Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lessons Learned on the Mat (January 25, 2009)

At the seminary where I was “formed” every student encouraged to have their own spiritual practice, but the practices are as varied as the students. Many UUs journal or meditate. Some make art, some do ritual, or study religious and secular texts. I have tried a lot of these different practices over the years, but what really stuck was hatha yoga. This is not the most common path- I know personally only one other UU colleague who has taken this as her primary practice. Generally UU ministers are very intellectual, and choose a practice accordingly. I had found, while on my own spiritual journey, that I was a little too trapped in my own mind, disconnected from body, heart and spirit. Once I realized this, I began to follow a path toward integration of my Self which lead me to my first yoga class, and has kept me steady in this practice.

When the word Yoga is used in the Hindu tradition, it means a path that yokes oneself to the divine. Hatha yoga is a practice of the physical body, and as World Religion Scholar Huston Smith says: “Originally it was practiced as preliminary to spiritual yoga, but it has largely lost this connection” There are 4 other kinds of yoga within the Hindu tradition we don’t hear as much about in the U.S. These are chosen based on one’s character and inclinations: (1)
Jnana yoga, path of knowledge- of study and reflection
Bhakti yoga, the path of the heart
Karma yoga- the path to god through work
Raja yoga- the royal road, a way to god through psychopisical experiments.

It is true that many of the folks who practice yoga asanas (or poses) at their local gym may see the practice as more about keeping fit than about yoking themselves to a spiritual path, but the great yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, who is largely responsible for introducing yoga to the West said: “Do not underestimate the value of asana. Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of the quest: the external quest, which brings firmness of body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence; and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit. While a beginner is not generally aware of these aspects while performing the asana, they are there.” (2)

Iyengar is part of a spiritual tradition based on the Yoga-Sutra of 3rd century sage Patanjali, which identifies an eight limbed path for self realization. These 8 limbs are:

Ethical Disciplines (yama)
Internal ethical observances (niyama)
poses (asana)
breath control (pranayama)
Sensory control and withdrawl (pratyahara)
Concentration (dharana)
meditation (dhyana)
Blissful absorption (Samadhi)

These 8 limbs are meant to be done in that proscribed sequence, with the idea that one needs live an ethical life and have a good relationship to the body and the breath or they will have too much baggage and distraction for the inner journey to be fruitful.

To those who understand asana as part of a spiritual path, there are different ways of achieving the withdrawal of senses and concentration. In the Ashtanga tradition, for example, the sequence of poses is identical each day. So “The practices itself (once the student is experienced enough to stop thinking about which asana comes next) becomes a moving meditation.” (3)
Iyengar teaches a different way of looking at asana practice in which the mind stays active and interested in the mechanics of each pose, and so each pose is done more slowly, with rest and reflection in between each pose. By thinking about how each part of the body is engaged in the pose, the consciousness is equally distributed through the self allowing dharana, the concentration needed for meditation.

But there is another aspect to Iyengar’s sense of the role of asana in our growth. Says Iyengar: “To a yogi, the body is a laboratory for life, a field of experimentation and perpetual research.” [Iyengar p. 22] “As we explore the Soul, it is important to remember that this exploration will take place within Nature (the body) for that is where we are and what we are.” [Iyengar p. 6] This idea, I feel is very well aligned with the first UU source- that we use our own experience to ground our spiritual growth. It reminds me of the writings of Emerson who said in his essay “Nature” that all thought and language comes from the natural world. “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state o the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture… Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” [Iyengar p. 16]

And truly some of the natural facts I have experienced in my Asana practice have particularly noticeable parallels off the mat. The first one I noticed was around what my teacher called “Playing the edge.” When you are in a particularly intense stretch my teacher always warned us that if you always push all the way to your edge, you may get injured. But of course if you never approach your edge, you will not move forward. The technique is to approach the edge and back off. This has an amazing parallel to church and other institutional life. If a congregation pushes too hard for change, there may be a backlash. If a congregation never changes, no growth happens. The wise thing to do is for the congregation to stretch itself near the edge, but only to 80 % of capacity, and then to back off. A slow and steady approach of pushing the edge and the resting allows the edge to move over time.

We are also advised in class to “notice how your pose is today” Don’t assume that your body is the same as it was yesterday. Just because you were in a split yesterday does not mean that is right for you today. Listen and observe where you are in this moment, and act from there. In the words of Iyengar: “You are also going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana and how far you want to stretch and not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity.” p. 31 Our ideas and plans for what we want to do in the world must be grounded in the reality of our physical being, which changes moment by moment, day by day.

Another important lesson to me came from my teacher Michelle. She often asked us to relax all the muscles, all the effort we did not need to stay in a pose Says Iyengar “Relaxation means release of unnecessary muscular tension in your body. [p. 37] “There is always relaxation in the right position even though you are fully stretching. The ego is an unrelenting task master. IT does not know that one must balance activity and passivity in the asana, exertion and relaxation.” p. 36 . This blew my mind. Being a young type-A personality I thought you should engage every muscle every moment in every pose. And once I realized this was hard and counter intuitive for me, I realized that it was a practice I needed to adopt.

That use of props is another important lesson. In the Ashtanga tradition there are no props- the idea is that if you are getting into the full pose every day the body will eventually grow into that pose. In the Iyengar tradition many props are used. The idea is that props allow us to have optimal alignment and support before we can reach the floor on our own. This can be hard on the ego, especially when one is new to yoga, especially when the person next to you is able to do the pose without props.. We think the goal of the pose is to touch the floor when really the goal of the pose is to have full extension of the spine or smooth even breath. I don’t think there is one true answer to the prop question, but it often reflects our attitude from issues off the mat. Can I accept help and support, or does it bruise my ego? Or do I use a lot of props and crutches that I might not really need?

Yoga is a practice, that is it must be done over and over. As with any practice, it is very exciting and even strange at first, and then it becomes familiar, comfortable, we begin to see progress towards goals. I remember standing in my kitchen one day and realizing that my shoulders had a range of motion I had never expected. I never thought I would make it into headstand, but now it is something I do almost every day. Yoga asana taught me the power of repetition, the power of patience. It taught me that change is not always about the big crossroads in life, but about the power of daily action over time, the tens of thousands of days that make up our adult life. Yoga Teacher Kent Bond called it “slow surgery” The power of that kind of repetition is why we are always careful of our joints and careful not to over stretch. We believe that change is possible through consistent effort over time, and want to be conscious of what we are changing in our bodies and in ourselves.

Then once we have achieved our goals, or realized that the goal is not attainable in our lifetime, we need to find a way to make the same movement fresh each time we enter. We must bring our awareness into each asana, even when we have done it a thousand times. says Iyengar “Awareness allows us to overcome tiredness and exhaustion in our poses and in our lives.” p. 32 Then I added another yoga class with a different teacher. She calls it an advanced class, but we aren’t doing any particularly advanced poses. She is working on focusing the attention on more and more subtle movements and muscles in familiar poses. This is the aspect Iyengar was talking about- bringing all the attention into the whole body as a preparation for meditation, turning the focus inward. This is something we all can do even as we age, even with an injury.

One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn on the yoga mat is about the ego. I confided, once, to a friend that I felt quite competitive in yoga class. If there is a pretzel to get into, I want to be in it. If there is a strength pose I want to hold it as long as anyone else. I want to do them all. He was shocked "I didn't think yoga was supposed to be like that" he said. "It's not the yoga." I said "It's the ego."

If you have hung out with me, you will know that I am not generally a competitive person. I rarely push a point to win an argument. I usually bowl a 40 and I'm okay with that (mostly). I've been running an 11 minute mile for 10 years now and still I'm out there 3 times a week poking along in sun, wind or streaming rain. Generally I'd rather have peace and good feelings than a victory. Then I started taking a vigorous form of yoga, and suddenly I wanted to be the best.

When I moved to Ithaca and started at a new yoga studio, I somehow felt I had to prove myself. Most of the poses were familiar, but there were new variations, new juxtapositions. We were doing a lot more arm balances and wheels then I was used to, and when my wrist started to hurt I didn't listen. At first I pushed through the pain, but finally I admitted to my teacher that my wrist hurt and asked his advice. He encouraged me to hold back, to use props, to skip certain poses, but my ego just could not let me skip some super-cool pose that I'd been working on whenever the rest of the class was doing it. As Iyengar writes: “When you are self-conscious, you are going to exhaust yourself. You are also going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana and how far you want to stretch and not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity.” [Iyengar p. 3]

Months went by like this until finally something in my ego just broke. I had to give in to the idea that my wrist might never be quite right. I saw a physical therapist, I used my props, even while everyone else was getting better and better at an arm balance I had always wanted to learn.

And one day I realized the pain was gone. I slowly put some weight on my wrist, and brought poses back into my practice one at a time. I still use a wedge for many poses, and I know now to stop when my wrist gets tired, and that some poses just aren't worth the cost. And somehow during all that my ego softened. And though I can now do most of my favorite poses again, my ego is much softer. I wonder if this is part of the wisdom age brings; things fall apart and teach us something about what remains.

I think the most important lesson of a conscious asana practice is that it helps breakdown the duality between mind and body so common in western culture. “Spirituality is not some external goal that one must seek, but a part of the divine ore of each of us, which we must reveal. For the yogi, spirit is not separate from body.” (4)

“The whole practice of yoga is concerned with exploring the relationship between Prakrti and Purusa, between Nature and Soul.. It is about… learning to live between the earth and the sky. That is the human predicament, our joy and our woe, our salvation and our downfall. Nature and soul are mingled together.” (5)

My purpose today is not to encourage everyone to take up an asana practice, but to notice the wisdom of the body, to let your lived experience in muscle and bone “move us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Let it be source of our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”

1) Huston Smith The World’s Religions Harper San Francisco 1991. P. 27-41.
2) B.K.S. Iyenger Light on Life p. 18
3) John Scott Ashtanga Yoga p. 10
4) B.K.S. Iyenger Light on Life p. 18
5) Ibid p. 9

Friday, January 16, 2009

Unitarian Universalists and the Bible (January 11, 2009)

Let’s face it, the Bible is a problem for many Unitarian Universalists. It’s full of violence, and sexism and historical errors. Some say it is the word of God, but we know from looking at the plain facts that it was written and edited by men who were often motivated by the need to support doctrine of the church, and to shore up power.

The Jonah story this morning, has many things in it that make UUs uncomfortable. First it’s full of magic- magical storms and magical fish. It, like many other stories, is easily proved to be biologically and Zoologically inaccurate. Second, it paints a portrait of God that UUs don’t identify with, that “punish the wicked, intervening in history” anthropomorphic God. I think if you asked most atheists to describe the God they don’t believe in, this would be it. In fact, I think it was stories like this that turned me into an atheist sitting in Presbyterian Sunday school when I was my son’s age. Third, it seems to be all about obedience, and we UUs cringe at the mere idea of obedience to religious authority. This ties in with our distaste for the word “wicked” since we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

But here’s the leap I make. I believe that the humans who worked on this book had worth and dignity. I think that many of the ancient authors and editors who worked on this cannon were trying to make something good, something that would be useful to their children and their children’s children. To me the fact that the oral traditions and writing and editing by so very many people went into this collection helps me feel connected to it. That’s why we as UUs need to be scholars and detectives, and teach our children to do the same, so we can listen to the many voices we hear and tease them apart. Only then can we know who we can trust and who we want to listen to with a skeptical ear.

So let’s be detectives and scholars about the Jonah story. The First thing to bear in mind is that the bible is an anthology. I remember reading the illustrated children’s bible I was given in 2nd grade in my Presbyterian Sunday School Class. I thought it was super cool, and couldn’t wait to get home and read it. I noticed immediately that it does not hang together like a good novel. I tried to read every word in order and what with the genealogies and all, I stopped before I got through the book of Genesis. It wasn’t until I got to college that someone explained to me that the bible is not a novel. It’s not a history of everything. It’s an anthology. That same professor blew my mind by explaining that it’s not all written by the same person! Even those 5 “books of Moses” are proven to have at least 3 different authors, or teams of editors. I thought I was learning something sort of fringe, because I was learning it in a Feminist Theology class, but when I pull out the Revised Standard Version of the bible , there it is in the introduction! This is a mainstream idea!

Later, while I was in seminary, a professor introduced us to literary criticism of the bible, This way of looking at scriptures presumes if we knew what literary form a book of the bible was, it would help us know how to read it better. This blew my mind. I had thought the whole thing was one giant history, like My dad’s 10 volume set of the Durant Story of Civilization. Certainly there are books in the bible that take the form of histories, and so it is reasonable to compare these with the archeological evidence. But if we realize what we are looking at is a piece of poetry, then we approach it with different eyes. My professor explained that to us using that famous Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
and in a very entertaining lecture showed us how it would be silly to get out your archeological tools to prove whether or not all bushes were on fire, and the ubiquity of blackberry picking during Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lifetime.

The bible is full of poetry, letters, parables, hymns, fables, in addition to the historical writings spun to shore up the power of certain political administrations. So it is always a good idea to understand “what was going on in the history of the Jewish people” when reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and “what was the political status of the Christians” when reading the New Testament. It turns out that the story of Jonah was written during the time when the Jewish people who had been in exile had finally returned to Israel. This book appears in a collection called “The latter prophets,” a set of 12 short books that conclude the collection Christians call the Old Testament. The book of Jonah is different from the others, however, which are collections of prophetic words, or “Oracles” this is instead what one biblical scholar calls “…a tale which is neither scientific nor even historical but a parable like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son ”(3) Mainline Christianity sees the bible full of poetry and metaphor. It is the more fundamentalist Christians who want to talk about what size and shape of the fish.

To understand this parable, we need to know that during this time when the Jewish people had returned from exile, there was a strong bent of nationalism, and isolationism such as we find in the writings of Prophets like Ezra and Nehemiah. According to Biblical Scholar William Neil(1), Jonah, while he may have been based loosely on the life of a historic prophet(2) , is mostly a caricature of a bigot. This is not a “What would Jonah” do story, this is a “some people these days are so bigoted they would rather die than reach out to the gentiles” story. Wow. I had never heard that before. As a UU I can sure get behind a parable about how God is working in the world across national and religious lines and strives to change the minds and hearts of bigots.

And if this is a parable, we don’t need to worry about what kinds of large fish are indigenous to the waters near Tarshish, whether or not a person could really survive for 3 days in the belly of a fish any more than we need to worry about how While-e-Coyote can walk on air until he looks down and realizes he’s standing in mid-air, and where he hid that “help” sign he holds up just before he plummets.

So let’s look at another issue UUs have with the bible. The bible is about long ago times, and is not always relevant today. None of these books were written in the last 1500 years. I believe in the value of ancient wisdom and stories, but I cannot believe that no new religious truth has come into the world since the cannon was closed. UUs believe that revelation is not sealed- which is a theologian way of saying, that we believe new truth keeps coming into the world every day. But I also believe in the value of ancient wisdom. I wouldn’t have bothered studying UU history if I didn’t, and I wouldn’t read the ancient texts and stories of the world if I didn’t.

I also believe that meanings change over time as people and culture change. Latin-American theologian Ivone Gebara says that back when the bible was written they used symbols that came from “more or less concrete experiences that all of us were familiar with. Today, in many places, the “lilies of the field” barely even exist. ”(4) So some of the readers of Jonah’s story were fishermen, they lived at a time when the seas had not been over-fished, and species had longer life expectancy. I don’t know what it’s like to have to travel by boat. I don’t know what it is like to be in a body of water with really big fish. That is only to say that the meanings of the bible cannot be static, because the symbols and imagery used have changed as our culture and our world have changed.

Finally, let’s look at the role of women in the bible, for example let’s look at the women in Jonah’s story. Right. This is my point. And generally the bible is the story of those who held the power to pick and chose the stories that made it into the cannon. The Bible, because it is written, excludes women, who had an oral tradition. Many feminist scholars such as Jo Ann Hackett have reminded us that the women of ancient Israel had their own religious traditions and rituals and stories, but that religion was a segregated affair in ancient Israel- men and women did not worship together. The rites and stories of the women would have been invisible to the men who wrote the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Feminist theologians read the bible trying to catch glimpses of a woman’s life and religious tradition, and also to look at the mechanism by which women and other peoples were excluded from political power: how the bible does not tell their story, and how it can be used to continue to oppress.

A beautiful “Midrosh” of one of the few stories where women do appear, what Biblical Scholar Phyllis Trible calls “Texts of Terror” was a novel called The Red Tent by Anita Diamont. Her novel tries to imagine and evoke the lives and spirituality of the women from the story of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Some of you will remember that Dinah was part of a very violent story of rape and retribution. Many people have asked “Why are there violent stories like this in the bible, and why should I read the bible which includes so much violence and despicable acts” Diamont was the first to give me the idea that we tell the story of terrible events so that they will not be forgotten. Like 9-11. Like the Holocaust. As we collect the important stories of the last 3000 years, we should not expurgate history, but remember the darkness that is possible, along with the goodness to which we aspire. This is confusing to us because one of the most popular ways of reading the New Testament is to look to Jesus, the disciples and apostles as examples for our to live our own lives. But this is not how the Hebrew Scriptures were written. So when we read the book of Jonah it is not so that we will ask ourselves “what would Jonah do” but so that we will understand the way we sometimes are, and how we are called to be better.

So why should UUs bother with the bible? Because it’s something we can share with thousands of generations of people, and many stories cross 3 religious traditions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and around the globe. Because the stories had already held up a long time by the time they were written down- so that they have layers of meaning. And because it’s an anthology, there are all types of writing, something for everyone. I have been amazed as I have gone through the different stages of my life how stories that seemed opaque and irrelevant to me when I was younger suddenly have a relevance for my life in a new stage.

So what do we tell our kids?
First we need to ask, what are they ready for? Preschoolers do not need to hear violent stories, no matter how holy the source. But for children who are old enough to be hearing about war on the news, or playing a fighting video game then a story about war from the bible would seem relevant and might even help bring meaning to those video games.

Then, teach your children to be scholars and detectives. Even if there is a moral written into the bible story, we should hold the door open for other meanings. If we tell a story like Noah or Jonah, we can tell the story without the interpretation that bad things happen because God is punishing wicked people, and just present the events of the story. In so doing we open ourselves for a great conversation about why do floods and other natural disasters happen, and we can remember the dove of hope which reminds us -that even when things seem the worst we can be on solid ground again.

Third, we can use some of the more archetypal stories as a mirror for personal reflection by asking “where are you in this story today?” For example, the story of Jonah was meaningful to me in Seminary, it reminded me of how I couldn’t get anywhere when I wanted to be a singer, of jumping into the waters of uncertainty and transition, and then incubating in the belly of the fish (Seminary). I bet it means something different to each of you- ask you neighbor at coffee hour where they found themselves in the story of Jonah.

Finally, teach your children to practice noticing the things from the bible that conflict with their own experience of life and of the divine. Because we UUs take as our first source of our own authority our own experience. As Ivone Gebara writes. “It is of fundamental importance to avoid putting the authority of the bible above that of life… Our life experience is our first teacher.”(4)

The bible, in my opinion, is worth wrestling with. Worth being a scholar, worth being a detective. It is not the only book of wisdom honored by our Unitarian Universalist tradition, but it was a powerful resource for the first Unitarians and Universalists and can still be for us today. It can be a companion to us on our free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

1. William Neil. Harper’s Bible Commentary. p. 294.
2. ‘The Book of Jonah” Oxford Annotated Bible Revised Standard Version p. 1120.
3. Ivone Gebara Longing for Running Water p. 197
4. Ivone Gebara Longing for Running Water. p. 134.