A Return to Nature as Sacrament…

Solidarity Thursdays
Thursday, January 10th 2013

“You are sitting on the earth and you realize that this earth deserves you and you deserve this earth. You are there—fully, personally, genuinely.”
~ Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

For the majority of my childhood, I grew up in Valley Center, California.  It is a rural town in the northeast of San Diego County.  If I had to pick one thing to be thankful for, from my childhood, it would be this – that I had the opportunity to fall in love with nature at such an early age.

Even as I write this, I feel moved to express my gratitude to my parents, yet again.  What a gift it was to fill my days with hands in dirt, running through fields, sitting and watching lizards, insects, and squirrels. I was given the freedom to just sit – listening to birds in song and the wind dancing through the great oak trees.  These early experiences began in me a journey of appreciation, respect, and love of nature and this tiny blue planet we call home.  It was in these early experiences that I began to see the sacred, the divine.  If philosophy is in the head, then Spirituality is in the heart – it is experiential.  And for me, the most spiritual experiences I have had have been in the presence of nature.  Nature, has for me, been a Sacrament.  A window into what is Sacred, what is Divine.

I miss the days when I allowed myself such freedom.  At times I long for the great oak trees, their strength, their music.  So much so, that when shopping or running errands, I even find myself subconsciously picking the parking space with the tree, if there is one, rather than not. I long for these experiences for my nephews and niece.  “Play outside” I remind them, maybe too often, because I know that love grows in experience and in time and space.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful – very grateful for technology in all of its embodiments.  I use my iPhone, maybe too often (it’s sooooo wonderful!)  I know that much of my life is dependent on computers, that I enjoy computers (they are sooooo wonderful!)  But they don’t inspire my heart to sing, my hands to open – to reach out, my feet to dance, or that deep breath that I instinctively know to take when I see a vast blue sky.  I like technology.  But I love nature.

So I worry a bit, for my nephews and niece.  Though, they too have a fondness for nature (especially the oldest), as long as they’ve known nature they have also known video games, iPods, and DVD players.  Nature has so much competition.  And although it is certain that all of this technology has benefitted humankind in a myriad of ways, there has been a cost – a shadow side to this great revolution.

We have in a way been distanced from nature, in very real, tangible ways.  We have been distanced not only in geography as we use up land for resource and move closer to cities for work.  But also in our psychology as so much of the resources nature provides are manufactured, packaged and then put on a shelf for us before we consume.  This applies to almost all we purchase in the West, from materials to food.  There is a distance, a disconnect that develops with a life thus lived.  We forget how deeply we are connected to nature, when are so far away that we don’t see the source of what we consume, we just know the store names.  We have even manipulated our religious practices, perhaps unknowingly – conveniently, in such a way to support this disconnect.

ONE2010

“The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the Earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise — then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.”
~ Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
 

“…then we shall perish…”   

This isn’t a judgment, it is our reality.  If we are of nature, if nature is where life is to be found – then as we are distanced from nature, we are distanced from life.  I see this not only in our environmental changes, but also in our psychology – our increased anxieties and depression.  Not that playing in dirt will end all anxieties and depression, but feeling connected and whole would – I believe – go a long way in healing many of our wounds.  In my experience, being close to nature has been a grounding force in my life.  And as we find ourselves grounded in nature, we find ourselves connected to all life.  To paraphrase Neil Degrasse Tyson – we are connected to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically, and to the entire Universe atomically. 

I think there is great reason for hope, when contemplating our future.  For one thing, the Earth and nature itself is supportive of Life.  The Earth has seen a lot of destruction and extinction of many species, even as it has also promoted healing from such destruction and supported the evolution of new species.  The Earth and life on it, most likely, will go on.  But will we?  If we begin to see ourselves not only as consumers and benefactors of the Earth, but as partners and co-creators with the Earth, with nature – then yes, I think we will.

And this is why I see reason to hope.  Even as over time, we have strayed away from the connected – grounded practices of indigenous and native culture, and from the ancient earth/nature-based spiritual traditions, there is now a resurgence and the beginnings of such awareness and (I believe) a rich desire to reconnect.

I believe we are beginning a new age, a return to nature as Sacrament.  I see it in the new movement of integrated contemplative Christianity (which is, perhaps, actually a return to a more original – less corporate Christianity) and also in Engaged Buddhism, a term of which Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “was created to restore the true meaning of Buddhism.”  And perhaps, our brothers and sisters from the indigenous, native and nature-based spiritualities will lead the way.  I think those of us not from these traditions, would do well to listen and learn from their reverence for and relationship with nature.

BuddhaWitness

One of the most iconic images of The Buddha, is of him sitting under the bodhi tree, his left hand palm up on his lap, his right hand touching the Earth.  It is said that on the night of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment and realization of being The Buddha, he was attacked by the demon, Mara.  Mara, proud and jealous, challenged Siddhartha’s right to sit there, claiming enlightenment to be his.  Mara’s soldiers shouted out, bearing witness to Mara’s great accomplishments and right to be there.  When Mara then asked Siddhartha, “Who bears witness for you?”  Siddhartha sitting there, calm and grounded, reached out with his right hand and touched the Earth, at which point the Earth itself answered, “I bear witness.”  It is at this point that Mara disappears and as the morning star rose in the sky, Siddhartha realized his enlightenment and becomes The Buddha.

The Earth has indeed been bearing witness for us, for all life, as long as it has existed.  It is now, perhaps, our time to return the favor.  It is our time to return to nature as Sacrament.  And it is up to each of us to find the practice that best helps us to do so.

I have a practice I do every morning as part of my meditation.  It is a practice I do to realign myself – to remind myself of my connection to all Life.  I use the mantra “Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om”.  Om is said to be the primordial sound of Life itself and Shanti means “peace”.  Sitting, I place both hands on my heart.   I allow myself to feel my heart beating as I breathe in and breathe out.  I then while breathing in, with both hands over my heart, say in my mind, “Om”.  In between the breath, I say in my mind, “Shanti Shanti Shanti”. As the breath leaves my body, I say in my mind again, “Om”.  I repeat this with one hand on my heart and one hand touching the Earth.  I then repeat it a third time with one hand on my heart and one hand resting in space.

HeartBless          EarthBless          SpaceBless

I then end this practice with hands together, as I bow my head in reverence and gratitude to Life.  I have started my day establishing first, a wish for peace within my own heart, that I may have peace and be an instrument of peace for the world.  Then a wish for peace to all who share this ground, this Earth with me.  And then a wish for peace to all who breathe this same air and share this same space with me.  And finally a bow to ALL of it.  Then as I go about my day, I try to recognize the Divine in all I see, greeting Nature as a relative rather than stranger, as part of me rather than an other, as Brother Sun and Sister Moon, as St. Francis would say.

I think it is imperative that we all find a way to do this.  Not only is it necessary for our survival, it is necessary for knowing who we are.  So when out and about take some time to sit and watch the ocean, to lay in some grass watching clouds move across the sky, look out at the vast canopy of night – dotted with light as you hold your lover’s hand, to hug a tree, or talk to ants marching.  Connecting with Nature is connecting with You.

Namasté

For more reading on this Solidarity Thursday topic, please check out these wonderful blogs: Ben at The Horizontalist, Esther at Church in the Canyon, and with a unique perspective, Triskaidekapod.

saying “yes”…

Solidarity Thursdays
Thursday, January 3rd 2013

saying “yes”…

YesEnso

Happy New Year friends and welcome to my first blog for 2013 and the first coordinated blog of 2013 as part of our continuing series, Solidarity Thursdays.  I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to share space with Ben, Esther, and Zachary.

This week’s blog topic, appropriately, is “New Beginnings”.  Ironically, I have had quite a bit of difficulty…beginning.

You see, I find myself – my heart and mind – still bound up in 2012, at least where it has bled into 2013.  Try as I might, sitting in meditation, chanting “let go, let go”, I have discovered that even as I sit on that cushion I am harboring anger, frustration, and sadness over recent events.  I am grieving in empathy with the families of the numerous children so tragically taken from life.  I am grieving the ever increasing reaction we have to greet such horrific violence, with preparation to impart even more violence as a means to end violence.  And in this, I am not speaking of the families who were directly affected.  I would expect and understand such a reaction from such pain and suffering.  Ironically, most victims are not calling for what is being set forth.  A peripheral audience of opportunists, along with those guided by fear seems to be framing the discussion. I am grieving that politics can seemingly – so callously – ignore violence towards women or victims of Hurricane Sandy by not renewing The Violence Against Women Act or securing funds for these destitute people still without homes, still without assistance so long after the event.  I am grieving for our over-consumption of resources resulting in an increasingly fragile environment and increasing poor.  I am grieving that there is such continued imbalance of power, not through legitimate means, but instead through manipulation and dishonesty.  I am grieving that this is so often a cause for celebration, rather than a wake up call to compassionate change.

And in this grieving and attachment, I feel disconnected.  I feel disconnected to this world, where life is seen as so fragmented – where people entertain the idea of the “other” – where violence is seen as normal and in some cases even morally right and even a “necessary evil” – where for a matter of convenience we can look the other way, even as so many unnecessarily starve to death.  I grieve that I have played a part in this just as anyone else has.  I grieve, because Life itself is grieving. I grieve, because I am, indeed, connected to this world.  I grieve, because I so love the people in this world.  I grieve, because I long for people to stop and remember their nobility, their Divine Heritage as children of God, of Life, of Love – however you want to define or frame it.  We are better than the violence, we are better than the overconsumption, we are better than the indifference, and we are better than fear.

I remember, I read quite some time ago when I began my meditation practice – specifically Metta, or loving-kindness meditation and with it a practice called Tonglen – that it isn’t unusual for a practitioner to become more aware and in touch with sadness…because even in its joy and beauty, life is always tinged with what I would call a sacred sadness.  It isn’t just in Buddhism where this is recognized, just look to the artwork of Christianity where Jesus is depicted pointing to his exposed and Sacred Heart.  Or even to the story of the crucifixion itself, where it is implied that it wasn’t just the wounds but the great burden of carrying within himself the brokenness of life that extinguished his.  Loving until the heart itself breaks.  As our heart opens to the world, we begin to see and connect to the pain of the world – pain we have participated in and pain we have been victims of.  This coming of age to pain, this befriending of sadness, is an opportunity for compassion.

So I sat on the meditation cushion this very day, my breath interrupted by the thoughts listed above.  I sat, with my heart heavy, my emotions ready and raw.  And all I could do was what my practice continues to teach, what the Buddha taught 2500 years ago, and what Jesus encouraged with every person he encountered – begin anew.  Beginning anew – coming back to my breathing, connecting my mind with my body, and in doing so reminding myself to live as a Whole being, a being of compassion, a partner to Life, a child of Love.

And I was reminded what it means to begin anew.  It is our way of saying “yes” to Life with our life.  It is our way of aligning ourselves with Life itself, of saying we are not separate, rather we are partners.  It is our way of living Love, of acting with compassion.

It is a given that we need Life…but have you ever thought that Life, in fact, needs you?  That this may bring meaning to why you are still breathing?  That this may bring inspiration and motivation to why you are still here, to say in continuance – Yes, yes, and again, yes.

YESensos

We fall, we rise.  This is the pattern.  The New Year is a wonderful way to ritualize this, but then again, so is each breath that we take.

May this New Year be blessed with many new beginnings as our hearts continue to open to Life and in service to compassion.  Here is the blessing I shared on Facebook for New Years, may it be so:

“May you know your own beauty and sacredness just as you are. May you feel understood and valued. May you continue to learn, grow and open to all of what Life offers you. May you still experience peace when troubled, healing when wounded, patience when angered, and joy after sadness. And most of all, may you know that you are loved.”

Namasté

For more reading on this Solidarity Thursday topic, please check out these wonderful blogs: Ben at The Horizontalist, Esther at Church in the Canyon, and with a unique perspective, Triskaidekapod.

fasting ~ the practice of letting go…

Solidarity Thursday
Thursday, November 15, 2012

“Stop, look around, and see how wonderful life is: the trees, the white clouds, the infinite sky. Listen to the birds, delight in the light breeze. Let us walk as free people…”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Fasting…

I was raised Lutheran, which is a denomination of the Protestant branch of Christianity. If Episcopalians are “Catholic light”, then we were even a bit “lighter” with just a few Sacraments short of the full deal. Nonetheless, giving up something for the Lenten season was a pretty regularly encouraged practice, though not rigorously enforced. It is the season of fasting bookended by Ash Wednesday at the beginning and ending with Holy Thursday or Easter Eve in some cases. It is about a six week or 40 day period to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. We would “fast” or give up something important to us during this period. Adults often gave up drinking alcohol and perhaps other “vices” during this time. As children, we often gave up candy or dessert or some other thing that made us resent the whole practice, leading us to see it mainly as a way for adults to oppress us further…what did candy ever do to anyone?! Just because Jesus didn’t have dessert in the desert, why can’t I? In any case, at the very least, Lent would provoke a roll of the eyes if not a fully committed grimace. Why does God want me to do without? How is this, an act of worship?

What? There’s a practical purpose to this nonsense?..

It wasn’t until the end of my early early adulthood that I began to see the subtle genius in fasting as a practice. It takes time to break habits. It takes time to create habits. There are many differing opinions regarding how long it takes to break or create a habit. It can depend on how deeply imbedded these patterns are and everyone is different. That being said, there seems to be some consensus that it can take about a month and a half…six weeks.

Here’s an example….

A number of years ago, my friend Mitch and myself discussed giving up stuff for Lent and possibly taking on a good habit or two as well. It was an opportunity for me to return to this practice as an adult and for Mitch who had not been raised with a particular religion, it was an opportunity to try it out. We took up the challenge. One of the challenges (thing to give up) was coffee. I know this is sacrilege for some, however, I knew I wasn’t addicted – I mean, I can drink a cup right before bed and then promptly lay down and go to sleep. And I knew I didn’t need coffee, so I thought it would be a no-brainer, easy-peasy, walk in the park. The first day was a breeze. None of that headache or body ache or lack of focus stuff people lament after giving up coffee. Day One = Success….then Day Two happened. Day Two began with one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had. Nothing seemed to help and somehow knowing that I still had more to gain from this experience, the headache decided to last for another two days….just to make its point. I couldn’t believe it. I had been physically addicted to coffee.

I did go back to drinking coffee, though not nearly as much since I fell in love with tea, but I learned a valuable lesson about myself and my body through fasting.

It isn’t about taking away…it is about letting go…

Now here I am today, nearing the beginning of middle adulthood, seeing my younger days in the rear view mirror and fasting has become something else. I now see fasting as an exercise, a practice in simplicity and letting go. I think this lesson is very much within the body of fasting within the Christian context and certainly a lesson within Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, or even the 40 days for Noah riding – waiting, during the flood. It can be good to surrender; it can be good to grow in our capacity to wait. But for me, it has been through the lens of my Buddhist practice – where letting go is the main theme – that I have seen and experienced this practice anew.

As a child, or as I did with my friend Mitch, it was a practice of community, of support, of accountability. Now it is a solitary practice, one in which I discover what is actually necessary, what I can do without, what is real. Fasting has become a practice of not only the letting go of physical or material things, but of looking deeper to emotions and patterns of the mind. Fasting from anger, from despair, from fear and grasping. Fasting is a way to promote simplicity and create space, so I am available to this present moment, to what is here for me now in this moment, that I may be aware and free to dance with Life and sing the song of Love with all.

When I can do this, when we can do this, we will be able as Thich Nhat Hanh says in the quote above, to walk as free people.

In the meantime, every once in a while, I will give up things like shaving…that can also feel free.

BTW ~ Fasting can also be a form of protest…perhaps another blog related to forms of protest?…

Ben at The Horizontalist is off traveling this week and will return soon. For more reading on this Solidarity Thursday topic, please check out these other wonderful blogs: Esther at Church in the Canyon. And with a truly unique take on all things Solidarity Thursday is Triskaidekapod. Join the conversation!

the power of words…

Thursday, November 1, 2012

“Before you speak, think – is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? Will it hurt anyone? Will it improve on the silence?”

The words above are from the somewhat controversial Indian Guru, Sai Baba. You can read about him here. He was controversial due to reasons other than this quote and I think the quote stands alone as a pristine piece of wisdom as it relates to how we speak…how we use words.

Words are powerful.

Though most of us may not be witches or wizards (at least in the Harry Potter sense of those words – bows of respect to friends who really are Wiccan or Pagan), our words have the ability to evoke emotion, to invoke harm, to heal, to break down, to build up, to reject or embrace the recipient. Even the recipient we tend to forget about…us.

So why is it that we use our words so carelessly? Why is it so easy to use our words as ammunition towards another to suit our own interest and gain? It does seem like we see this activity more in this current election year. I feel like I’ve seen it more on Facebook and Twitter. “Friends” aggressively commenting on other “Friends” walls and instigating confrontation with their Tweets – what a silly word, really, that you’d think would diffuse the situation immediately. Why does this feel okay in the moment we are doing this? Would we so readily engage a stranger, much less, our “Friends” in such a careless way if we were sitting across from them face to face, or even chatting with them on the phone? Perhaps, but I think it would happen less often, more sparingly.

How do we get ourselves to a place of good communication of, as we say it in Buddhism – Right Speech? Good communication, Right Speech – these are about connection, which is empathy and within empathy is understanding. These manifest compassion, in our thought, in our actions, in our words. I believe the groundwork for all of this is gratitude which is in a constant dance with humility.

Do we see our life as a gift?

Our life, of course, is a gift. We do not exist apart from the conditions that brought us into being. Conditions, that though we are inextricably connected with, are also far beyond our imagining. We would not be here in this moment, in this place, if it weren’t for a Universe that could manifest a planet such as Earth that so specifically can support a life form such as ours. You would not be here if your parents, or their parents, or any of the parents before them had not had life. Without the Sun where would we be? If not for the farmer, what would you eat? Can we breathe without oxygen? Can I heal without the aid of a healthy immune system, or doctor, or medicines? All of us are one breath away from illness, from death. The person we are angry with (perhaps reasonably so) and are lashing out at with our words – that person will lose a loved one to death, they will experience illness, their heart will be wounded, and they like you or me will at times feel lost.

Do you see my point?

“We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyaly.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

We are deeply connected to all other things through interdependent relationship that we seldom take time to be aware of, but nonetheless is there. Our life, our being here is a gift.

So back to my question – do we see our life as a gift? Because if we are able to do this, to see our existence with humility and gratitude, then rather than having to live by a set of rules – we are getting to the root, the foundation, the groundwork of being kind and gracious with the way we treat people, the way we speak to people, the way we choose to use all of these powerful words that we have available to us.

But of course this is a practice. We have, over time, developed patterns in our brains – kneejerk reactions to what we see as an attack, as offensive. It takes work to undo these patterns, to unthread these connections. If we have gratitude though, and see our lives as gift rather than some entitled state, then I believe we are planting the seeds that will grow and give us the ground of support to be aware and be kind with the power in our words.

In the meantime, when we speak, we should ask ourself – Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind?

To read more and continue the discussion on this Solidarity Thursday topic please visit my dear friends and fellow bloggers Ben at The Horizontalist and Esther at The Church in the Canyon.