The Spider who Weaves Her Web

I sometimes wonder about the spider who weaves her web.
She knows it is a fragile net between two blades of grass.
She knows wind, rain or even a passerby may destroy
her work and she will begin all over again to weave,

To toil, to struggle to pull the blades of grass together
as an anchor to hang her masterpiece, her life’s mission.
How often is the work we do as fragile like a web;
the slightest breeze can make our common desire seem for naught.

We seek to create a web of interdependence but
so afraid of vulnerability required to build;
still we begin, then a storm blows shaking the filaments
of community loose and we find the web is unhinged.

But when it comes together; when the spiral weavings match
the light of a joyous day, revealing the rainbows of comfort
the purpose of the web is fulfilled; sustaining, nurturing,
freeing us to more than we can ever be by ourselves.

The spider weaves the best web she can for today’s concerns
and those who come after her will build their webs for their needs
and for their journey’s concerns. And that is as it should be.
We, too, weave the best today. Tomorrow we build anew.
© Fred L Hammond 2015

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Published in: on May 19, 2015 at 10:12 am  Comments Off on The Spider who Weaves Her Web  
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2015

Who is this mythical person christened
Twenty-fifteen? A babe in swaddling clothes
at birth, a decrepit hunched being come
final hours of December thirty-first.
Its destiny is the same as yours/mine.

What type of life will Twenty-fifteen live?
As with all newborns we dream wishful hopes
anticipating, desiring, longing
for something better; something wonderful.
The life it lives depends in part on us.

How well we embody our principles—
how well we choose to seek to act justly —
how well we choose to share loving kindness —
how well we walk humbly throughout our days.
Live this day, this hour as the best moment,

as if our December thirty-first draws
near as it must for all creatures on earth.
Who then is this mythical person born?
Twenty-fifteen is our measure of life
Fill it with love, generosity, grace.

© 2015 Fred L Hammond

On the Seventh Day

Creating a universe
filled with galaxies filled
with solar systems made
of comets and planets
with self-sustaining life
forms and sentient beings
expressing awe. This feat
is worthy of the long
pause or even a Sabbath.

© Fred L Hammond

Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 4:11 pm  Comments Off on On the Seventh Day  
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Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons

Siddhartha was born a prince in the region of Nepal sometime in the 6th century Before the Common Era.  When he was born, the story is told that astrologers told his parents that Siddhartha was destined to either become a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted his son to become a great king so he insulated Siddhartha from all awareness of suffering in the world.  As long as he would live within the palace walls, he would never see someone sick, nor someone old or dying. He would only see the abundance of the world.  Siddhartha we are told married a princess and had a son.  They were happy. Life was good.

But Siddhartha had never been outside of the palace and he insisted to see the world.  His father ordered the city to be cleared from anyone old or infirmed so Siddhartha would only see happiness and joy.  However, Siddhartha did see someone who was feeble and old and he was very moved by this.  He went out into the city a few more times and saw someone sick and someone dead.  And he saw someone who was considered a sage, a seeker of the truth.

Siddhartha realized that this was the fate of all people to grow old, sick, and die.  He needed to find a way to handle this realization.  Siddhartha renounced his family and privilege as a prince and left the palace forever.  He wandered the countryside joining the various groups of seekers to understand.  Eventually, he settled under a Bodhi Tree and meditated for a long time.  And during his long meditation he had hallucinations of demons tempting him but he stayed true to his quest. And then one day, he had a realization.  It is said that he attained enlightenment and was thereafter called the Buddha.  He spent the rest of his life teaching others what he had learned.

But what was his realization?  And how is this realization still relevant today.

The Buddha taught what he called the Four Noble Truths.

1)    There is Dukkha—a word that is really untranslatable into English.  Dukkha has been translated as suffering but this word alone does not capture the fullness of this word. It also includes the notion of impermanence, emptiness, imperfection.[i]  A recent conversation I had with friend of mine who is a Buddhist Abbott suggested that a better word to use to translate the word Dukkha instead of using the word suffering is to use the word Stress.[ii] We all experience it.  And in our country of privilege, it is perhaps a more prevalent an experience than suffering. So the first Noble Truth states there is stress.

Stating there is stress does not negate that there is suffering, or  happiness or joy, only that there is stress.  There are three aspects of stress; there is ordinary stress, stress caused by change, and conditioned states.  Not getting what one wants, the death or separation from a loved one, these are examples of ordinary stress.  The being downsized at work, the beginning of a marriage, these are examples of stress caused by change.  We are saddened when a love affair ends.  The conditioned state of stress refers to the notion of a being, of an individual self, this conditioned state is made up of the flow of energy that differentiates you from me.  The Buddha refers to five aggregates that make up the self.  There is Matter, Sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These are the things that define this being from any other being.  They include the physical characteristics, the ability to sense and form ideas about the information those senses deliver, the ability to act in word and deed, and the awareness.  All of these work together to make up the self which as a conditioned state results in stress.  All three aspects of stress is the result of attachment. How does one cling to this moment, to this moment, now to this moment?  One cannot, no matter how enjoyable that moment may have been, it is now gone.

2)    The second Noble Truth states there is an origin to Stress. Stress comes from desire, or thirst for something.  That something can be tangible like wanting a nice house to live in to something more intangible like will my retirement fund be solvent or cover my living expenses when I retire. It is easy to see how the desire for power can be a source of stress but even the desire for peace can also be a source of stress.  Not having peace or rather the lack thereof is stressful.
The continuance of the thirst or drive or volition “denote the same thing: they denote the desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more, to grow more and more, to accumulate more and more.[iii]”  All of this desire is stressful.

The notion of karma arises in this second noble truth. Because this thirst, drive, volition is the cause and its actions have an effect.  It may either be good or bad in its effect, but it continues in the direction set forth and additional stress is the ultimate result.

3) The Third Noble Truth is There can be a cessation to Stress.  The answer is rather simple.  This reminds me of a childhood joke.  A person goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor my arm hurts when I do this.”  The doctor said, “Stop doing that.”  The cessation to stress is to stop craving and desiring. Part of this stopping is to no longer be attached to what is craved or desired.  If we must have something to be so in order to be happy, then we will never be happy.  If we are in a state of want, we are not happy.  If we should receive what it is we want, we are fearful we will lose it, and therefore we are not happy.  So letting go of attachment to the desired state be it tangible or intangible is the key to ending stress.

4) We do this through the fourth noble truth which is the middle way in between the two extremes of pleasure seeking and avoiding stress.  It is also known as the Eightfold path.

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

This Eightfold path is combined into three categories of ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.  This path is not like an AA step where one focuses on Right Thought this week and then next week focuses on Right Speech.  These are meant to be worked on simultaneously.

Ethical conduct is based on love and compassion. It includes Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood of the Eightfold path.  Right speech is abstinence from lying, slander, gossip, maliciousness, and hate speech.  Speech is to be truthful and kind, purposeful and meaningful.  My mother would say to me when I was a child, if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.  This is practicing right speech.

Right action is promoting moral and peaceful living.  We are to abstain from destroying life, stealing, dishonesty actions, and sexual misconduct. We are to help others to lead a peaceful life.

Right Livelihood means to work in a profession that will not lead to harm of others.  There are many professions today that while the professions themselves might not lead to harming others, the way they are being embodied are leading to harm.  Today we have extended the concept of harming the lives of others to contain the entire ecosystem in which we live and breathe.

James Ford, Unitarian Universalist Minister and Zen teacher puts it another way.  He states[i] we are to

  1. “Foster Life
  2. Speak truthfully
  3. Respect boundaries
  4. Respect your body and others’ bodies
  5. Remain clear and open”

The next category in the Eightfold Path is Mental Discipline.  This encompasses right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  Right effort is to focus on thoughts that foster life, respect self and others.  Right mindfulness or right awareness is also known as being attentive in the moment. Attentiveness is not only to the activities of mind; but also to the sensations of the body, the sensations of the heart or emotions, and to ideas and thoughts.  It is to be aware of what is without pushing away or pulling towards oneself.  One of the exercises that Buddhists use to strengthen this ability of right awareness is sitting meditation.  This is the meditation practice that allows one to become attentive to ones breathing.  How the air flows in and out of the lungs.  Thoughts that arise are to be noticed and then let go.

In order to strengthen one’s ability to be aware this meditation needs to be done daily.  This is where the work is in Buddhism.  It is one thing to have a philosophical understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and it is another to allow it to transform one’s life.  The person doing sitting meditation applies right effort and right mindfulness into the process of sitting.  They notice their thoughts, their emotions, let them go and as they do they raise their awareness towards equanimity.  “To be rightly aware on the absolute level is to be aware of the true nature of reality…no-self, impermanence and the nature of stress.[i]”  This is training the mind towards becoming open to the enlightenment the Buddha experienced.

The final two aspects of the Eightfold path fit into the category of Wisdom.  These are right understanding and right thought. Right thought includes detachment, love and non-violence towards all beings.  Right understanding refers to seeing the true nature of everything.

So here we are, 2600 years after the Buddha lived on this earth. He has attained nirvana. Another word that is hard to translate. Nirvana is the moment when the burning wood is no more and the fire that was held to it is then set free.  Nirvana is the mind set free.

The teachings of Siddhartha are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago. This is especially true when we use the notion of stress as being a more accurate  translation to Dukkha. We are always hearing the warnings of stress on the physical body.  Obesity and heart disease have been connected to the forces of stress in our lives.  There is stress in our workplace, in our households, in our families.  We live in a world where the possibility of a new war is one day away.  Terrorism is no longer just something that happens over there. It is happening in our schools, in our communities.  Stress is mounting. Many people are at the breaking point.

What are we to do?

Thich Nhat Hahn describes the self as being a garden filled with weeds and flowers.  The weeds are anger, jealousy, fear, discrimination.  The flowers are love, compassion, and understanding. If you water the weeds you strengthen the negative seeds.  If you water the flowers, you will strengthen the positive seeds.  Which kind of garden will you grow?

Another way of looking at this is that we are all addicts to our emotions.  And like addicts when the craving of an emotion wells up we frantically look to find something to quench it before we get the shakes.  We do not know how to handle them when they rise up.  Some of us run away from what we are feeling.  Others seek to subdue them with drugs and alcohol.  And still others push other emotions up front as an act of bravado to hide the true feelings felt inside. The truth is emotions are not permanent.  They will rise and fall away.   We already know this.  Perhaps there is a way to release the negative emotions sooner through meditation.

Meditation has been used as an anger management tool for decades.  Not only does it help relieve stress, it also can help a person who is angry to take a pause and regain their sense of control so they do not lash out in a harmful manner. Be attentive. Take some time out of your day to go and do some focused breathing.  Use the song we sang as a chant to guide your breathing—”when I breathe in, I breath in peace—when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” Or simply just count your breaths, 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale. Etc.  And if you lose count, and you will, simply begin again, 1 on the inhale.  And if your mind wanders, and it will, notice that it did and begin counting your breaths again.

Those who meditate everyday have noted they are more attentive throughout their day.  Not only do they have lower blood pressure they are more able to cope with the stressors of the day.  Aim for ten minutes a day and then in time stretch that towards 30 minutes over time.

Siddhartha found a way to help the world be together. The fact this has lasted for over two millennia is testament that it is a viable way.  Unlike some of the faddish methods that one finds in the self-help section of the bookstore, this middle way has worked in and out of season.

Blessed Be.

 

This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on November 3 2013 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond


[i] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT


[i] James Ishmael Ford, If you are Lucky, You’re Heart will Break, Wisdom Boston, 2012


[i] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

[ii] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT

[iii] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 5:18 pm  Comments Off on Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons  
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We Begin in Water

We begin

in water

and emerge

with a first breath.

We will depart

with a sigh.

In between

that first breath

and final sigh

is our journey

a unique

unfolding

mystery.

 

(c) Fred L Hammond

Life as a source of the unfolding mystery

One of my congregants sent me a news story from yesterday’s Washington Post about Rev. Robert Seargears worship services.  He has been doing a series of dramatic lessons from this summer’s block buster movies.  

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/30/AR2008083001704.html

 He dresses up in character, portrays something of the story then reveals how the struggle the character or characters are facing can teach us something about God or the parables of Jesus.  Some of the characters he has portrayed is the Joker from the Batman movie Dark Knight, Indiana Jones, and the Incredible Hulk.  It has been both controversial and stimulating for his parishioners.   His Assembly of God district thinks it is inappropriate to use the movies to teach biblical truths.  

It is creative if nothing else.  However, he is highlighting something that we Unitarian Universalists have claimed as one of our sources that inform our faith.  ” Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openess to the forces that create and uphold life… ”  All of life can be seen as pointing to the unfolding mystery if we would simply be open to the possibility. 

Of course, it requires that we are open to seeing life as being able to reveal itself as an unfolding mystery.   That is where, I believe  a spiritual practice comes in.  Whatever we use to pause and reflect on the wonder of life in and around us, would be important to be able to notice the possible lessons and wisdom life has for us.   I do several different types of prayer and meditation.  When I am out of doors, I seek to become mindful of all that is around me.  I want to hear everything that is of nature.  The birds singing in the trees, the rabbits rustling in the bushes, and honey bees buzzing full of pollen and nectar.  I want to notice everything that is of nature.  The blueness of the sky, the varying shades within the roses of a rose bush, the ants scurrying on the ground.   I remember some of my most difficult decisions were made during these times of mindfulness.  It wasn’t that I was thinking of those decisions to be made, instead I was focusing on what was around me. 

I remember during one of these times of listening to the sound of swans gliding over a still pond during a cool summer evening contrasted with listening to the rushing sounds of cars on the interstate.  The former seemed to be in the flow of life, of peaceful intentions to swim from one point to another.  The cars seemed to be forcing their way through, with all the crassness of an intimidating bully.  Which way did I want to live my life? 

Life can be our teacher if we let it to be.  And if we intend it, we can find the wisdom of the ages repeated in our daily lives.  For Robert Seagear, he has found an ability to find connections in today’s movies to the biblical truths he values as important for his congregants to grasp and understand.  And perhaps, they are grasping them for the first time, even though they have heard the parables and teachings of Jesus many times over but never in this fresh and creative way before. 

Unitarian Universalist folk singer Peter Mayer has a song that has become popular in many of our congregations, entitled “Holy Now.”   Everything can be holy if we are willing to let it unfold for us like the blossom it is.   Breathe deep the fragrance.  What is life offering us?  An opportunity to love?  An opportunity to heal a relationship?  Life can show us its deepest truths if we seek to be open to it.  Perhaps this is how Jesus heard inspiration whispering to him the parables.    Blessings,

Published in: on September 7, 2008 at 8:14 pm  Comments Off on Life as a source of the unfolding mystery  
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Swimming in the River

I ended yesterday’s post with a metaphor of needing to swim daily in the river in order to be able to swim around the flotsam and jetsam that are also in the river.  Of course, I was writing about spiritual practices and not actual swimming, although some will tell me that swimming is part of their spiritual practice. 

What  spiritual practice do you use in your daily life to help you remain centered and aligned with your core self?  What spiritual practice do you attend to daily to keep you alert and aware to the stream of well-being that I suggest is the undercurrent of all things?  How do we connect to that mystery that is unfolding and leading us forward on this journey? 

The Buddhists practice zazen.  A form of sitting meditation where they clear their minds of the rampant thoughts and seek to become aware of their present moment.  To be fully present to the now is a powerful experience.  It is a means to then be more fully alert to the events of the day.   There is also the walking meditation where the person consciously and deliberately attends to each breath and each movement of the body as they walk.  This again is a means to become more fully alert and aware of the present moment.  There are two blogs that I have linked to that are Buddhist centered; Monkey Mind by my dear friend and colleague Zen Master Rev. James Ishmael Ford and Wildfoxzen by Zen Master Dosho Port.

Christians practice prayer.  There are many forms of prayer.  There are supplication prayers where a person asks for help and guidance.  There is intercessory prayer where a person seeks on behalf of another.  There are prayers of praise where the person expresses their gratefulness and thanksgiving to the wonders and love of life.  There is also centering prayer which is probably the closest to zazen where the person quiets the mind while using a pre-chosen phrase to focus on.   There are also prescribed prayers such as the Jesus Prayer or the prayer of Jabez  or praying the rosary.  These prayers assist the person to focus beyond themselves and their current strife.  The act of repeating over and over again the same words enables the person to transcend their present state and connect to their core self. 

Muslims have designated times, five times a day, where they pause and pray to Allah. This is an act of worship and is most central to the life of a Muslim. There are prescribed prayers that they recite. The act of designated times connects all of the Muslims together.  It enables them to see themselves as connected to a larger whole, to a larger purpose than just their individual lives.  This prayer is also an embodied prayer in that there are different postures with different prayers that one does while praying. 

Pagans use rituals to maintain their connections to spirit.  They  symbolically see the elements of nature as having characteristics that they would want to be balanced in their lives. So they may focus on the four directions; north, east,south, west;  and the four elements; air, fire, earth, water to help remind them of these characteristics.

There are other practices that one may take.  I also incorporate nature hikes where I consciously take note of the beauty of the world around me.  I notice the blooms, the song of the  birds, the evidence of an abundant life around me.  And give appreciation to the universe for all these wonderful creations around me.   Others journal, write poetry, sing, dance as ways of reflecting, connecting, and being in this world.   Blessings abound, Rev. Fred L Hammond

Published in: on May 13, 2008 at 4:27 pm  Comments Off on Swimming in the River  
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