Feeding the Spirit

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Feeding the Spirit

by the Rev. Peter Connolly

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on November 18, 2012

Most of us have been on a flight on one of the major airlines in the past ten years. If you have, and you’ve listened closely to the flight attendant’s instructions for what to do in the case of an emergency (or even if you’ve tried to tune them out– we do that sometimes, don’t we?), you’ve heard this instruction: “Before you attempt to place the oxygen mask on the face of your children or other dependents, place your own mask on first.”

The idea, of course, is that if you don’t take care of yourself first, you may not be of any use to anyone else. And that is the theme of today’s service as well.

The Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, church would occasionally offer such a service. Terry Burke would refer to it as “Vitamins for the Holidays.” There is something to that. It does seem that most of us need a little boost during the holiday season because, in addition to all the things that fill up our lives from day to day during the rest of the year, we add a roster of events that includes Christmas shopping (that’s stressful as well as time-consuming, usually), sending out Christmas cards or holiday cards (some of us still cling to the practice and actually enjoy it); going to holiday parties (which we may be encouraged to bring a little dish to—nothing that will take much time to prepare, of course).

And there is usually a big holiday meal. Often there is travel involved, either trips we take or preparing a room for visiting relatives—nothing stressful about that, right? If you are shopping, don’t forget the stocking-stuffers for your loved ones.

Oh, and don’t forget how many loved ones there are.Holiday season allows us to remember why we have in-laws. And cousins. Sometimes second cousins make their way into the picture. Some folks get presents for their letter carriers; their children’s teachers; their doctors. I think lawyers are exempt.

Thankfully, ministers are usually exempt, though a card with a photo is always welcome. Oops! That’s one more thing to think about. Better scratch that one.

Do you send out Christmas cards? If so, do you add a personal note, though it takes a little more time (and that time adds up if there are 40 of them)? Do you buy special holiday postage stamps? And return address labels? Do you have to remember to give that recipe to your sister because she loved those holiday cookies so much last year? Do you need to remember to get the recipe, yourself, for that delicious apple-walnut-cranberry stuffing? Are you taking notes?

Well, we could go on, couldn’t we? After all, I’m in the midst of planning for the Kwanzaa celebration with friends from Taylor Chapel African Episcopal Church and the Association of Black Social Workers– I’ll be inviting you to that. There may be a reference or two to Hanukkah and some attendant preparations.

Does your family celebrate multiple traditions? Do you need to send a fruitcake to your aunt in California? Do you need to decide what to do with last year’s fruitcake because, though they last a long time, they don’t last that long.

Do you like to follow the sales? Do you feel like you have to follow the sales? Will you be getting some new Christmas music? Oh, my, oh, my, oh my. I think you may need some vitamins for the holidays. Or you might just need to feed your spirit. It may be that they amount to the same thing.

Early last month, I was unable to be with you for a few days because I was attending a ministers’ conference in northern Indiana. About thirty of us attended from throughout the district, which includes Kentucky, some of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. The theme this year was “Self care” and I thought I’d share with you today some of the things we talked about and some of the things we learned.

Our leader for the three sessions of self-care programming was Barb Weber, who is a religious education coordinator for the Heartland District. The thirty-two ministers who attended, I believe, would agree that she did a really wonderful job.

We started out, not by talking about self-care, but about stewardship, which was defined this way: “The careful and responsible management of that which has been entrusted to our care.”

We talk often enough (or perhaps not often enough) about stewardship of our financial resources: the careful and responsible management of those financial gifts which have been entrusted to our care. And certainly, we regard the care we take of our children, our aged relatives, our disabled or temporarily disabled family members as a kind of stewardship if those family members have been entrusted to our care.

But do we ever think of the stewardship of our bodies and minds and spirits? Stewardship of the self means the careful and responsible management of the bodies that have been entrusted to our care. How do we provide good stewardship for the body? How do we feed our spirit?

The concept of “stress” as we most often think of it today, as opposed to the technical term referring to the stress on mechanical systems, came into common understanding only around the time of the Second World War. We sometimes forget that there are two forms of stress that can affect the body– and the spirit, of course. The first is “distress” and we are pretty familiar with that. We tend to give less thought to “eustress”: positive events or anticipated events also cause a spiritual disequilibrium.

When the ministers were asked what too much stress felt like, they said things like “feeling used up;” “a sense that there is nothing left to give;” a realization that one is reacting defensively too much of the time; a creeping sense of anxiety when the phone rings or when you log into your church e-mail account; feeling an absence of joy in your life; feeling that you are always rushing to catch up and that you are never caught up; feeling trapped by addictive behaviors, social or emotional if not actually physical addictions. All of these things can occur in the lives of good and responsible persons sometimes because of the stress that we place upon ourselves to be good and responsible persons.

Think of your life as a compass with four directions, to each of which you must orient yourself well. To the north is your physical well-being. To the east, your emotional well-being. To the south, your professional well-being; to the west, your spiritual well-being. If you find yourself well-balanced and nicely oriented whichever way you turn, you’ve achieved the kind of inner balance that will help you navigate the stresses, the uncertainties and the surprises that can pop up any time, but can especially disorient you at times in your life when extra stressors are introduced. And they call this the “holiday” season!

While at Pokagon, the Indiana state park where we met for our retreat, we ministers broke into small groups of five each in order to talk a bit more intimately about the ways that we have found to cope with the stresses in our lives.

Physically: Take care of your body because it is a gift: a good gift. One you want to manage well and keep in good order. Not one that breaks down so quickly that you want to give it back. Who would you give it back to? It does have an expiration date, but it is not refundable. Things to look out for:

  • Insomnia, someone said.
  • Unbalanced eating– I thought that that was a good way to phrase it. Gaining and losing weight can be a problem for some of us. If our eating habits are balanced, our weight will more likely be well-managed.
  • Physical pain: take note of it. Listen to your body, don’t ignore signals of stress. (This is one of those cases when I find the members of the church offering ministry to the minister. I have received good counsel and good reminders from some of you.)
  • Lack of balance in terms of sexual activity, someone mentioned.
  • Bodily impulses can lead to overactivity or can cause us to withdraw; they signal that there is an imbalance.

What are some of the things that you can do to regain balance?

Some people don’t swim, but they do yoga exercises once a day or every other day or once a week. They find a time to reacquaint themselves in a conscious way with their bodies. Some folks do stretching exercises in the morning. Some do full workouts at the gym. If you want to be oriented well to the body for which you are providing good stewardship, you want to consciously feel that it is yours and is being cared for.

When we spoke of signs of emotional imbalance, these are some of the symptoms that we noted:

  • reactionary behavior.
  • Responding too quickly, without enough thought or reflection.
  • Reacting rather than responding because we are too preoccupied, too “stressed out” as they say.
  • Emotional imbalance manifests itself as depression sometimes, of course; or, the other side of the coin, anxiety. Or, all too often, a recurring cycle between anxiety, thinking too much about circumstances that have not yet occurred and depression, thinking obsessively about things that are now in the past, so dead in some way, but things that we strive fruitlessly to resolve posthumously, so to speak. A kind of zombie obsession.

I don’t mean to make light of it. Depression, clinical or otherwise, situational or chronic, can be seriously debilitating. There are times, of course, when it’s best to seek the help of a professional counselor. But, when we speak about depression around the holidays, there are some things that we can do. First, we can notice it. When does it occur? What are the thoughts that accompany it? Are there physiological triggers? Do you get depressed after a second glass of wine? Do you seek to resolve depression by “zoning out”?

Again and again, the question surfaces: are you paying attention to the signs that your body is giving you or are you running from them for fear that the feelings are too powerful and you would prefer to avoid them?

What signals to you that you are not providing good stewardship, careful and responsible management of your emotional life? One person said she gets panic attacks. Another said that he notices that he’s less attentive to loved ones. Another mentioned “hypervigilance”– fear of something, she knows not what, coming out of nowhere to attack her in some way. It’s another way that anxiety is made manifest. Or a fear of loss of control.

Instead of being fueled by our passions, we are fueled by our fears. The advice of Joseph Campbell to “follow your bliss” is replaced by “be followed by your fears.” The question to ask ourselves is: “What adds life rather than detracts from our life?”

We know that sometimes self-care in the emotional realm is an indirect benefit of caring for others. Are you aware of your needs? Are you aware of the needs of those who depend upon you? Are you able to minister to them in a way that considers that they, too, need to live a life that is in balance?

Often, emotional unbalance grows out of too great an obsession with the self and the problems of the self. I am told that if you take a companion animal into your life, your self-concern will be balanced by the need you now have to care for another. Perhaps a rescue dog from a shelter. Perhaps a six-year-old beagle that is not yet house-trained.

I do believe that that will encourage you to consider the emotional imbalance of that dependent animal as an important consideration in your life. It may become one more stressor, so you might want to wait till after the holiday season.

You are a steward of the gift of your body. Pay attention to its needs, care for it as if it were a loved one. Why should it not be? You are a steward of your emotions, though they may seem to be in charge. Pay attention to them as they make themselves known. Attend to the needs of those around you who depend on you or make their needs known to you. Self-care radiates when it is centered on another.

The south point of the compass is the point that reminds us to be well-oriented professionally. For ministers, the dangers may be similar, but not the same as for others. Someone in our group mentioned what she called the “one more thing” syndrome. This is the tendency to see our duties, our responsibilities, our professional challenges as just one more thing. Remember the line from Dorothy Parker: “What fresh hell is this?”

Because our professional lives can be so challenging, we do need to put things in perspective. Holidays offer a chance to do that. Can you plan a holiday after the holiday?

I remember Charlie Pickle telling me that the challenge for his wife Linda in coordinating all of the volunteers for the International Festival each year was made more manageable by planning a two- or three-day break for resting and recreation just after it ended. The minister takes a two-week break in February after the busy time of holidays.

Having something to look forward to makes professional challenges seem more manageable– without slipping into the “one more thing” syndrome. That can be dangerous because you can lose the passion for your calling. Then you are of little use to anyone. We are encouraged to preach at a different church from time to time– to engage in a pulpit exchange. We need to schedule a long lunch with a ministerial colleague every few weeks. We can participate in workshops that are offered out-of-town or out-of-state.

What can you do to put your professional life in perspective? I can come into the sanctuary midweek and just sit quietly in communion with whatever spirits might be present. Maybe you can find a quiet place at your worksite where sanctuary can be found.

Mary Ann Macklin, one of the ministers at the Bloomington, Indiana church offers this counsel. “Three words,” she says. “And they are easy to remember because they all begin with “b.” “Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.” If we are not conscious of our boundaries, we certainly will not do the work we need to do to be good stewards of our time.

If we are conscious of those boundaries, we need to develop good strategies for managing that time. Is that conversation that goes on and on an opportunity for pastoral care for someone in need or is it an excuse for not getting your work done? If you get two phone calls while on a pastoral visit, do you return them right away or when you are more aware of feeling balanced in your outlook? If someone counts on you for a healthy perspective, you better find the emotional balance that allows for being in touch with that perspective

How does the minister manage to find a healthy spiritual orientation, the fourth point of the compass of stewardship of the self? I find that if I allow time in the morning for devotional reading, I can feel myself becoming more balanced spiritually even as I read if the material is nourishing. I usually will read a chapter in the morning of some book which promises to remind me of what it means to be aware of the present moment, somewhat detached from egotistical concerns and focused on a breadth of mind that allows all things in without allowing anything to dominate.

For this purpose, I have found two of Shinryu Suzuki’s books very helpful, books I’ve mentioned before, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Not Always So. The Zen gathering is currently reading a book that I find filled with remarkable insight and wisdom and which is perfect for morning devotional, a book called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Wisdom for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron.

Currently, I am reading this book, Nothing Special: Everyday Zen, by Charlotte Joko Beck, another book from the Zen Buddhist perspective.

There are members of the church who sit in zazen, in meditation, for a period of thirty minutes each day. You may say “I don’t have thirty minutes to sit and do nothing. My life is too busy. I’ll be too stressed out if I give up that much time.” Well, then try devotional reading for 15 minutes each morning– or find another time in the day to rest your mind in good sense, in healthy perspective, in a centering place.

Some of those of us who are reading Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life are taking twelve or fifteen minutes a day or several times a week to sit in this way: we consciously surround ourselves, then someone we feel close to, then someone for whom we have no particularly strong feeling, then someone we find, well, “objectionable” and bathe each of them in the spirit of compassion as we can imagine compassion into being.

Do you think that that is a spiritual discipline? You’re right, it is. Do you think you would find it helpful in your search to find balance in your spiritual life? Try it, you might find out that it is so. I was surprised to find how helpful it can be.

The holidays can be a stressful time for all of us in families or without strong family connections. It will help you and everyone in your spiritual community (that’s us) if you find a way to be a good steward of your body, your emotions, your professional life, your spiritual being.

I have offered you some suggestions here today. If you did not take notes and have found something useful in what you have heard here, we can post this talk on our website. Or you can add your own thoughts now as we enter in to a period of discussion and response.

Sources & references:

  • Suzuki, Shunryu, 2002. Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
  • Beck, Charlotte Joko, 1993. Nothing Special: Everyday Zen. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers.
  • Armstrong, Karen, 2010. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Chodron, Pema, 1997. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.

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