Discipline and Ecospirituality

At the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, our Theme of the Month for May is ecospirituality. Across cultures and historical epochs, many have found transcendence in the very immanence of trees and birds, "mountains and rivers and the great wide Earth, the sun and the moon and the stars," beasts, rocks, clouds, flowers, bugs, soil: the wild and its myriad multiform interrelationships. For much of human history, what we might call "ecospirituality" was less a choice than an unavoidable fact of life. In our "postie" world (postindustrial, poststructural, postmodern), however, ecospirituality is an option easily declined. Whole lives can be spent in urban or suburban settings encountering relatively few species -- and most of those, with aversion. For us, ecospirituality must be an intentional choice and a deliberate discipline. To make that choice is to begin a path of transformation. Are we up for it?

I believe people don't come to church to stay the same. We come to be transformed.

My calling is to encourage Unitarian Universalists to take up intentional practices for developing equanimity, peace, acceptance, kindness, patience, and reverence. My hope is for us to get serious about spiritual practice: about committing to exercises that will retrain our habitual neural pathways so that everything we do and are looks and feels more like love and less like addiction. The spiritual qualities and virtues don’t just happen, and they don’t happen just by wanting them to happen, or by hearing words from people who have them (though that does help -- it’s good to have coaches.) To get the muscles, you have to do the exercise and take in the right nutrients.

We Unitarian Universalists have accomplishments far beyond our numbers -- and numbers far below our possibility. To realize our possibility will require serious application of ourselves to the task of faith development. The rap on UUs is that we are a denomination of dabblers and dilettantes interested in everything and serious about nothing; glad for the intellectual stimulation of learning but unwilling to commit to put the learning into practice in our lives; engaged and sometimes even delightful connoisseurs and critics of cookbooks and exercise programs, yet people who suffer from the impression that they understand the taste of the food and have attained the lifting power of substantial musculature just by hearing and reading about it.

Some of that rap is unfair. The criticism results from misunderstanding the way that valuing diversity works. Our commitment to diversity and our appreciation of the rich rewards of a diverse community do not mean that each individual UU is required to be uncommitted to anything other than diversity itself. It does mean that a UU’s spiritual practices include cultivation of, and delight in, affectionate relationships with others with different practices, perspectives, and understandings. "Include" does not mean "are limited to." Unfortunately, too many UUs themselves seem to have accepted the misunderstanding, so the rap has some partial truth to it.

If we are to become the best people we can be, as individuals and as a movement, ecospirituality is, if you’ll forgive the pun, the natural path for many of us. Many UUs feel a strong connection with nature, and many have told me that they feel the most spiritual when walking in the woods. “That’s great,” I say. “And when was the last time you did that?” I’m happy to report that these days I’m getting more answers like “last Saturday” or “this morning” and fewer awkward silences.

Make time for more hiking, or just being, in nature. At the same time, build the foundation upon which nature experiences can be most meaningful and transformative. That five-part foundation consists of:

(a) daily journaling;

(b) daily study of spiritual texts (for those developing a nature spirituality, appropriate texts would include books by ecotheologians like Joanna Macy, Sally McFague, Vandana Shiva, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, Thomas Berry, Annie Dillard, or nature poets like Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver);

(c) daily periods of stillness and silence noticing and identifying each thought and feeling that arises,

(d) an ongoing resolve to be mindful at all times, and

(e) weekly meeting with a group for spiritual practice.

These are the exercises and the nutrients for building the muscles of wisdom, compassion, and peace. It takes a steady diet and a lot of "reps."

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