God is Not One: Praxis #5 Exercise: Go with the Flow

In her book Wisdom Walk Sage Bennet says, “Taoism teaches us to life of life of harmony with the invisible mystery woven throughout the matrix of wisdom. We are invited to learn to have an open posture to life that allows u s to intuitively flow with life’s ever-changing currents. This way of acting spontaneously and going with the flow gives us a new freedom. Practicing this dance we learn to cultivate patience, wait for the right time to act or yield, and learn to move with the rhythm of energies as they move between the complementary opposites of yin and yang” (179).

For this week’s spiritual exercise, I’d like to suggest that we practice the balance recommended by Lao-tzu. Daoism recommend cultivating the balance we find in nature. This balance is characterized unity of as yin and yang where yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive, and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity and nighttime while yang is described, by contrast, as fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive, and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime.

Because at the time the Tao-Te-Ching was written the active yang-styles forces of Confucianism were predominate Lao-tzu recommended  the passive way of water. However, some of us are too passive and need more active, fiery energy in our lives. Sage recommends preceding each decision with the question, Is yin or yang needed here? Do we need to step back and approach this decision from a feminine, yielding, slow, diffuse position or from a masculine, aggressive, fast, hard position? Some of us characteristically act with fiery yang energy while others of us are more passive, preferring the soreness of yin energy. Our goal this week is to try to choose the position that is most appropriate to the situation. If you tend toward yang, consider how acting more yin-like would feel, perhaps waiting is the right answer. On the other hand, if you tend toward yin, consider how acting more forcefully might feel. Is not the time to take matters into your own hand and act assertively? No position is always right and as the yin/yang symbol reminds each position contains the seed of its opposite.

Use your meditation or prayer time to consider the possibility of action or inaction. Which is most appropriate right now? It is often scary to step out of our habitual way of acting but challenge yourself.

God is Not One: Praxis #4 Exercise: Sabbath

The most important of the Jewish holiday is the weekly celebration of the Sabbath, that time of rest and rejuvenation that reminds us that even God took a day of rest. We all have busy lives and there is a tendency to full them all to the brim, forgetting to leave time for ourselves, our families, and our friends. For Jews Sabbath is a 24 hour period from sunset Friday night until sunset, or later, Saturday night when they can rest, reflect and re-connect with God. No work of any type is allowed during this time, including driving, cooking and for some even switching on a light or pushing the button on an elevator.

We can celebrate our own style of Sabbath unencumbered by the rules that have grown up around the Jewish Sabbath. Perhaps Saturday isn’t the best time for you to take a Sabbath break, then chose another day. I find that my life is such that Fridays make a better day of rest for me. Perhaps sunset to sunset doesn’t work for you. Try a different 24-hour period, or something less. Maybe just a morning or an afternoon or maybe only during daylight hours or after dark. You don’t need to completely disconnect from your life but many non-Jews are taking time to disconnect from all their electronic gadgets–no TV, no cell phone, no MP3 player.  (See http://www.care2.com/greenliving/you-unplugged.html and http://unpluggedsunday.blogspot.com/2011/11/thoughts-on-simplicity.html for more information about this movement.)

Think about what might work for you. Perhaps you may need to start small, only a couple of hours at first to see how it goes. Think seriously about what you will and won’t do during your Sabbath time. I chose Friday as my Sabbath because my Saturdays and Sundays are filled with responsibilities I can’t (and don’t want to) give up–including teaching this class. When I was doing this regularly, I turned off the computer and tried to do other types of activities. I would often plan outings with my friends as part of my Sabbath celebration.

Try it out. Then come back here and to class and let us know how it worked for you.

Additional Questions for Thought

In class we read “What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?” Constructing an altar as part of our study of Hinduism gave you an opportunity to think about the sacred spaces in your home. What new insights did you have after reading Ochs’s article? Do you have some explicitly religious objects in your home (Ochs’s first category)?Do you have objects that you consciously exclude from your home because of your religious beliefs? Have you given non-religious objects religious meaning so that they function as religious objects (Ochs’s second category)? Do you have some objects that are not particularly religious but whose meaning and function have shifted to a religious one (Ochs’s third category)?  After reading the article, were you moved to make your space better express your own religious orientation?

The audience for this article (A Day of Rest) is faculty not students but it has an interesting discussion about different types of Sabbath observance you might be interested in.

God is Not One: Praxis #3: Create a Home Altar

If you have been following along with our spiritual exercises, you have probably already discovered somewhere in you home or neighborhood that feels special or especially sacred. This week we are going to try to formalize that space into a home altar. In her book Wisdom Walk Sage Bennet describes a home altar as “a place where we could begin creating a connection with the divine and our own inner sanctuary”  in order to learn the art of devotion, bhakti (2). As we’ve seen Hindus have many different ideas about the divine including the idea that there is a divine spark within each one of us, our atman. Basically there are four major paths available to lead the soul toward a direct experience of God—through love and adoration, work and service, the mind and study, or some combination of these, including various psycho-spiritual exercises.

For ancient Hindus the home altar was a place where they could commune with the divine. At the center of the area some sacred image or icon served as a focal point. It was believed that this image or icon did not simply represent God but was the embodiment of the divine in one’s own home. Although this focal point might be an anthropomorphic (human-like) or theriomorphic (animal-like) image from the vast Hindu pantheon, it might also be aniconic (non-representational). In addition, one might include prayer beads, spiritual literature, incense, and offering of food or flowers.

Many religious traditions encourage the use of home altars to serve as a sanctuary from the outside world and a place of connection with the divine. In order to create your own home altar you must first identify a place in or around your home that is or can become peaceful, beautiful and reflective of the spiritual for you. It might be a corner of a bedroom or living room, near a window with a special view, or near the bathtub. As you prepare to establish your special place you’ll want to first purify it, give it a good physical cleaning and then perhaps “clean” it spiritually with incense, smudge or even cool water. When you are ready approach your sacred space you may also want to similarly purify yourself.

You altar space might be a small table or the edge of the tub. You’ll want to include some special items on this space. Many people will cover the surface with a special cloth in an appropriate color or design. It is common to add candles to the space, just be sure that you handle the candle in a safe manner, keeping it away from flammable materials. You might also want to add other things to your altar including incense, fresh flowers, photos of your loved ones, shells, feathers or other items from nature, religious icons such as a stature of Ganesh, or the Buddha, or a favor saint or a stature from another tradition that you find meaningful. What you put on your altar is entirely up to you. You aren’t limited to any single tradition or symbol system. Over time you will also discover that object may come and go from your altar. Bennet also suggests including some small offering on your altar, perhaps fresh flowers or bowls of water. Again, you can use your own intuition and inclination to determine what is an appropriate offering.

You may have already developed a ritual or sequence of actions that helps you move from an ordinary state of consciousness to a more spiritual one. As you design and begin to use your home altar you might find your daily ritual changing or expanding. Again, you are the sole judge of whether a particular ritual is appropriate for your sacred space. I might want to light a candle and chant quietly while you might want to dance or shout or engage in more physical forms of devotion.

Bennet also talks about developing a traveling altar you can take with you when you leave home. It might be a miniature replica of your home altar with a small candle, image, and piece of cloth in a box or bag that you can use to transform a hotel room or other location into your own sacred space. She also talks about creating a theme altar, in her case a “marriage altar” where she could pray that the obstacles  to her marriage might be removed. Her marriage altar included a vase that had been used at her wedding, fresh flowers, a statue of Genesh, the Hindu god that removed obstacles and two rose quartz hearts. Tending this altar, together with her partner, refreshing the flowers provided a focus that help the two of them do the hard work of pulling their marriage back from the brink. You might also want to create a special altar that helps you focus on a particular aspect of your current life.

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We will have a long break after today’s class as we’re not scheduled to meet again until December 4. During this time you can catch up on your reading, continue or revise your spiritual exercises or simply take a break.

Remember if you want to discuss any aspect of the class you can use the comments section of this blog. Share with us how your spiritual exercises are going, post photos of your home altars or tell us why these exercises aren’t working for you. Does having a home altar help you maintain your other spiritual exercises?

God is Not One: Praxis #2 Exercise: Right Relationships

Sage Bennet didn’t have any exercises for Confucianism and the articles in Scott Alexander’s book where focused on partnerships, marriages, child raising and grief and loss–all good topics but none of which really felt right to me for our exploration of Confucian propriety. Branching out further I found a chapter in Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project (available at all the normal outlets including the public library) on friendship. In this book Gretchen documents her year of trying to be happier. She suggests that being a happier person will go a long way to making you a better person, or a Confucians might say becoming a junzi or exemplary person. The book documents both the activities Rubin chooses to engage in to increase her happiness and her achievements and stumbles along the way. Beginning in January, each month she focuses on a different aspect of her life.

In June she decides to “make time for friends.” Happiness researchers agree that having strong social bonds is perhaps the most powerful contributor to an individual’s happiness. Since friendship is the one Confucian relationship we can all engage in and in the modern world, friendships are often the model for the other Confucian relationship, I would like us to focus our spiritual discipline for the next week on relationships using some of Rubin’s ideas for making time for friendships. If you’d rather focus on a different one of the Five Relationships, perhaps you can use some of her ideas as well.

Rubin lists five activities for strengthening her friendships: remember birthdays, be generous, don’t gossip, make three new friends and show up. One way to strengthen the bonds with friends is remember their birthdays. Rubin decides to at least send out email birthday wishes and sets about to collect the birth dates of her friends and put them into an internet site (it appears that the site she chose no longer exists but there are other manual and automated way to collect and keep birthday information). Although it’s tedious for her to collect birthday information from her friends, she says she finds it quite rewarding to have done so and looks forward to staying closer to her friends. What about you? Do you send birthday greetings to your friends? If not, do you think that would help strengthen the bonds between you and your friends?

Rubin’s second activity is to be generous. She notes that we generally get more satisfaction out of going good deeds for others than by being on the receiving end of such support. She calls this the Secret of Adulthood: do good to feel good. Rubin had to consider what, within the confines of her own personality, she could do to be more generous. After rejecting such obvious choices as buying gifts for her friends, she hit upon some activities she could use to exhibit more generosity. She both hit upon something that worked for her and the idea that one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. Perhaps for your spiritual discipline for the next week you might want to think about what you could do to exhibit generosity, what could you do that could make your happy by making others happy.

As part of being more generous Rubin also decided to cut people more slack by which she meant not to judge others too harshly for all those little irritations from others we face each day, cell phone ringing at inappropriate times, people that cut us off in traffic, or folks who jostle their way to the front of the line, for example. Do you think cutting others more slack would make you happier, would it, as Confucians might say, show your commitment to becoming a exemplary person?

Rubin’s third activity involved not action but inaction–giving up on gossip. Gossip has an important social role in reinforcing community values, making people feel closer to each other and exposing the bad behavior of others. It’s often fun, but not very nice and often make us feel bad after the fact. As Rubin discovered, giving up gossip is very difficult. Most of us love a good gossip session, even if we do feel bad afterwards. If you decide to give up gossiping this week, I’d love to hear about it. Were you successful? How did you feel when you avoiding gossip — and when you didn’t?

New friends expand your world and provide the opportunity for new interests, opportunities and activities. For many of us, making new friends is difficult and setting a goal, as Rubin did, seems a bit cold-blooded and calculating. However, she discovered that changing her attitude from “Do I like you? Do I have time to get to know you?” to “Are you someone who will be one of my three friends?” caused a shift in her behavior. She says it made her more open to people, prompted her to make an effort to go beyond the perfunctory hello, and in general caused her to act friendlier in many social situations. By acting friendlier, she began to feel friendlier. Looking for new friends also pushed her to work harder at making a good first impression so others would be interested in befriending her. She developed a check list for first encounters: smile more frequently, actively invite others to join a conversation, create a positive mood, open a conversation, try to look accessible and warm, show your vulnerable side, laugh at yourself, show a readiness to be pleased, follow others’ conversational leads and ask questions. Do you think actively trying to make new friends is artificial? Would you be willing to try it for a week? Let us know in the comments.

Rubin’s final activity is “show up.” She discusses how much of life depends on being there. In the case of friendships, showing up means making consistent efforts to be there with and for your friends. She note the many simple gestures we extend to each other help to deepen casual friendships and confirm the closeness between good friends. She talks about visiting her friends with new babies, going to the grand opening of a friend’s new store, going to her husband’s office party and attending events at her daughter’s school. Being with friends tends to deepen relationships. She says, “The more you see a person, the more intelligent and attractive you’ll find that person.… and the more that person likes [you].” Perhaps this week you make an effort to be with your friends, to just show up.

Potential spiritual practices for this week:

  • Remember birthdays
  • Be generous
  • Don’t gossip
  • Make three new friends
  • Show up

Choose one as your spiritual discipline for this week, then come back here and tell us how it went.

God is Not One: Praxis Exercise #1: Surrender to Prayer

In Wisdom Walk Sage Bennet asks, “How would our lives be different if we surrendered to prayer five times a day as the Muslims do? Islam reminds us to cultivate a life of prayer. Prayer is a way of remembering that we are connected to an infinite presence—call this God, Allah, compassion, or love…. We can renew ourselves throughout the day with fresh waters of the spirit; prayers washes away the rust and grit of daily life that can harden the heart” (50).

Prayers are generally directed toward a deity, goddess, or object of worship. Some times prayers are petitions directed toward some higher power, but prayers can also be vehicles for gratitude for the many good things in our lives. There are prayers of praise, confession, contemplation and intersession. As Unitarian Universalists many of us have given up or not developed a life of prayer because our personal creed doesn’t allow for any one or any thing for prayer to be directed to. In addition, as Bennet says, “the prospect of surrender conjures up images of defeat, giving up, relinquishing our power” (53). In general, we don’t like the thought of surrendering to any body or any thing. Yet it is possible to direct our prayful thoughts not to some external being but to our own inner or higher self, that deepest part of our being that can life us up beyond our mundane thoughts and actions.

Islam and many other traditions rely on prescribed prayers. The Quran begins

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds; 
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
You do we worship, and Your aid do we seek.
Show us the straight way.
The way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, those whose portion is not wrath, and who do not do astray.

Other traditions leave room from spontaneous prayers. If you decide to engage in this spiritual exercise you can chose to use a prescribed prayer, a spontaneous prayer or some combination of prescribed and spontaneous prayer. You might want to incorporate prayers from several different traditions.

To make this exercise work you need to carve out time in your life to pray. It is helpful to choose the time or times you’re going to pray. Perhaps you’ll plan on praying once a day, first thing in the morning, before a meal, as a break in the late afternoon, before or after dinner or before retiring for the night. Like the Muslims you may chose to pray multiple times a day. Short prayers at specific points in your life will help you create a structure for your prayer experience.

You can pray silently or out loud. You might chant or sing prayers or hymns from your past or from a tradition you find inspiring. You can pray alone or with others. You might want to ask your partner or other family members to join you during your prayer session. Regardless of how you pray, leave yourself some quiet time at the end of your prayer session.

It is also helpful to have a specific place to pray. Muslims use a prayer rug to define sacred space for their prayers. They also have a pre-prayer ritual of taking off their shoes, washing their arms, head, face, and feet. You might also want to choose one or more specific places to pray. You might also want to develop a ritual for beginning your prayers. Lighting a candle, putting on or taking off specific articles of clothing (shoes, a light shawl, a special necklace or bracelet, etc.), playing specific music, calling the directions, or another similar activity might help you get into the appropriate frame of mind for prayer.

Although they might pray in other ways, for Muslims the movements of Salat is the most important form of prayer. Each phrase of this prayer is accompanied by specific bodily movements. If you want to experiment with this form of prayer, there are sites on the internet that can teach you the movements. “How to Pray like a Muslim”  (http://www.quran.org/salathow.htm) is one such site. Sufis dance their prayers. You might also want to experiment with incorporating movement into your prayers. Perhaps you will decide to pray during your daily walk or run or swim or while you’re cooking or cleaning up. You might want to dance, whirl or add hand movements to your prayers.

You might use prayer beads to structure your prayers. Both Catholic and Buddhist traditions use strung beads to bring a tactile involvement to their prayers. In the book Everyday Spiritual Practice Erik Walker Wikstrom suggests creating your own set of prayer beads. You can use any commonly available beads of different sizes and types to construct a personalized set of prayer beads. Again a Google search on “prayer beads” will bring up a myriad of sites for either making or buying a set.

One of Sage’s ideas is to create a portable prayer collection. She suggest that you collect favorite prayers from your childhood, prayers from other traditions you’ve encountered throughout your life, even your own personal prayers. Keeping these different prayers together in a notebook, or pouch, or other container might help you as you begin to experience your own submission to prayer.

Have you attempted to add some sort of prayer experience to your life? How did it go? Were you comforted or uncomfortable with prayer? Let us know in the comments.

750words: A Writer’s Tool

Pterodactyl Badge

Last August I talked the website 750word.com an excellent (and free) resource for writers that encourages its members to right at least 750 words every day. Since that time using the discipline I developed with this site I’ve been able to not only be a winner in the 2012 National Novel Writers Month (NaNoWriMo) but also have written every day for 216 days–that’s a pterodactyl! (Did I say the site awards badges for consistent writing?)

Several months ago, Buster, the site owner, announced that because of changes in his life he was going to have to change the site to a payment site ($5/mo, not much really). Today I read that he’s extended the deadline for the change over until May 1, 2013 and that existing members will be given lifetime free accounts. (There is also a possibility for some scholarship accounts after 5/1). This is an excellent site that offers a simple service for writer and I encourage my writing friends to check it out and consider becoming members.

Your muse will thank you!

750Words: A Website for Writers

Champion BadgeThis morning I completed 97 consecutive days of writing at least 750 words on the writers’ website 750word.com. This is a website designed to help writers kick start their writing. It is based on an idea from The Artist’s Waythat suggests that writers should create three pages of writing every day, typically in the morning. These so-called Morning Pages can be about anything  and everything of interest to the writer. They should be unedited and uncensored just words on the page. The idea is that by starting the day this way you can get the writing “juices” flowing and be a more productive writer. 750word.com can help you do just that.

The main part of site itself is a blank screen with small boxes at the top of the page representing all of the days in the month and a word counter at the bottom of the page. As you write your words are automatically counted and autosaved to the site. The site awards you points as you go along. You get one point for writing anything in a day and a “/” in the box at the top of the screen representing the day’s date (like a spare in bowling) When you reach the magic number of 750 words (about 3 pages of text) you get a congratulations message and an “x” in the box for the day (like a strike in bowling) and more points. You don’t have to stop at 750 words but can continue for as long as you like. I’ve written as much as 1781 words at a time. I find between 750 and 1000 words gives me one good scene and that’s generally my goal for the day. If I don’t get too distracted I can finish in about an hour. However, if I don’t have a full hour, I can come back to the site later in the day and finish. As long as I write 750 words between midnight and midnight I get my “x” for the day.

As you complete more and more days the site awards you more points and when you complete a certain number of consecutive days you get small badges. Signing up gets you an egg, after three days you get a rooster, five days gets you a penguin and so on. I’m bucking for the 100 day phoenix. There are also badges for fast finishers (the cheetah), no distractions days (the hamster), early morning and nighttime writers get an Early Rooster and Night Bat respectively. If you miss a day, you can simply start again the next day.

There’s also a badge and a link to the yearly competition called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The goal of NaNoWriMo, “thirty days and nights of literary abandon”, is to draft a novel in one month, generally November. If you meet the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 within any one month the 750words site awards you the NaNo badge. There’s also a monthly writing contest where you can challenge yourself to write every day for a month. If you meet your challenge your name goes on the Wall of Fame, if you fail it’s the Wall of Shame for you. I got the badge at the top of this page for taking the challenge and writing at least 750 words every day in July. Every month about a quarter of those who sign up for the challenge complete it. In addition to the Wall of Fame or Shame you can set your own reward/punishment for the month.

Since many people use this site as a type of journal there are algorithms that tell you more about your writing for the day including a chart of your starts and stops, a rating of your writing based on the common movie rating system (G, PG, etc.), the feeling and concerns expressed, your mindset, time orientation, and primary sense, your us/them orientation,  and most frequently used words. You can configure the site to share some or all of this metadata or to keep everything completely private. It also offers other services including a search function to find something you wrote in the past and an export feature so your words aren’t held hostage to site (although I just do a copy past of my writing into MS-Word after each writing session), the ability to customize the look of your page, and others.

Just writing every day I’ve logged 14,000 words this month and 85,000 total. Some of this is so hackneyed it must never see the light of day but I am copying off other portions to serve as the first draft of my novel. You can use the site for any kind of writing. It can be work toward a novel or other type of long- or short-form writing, a draft for your blog, your daily journal, or simply “morning pages.”

There are several other sites that also provide reinforcement for writing including Written? Kitten!  and Written? Puppy! which give you a cute kitten or puppy picture after a set number of words, Write or Die which punishes you for procrastination and distractions and Penzu a private journal and online diary site and companion applications.

I like 750words, however. It is a pretty simple idea but anything that helps me work toward the goal of a first draft of a novel is a good thing. The checkoffs and badges make it fun and as I’ve logged more and more days I’ve become more and more reluctant to “break the chain.” If you want to write more but are having a problem finding the time or motivation, I would encourage you to check out 750words.