Between the dawn of the idea of Spiritual Practices that make me happy and the actual time scheduled for this talk, I have experienced my pettiness, impatience, negativity, and some mean-spiritedness. I realize any talk about spiritual practices that pretends to transcend or ignore these realities is just plain dishonest. Thus aware of the all-too human aspects of myself, I have discarded five earlier versions of this talk about spiritual practices and their affect on me, and commited to abiding by the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and peace activist. May his words shape my words. “Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.”
Before launching into practice number one, I offer this definition of spirituality from "Spirituality for Dummies, second edition." I could have gone to Google or Wikipedia but could have uncovered more concepts than Thich Nhat Hanh might have liked. "Spirituality for Dummies" says that we are already spiritual beings, even if we think we are limited and small. In fact, we’re greater and more powerful than we ever imagined. A light exists inside of us, and it is the same light in everyone we know and will ever know in the future.
If I settle for a definition of spirituality that assures me I am good as I am because a light exists inside of me, why bother with spiritual practices? I practice not to become perfect, but because happiness results.
Spiritual practice number one. I sit in stillness 20 to 30 minutes everyday and, when possible more than once. Some call this sitting - meditation. In the silence, I meet the causes and conditions that have made me who I am. And I am happy because in stillness I can’t help but recognize what in me I am responsible for, so much of which is familiar by this time. As a result, I have more control over how I behave when my buttons get pushed in the course of a day. The stillness of sitting translates to skillful pauses, during which I can choose to respond rather than react.
Here’s an example of recognizing the rise of reactivity and not acting on it. When Maureen and I met for the first time in the church library to plan this service, Maureen began to unload books from her totebag. There were quite a few of them and they appeared to have been used often. My reaction was an immediate STOP and a strong NO WAY. Ouch! Familiar button pushed. Within minutes, I recognized what lurked behind my reaction. "Hello, child me afraid to be excluded." Such a familiar fear! Old experiences of competition. I imagined Maureen could see me stiffen and my irritation require an explanation. So I said, “Maureen, I’m about to lead with my defenses.” Maybe I even made fists. The three and a half hours we then spent that Saturday planning our service felt spiritual, so much flow, side by side.
I think it’s only fair to own up to what happens when I don’t catch a reaction fast enough to do or say something skillful and kind. There was a moment two weeks ago when I had a chance to tell Lora, our summer minister, that I appreciated her being here, but I didn’t tell her. What burst out instead was a whiny complaint, something to the effect that I was speaking in two weeks and she had taken the edge off my topic by defining spiritual practice. Fear was behind that outburst. I expect that by today, I will have apologized and reassured her that she is doing just fine. And I did that last Sunday despite feeling annoyed that she ended her talk quoting the Buddha and that the service was 15 minutes too long.
Spiritual practice number two is rooted in Gratitude. I am grateful to those of you who are here. I feel respectful and perhaps a little resentful of those who stayed away. Though I have already heard many valid reasons for absence. But the practice of Gratitude takes precedence over thinking the worst of others or of myself. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield said that in some Buddhist traditions, there’s a prayer in which one requests the universe to bring challenges and obstacles “May I be given the appropriate difficulties so that my heart can truly open with compassion.”
Spiritual practice number three is consciously seeking others with whom to share silence. If you read News and Notes, you know I am here Mondays at 4 p.m. to meditate with anyone who wants to do that too. My purpose is to sit in silence with others, whose reasons for sitting are not known to me. During this time I experience a connection like the one at the end of each service when we take hands. We may not even know the person next to us whose hands we grasp in friendship and in silence. So on Mondays, with closed eyes, uncrossed legs, feet on the floor, hands resting comfortably, I’m not trying to convince anyone to be a Buddhist. I want to share stillness and practice being aware of the space within that can hold thoughts and feelings, which once noticed, can then be let go. When that happens, I am able to be present, not getting attached and skidding off into the past or planning for the future.
Spiritual practice number 4 is about learning. Because I do love to study Buddhism, I listen to teachers whose recorded talks are available as podcasts on such websites as Dharma Seed, often from Spirit Rock in Marin County, and from the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I will admit though that when it comes to recorded teacher talk, even before I can begin to absorb any wisdom, some buttons do get pushed. I can’t really listen to talks delivered in a monotone or by certain teachers (usually of the younger sort) who seed their podcasts with the word “like.” “You know the Buddha like he sat under the Bodhi tree and like Mara, you know the bad guy like came down and like he tortured Buddha… this definitely pushes my buttons, and I hit the off button pretty fast.
There is one teacher I dearly love to listen to. He is Stephen Batchelor, and he calls himself a secular or atheist Buddhist. For him the Buddha is a pragmatic philosopher and not an object of worship. He separates the Buddha’s teachings, his dharma, from philosophies prevailing in India at the time, like Brahminism and Jainism. One thing he said that impressed me as I began to plan this talk about spiritual practices, although. Lora pointed it out two weeks ago -- practice means bringing something into being and tending its growth like cultivating a garden. So someone who practices the piano can be said to be bringing a piece of music into being or bringing her own musical competence into being.
I practice to cultivate four attitudes of the heart that can be said to constitute love. They are the sublime attitudes of loving kindness, compassion, joy for the happiness of others and equanimity. In the Pali language, the first language in which the Buddha’s words were written, these four sublime attitudes are called the brahma viharas.
This may sound weird but when I watched the Golden State Warriors, I often thought of the team as a basketball version of the brahma viharas. Here was a team treating each other and the game with respect, playing with joy and selflessness. I thought of the brahma viharas, but the cliché, there’s no I in team works too.
Cliches and the impact of language bring me to spiritual practice number 5. Tinkering with language as a spiritual practice could be the result of many years of teaching and refining my teacher talk, always hoping for best outcomes. I have a desire to create space for others, so I have a vowel practice. As a listener, the vowel I think is “O” rather than “I,” the ubiquitous first person pronoun, which so often pops into a listener’s mind. Here is an example: The First person says with excitement: I just got back from Italy yesterday. The one spoken to says: I was in Italy 15 years ago and on and on and on. Now imagine the same conversation substituting “O” for the listener’s “I.” First person: “I just got back from Italy.” Second person: “O or OH Wow. Room now for first person to continue or not or to ask: “Have you ever been there?” “O” is the vowel of tell me more or “please continue”, whereas “I” can highjack a conversation. I like O as an alternative to I. I feel it makes space for the other.
The spiritual practices I have shared: sitting in stillness, learning through listening to engaging Buddhist podcasts, and being word aware aim at more openness, more curiosity, limiting unskillful choices rooted in the past. To live fully is to be free to think and act differently, and to respond more fully. There is nothing woo-woo in wanting to live as an open-hearted, open-minded human. Any practice that creates heart space (think inclusion) for others is a spiritual practice, don’t you think?