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In the U.S.A, religion is often seen as a dirty word by secularists and progressives. Religion is painted as a term for the Christian right wing. Religion is seen as something people use to condemn bigotry and war. Yet, the truth is that religion like most things is neither inherently bad or good.
Religions are endlessly diverse. Individual traditions vary greatly. There is no one form of Christianity, Buddhism, Paganism, etc. These are mere umbrella terms that place many traditions together because of some shared values or belief or practices. But in the end what religion means is subjective to the tradition, the group and the individual. So, as long as there are good decent religious and spiritual people, there are good religions.
It is easy to say what makes a good religion in a general sense. Charity, compassion, kindness, loving and uplifting are the first things that come to mind. On an individual level, I think a good religion is what makes you feel whole and what empowers you to help others. For some people, good religion or spirituality is making music. They connect to themselves and others through that art. That is simple and good. Others may need more practices, more devotion, more meaning in order to find peace in this life. Strict religiosity is not wrong or bad as long as it brings out the goodness in that person.
It is hard to say what is good about my own religion since I am very eclectic. What is good about being a Unitarian Universalist eclectic Wiccan? Well, the most important and “righteous” elements of religion for me is open-mindedness, self-care and social justice. All my paths give me these elements. I am still learning about UU history but what attracted me to it was the respect of religious and human diversity. Plus, UU philosophy is grounded in social justice. It is hard to put UU in a box because it accepts people of various religious beliefs but its core is activism. While I had found too many Wiccans who are willing to sit on the fence of injustices, UU promised me a place to be with justice minded people.
Wicca on the other hand is the ground I raised up on. It is a path of healing and balance. It allows me to heal my inner wounds and connect to the wholeness of humanity. Wicca for me is the path of joy. Becoming a Wiccan, I awaken to a world of magic, mystery and beauty. The Wiccan path, the journey of the Goddess, gives me the strength to face injustices and suffering with a open heart and hope. The rituals of self care, I perform as a Witch and meditator, save me from endless burn out of a human service worker. In the end my religious path is good because it creates balance in my inner world and helps me see the divine in others. I want to support others because my beliefs show me that we are all interconnected.
Interconnection is the wisdom of good religion. Interconnectivity causing churches and synagogues to fight for their rights to feed and shelter the hungry and homeless. It causes faith-based groups to open shelters, protest violence, hold vigils against the death penalty and fight for various human rights. To often, we hear about the beliefs that lead to hatred and exclusivity but there is so much good religion that leads to love and social action. Good religion connects a person to their humanity and reminds us of the worth of all human life.
Return to the breath is one of the most common cues in mindfulness meditation. The breath works as an anchor to bring our awareness into the bodies and the present moment. Meditation itself is a constant practice of remembering. It is remembering to come back to breath when you are lost in a thought. When we forget ourselves in our thoughts, we simply acknowledge the thoughts and gently return to our focus on the breath.
Life is also a practice in remembering. I personally have periods when I forget to meditate. I become lost in my daily life and work. Time seems to pass by without much mindfulness. A part of being a meditator is acknowledging when we are lost and gently reminding ourselves to come back to our practice and the present moment. Right now, I am working on returning to a regular consistent meditation practice. I find that since my schedule is extremely busy, I have to use tricks to get my practice back on track. Here a few tricks that help me return to mindfulness:
● Starting off small: I start with doing only five minutes of meditations daily, then ten minutes twice a day and eventually twenty minutes twice a day. I only move on to the next step once I have been successful in remembering to practice for at least a few weeks.
○ Alarms: If you have a consistent schedule, set alarms for when you plan on meditating. If you do not have a consistent schedule then try meditating once you wake up or before bed. Set your alarm to wake you up ten minutes earlier than usual. Just simply plan to have the time to meditate.
○ Email: If alarms do not work set up email reminders through your calendar site.
○ Apps: Use technology and download meditation and mindfulness apps. Right now I am testing on zenify. I am not crazy about the name but the mindfulness exercises and reminders in the app have been helpful. Even though they are not traditional meditation practices, it keeps me in the mindset of mindfulness throughout the day
○ Visual: Set up visual cues and reminders such as having your meditation cushion in a prime visual area. Have symbols and icons around the house that remind you of meditation. I have my cushion and meditation altar in the closet because it is the quietest place in the house and I go into the closet many times a day.
○ Books and other media: Pick up your favorite meditation, spiritual, mindfulness books or get some new ones. Keep one by your bedside as a reminder to practice when you wake up.
● Daily mindful activities: If you are a busy person, it is really helpful to start off with quick mindfulness practices. Meditate while washing the dishes, doing laundry, going on a walk, etc. Simply pick an object of focus and let it anchor you into the present moment.
● Support: Meditate with your partner, join a group or find a meditation buddy.
● Researching yourself: Keep reminding yourself why you meditate. Keep track of the effects in has on your daily life and use that as inspiration.
● Let it be a treat instead of a chore: Choose to see meditation as a gift to yourself. Remembering why you do it and how it benefits you. Have fun in your meditation and try new ways of meditation until you feel like it is a secret treasure.
Sun Cleansing: Imagine the light of the Sun healing and cleansing any unwanted or negative energy.
Musical Circle Casting: Walking in a circle while playing healing music.
Set our intention and invocation through poetry:
the light returns,
birth, life, and warmth,
possibilities and longer days
prosperity and childlike play
gods, goddesses, spirits of spring
join us on this day
faeries, nymphs, and elementals
we follow, lead the way.
Activity: Write intentions for the season and placed them in pots.Plant flowers over them and watch our plants and goals blossom.
Closing: Say goodbye and thank you to all the invoke spirits. Music circle opening by walking in the opposite direction.
I enjoy a shitshow. I do not mean heartache or tragedy. I enjoy a little drama, chaos, recklessness, and wild laughter . I prefer my religious experiences to be on the ridiculous side of spirituality. Lila is one of my favorite words because in Hinduism it means Divine creative play. What a perfect way to describe essence of spirituality and creation. Being that I love and frankly need spiritual chaos in my life, I was overjoyed to experience for the first time, an animal blessing service at my new Unitarian Universalist church home. Since becoming a member, I have missed many services due to hectic work schedules, moving and wedding planning. However, I was not about to miss the animal blessing for many reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to bring our unpredictable dog to an unpredictable event because fun and chaos was sure to be involved.
The service did not fail to entertain. In fact, it was one of the best and most meaningful service experiences I have had there. One of the drawbacks, I have felt since becoming an Unitarian Universalist (but don’t worry, I am also still Wiccan) was lack of a central divine idea or being. How do you create community without that rallying point? I was also curious to see how they would bless pets. Bless by, for or with who or what? How can they make a blessing service or any service meaningful without that shared understanding of the Divine. It turned out to be a very meaningful and spiritual gathering. For me, in part, it was because most of my whole family was there. There was my Fiance (also a member) and me with a picture of our cat. But my mother (who lives with us) also came to bring her (now our) dog. She came even though she has sworn as a serious Christian to never become a Unitarian Universalist.
Everyone came to the service with open, loving hearts because they loved their pets and frankly were very curious about everyone else’s animals. There were also plenty of children playing in the background during the service. The event was alive! Outdoors, loud, windy, and energetic instead of a traditional stuffy quiet church. There were songs, stories, more songs, prayers and blessings. Mostly, there was a lot of bonding and community building in the service and at the potluck following. We bonded over stories about our pets and our lives. There was playful moments and sober moments as we honored departed pets. It was the first time, I really felt that this was a strong community with or without a God or a Goddess leading the way. It goes to show that the simple love of family (two, three, four, or six-legged) is the easiest gateway to creating a vibrant spiritual community.
April 24th marked what would have been my departed father’s 69th birthday. As I have written before it has been a struggle figuring out how to honor my father since he was a difficult man in life. When I first began meeting with my father in ritual, I was offering beer and a few good thoughts. Beer, although a clear favorite of his, was an odd choice since it was also his downfall. I justified my choice by reasoning that it could no longer affect his physical body. But in honestly I have no idea what drinks and food do for or to a spirit. I simply gave beer because it was one of the few things I knew he enjoyed. I had no clue how to approach ancestor worship with my father so I just winged it, hoping that eventually I would find my way. Hoping that he would at least appreciate the effort. If not, at least I would help myself in the grieving process.
Now, my practice has changed slightly, I stopped offering alcohol for the time being. Thanks to a suggestion in Haitian Vodou Handbook by Kenaz Filan instead I started offering him blessed spring water. Water to purify and promote clarity on his new spiritual journey. This offering feels more authentic and active. For even when I do not have good words to offer or there are no messages to receive, I can still give this small blessing. It is something I can do even when I am in the angry stage of grieving. “ Hey I do not want to talk and engage you, but I wish for you clarity and peace.” However, I found myself often wishing that “this water brings purification so that we may one day have a healthy relationship.” The water offerings have opened a new door for communicating with my father.
For his birthday, I did a little more than my regular offering. I gave him a present of playing cards. Playing cards was one of the healthy activities I recall him participating in with his friends. After I gave the offering, I played and sang along with a recording of Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday. My Dad would always leave long annoying voice messages on my birthday singing this song. It drove me wild back then but now it is one of the few precious memories. When it came time to snuff out the candle, I whispered to my father “ I miss you.” It was the first time I was not stuck between angry and confusion. For the first time, I allowed myself to remember and embrace the good side of my father. I allowed myself to set aside the beer drinking and angry man long enough to honor the funny playful dad.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
How I Pray
When I think of the format of a pray, I think of how a ritual is created. First, I ground myself and clear my mind in order for my highest voice to emerge. Then, I acknowledge the sacred place and time. I invoke the energies I want to speak to such as the Goddess, Divine love, etc depending on my currents needs or temperament. Then, I simply speak from the heart, my most urgent desire or gratitude. However, prayer often comes to me without planning or structure. There are times when I simply close eyes and words pouring out as if I am a vessel. I often wonder if I am talking to the Divine or is Divine talking to and through me. Mostly, prayer is my way of letting go of barriers and letting my natural wisdom flow through.
My Definition of Prayer
Prayer is a creative expression of one’s connection to their inner spirit, their world and the Divine. I use prayer to get to know myself again.Prayer reminds where my passions are, where my fear lies and the places within me that are longing to be healed. Prayer helps me to come out of hiding to face my demons, wounds and seemingly hopeless dreams. There is a feeling that this is between me and “God” therefore I am free to be fully me. It was the descriptions of a nonjudgmental God in Praying with Body and Soul that challenges me to use prayer as a fearless gateway to self honesty. Jane Vennard states about her own practice that, “ Prayer has become for me the practice of bringing all of who I have been, all of who I am, and all of who I am becoming into relationship with God.” (2) Her words removes the secrecy and shame from faith and allows prayer to finally be real. In this way, prayer becomes about true love. We, not only, give ourselves completely to the Divine, we also remove our masks learn to love ourselves through that union.
Prayer can center us in a way that we developed the capacity to send our compassion out into the world. Through prayer we are reminded of the interdependence of life and the blessings of our world. We remember that we are all God’s children or we are all the Goddess. It is through this realization that many of us develop a longing help ease the suffering of others and come into communion with our world. Vennard highlights interdependence of our world by recounting an praying exercise that challenged her group to say “ that is God” is every situation. That story reminds me of one of my favorite prayers from a the Wiccan book: The Circle Within by Dianne Sylvan:
“Thou art Goddess
Thou art God
I grant you from a place of love
I will honor us both
We breath the same air,
we the same pains,
do are best with what we know.
It will honor us both.
Thou art Goddess.
Thou art God.
As am I, As are we all.” (176)
Here prayer is use in a way that allows us to engage more deeply in the world with others. I see prayer now as a tool for courage. When I am able to see everything as Divine, everything with purpose and know that I have the Goddess within, then I am more readily able to face tough situations and people. Also, when I realize that Divinity of people and creatures through I am called to service. As Jane Vennard asserts, “ Service becomes prayer when we serve our sisters and brothers with love and compassion that comes from God.” (108 ) What I appreciate most about Jane Vennard is that she believes that service is prayer. She believes that prayer is not simply speaking or being quiet but also action, moving and living. I completely agree that prayer should have no creative limits. After all, there are times when I express myself with dance, yoga, through crying, screaming and laughing. There are times when talking is not enough and words will not express my joy or pain.
The area where Vennard and I may differ is on the definition of the Divine. While she uses prayer to bring herself “into relationship with God.” (2). I pray to bring myself into relationship with everything. I believe that people can define the Divine as they see fit. The Divine is whatever makes as feel whole, balanced and fully union in my mind, body, soul and in the world. The Divine can be God, Goddess, nature, music, dance,etc. The Divine is unlimited therefore prayer for me is an art that allows me express the endless possibilities of a human life and spirit. I also believe prayer can be about communicating with the within, the without or both. A person who does not believe in outside entities can still pray for their own natural healing or pray to their own inner wisdom. For example, A Book of Pagan prayer offers a simple pray to geese for healing:
“Wild Geese flying overhead on journey south, bear away with you on your thundering wings the cares that have made my summer weary. Cry out my pain,passing over the darkened land,until the air ocean you sail washes it away.” (172) This prayer does not use any lofty supernatural beings. It suggests that we can find spirituality in the moment and in everything. Prayer can be an avenue to embrace the wonders of everyday existence, and loving all that is around us and within us. In this way prayer, no matter who it is addressed to, is about seeing and experiencing the Divine qualities of our own being.
Through out this process of praying and reading Vennard’s book, I have learned to accept my whole self. I have learned that my spiritual being includes more than my sweet side. My spiritual self is no longer separate from my anger, my activism or my silliness. I have learned that prayer is about unifying all the part of one self and offering your wholeness to your world and the Divine. Prayer is an art of courage that invites the universe to look into the deepest depths of our being.
Buddhism is a group of various traditions that follow the Dharma ( teaching of the Buddha and wise beings). It involves rituals, meditations, contemplations and guidelines ( such as the eight-fold path) in order to either achieve enlightenment or to work towards the betterment of all conscious beings. The Buddhist Dharma is not a closed cannon. In other words, it applies to material within and outside of sacred texts(Buddhist sutras). Buddhist cannon can included any teaching that helps establish mindfulness or that are geared towards the betterment of humankind. Therefore, the cannon includes Buddhist teachings to books on science, psychology,environmentalism from ancient times to current popular works.
Buddhist teachings and schools are often broken down into three categories: Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna and Vijñāna. Hīnayāna is sometimes considered a disparaging term as it literally means lower wheel. These categories are created mainly by Mahāyāna and Vijñāna schools.
However, it is best to think of Buddhist teachings or schools of thought as a Wheel with first teaching ( first turning of the wheel), the second and the third. The teachings are a circular as opposed to hierarchical and each serve as an aid to the other teachings.
Buddhism is also a karmic religion. Understanding karma is considered to be a a lifetime task or even lifetimes. But this simplest definition is cause and effect ( though I was taught that karma is cause and effect is the results of karma.). Therefore, Buddhism is a karmic religion because it analysis how causes, conditions, consequences, thoughts, actions and emotions effect our daily lives, our minds and our next lives. It poses that karma determines how we view the world, and act within in and it determines the path of our next life.
Reincarnation is an important aspect of Buddhist thought. Each Buddhist sees reincarnation in different ways. Some view it as the constant death and rebirths in one’s current life and might not believe in an actual next life. But the traditional view is that fueled by karma, each person reincarnates in different realms of existence until they reach enlightenment or Buddhahood. However, enlightenment beings are no longer controlled by karma and do not have reincarnate. Unless they have vowed to do so ( such as the reincarnations of Dalai Lama or Karmapa)
General speaking the purpose of Buddhism is either to achieve self-enlightenment or to help all beings achieve enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and wise teachers have developed tools from Buddhist debate to meditation in order to aid humans in free oneself of conflicted, unmindful and harmful patterns. They can see enlightenment as being uncluttered emptiness that allows us to see ourselves or the world as it truly is.