Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Explaining Solstice

Today I got an email asking me to explain why pagans celebrate the solstice.  My fellow classmate was hoping to have me write something up for our seminary's monthly journal.  I find it hard to remember that so many people know so little about pagan practices.  Even though Winter Solstice is included as a sign of interfaith recognition, it seems that a lot of people know very little about what this holiday has meant to human beings for tens of thousands of years.  I obviously can't speak for all of them.  I can't even speak for modern day pagans.  But I reworked something else I had written previously to reflect the beliefs of my tradition and offered this up (along with the recipe in last year's blog entry).

Friday, October 19, 2012

Render Unto Caesar

In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman interprets the life of Jesus as a story about how to survive and thrive as an oppressed person.  I'm taking a course specifically focused on Thurman, taught by the remarkable Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake.  Last week he said something that has had me thinking a lot about my own ministry and work in the world.

Dorsey was talking about the idea that it is easy to deceive ourselves, to stray from the path of our heart and soul with the compromises of success.
We rationalize:

I will just take this job (this raise, this promotion) but only to
gain the power or money I need to do the good work I plan to do.  

We compromise and slowly drift away until we no longer remember who what our values were.  This is one of the things Thurman is talking about in this book.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Buddha Doesn't Need Your Incense

In discussing the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh was asked if Buddhists worship the Buddha.  His answer, which addresses one of my big questions here in seminary, is basically this:  We do not worship the Buddha, but we honor him as a model of the perfection we strive to achieve.  We leave offerings and burn incense to the Buddha, not for his sake but because the ritual act allows us to be more mindfully present about our spiritual selves and the path we are on.  We engage the entity known as the Buddha to help us understand how to walk on our own path.  The Buddha is not reliant on our attentions.  In fact, the Buddha is essential and unchanging, so our attention or inattention have no impact on him whatsoever.

In essence, "The buddha doesn't need your incense."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Desire for a Monastic Experience

After returning to the West Coast this last January, I expected to see my friends a lot more.  When I was in New York, I missed them all a great deal.  I knew as I started seminary, I would be a little caught up in the cultural and lifestyle changes that come with a new community and new challenge, but I figured that would fade after awhile.  It hasn't.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Public Theology

Earlier in the month, I took a week long intensive course with Dr. Hubert Locke called Speaking Truth to Power.  The class was about public theology, which Dr. Locke defined as what happens when a religious leader speaks, not to their congregation, but to the greater public about political issues of the day. Rooted in their spiritual knowledge and authority, historically this happened in Op-Ed pieces or letters to the editor. Classic examples of public theologians are folks like Reinhold Niebuhr or Martin Luther King, Jr.  The public theologian is alive and well today, though there has been a shift away from the slowly declining print media.  Now you are more like to find her blogging.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Labels and Mixed Faith Spirituality

In the beginning of his book, "Living Buddha, Living Christ", Thich Nhat Hahn says, "To me, religious life is life.  We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.  When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains the truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result."  As a man well known for his deep and lifelong commitment to peace, this is clearly a very foundational belief for Nhat Hahn.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Nourishing Concentration (Right Concentration)

Nourishing Concentration (Right Concentration) is about cultivating the ability to focus your mind.  According to Thich Nhat Hanh, there are two types of concentration.
  1. Active Concentration
  2. Selective Concentration
In the practice of active concentration, the purpose is to cultivate the ability to focus on the now.  Staying present, you focus on what is happening as it happens and then release it as it fades away.  TNH uses buddhist poetry to show this.  One describes how a lake reflects the sky, showing an image of a bird that flies by, and then how it again reflects only the sky.  The lake is an example of excellent Nourishing Active Concentration.

Nourishing Effort (Right Diligence)

Nourishing Effort (Right Diligence) is all about quality and intent.  The focus for this leg of the Eightfold path is on making sure that your efforts are both coming from the right intention and being efficiently enacted.  So one cannot reach enlightenment by simply chanting a mantra the correct number of times.  Our efforts cannot be based on equations or on rote actions we are using to perform spirituality.  We must be deeply engaged in the path we are walking and using our time and attention with consideration.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains that Nourishing Effort is effort that is initiated with interest and joy.  "If your practice does not bring you joy, you are not practicing correctly."  Practices that cause pain to your physical body are also not Nourishing Effort.  The person who diligently and intently meditates but is focused on the action itself instead of its purpose is not on the path towards enlightenment.  She is just sitting quietly on a rock.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nourishing Work (Right Livelihood)

"To practice RIght Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion."  This is how Thich Nhat Hanh starts off this section of his book.  The act of working towards Nourishing Work (Right Livelihood) involves avoiding jobs that support the suffering of people, animals, plants, or the earth.  There are many jobs that contribute to suffering and according to TNH, if you are in a job that contributes to suffeirng in the world, the work you do will have an impact on your meditations and your work to follow the Eightfold path.

However, he is very clear about understanding the challenges that we can face in balancing our spiritual path and the economic realities of our lives.  He says that in times when jobs are scarce, we can be forced to take or stay in jobs that contribute to suffering.  But we must strive to move towards work that is truly nourishing and supportive of our beliefs.  He gives several examples and I will share two that I feel are particularly helpful.

Nourishing Action (Right Action)

Nourishing Action (Right Action) is about the actions we take with our bodies.  It speaks to the way we stay mindful, cultivate love, prevent harm, and practice nonviolence on ourselves and others.  TNH connects Nourishing Action to four of The Five Mindfulness Trainings.  These trainings were written by TNH himself and reflect some of his direct teachings.  When looking online, I discovered a great deal of dialogue around the different versions of these, as people took them as templates and worked them around Buddhist traditions that reflected their own beliefs.  So I present them here with my own notes about how I would want to change or adjust them for the person I am right now.  I am sure that over time these could easily be adjusted to fit new habits, pattens, and beliefs.
Note: The fourth of the trainings is relevant to the section on Nourishing Speech.

Nourishing Speech (Right Speech)

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.  Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speack truthfully, with words that inspire self-conf idence, joy, and hope.  I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure.  I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break.  I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conf licts, however small."

This is the fourth Mindfulness Training, written by Thich Nhat Hahn, and reflects rather succinctly the basis for Nourishing Speech (Right Speech).  The rest of the Mindfulness Trainings are listed in the section on Nourishing Action.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Nourishing Thinking (Right Thinking)

"Thinking is the speech of our mind."  Nourishing Thinking (Right Thinking) stems from Nourishing Understanding and in turn supports our maintenance of Nourishing Understanding.  Much of our thinking is unnecessary, often tied to reliving events of the past or experiencing anxiety about the future.  Much of our thinking is worthless chatter, like a running monologue of commentary and connections that keep us from being in the moment.  Practicing Nourishing Mindfulness can help us to gain control over the run-away train that is our mind. 

According to TNH, thinking comes in two parts.  The first part, vitarka, is the initial thought.  This is followed by the vichara, or developing thought.  So the vitarka may be, "I have a job interview tomorrow," and then the vichara would be all the thoughts about what you will wear, what you plan to say, how prepared you are, and so on.  I find this distinction helpful, as it may lead to being able to recognize in meditation that even when I can't control the vitarka, I can gain some control and reign in the subsequent vichara.

Nourishing Understanding (Right View)

Nourishing Understanding (or Right View) is, more than anything, about having a strong understanding of the Four Noble Truths.  The Buddha said that knowing that there are those who have found a way out of their suffering is one of the core pieces of Right View.

TNH also talks about recognizing the seeds within us and knowing which ones to water.  We need to be aware of how we respond to others, to see and understand our patterns of attraction and judgment in relationships.  If you see someone who reminds you of your beloved mother, you react with love.  If you see someone who reminds you of the father you have painful memories of, you react with hesitation, fear, and perhaps even hostility.  To recognize the seeds of recognition inside of us gives us the correct vision to discern which seeds to water and which to work through, to investigate the cause of our suffering, and to find the path towards healing.  This too is Nourishing Understanding.

Lessons from The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings

The challenge with a book like The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh is that, unlike some of the other books I am reading, this book is basically an introductory educational course on Buddhism from the perspective of this specific famous Zen Buddhist.  As an introductory book, it's exactly what I need to be reading right now.  But in my position to be blogging about the insights I am gaining from this book, there is a feeling that the posts I am writing as I read this book will feel too much like a lecture.  Even more concerning is that the posts might end up with me lecturing on subjects I am still learning about, which leaves me with very little authority with which to back up my statements.  So, I have decided to share with you the condensed and edited notes I am taking from these books, almost like notes from a class you were absent for.  I am hoping that in this guise, these blog posts will be useful to us both.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Summer Solstice, the Apex of Light

Happy Solstice!!

Let's start off with a little science lesson.  June 20th was the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.  Here in Northern California, on this day the sun rose at 5:48am and set at 8:35pm, for an impressive 15 hrs 47 mins of sunlight.  This is compared to the shortest day of the year, which will be this coming December 21st, when there will only be 10 hrs 33 mins of sunlight here in the Bay Area.  This difference in the amount of light we get as the days either move towards or away from the summer solstice is all a result of the tilted axes on which our planet revolves.

Monday, June 11, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about mindfulness.  This subject comes up a lot in the Dharma talks in "Going Home", though I imagine that mindfulness will be a prevalent subject throughout my Buddhist reading.  Based on the way Thich Nhat Hanh explains it, I understand mindfulness to be about bringing your full attention and awareness to a specific thing, often to the presence of something in the actual moment.  It's about being able to focus on the details of the present moment and to stay with these thoughts instead of sliding into memories from the past or projections of the future.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Summer Reading

I am spending my summer reading books on Buddhism and Islam in hopes that I can gain a general introduction to these two religious traditions. The books on Buddhism include three by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk who practices Zen Buddhism.  He is a talented and prolific writer who is well known for speaking clearly about Buddhism to a western audience and finding ways to show the ties between Buddhism and Christianity.  I am reading "The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings", "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers" and "Living Buddha, Living Christ".

Friday, June 1, 2012

Living in the Now

Today is June 4th and I am putting on socks because my feet are cold.  It's summer in Berkeley and while the sun is shining and the birds are singing, there have been strong winds today and the temp has dropped to the high 50's this evening.

This might not seem like a big deal to you, but after living in New York for the first time last year, the idea of being cold enough to put on extra clothes in June is almost ludicrous.  Not twelve months ago I remember being hotter than I have ever been, surviving the humidity of a New York summer living pressed up against my air conditioning unit. This fat girl from California was simply not built for humidity and New York City let me know it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Potential Energy and The Spark of Life

Fire is an important element of this holiday.
Happy Beltane!!

I had the opportunity this Beltane to be part of a class centering moment.  This week's focus in our Christian Worship class is on the liturgical year and, as the calendar would have it, it landed exactly on May 1st.  So as I gathered with my fellow students (all of whom are Christian), we talked about how to center the class and bring in this discussion about my pagan holiday.

We eventually settled on a very simple lay out.  We started with a Christian song we sang in a round, followed by a scripture reading, and lastly I spoke and then guided the class in a pagan song.  One of my fellow group members liked the idea of creating a trajectory from God to Goddess, but I struggled with that, both because of the dualism and the fact that I didn't really want to talk about the Goddess.  We talk enough about the Goddess at PSR.  I wanted to talk about the Spark of Life.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Life that I Love

For a long time now I have believed that the things we are attracted to - the attributes in the people we admire, the traits they have which make us envious, and little physical characteristics or personality quirks that we think are smart or sexy or charming - give us insight into who we truly want to be.  I believe that the attraction, that emotional reaction that says, "Wow, why don't I have that?" is really, "Oh, so that's what I am supposed to look like."  It's not always clean and simple.  Sometimes we get confused about what it is exactly that attracts us.  Sometimes it's not the culture or the traditions but the experience of being connected to your history or the experience of feeling rooted and a sense of belonging.  It may not be her thinness that you envy but her sense of style and the comfort she has in her own skin.  Regardless, I find that this rule I have about attraction is true for me in all sorts of ways.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spring Equinox

Spring has come.

In the middle of this great life shift, as I shed old pieces of myself, I am reminded today that we are never too old for new beginnings.  Like a empty plot of land, flat and filled with nothing more than dirt, our presentation before we fully transform can be deceiving. If we rely too much on the people in our lives to act as a mirror to help us know ourselves, we can be fooled into believing that we are only what we appear to be.

But eventually, spring comes.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Elemental Energy: A Collection of Thoughts

Last week I had the opportunity to lead a group of Christians in song.  We were having a workshop on leading music in worship spaces and each participant was asked to choose a hymn or other appropriate piece of music and then teach it to the group.  I was really excited about this opportunity because I love to sing.  The songs and chants in a pagan space are some of the most magickal and meaningful aspects of craft for me.  So I took a lot of time contemplating different chants to share.  I wanted to engage the fellow students and to share with them something about pagan musical traditions, but I didn't want to take them too far outside of their comfort zone or that would alienate them.  Despite the radical inclusion that I feel from my fellow students, they are not very familiar with pagan traditions.  I settled on this one:

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Pagan Eucharist??

Would it surprise you to know that many pagan traditions have an aspect to our rituals that is very much like the Eucharist?  For the pagans out there, have you ever considered how similar Cakes and Ale is both symbolically and physically to the tradition of Christian Communion?  In yet another installment of my current seminary inspired series, "Hey!  We do that!  Wait, you do that too??", I figured it was time to talk about the Eucharist.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Marcia McFee's Four Patterns of Worship Energy

Pulling from the world of kinesiology, Marcia McFee has developed a system for talking about the different kinds of energy that we experience in worship services.  Broken down into four categories - Thrust, Shape, Swing, and Hang - we can get a feeling for how different services are structured and why different kinds of religious experiences feel right to one person but wrong to another.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Radical Honesty about Mental Health

Happy Mental Health Awareness Week!

I was having a conversation on facebook and one of my friends mentioned that she wished that my comments related to being radically open about my experiences as someone who has a mental health disability were a blog post so she could bookmark it. I found this very flattering and it got me thinking. At first I figured that the disability topic wasn't well suited for this blog, as this is a place for discussions about my religious and spiritual journey here at PSR. But as I thought about it I realized that this is exactly where this conversation belongs.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Conception of God

God (said in a big booming voice)
How do you envision God?  As a witch, do you believe in God?  In Jesus?  How can you have multiple Gods?

I get these questions a lot and I imagine this will only increase as I meet more Christian seminary students.  While the community at PSR is open minded and welcoming to pagans, I imagine that there is still a lot of ignorance about pagan practices.  For most people in this country, pagans and witches means Wicca, which is one kind of paganism but it is not the one that I practice.  But let's not delve into the complicated mess of definitions and traditions (the pagan version of denominations).  The American Goddess Movement is still quite young and even among the believers, there are a lot of discussions about what means what.  I can, however, discuss my own personal approach to the divine.  I have found a beautiful metaphor that describes it perfectly.