CUUC

CUUC

2015-03-27

2015 Spring

How the spring came the grounds at Community Unitarian in White Plains

Mar 24:

Mar 31:

Apr 7:

Apr 14:

Apr 21:

Apr 29:

May 5:

May 12:






2015-03-25

Cultivate Mindfulness

Practice of the Week
Cultivate Mindfulness

From the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA website (marc.ucla.edu):
Contemporary culture in the United States is marked by extraordinary advances in science and technology, yet coupled with these advances is an increasing sense of pressure, complexity and information overload. Individuals across the lifespan are feeling tremendous stress, which is contributing to a variety of mental and physical health problems and diseases.

Mindful awareness can be defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. It is an excellent antidote to the stresses of modern times. It invites us to stop, breathe, observe, and connect with one's inner experience. There are many ways to bring mindfulness into one's life, such as meditation, yoga, art, or time in nature. Mindfulness can be trained systematically, and can be implemented in daily life, by people of any age, profession or background.

In the last ten years, significant research has shown mindfulness to address health issues such as lower blood pressure and boost the immune system; increase attention and focus, including aid those suffering from ADHD; help with difficult mental states such as anxiety and depression, fostering well-being and less emotional reactivity; and thicken the brain in areas in charge of decision making, emotional flexibility, and empathy.
In this video, Susan Smalley of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, and co-author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, explains:



From Karen Kissel Wegela, "Practicing Mindfulness Without Meditating," Psychology Today (HERE):
While the most direct way to cultivate mindfulness is the sitting practice of mindfulness-awareness meditation, not everyone is ready for, or interested in, doing that....

Principles of good mindfulness practice:
1. Paying attention to the moment-to-moment details of experience
2. Paying particular attention to the body and one's experience of it
3. Recognizing the experience of mind and not getting caught in memories of the past or plans for the future
4. Trying neither too much nor too little
5. Letting go of distractions and paying attention to the present moment
6. Noticing one's experience without judging it

I work with my clients to identify the activities that they already engage in that can become occasions for practicing mindfulness. Most people have a number of possibilities. Practically all sports can work: basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, and so on. What's it like to stand at the foul line before you try to make a free throw?

Other physical activities can be used, too: biking to work in traffic, walking the dog, going for a jog, shoveling the driveway, buying groceries, picking out what to wear, putting on make-up, driving the car. What these activities have in common is the opportunity to pay attention to sense perceptions in the present moment: what one can see, hear, smell, taste or touch.

When we engage in these activities, especially if we are willing to let go of distractions like listening to an iPod or playing the car radio, they give us the chance to tune into what is happening right now. We can pay attention to our sense perceptions, our emotions, and our thoughts.

I often walk our dogs in the morning. When I am using my walk time as a mindfulness practice, I pay attention to all my senses. This time of year the branches are bare, and the ground is often icy in patches. I pay attention to where I place my feet. This takes even more awareness when I have to dogs with me, running one way and another in their eagerness to check out all the smells. I guess they are doing their own sniffing practice! I pay attention to the movement of the dogs, the sloshy sounds of the traffic nearby on the wet street, the crows that caw from dumpster behind the market. I notice smells -- sometimes the moist earth, other times the smell of dog poop as I pick it up in a newspaper bag. I feel the cold air on my face and the thoughts about wishing I'd worn my warmer hat. As we move along, the sights, smells, sounds and feelings change. My emotions how my irritation with Sadie, as she pulls on the leash and barks as she tries to get to the neighbor's dog, changes to delight as she bounces happily along soon afterward. I notice tenderness as Sunny starts to limp, and I remove the burr she's picked up on her paw. I note the sharp pinch as I get stuck by the burr myself. When I find my mind wandering to the meeting I have later at school, I simply come back to the present moment with the dogs.

Other activities that lend themselves to cultivating mindfulness are cleaning the house, cooking dinner, working on the car, paying attention to people as we speak with them at work, filing papers, typing. We can also pay attention to body experiences when we feel well or when we feel ill. Bringing mindfulness to physical pain is particularly illuminating. We may find that we have added tension to what might otherwise be a tolerable experience and made it worse.

We can attend to our emotions when we feel uneasy, happy, sad, scared. There's a whole range of emotions we can attend to. In fact, in therapy, this is often our work together: bringing mindfulness to the experience of emotions as they are arising. Some experiences are more difficult to do this with, and it's best to practice bringing mindfulness to easier ones first. For example, it's quite difficult to bring mindfulness to intense experiences of anger. Still, the more we attend to our present experience, the more we cultivate the courage to be present with whatever experience we are having.

With all of these activities, we begin by setting an intention to be mindful of our experience. It's best to pick a particular activity as your mindfulness practice. Getting too ambitious and thinking we can bring mindfulness to everything right away is, for most people, trying too hard.

As always, it is important to be gentle but also steady. So pick a particular activity and set a particular amount of time when you're going to use it as a practice. Then, gently pay attention to the sensations in your body; note your sense perceptions, your emotions, and your thoughts as they come and go. Notice when you hang on to a feeling or thought. Let it go when you can. If you forget that you're practicing mindfulness, just start again without giving yourself a hard time.

There's really no limit to the different activities that can become opportunities to practice and cultivate mindfulness. Happy practicing!
See also earlier "Practice of the Week": "Be Mindful" (includes Jon Kabat-Zinn video)

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Previous Practice of the Week: "Relax"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

2015-03-18

Relax

Practice of the Week
Relax
“The parasympathetic nervous system [PNS] is one of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system. Sometimes called the rest and digest system, the parasympathetic system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.” (Science Daily)
* * *
Rick Hanson on Relaxing:


Adapted from Rick Hanson, Just One Thing. [Order a copy for yourself: HERE]:

It's easy to feel stressed these days. Or worried, frustrated, or irritated about one thing or another, such as finances, work, the health of a family member, or a relationship.

When you get stressed or upset, your body tenses up to fight, flee, or freeze. That's Mother Nature's way, and its short-term benefits kept our ancestors alive to pass on their genes.

But today — when people can live seventy or eighty years or more, and when quality of life (not mere survival) is a priority — we pay a high, long-term price for daily tension. It leads to health problems like heart disease, poor digestion, backaches and headaches, and hormonal ups and downs. And to psychological problems, including anxiety, irritability, and depression.

The number one way to reduce tension is through relaxation. Besides its benefits for physical and mental health, relaxation feels great. Just recall how nice it feels to soak in a tub, curl up in bed, or plop on the couch after the dishes are done.

Whether you're stuck in traffic, wading through an overflowing in-box, or having a tough conversation, being able to relax your body at will is a critically important inner skill.

How

Here are some good ways to activate the "rest-and-digest" parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that calms down the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system:
  • PNS fibers, involved with digestion, fill the mouth. So relax your tongue and jaw; perhaps touch your lips. (If I'm having a hard time sleeping, sometimes I'll rest a knuckle against my lips, which has a soothing and calming effect.)
  • Open your lips slightly. This can help ease stressful thinking by reducing subvocalizations, the subtle, unconscious movements of the jaw and tongue often associated with mental speech.
  • Do several long exhalations, since the PNS handles exhaling. For example inhale for a count of three, and exhale for a count of six.
  • For a minute or more, breathe in such a way that your inhalation and exhalation are equally long; count mentally up to five for each inhalation and each exhalation. This creates small but smooth changes in the interval between heartbeats — since the heart speeds up slightly with inhalation and slows down slightly with exhalation — which is associated with relaxation and well-being (Kristal-Boneh et al. 1995).
  • Relax your diaphragm — the muscle underneath your lungs that helps suck air into them — by putting your hand on your stomach, just below your rib cage, and then trying to breathe in a way that pushes your hand half an inch or so away from your backbone. (This is especially helpful if you're feeling anxious.)
Try these methods in stressful situations, or any time you're feeling worried or frustrated; they really work! Also use them "offline," when things are more settled, such as by setting aside a few minutes each day — perhaps just before bed — to practice relaxation. The resting state of your body-mind will become more peaceful, and you'll become more resilient when things hit the fan. For example, researchers have found that practicing relaxation actually increases the expression of genes that calm down the stress response (Dusek et al. 2008).

For Journaling

The five bullet points above suggest ways to trigger the PNS. Choose one of these to experiment with. Temporarily elevate your stress by vividly imagining a stressful situation, or watching a suspenseful or scary movie. Then try one of the suggestions -- relaxing tongue and jaw and touching lips; opening lips; long exhales; long and equal inhales and exhales, and relaxing diaphragm. Write in your journal about what you noticed in your body.

* * *
Here's 1:49 on the basic biology of the difference between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS):


Chloe Brotheridge (3:02) has some further hints on breathing focus to help relax.


* * *
Previous Practice of the Week: "Meditate"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

CUC Music: Sun Mar 29


Sultry, evocative piano music from the Iberian peninsula will warm you up this chilly March morning at CUC. Enrique Granados’s romantic impressions of the world of Francisco Goya and Frederic Chopin are featured in the Prelude. Federico Mompou’s delicate Secreto, from the composer’s first published work, is also featured alongside Xavier Montsalvatge’s sensitive tribute to Spain’s vanished Caribbean empire, from his “Divertimentos on Themes by Forgotten Composers”.  A depiction of Andalusia’s ancient Moorish stronghold Cordoba by Isaac Albéniz rounds out the morning’s musical programming. Read on for programming details, and check out this link to hear Music Director Adam Kent introduce and perform works by Granados at Le poisson rouge: 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wo2_GDC2lVU



Prelude: Adam Kent, piano
El fandango del candil from Goyescas                       
Mazurka from Escenas románticas
                                                            Enrique Granados

Opening Music:
Secreto from Impresiones íntimas                       
                                                    Federico Mompou
Interlude:
Habanera from Tres divertimientos sobre temas de autores olvidados 
                                                Xavier Montsalvatge
Offertory:
Córdoba from Cantos de España                       
                                                 Isaac Albéniz

CUC Music: Sun Mar 22


CUC Choir Accompanist Georgianna Pappas treats us to a program of sensitive, introspective music from Johannes Brahms’s late years. She is joined in a special Interlude by CUC member Kim Force for a performance of Bobby McFerrin’s arrangement of the 23rd Psalm, printed as Hymn 1038 in Singing the Journey. Read on for programming details.

Prelude: Georgianna Pappas, piano
Intermezzo, opus 116, no. 4 in E major
Intermezzo, opus 118, no. 2 in A major
                                                Johannes Brahms 


Opening Music:
Intermezzo, opus 119, no. 1 in B minor
Brahms

Interlude: Kim Force, soprano
The 23rd Psalm                                   
adapted by Bobby McFerrin

Offertory:
Intermezzo, opus 117, no. 1. E flat major  
Brahms

2015-03-12

Science & Spirituality: Thu Mar 26

The Science and Spirituality class meets twice monthly at CUC: on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, 11:30a - 1:00p, usually in room 24.

Any interested person is welcome to join the class for lively discussion of ideas.

On Thu Mar 26, the class will be concluding its discussion of E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence. The focus will be on the final chapters, 12 - 15 (pp. 135 - 188):

Section IV: Idols of the Mind
   Chapter 12: Instinct
   Chapter 13: Religion
   Chapter 14: Free Will
Section V: A Human Future
   Chapter 15: Alone and Free in the Universe

Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than twenty books, including The Creation, The Social Conquest of Earth, and Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.

From the National Book Foundation:
The Meaning of Human Existence addresses the most pressing issues of the 21st century, as it gently suggests ways we might move forward without destroying ourselves and the planet. Whether contemplating how to preserve biodiversity, the potential human encounter with extraterrestrials, or the existential problems posed by religious and political fanaticism, Wilson’s self-deprecating tone disguises a piercing, at times shocking argument that will spark productive dialogue among scientists and non-scientists, experts, and general readers alike.

ABOUT THE BOOK

How did humanity originate and why does a species like ours exist on this planet? Do we have a special place, even a destiny in the universe? Where are we going, and perhaps, the most difficult question of all, "Why?" In The Meaning of Human Existence, biologist Edward O. Wilson grapples with these and other existential questions, examining what makes human beings supremely different from all other species. Searching for meaning in what Nietzsche once called "the rainbow colors" around the outer edges of knowledge and imagination, Wilson takes his readers on a journey—from our earliest inception to a provocative look at what the future of mankind portends.

Wilson posits that we, as a species, now know enough about the universe and ourselves that we can begin to approach questions about our place in the cosmos and the meaning of intelligent life in a systematic, indeed, in a testable way and that humanity holds a special position in the known universe. The human epoch that began in biological evolution and passed into pre-, then recorded, history is now more than ever before in our hands. Yet alarmed that we are about to abandon natural selection by redesigning biology and human nature as we wish them, Wilson soberly concludes that advances in science and technology bring us our greatest moral dilemma since God stayed the hand of Abraham.
From Amazon.com about Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence:
Review
“A valedictory work… What a lively writer Mr. Wilson can be. This two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction stands above the crowd of biology writers the way John le Carré stands above spy writers. He’s wise, learned, wicked, vivid, oracular.” (Dwight Garner - New York Times Book Review)

“In his typically elegant style, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Wilson (Letters to a Young Scientist) cannily and candidly probes the nature of human existence.” (Publishers Weekly)

“This compact volume packs a great punch—particularly in its new compelling argument that it would be the gravest of mistakes to reengineer our minds to make ourselves supermen. It understands our limited brains as the right tool for building the kind of future we require, and with this 'existential conservatism' gives us new reason to celebrate the wonder that is us.” (Bill McKibben, author of Enough)

“With remarkable clarity and a depth of insight that is absolutely unique, E. O. Wilson provides a highly readable and immensely enlightening analysis of nothing less than the meaning of human existence and the relationship of our species to the physical universe. By effortlessly merging science with philosophy, Wilson has created a masterwork that lays out his theories of our destiny. Already the world's most distinguished evolutionary biologist, Wilson has transcended disciplinary boundaries with this book to create an invaluable analysis of who we are and the choices we now confront; it is a must-read for all.” (Vice President Al Gore)

“E. O. Wilson is Darwin’s great successor, a scientist of such astounding breadth, depth, experience, and brilliance that he offers us nothing less than a new understanding of humanity… You will see the beauty, mystery, and possibilities of human existence through the eyes of one of humanity’s greatest and most intrepid explorers.” (Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University)

“[A] tough-minded little primer-cum-manifesto… Compact and readable.” (Dan Cryer - Boston Globe)

“There can be few better guides through our species’ past journey and potential for the future… A provocative and beautifully written collection of essays.” (Tim Lenton - Nature)

“No biologist has been more persistent or eloquent in correcting our misapprehensions about human origins than Edward O. Wilson… We should be grateful that Wilson, so late in his illustrious career, still appeals to reason and imagination in hopes of enlightening us about our nature and inspiring us to change our destructive ways.” (Scott Russell Sanders - Washington Post)

“Wilson asks: Does humanity have a special place in the universe? Where are we going, and why? He answers by telling science’s latest creation stories, and presenting a vision of the future both inspiring and plausible, not an easy feat to pull off… Wilson is both a wild-eyed optimist and a hard-nosed realist. What more can we ask of a prophet?” (John Horgan - Scientific American)
See the New York Times review of The Meaning of Human Existence: CLICK HERE.
See the review in the Washington Post: CLICK HERE.

2015-03-11

CUC Music: Sun Mar 15

The fragmentary melodic scraps Rachmaninoff uses to spin out his evocative etudes and preludes complement our monthly theme of Brokenness this Sunday morning. CUC’s Choir will be on hand to perform a moving setting of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and to preview a number from the Rodgers and Hammerstein event on 3/22. Read on for programming details.

Prelude: Adam Kent, piano
Etude-Tableau in A Minor, Op. 39, No. 6
Prelude in Bb Minor, Op. 32, No. 2
Prelude in B Minor, Op. 32, No. 10
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Choral Anthem: CUC Choir directed by Lisa N. Meyer and accompanied by Georgianna Pappas
"I Shall Not Live In Vain"
music by Ruth Morris Gray, words by Emily Dickinson

Offertory Choral Anthem: Kim Force, soloist
"You'll Never Walk Alone" from the musical "Carousel"
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, from the medley by Mac Huff

Meditate

Practice of the Week
Meditate

"Dedicating some time to meditation is a meaningful expression of caring for yourself that can help you move through the mire of feeling unworthy of recovery. As your mind grows quieter and more spacious, you can begin to see self-defeating thought patterns for what they are, and open up to other, more positive options." -Sharon Salzberg

Why to Meditate

From: "Benefits of Meditation," artofliving.org (original: HERE)



Physical Benefits of Meditation

With meditation, the physiology undergoes a change and every cell in the body is filled with more prana (energy). This results in joy, peace, enthusiasm as the level of prana in the body increases.

On a physical level, meditation:
  • Lowers high blood pressure
  • Lowers the levels of blood lactate, reducing anxiety attacks
  • Decreases any tension-related pain, such as, tension headaches, ulcers, insomnia, muscle and joint problems
  • Increases serotonin production that improves mood and behavior
  • Improves the immune system
  • Increases the energy level, as you gain an inner source of energy
Mental Benefits of Meditation

Meditation brings the brainwave pattern into an Alpha state that promotes healing. The mind becomes fresh, delicate and beautiful. With regular practice of meditation:
  • Anxiety decreases
  • Emotional stability improves
  • Creativity increases
  • Happiness increases
  • Intuition develops
  • Gain clarity and peace of mind
  • Problems become smaller
  • Meditation sharpens the mind by gaining focus and expands through relaxation
  • A sharp mind without expansion causes tension, anger and frustration
  • An expanded consciousness without sharpness can lead to lack of action/progress
  • The balance of a sharp mind and an expanded consciousness brings perfection
Meditation makes you aware - that your inner attitude determines your happiness.

Other Benefits of Meditation
  • Emotional steadiness and harmony. It cleanses and nourishes you from within and calms you, whenever you feel overwhelmed, unstable, or emotionally shut down.
  • Meditation brings harmony in creation. When you meditate, you are in the space of vastness, calmness and joy and this is what you emit into the environment, bringing harmony to the Creation/planet.
  • Personal Transformation. Meditation can bring about a true personal transformation. As you learn more about yourself, you’ll naturally start discovering more about yourself
How To Get The Benefits

To experience the benefits of meditation, regular practice is necessary. It takes only a few minutes every day. Once imbibed into the daily routine, meditation becomes the best part of your day!

Meditation is like a seed. When you cultivate a seed with love, the more it blossoms.

Busy people from all backgrounds are grateful to pause and enjoy a refreshing few minutes of meditation each day. Dive deep into yourself and enrich your life.

* * *

Adapted from: Belle Beth Cooper, "What Happens to the Brain When You Meditate (And How It Benefits You)," Lifehacker.com (full original: HERE.)

I’ve found how simple (not easy, but simple) meditation can be and what huge benefit it can have for my day to day happiness.

As an adult, I first started my meditation practice with just two minutes per day. Two minutes! I got that idea from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog, where he points out how starting with a tiny habit is the first step to consistently achieving it. So even thought two minutes won’t make much difference, that’s where I started.

What is Meditation?

There are different ways to meditate. Scientific research tends to focus on two:

Focused-attention, or mindful meditation, which is where you focus on one specific thing—it could be your breathing, a sensation in your body or a particular object outside of you. The point of this type of meditation is to focus strongly on one point and continually bring your attention back to that focal point when it wanders.

The other type of meditation that’s often used in research is open-monitoring meditation. This is where you pay attention to all of the things happening around you—you simply notice everything without reacting.

What Happens in Your Brain When You Meditate

This is where things get really interesting. Using modern technology like fMRI scans, scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of what’s taking place in our brains when we meditate. The overall difference is that our brains stop processing information as actively as they normally would. We start to show a decrease in beta waves, which indicate that our brains are processing information, even after a single 20-minute meditation session if we’ve never tried it before.

In the image below you can see how the beta waves (shown in bright colors on the left) are dramatically reduced during meditation (on the right).



What happens in each part of the brain during meditation:
  • Frontal lobe. This is the most highly evolved part of the brain, responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline.
  • Parietal lobe. This part of the brain processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in the parietal lobe slows down.
  • Thalamus. The gatekeeper for the senses, this organ focuses your attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle.
  • Reticular formation. As the brain’s sentry, this structure receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back the arousal signal.
How Meditation Affects You

Now that we know what’s going on inside our brains, let’s take a look at the research into the ways it affects our health.
  • Better Focus. Because meditation is a practice in focusing our attention and being aware of when it drifts, this actually improves our focus when we’re not meditating, as well. It’s a lasting effect that comes from regular bouts of meditation.
  • Less Anxiety. This point is pretty technical, but it’s really interesting. The more we meditate, the less anxiety we have, and it turns out this is because we're actually loosening the connections of particular neural pathways. This sounds bad, but it’s not. What happens without meditation is that there’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack. When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally. For example, when you experience pain, rather than becoming anxious and assuming it means something is wrong with you, you can watch the pain rise and fall without becoming ensnared in a story about what it might mean.
  • More Creativity. As a writer, this is one thing I’m always interested in. Unfortunately, it’s not the easiest thing to study, but there is some research into how meditation can affect our creativity. Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands studied both focused-attention and open-monitoring mediation to see if there was any improvement in creativity afterwards. They found that people who practiced focused-attention meditation did not show any obvious signs of improvement in the creativity task following their meditation. For those who did open-monitoring meditation, however, they performed better on a task that asked them to come up with new ideas.
  • More Compassion. Research on meditation has shown that empathy and compassion are higher in those who practice meditation regularly. One experiment showed participants images of other people that were either good, bad or neutral in what they called “compassion meditation.” The participants were able to focus their attention and reduce their emotional reactions to these images, even when they weren’t in a meditative state. They also experienced more compassion for others when shown disturbing images. Part of this comes from activity in the amygdala—the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli. During meditation, this part of the brain normally shows decreased activity, but in this experiment it was exceptionally responsive when participants were shown images of people. Another study in 2008 found that people who meditated regularly had stronger activation levels in their temporal parietal junctures (a part of the brain tied to empathy) when they heard the sounds of people suffering, than those who didn’t meditate.
  • Better Memory. One of the things meditation has been linked to is improving rapid memory recall. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center found that people who practiced mindful meditation were able to adjust the brain wave that screens out distractions and increase their productivity more quickly that those that did not meditate. She said that this ability to ignore distractions could explain “their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.” This seems to be very similar to the power of being exposed to new situations that will also dramatically improve our memory of things.
  • Less Stress. Mindful meditation has been shown to help people perform under pressure while feeling less stressed. A 2012 study split a group of human resources managers into three, which one third participating in mindful meditation training, another third taking body relaxation training and the last third given no training at all. A stressful multitasking test was given to all the managers before and after the eight-week experiment. In the final test, the group that had participated in the meditation training reported less stress during the test than both of the other groups.
  • More Gray Matter. Meditation has been linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. I didn’t know what this meant at first, but it turns out it’s pretty great. More gray matter can lead to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability, and heightened focus during daily life. Meditation has also been shown to diminish age-related effects on gray matter and reduce the decline of our cognitive functioning.
* * *

How to Meditate

There's the "body" part and the "mind" part.

BODY

Find a posture that will allow you to stay still for the duration of your meditation period -- ideally up to 25 minutes without needing to squirm, wriggle, or adjust your position. You may need to experiment with the different posture options to find one that will allow your body to experience extended stillness.

Burmese Position

In the Burmese, the legs are crossed and both feet rest flat on the floor. The knees should also rest on the floor, though sometimes it takes a bit of stretching for the legs to drop that far. After awhile the muscles will loosen up and the knees will begin to drop. To help that happen, sit on the front third of the cushion, shifting your body forward a little bit. By imagining the top of your head pushing upward to the ceiling and by stretching your body that way, get your spine straight—then just let the muscles go soft and relax. With the buttocks up on the cushion and your stomach pushing out a little, there may be a slight curve in the lower region of the back. In this position, it takes very little effort to keep the body upright.



Half Lotus Position

In the half lotus, the left foot is placed up onto the right thigh and the right leg is tucked under. This position is slightly asymmetrical and sometimes the upper body needs to compensate in order to keep itself absolutely straight. People who use this position should make a habit of alternating which leg they bring up.



Full Lotus Position

The full lotus is the most stable of all the positions. Each foot is placed up on the opposite thigh. This is symmetrical and very solid. Stability and efficiency are the important reasons sitting cross-legged on the floor works so well. There is no esoteric significance to the different positions. What is most important is what you do with your mind. What you do with your feet or legs is merely to allow you to be stable and still.



Seiza Position

You can sit seiza (kneeling) without a pillow, kneeling, with the buttocks resting on the upturned feet which form an anatomical cushion. Or you can use a pillow to keep the weight off your ankles. A third way of sitting seiza is to use the seiza bench. It keeps all the weight off your feet and helps to keep your spine straight.



Chair Position

When sitting on a chair, ground the body by keeping your feet flat on the floor, about 8" apart, with shins perfectly vertical. You can use a cushion the same way you would use it on the floor—placing it beneath you on the chair and sitting on the forward third of it. Some people like to place a cushion between their back and the back of the chair, to keep the spine straight and vertical.



All of the aspects of the posture that are important when seated on the floor or in seiza are just as important when sitting in a chair.

Photos of positions taken from, and descriptions of positions adapted from, Zen Mountain Monastery:
http://zmm.mro.org/teachings/meditation-instructions/

In any position:
  • Sit up straight. Sit on the front edge of your chair or cushion. Extend your back, lifting the top of your head as high as it will go.
  • Let your shoulders and arms completely relax. With your hands resting in your lap, cup one hand inside the other with the tips of the thumbs just barely touching.
  • Almost, but not quite, close your eyes. Leave them open a slit, with your gaze directed downward 45 degrees.
MIND

There are various types of meditation. Here's one excellent method, especially suitable for just starting out on a meditation practice.

Bring attention to your breathing and count each exhale to yourself. Count up to 10, then start back again at 1. Repeat counting 1 to 10 throughout the silent period.

When your mind wanders, make a note of what it wandered off doing (e.g., planning, remembering, fantasizing), then gently bring yourself back to this moment and start again at 1.

The objective is not to suppress all thought, but to notice when thoughts arise -- then return to the breath. In this way, your body-mind begins to learn that what you are is not your thoughts. Your thoughts are just something that happens to you in the same way that the weather, or intestinal gas, are things that happen to you.

Use a Timer

Decide whether you're going to meditate for 2 minutes or 10 minutes or 25 minutes or whatever. Set the timer and let the timer take care of telling you when you're done. This avoids distracting glances at a clock.

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practice of the Week Index"

2015-03-05

CUC Bird Walk Report: Sun Mar 1

Red-bellied woodpecker
Today's bird reports comes to CUC through the 4th-grade class that accompanied me on a short bird walk to the Parsonage, and then more comfortable birding within the Parsonage where there was an ample fire going. There were 11 of us in total, and many more birds. Armed with bird books, binoculars, and a lot of energy we compiled our species list for the morning. So invigorated by the beauty of these birds so close to home, the 4th-grade class has agreed to put together a bird guide with the birds seen so far on CUC grounds. The group finished the event by watching a music video, "Feed the Birds." 

My heartfelt thanks to the students and the teachers for participating and making us a bird guide!

Below is our bird list for the day: 46 individuals of 17 species!

Interdependently webbed,
-Rev. LoraKim Joyner

Bird List, Sun Mar 1
4 Canada geese
1 Titmouse
4 Mourning doves
4 American robins
3 Black-capped chickadee
3 European starlings
1 White-breasted nuthatch
1 House finch
2 Carolina wrens
2 Northern Cardinal
4 Blue jays
2 Downy woodpecker
1 Hairy woodpecker
1 Red-bellied woodpecker
3 White-throated sparrow
2 Song sparrows
8 Dark-eyed juncos

2015-03-04

CUC Music: Sun Mar 8

Canvass Kick-off Sunday at CUC includes "a musical extravaganza," (in the words of Rev. Meredith Garmon). Musical guests violinist Elena Peres and cellist Michael Nicolas team up with Adam Kent in excerpts from Schubert’s Piano Trio in Eb Major, one of the masterworks of the chamber music repertory. The work can be enjoyed in its entirety at Sunday afternoon’s Music at CUC Chamber Music Gems concert at 3pm.

CUC’s Choir is also on hand, along with additional vocal selections by chorister Kim Force and CUC members Josie and Louisa Blatt.

Prelude: Elena Peres, violin; Michael Nicolas, cello; Adam Kent, piano

I. Allegro and IV. Allegro moderato (excerpt)
from Franz Schubert, Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in Eb Major, Op. 100

Choral Anthem: CUC Choir, directed by Lisa N. Meyer, accompanied by Georgianna Pappas

"Gaudeamus Hodie"*
Earlene Rentz
*Translation: Let us rejoice today! Hallelujah! Rejoice, hallelujah!

Song: Josie and Louisa Blatt, sopranos

"We’re All In This Together"
Matthew Gerrard and Robbie Nevil

Song: Kim Force, soprano

"Anthem"
Leonard Cohen

Offertory: Elena Peres, violin; Michael Nicolas, cello; Adam Kent, piano

III. Scherzando: Allegro moderato
from Franz Schubert, Trio for Piano, Violin, and Cello in Eb Major, Op. 100

Choral Anthem: CUC Choir

"There Will Come Soft Rains" 
Ruth Morris Gray, words by Sara Teasdale

Have Compassion for Yourself

Practice of the Week
Have Compassion for Yourself

"The more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves,
the more we have available to give to others.
" -Kristin Neff

Kristin Neff on Self-Compassion -- 3 mins



From Rick Hanson, Just One Thing. [Order a copy for yourself: HERE.]

Life is full of wonderful experiences. But it has its hard parts as well, such as physical and mental discomfort, ranging from subtle to agonizing. This is the realm of suffering, broadly defined.

When someone you care about suffers, you naturally have compassion: the wish that a being not suffer, usually with a feeling of sympathetic concern. For example, if your child falls and hurts himself, you want him to be out of pain; if you hear that a friend is in the hospital, or out of work, or going through a divorce, you feel for her and hope that everything will be all right. Compassion is in your nature: it's an important part of the neural and psychological systems we evolved to nurture children, bond with mates, and hold together "the village it takes to raise a child" (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas 2010).

You can also have compassion for yourself -- which is not self-pity. You're simply recognizing that "this is tough, this hurts," and bringing the same warmhearted wish for suffering to lessen or end that you would bring to any dear friend grappling with the same pain, upset, or challenge as you.

Studies have shown that self-compassion has many benefits (Leary et al. 2007; Neff 2009), including
  • Reducing self-criticism
  • Lowering stress hormones like cortisol
  • Increasing self-soothing, self-encouragement, and other aspects of resilience
  • Helping to heal any shortages of caring from others in your childhood.
That's a pretty good list!

Self-compassion usually takes only a handful of seconds. And then -- more centered and heartened -- you can go on with doing what you can to make your life better.

How

Maybe your back hurts, or you've had a miserable day at work, or someone has barked at you unfairly. Or, honestly, maybe you just feel bad, even depressd. Whatever it is, some self-compassion could help. Now what?

Self-compassion comes naturally for some people (particularly those with a well-nurtured childhood). But it's not that easy for a lot of us, especially those who are self-critical, driven, stoic, or think it's self-indulgent to be caring toward themselves.

So here are some steps for calling up self-compassion, which you could blend together as self-compassion becomes easier for you:
  • Take a moment to acknowledge your difficulties: your challenges and suffering.
  • Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you. Perhaps a dear friend, a family member, a spirit, God . . . even a pet. Let yourself feel that you matter to this being, who wants you to feel good and do well in life.
  • Bring to mind your difficulties, and imagine that this being who cares about you is feeling and expressing compassion for you. Imagine his or her facial expression, gestures, stance, and attitude toward you. Let yourself receive this compassion, taking in its warmth, concern, and goodwill. Open to feeling more understood and nurtured, more peaceful and settled. The experience of receiving caring primes circuits in your brain to give it.
  • Imagine someone you naturally feel compassion for: perhaps a child, or a family member. Imagine how you would feel toward that person if he or she were dealing with whatever is hard for you. Let feelings of compassion fill your mind and body. Extend them toward that person, perhaps visualized as a kind of light radiating from you (maybe from your heart). Notice what it's like to be compassionate.
  • Now, extend the same sense of compassion toward yourself. Perhaps accompany it with words like these, heard softly in the back of your mind: May this pain pass . . . may things improve for me . . . may I feel less upset over time. Have some warmth for yourself, some acknowledgment of your own difficulties and pain, some wish for things to get better. Feel that this compassion is sinking in to you, becoming a part of you, soothing and strengthening you.
For Journaling

When you're having a difficulty, use your journal to be your own "compassionator." First, write a paragraph in which you describe the difficulty. Then write a second paragraph in which you imagine yourself in the position of someone who cares about you. Acknowledge that the difficulty is tough, challenging, or painful, and express compassion. (Note: try to avoid suggesting ways to "fix" the "problem." That's a different exercise! Right now just express compassion for the situation you're in.) Third, shift back into your original voice and write a response to the compassion you've received. Are you thankful? How are you feeling now?

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Kristin Neff's TEDx Talk on Self-Compassion (and how we need self-compassion, not self-esteem) -- 19 mins



See Kristin Neff's website on self-compassion: http://www.self-compassion.org/

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Previous Practice of the Week: "Start a Study Practice"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practice of the Week Index"