Wednesday, April 29, 2015

We Belong to the Earth

How do we continue on with this environmental justice work.  When many politicians seem to deny even the existence of a problem due to climate.  When even in our daily lives, most people today don’t feel the direct effects of the crisis.  Particularly here in America.  We often dismiss climate events as one off freak events.  We can easily go day in and day out and distract ourselves from the looming crisis.   But we know, WE KNOW, that there is a looming crisis that will affect the future of humanity.  
Bill McKibbon  an environmental activist founded an organization  The number 350 relates to the limit of carbon in the atmosphere to preserve a livable planet, as determined by NASA scientists.  This year we passed 400, and we show no sign of slowing up. Why must we wait until there is an event of catastrophic proportions before we act as a species.  Part of it is self interest.  Its harder, its more expensive, its requires sacrifice. And God forbid we should sacrifice but our neighbor doesn’t.  Perhaps though we can be a model for our neighbors. 
For our values compel us to look at the world with new eyes, not eyes from 2000 years ago.  To look at the world with new knowledge, not just ancient wisdom, To look at the world with an open heart, and not with cynical hopelessness. We must have hope.  But that hope must be grounded in the here and now in the present moment not just in some wishful thinking for the future.  The future is unwritten.  We will write the future with our actions.  It seems to me that part of humanity’s consciousness is to struggle.  Almost to the point that it is the struggle that counts.  That which is just given to us is never appreciated.  We have this need to earn what is rightfully ours. 
So I think, well I for one could do with a little less struggling. But although my struggles are real struggles they are relative to others. If we don’t struggle though, if we do not fight the good fight, if we do not light the flame to lead the way, if we do not live out our values based on what we hold sacred, who will. That is who we are as a people, as a religion.  It is why we must always remember why we are doing what we are doing. As Cervantes wrote “hope is always born at the same time as love” 
We must not do what we do merely for self serving survival.  For it is easy to justify harshness and cruelty when we all we seek is the self.  We can find ways to justify helping ourselves while others suffer when all we seek is the self.  It is why I started with the calling of the four directions today.  We must realize that the earth, and our lives on the earth are sacred.  We must learn to love the earth, and each other, for it is only with active love that we can heal the earth and each other.  It is only when we love another that we will go to any lengths to see another not only well but to support another to thrive.  How can we not love the earth and want it to strive?
It sustains us with food and drink and shelter.  It gives us beautiful vistas, sunrises and sunsets, Oceans and lakes and  rivers to cool our feet in, fire to warm us on cold night and inspire us to greatness. Winds to blow our sails so we might travel to far horizons so beautiful that it creates a sense of wonder and adventure.  We tend to take all these gifts for granted.  How can we not love the earth. In some ways I think we resent the earth because it provides us with everything we need,  with life itself.  Our own self will, and self determination, seems to be at odds with something that provides for us with no questions asked.  We struggle to just accept this gift.
ts as if we say, we can do it without you, like a little child trying to break away from the yoke of parental figures.   I remember when I was a child, my mother tried to correct me at a family gathering about how I was cutting a bagel with a sharp knife.  I of course must have felt at that time in my life I sufficiently knew how to cut a bagel and I let her know it.  I thought, I’m 30 years old, no I was probably around 8.  But I remember she looked me squarely in the eye, and said, well if you want to cut your finger off go ahead and cut it.  And I looked her squarely back in the eye and I said then I guess I’ll cut my finger off.  
We both smiled at each other and I never cut a bagel so carefully in my life as I did that day.  But we are not being careful with the earth.  We forget we are still in our infancy as a species compared to the existence of the earth.  We should listen to the messages it is trying to teach us so we don’t cut our figurative fingers off  (earthquakes where we are doing more fracking, flooding and landslides where we are overbuilding. Droughts and extreme weather events due to warming of the planet.  Let us be very careful with the earth. Let  us protect it just as I and my mother tried to protect my thumb.  So the question is what can we do? 
The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has started a new program Commit to Respond to engage us in the work of loving the earth and with such loving saving it and ourselves. It asks of us to do three things.  Shift, Advance, Grow. It asks us to shift away from our dependence on carbon based economy.  I know many people make jokes about it, but I am proud that I see so many hybrid cars in our parking lot. We do this because it is an outward expression of our inward values.  Not just because it saves money on the cost of gasoline, but because it sends a message to everyone who sees us that we care about this planet. And it is a model for others to follow.
We also can also shift from carbon based on the choices we make around food.  Tomorrow night Iowa interfaith Power and Light, will be leading a workshop here at 7pm called food, faith and climate During this workshop we will look at:
a)how our food system contributes to climate change
b) the food practices in our own households
c) a personal plan for more climate friendly choices. So please try to make it.
Lastly I ask you to try to shift your consciousness.  Shift your consciousness away from despair and to hope, a shift of your consciousness away from distraction and towards intention, a shift of your consciousness away from complacency and towards action.
Secondly Commit2Respond asks us to advance. Advance the human rights of affected communities.  The decisions we make which create environmental devastation affects the poor and the disenfranchised substantially more than the wealthy. Not just because they cant protect themselves due to lack of power, but their homes are built in less safe areas, so for example when Hurricane Katrina hit, the poorest areas were in the low lieing area and were hit the hardest. When there is undesirable industrial plants to be built,  we say not in our backyard, and often they are built in poor communities.  But it is not just in our own country. (Talk about worldwide environmental issues – Bangladesh/China/Los Angelos and elimination of smog)
In addition to what we did to the indigenous population of this country when we arrived, Our country for all its greatness is also a country of hubris and oppression. We invaded and still invade peoples lands under the name of democracy and capitalism and we upset ecosystems and discard cultures.  The drum beat continues to sell, sell sell, buy buy buy, instead I ask for a different drumbeat. I ask for the drum beat of sustainability, the drumbeat of communality, The drumbeat of environmental and economic justice both of which I feel are connected.  
Lastly Commit2Respond asks us to Grow. Specifically to grow the climate justice movement. From the Commit to Respond Website it states “Recognizing the interdependence of all life, we are called as people of faith and conscience to heal and sustain the planet we call home”  We must envision change and act on that change, we must commit to act so we can live and love the beauty of who we and the earth both are. By doing this we as well grow as human beings. By acting authentically for the common good, we shall yet realize the best of humanity.  I remember the movie Starman starring Jeff Bridges.  He is a friendly alien visiting earth.  His observation of humanity was “you are at your best when things are at their worst”  It is time for our best.  Please join me in committing to save our Blue Boat Home. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Science, Spirituality and Health

So I am happy to report to you,  that being a part of a religious community is good for your health.  If you care about your friends health, invite them to attend if not for religious enlightenment, then at least for their health.  There have been numerous  medical studies that corroborate this.  Does anyone watch Late Night with Seth Meyers.  Its late, but every now and then after a late night I catch it, and he gets absolute giddy about new medical studies that come out.  I very much relate to that.  I like many of you want to be informed by updated about new knowledge.
But I am often fascinated how different studies completely contradict each other.  Especially about food and health issues.  Although I have still not found the study that says pizza is healthy for me.  Myers usually uses these actual studies in a satirical way, but it points out that just because there is a correlation is found between two events does not mean causation or even relevancy.  We have to dig deeper into the facts to understand.  There was recently a  study that showed that trans fats, which are terrible for your heart protect you from prostate cancer (take your pick I guess).  I thought the most ridiculous study I read was that Smoking saves your knees from arthritis. There was a review of 48 studies involving half a million people turned up a correlation that men who smoked for decades needed less knee surgery. The researchers say that “the protective effect of smoking ... is likely to be false probably because the smokers died before needing knee surgery.
So when I tell you that there are studies that show that people who belong to a religious community is good for your health, we should dig deeper into those studies.   It is not just because you walk into the building that you become healthy.  There are other underlying affects.  First going to church creates good habits.  You are likely to be more active.  I think of all the people who work on our Garden, or other area of fixing up the building and grounds, or playing on our softball team.  Even if you come to our potlucks, you can be assured there will be a healthy vegan dish to have the opportunity to eat.  When you are here, you are not smoking or drinking, because it is not allowed on the grounds so that creates better health.  Its not just about being physically active though, its about being mentally active as well. Ours is not just a religion that tells you what to believe, we require you dig deep and think about what you believe.  To think about your values and then to live out your values.  
And I think if someone consciously thinks about their values they will choose to be healthier.  And going to religious community encourages you and in our case prods you to think about your values.  I think just the discipline of sitting through a service or religious education program can be considered a spiritual discipline in our lives.  And having spiritual disciplines makes us more conscious human beings.  As I have spoken about before, many religions have food restriction rules, and even we as Unitarian Universalists promote ethical eating, and those as well remind us to be conscious of our health. And in community we should hold each other accountable.
The second underlying factor is that people who tend to belong to religious organizations tend to have larger social networks, and just having those networks often offer members emotional and even physical support.  So lets remember that in all our dealings with each other.  Religious life when we are at our best, is a constant reminder that we are loved and cared for.  Hopefully after coming together in worship, hearing my sermons, listening to and singing music, participating in some form of religious, spiritual or justice education, you are challenged, inspired, and hopefully feeling connected to others through our various forms of meaning making. I think about that phrase meaning making.  When we feel our lives have meaning, we tend to be in a healthier frame of mind. 
And lastly in regard to underlying factors there is also the practical aspect of just having people to help physically care for us and be with us when we are going through life changes including illnesses. We forget how many people are alone in this world and how many people would benefit from the life changing connections that this religious community can provide. And although many of us do this sacred ministry individually, I also want to raise up the work of caring circle and lay pastoral care team who are here for our members who are in times of transitions in their lives.   If you have a pastoral need that is not being met, please ask.  These individuals’ gifts and training are part of their ministry to the Congregation.  No one ever needs to feel alone.  We each give in our own way, and giving of ourselves is a spiritual discipline.  Each week we live out this discipline, this explicit sharing of our financial gifts to help the Congregation and the Greater Community with our Offering.  50% of all collections for the month of April will be shared with QCAIR Quad Cities Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees which helps support and integrate Immigrants and refugees into our community.

Part II
Liwliwa R. Villagomeza, in her writing, “Mending Broken Hearts: The Role of Spirituality in Cardiac Illness: states
“Spirituality, the dimension of human life that has been regarded as the central artery that permeates, energizes, and enlivens all other dimensions, may serve as buffer for the stressful physical, emotional, and psychologic events associated with illness. Spirituality is the manner by which human beings make sense of life events and establish meaning of their existence amid potentially life-threatening illnesses. Spirituality is a universal phenomenon.”
When I first started as a chaplain and was processing with my peers I would say (and sometimes say to myself as well), that if I were sick I wouldn’t want a chaplain, if it was me,  I would want the best doctor with the steadiest hand and most up to date knowledge to help deal with my medical needs.  And although the second part of that statement is still true, I would still want the best doctor in the world.  during my time working as a chaplain I came to realize just how important a person’s frame of mind was in regard to their healing process.  
We know this factually from multiple studies of people being given placebos and having just as much success in healing as people given actual medicine.  In one recent study  at the Harvard Medical School, people with irritable bowel syndrome were given a placebo and informed that the pills they were taking were “made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes.” And those individuals who took this self described inert placebo drug experienced improvement. 
Just the mind’s power that made it realize it was doing something/anything to heal the body, helped the body heal itself.  So we know the mind can have a powerful impact.  So how can we help ourselves, or help others actualize this. Different people find comfort in different ways. I believe helping people find where they find meaning in life, in and of itself can be comforting.  Sometimes comforting others can just be the simple reassurance that there are other people who care for them so they realize they are not alone. Just being present with someone to listen to their story can be comforting for them. 
I remember once at the end of a visit with a patient in which they explored their feelings about death, forgiveness, and their relationships with their family, the patient told me that the conersation was the best medicine they had all day.  But why do we have to wait so long until we have these discussions. And why is it sometimes easier to have them with people we don’t know well versus those closest to us.  Too often people long for these discussions, they bottle them up inside and don’t share their innermost thoughts with anyone.  Earlier, I talked about how many people were alone, but this bottling up our feelings and thoughts leads us to the feeling of loneliness. Whether you are alone or with others. 
If you cannot share your mountain top dreams, or your valley of despair, if you cannot share even your shallowest joys and your deepest sorrows,  you will feel lonely.
Jo Marchant a scientific journalist states that
“our bodies may have evolved so that in situations of perceived social isolation, they trigger branches of the immune system involved in wound healing and bacterial infection. An isolated person would be at greater risk of physical trauma, whereas being in a group might favor the immune responses necessary for fighting viruses, which spread easily between people in close contact.
Crucially, these differences relate most strongly to how lonely people think they are, rather than to the actual size of their social network. That also makes sense from an evolutionary point of view because being among hostile strangers can be just as dangerous as being alone. So ending loneliness is not about spending more time with people. It is all about our attitude to others: lonely people become overly sensitive to social threats and come to see others as potentially dangerous.”
So how do we overcome this fear of others, how do we become open sharing our innermost selves even with ourselves and with others. Because if we can, it will make us feel good, it will make us feel whole, it will heal what ails us, down in our soul.   How do we overcome this fear of loneliness.  (PPT)  I think this picture gives us a clue.  It is not just one thing.  It is not just internal work or external work. It requires multiple branches of work.  At the root of it all is communion,  connection and awareness.  In this case when I say communion, I do not mean anything with wine and bread, I mean “to be in relationship with.” What our culture calls communion, is just a ritual that helps people connect and be in relationship with that transcending mystery and wonder of the universe. And to be in relationship with everyone who joins with them.  This tree, this Congregation, provides such opportunities for such relationships.  The other root is the root of Awareness. The indian mystic Osho, said 
“A Buddha is a person of awareness. A Buddha is not trying to narrow down their consciousness; on the contrary, they have been trying to drop all barriers so that they become totally available to existence.” 

With the rush of information and sensory stimulation, to remain available to all of existence.  It seems so daunting.  The tree gives us branches, multiple ways.  Not one right way, not one way or the other, but multiple ways. And it doesn’t have to be a regimented march from A to Z.  In fact many of us in our lifetime, may not ever experience all of this. But if we hope to experience healing, if we hope to achieve wholeness, if we hope to experience the opposite of loneliness. We must start somewhere. Our role as a religious community is to come together, to be in relationship with each other and to participate in these practices to make our lives and the world a better place.
If you notice the top of the tree includes the branch activist.  We cannot be whole unless we are helping others who are in need, and just by doing so, we help ourselves.  But we cannot help others unless our own roots, our relationships and awareness are strong. Again, it is not an either/or it is a both and.  We can find stillness and bear witness, we can have retreats and volunteer, we can be creative and sit vigil. We can share rituals and make pilgrimages to where social justice issues are highlighted. Pilgrimages of our mind, our heart, our soul, and our feet. We as humans are capable of tremendous things. Let us travel the road together so that we may each bring comfort to each other and fearlessness to our task of a healthy body, mind and spirit.  May it be so.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Rolling Back the Stone

Mark - Chapter 16 “
​When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And that is how the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the 4 gospels in the Christian Scriptures ends. There is no physical resurrection of Jesus.  Just a missing body,  Each gospel ends slightly differently. 
But one thing that is the same in all four gospels is that it was the women who first went to the tomb. 
It was the women who found Jesus missing or risen.  
Feminist Theology would tell us that this is an indication that it was the women who were the leaders of the early church that was later diminished in writing by a patriarchal society.  The women were the ones to find the tomb empty and the women were the ones who were to go and teach the disciples about the risen Jesus.  As the well the Resurrection story is also featured prominently in BGLQT theology.   In the first place, if there was real resurrection, reproduction would not be necessary.  And secondly in the Gospel of John, after Jesus death and resurrection there are multiple references to the “disciple that Jesus Loved.”  Never naming the disciple but from the context most believe it to be John.  
My point being is that there can be different interpretations, different meanings, different visions of the Easter story of Jesus’ Resurrection. So what meaning can it have for us as Unitarian Universalists.  There are a number of parts of the story I find meaningful.  First the concept of rolling away the stone. They were saying who will roll away the stone. (PPT) This is what a typical tomb would look like.  I am just trying to imagine how they created this in the first place. But I think the question they ask is a good question for all us. Who will help us roll away the stones in our life. 
Mary though in this story,  in the light of day is trying to find her way into the darkness, to unlock the secrets that are held deep within the darkness, the places we often don’t like to look.  That takes courage.  I also try to imagine it from inside the tomb. When we are in the darkness and looking for a way out.  When we are uncertain about what decisions to make, when we have been hurt and fear further pain, when we have searched and sometimes still not found what we are looking for.  When we are angry about something and don’t know why, how do we get beyond all this frustration.  
Who will help us roll away the stone that blocks our path to understanding. Who will help roll away the stone to allow the light in, Who will help roll away the stone that will liberate us.  I think within the question is the seed of the answer.  The answer is that we need others to help us on our journey.  For Mary had Mary and Salome and they as well had the other disciples to share with.  Just as we have come through a long cold winter, we now emerge into warmth and sunlight together.  We as a community help each other roll away the stones so that we may each see clearly.  Sometimes it may be sudden, sometimes it is gradual, but understanding and growth comes from being in deep relationship with others in community.  Others who will hold us accountable and ask the tough questions, Others who will guide us on journeys, no matter what our age, others who will pick us up when we fall, comfort us when we suffer and walk with us so we do not have to ever journey alone.  For this reason to look at the Resurrection story isolated from the rest of the narrative can be misleading. This Jewish community was a community in despair. 
This story is a story  of claiming power for the powerless, of giving courage to those who fear,  and of giving hope to the hopeless. 
(PPT)Rebecca Parker and  Rita Nakashima Brock in their book Saving Paradise” write:
"The Passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, love, creativity, and truth-telling. In telling his story, his community remembered his name and claimed the death-defying power of saying his name out loud…To break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress those who advocate for justice is life-giving… Life is found in…holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life."
Holding fast to the core goodness of this world.  Such a powerful phrase.  How do we do that in the face of so many stories and experiences of pain and suffering.  It starts with each of us. Holding ourselves to act with goodness in heart and deed.  But like drinking water from a fire hydrant it can be overwhelming. So we come together, to nurture each other, to share our stories with each other, to inspire each other.  Those stories can help carry us when we go out into the world and are confronted by the challenges of the day, that nurturing can calm us as we get stressed, that inspiration can provide light for us when we cant see the way. 
We come together as our opening words say to seek, to sustain and to inspire. And we do it for each other. That is why we come together in religious community just as others have for millennium.  And part of our coming together each week is to help the larger community and so each week we take an offering to support this community and the larger community.  50% of all collections for the month of April will be shared with QCAIR Quad Cities Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees which helps support and integrate Immigrants and refugees into our community. We ask you to be as generous as you can. After you have had the opportunity to make a donation, I invite you to come forward to light a candle to mark a personal joy or sorrow in your life.

Part II
As the Christian Mystic Thomas Merton said, resurrection is about the overcoming of fear, and the utter and complete power of liberation”  In the gospel story I read earlier it says terror and amazement seized them and they said nothing to anyone, The Gospel of Matthew says they had great fear and joy. In the Gospel of Luke they are perplexed. So what is it that we fear.  Why do we back away from intimacy, or even communication.  Is it fear we will be found out not to be who we pretend to be.  We often only want to show our best side.  The truth is we all have good and bad and in between within us.  
It is only through transparency and the non-compartmentalization of our lives that we allow people to see all of who we are and in a trusting environment that leads us to the possibility of growth. Being open and honest about things can be scary.   Especially if honesty may hurt others and thus why it is important to accept people and love them for who they are.  I think the stories in the Christian Scriptures showed that by Jesus accepting others for who they were they were healed.  For having them face their demons, they were changed. Yet  even when we are faced with the truth, the truth about ourselves, the truth that deep down we know is true, we often don’t want to face it. 
It is why in the story terror and amazement go side by side. Because it is amazing to have clarity and truth after seeking, but with that truth we know will have to come change, and might even lead to some pain, to ourselves and others around us, and humans will do a lot of things to avoid pain. Even if we know in the long run it may be better for us. So we distract ourselves, or we create rationalizations as to why we cant or shouldn’t do something, or we devalue our self and thus rob our self of our chance to find wholeness.  In this process of change people do get hurt.  Peoples’ lives are changed, peoples relationships are changed.  We don’t want to hurt others.  We are steeped in a tradition of carrying on no matter what the pain, that we come to accept pain as a badge of honor outwardly even though inwardly that pain eats away at us, because we are not living and acting consistent with who we truly are and thus we are not in relationship in authentic ways.  But we also know that if we  can overcome our fear and are willing to take that leap, and believe in ourselves, and trust that others will accept us,  if we are willing to trust that light within us, we will at the very least have the opportunity to realize the possibilities that still await us in this wonderful life.
Sometimes you have to be willing to lose something, , a way of life, a way of communicating, a way of being a way of behaving, a way of believing….but by doing so you will save your soul.  By saving your soul I am not talking about another world, but in this world. To be true to yourself. To be whole.  And when we take that leap, something happens within us.  We find a well of power within ourselves. We find our relationships deepened, We find ourselves acting from a place of love.  For if we love ourselves it is easier to act with love for others. What does it mean to act with love?
Just helping others doesn’t necessarily mean we are doing it with love.  There may be many others factors guiding our actions.  Guilt, ego, coercion. It is always good to help others.  But if we do it without the relationship, without the depth, but just for the utilitarian benefit we believe it accords the other and us, then I am not sure that will help us find the light that is within us.   I believe that light within us shines by doing the right thing because it is the right thing. Caring for others for the sake of caring for others. Loving  ourselves for the sake of loving ourselves.  Can we love a stranger if we don’t love one another.  And can we love one another if we don’t love ourselves.
I believe we are all capable of acting with love, even loving our enemies. It is about realizing that we are all part of the same universe. So roll back rock for others to see, and liberate yourself from the illusion that you are separate from others and let the door of compassion open in your heart for yourself and for others. Let the light that is within all of us rise up again and again, and let it shine out so that we can see the beautiful universe that we are apart of with all its joy and all its sorrow. And as to whether it is accident or miracle. Perhaps the accident is a miracle, or the miracle is an accident. Either way this life is full enough for me. May it be so for you.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Buddhism, Meditation and Neuroscience

When I was in my early 20s, I was having some stomach problems.  Probably caused by anxiety of trying to figure out what to do with my life.  I went to my doctor, Dr. Ferguson.  He was the kind of Doctor who was truly generous with his time and his practice.  This was the 1970s in Greenwich Village, just as AIDS was exploding onto the scene, and he would often see patients whether they could pay or not.  He was the type of doctor who would spend a half hour with you just getting to know you, or catching up with you. He looked at health from a very holistic standpoint.
He was the kind of doctor who gave you his home number and allowed you to call him at 3 in the morning if you had to. And as it turns out he was on vacation the day I was having stomach problems.  The person who was covering for him was how shall we say, not quite as holistic.  She immediately sent me to go for an upper GI series where they make you drink this red stuff that tastes just awful, not quite as awful as what you to drink for a colonoscopy, but pretty awful….thirty years later I still remember it.  Anyway, by the time I came back for the results, Dr. Ferguson was back and he felt just awful that I had to go through that.  He said Jay, if I was here, I would have told you to take a day off, go to the beach, and learn how to meditate.  That truism has stayed with me my entire life.  Although now I go down to the Mississippi to watch the pelicans and eagles swoop around for their meals instead of going to the ocean.   
That was when I first started meditating.  And truthfully I have had no stomach problems since then.  The concept of meditation never crossed my mind prior to that meeting.  But I felt I should follow the doctors orders, So I did what any inquisitive mind would do.  I bought a book entitled “learn how to meditate” And I read it all the way through and experimented with different types of meditation.  Guided meditations, mantra driven meditation, zen meditation, Vipassana Meditation, and Mindfulness Meditation.  I went to meditation retreats, studied book after book on Buddhism, and when I moved to Florida joined a sangha at my Unitarian Universalist Congregation.  Sangha means community in this case community of learning and meditation.  We have a Unitarian Universalist Mindfulness Meditation Sangha that meets here every Tuesday night at 5:30.    
My integration of meditation and Buddhist teachings into my life changed my life completely.  It allowed me to concentrate more, and to be less reactive in my day to day interactions with life and reduced the amount of stress I have in my life.  I have found my meditation practice to have a cumulative affect, meaning if I miss a day of meditation, all is not lost, and its affect on me over time has built up to be as much a way of life, a way at looking at life.  I remember when I was first meditating.  I had an important meeting in the afternoon and I hadn’t had a chance to meditate that morning.  So I thought it probably would not go over well to just sit and meditate at my desk and meditate, so I went to the bathroom to meditate. 
But what does concentration and stress relief have to do with Unitarian Universalism.   Our principles speak of compassion in human relations and encouragement to spiritual growth, which certainly this falls under.  But I think it is deeper than that.   When I said it changed me, I don’t just mean it changed the way I thought, although it did, I mean it changed the way my brain worked.  I believe and I believe the science will prove this out, that this what has helped and will continue to help the human brain evolve. Evolution comes about by the choices we make in response to our environment. How we evolve will affect the human condition and by doing so will affect all of those we come into contact with.  One of the choices we each make is how we spend our money.  Each week through our offering we give you the opportunity to choose the evolutionary course of being generous to help others in need.  This week since it is a fifth Sunday, the Social Justice Team has chosen to make up for the snow day in February and 50% of all non pledge donations this week will support the Backpack Program at Garfield Elementary which supplies food on weekends to those children that live in poverty.  Please be as evolutionary as you can be, and after you have made your donation, I invite you come forward to light a candle to mark a joy or sorrow in your personal life.

Part II
As part of our Meditation practice we have both a breathing and walking meditation.  One common occurrence during breathing meditation, when one is asked to focus on our breath is to have thoughts interrupt our focused breathing. This is natural. The practice we do is to recognize this and to bring ourselves back to the breath.  The practice allows us to recognize our thoughts and where they come from.  It is a way to train the brain to control our thoughts.  So this has always been a challenging thought to me.  To have no thoughts, or to control one’s thoughts. 
I think it is challenging because we often confuse our thoughts with our mind and our brain. This has been an age old question of whether the mind and the brain are separate. For purposes of this reflection, I will consider them the same.  But our thoughts are clearly different, and come from the mind.  We become very attached to our thoughts, and they are a way that we identify ourselves.  But I want to propose to you that we are not our thoughts.  Often our thoughts originate from thousands of years of evolutionary experiences, some of which do not relate to our current environment.   

In the Dhammapadda, a sacred Buddhist Text it says
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a person speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage… If a person speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.” 
Yet so often our thoughts are triggered by both rational and irrational fears, and it is important to understand the difference.  Often these fearful thoughts are what create anxiety within us. 
What meditation does is to bring awareness to our mind, awareness of our mind to our thoughts.  To better understand our thoughts and ourselves. As an example, imagine if you heard a horn honking outside right now.  Some of you might think, oh that is disturbing me and get distracted and annoyed at the noise, and that start thinking about something else.  But there only needs to be one thought recognition that there is a car horn honking. Recognizing something for what it is and letting all the other thoughts about it and our anxiety go. Meditation trains us to bring our focus back to what we are doing instead of letting our mind chase these extraneous thoughts down a rabbit hole.   It is not a matter of eliminating thoughts, it is to bring awareness and attention not only to our thoughts, but to everything in our lives and how we live our life. 
Buddhism teaches us not to become attached to outcomes in the future but remain attentive to and aware of the present moment.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for a certain outcome, but we shouldn’t get attached to it for attachment to outcomes cause suffering.  The first noble truth of Buddhism is that in everyone’s life there is suffering. The Second Noble Truth is to be aware of what causes our suffering.   We live in a world where we know that we and the ones we love will die.  This alone causes suffering.  Also our cravings and desires cause us suffering. The Third noble truth is that there is a way out of suffering. The way out of suffering is by following the noble eightfold path which includes Right View, Right thinking, Right speech, right action, Right livelihood, Right diligence, right mindfulness and lastly right concentration.  Meditation helps with all of these and will make us happier and our minds stronger.    This is something many long term meditators know intuitively, but today science is confirming.
I read recently “our brain is three pounds of tofu-like tissue containing 1.1 trillion cells, including 100 billion neurons.”  And through mindfulness training, we can strengthen the neural pathways and by doing so even build new pathways.  There was a recent Harvard Research Study that showed meditators showed a  thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. With just  27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness meditation, is all it took to stimulate a major increase in “gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection and decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.” I have to be honest, I don’t know what gray matter is, but I guess I am willing to trust the Harvard researchers on this.  I think it is safe to say that our lives are affected by how we think, but in addition study after study are showing that our physical brain is affected by how we think. Something that the Buddha some 2,500 years ago learned through experiential learning, we are confirming with science today.

We all have the potential to be Buddhas.  If this is something that is known to make us happier and our brains stronger, why don’t more people participate?  Maybe because it takes time.  I can assure you, I am always more productive on days that I meditate compared to days that I don’t. I remember reading about a conversation that Mahatma Gandhi had with a group of his supporters, saying “I need to set aside one hour a day to do meditation.” One of the supporters said, “oh no, you can’t do that! You are too busy, Gandhi!”  Gandhi is said to have replied, “Well, then, I now need to set aside two hours a day to do meditation.” Mindfulness is a practice. In whatever part of your life I encourage you to practice it, whether that be in listening to my sermons, or gardening, or eating, or when you are talking to your friends, be aware, self aware and pay attention to even the little things. And by doing so, you may and we as a species can evolve in a way that brings peace and harmony and comfort to a suffering world.  May it be so.