Practice on the Path

a sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
March 23, 2003

I admit having trouble of late concentrating on anything that isn’t part of the tense turmoil of our time, like preparing a sermon that doesn’t directly address what sometimes seems like a vast array of devastating issues that swirl around our government's current activities. I am regularly in political pain like I haven’t felt in many years, if ever.

AND, echoing a rising mantra of our day, I refuse to live in fear. ("Just as long as I have breath, I must answer YES to life.") But fear certainly seems like an unwanted neighbor leaning over the fence quite a bit these days. Fear tends to work its way into our innermost being, and then inspire a variety of behaviors. How do you respond to fear? What resources do you call upon when facing feelings of deep anxiety?

In such anxious and fear-full times as these, I believe our spiritual paths really get tested. What creativity we can muster to address concerns and provide truer security must come from within and then be shaped in community. The most effective resources that we call upon to help face our fears are grounded in our inner life and our character, which is formed largely by our religious principles and practices. (And I use "religion" here in its broadest sense, to include all approaches to understanding the universe, not just denominational allegiances.) Perhaps you feel as I do that this post 9/11 era is providing a pretty severe test of our moral and spiritual stability, our character—both individually and collectively.

Well, the question is then begged: what do we bring to the table, religiously? How do your most important values show up in discussions and action around such issues as we face right now? Where do you get your strength and authority in addressing what we think is best or right for a nation as powerful as America, for a people as well off as we are, in comparison to most of the rest of the world?

Do you feel wishy washy about things, or might you have some strong convictions? Maybe both, at times, but where do you think those stances come from and what do you do with them and with whom? I suggest that the basic platform from which we speak and act is our spiritual life, which in turn is formed by our practices, which reflect various influences that have taught us our values and continue to affect our character. By "practice," I refer to any intentionally repeated activity—daily, weekly, monthly, whatever—that helps provide either centering or meaning or both.

We are all imperfect beings, of course, as we struggle to meet the challenges before us. Ever thus. But I believe our character emerges from the practices we have built to ground us in this ever-changing existence. When we consciously engage in a practice of some sort, we deepen our presence in life; we open ourselves to unbidden lessons; we listen for insights from places we can’t normally hear. And it's a path that often mingles the personal with the political, whether we want it to or not.

Perhaps you are moved, as I have been in recent weeks, to try to somehow absorb and reflect upon the often heart-numbing news that cascades at us from the various media troughs that feed us. Between war-mongering and isolating nationalism; the vague but very disturbing threats of terrorism and mass destruction; and the rapid undoing of our civil rights and environmental protections, not to mention a sinking economy and federal budgets made of mirrors—we have plenty to absorb and reflect upon!

I know that's an ugly litany for a Sunday morning at church, but I had to name it. ("Just as long as vision lasts, I must answer YES to truth.") Yes, things around us seem bleak, and for some of us there's bleakness even in our own personal lives. But does that mean whatever practices that sustain us must go out the window? No, of course, not. We need sustenance now more than ever! And our regular practices are what renew us and provide the strength to carry on with our life's work, to continue to find joy amid the pain and losses. Our practices bring meaning and comfort, perhaps especially needed in times of tension and turmoil. Our practices help us understand what we feel, what we are called to do, what really matters.

So what practices do sustain us? I invite you to do an audit of your lifestyle and assess the healthy habits you have that you would count as important "practices." Of course, we all have rather mindless habits, some of which might even be healthy, like brushing our teeth, and these usually don’t require much consciousness. I'm more interested in the ones that do require consciousness and intention.

Like coming to church most Sunday mornings, even in bad weather. This is a regular, sustaining practice that can make a big difference for us, even in seemingly simple ways. Early in my ministry, for instance, a church-goer said to me that Sunday morning at church is the only time in the whole week when they get physically touched by another person. From that moment on I've looked at Sunday worship with a deeper appreciation for what it can mean.

Many of us have other kinds of practices, especially professional pursuits, such as law or medical or therapeutic practices, to which we have dedicated a goodly portion of our lives in study, after which we may get licensed in some fashion. Often there is passion in these paths that I suspect has a spiritually deep connection, a "calling," if you will, that sustains us in our work. I honor this type of practice, too, even as I might concentrate this morning on less professional types of pursuits.

We of the non-dogmatic, non-traditional type of religion might not always frame the healthy habits we have as "spiritual practices," but I submit that it's all in the context and the attitude. If we bring a measure of discipline and purpose to our activities, and it feeds our spirit, however one might define that, then I think it counts.

Another way I've heard others put it is to use the word "devotions" to describe activities done with intention and consciousness. This is a very traditional religious idea, that we perform "devotions" in a spiritual practice, but I'm of the mind that such activities can be oriented with or without a deified object, depending upon one's theological or atheological philosophy. Anyone can be "devoted" to what matters most to them, and thus include various meaningful "devotions" in the routine of their life.

For instance, I try (imperfectly, of course) to follow a weekly regime of physical exercise that includes time in a fitness center doing weight-training. When I'm engaged in the actual exercises, I look at this time as part of my spiritual practice, where I am very much "in my body," aware of how it feels, building corporeal health, and I use a very spiritual breathing regime that helps me center in what I'm doing. In my understanding of the universe, mind, body and spirit are united, not separate, and taken together are as holy as anything else in our world. So my bodywork is an important aspect to my wholeness, and I focus on that as I'm exercising.

And I mentioned my breathing practice, which is really at the heart of whatever spiritual disciple I can muster these days. I'm a relatively practical person, and a few years ago I figured out that I'm likely to be breathing a fair amount anyway so why not add some intention to that fairly routine act and see if it might take me anywhere I wanted to go. I was inspired by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a number of intriguing little books out, including one about breath meditation, called The Blooming of the Lotus. I've not gone past the basics of his method, but it's been very helpful to me.

I combined his technique of adding a word or image to each breath, in and out, with my wish to always stay present to each moment, something I learned from an earlier foray into Buddhist thought. I realized that one way to be easily reminded to stay in the moment is to remember the fundamental reality of my mortality and the pure fact that each breath does bring me a step closer to death.

For some reason, a greater sense of my mortality does not bother me, as some might think it would. It actually has the effect of heightening my appreciation for this next moment, and the next, and the next, etc. It helps me stay focused on what really matters to me. It relaxes my anxieties and centers my thoughts. It builds what feels like a profound perspective into my day, for I do this breath meditation almost daily, usually many times.

As I breath in, I say to myself silently: "I am living." This very simply says a lot as it affirms my existence. "I am living." Then, as I exhale, I also acknowledge that "I am dying," which is true enough without being morbid. "I am dying" is a powerful reminder that I just might want to live the next moment as fully as I can, and it probably improves the odds that I will. "I am living… I am dying." Sometimes I shorten it to just "living…dying," especially when I'm pumping iron and maybe grunting a bit. Or when I'm standing on my shoulders for a good five minutes, as I do most mornings just after rising.

One other place my breath meditation comes to the fore is in the car, or any stressful situation, really. I can slip in a few conscious inhales and exhales—"living…dying"—and lighten almost any load.

Now, I do not promote this practice as a prescription for anyone else, and I'm not looking for adherents to My Way. I do, however, encourage you to take advantage of what you're already doing, i.e., breathing, and attach whatever you want to the rhythm it provides for your life.

I have become dedicated to my breathing practice in recent years, but I still stand in great admiration of many others around the world and around this room who are impressively devoted to more demanding spiritual practices. As I've humbly explored the religious realm during 15 years of professional parish ministry, I have become convinced that there is value in very disciplined, extended practice. It may not be my path to go to great lengths, but I can see that it has its effects, spiritually.

The natural skeptic in me has had to relax and accept that access to the more mysterious quadrants of "life, the universe and everything" can indeed be facilitated at least a couple of ways. Many of us have had the wonderful, sometimes even awesome experience of unbidden mystical moments that happen to come our way. We might get a fleeting glimpse of the oneness of all things or a feeling of personal transcendence and be moved in a big way, even if only momentarily. This is one way to experience the oneness of life: when a sudden "ah ha" experience comes upon us unexpectedly.

But perhaps it has been these moments that have inspired some humans—and some whole cultures—to explore a more concerted path toward more reliable access to such uplifting encounters, or whatever language one might use to describe one's relationship with the mysteriously holy. Over the centuries, people around the globe have explored many practices for heightening spiritual awareness, or, to use a phrase I once heard that says it well: doing whatever might "put yourself in the path of epiphany."

These extended methods usually require a fairly rigorous routine of some practice that endeavors to get beyond the everyday, ever-busy "monkey mind" to find a more expansive, less rational place where insight and experience merge into a different kind of reality. Meditation is one very common technique, although there are certainly, and appropriately, many different ways to meditate. I know some folks who have added very substantial meditative practice to their lives and while it may or may not open up expansive realms for them, it often provides a centering discipline that brings great meaning, as my breath mediation does for me.

What qualifies as "extended practice" can be anything sustained over time, either concentrated in one stretch or spread out over years. But this kind of foucusing often goes against the grain of our consumer culture. As author and professor, Chris Bache ("baysh"), describes the challenge:

As students of spirituality, we often feel that the problem we face is primarily one of finding the right method. We read book after book, or go to workshop after workshop, searching for that special teaching that we hope will unlock the door to our soul.

But there is no shortage of authentic, reliable methods of spiritual transformation today. Over the last thirty years, the West has been flooded with an influx of potent spiritual practices. I don't mean to minimize the issues that surround the challenge of "finding one's path," but I think that the root problem we face is not a lack of methods but a lack of deep commitment to extended practice.

Beyond the various forms of meditation, extended practice can also include such things as physical posturing like yoga; regularly reading various scripture and/or journaling; fasting for different lengths of time; disciplined reflection on retreat, say; singing of sacred phrases; etc. In fact, the way Paint Branchers have been ending Sunday services for years by singing "Spirit of Life" has elevated that practice to a whole 'nother level, wouldn’t you say?

One concentrated method that I've had some interesting times with is chanting, which is really a form of focused breathing with a few meaningful words or mantras added. This past summer, for instance, as I was driving by myself a long day's journey up to Maine, I adapted a Sufi chant to my own purposes and it carried me along the miles quite thrillingly. I then taught it to a big group of UUs in a 200-year-old chapel on an island and it provided some powerful moments of vocal and visceral unity.

Another simple chant is written in your Order of Service, and I invite you to try it with me now, but not just for a few moments. I'd like us to have the experience we don’t get very often, of singing the same line over and over for a few minutes, maybe, so that our breathing might sink a bit below the surface.

I'm not suggesting that this will necessarily accomplish anything enlightening for you, but it's an opportunity to try something different together in a safe, supportive environment. If you're not up for singing, that's fine, too. Just let the sound carry you along. Sing at whatever level is comfortable for you, dropping in and out if needed, but just relax into the rhythm, which will be aided by a simple drumbeat. If you're not singing, be sure to breathe, at least. This will have a spontaneous character all its own, as we create the piece together in this magnificent space.

The words are appropriate because of the arrival of Spring after a long winter. We know the sun is gathering itself higher and higher in the sky, and even more importantly, we also know that it is the source of so much of our ongoing life throughout all the generations. We even bring an aspect of it into each of our services, as a flame burns in our midst. The sun is a unifying element for all creatures on this earthly sphere, so we sing of our connection to it:

We are all one with the infinite sun, forever and ever and ever.

The flame in our midst reflects the dynamic power of the sun, so distant and yet so intimate a presence among us. We might forget how much we are centered in its light, guided by its rhythms, nurtured by its energy. May our chant affirm all this AND remind us of our common human posture, as all beings around the globe depend on the same sunbeams of life.

Take a deep breath together now, and consider your experience of what we just did. A simple thing, really. But what made it different was its duration. I invite you to the Reverberations session during Enrichment Hour today to talk more about this exercise, as well as any other practices that have meaning for you.

I know I don't often sing the same words for that long. It may be a more familiar practice to the pagans among us, and those settings have been where I've enjoyed chanting on a number of occasions; also in various Dances of Universal Peace, where short but meaningful expressions from various religious traditions are chanted within a circle dance format.

If I contrast those experiences and our chant just completed with my car chant on the highway last summer, what I notice right away is the difference between solo chanting and group chanting. I make no judgment of one being better than the other, but there is a large factor that's different: control. Alone, I can pretty much follow where I want to go with a chant, or any practice, really. But together, I'm just a part of something that's moving relatively spontaneously, without much control. Even as the identified leader here, moments ago, I could only control it so much.

This contrast will help me make my final point this morning, one I learned most distinctly from Barbara, that while individual spiritual practice is significant in itself, certainly, it can only grow so far without benefit of some connection to a community. We may be inclined to avoid the messy complications and lack of control inherent in a community setting, but we can only really enter into the mystery of oneness by connecting directly with other beings. This is a large part of spiritual practice, as participants in our regular Spirituality Circles here might testify. Community is the leavening agent in what might otherwise become a stale practice that breathes only its own air.

There is a place for individual centering or meditation or any other kind of practice that deepens a person's singular path, AND that path can be broadened by relationships in community. The spiritual platform that sustains us and from which we create the rest of our lives needs to be sturdy, which means it can’t be too narrow. It is strongest with a good balance of depth and width.

So I invite you to assess the spiritual platform that sustains you. How deep and wide is it? How readily can you find renewal, alone and with others? What strength of conviction do you draw from your character, tested in the cauldron of community? For me, the practice of building community, with all its joys and dynamics as well as its frustrations and vicissitudes, is the companion piece to my personal spiritual disciplines. ("Just as long as my heart beats, I must answer YES to love.")

For this moment, then, let us gently take one more step toward balance and hopefully peace; let us say one more word of encouragement to another, one more prayer for strength and creativity; let us sing one more song…(such as #168, One More Step, by my friend Joyce Poley, a Canadian UU from the Vancouver, BC area and a magnificent maker of worshipful music….)

Meanwhile, another intentional practice I have, that might not look at all spiritual, is actually a direct counterbalance to the onslaught of bad news that seems greater than usual right now, but is really always with us to one degree or another. I very intentionally read good news magazines from very encouraging organizations that highlight many optimistic things which don’t seem to make it into the mainstream media. This, to me, is spiritual balancing of the highest order, and I am usually reading from one of these favorite magazines when I'm cruising on the stationary bicycle at the Fitness Center.

Ask me later if you'd like to know more about precisely which periodicals instill me with hope and ideas and help me stave off the discouraging pangs of exasperation that accompany so much other news. I have copies of some up here.

[Timeline from the Foundation for Global Community, (which used to be Beyond War); the (Institute of) Noetic Sciences Review (which is at the forefront of human consciousness studies); Teaching Tolerance, a product of the Southern Poverty Law Center; and our excellent UU World magazine.]

As a teenager in 1968, I went door-to-door for Eugene McCarthy, a peace candidate who didn’t even get past the primary. And I came this close to emigrating to New Zealand in '72 after Nixon won resounding reelection over McGovern, another peace candidate, whose hand I shook. As a political liberal, I winced often and felt depressed a lot during the long Nixon and Reagan years.

But what is unfolding now, before our relatively complicit eyes, is at a whole 'nother level of cataclysm. Just in case you don’t know where I stand, I believe that in our names, this barely legitimate government is about to unleash a wave of aggression that will cast a devastating shadow on an interconnected world that already sees us through very narrow, squinting eyes. And our own materialist economy will somehow have to pay for both all the glorious weaponry that opens the killing gates, and then all manner of very expensive rebuilding, to try to rescue our increasingly dubious reputation.

But perhaps the ugliest of all precedents—the unilateral use of preemptive force—will be established, and we will live out the rest of our lives not just as witnesses to the global carnage it allows, but as responsible parties.

But now it seems that researchers have identified the precise quadrant of our brain which is affected by "religious experience," such as chanting, meditation, drumming, praying, etc.—anything that induces an extreme sensation of transcendence, or what is sometimes described as that feeling of ultimate unity or oneness. (I wrote about this in a newsletter column a couple years back.)

One method the researchers have used in this investigation is to recruit one of the Tibetan Buddhist monks, who are among the most adept mediators on the planet. They then fill this monk with an intravenous radioactive tracer. When he feels he’s reached the peak of his meditative state, he pulls on a cord which activates a brain-imaging machine that instantly takes a picture, so to speak, of the monk’s highlighted lobes. This snapshot can then be compared with images of the same brain quadrant made during less transcendent moments.

What the researchers have discovered is that the part of the brain that changes during such peak spiritual times happens to be the same region that is also known to be what is called our "orientation area"—the neurons that help us physically locate ourselves in our surroundings. This area is usually quite actively throbbing as we move about our world and differentiate the many objects all around us that tell us where we are.

Well, this same region of the brain evidently goes on vacation, "quiets down"—all but disappears from the imaging recorders—when we are experiencing that spiritual "oneness." The implications are pretty intriguing. Since our brain’s "orientation area" functions less the farther we go into a transcendent state, it’s no wonder we don’t feel the same boundaries holding us in preconceived or familiar patterns. We might feel like we’re touching something, or being absorbed by something much greater than the sum of the parts, something that doesn’t ascribe to "normal" boundaries.

In fact, we are. At such times, we’re no longer contained or "oriented" by the portion of our brain that usually does that for us, so we float off into a realm that that can be called by all manner of religious terms, as people for millennia have done. We might be, truly, "one with the universe," or at least more one with the universe, because the portion of our brain that orients us in the material world has checked out, or been suppressed. We are indeed "out there," without the markers our brain usually provides to keep us grounded and individuated. Researchers are calling this "neuro-theology."

For me, all this puts a new spin on religious language, which I guess is the way we flawed humans have tried to describe our entry into a realm with such porous boundaries. Metaphor and speculative doctrines are helpful, I suppose—but risky, especially when they promote absolute claims. Most of us have had at least glimpses of transcendence of one sort or another as our journeys have unfolded, and we each respond to language and images that activate our own sense of connection. Sometimes it’s a story full of rich meaning; other times it’s a concept that resonates deeply; maybe it’s an artful rendering, powerful object or benevolent guide.

I’ve had my own mystical moments, often fleeting, when I don’t feel constrained by any standard orientation, as I experience a very open and inviting, if elusive and unusual inner landscape. I’ve come to think of them as reality checks that remind me about how I can identify with more than just my own body, how my "self" is really extended beyond my skin, as an interconnected piece of the larger world.

And I’ve also come to respect various monks and lamas and other disciplined religious types who build up spiritual habits that improve the odds for this experience on a regular basis. Sure, there may be a reasonable scientific explanation for this phenomenon. "Neuro-theology," perhaps. The brain research mentioned above seems to make as much sense as anything.

But I suspect the pull toward making meaning out of both the ordinary and the extraordinary will always evoke human responses that defy description, even as we try mightily to capture it with our puny efforts. I’m with the ancient Hebrews, who wouldn’t say or even spell out the name of their god, believing that to title it was to diminish it.

"It" is indeed greater than the sum of the parts. The same is probably true of our brains.

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