Practice

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Chalice lighting

We gather together today

We arrive here from many places, in the midst of our unpredictable lives

Living in a time and place that offers us privileges and possibilities, but also great challenges

The world around us tells us who to be and how to act.

Society points us toward money, things, and physical beauty

We come here to look deeper - to remind ourselves of what is truly of value

To ask again who we are now

And to examine who and what we can be tomorrow

Let this flame be for growth and change

May its light reveal for us the selves we are and the selves we can be

May it illuminate our truest aspirations and the paths by which we may achieve them.

Reading: from Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. [...] Achievement is talent plus preparation.

The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

Message, part 1: by Rev. Andy Pakula

Ramadan begins this evening. Some of you, and most of your Muslim friends, will be fasting from sunrise to sundown for the next 30 days. No food, no water.  

Because the days are longer now, it’s a long fast - 18 hours a day. And that means getting up in the morning really early so you can finish the morning meal before 2:40am.

This fasting part is what non-Muslims know about most, but it’s not all there is to Ramadan. Ramadan is a time of other practices too. This most important Muslim month seems almost perfectly designed to bring about change – change in individuals and in community.  For 30 days, with the support of others (and probably some peer pressure), Muslims take part in practices that will help them to grow in generosity, gratitude, compassion and humility – and to deepen relationships with family and friends.

We have been talking about power since the beginning of last month. We’ve said that, putting aside all the other connotations of the word, at its essence power simply means the ability to create change.

Ramadan is an extended time of practice that creates individual and communal change. Ramadan is a time of powerful practice.

Practice is an important tool in bringing about individual change. When we practice together, we can bring about change in relationships and in the strength and nature of our community.

This morning, I’m going to invite you and all of us together to take part in Ramadan – probably not by fasting, but in practices that have the power to change us for the better. The power to help us grow.

There are many kinds of practice that can increase our abilities.

We can practice to learn to play an instrument or to sing. We can practice a sport. We can practice a language. We can practice coding. We can practice acting, public speaking, dancing, and writing. These are skills – some of which I would love to develop.

But the kind of change I want to focus on today is the kind that makes us more fully the people we want to be. It is the kind of change that leads to what most of us would probably identify as goodness. These are the attributes that make us more able to help others – more able to connect and care, more able to make a difference in the world.

Sometimes, we may think that this kind of change is impossible. We might wish to be more grateful or compassionate or courageous and think that it’s beyond our ability – that somehow these are inborn traits never to be changed.

As Malcolm Gladwell writes about people we see as especially gifted and talented: “...the closer psychologists look [...], the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

We can change and develop more about ourselves than we imagine. It’s not easy, but it is possible.

When I talk about human growth and change, I sometimes wonder if there is a point where it stops. Is there the human equivalent of the mature forest that – having passed through many different stages over centuries – has now become more or less unchanging?

Its becoming has ceased. It is done.

Are you done? Are you finished with your changes?

I remember being certain that my parents were done – and they were much much younger than I am today when I thought that. They knew so much. While I was learning to walk and talk and read and write and learn my times tables, they seemed unchanging. Mature. Complete.

I thought then that being an adult meant being done with growing – that there would come a time when I would be pronounced a grown-up adult and then there would be no more of this changing. No more learning how to deal with adversity and get over myself. No more epiphanies. Not only would I be called done, I would in fact be done. I would feel done.

I am not yet a grown-up adult, apparently. Or, more likely, growing up is not entering a state of being finished. I hope that those of you who are older and wiser than I am will let me know what you think. I do remember my grandmother – then in her late 90s – saying that she felt inside like she was seventeen. Seventeen year olds do not feel done!

What most of us have probably discovered in the past is that practice is hard. In just about every kind of practice there comes a time when you don’t feel like it, you are too busy, you are too tired, you are too angry, or you just manage to forget.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to excel at something. That’s a lot of hours – 5 and half hours a day, every day, for five years. So, if you want to become great at something, keep that in mind.

But most of us don’t need to be great. We don’t need to be a superstar performer or coder or athlete. Practicing for the next 30 days is not going to make you a master of compassion or gratitude, but it doesn’t need to. You don’t need to be a master, and you don’t need to be an expert. 30 days practicing together can change us enough to move us along in our journeys toward wholeness and goodness.

The song we are about to sing is adapted from a Buddhist meditation practice called Metta Bhavana. It is a practice designed to cultivate kindness and compassion for ourselves and others. In the full practice, we wish ourselves well and then do the same for a loved one, an acquaintance, and enemy, and, finally, for all beings.

Reading: words from Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

Responsibility does not only lie with the leaders of our countries or with those who have been appointed or elected to do a particular job. It lies with each of us individually. Peace, for example, starts within each one of us. When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us.

When our community is in a state of peace, it can share that peace with neighboring communities, and so on. When we feel love and kindness towards others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace. And there are ways in which we can consciously work to develop feelings of love and kindness. For some of us, the most effective way to do so is through religious practice. For others it may be non-religious practices. What is important is that we each make a sincere effort to take our responsibility for each other and for the natural environment we live in seriously.

Message, part 2: by Rev. Andy Pakula

The way we develop and grow is important for us and for our relationships. As the Dalai Lama says, our growth can also change our communities and and even our world.

Practices work. You may know about some of the practices that can change us for the better. Gratitude journals are popular and they really work to make us happier and to value the lives we have.

We sang words from the Buddhist meditation of loving kindness. Practicing this consistently has been proven to work. Scientific studies have shown it increases empathy and compassion. It reduces bias and discrimination and increases social connection. It improves self-esteem and self-love.

There are many more meditations one can do and there are many practices that you can do as you can go about your daily life – when you’re brushing your teeth, having a break, walking, on the bus.

In fact, there is no shortage of practices you can use.

The challenge is not what to do but choosing a goal and sticking to it.

Practice is hard. It is tough to persevere and especially to do that alone. We’ve all probably had the experience of setting out to do something with all the best will in the world and dropping it within a week or two.

It’s harder to do this alone. Just as in Ramadan, practicing together is much more likely to lead us to persevere. It also helps to know that there is a set period of time. You’re committing to something for 30 days – not a lifetime.

Practice is something we can do together, where we can support each other and be accountable to each other. And doing this together changes and strengthens our community. It may, as the Dalai Lama says, impact the world around us for the better.

In a minute, I’m going to invite you to get up and move around the room and to choose what you’d like to work on developing. As you do, you can form practice groups to work together for the next 30 days.

Of course, this is all optional. No one will think less of you if you don’t want to participate in this way.

Here’s the plan: make your way to a sign with an attribute that appeals to you – something you’d like to cultivate. You might feel that fear holds you back, and that you want to cultivate courage. You might find yourself leaping to judgement too often, and that you want to cultivate curiosity to keep your mind open to different perspectives and new ideas. You might be thinking “hurry up - stop talking”, in which case the “patience” sign might be the place for you.

Once you get to a sign, see if anyone else is there. Chat. Look around. The aim is to have about six people working together on practice. We’ll move and mingle and chat until practice groups emerge.

At that point, when you feel settled, write your names and email addresses on the sheet that represents your goal. I’ll collect them and send out group emails so you can contact each other easily and I’ll suggest some ideas for practices.

Clear?

Go!

[Choosing]

Thank you for participating and taking on this challenge. And thank you for helping each other to grow.

It helps to have someone to lean on.

Closing words

We are becoming

We grow and change until our last breath

Let us guide our becoming in the direction of joy

In the direction of understanding

In the direction of love

In the direction of the good

Let us do it together

May it be so.