Monday, March 28, 2016

Born Again

Spring is a difficult season. I know that seems counter- intuitive, but as winter recedes, as the ground thaws and the first green tips of tulips poke through,
it occurs to me that growing a leaf must be hard work. I have watched the first of this year’s tulip leaves emerge and be frozen again and again. The tops of their leaves are brown and misshapen. Spring is hard even for the tulips- especially if you have deer who have been hungry all winter.

It occurs to me that growing a leaf must be hard work. I have watched the first of this year’s leaves emerge and be frozen again and again. The tops of their leaves are brown and misshapen. Spring is hard even for the tulips- especially if you have deer.

During this season the earth-based traditions here in the northern hemisphere celebrate Ostara- the spring equinox which happened in March. It is the earth herself who suggests tulips and bunnies and chicks as symbols of the season. These are the signs that the cycle of the year is turning, the cycle of life is turning. The bare brown and grey earth is dotted with spots of color- of purple and yellow and green. If you or your neighbors have chickens, this is the season when a new generation begins its life, the fluffy yellow chicks as perfect a symbol of hope for the future as any.

In the Christian Tradition today is Easter. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the most joyful and important holiday in the Christian tradition. But there is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. There is no risen Christ without the wounds. The spiritual journey is not one of ceaseless peace and joy, but about the challenging process of transformation.

The religious symbols of the season carry within them important spiritual lessons for our own journeys. Consider the babies you have known and loved. Consider teething. Most babies are grumpy as their new teeth push their way through the gums. Some even have fevers, refuse to eat or drink, or have trouble sleeping. As the parent of a small child I got used to this pattern- the increasing discomfort and frustration leading to the breaking through of a new tooth. Then I noticed this didn’t just happen for new teeth. Some kids, when they are learning to walk or learning to talk, become quite wretched, until suddenly one day they take those first steps. It occurred to me that this never really ends, though the cycles of growth do slow down. All through childhood and the teen years I see the young people I love cycle through difficult times followed by periods of synthesis and mastery when some new physical or mental milestone is reached. And though we have less tangible results to show as adults, I propose that the same cycle continues. The symptoms may still include irritability and frustration, but they also may include a sense of meaninglessness, an inability to imagine yourself in the future, a sense of ending and loss, a feeling of soul-deep tiredness.

The Episcopalian Theologian Matthew Fox called this the “via negativa’ or “the path of negation”. This is the spiritual path of letting go. Sometimes we find ourselves on the Via Negativa because what gave our life meaning before no longer gives it meaning. Sometimes we come to it through very real losses and struggles in the physical world. Our faith, our beliefs are shaken to the core. Many people use words like “dry” or “dark” or “barren” to describe this kind of experience. Sometimes it feels like God has gone missing, but if you believe in God, though we know intellectually that actually there is no place where god is not. On the via negativa we feel like someone has turned out all the streetlights on the road we are traveling, we can’t see the terrain, and we feel very alone.

But in the same way that Tulips could never compete with the tangle of June growth in my garden, after the harsh winter the tulips and crocuses have the garden all to themselves; like the winter, the Via Negativa creates space for something new to grow. Fox calls that new growth the “Via Creativa” or the “Way of Creativity.” This is a time of rebirth, a time when out of the grey landscape the tulips emerge, when out of the tomb, Christ appeared to those who followed him.

As you can see, we are deep in the realm of metaphor here. In the natural world there is no such thing as rebirth that I’m aware of. Tulips are not really born and born again, they are dormant and growing. When we talk about the rebirth of spring we are talking about trees coming out of their winter dormancy, and new generations of birds and mammals giving new life to their genetic line. Nicodemus was quite correct when he asks: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”(John 3:1-21)

So what does it mean to be reborn? Psychologist Carl Jung talks about it in terms of an “ego-death” some part of who we think we are must be destroyed or released in order for our true self to emerge. Therefore, says UU dream expert Jeremy Taylor, when we have a dream where we are afraid of dying, what our subconscious is warning us about is not a threat of physical death, but the real threat to our ego- the person we think we are. Jeremy would say such dreams are good news- they point to an important transformation that is possible for us. We get so caught up in who we have to be to get and keep a job, who our families expect us to be, maybe even who our church expects us to be, that our deepest truest self lies asleep within us. And when it begins to wake up it can be as scary as a bear waking from hibernation in springtime.

As we heard in our opening reading, many shamanistic traditions have a similar understanding of what it means to be reborn. When a shaman experiences this death of self- this loss of ego, which can be quite scary and painful, “The person is returned to spirit as a reminder that we are more than just body and mind. Who we are beyond our skin is spirit. The dismembered person experiences a state of unity with source.” [p. 138]

When our Christian friends and neighbors talk about being “born again” this is not an idea that is uniquely theirs. When Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Unitarian Universalists believe that this kind of spiritual rebirth is possible whether or not we identify as Christians. In his journal, Emerson, who was a transcendentalist and Unitarian Preacher, writes: "In the instant you leave far behind all human relations, wife, mother and child, and live only with the savages-water, air, light, carbon, lime, and granite. Nature grows over me. Frogs pipe; waters far off tinkle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends and rustles, and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, aqueous, terraqueous, aerial, ethereal sympathy and existence. I sow the sun and moon for seeds."

Have you ever experienced anything like this? One member of a congregation I served long ago told me about the first time he saw a living cell under a microscope. The experience was ecstatic and he was overwhelmed by emotion. It changed something about how he saw the world. I think of this as a quintessential born-again Unitarian experience. As Ingerman said in our opening reading: , it typically happens spontaneously. An initiation such as this cannot be planned and has no safety net.” We can choose to open our minds and hearts to this kind of spiritual transformation, but it is not something we can replicate predictably. We can choose to be open to the spirit of life, but deep change of this kind usually comes as something of a surprise.

But I believe that being reborn is not something that happens once an dramatic fashion, instead this is happening to us constantly, like the toddler teething. Perhaps your life is going smoothly like a train on a track. The habits and rhythms of your life are dependable, maybe even satisfying, or maybe there is a hunger for something more. But then arises a feeling of crisis. It could be purely emotional and spiritual- a mid-life crisis, say, a feeling that a job or partnership is no longer a good fit. Or perhaps it is a crisis that comes from the outside- a round of layoffs at work, a car accident, a scary diagnosis, a betrayal. Often our first thought is “what did I do wrong?” We have this idea that as our parents and teachers rewarded us with a gold star when we did well, and gave us detention or grounded us when we didn’t, perhaps this crisis is a punishment for something we did wrong. When our comfortable familiar patterns of life are threatened, we kick and fight, and resist the change. Even Jesus cried out on the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? [Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 ]

Consider a baby in the womb, it has known nothing its whole existence but a snug warm home where all its needs are taken care of. And then the contractions begin and the water breaks and life can never be the same again. It is commonly agreed that the labor and birth process is difficult and uncomfortable work for both mother and child. And there is no safe alternative- My grandmother tells of women in her village in Estonia who never went into labor, and of the tragic outcome for both mother and child. The difficult, painful process of labor leads to life, everyone of us here in this room made it through that process. If you happen to find yourself in a room of women telling the story of how their children entered the world, you will find that each and every one was absolutely unique. And so are the many spiritual and psychological rebirths that we experience over a lifetime.

I use this metaphor with caution, because birth is sometimes smooth and joyous, and sometimes scary and dangerous. As a woman who carried my child for 10 months and then finally gave birth only with medical intervention, I called Matthew Fox on this- during a seminar one afternoon. The formulation so commonly find in theologies of birth and rebirth is that the birth of the new child is worth the pain and risk to the mother. But that is not my theology. I would never say that to a woman who struggled in childbirth, and I would never say to you that your painful divorce, or cancer was ultimately a fair price to pay for what growth follows. The rebirth of tulips in the spring does not necessarily balance out the harsh winter that makes way for it. The one is not the price to be paid for the other. The marshmallow candy-ization of Easter covers over Easter’s real gift; during those darkest hours when it seems that all we love is falling away from us, the Easter story offers us hope. (It is a hopeful thing that we are never fully formed)

This is one of the reasons for religious community- because we need support in the pains of rebirth, in the struggle of transformation. And we need hope when we feel like all we know and love is dying. As the women experienced with birth have traditionally gathered to support the laboring woman, so we support one another when we are in transition, encouraging us to push when it is time to push, to rest when it is time to rest, and to reassure one another with the knowledge in our own bodies and spirits that even where it seems the struggle will never end, new life can come of this too.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Practice and All is Coming (March 6, 2016)

I grew up in a music school- that is to say our home was filled most afternoons and evenings with music teachers and students playing scales and etudes. A couple of times a year our living room was transformed into a recital hall for those students to show off what they had learned, and to practice performing.

Over those 16 years I studied music at the Hegvik School of Music I would occasionally ask my mom if I could quit. We argued the various merits of learning to play an instrument, but ultimately she believed there were benefits to studying music beyond the music itself. One of those was being able to stand up in front of people confidently, and the other was learning how to practice.

As a child growing up in a house full of music students, I heard examples every day of the most common misunderstanding beginners have about practicing (one I often made myself). Folks think “If I want to learn to play this piece fast, I should practice it fast” What we don’t realize at first, is that what we are actually doing by practicing this way training our fingers to stumble and trip [Katie practices scales faster and faster until they are sloppy] but if you slow it down until every note is just the way you want it, [Katie plays it slowly and carefully] your body and mind are creating neural pathways to play it just the way you want it. Another mistake beginners make is that they want to play the piece the whole way through over and over, mistakes and all. Again, by doing that we are training those mistakes into the brain and the muscles. At some point you just have to stop and do the thing in little bits and pieces until body and mind really understand, then and only then do you put it back together in bigger and bigger pieces until is second nature.  Music students learn as they move from being beginners to intermediate players is that if you practice the piece without beauty, without tone, without feeling, that is how you perform it. 

If we practice joylessly, the music we make will be joyless. If you hate practicing, it’s time to make a change. It’s so much easier to sit down and practice a piece you love than one that doesn’t speak to you. Sometimes it’s more fun to collaborate with friends, when our solo practice has lost its vitality. Sometimes you just have to practice goofing around, improving spontaneously, making silly sounds. If we want Joy and creativity in our music, we must practice bringing joy and creativity into your music. This is the opposite of what so many young musicians learn- they somehow learn that playing music should be difficult joyless work, and no wonder they quit.

Perhaps the most important lesson is not to get attached to your mistakes. I would so often hear moans and groans from the lesson rooms (and have myself slammed my fingers down on the keys of the piano in frustration) [Katie demonstrates] Practice is specifically TIME to make mistakes. We must learn compassion for ourselves and patience while we practice; we need a safe space to make ugly sounds, to play things imperfection as we begin to smooth and polish and shape. Make all the possible mistakes in the practice room and you won’t make them on the concert stage. After many years of practice you being to trust the process- you know that this repetition and careful mindfulness will lead to transformation.

Knowing how to practice is useful in unexpected parts of our lives. I remember when we got a brand new video game called “Spyro” and all my friends took a turn playing it. Most of my friends, when it was their turn at the controller, raced forward toward their goal until they plunged accidentally off a cliff and had to start over with a new life. When my friend Akire, who had studied classical cello for many years, took the controller, she pulled over to a meaningless clearing and started running in circles and making little jumps into the air. “What are you doing!” we all cried impatiently “there’s nothing over there!” “I’m practicing” she replied. Her strategy was to learn to jump and glide in a safe area where death would not be the consequence of messing up.

In fact the skills you learn practicing apply to just about every part of your life. This is never clearer than watching a toddler practice walking, or obsessively opening and closing doors, or putting things into a box and then dumping them out and starting it over. It takes hours of repetition to develop skills that now seem second nature to us- walking, talking, closing and opening doors, putting keys in your pocket and taking them out again later when you need them. This is why we do fire drills- so that in the moment of an actual emergency the procedure is second nature. I went to a master class many years ago with the great singer Leontine Price, and when a student asked if she thought about technique while she performed, she told the packed house that the time for thinking about technique is in the practice room. When you perform you just think about the music you are making and the character you’re playing. 

Spiritual Practice is no different in this respect than any other kind of practice. You want to play that song you heard on the radio at your first guitar lesson, but learning a new skill takes time and patience. Some days it will not seem like much is happening but things we repeat day after day have a way of sinking down deep into our muscles and spirits. There are many stories among healers and ministers of visiting an elder who has lost much or all of her memory. She doesn’t recognize family or friends, but when the old hymns of her childhood are sung, or the rosary beads placed in her hands, something old and deep wakes up. Her fingers start to move on the rosary, she nods or even sings along with the hymns. What we practice most we know in a deep way, our bodies remember even when our minds are distracted or diminished. 

There was a funny headline in the satirical paper the Onion the other day: “Man Who Downloaded $2.99 Meditation App Prepares To Enter Lotus Plane Of Eternal Serenity.” [i] This could have described me at my first meditation class. I, like many other new meditators, was constantly frustrated by my early attempts. I wanted to power through to enlightenment the same way I had, as a beginning flute student, wanted to power through to the end of the piece, without taking time in the difficult spots so they could become smooth and clear. I chose forms of meditation that were very challenging for me right off, rather than choosing forms that were enjoyable, so I dreaded my spiritual practice rather than looking forward to it. I was so miserable in my meditation practice at one point that I took a class called “Removing Obstacles to Meditation” which was full of other people who were also having trouble meditating. The best advice the teacher gave in that class was “encourage yourself” -- it turns out beating yourself up for your perceived failings in your spiritual practice is not actually helpful. It’s important to be compassionate with yourself as you practice.
Then I discovered yoga, which I looked forward to and dreamed about and no matter how much I practiced I wanted more. I took a break from meditation that lasted almost a decade. I realized that meditation was just one of many spiritual practices. Sure the Buddha realized enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi Tree, but meditation is not temperamentally or developmentally appropriate for everyone. 

Perhaps it was because of all those years practicing music that I took so readily to practicing yoga. I knew but learned again the power of repetition. As I entered a pose called “Down Dog’ the other day, I considered that if I have been practicing yoga for about 12 years at least 3 times a week, and took Down Dog about 10 times each class, I had been in the pose about 20,000 times. When you do something 20,000 times, not only do you learn it more deeply, it changes you. Not everyone is going to be able to twist themselves into all of those yoga pretzels you see in photos, but everyone will change and grow with Practice. As we saw in the opening video, “Practice, and all is coming.” 

An old yoga teacher of mine called this “slow surgery” because the capacity it has to change muscles and joints and connective tissue is that powerful. This is why form and alignment are so important in yoga. Yes, if you practice carefully you can become more flexible and strong. But if you don’t practice mindfully you can easily blow out a shoulder or acquire an array of injuries.
Think of all the things you have done 20,000 times so far in this life. That probably includes brushing your teeth, which is why the humans alive today have better teeth than any humans who have ever lived before. It also probably includes sitting at a computer- which is why we have problems like carpel tunnel syndrome that millennia of humans have never had in this magnitude before. 

Even if you don’t practice ukulele, or meditation, or yoga, you are practicing something. You already have a spiritual practice right now, whether you think of it that way or not. The question is- what are you practicing? Some people who might not realize they have a spiritual practice, have shown kindness, or shared a warm smile 20,000 times. It now comes so easily to them they don’t even have to consciously choose to be kind; it arises naturally out of habit. Some folks notice the natural world around them on their daily run or their walk to work, or watch the slow growth of a tree through the kitchen window while they sip their coffee. They know just by looking at the fresh green shoots whether spring is early, or what tree is fighting off parasites. One spring when the birds and the butterflies come back in reduced numbers, they notice the change and wonder what is wrong – they have become that in tune with their eco-system through years of practice. 

But the power of repetition goes the other way as well. For 7 years on my long commute up and down the congested highway 101 I practiced impatience and petty anger at the other drivers. Those 3,000 impatient, angry commutes surely left their mark on me as surely as any yoga class. Be careful what you are practicing, because it shapes you. One of the things we practice in this congregation is compassion for one another. We practice this not only in our outreach and caring for one another when we are sick or troubled, but even in the everyday decisions our board makes, or in simple acts of kindness during coffee hour. This is my eighth year with UUCAS, and I believe I have slowly grown in compassion over these 8 years we have practiced together. 

Our worship theme for March is re-birth, in honor of the slowly emerging spring, and the Easter Season. Practice is one of the ways we form and re-reform ourselves. The theological term for this is “co-creation” because we never do anything alone; our world shapes us just as surely as we shape it. Much of what we are is a gift of biology or circumstance, but with the raw clay of that gift, what we practice, and how we practice each day shapes us. 

Practice is the patient expression of our intentions. In the same way that devout practitioners in Hinduism, Buddhism or Catholicism use a rosary to help them stay connected as they repeat prayers to the divine, so can our repetitions of scales, downward dogs or compassionate acts help us stay connected to ourselves and to our intentions to grow and bloom. Depending on our intention, the action itself becomes a prayer. In fact many UUs understand their work helping others, or working for Social Justice as their Spiritual Practice, as their prayer. Every life is filled with repetition. All those thousands of repetitions of simple things -- flossing, walking to the corner store, practicing scales, practicing equanimity and compassion in traffic -- when taken all together have power. Like the drops of water that wear away a stone, we are shaping ourselves every moment with the simple repetition of our daily lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. Let us choose carefully what we practice, because that is what we are becoming. Let us have faith in the slow, patient change that comes with practice, as Guruji advises “practice, Practice, practice and all is coming.”