From Gratitude to Community

Diana Butler Bass, in her recent book Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks, says that gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. The emotional response is complex. We may feel grateful because a diagnostic test came back negative. That would elicit great relief, a lowering of anxiety, and a fresh feeling of life at its best.

Or we may feel grateful because someone surprised us on our birthday! Or because a glorious sunset fills us with awe and gratitude for beauty over which we have no control.

My sense of gratitude has become stronger over the years. Reasonable health for my age, good relationships within my circle of family and friends, and life in an incredibly complex creation make a foundation for gratitude every single day.

Suppose we set an intention each morning to be grateful? It is a way of orienting ourselves to pay attention to the people and events that enter our lives. At the end of the day we might reflect on just three new things for which we’re grateful. Jot them down! You’ll quickly have such a long list that just reading it again can be an antidote to those negative emotions we sometimes hold.

How do we turn personal gratitude into a way of life that will change the world? Start small. Express gratitude to people in a way that really shows that you have noticed what they’ve done for you. Ask for the story of their lives and listen with appreciation. It’s the quickest way I can think of to add gratitude to your circle of influence. Based on their stories, you might even dare to ask for advice.

Upset about a social media post? If it’s a friend of yours, what is something you actually like about that person? Can you ground your thoughts in gratitude, then lead your response with a compliment and with curiosity? You might easily see that a conversation on social media is not the best way to resolve differences. Try picking up the phone or inviting a personal video conversation.

Ready to influence a politician or two? Maybe it will help to begin with gratitude for their service even when you disagree with them on many levels.  You can be sure they receive a lot of criticism so you can begin from a different angle. Find an underlying value that you perhaps have in common. State your concern based on that commonality.

I would love to hear from you. How can we use gratitude to change the world?

Personal Gratitude

When pandemic days begin and end almost like every other day, it’s easy to lose track of days. Time drags behind or races forward to leave me in a state of confusion. So each morning, I bring myself into the present by saying the equivalent of “Today is Friday, July 31, 2020. Thank you, God, for letting me see this day.”

As 2020 shifted from a metaphor of 2020 vision to an overdue awakening. We have a highly contagious virus, public health emergency, economic collapse, and racial reckoning on top of climate disaster. Everywhere I look, these calamities have become politicized and full of anger. I need about twice as much time in centering prayer, inspirational reading, and contemplative writing as I did just a few months ago.

I made a point of turning my morning walk into a Gratitude Walk. It’s a simple practice to pay attention to trees and plants, birds and squirrels, and to exchange waves or conversations with neighbors.

Gratitude is my base line. If I am hospitalized with covid or anything else, if no one in my family can visit, if I am too weak to speak, I can remember to be grateful. Nurses, aides, doctors, cleaners, all do their part to help me. I am grateful to distant family members and dear friends who are longing for my return to health. And if that is not possible, if death comes, I am grateful to the bone for this life, imperfect and beautiful, and for its very existence.

My next reflection will be to shift beyond personal gratitude. What if we expanded the notion to our neighborhood, community, town, or state? What would that look like? What can each of us do to strengthen gratitude wherever we go?

 

Retreat, Final Day

I forgot to post this last year! But I trust that it completes my yearning so long ago, pre-pandemic.

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The sun came out and warmed UBarU to slightly above freezing! I was able to take the long path a bit more slowly, and in the opposite direction. I wanted to take pictures of favorite place–a huge tree, a cairn, the windmill and swimming tank, and the cottage where I stayed. [Pictures below]

After my walk I did something for the first time–poached four eggs! I’m sure I must have seen my mother or someone do that once upon a time, but I’ve never owned an egg poacher and never tried to swirl eggs in boiling water to poach them that way.

I did not expect to find a poaching pan in a cabin at a camp, but there it was in the back of the cupboard. I double checked directions on the web to remember how long to cook the eggs–3 or 4 minutes, I learned, over simmering water. They were quite delicious. Different from the scrambled eggs I thought I would cook.

After eggs, I finished the chapter on Silence. That’s a perfect topic to end a silent retreat! I wept over the story of two rabbis who faithfully wrote to each other before every Sabbath. Words are said to be the black fire written upon the white fire of the Torah. But when love felt too deep for words, the two old friends exchanged blank pieces of paper–white fire is even more holy.

Intentional, regular, exchanges with someone can deepen love. They might be letters, or weekly conversations, or perhaps unspoken prayers. Perhaps our words and prayers are the black fire on the white fire of the holy connections we share. With that, I am out of words…

Retreat Day 3

Mar. 3: This was a transition day from my home-based retreat to UBarU, a camp and retreat center a little west of Kerrville, TX. It is an official International Dark Sky, where professional, amateur, and youth astronomers can learn about astronomy far from city lights.

I rented the Ranch House for a couple of nights, which turned out to be pretty darn cold, with temperatures below freezing (20F). When I made my plans it seemed likely that I would enjoy reading or writing on the porch–but it was too cold and windy to suit me. Thank goodness for heaters and hot chocolate I could make after my walks! Estelle Frankel (The Wisdom of Not Knowing) suggests that we ask a good question every day, such as, “Where is this experience taking me?” Be curious about the unknown.

Already this experience was teaching me how good it is to take a few days of silence and prayer every now and then. It took me into meditation more than once a day, for 25 minutes at a time. I turned the coffee table into an altar graced with a chalice, prayer beads, and a small stone inscribed with “A.S.A.P. / Always Say A Prayer.” The book is Danna Faulds’ Prayers to the Infinite: New Yoga Poems. The heart shape is inscribed with a butterfly. I placed my meditation cushions on the floor next to the altar.

Retreat Day 2

Mar. 2: After a good night’s sleep, I began with a guided meditation on starting the day with happiness. Seven affirmations included this first one, to “plan but remain flexible.” My foot is still hurting a little, and my headache continues to come and go as it has for the past week. Other than that, I have enjoyed tea and breakfast and the quiet of a Saturday morning. A Sudafed helped my head, so I’m still convinced it’s a sinus/allergy problem.

Finished Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart. He teaches that the way to pray without ceasing is to use a simple word or phrase, to use it continually, and to make it encompass all that is. For me at the moment the words are Health and Wholeness, Grace and Peace, prayed rhythmically with my breath. I can pray that for everything and everyone in the cosmos.

Krista Tippett, in her podcast On Being, interviewed Pico Iyer, a travel writer who makes his home in rural Kyoto, “commuting” 5 feet to his desk for 5 hours, then taking a walk, reading for an hour, taking another walk, and spending the evening with his wife. They live in the same 2-room apartment where they also raised two kids.

Every season Mr. Iyer goes to a Buddhist monastery where silence is a way of life. He travels for work, but he sits for insights about all he has seen. I watched his TED Talk on the Art of Stillness. He recommends that each of us devote a few minutes to stillness every day; a few days every season; or even, (as Leonard Cohen did for 5 years at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California) a few years of your life. Now I’m going out for a walk to empty my head of all those words. They need time to sink in.

Mostly silence or Estelle Frankel this evening.

Retreat Day 1

Mar. 1: Began with a pedicure. That eased my spirit, helped relieve my headache just because I quit getting ready and simply relaxed into retreat mode. Sky blue toenails.

Lunch, eaten mindfully and deliciously.

Did last minute emails that ought not to wait for my return. Set up an automatic notice that I’m on retreat until the 7th. Finally, I made an appointment for a massage on the 8th.

Now to the recliner with a book.

Wrote in my journal, took a short nap, then took a walk while eating an apple. It’s getting quieter in my head.

Started 2 books: The Wisdom of Not Knowing, by Estelle Frankel, and The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen. Wrote a few sentences of reflection.

Frankel: Embracing the unknown/not knowing leads to curiosity and creativity.

Nouwen: Solitude, then silence, then prayer. Working on the silence part.

Faith Development

This week I have been focused on a workshop for religious educators on Nov. 3, in Houston.  The title is Faith Development as Spiritual Practice, and it applies not just to educators, but all of us.

I’ve prepared an agenda, collected supplies, and prepared a list of resources. I have written out my part and tomorrow will practice it all out loud to double check timing and ease of speaking.

My summary is this: Feed your soul every day, especially when you think you don’t have time. Make it a habit to let go of tension, worry, and anxiety so that you can rest in the present moment. You will move through the rest of the day feeling centered, grounded, and more at peace with whatever comes your way.

Remember . . . YOU ARE A BLESSING!

        Art by D. Williams, on Creative Commons

What is saving me now?

Have you ever left a faith community? A church, synagogue, mosque, or temple? Maybe you looked around for a while before you found another that was more to your liking or closer to where you lived. Maybe you gave it up for good. You’re certainly not alone. I was raised Episcopalian, became Unitarian Universalist, and studied Zen Buddhism for a time. In India I was immersed in Hinduism. This summer I visited a number of different services, just to see how other folks do religion.

At the end of Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on what she has lost by not serving a church as priest and what she has kept. In multiple ways she answers the question, “What is saving you now?”

What is saving me now is a sense of completion. Twenty five years of ordained ministry, duly noted and recognized. Three years of study for the specific ministry of Spiritual Direction, duly graduated and recognized in 2018. A chance to preach at Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church on the occasion of their 40th anniversary. I had been a member there for their first 15 years, and was ordained there in 1993.

In Kansas City, I joined other 25-year Unitarian Universalist ministers to be recognized by colleagues from across North America and a few distant countries. We enjoyed memories of how much has taken place under our watch. We have loved the people we served, the voices we raised, and the path we chose.

After that month of travel, I was ready to reclaim body, mind, and spirit. What is saving me now is rest, prayer, contemplation, and exploration. I took most of July as a mini-sabbatical from multiple responsibilities and commitments. Blocks of solitude, doing simple art, visiting museums and libraries, singing with Tapestry Singers, reading for pleasure, and writing, are some of the ways I have restored my spirit. Now in August I’m back into planning and preparation for new adventures. Come along with me!