Wednesday, December 11, 2019

In Translation

Communicating is hard. Even when you all speak the same language, even when the topic is something as simple as which detergent you were hoping your partner would bring home from the grocery store.

How much more difficult is it to communicate about the ineffable, about the deep intangible layers of life, about concepts like love, or truth, or diversity. Our words are just fingers pointing towards a concept, each of us privately translating in our own minds.

I grew up in a UU church that was very influenced by humanism. We rarely used traditional theological words like “god” or “heaven” in our Sunday services. When I would go to Sunday school with my friend Suzanne they used words like that all the time, and I figured everyone at that church knew what those words meant, and everyone had the same picture of “god” in their minds whenenver they used that word. After all, there was a picture of God right there in our Sunday school booklet. I didn’t believe in a bearded white guy who sat in a cloud judging and punishing people, which was the composite image I had drawn up in my mind. I couldn’t believe we all went to a place in the clouds where the streets were paved with gold, you could have any ice cream you wanted, and bad people were kept out with a pearly gate.

But I also grew up believing that the interfaith dialogue was important. It says right there in our sources that the wisdom of the world religions and earth-centered traditions are sources of our UU tradition. So when I went to worship with other faith communities, or talked to friends from a different tradition, I had to figure out how to engage with them. I had to figure out how to ground myself in my own integrity, in my own beliefs while still trying to find meaning in what my interfaith neighbors were saying.

So when I went to seminary at the Graduate Theological Union, with 8 seminaries and a bunch of  centers from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and our UU tradition, I took many classes with my neighbors. One day in our theology class the professor broke us into small groups to talk about what we believed about the afterlife, and what we believe about heaven. One of my Methodist colleagues said yes, she did believe in Heaven; not a place in the clouds with gold streets, but a reunion, a return to a loving source after death. I had to ask her to repeat herself. “But you’re Christian!” I said. Here all these years I’d believed that all Christians believed in the heaven pictured in my Sunday school workbook.

It was an Episcopalian teacher who first suggested that we stop using pronouns for God, because God was not a man or a woman, God was God. I’d assumed that only UUs and pagans were concerned about the gender of god, daring to imagine that God might not be male. That God could be female, or might be both or none at all. Visiting a Catholic Mission in Guatemala, I was surrounded by the phrase “Dios es Amor” God is love. And began to imagine what that might mean.

Another teacher, at the Center for Jewish Studies, introduced us to the idea that God does not exist, because to exist implies living a finite duration in material form. God does not exist in the way that you or I or this pulpit exist. It occurred to me that maybe if God was love, had no gender, was not a person, and didn’t exist, I was no longer sure that I didn’t believe in God.

The more I talked with people of diverse faiths and beliefs, the more expansive the word “God” became for me. The more it could hold. Now when I heard people talk about God I had to wonder, what do they picture when they say that word?

UUS share not only 7 principles but also 6 sources. We believe there are universal truths that are common among human beings across widely divergent religious and philosophical traditions. At one point in the 20th century the Universalists were even exploring the idea of a “religion for one world.[i]” Could we find essential religions teachings and practices that could truly include everyone?

As a practice, we tend to emphasize our commonality of our shared humanity. That’s why I love to use metaphors from science and nature instead of traditional religious language. Anyone who lives in the northeast as we do has a common experience of the lengthening nights, and the bare and dormant deciduous trees common in winter here. And we can all see with our own eyes that each year the days grow long, and the seemingly bare and lifeless things become green and grow again.

When our differences threaten to divide us, when they seem insurmountable or scary, it is a useful practice to look for the things we have in common, the universal experiences that connect us with al of life, and to establish that foundation.

Here’s the tricky bit- in the part of California where I used to live, the rains come in autumn and the dry brittle grass and dormant trees spring back to life. In a good year the drenching rains turn the hills a beautiful emerald green in time for the winter solstice. By summer the rains have stopped, and the hills turn yellow and the dry season begins. If I wanted to talk about those times when your spirit feels barren, and hope is hard to find, I could say “like March” to you folks, and you would know what I mean. Oh my …that long grey month where we begin to fear that spring will just never come. But if I said “like the hills in March” to someone from the San Francisco area, their mind would conjure images of brilliant green hills at the peak of life.

We UUs are very theologically diverse even in our little congregation. We were raised in all kinds of different traditions, or without any tradition at all. We have different life experience, and have biologically unique eyes and brains and ears. Part of the reason we have 7 principles is that we figured that, diverse as we are, here are 7 ideas that could unite us, principles we could build community around. But if whenever we talk about theological ideas at all, we are going to run into our differences.

And some differences matter. In this region after the deciduous trees bare their leaves, we see the green patches on the hills where the evergreen trees become visible in a new way. For us the Evergreen is a reminder that life persists even in the cold snowy season. Donna told us a beautiful story one year from a native American tradition that lifted up the shelter and food that evergreens provide our small animal friends in winter. Evergreens were part of a winter celebration called “Yule” in the Germanic peoples, whose seasons were much like ours. At some point the evergreen tree got folded into the Christmas celebration even though the part of the world where Jesus was born is not known for its Douglas fir trees. So when you see an evergreen tree over the winter, maybe it reminds you of the birth of Jesus. Or maybe you think of it as a winter solstice tree, honoring the cycles of the earth. Or maybe it’s just something fun that Americans do, part of the great shopping party that happens at this time of year. For many folks who are don’t celebrate Christmas, the image of the classic evergreen tree is a symbol of cultural imperialism.

That’s the wonderful thing about symbols -- each of us imbues them with a lifetime of experience and observation and cultural associations. A fir tree in winter means something unique to each of us will be different, even when we are looking at the exact same tree.

This is the challenge and the gift for we who are Unitarian Universalists. When we gather in community on a Sunday morning, some folks who are humanists or atheists are relieved and feel fully included when we talk about our human commonality using the language of the real observable world. When we talk about the hushed beauty of a winter’s night drawing us to introversion and contemplation, the reassurance of the scientific surety that days will soon be getting longer and the inevitability of spring is all the reassurance a person could need.

Others of us who gather in these same chairs, miss spiritual language when it is absent. They find words like “God” and “spirit” and “prayer” a helpful reminder that they are not alone, that they are part of something bigger. For some hearing the story of a child born 2000 years ago helps make sense of this season and this time of year.

Our challenge is to listen beyond the words. Sometimes words that seem to separate us actually reveal hidden similarities when we inquire more deeply. Sometimes we use the same word to mean totally different things. We lose something in translation when we minimize or silence our differences

The gift of our UU tradition is discovering those places of connection, the places where we are united. Our gift is also uncovering the amazing depth of the true diversity of our experience, like all the bright lights in a dark winter’s sky hiding behind the word “star.”


What my little dog meant...

Sometimes my little dog Trey comes to the kitchen holding a toy in his mouth. He looks at me, he looks at the back door. What do you think that might mean? I generally assume it means he wants to go outside.

But why is he bringing a toy with him? He's kind of a nervous dog so maybe it gives him a sens of security? Maybe it's his transitional object?

But the thing is, most times he leaves it outside.

Maybe he likes the way it smells when it’s been outside? Maybe he’s perfuming it?

Whenever I try to "help" by bringing it back inside, he brings it right back out.

Maybe there’s something wrong with it? Maybe it has fleas?

What do you think it might mean? Because he won’t tell me. He knows a lot of words, like “toy” and “outside” but I don’t speak dog very well apparently.

He started bringing more and more stuffed toys outside until every one of his toys were out there. We used to argue with him about this, where I would grab the toy from him on his way out the door, and say “toys stay inside” but it didn’t work.

One winter there was a whole line of them that froze over and were there until the thaw came. We got him a couple new toys for Christmas, and he brought them all outside too.

Then one time we had mice in our house, and he would stand and stare at the wall, wherever he heard the sound. He would lay with his nose under the fridge, where we already suspected mice were living

When spring came, he started doing the same thing outside. He would go lay with his head in the hole the groundhog dug or sit and stare at the stone foundation of the neighbor’s house.

Our exterminator had told us that those old foundations have so many gaps in them it’s almost impossible to keep critters out.

One day he was begging to be let out, with a toy dangling out of his mouth.

He set the toy down next to the wall where he had been staring. He seemed very worried.

Then he looked at me purposefully. He looked back at wall by the toy, then at me, then at the wall.

Less than half an hour later he repeated this with another toy. He set it down by the wall, then looked at me, back at the toy looked at me. Scientists tell us that dogs do indeed communicate with that following gaze, so I think he was trying to tell me something. [i]

What do you think that might have meant?

We decided that it meant he was trying to keep a perimeter of dog smell around our house so critters wouldn’t come in. I don’t argue with him anymore, I just let him take them out and put them along that wall.

Recently, he started bring a few toys out front. I figure it might be trying to ward off the skunk that sprayed him, or the cats that like to sleep on our porch. Or maybe he just wants to let the new dog that moved in next door whose block this is. What do you think it might be?

That family next door also has a toddler, and other neighbors assume that the toys belong to the little boy and that he has dropped them, so they bring them and put them on their porch to “return them to him”

Sometimes it’s really hard to know what someone is trying to communicate- even if you are both humans, even if you both speak the same language.

I’ll never really know why Trey does that thing with the toys, even though he’s tried to tell me. I tell myself lots of different stories about why, but they are just stories. I like the story where Trey and his toys are heroes saving us from being overrun by critters.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Heart of Hospitality

When I hosted thanksgiving for the first time at my house, I worked so hard to get everything clean, to set the table with our best plates, to make sure we had everyone’s favorite foods baked from scratch, with 2 kinds of homemade pies because not everyone likes pumpkin pie.

It was a stressful couple of days leading up to dinner, and even the moments right before serving were especially stressful, because it is so hard to get the timing just right, because you can’t start the gravy until you have the pan drippings from the turkey, and by the time the gravy is done the mashed potatoes are definitely cold, and I didn’t want my guests to be disappointed by cold mashed potatoes. But I realize now I was missing one of the most important things guests really need to make them feel at home.

Scientists tell us we are always scanning the environment for cues of safety. We’ve been doing this since we were a baby. We would look at our mother’s face, for something as simple as soft eyes and a relaxed forehead. We still do that today. If we see that the people around us seem anxious, we become anxious. If people around us meet our eyes with soft eyes and a relaxed forehead, something inside us feels safe. And when we feel at ease we can play and socialize and learn and grow.

So more than having the best china, the clean house, and 2 kinds of home baked pies, perhaps the most important way we can make a guest feel welcome, is to know that we ourselves are safe. To cultivate in ourselves a sense of basic trust. The house will never be clean enough, the food will never be perfect enough to give us that feeling. We just have to take a moment and remind ourselves that really everything is fine, that we are enough. Because that sense of ease is contagious.

And if you are a guest this holiday season, you might offer to bring a hot dish, or help with the dishes. But you might not realize one of the best things you can offer your host is just a relaxed smile that says “I can tell this is going to be fun. You are doing great.” The fancy science word for that is “co-regulation.”

When we come together as a congregation, we try to help one another feel welcome and at ease. We do this not just because it’s kind, although that is important. We do this not only because it helps us learn to think of others, although that is also very important. We do it because at the heart our congregation is about learning and growing and healing, and neuroscientists are finding what most of us have already experiencing, that most kinds of learning and growing and healing are almost impossible to do when you are anxious. 

So we do things to make this feel like a safe and caring place. Someone comes early to turn the heat on. Someone makes a pot of coffee. Someone makes beautiful music. And we all try, as we are able on any given Sunday, to greet one another and say “you are welcome here…we are glad you are here.”

Our church feels like a sanctuary not only because we have lovely windows, and beautiful music and hot coffee, but also because this is a place where people come to root themselves in what is good and loving. From the first notes of the prelude to the end of social hour, we cultivate that sense of trusting ourselves, of trusting the universe, and trusting one another.

I’ve changed my mind about how I want to be as a hostess this Thanksgiving. There will be just 4 of us, and I’ve decided that the right number of dishes to make is whatever number will allow me to sit down at the table without anxiety. That the first most important thing I want to prepare is myself, remembering that feeling of being safe at home, so I can communicate that trust, and communicate my caring to the people I love, even if the mashed potatoes are cold.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

What's the Good of Shame?

Unitarian Universalists don’t do shame and guilt. This was a common point of pride in my UU church growing up. Universalism grew up in opposition to the idea that humans are basically sinful. So I grew up believing instead that humans are basically good, and that through our diligence we can improve ourselves and improve our world. Ours is an optimistic faith that believes in progress and empowering people to be their best selves.

Our faith became a refuge for all those who were told they should be ashamed for who they are- doubters, heretics, A refuge for people who were shamed for who they loved or how they expressed their gender. This faith has been a balm and a refuge for centuries.

But here’s the thing- I grew up UU, and sometimes I still feel shame. Since it didn’t come from a fire and brimstone preacher, where does it come from? I am generally of the philosophy that emotions have reasons and uses. Sadness helps us process loss. Anger helps us defend our boundaries. Joy, well I think we all get why Joy is good. Even Guilt I get- the prick of conscience is our ethical compass. But shame? I started to pay attention to every time I felt shame, and the pattern I notice is that I feel it when I worry that I am out of covenant with community. I’ve got a little judge in my head that has internalized societies expectations, and gives me a jolt of shame when it thinks I’m in danger of doing something that jeopardizes my place in my community. In a way, Shame is an important survival mechanism for us creatures who need our tribe for survival. It’s okay that we have community standards for our actions, and that we have an inner warning system when we are doing something that may jeopardize our role in community.

The problem comes when we carry around old judgmental voices, real or imagined, that may or may not have anything to do with our actual community. I was sometimes picked on as a child for being part of a dissenting faith, and when I went on silent retreat at a Jesuit Retreat center during my last sabbatical, those old judging voices started in on me. Even though I had been super clear on my application that I was UU. Even though the spiritual director I worked with during that retreat said I was welcome to be part of liturgy, even to take communion if I chose, those judging voices really started to get to me. There are a lot of things you “just know” if you grew up Catholic about what the community expects. I had decided I wasn’t going to fake it. I was not going to try to keep up with the gestures and words that come so easily to someone in their own tradition, I would just be silent and still when I didn’t know what to do. But some inner judge decided I was being disruptive by doing something different than my comrades around me. And even though my spiritual director reassured me each day that everything was fine, the feeling didn’t abate until I really turned to look at those feelings of shame and realized this was something that was coming from inside me, not from my community. Despite all the preaching about “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” my faith in that worth sometimes wavers. That feeling of shame was showing me where my inner work was, my fear of being excluded from community, my feeling that just by being me, I was a disruption.

We UUs are quite clear on this- every single self has inherent dignity and worth. You get to be you. Perhaps shame shows us where our shadow is- the parts of ourselves we disown, the parts of ourselves we don’t like to look at.

Our UU theology asks us to separate our actions from our self. We’re not actually perfect. All humans make mistakes. All humans have a great capacity for both good and evil. We can do a bad thing, but that doesn’t make us a bad person. It’s part of our gift as a religious tradition that we don’t shame people for being who human beings. Our shadow as a religious tradition, especially these past 100 years, is that because we don’t do shame and guilt, we don’t have constant ways of helping one another talk about our mistakes, looking at our mistakes honestly and helping us reconcile.

That retreat happened to begin on Ash Wednesday, the first day of lent. Being born and raised UU, I had never actually observed Lent before. But here I was with a rare opportunity to learn from the “wisdom of the world religions”. Now not only was I going to Liturgy each day with my fellow retreatants, but I took up reading the morning and evening scriptures as well. I have never read the words “wicked” or “evildoer” so many times in my whole life. This put me in a quandary. As a UU born and raised I was not going to take those words onto myself. I believe I have inherent worth. I’m a pretty good person- I compost my food scraps, I pitch in where I can, I generally follow the rules. One way to read those passages would be to decide that other people were the wicked evildoers, and not me, since I’m pretty good. But I’m a Universalist. I don’t believe there are 2 kinds of people- wicked and good. I believe we are just humans with a huge range of how we live out our capacities for good and evil.

Each day I would walk along the beautiful coast of the Atlantic Ocean, moved by the seals and sea birds, the sun gleaming off the white snow, the movement of the waves. When I saw the scraps of plastic among the sea polished rocks, I thought of all the ocean birds and fish who die from ingesting our plastic waste. This always makes me sad, but on a morning when the sight of seals sunning themselves on the coastal rocks had caused me such delight, the juxtaposition was particularly disturbing. I started filling my pockets with bits of plastic. I couldn’t clean up even in what I could see while walking, but I thought “I can at least do what’s in front of me.” For a few days the pattern continued- the Lenten scriptures, the walks along the beach, the pockets full of plastic. I began to despair at the size of the environmental devastation that we humans are responsible for, how could we ever turn ourselves around?

Then one day I came across this story from the gospel of Luke 18:
10“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And this spoke to me, as a pretty good person. Just because I’m pretty good, doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I use plastic. I drive a car. I eat meat. I do ordinary things considered normal in our culture that nonetheless contribute to our collective harm. No matter how lightly we tread we still leave a footprint.

No matter how hard I try to eliminate plastic from my life, it’s all around me. Sometimes I find myself standing in the checkout line at the grocery store with a salad in a giant plastic bubble, and I know that can’t be right, but I seem to be doing it anyway. I went to the sustainable home shop to buy a gift for a friend who is very passionate about reducing plastic consumption, and found a great little set of metal flatware you could carry in your bag so you don’t have to use plastic flatware when eating at a restaurant that give you no alternative. I was feeling pretty good about my choice until I got it home and opened it up to wrap it- each piece of flatware was in a plastic sleeve. D’oh! According to Per Espen Stoknes the mind cannot tolerate cognitive dissonance for long. Even knowing the environmental cost of using plastic, if I find that I am using it anyway, if I cannot figure out a way to extricate myself from its use, the mind cannot hold onto the problem, and so the mind decides it must not actually be a problem.

We need to develop the capacity to somehow open our hearts and minds to the harm that we cause even when we are working hard to reduce harm, the harm we cause just by being born into this culture at this time. This capacity is important and is something our culture does not do well. “We don’t do shame and guilt.”

This fall I’ve been reading a book called White Fragility with a group of folks from this congregation and the Binghamton congregation. It wrestles with the same question- how can we “pretty good people” have anything to do with racism? If there is something called “evil” in this world, then surely the kind of systemic oppression of people of color must be evil. Our hearts and minds can’t even hold the idea that we “pretty good” people might be participating in an evil system, and so we turn away from the problem. 

I attended a training by CB Beale about how to make our churches radically inclusive. CB suggested that, while we are making our circle a “safe space” for folks with marginalized identities, those of us with privilege should instead focus on making a “braver space.” They asked that we be willing to hold the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that we may inadvertently and with innocent intentions have done something or said something that caused another pain. They warned we might even feel shame- and invited us to notice the habitual pattern of turning away from any conversation that caused us to feel shame. Shame, they said, was one of the tools that allowed oppression to continue. Instead of shutting down the conversations that lead to feelings of shame, they invited us to use that feeling as a guide “here is where the work is.” Could we take that invitation to look, with humility and openness, at where the feeling is coming from? Could we just stay with it to ask “is there an opportunity for growth here?” Because all of us “pretty good” people still are human, and humans are imperfect. Fortunately humans are beings capable of creativity and change. Of course our lives have an impact on the earth. Of course our lives are part of powerful systems that are used sometimes to nurture and support life, and sometimes to oppress and harm. We live in an imperfect world desperately in need of transformation towards compassion and justice.

I believe that all our emotions come in the service of health and wholeness. When I feel sad or angry, I don’t enjoy those feelings but I am learning to just soften around that feeling, soften toward myself. I am learning to be present toward whatever emotion is arising and whatever wisdom that emotion is bringing. I’m starting to approach Shame the same way. As awful as it feels sometimes, I am trying let it come, and ask it what it has to say. I stand bravely in my inherent worth and dignity, I stand bravely in the knowledge that there is a love that holds us all, even me, and I ask with humble curiosity- where is the work I need to see? I can’t clean the ocean, but I can do the work that’s right in front of me. I want to do the work that’s right in front of me, whether that’s work on my own fears of unworthiness, or work on how I transform our world into a more just and compassionate place. The next time you feel that flush of shame, I invite you to resist the urge to feel, to fight, and see if there is some work that’s calling you.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Finding Your Rhythm

 This summer I had the great good fortune of attending a week long “Labyrinth summer school” out in Petaluma California. The first part of our week was lead by Dr. Lauren Artres, who helped bring the labyrinth into modern usage, and she advised us to walk the labyrinth at our “natural pace.”

What is your “natural pace?” That takes some discernment, doesn’t it? Not just to walk the pace of the person in front of you. Not to walk the pace that seems like a dignified labyrinth walking pace, but to listen for an inner rhythm, and to match your steps to that inner pace.

A few weeks after that training I was introducing an 8 year old to a labyrinth I had set up on our friends’ land. She was already familiar labyrinths because there was one at her Montessori school. So I asked her what she knew. She said you have to be very slow. I nodded my head, not wanting to undermine her teachers. “Yes, a lot of people do walk labyrinths slowly. I like to encourage people to walk at their own pace. Even if that’s running. She looked at me uncertainly, and then took off-- running the labyrinth. Her mom went next, running a circuit behind. I waited a beat and then entered the labyrinth at a brisk walk, not even trying to keep up. We all emerged from the labyrinth with big smiles on our faces.

When I was growing up my mom had on her wall a poster with the famous quote by Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” I grew up believing that it was okay to be “out of step” with society around you, to be an alternate or dissenting voice. It was only recently that I thought of this quote in a very literal and physical way. That there is an inner rhythm to our bodies, minds and hearts. That inner rhythm has its own wisdom and integrity.

I find it actually quite a relief to be able to do something at my own pace, but we rarely get the chance. When I was a little kid everyone wanted me to go faster. Apparently I was given to daydreaming and lollygagging. Also I had very short legs. I was constantly trying to keep up; in any group of kids on a walk or outing, I was almost always last, and sometimes despaired I would lose the group altogether.

In this culture there is an unquestioned assumption that faster is better. As a minister in Silicon Valley I believed that doing many things quickly and efficiently was the prime virtue. I rushed to keep up with work and with parenting. and noticed myself rushing my little son just as I was rushed as a child.

Then one day I got pulled over for speeding on the way to pick my son up from daycare. At first, of course, I felt defensive and guilty and angry and ashamed. Then I thought of an exercise Ram Dass mentioned in one of his talks- the practice of treating anyone you meet as if they were the Buddha. This officer - Buddha, was saying to me “slow down, you are going too fast. It’s not safe. In fact you are going so fast it’s against the law.” In a way it was a relief- what if I slowed down to the actual legal speed limit? Who could judge me for obeying the law?

It wasn’t until I started my training as a spiritual director that our teachers mentioned that going too fast can be an obstacle to contemplation. “We have to wait for our souls to catch up” they said. That’s certainly been my experience. When I’ve been moving fast and can finally slow down, it takes a while for all of me to “arrive.” I feel like a calmer, more centered, more competent person when I slow down to the pace that is right for me. There’s not one right speed for everyone- to be honest, even at these contemplative retreats, when we all rise from class together and walk down the hall to lunch it’s all I can do not to jog around the slower folks.

And yet when it comes to some of the mental and emotional aspects of our contemplative program, I felt I was constantly rushing to keep up. When a presenter says “set an intention” I think I am always the last one in the room to find my intention. It’s not unusual for a presenter to ask us to “allow a word or image to come to mind” and then move on to the next step while my mind is still a blank. More than once I’ve had to leave the room and go sit in silence away from the pressure of the now mounting instructions to allows something to come to mind at its own pace. Some parts of me are slow, some are quick. It takes my soul, it would seem, a long time to catch up.

Sometimes going slowly feels just right, and sometimes moving quickly feels just right. When I lived in Silicon Valley when I studied a vigorous form of yoga and learned to match one breath to each movement. I LOVED it. It was yoga that matched the brisk pace of my life, and taught me to breath into it. The movements were swift and challenging, but the breath was slow. Our teacher would often encourage us to do a sequence at our own pace “your breath, your body” he would say, encouraging us to match our movement to the natural pace of our breath. When I was younger and always in a hurry I used to get so impatient in the slow classes because I felt like I was missing something- we could be doing so much more! But at this moment in my life I appreciate both. I am lucky to live near a studio with lots of different yoga teachers, some fast, some slow. A vigorous quick class raises my heart rate and makes me feel confident and powerful. But I also appreciate a slow, thoughtful class where we focus on each little part of the poses, or maybe just lay down on the floor and relax.

As a species we have a tremendous range of speeds we can accomplish, and as individuals we each have a range of what is comfortable for us. But in our society we are rarely given a chance to find a pace that “feels natural.” We are rarely encouraged to know what pace works for you, and allow your body mind and heart to naturally settle into that pace. One part of the search for our true and wise Self can be listening for that drummer playing our own beat.

In school, at work or in traffic we are often required to ignore our natural rhythm, especially if it does “not keep pace with our companions.”  Listening for and then trying to match our own internal rhythm is not something we get a lot of support to do in this culture. It is more common to ask our bodies, hearts and minds to meet targets and goals defined by some societal standard. It’s easy to make a schedule of what we “should” be able to accomplish in a day, how quickly we “should” run a mile, how long it “should” take for us to learn long division, or to grieve the loss of someone we care about. And when we can’t keep up with these expectations, we struggle. When external norms and expectations clash with the reality of my own biology, I try to let the body, heart and spirit lead, knowing there are consequences for ignoring that inner wisdom.

When the mind is racing ahead of body and soul, a simple breath practice can bring them together. Let’s take a moment now to just notice your breath, without changing it. Just notice the inhale and the exhale. If you feel it want to change, just let the breath change to its “natural rhythm.” There is not a single tempo for each person, it is constantly changing, so the practice is to listen carefully as often as we can, to notice the inner rhythm of body and spirit, to follow it when we can. When some task or cultural expectation asks us to keep up or slow down, we can notice  how that affects us.

When we take on this kind of practice we affirm that each body has some natural rhythms that are right for you. And that going at your own pace has a value. That value is not only physical and emotional health, but a kind of integrity, a kind of integration and rightness that you feel when you are free to find your own rhythm. Getting to know your own rhythm is part of getting to know your true self. When we walk the labyrinth alone at our natural pace it grounds us in who we are, body mind and spirit.

If we walk the labyrinth with other people where everyone is following their natural pace we will sometimes need to pass, we will sometimes bunch up, we will sometimes need to step to the side and let someone pass us. When you walk the labyrinth as a group those who go last will have to wait their turn, and those who went first will have to wait till all the others are done. That’s community. We have folks who run on ahead to prepare the way, and folks who bring up the rear to make sure no one is left behind. Like a musical ensemble, we learn to listen not only to the beat of our own drummer, but to how that rhythm fits into the beats around us.

Noticing how our own rhythm fits into the larger whole is challenging sometimes, but it is also an important way of coming to know ourselves. It’s also a way to feel the pulse of the community, and to feel when it is out of sync, when it is leaving folks behind. This is one reason that being part of a congregation is a valuable spiritual practice.

Our society is going so fast right now that many folks cannot keep up. I’ve preached about the targets and quotas set by garment manufacturers, or at the Amazon warehouse, or set in the medical industry for physicians. I’ve preached about the impacts on workers who are physically unable to meet these quotas or the cost to their bodies when they do. Our society teaches us that “faster is better” but when I look at the world around me, I think there is plenty of evidence that this is simply not true. How often do we rush things into production without thorough testing and vetting, only later seeing the damage done to the ecosystem, or even to our own health?  There are plenty of times to move fast. It’s perfectly legal to go 65 on the interstate in some places. We really want our first responders to move quickly when we need them. We certainly wish relief aid to Puerto Rico had moved more quickly. But when the next smartphone will be released? Is that worth asking bodies to sacrifice themselves?

Other living beings don’t grow and live at our pace. Think about the slow lives of trees, or moss. We need those beings for the health of our local ecosystems and our global climate, but we fail to take them into account in our industrial time tables. What if we thought of our work not as a race to the finish line, but more like a group walking the labyrinth, each at their own pace?

Every living being has their natural pace, and it changes over the course of a day, over the course of a lifetime. I encourage you to make this part of your own spiritual practice- moving at a pace, at a rhythm that synchronizes with your deepest self, and with the selves around you. Not only will this support you on your own journey, but each time you arrive at your own pace, each time you march to the beat of your drummer and encourage others to listen for their own, you help shape the rhythm of our lives together towards health, toward sustainability and towards justice. May you listen for your own natural rhythm, as it speeds up, as it slows down. May you have opportunities to follow that rhythm and to notice when it does not match the beat of your companions. May we honor the diversity of the rhythms all around us, younger and older, hearty and frail, fast as a humming bird and slow as a great oak. Let our practice be to listen for our own rhythm among many and the beauty of their coming together.