A Burning Bush

10367720 - grass fireI was walking my retriever in a nearby neighborhood where I don’t know anyone. It was a cool morning after some amazing winds had blown through the previous day. It was one of those early Mondays when I was questioning what I am doing with my life at this stage. Heavy, deep thoughts. At the same time, I was trying my best to practice being in the moment with my dear pet. Trying to be true to my Wellspring roots.

As we walked by a home set back from the road, I noticed some bushes burning alongside the garage. Bright flames, dark smoke. In about 10 seconds, my thoughts were: “Why are they using their fire pit so early in the morning?” to “Maybe it’s garbage. There is a town ordinance against that!” to “It must be kids who are skipping school,” to “Wait, there are no people, this is a FIRE!”

I ran down the driveway and confirmed the bushes were indeed in flames. I pounded on the door of the darkened house. No answer. Pulling my dog, I ran to the next-door neighbor’s house, as I’m trying to get my cell phone out. She cracked open the door, holding a little boy. I yelled to her about the fire, and she quickly dialed 911. She knew the house owners were away. Within 6 minutes, there were 4 fire trucks and lots of volunteer firefighters on the scene. (The little boy was thrilled.)

Once I realized all would be well, I had an inward chuckle at the occasional literalness of the Universe. Lawrence Kushner wrote, “The burning bush was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out if Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep.”

I could have easily missed my ‘burning bush.” Walking down a street I rarely take, deep in existential thought about the purpose of my life. Maybe the purpose is to simply pay attention to what is right in front of me. Lost in thought, I could have easily missed the fire set back from the road. Thankfully I was also practicing in-the-moment dog-walking, my favorite spiritual practice.

Good deed done for the day by 7 am, I quietly slipped out of the crowd, an anonymous dog walker, and headed into the morning mist. I felt lighter, less heavy, grateful for my “burning bushes.” What might be right in front of you today?


The Color Orange

Orange sunriseRecently my spiritual director and I worked on a theme around the color orange. It’s a long story, but what’s important is it was helping my meditation practice. Two mornings after our initial conversation, at the end of my meditation I opened my eyes and saw a beautiful orange sunrise out my living room window. Pretty amazing for early February in the Snow Belt.

A few days later my spouse and I traveled to a different city for a few days. We walked into the car rental garage to pick up our car, and guess what color it was? ORANGE. I don’t know about you, but I have never been assigned an orange rental car…My spouse started complaining until I explained my recent Orange Streak. We had a good laugh and drove toward our hotel.

Orange carWe got there early, so we stopped at the deli across the street for a quick sandwich. The employee behind the counter looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t say anything because we were 1000 miles from home. Then she looked at us in an odd way and asked where we were from. When we told her, she exclaimed, “I thought I knew you! I painted your orange kitchen seven years ago. That was memorable!”

Two days later, having an ice cream craving, we Googled the closest scoop shop and, low and behold, “Orange Octopus” was listed first.

Orange OctopusOk, this now falls into the weird category. Or maybe it is synchronicity. This concept, coined by Carl Jung, called these types of events “meaningful coincidences;” they occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related.

I’d say that was happening here! I decided to take it as a sign to continue to use this color in my mediation practice.

Have you ever had this kind of synchronicity happen? For some people it’s a number that keeps showing up, or a name, or place. Skeptics would just call this a coincidence. Carl Jung wouldn’t. And maybe it doesn’t matter. It has given me a fresh way to focus, to stay present and awake, which is the purpose of spiritual practice.

I’m so grateful to my UU Wellspring group years ago that encouraged me to keep an open mind, especially around developing an ongoing spiritual practice. May you be similarly blessed.


To Truly Hear

corporate man woman_sIs is the deep listening of UU Wellspring something people in the corporate world can embrace? I’ve struggled with this for years in my role as a corporate leadership consultant. In corporate cultures, the pace is so fast and unrelenting. So I do my best to teach the concepts of deep listening, assigning articles and suggesting that managers practice outside of work.

Every once in a while, grace happens as the light bulb goes on for one of the earnest young leaders I work with. It happened earlier this summer. After reading one of the assigned articles [http://www.fastcompany.com/1727872/using-empathic-listening-collaborate], a young woman wrote the following, which I share with permission. Her thoughts motivate me to continue my faithful action out in the world!

“After reading this article, I increased my awareness in conversations, looking for a positive interaction to share. However, the contrary opened my eyes to the importance of honing empathic listening skills.

“ While waiting in line to pay condolences to a dear friend who just lost her beloved mother, I was able to self reflect and prepare my words carefully. I rehearsed in my head what to say to the children and husband who were mourning.

“As I approached the family I listened as others shared sympathetic remarks. And then a woman, with her very present mother, reached the grieving family and asked ‘how are you doing?’ Before receiving a response she blurted out, ‘this is heartbreaking! I know exactly how you feel right now!’

As I watched my dear friend’s face, fall it hit me. To truly hear, we need to make a conscious decision to put the speaker ahead of ourselves, our preferences, and our thoughts. By not listening, and projecting her own perception of empathy, a well intended condolence transformed into a hurtful interaction. We do not need to ‘know how someone is feeling,’, and acting as we do can be quite insulting.

“ As I embraced my friend and her father, my well planned words slipped away. This was not the time for a scripted response, but to listen with my heart.”


Ambling By Any Other Name

walking_sIn all my years, I’ve never used the word “amble” to describe walking outdoors, EXCEPT during Wellspring. In our session on Transcendentalism, we read essays by Unitarian hero Henry David Thoreau. He has only a few key spiritual practices, and one is “ambling.” Sounds quaint and old fashioned, doesn’t it?

Except that modern research is now backing him up. Enjoy this New York Times article that describes a study done on how the brain changes when we make time to walk in nature. Sure sounds like ambling to me.

During these dog days of August, may you find extra time to engage with Nature and soothe your brain!

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/how-nature-changes-the-brain/?emc=eta1


Be Mindful, Be a Mensch

nyc bus_sDo you spend a little too much time ruminating on the past? Or are you more likely to be worrying, planning for the future? It turns out we humans tend to fall into one camp or the other.

One of the goals of spiritual practice is to get better at spending more time in the third circle, THIS MOMENT, regardless how comfortable or uncomfortable it is. One obvious benefit is we feel more awake and alive. The other is that we able to recognize the opportunity for endless small acts of service that show up each day – and act on them.

My longtime Jewish friend, Belle, seems always alert to what is happening in this moment, evidenced by her wonderful story that follows. May we all be a little more awake today.

“It’s 95 degrees and humid, and the subway is delayed, so I get on the Riverside Drive bus to go uptown. It’s mobbed. People are squeezing in everywhere.

“When someone gets off, I sit down just to get out of the way. An elderly African-American woman gets on, and I get up. She hesitates. She looks at me — to see how old I am, I imagine. She asks me if I am really sure. Only then does she sit down.

“We talk about the heat. She says she decided it was too hot to sit outside for the Lincoln Center concert, and I agree. Suddenly she says, ‘At least let me hold your bag.’ I pass my oversized NYC handbag onto her lap.

“Just as we near my stop and I tell her I’m about to get off, she says, ‘Thank you! You’ve really done a mitzvah!’ I smile and think — and finally say — ‘Do you say that often?’ because it seems more bus-friendly than asking her why she used a Yiddish word.

“She smiles and pauses and says that she has always liked the concept of mitzvah. Then she explains, more softly, that she worked in a facility that helped a lot of Russian Jews — and that she herself did a mitzvah today by helping someone who had tripped on the sidewalk get over to Urgent Care. I told her it was karma.

“I got off the bus very happy. I love New York!”


The Spirituality of Roof Damage

Joy ice damBack in February, the giant ice dams on the roof slid off without warning at 3 am. They tore the entire front gutter off the roof. The weight of both together then ripped off a small roof over the front door, which then cracked through the 80-year-old cement front stoop. The impact of it all caused the house to shake so hard that pictures fell off shelves.

Several of our neighbors had similar but not as dramatic ice dam stories. We were extra frustrated because we had done most everything right — cleaned the gutters in the fall, put on a new roof with a fancy leak protector just a year ago.

The reactions we got from visitors and neighbors were incredibly eye-opening. Almost every person had some word of advice for us, even though they didn’t know how hard we had tried to prevent this:

“You should have hired someone to shovel your roof.”

“Aren’t your gutters old? Hummm.”

“You needed those heat strips.”

“Why don’t you put more insulation in your attic?”

Of course I smiled and answered each person nicely. But inside I was peeved that they didn’t just sympathize with our situation. Frankly, I believe they were subconsciously trying to justify why this couldn’t happen to them. How do I know this? Because when my own sister’s gutters fell off the week before, I said to my spouse, “I bet they had clogged gutters.”

It must be human nature to want to find a way to explain to ourselves why bad things happen to others, but we have control over them not happening to ourselves. The spirituality of our roof situation was an opportunity for me to affirm my deeper belief that ultimately there is no safety on the material plane.

As the innocent questions poured in that obliquely implied we had brought this on ourselves, I winced remembering the leading questions I’ve asked others in the past. I hate to admit this, but I’m sure I’ve done more than my share of innocent questioning when people have had issues with children, health, or finances.

In Wellspring we learn the power of deep listening — not advising or fixing when bad things happen to others. When we give advice, yes, we are trying to be helpful. But really, we’re also trying to explain why this couldn’t happen to us. And this isn’t healing to anyone.

Now, anyone know a good gutter guy?


Beyond the Veil

PipeDo you believe Jesus literally rose from the dead? This question is sometimes asked in a Unitarian Universalist church, often with a subtle undertone of, “I dare you to embrace such a preposterous notion.”

Truly, it is doubtful we will ever prove this question one way or the other. I, for one, am not going to rule it out. But maybe there is a more interesting question we could be asking this Easter that, rather than setting us against each other, deepens our connection and sense of awe and mystery.

What if we asked, “Have you ever had an experience of someone ‘beyond the veil of death?’” My anecdotal experience is that most people have, given enough non-judgmental space to share that.

In both my role as a spiritual counselor and also just as a friend, I’ve heard things like, “Walking on the beach, I felt my mother’s presence.” Or “Two days after my father died, I think he appeared in my bedroom.” Or “My grandmother’s voice was suddenly in my head telling me not to push so hard.” Or “The week after my beloved dog died, I heard him barking in the yard.”

What is going on? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. In all of these accounts, friends and clients have said it was unexpected, but that the sense of connecting “beyond the veil” provided comfort and direction.

So in this season of Resurrection, might this be a question you could ask to stretch your sense of what is fact vs. mystery? Personally, I’m choosing to keep an open mind. Isn’t that some of the lesson Jesus was teaching?

I’ve been noodling about this blog for a few weeks, but procrastinating writing it. This morning I took our dog on one of our usual neighborhood routes. It was early; I saw few cars and no other walkers. I was feeling rather down. It was a gray March day with dirty snow banks and mud everywhere. Like a good UU, I was feeling despair about climate change causing this brutal winter, kidnappings in Africa, and even failing nuclear talks. My 60-year-old knees were aching, and I was feeling stressed about work.

On a short, empty suburban street, suddenly, and for about 10 seconds, a strong waft of warm pipe smoke was present. It’s a distinct smell. One I remember from childhood because my grandfather smoked a pipe. He’s been gone 45 years. With the pipe smell came this overwhelming feeling of peace. I’m not kidding, I just started laughing.

This Easter I’m going to just bask in the Mystery.

 


Trees

TreesI have a thing for trees. It turns out a lot of people secretly do.

Most mornings I take my dog to a local wooded area, where I often meet up with a friend and her dog. Somewhere early in our six-year dog-walking friendship we realized, much to our surprise, that we each had a special, non-descript tree in the forest. Hers is called “Lily’s Tree” after an early dog. Mine is called “Toby’s Tree” after one of mine. OK, we aren’t 10-year-old kids. We are both professionals and baby boomers. For each of us, it is the tree we walk over to when we are having a bad day, or are in need of clarity for a tough decision, or could use some solace at a lonely time. We were surprised the other had a similar ritual.

One of the beauties of Unitarian Universalism is the free exploration of what constitutes the Sacred or Divine. The downside is the risk of not doing any exploration.

In Wellspring we encourage a discipline of intentionally cultivating that personal portal or doorway to the universal experience of connection and love. For some it might be a genre of music. Or waves on a beach. A night sky. Maybe a photo of one’s beloved grandmother. Or the laugh of a grandchild.

Mine is trees. Certain trees. I’ve had a series of them over my six decades that have connected me to the Divine. It started with the pine grove when I was six years old. Then the birches. The spindly hemlock. The copper beech. The bent-over rhododendron. The majestic white oak. In a pinch, I even find them outside hotels when I travel. Come to think of it, part of me thinks they find me. I know they don’t have eyes, but I actually feel seen, understood, held, and loved by those trees.

Needless to say, I’ve memorized Mary Oliver’s poem, When I Am Among the Trees. The line, “I would almost say they save me, and daily” feels literally true for me.

What is your doorway to the Sacred? How might you honor and celebrate your unique connection?


A 40-Day Practice

19018596_sFebruary 17 was Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar. It begins the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter. A day after Ash Wednesday I had lunch with a fellow UU. Like a lot of UUs, he and I are in different places on the “Atheist – Theist” scale. We have lively theological conversations. He was raised Jewish, me Catholic.

I told him that for several years two other UU Wellspring grads and I have shared some type of Lenten practice for the 40 days. This has taken different forms. Some years we’ve met every week to talk about what we’ve given up; this year, we are sharing one of the many online Lenten email courses. We are reading them alone each day. Yet knowing we are all reading the same thing creates a feeling of community. Occasionally we’ll email one another, but it’s sporadic. It’s quite lovely.

My lunch friend wonders how we theologically justify this, since we are UUs. Oddly we three have never talked about whether or not we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Nor have we talked about our feelings about Atonement, or whether the Passion needed to happen or was simply a political act. The literalness doesn’t seem to matter.

What does seem important to us is the 40-day practice of intentionally going inward. Of humbly listening for that Wise Inner Voice, whatever name we give it. Lent is a time of preparation, of waiting. Of listening. In community.

We learned a lot about these skills and attitudes in Wellspring. I’m so happy we’ve found a creative way to use an ancient liturgical practice to keep our spiritual deepening alive now that we are Wellspring “graduates.”


Faith in Action

man and mother“Faith in Action” is one of the hoped-for outcomes from Wellspring. So much so that we are piloting an entire curriculum on it. Before Wellspring, I assumed “Faith in Action” meant volunteering at a food cupboard or nursing home. Or picketing for a social justice cause. This often paralyzed me into inaction along with a big dose of guilt.

I am one of seven children, so learned a lot early on about competition and survival of the fittest. Best to always look out for yourself first. This doesn’t predispose me to being overly helpful to others. I’m not too proud of my learned first impulse. But as I’ve aged, awareness allows me to not always go with that more self-centered reaction.

Wellspring helped me understand that “Faith in Action” comes in many flavors, most of them small, everyday acts. Mostly it takes an ability to get past the small self of my upbringing to look around right here, right now.

For example, last week I was fortunate to escape the northern freeze for four days in Florida. That’s not a long time, so when we got off the plane we hurried through a grocery store to stock up so we could get out in the sunshine.

Of course, I inadvertently picked the checkout line with the little old man slowly putting his groceries on the conveyor. First reaction of mine? “Darn, why did I get stuck behind this old guy?” To make it worse, it was the week before Valentine’s Day, and the cashier informs him he forgot to get an envelope to go with his card. Which was at the far end of the store. He seemed confused. I’m embarrassed to say I got even more agitated.

And then, thanks to some of my Wellspring training, a soft warmth of compassion kicked in. This 85-year-old man probably has an 85-year-old wife who can’t even get out. And here he is getting a card several days early. My mad dash to the beach was replaced with genuine caring. I said, “Can I help you, sir? I’d be happy to go find a matching envelope.” And I was happy to go.

Now was that a mini “Faith in Action”? I hope so. And who was it for? On the surface, for the old papa. But really, a week later, I’m remembering that with more warmth than the extra five minutes at the ocean would have given me.

Paying attention. Seeing others with compassion. Looking for what’s needed right now. That’s was Wellspring teaches. I am grateful.