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2015-04-30

Have a Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder

Practice of the Week
Have a Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder

Actually, you cannot make yourself have a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder. This week's practice is, rather, to intentionally prepare for, open yourself to, and invite such an experience. Direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder might or might not then happen. If it does, it’s an accident. Your practice is to try to make yourself a little more “accident prone.”
“A principal characteristic of this experience involves transcendence of one’s personal identity and dissolution of a primary conscious focus on or grounding in one’s ego. Another frequently described element of this experience is the perception of merging or identification with the source of being." (Jeff Levin and Lea Steele, describing transcendent experience)
Unitarian Universalists share a living tradition that draws on many sources. Of the six “official” sources listed in the “Principles and Purposes” section of the UUA By-laws, the first one is:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
Neuroscientist Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) writes that having such transcendent experiences teaches us that:
1. It is possible to feel much better (in every sense of “better”) than one tends to feel. It is, in fact, possible to be utterly at ease in the world—and such ease is synonymous with relaxing, or fully transcending, the apparent boundaries of the “self.”...Such states of well-being are there to be discovered.

2. There is a connection between feeling transcendently good and being good. Not all good feelings have an ethical valence, of course. And there are surely pathological forms of ecstasy.... But there are forms of mental pleasure that seem intrinsically ethical. There are states of consciousness for which phrases like “boundless love and compassion” do not seem overblown.

3. Certain patterns of thought and attention prevent us from accessing deeper (and wiser) states of well-being. Transcendent experiences, in so far as they are usually temporary, are often surrounded by a penumbra of other states and insights. Just as one can glimpse deeper strata of well-being, and briefly see the world by their logic, one can notice the impediments to feeling this way in each subsequent moment.
Suppose that you took 30 minutes to try to directly experience transcending mystery and wonder. What would you do?

1. Set aside 30 minutes to make yourself as welcoming and inviting for a direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder as you can. You’ll have to decide on a strategy for doing this – then carry out the strategy.

2. In 1-3 days after doing #1, try it again. Set aside another 30 minutes. Adopt a different strategy, or follow the same one.

3. In 1-3 days after doing #2, try it a third time – utilizing either a new strategy or the same one.

For Journaling

Write an entry after each of the three 30-minute ventures. Describe what you did and what seemed to come of it.

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Previous Practice of the Week:  "Choose Your Spiritual Practice"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practice of the Week Index"

2015-04-22

CUC Music: Sun Apr 26


This Sunday’s musical selections are sponsored by the Rocchi family, winners of the opportunity to plan music for a worship service at last fall’s Goods and Services Auction. Who better to represent the family’s musical tastes than daughter Catherine, flutist extraordinaire! Come hear Catherine Rocchi in music by Baroque composer Georg Philip Telemann, a charming transcription of a song by Franz Schubert, and an excerpt from French composer’s Gabriel Fauré’s elegant Pelléas et Mélisande. Seating music includes two movements from one of Beethoven’s most humorous and eccentric piano sonatas. Read on for programming details.
Prelude:             Adam Kent, piano
Allegro and Allegretto vivace from Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3
                                    Ludwig van Beethoven

Opening Music:            Catherine Rocchi, flute
Overture from Suite in A Minor                        
                        Georg Philip Telemann
Interlude:
Ave Maria
                                    Franz Schubert

Offertory:
Sicilienne from Pelléas et Mélisande
                                    Gabriel Fauré
           

2015-04-15

Slow Down

Practice of the Week
Slow Down

Speed = Stress

Rick Hanson on slowing down:


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

Most of us are running around way too much. Say you bump into a friend you haven't seen for a while and ask, "How are you?" Twenty years ago, a typical answer would be "fine." But today the reply is more likely to be "busy!"

Were caught up in e-mails, phone calls, long hours working, schlepping kids from here to there, and trying to match velocities with everyone else who has speeded up.

Whatever the particular causes may be in your own life, it's easy to feel like a short-order cook at the lunch rush.

There's a place for revving up occasionally, whether it's dealing with an emergency or cheering like a maniac because your fourth-grade daughter has finally taken a shot while playing basketball (that was me).

But chronic speediness has many bad effects. Chronic speediness:
  • activates the same general stress-response system that evolved in the brain to protect us from charging lions, which releases nerve-jangling hormones like adrenaline and Cortisol, weakens your immune system, and wears down your mood,
  • puts the alarm system of the brain on red alert, scanning for threats and often overreacting. Have you ever noticed that when you speed up, you're quicker to find things to worry or get irritated about?
  • gives you less time to think clearly and make good decisions.
Even though "the need for speed" may have become a way of life, it's always possible to make a change. Start with little things. And then let them grow. Honestly, slowing down is one of those seemingly small actions that could really change your life.

How

Here are some ways to slow down. I suggest doing just a few of them: don't rush to slow down!
  • Do a few things more slowly than usual. Leisurely lift the cup to your lips, don't rush through a meal, let others finish talking before jumping in, or stroll to a meeting instead of racing. Finish one task before moving on to another. A few times a day, take a long, slow breath.
  • Back off the gas pedal. One time, as I zoomed down the freeway, my wife murmured, "What's the rush?" She made me realize that slowing down a few miles per hour meant arriving just a few minutes later, but with lots more ease along the way.
  • When the phone rings, imagine that it is a church or temple bell reminding you to breathe and slow down. (This suggestion is from the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.)
  • Resist the pressure of others to get things done sooner than you really need to. As the saying has it, their lack of planning does not make it your emergency.
  • Find what's good about this moment as it is, so you'll have less need to zip along to the next thing. For example, if you're stuck on hold on a phone call, look around for something that's beautiful or interesting, or enjoy the peaceful-ness of simply breathing.
Over time, wrap up existing commitments and be careful about taking on new ones. Notice and challenge any internal pressure to always be doing and getting more and more. What's the net bottom-line effect on your quality of life: Does racing about make you happier? Or more stressed and worn out?

All the while, soak in the ease and well-being that come from slowing down. Don't be surprised if people say you look more confident, rested, dignified, and happy.

It s your life, no one else's. Slow down and enjoy it!

* * *
David Essel, author of Slow Down: The Fastest Way to Get Everything You Want. Here he is pitching his book. A bit hucksterish, still, he's got some good points. (8:21).



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Previous Practice of the Week: "Make One Change"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practice of the Week Index"

CUC Music: Sun Apr 19


This Sunday morning’s musical selections feature classics from the American concert literature, a repertory which often harkens back to an idealized past, or a simpler time. George Gershwin’s perennial Rhapsody in Blue is the Prelude, and charming miniatures from Edward MacDowell’s Woodland Sketches comprise the Offetory. In addition, CUC’s Choir will be on hand to perform moving meditations by Greg Gilpin and Amy Bernon. Read on for programming details.
Prelude:                                    Adam Kent, piano
Rhapsody in Blue                                   
George Gershwin

Anthem: CUC Choir directed by Lisa N. Meyer and accompanied by Georgianna Pappas
What Is Life?                                                             
Greg Gilpin  

Offertory:
“To a Wild Rose” and “From Uncle Remus”
                                    Edward MacDowell

Anthem:
I Am The River                                     
Amy F. Bernon

2015-04-08

CUC Music: Sun Apr 12


Transformations, renamings, old wine in new bottles—Sunday morning’s musical selections suggest musical counterparts through variation, mood change, and modulation. Mozart’s incomparably inventive Variations on a Theme by Gluck are featured in the Prelude, and Chopin’s exquisitely ornamental Nocturne in F Minor is the Offertory. Read on for programming specifics:

Prelude: Adam Kent, piano
Variations on a Theme by Gluck, K. 455                       
                                                Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Offertory:
Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1
                                                Frederic Chopin

2015-04-03

Make One Change

Practice of the Week
Make One Change
"Research has shown that it takes 31 days of conscious effort to make or break a habit. That means, if one practices something consistently for 31 days, on the 32nd day it does become a habit. Information has been internalised into behavioural change, which is called transformation." (Shiv Khera)
This "practice of the week" will actually take 31 days to do. This is the Spiritual Exercise for this month's theme, "Transformation."

This month, make a change -- start doing something you’ve wanted to make a regular part of your life, or stop doing something you’ve come to regard as a “bad habit.”

It doesn’t have to be a huge change -- sometimes profound transformations start with a modest change of habit.

Pick something to do and do it every day for 31 days. (Or pick something that you’ve been doing almost every day, and refrain from it for 31 days.) Choose something reasonable and do-able -- something that you realistically can do every day, even if you’re traveling and away from home.

Don’t set a goal to work up to (like total miles run, pounds lost, or minutes of meditation). This is not about improving your performance at something -- it’s just about doing it (never mind how well or poorly). The only goal is just to do the new thing every day for 31 days.

This is an exercise in very intentional change. While profound personal transformation is usually only partly intentional, adding (or subtracting) one simple habit teaches us to be more alive to possibilities for much bigger changes.

Your new habit could be a particular spiritual practice (for reminders of ideas, see: cucmatters.org/p/practice.html) -- or it could be exercise/diet/hygiene related. Just pick something new and resolve to do it daily for 31 days.

Come to your journey group prepared to talk about how it’s going!

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Previous Practice of the Week: "See the Good in Yourself"
For list of all weekly practices: "Practice of the Week Index"

2015-04-02

Choose Your Spiritual Practice

Practice of the Week
Choose Your Spiritual Practice
“You create a path of your own by looking within yourself and listening to your soul, cultivating your own ways of experiencing the sacred and then practicing it. Practicing until you make it a song that sings you." (Sue Monk Kidd)
This "Practice of the Week" column began in 2014 Jan. Since then, it has offered many practices -- about one per week for the last 16 months. Each one of these practices helps in the development of mental, psychological, and spiritual health and flourishing.

Each of the other "practices of the week" have been practices that will benefit everyone. This week, however, we ask you to think about something that might not be for everyone -- but is for you. Here's a partial listing of possible spiritual practices:

using prayer beads
fasting
attending peace vigils
listening to music
serving on the congregation’s Board of Trustees
walking a labyrinthe
needlepoint
antiracism work
writing letters to the editor
painting
scuplting
cardio kickboxing
bath time with your kids
saying “hello” to cashiers and clerks
dancing
teaching RE
washing dishes
taking a bubble bath
chanting
camping
running
creating sacred space
tai chi
going to an art museum
surfing
making pottery
attending worship
caring for an ailing parent
writing haiku
playing an instrument
playing with children
yoga
hosting coffee hour
having dinner with friends
studying astronomy
quilting
knitting
cycling
recycling
singing in the choir
nature walks
going to a beach
cooking
martial arts
marching for social change
reciting mantras
e-mailing your governmental representatives
gardening
studying evolution

What Makes "Something I Do" into "A Spiritual Practice"?

Not every activity or pastime is a spiritual practice. The above activities might or might not be approached in a way that makes them a spiritual practice. It's a spiritual practice if it helps you cultivate spiritual development.

So how can you recognize spiritual development? Here are some symptoms of developing spirituality:
  • increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen;
  • more frequent attacks of smiling from the heart;
  • more frequent feelings of being connected with others and nature;
  • more frequent episodes of overwhelming appreciation;
  • decisions flow more from intention or spontaneity and less from fears based on past experience;
  • greater ability to enjoy each moment;
  • decreased worrying;
  • decreased interest in conflict, in interpreting the actions of others, in judging others, and in judging self;
  • increased nonjudgmental curiosity;
  • increased capacity to love without expecting anything in return;
  • increased receptivity to kindness offered and increased interest in extending kindness to others.
Gardening or marching for social change or playing an instrument might or might not cultivate these symptoms. If you find that an activity helps you have more of these symptoms, then that activity is a spiritual practice for you.

An activity is more likely to work as spiritual practice if you:
  • engage the activity with mindfulness (see previous practice of the week, "cultivate mindfulness" HERE, and "be mindful" HERE).
  • engage in the activity with intention of thereby cultivating spiritual development. As you do the activity -- or just before and just after -- reflect on your intention to manifest those symptoms of spiritual development in your life.
  • engage the activity with a group that gathers expressly to do the activity in a way that cultivates spirituality. Group members share spiritual reflections before, during, or after doing the activity together.
  • establish a foundation of spiritual orientation through the three base practices: (a) daily meditation (SEE HERE), (b) daily journaling (SEE HERE), and (c) daily spiritual study (SEE HERE). Painting, running, or reciting a mantra -- or whatever spiritual practice you choose -- will work better as a spiritual practice if you lay this foundation with three base practices that prepare the way for experiencing other activities as spiritual.
Choose an activity and adopt it as your spiritual practice!

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

2015-04-01

Science & Spirituality: Your Inner Fish

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.

For the next three sessions, we'll be watching and discussing the three episodes of "Your Inner Fish." Each episode is 60 mins. Followed by discussion.

Thu Apr 9: Episode 1
Thu Apr 23: Episode 2
Thu May 14: Episode 3

Your Inner Fish reveals a startling truth: Hidden within the human body is a story of life on Earth. This scientific adventure story takes viewers from Ethiopia to the Arctic Circle on a hunt for the many ways that our animal ancestors shaped our anatomical destiny.

OVERVIEW from PBS.org:

Have you ever wondered why the human body looks the way it does? Why our hands have five fingers instead of six? Why we walk on two legs instead of four?

It took more than 350 million years for the human body to take shape. How did it become the complicated, quirky, amazing machine it is today?

Your Inner Fish delves deep into the past to answer these questions. The three-part series, which premiered April 9. 2014, reveals a startling truth: Hidden within the human body is a story of life on Earth.

That's because the evolution of humans can be traced into the distant past, to the earliest forms of vertebrate life on land and even to the earliest forms of life on Earth. Each of us carries the genetic imprint of creatures that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. From them, we inherited our most remarkable features — as well as quirks like bad backs and hernias.

The series is full of revelations that will surprise many viewers. Among the key insights: Our hands evolved from the fins of prehistoric fish. Our skin, hair and teeth can be traced to early reptiles. And our remarkable color vision is a legacy from ancient primates.

Based on a best-selling book by paleobiologist Neil Shubin, this scientific adventure story takes viewers from Ethiopia to the Arctic Circle on a hunt for the many ways that our animal ancestors shaped our anatomical destiny. Shubin has spent much of his life studying our ancient ancestors — searching for the deep pedigree of Homo sapiens. Using both the fossil record and DNA evidence, he traces various parts of our body's structure to creatures that lived long, long ago. Along the way, he makes it clear that we can thank our fishy origins for many human characteristics.

Endowed not just with scientific expertise, but also with natural wit and a talent for storytelling, Shubin puts all these discoveries in context. He travels from fossil-hunting expeditions in the Arctic to the deserts of Ethiopia and to the high plains of South Africa. And he reveals insights from scientists who have identified genes that we still have in common with distant forebears. He weaves together this information from past and present to demonstrate that we humans have a lot more in common than you might think with monkeys, reptiles and even fish.

The series is both an epic saga and a modern-day detective story — by turns surprising, funny and deeply profound. Come face-to-face with your "inner fish" in this completely new take on the human body. After seeing the world through Neil Shubin's eyes, you'll never look at yourself in quite the same way again!

EPISODE ONE: Your Inner Fish -- at CUC, Thu Apr 9, 11:30, room 24.

In the first episode, "Your Inner Fish," Shubin journeys back to a time, some 375 million years ago, when the first fish crawled up onto land. Shubin's quest for the fossil record of this primeval predecessor takes viewers from highway cuts in rural Pennsylvania to the remote Arctic. After years of searching, he and his colleagues finally found a fossilized fish, known as Tiktaalik, that had enough strength in its front fins to do pushups and heave itself out of the water. Remarkably, we can trace the ancestry of our own hands and arms all the way back to these fins. Viewers also meet the scientists who discovered the DNA recipe for constructing the human hand — an essential set of instructions passed down from fish like Tiktaalik and shared today with a surprising number of other animals, from chickens to chimpanzees. Along the way, Shubin makes it clear that we can also thank our fishy past for many of our body's quirks, such as hernias. We are, every one of us, just a jury-rigged fish.

EPISODE TWO: Your Inner Reptile -- at CUC, Thu Apr 23, 11:30, room 24.

In the second episode, "Your Inner Reptile," Shubin exposes our reptilian roots. He searches for our ancient ancestors at fossil sites in the Karoo Desert of South Africa and on the tidal flats of Nova Scotia. He also reveals modern-day links to the past through visits to a fertility clinic in Chicago and a biology lab in London. Along the way, he explains how major transitions in the history of life paved the way for our ancestors' evolution into mammals. Shubin identifies some amazing connections: the amniotic sac was an innovation to keep our reptile ancestors' eggs from drying out; our complex teeth can be traced to ferocious beasts that lived millions of years before dinosaurs; and our hair is linked to the whiskers of reptile-like mammals that lived much of their lives in the dark. Our reptilian ancestors — from fearsome predators to creatures as small as a paper clip — are responsible for more than a few features of modern humans.

EPISODE THREE: Your Inner Monkey -- at CUC, Thu May 14, 11:30, room 24.

In the final episode of the series, "Your Inner Monkey," Shubin delves into our primate past. He travels from the badlands of Ethiopia, where the famous hominid skeletons "Lucy" and "Ardi" were found, to a forest canopy in Florida, home to modern primates. En route, he explains how many aspects of our form and function evolved. We learn that a genetic mutation in our primate ancestors conferred humans' ability to see in color — but it was an advantage that led to a decline in our sense of smell. The shape of our hands came from tree-dwelling ancestors for whom long fingers made it easier to reach fruit at the tips of fine branches. Shubin concludes by tracing the evolution of the human brain — from a tiny swelling on the nerve cord of a wormlike creature, to the three-part architecture of a shark's brain and the complex brain of primates. As Shubin observes, "Inside every organ, gene and cell in our body lie deep connections with the rest of life on our planet."

See the Good in Yourself

Practice of the Week
See the Good in Yourself
"The brain thinks status is crucial to its survival because tens of thousands of years ago it was status that decided whether you got to stay in the tribe, who (or if) you could marry, and generally how secure and happy you were." (Tim Brownson)
Rick Hanson on seeing the good in yourself:


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

There is good in every person—but it's often easier to see in others than in yourself. For example, think about a friend: What do you like about him or her? Including qualities such as sense of humor, fairness, honesty, intelligence, soul, patience, passion, helpfulness, curiosity, determination, talent, spunk, or a good heart.

Seeing these positive characteristics in your friend feels reassuring, comfortable, and hopeful. It's good to recognize what's good in someone.

Including you!

Each of us is like a mosaic, with lots of lovely tiles, some that are basically neutral, and a few that could use a little — ah — work. It's important to see the whole mosaic. But because of the brains negativity bias, we tend to fixate on what's wrong with ourselves instead of what's right. If you do twenty things in a day and nineteen go fine, what's the one you think about? Probably the one that didn't go so well.

Your brain builds new structures primarily based on what you pay attention to; neurons that fire together, wire together. Focusing on the "bad" tiles in the mosaic you are reinforces an underlying sense of being mediocre, flawed, or less than others. And it blocks the development of the confidence and self-worth that come from recognizing the good tiles. These results of the negativity bias are not fair. But they're sure powerful, and a big reason most of us have feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt; I've had to work with these issues myself.

Knowing your own strengths and virtues, is just a matter of seeing yourself accurately. Then, recognizing the good in yourself, you'll feel better inside, reach out to others with less fear of rejection, and pursue your dreams with more confidence that you'll have success.

How

Pick one simple good thing about yourself. Maybe you are particularly friendly, open, conscientious, imaginative, warm, perceptive, or steadfast. Be aware of the experience of that positive characteristic. Explore its body sensations, emotional tones, and any attitudes or viewpoints that go with it.

Take a little time to register that you do indeed have this good quality. Let yourself become convinced of it. Look for signs of it for a day or a week -- and feel it when you find it.

Notice any difficulty in accepting that you have this good quality, such as thoughts like But I'm not that way all the time. Or But I have bad parts, too. Try to get on your own side here and see yourself realistically, including your good qualities. Its okay that you don't live from those qualities every minute: that's what it means to be a mosaic; that's what it means to be human (and, indeed, pretty much what it means to be mammal. Or even vertebrate.)

Repeat this process for other strengths or virtues that you have.

Also open to the good things that others recognize in you. Start with a friend, and look at yourself through his or her eyes. What does that person like about you? Or appreciate, enjoy, respect, or admire? If your friend were telling someone else about your good qualities, what might he or she say? Do this again with several other people from different parts -- and perhaps times -- of your life, such as other friends or a family member, partner, teacher, coach, or coworker. Then allow other people's knowing of your good characteristics to become your own. Soften your face and body and mind to take in this knowing of the truth, the whole truth, of your personal mosaic.

Whether it starts with your own recognition of yourself or from other people, let the knowing of good things about you become feelings of worth, confidence, happiness, and peace.

Sense a quiet voice inside you, coming from your own core, firmly and honestly listing some of your good qualities. Listen to it. Let what it's saying sink in. If you like, write down the list and go over it from time to time; you don't have to show it to anyone.

As you go through life, look for examples of your decency, endurance, caring, and other good qualities. When you see these facts, open to feeling good about yourself.

Let these times of feeling good about yourself gradually fill your heart and your days.

For Journaling

Make a list of your good qualities. Then pick one of them and describe how you manifested that quality recently. Tomorrow: Pick another one of the qualities you listed and describe how you have recently manifested it. Repeat each day for five days, selecting a different quality from your list.

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

CUC Music: Sun Apr 5

Join us this Sunday at CUC for a special Easter Celebration in song and instrumental music. At 10am, Music Director Adam Kent provides a special presentation to children of all ages. “Welcome to Spring” will explore connections between music, emotion, and other sensory perceptions through a performance of Unitarian composer Edvard Grieg’s “To Spring”. CUC’s Choir will perform several joyous anthems, and a solo piano arrangement of Handel’s celebrated “Hallelujah Chorus” is featured as the Offertory. Come join us and sing, “Alleluia”!

Prelude: Adam Kent, piano
Music for All Ages: “Welcome to Spring”
An interactive, intergeneration talk and performance, including
To Spring, Op. 43, No. 6
Edvard Grieg

Choral Anthem: CUC Choir directed by Lisa N. Meyer and accompanied by Georgianna Pappas
Exultate!*
Mary Lynn Lightfoot

*Translation: Let us rejoice together in God. Rejoice! We voice our thanks to God. Rejoice!

Offertory:
“Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah
George Frederic Handel

Choral Anthem:
'Tis You That Are The Music
Cynthia Gray

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How do silent monks sing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus? Like this!