My Inheritance

I was lucky enough to receive an amazing inheritance from my parents and grandparents. I suspect that they didn’t realize what they gave me. I know they received it from the older generations of my family. I prize it as one of those riches that’s been part of the family longer than anyone remembers. I suspect that they considered this gift as being nothing more than the way things were. But today, I’m overwhelmed by the priceless legacy that is part of my heritage.

My ancestors are from Eastern Europe. All four of my grandparents immigrated to the United States around 1900. They brought with them a culture and religion that were intertwined with each other. Infused in those cultural and religious practices was the awareness that all life was sacred and pregnant with something Divine.

Religious rituals were not simply things we did in church. Instead, there was continuity between day to day life and religious ritual. For example, the pussy willows and forsythia that bloomed in our backyard during the early spring were brought to church as part of the Palm Sunday waving of branches. The church was decorated on Pentecost with tree limbs with their rich green to mark new life. On August 6, baskets of fruit from the apple and plum trees in our yard were blessed as part of the feast of the Transfiguration of Jesus as a reminder of the fullness of life that’s also found all around us. Over centuries, the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe found connections between their agrarian life and their religious practice. Recognizing the sacred dimension of day to day living, from the blooming of spring to the autumn harvest, the realities of nature became part of religious practice. This practice was fully embodied, like when we broke the Lenten fast in church by eating sausage, ham, cheese or eggs at the Easter vigil or when we drank holy water on the feast of the Baptism of Jesus. We celebrated the sacred dimension of life in the world around us as well as in us as the ordinary things were blessed and shared with each other.

As much as I treasure this inheritance, in many ways it’s out of place in the world today. The life I lead today is far different from the way of life my ancestors lived on the farms and in the villages of Eastern Europe a century or two ago. The seasons marked by planting, growth, and harvest characterized their lives. For me, these same seasons are reduced to my occasional hobby of backyard gardening. What fills my days is time spent in front of a computer monitor and work with people in a virtual environment who may be in any place in the world.

While it’s easy to understand that the rituals that marked the life of my ancestors have little connection with day to day life in the 21st Century, the fundamental insight that was reflected in the cultural and religious rituals of my ancestors is vitally important: that every aspect of life is somehow sacred. My ancestors recognized that in the mundane way of life familiar to them, something greater was at work. By ritualizing aspects of what was most familiar to them, they reminded themselves of the rich beauty and sanctity of life.

In the midst of life today, characterized by the use of technology, espresso coffee drinks, and long commutes from home to work, how do we find ways to draw ourselves and each other to the sacred memory the spiritual dimension of life? Using the example of my ancestors, are there natural rhythms in urban life of the 21st Century that can serve as pointers to the sacred? Are there ways to construct rituals that point out the meaning of the holiness of life?

It was 30 or more years ago when Edward Hays published his book, Prayers for the Domestic Church. This collection of prayers and rituals marked events of family life like birthdays and anniversaries. But Hays ritualized other ordinary events, like a New Year’s blessing of calendars, clocks, and time pieces. This was a way to draw people into time as something sacred at the start of a new year.

Attempting to integrate common life experiences with the sacred dimension of life, many Emergence Christian groups meet in coffee shops or have discussions over wine. There’s one group in Atlanta (where I live) that meets in pubs for beer and hymn singing. These are ways that people are trying to make connections between the ordinary aspects of life today with the spiritual dimension.

Where will these attempts lead us? I doubt that these attempts will result in the same kind of rituals that were passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years. For my Eastern European ancestors, life was mostly the same from one generation to the next. Because of that continuity in how people led their lives, rituals endured for generations. Our culture today is characterized by change. I suspect that living with rapid change in our culture will cause us toconsider again and again how we make connections between a belief in life as sacred with the actual activities of daily life. Because we are embodied creatures, tangible connections draw us out of self-preoccupation and into greater communion with others and the world. Tangible connections with other people and with meaningful symbols of the sacred are essential to our personal and spiritual growth.

While the inheritance I received from my ancestors is something of an antique from a way of life long-gone, it’s helped me realize how important it is for us to find ways to remember and ritualize the sacred dimension of the ordinary aspects of our lives.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Spiritual Practice and the Fear of Death

The conversation was very thoughtful. She chose her words with great care. As I listened to her responses to my questions, I found myself going deeper into her life experience.

Rebecca (not her real name) is a participant in a research study I’m conducting on spirituality and its relationship to an individual’s understanding of the sense of self. Essentially, the sense of self is who we, as individuals, understand ourselves to be. I’m trying to learn more about the role spirituality plays in the way we see ourselves.

I asked what the spiritual dimension of life enabled Rebecca to do. Having had a successful career in business with a significant salary, she explained that the greed surrounding her was literally making her sick. She recognized that she was being pulled further and further from her true sense of self. Trying to find some balance, she began to volunteer in a hospice and also began to practice meditation.

Meditation was not entirely new to her. Earlier in life, she had visited Quaker meeting houses and learned to sit in silence. But life pursuits, including her career, pulled her away from the silence. Reaching midlife, she began to keep vigil with those dying and their loved ones while also learning more about Buddhist practice.

Having maintained a practice of meditation for over twenty years, I asked what that practice did for her. While Rebecca discussed many aspect of her life, one thing she shared has haunted me. “It’s too early to know this for sure, “she said, “but I hope that my meditation has freed me from the fear of dying. From meditation, I’ve learned that I can change and become a different person. I want to think that dying will be another change I’ll experience, becoming something I haven’t been before.”

Many people fear death. While we know that death comes to every person, most people would prefer not to think about it. We live as if we will live forever even though few of us continue in this life more than 75 or 85 years. Of course, not everyone has such a long life. Many people die at a much younger age. But no matter the length of our life span, there is often a fear of our inevitable death.

I understand Rebecca’s statement. It’s too early to know for sure how one will experience death until one is actively dying. Like Rebecca, having worked with those dying and because I’ve lost many people to death, I have thought about my own passing. We’ll see how I approach it when it happens. But also like Rebecca, the practice of meditation has helped me to not fear death – at least at this time in my life.

In meditation, I find my awareness shift as I go to a quiet inner place. It’s as though the world around me ceases to exist and I am somewhere else. In that experience, I am aware and my mind is very much attuned to the focus of meditation. Some Christian mystics have described this as an inner chamber or entering the Holy of Holies. For me, it’s an experience of paradox. I find myself surrounded by nothingness while also being present to everything – both at the same time. I suspect it’s difficult to comprehend unless you’ve experienced it.

I think that death must be something like the experience I have in meditation. Death is a movement into nothingness, of non-being when compared to our present understanding of being. Yet, I do believe that there is something more, something that’s a unitive experience with the mystery that’s life itself.

Because I garden, I take comfort in the cycle of planting, growth, and harvest. This morning, I picked cucumbers, squash, and green onions which will be part of dinner. I recall a few months ago I opened packets of seeds and carefully placed those tiny seeds into the ground. The shell of those seeds decayed in the moist dirt and sprouts began to shoot up. Now, weeks later, there’s bounty as I share cucumbers and squash with others. (Yes, the tomatoes are on the way!) The seeds in my garden vegetables have the potential to produce new life again as the cycle continues. Like many before me, I find both inspiration and comfort in considering this cycle of life as I contemplate my own death. But my experience of letting go and resting in the solitude of nothingness has been better shaped by my experience of meditation.

As Rebecca shared with me, intentionally focusing on spiritual practice and meditation put her more in tune with her own self, the way she lives, and, she hopes, the way she will die. She understands her life as ever-changing and ever-transforming. The changes and transformations have not always been easy, but they have been worth the work. Clearly, passing from this life through death will be a very significant change. She hopes that she is prepared to move through that transition with grace and ease.

I appreciate that Rebecca took time to share her experience with me. Like the other people I’ve interviewed for this study, the experience of the participants has been a source of thoughtful reflection and inspiration for my own life. I look forward to what else I will learn by conducting this research study. I suspect that in many ways I’ll find common ground among those who intentionally integrate spirituality with other aspects of life.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Things That Would Have Been Helpful To Know When I Began a Meditation Practice

Meditation is a spiritual practice that I was informally introduced to in my youth. A few of my teachers in Catholic school encouraged me to practice “quiet prayer” as they called it. Later, in college, I read some books about meditation and tried to figure it out on my own. I already practiced meditation regularly by the time I took my first class in meditation in 1979.

Recently, a woman who sees me for spiritual direction was very exasperated in her attempts to incorporate meditation in her life. We begin each meeting with about ten minutes in silence. In our last meeting, after the silence, she was a bit agitated. “I don’t know how you do it,” she said. “You just take a deep breath, close your eyes, and you’re gone. You’re just out of here! Actually, I can feel you very present in the silence but yet you’re somewhere else. It’s just weird! How do you do it?”

Teasing her a bit, I responded: “Well, I don’t pay attention to what anyone else is doing when I meditate. But seriously, it’s about practice and learning to make the method of meditation your own.”

She looked at me a bit more seriously. “You know what you’re doing today. But do you remember what it was like to start? What did you want to know when you started? What would have been helpful for you?”

Given how I began a practice of meditation, having an experienced teacher would have helped. A spiritual director or some other form of spiritual teacher would have been a great benefit. As I thought more about it, I realized that there were some things that I wish I had known when I started. Looking back, here are some of the things that have occurred to me about starting to meditate.

First, no one told me that it was difficult to learn to sit still. I generally don’t have trouble with sitting for meditation today, but sometimes I do. If I’ve not been regular with my practice or if I am stressed about life, it can be torture to just sit and focus my mind. When it’s really difficult, I intently use a prayer word or mantra. Sometimes I also use prayer beads. While sitting still is pretty easy for me most days, in the beginning it was a challenge. I think the only thing anyone can do is accept the fact that on some days it’s difficult to sit in silence and maintain focus. Don’t expect it to be easy. When it is, that’s great. When it’s a challenge to be still, accept that as a normal part of the process. No matter your level of focus, just do what you can to complete the time you’ve set for meditation. As many meditation teachers are fond of saying, “That’s why it’s called practice.”

The second thing I wish someone would have told me was that the method of meditation is both important and non-essential. When I began, I had several recommendations about what to do. As I started reading about meditation and its various forms, each book was different. There was the prayer of heart, the Jesus prayer, transcendental meditation (it was the 70’s after all), centering prayer, and contemplation – to name a few. My experience with Buddhism came much later, first with Zen, then mindfulness, and most recently compassion meditation. A method is great to help guide and enable you to build a practice. But it’s like learning to use any tool or playing a musical instrument: the method needs to become part of you. Eventually “the method” falls away and you simply learn to meditate. Remember: a pianist doesn’t focus on whether her fingers are on the right keys. Instead, when she plays, the piano the music becomes part of her. She looks at the notes and plays them. All the piano lessons fade away in the background and she simply becomes one with the music. Similarly, don’t get so caught up in the method and doing it exactly right that you never actually meditate.

Related to this is the third thing I wish I knew at the beginning: the right amount of time to spend. I honestly thought to do it right, I had to sit in silence a long time. A half hour was okay. An hour was better. I thought I’d failed if I couldn’t maintain an hour. Guess what? I really couldn’t do an hour of meditation! I felt guilty about it a lot. Here’s an important thing to know: research on meditation has shown that a person benefits from a meditation practice with as little as 12 minutes spent in meditation a few times each week. In other words, if time is tight, try to do 10 to 15 minutes in meditation. If you do that three or four times each week, you’re starting to build a solid practice.

The fourth thing that’s important is know is what meditation isn’t. Because of my background, I initially understood meditation as a form of prayer. From a Christian perspective, that’s true because the focus of Christian meditation is to be present to God within us. But the key to meditation is really the mental focus. Many people today confuse meditation with relaxation. There are also lots of recorded “guided meditations” that are really progressive relaxation exercises and not meditation. If you’re actually meditating, your body may be relaxed but your mind is concentrating on the subject of your meditation: a word, an image, your breath, or something like that. With proper mental focus, all the other distractions fade in the background. It’s just you and the object of your mental focus.

The last thing I wish someone had told me when I began was that a regular time and place for meditation helps a great deal. When I started, I thought it was always best to go to a church. At that time, churches were often left unlocked, so anyone could walk in and pray. That’s generally not true today. Your regular time and place doesn’t have to be a holy space or prayer corner, though that can be helpful. It can be anywhere. If the best time and place you have for ten minutes of meditation is in the bathroom after dinner so that your spouse and kids won’t bother you, then go to the bathroom. ( I’ve known people with families who find that the bathroom is the only place no one bothers them.) By having a regular time and place for meditation, it becomes part of your daily routine. If it’s a regular part of your routine, you’ll miss it immediately when don’t meditate.

When I remember what it was like for me to learn meditation, I realize that it was pretty easy for me to understand the steps to methods outlined in various books. What was difficult were some of the practical aspects of actually meditating. When I teach meditation as a class, it’s the practical things people most often ask about. If you’re starting a practice in meditation perhaps some of these things will be helpful for you to make the practice of meditation your own.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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