There is a good reason that my spiritual practices are eclectic. A Catholic nun taught me and my brother yoga when I was 10 years old. My mom signed us up for the class after my parents separated. My mom knew our family life was stressful for us and wanted us to learn some techniques for relaxation, self-regulation, and spiritual centering. Yoga has been a part of my spiritual path for most of my life since then. In fact, I experienced my initial call to ministry during my 20’s while I was in India, living and learning in a Hindu ashram on the Ganges river. I spent a month in the ashram studying yoga and breathing exercises and learning about the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita. One day, after weeks of training and at the end of a couple of hours of practice, it came to me like a flash of lightening that I wanted to be a Unitarian Universalist minister. Somehow the thought was more than a thought, it felt like my whole being had fit into place like the right piece fits into a puzzle. I spent the next few years testing the idea to see if it was as real and right as it felt in that holy and unexpected moment.
I spent four years in Asia between 1990-1994, visiting many countries and studying and learning in Buddhist monasteries, Zen tea huts, and various retreat centers. Yet, the spiritual practice I do everyday without fail is the one I began to do naturally as a child without any instruction. Everyday, more than once, I say a prayer. It can happen anywhere: in my bed before I arise, or in an elevator on my way to see someone in the hospital, or around the dinner table with my family or with a member of the church or in my car before stepping out to my next event. It is not that I think prayer changes “God’s mind” or the natural course of events. What I know from experience is that prayer changes me, the pray-er. I often feel more calm, awake, aware, alert, and willing to trust myself and the world after I pray. Once I began to notice this repeated positive outcome, it no longer mattered to me how prayer works or what makes it work. I knew that it repeatedly took me to a higher level of being myself than when I did not pray. So, I pray everyday, more than once.
Meditation has taught me to be an observer of my own thoughts and feelings. In meditation, my mind does not stop, it just gives me a time in the day to watch my thoughts and feelings arise and to note them and then let them go. Letting them go is the opposite of following my thoughts and feelings. When I notice I am thinking about some chore I need to do, or some story from my past or whatever, I think, “how interesting!” then I return my focus to my breath or the object of my meditation. In this way I become aware of the various trains of thought and emotions that are arising in me that day. More important, it has taught me to be an observer of my thoughts and feelings throughout the day so that I can be more aware when I am starting to become angry, frustrated, or anxious and when I am aware, I can choose whether I want to let those feelings (or thoughts) influence my actions or if I want to choose a different focus. Before I started to meditate, I was mostly at the whim of my many thoughts and emotions because I was just in the midst of them without any real consciousness about what was happening. In essence, they controlled me. The greatest gift of meditation practice has been learning to observe what is happening inside of me so that I can choose how I want to react in any given moment. I can decide to pause, take a time out, walk away, or in some cases express what I am feeling or thinking. I’ve heard it said that the “pause” between stimulus and response is something that distinguishes humans from animals. Animals apparently do not get to choose how they want to respond to what happens to them because they are mostly driven by instincts. Meditation has helped me extend the pause that allows me to be a more intentional, thoughtful, and focused person.
I also write in a journal almost everyday. I read inspiring and thought-provoking quotes and scripture passages daily. Throughout the seasons I enjoy leading and partaking in rituals such as communion, Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday services and little rituals that I may invent or borrow in order to awaken my soul to something in a way that requires an embodied encounter. In rituals our bodies may taste, feel, move, see, and hear things that spark new insights, deep feelings, or transmit wisdom. The first time someone looked me in the eyes and wiped ashes on my forehead and said, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return,” I came to feel and understand my mortality and the preciousness of each day, in a whole new way. These kinds of learnings stay with me long after the ritual is over.