, emotionally, mentally, but you'll commit to being where you are ? sort of "bloom where you are planted" idea.
And in the eastern traditions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, there'd be concepts like living with right speech, with right action, with right livelihood, with non-harming. There are many precepts from the eastern tradition. But all of these are ways of saying that spirituality has to have relevance to all of life, not just to one aspect of it, so that it is more than a system of belief, or a system of ethics even. It's a whole way of being alive.
I'm just going to mention 4 or 5 spiritual practices, specific practices which I think are helpful and which anyone can do, and which many of you are already doing. They're picked in no particular order; I'm sure there's another 55 I could touch on but these are 5 ones which occurred to me.
The first is prayer for others -- intercession. You don't have to believe in an interventionist God who has to be reminded to do good things by praying in order to practise this. You don't have to believe in a specific divine presence ? you could be an atheist and still commit to the spiritual practice of praying for others. It's all about the wording, isn't it? A Christian might pray to Christ or to God the Father to express their concern; a Buddhist would say "may so and so happen." So you don't have to have a certain set of beliefs about whether there is or isn't a God who does or doesn't intervene in order to pray for others?. Something much more basic happens when we pray for others.
I was reading a book recently called Primary Speech: The Psychology of Prayer by Barry and Ann Ulanov and they say this about the practice of praying for others (and I love this phrase they use):
"Praying for others immerses us in the ocean of connectedness with all beings."
When you have a concern, and I think the way you do it here in your congregation is so beautiful, with the candles and rocks of joys and concerns, it doesn't matter whether the person coming and lighting a candle believes in God or doesn't, it is an expression of opening the heart to something which has touched it and share in that. It also helps us practise letting go of feelings of bitterness or hatred or hurt. When you come in prayer for something or someone, or a situation or an issue, the very desire to bring it forward in that prayer, softens the heart, the practice of bringing it to prayer, softens that. It allows that kind of clench to open up a little bit. You can't hate absolutely someone you are praying for. You can hate what they've done, but you can't absolutely hate someone you are praying for. You may think you still hate them but the practice of wishing something good for them, dismantles a little bit the negative feelings. Now, in parenthesis?this is praying FOR ? in some fundamentalists churches, I discovered a few years ago much to my dismay, that there's a practice of praying AGAINST, I think that is an appalling contortion of what prayer is. We never pray against. We always pray for. So we always pray for healing or for peace or reconciliation or whatever it is, but not against.
When you immerse yourself in that ocean of connectedness, it dissolves the dualistic sort of thinking about "us and them;" myself being righteous, the person who's hurt me being a total scumbag? it dissolves that dualistic way of thinking. Buddhists talk about widening our ability to feel compassion and to practise it ? metta/loving kindness - where you start by sending loving kindness or wishing loving kindness to those closest to you, which is easy to do ? who wouldn't want to send loving kindness to someone you love? BUT practise sending it to people you are less connected to, to people you don't know, and then finally, people who you find very difficult to tolerate, people who would be in a relationship of negativity or enmity and as you practise increasingly widening how far you try to extend the feelings of compassion, sure enough the heart opens more and more.
So try it. Try praying in whatever tradition or way that makes sense to you. Pray for the very person or the very situation that brings you the most grief ? a very practical thing to do. Not to say that it presupposes what will happen -- I'm not talking about external results - I'm talking about the internal effect of praying. So that's my #1 example of a spiritual practice.
The second one would be any kind of practice of meditation or mindfulness. This is so basic as a spiritual practice. And again, the eastern traditions and the west have enormous amounts to offer here. Mindfulness techniques ? thinking of those in particular from the east with such benefit to us in the west, learning how to quiet the mind. Meditation and mindfulness ? learning to be more aware of what is ? more able to detach from the spinning hamster wheel of the mind, from the turbulent emotions; learning to observe them, but not getting carried away by them, so that there's more of a sense of coming from a place of calm and centered.
In the western tradition, the "centering prayer" is very much the same kind of thing -- when you imagine that instead of being carried on this river of emotion and turbulence, you imagine yourself putting an anchor down to the river bed and going down to that still place that doesn't move.
So any kind of meditation practice or mindfulness practice helps to dis-identify yourself from all the stuff that's going on and on around. You begin to reel in some of your projections and look at, examine some of your assumptions. You learn to detach yourself from your anxiety. Somebody said to me recently, "The trouble with anxiety is that it takes up a lot of time!" And it does! It's very time-consuming to be anxious compared to noticing what the feelings might be and setting them aside and moving on.
When we practicse mindfulness, we can also stop some of those tapes that run that get set off in our minds when something happens and begin to blather away with their stories.
Let me give you an example of this: I went to a friend's house recently, and I was a little bit late (we had a pre-arranged meeting time) and she seemed to me when she came in, to be tight and angry, and I thought "Oh no, she's offended that I'm late!" (and I am often late -- I run my life about 5 minutes late, just so you know). So I told myself this story "she's angry with me, and therefore this is going to happen, and that's going to happen and on and on," and then at some point, this voice inside said-- "Maybe it's not about you -- maybe that story you just told yourself and all the conclusions you drew, are not actually connected with reality?.. Wait and see what she says about it." And sure enough, she said -- "No, I just had a headache! That's all; I didn't even notice you were late!" Just gathering in those threads of anxiety and storytelling, distraction and turbulence, and coming to a place where there is centeredness and awareness. So that's #2.
The 3rd is a very specific mindfulness practice, but I wanted to give it a heading of its own. It comes from the Ignatian tradition -- that's the tradition that Ignatius of Loyola developed and taught, that the Jesuits teach now and it's the practice of the Examen -- sometimes called the examination of consciousness. And the Examen is an incredible tool -- it's a practice where you view a period of time- so it could be a review at the end of the day that you do, or you could do a review over your life, or you could do a review of an hour or an incident. It's noticing what Ignatius called the movements of the heart -- he said as you review (let's say you are reviewing your day) any time during that day when your heart, as it were, closed up; you became defensive, you became angry, you became anxious -- you know what it feels like when the heart closes up. He said notice those times -- and similarly notice any times in the day when your heart, as it were, opened; not necessarily feeling happy -- you can have a very open heart that is full of sadness, but you know the feeling when the heart is open. David, my husband, uses the image of a sea anemone. I think it is a beautiful image. It's there, it's open -- very fluid and moving, but when something touches it, it goes schlwooop. You know what that feeling is like don't you, when somebody says something horrible or when you get some bad news, and the heart just goes like this -- schlwooop, closes. Ignatius said, if you could get into the habit of noticing when the heart closes and when it's open, then you can practise more and more allowing it to stay open. As you become more conscious of what tends to shut it down, as that happens, you can get more practised at taking a breath, and maybe mentally saying a prayer, and opening it up again. Because the more we live from an open heart, the more likely we are able to love, to stay centered, to feel what's really going on, and process it, rather than lock it all down. Another way that he puts it is that it enables you to learn what brings you life and what brings you spiritual freedom, as opposed to what strangles life, and what takes away your sense of inner freedom. So the Examen is a very interesting tool. You can use it at the end of a day. Often when David and I walk our dogs around the block at the end of the night before we go to bed, we'll often do an Examen of the day, so the first 2 sides of the block we're mentally quietly reviewing the day and those moments. The third side of the block, one of us just says to the other one what we've noticed, which were those moments -- just a couple of them - and the fourth side of the block, the other person gets to go. It's a good practice; not that you're critiquing it or analyzing "the why," but just noticing because the more you can do that, the more you can be intentional about letting the heart stay open, even when it's difficult, even when it's a hard thing. But then you can be connecting with your higher self or your better self, your bigger hearted self.
The 4th practice is generosity. I think this is huge. The practice of letting go ... the practice of stopping being possessive, stopping being defensive, stopping being the selfish voice, deeply programmed within us. It is practising impulsive generosity. There's a Buddhist nun whom I have great respect for, who says she committed one day to following her impulse of generosity. We often talk ourselves out of being generous. There's someone stuck on the side of the road, we think "I'm not going to offer to help, I'm not going to stop because they might be a murderer; they might kill me." We talk ourselves out of being generous, being kind. The monastic vow of poverty is really not about being miserably poor, and sleeping on the floor, and lashing yourself with whatever they use, and sackcloth and ashes, it's really a commitment to generosity, to being totally open-handed.
Looking at the Eastern tradition, in Buddhism, there's a very deep practice where the monks go out with begging bowls depending on the generosity of others and at a certain point in their learning and their own process of deepening their monastic vows, the begging bowl is actually made of a human skull. It's a meditation on the ultimate letting go, which is death.
If we can practise that ultimate letting go which comes to all of us, which dying is, then maybe there won't be as much fearfulness. Maybe there won't be that clinging which takes away the possibility of peacefulness at the end of our lives.
So generosity is a very deep practice and people who've already had to let go of so much, like Judy for instance, who has been stripped of so much, can teach us how to give in a very deep way.
#5 Last one -- It's called walking the talk. It's so easy for people like me to stand up and spout away about all these deep spiritual things, but actually walking it is so significantly another step. So that's why my friend Kathy going to Colombia, for whom I lit the candle, touches me very deeply ? she's a counselor, she works in the counseling unit at the University of Guelph and she's from a Mennonite background and she, like many of us, had been hearing about Christian Peacemaker Teams, but unlike many of us, she decided "I will offer myself, I will put my money, my body, where my mouth is and I will go and say -- Can you use me?" And she did that ? she'd heard Jim Loney talk here in Guelph, and she contacted Christian Peacemakers and said "I've got two weeks; can I do anything?" And they said, "As a matter of fact, you can ? we've been invited to go to these mines in Colombia and you can be on that team." Huge thing... what a crazy risk to take! But she knew for her that was the next step in engaging her beliefs, her ethics, her values. Many of you will know Ken Hood who works at the Bookshelf and is a Buddhist teacher in town. He's convening a group which is going to look at what can we commit to in terms of environmental activism based on our spiritual beliefs. So that again, we're trying to bring together how we live everyday. Ken has chosen not to own a car, to live in a very small house, to walk everywhere, not to have children; many deep decisions he's made, in order to leave less of a footprint on this earth. I have tremendous respect for that. So there's an infinite amount we can do, but I think the key thing is that we do it. That we put our spirituality into action with practices that enable us to open our heart more; practices that enable us to open our hands to others more, and practices in the end which engage how we live in every moment on this earth. Spirituality isn't something separate that belongs in a rarefied place, it's not about escaping from reality, it's about a deeper and wiser and fuller and much more compassionate engagement with reality.
So pick something that will push you a little bit further and practise it. And the word practice is so encouraging because practice makes perfect; you don't have to get it all right immediately; just practise, and it will come.