Monday, June 29, 2015

I AM A UU

I've been away for a few days.  Hub and I went to our faith tradition's annual General Assembly -- a nationwide gathering of Unitarian Universalists, this year in Portland, Oregon.  "Portlandia" is the perfect spot for UUs to gather.  Very progressive and PC and earnest -- and a little whimsical.

I love our Unitarian Universalist heritage.  The faith started out in the Judeo-Christian tradition but split with the Christian church around debates of doctrine.  Unitarians (formed in 1793) couldn't wrap their rational minds around the idea of a Trinity and believed instead that there is ONE God.  Jesus was a messenger, a prophet, a teacher, but not God in human form.  The Universalists (formed in 1825) couldn't wrap their loving hearts around a punishing God.  They saw God as a loving, saving, and unconditionally accepting force for good who would not condemn humanity to Hell, believing ultimately we are all saved by grace.  Both faiths were persecuted by the Christian church.  Yes, we have our imprisoned and executed martyrs who died for UU beliefs.  

There were Unitarian churches and Universalist churches for a long time, then in 1961 they merged and now we are the very big mouthful:  Unitarian Universalists.  Along the way the Humanists also played a defining role in the tradition and questioned whether we needed to bother with God at all and this is still a subject of some debate in the faith.  What we do all agree upon is that we draw inspiration and wisdom from many traditions and don't hold one above the rest.  We are all called to find a spiritual path that speaks to us; we are all called to social justice; we are all called to belonging in Beloved Community.  

I may have gotten some of this thumbnail sketch wrong -- UUs love to debate and disagree, so even my UU friends will likely read this and tell me..."Nope, that's not how I see it."  Well, so be it.  Plus I'm a "new" UU -- only 23 years into it (after drifting through the Methodists, the Lutherans, and the Congregationalists (UCC).  If you want to know more about UU, go to the source:  the Unitarian Universalist Association http://www.uua.org  Be sure to click on the Principles and Purposes  and Sources of our faith -- that's pretty much us in a nutshell.  http://www.uua.org/beliefs

Anyway, the UU-GA was something to experience.  Five thousand UUs gathered to worship, take care of business (we select delegates from each congregation to hammer out our bylaws and policies and elect boards, etc -- very democratic and messy), attend classes and workshops on a wide variety of topics, witness for social justice, and take inspiration from each other and an array of speakers who called us to action.  

UUs are known for our social justice work.  We are the organizers, protestors, and "speak truth to power" crowd who have historically supported a zillion progressive causes.  I thought more than once that if T-shirts could change the world, we'd be in fine shape at the General Assembly.  I also wondered why the T-shirt concession companies cannot make any other than those ill-fitting men's sizes crew neck T's with the baggy sleeves and boxy shapes that make everyone look like Sponge Bob Square Pants.  Not a good look.  Anyway, I took to jotting down some of the slogans I saw -- this is only a sampling:  

The Price of Peace is Economic Justice for All
Be the Change
Coffee Farmers Can't Live on Beans - Support Fair Trade
Co-Exist
Celebrate Diversity
Black Lives Matter
Standing on the Side of Love
Death Penalty Makes Us All Killers
Plant Justice - Harvest Peace
Nearly 1 Billion People Don't Have Clean Water
College of Social Justice
Corporations Are Not People
Love is Love  (in rainbow colors)
And, of course, every congregation seemed to have a T-shirt identifying themselves with their church name and city.

Looking around one might conclude these are just a bunch of aging hippies still tilting at windmills and not getting very far.  That would be wrong.  While the demographic at GA skewed a bit on the older side (we have the time and the means to go away to a conference for several days), there was also a large contingent of youth and young adults.  And all, to a person, has an abiding desire to see a better, more equitable world for all.  And we are willing to study, organize, and work for it.  We're known for being sorta smart and politically active.  Indeed, political action is paired with a spiritual (or, OK, humanist for some) ethic that demands no less of us.

Given that, you can imagine the Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality, in the midst of our gathering, was met with great jubilation.  UUs have worked for GLBT rights for decades.  A "win" for our GLBT friends is a win for all.  

Other justice issues were highlighted this year too.  On Saturday we held a huge public witness around climate change, with speakers from local Native American nations.  


Later we went to a reception where Rep. John Lewis, renowned for his civil rights work with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was interviewed. What an inspiration!  

And that same night the firebrand, outspoken, challenging, surprisingly funny, sincere, and insistent racial justice intellectual and activist Dr. Cornel West was the keynote speaker.  People were on their feet more than once, cheering his call to action.

Those were highlights for me.  And equally so were the enormous worship services full of creativity,music, and  inspiration.  UU congregations tend to be on the smaller side.  There are several big city congregations of several hundred, but most are not that big.  Ours has 160 members and we struggle sometimes to get people to step into leadership, sing in the choir, greet visitors, and set up coffee hour.  So, to gather with 5000 of our tradition, to sing the familiar hymns in unison with a choir of 200, to see a beautiful flaming chalice lit (the symbol of our faith) on a huge stage flanked by big screens where the proceedings were projected so that even those in the very back could see -- well, it was moving.  More than once I had tears in my eyes.


I'm glad I experienced General Assembly.  I came home with a renewed pride in my faith, a deeper appreciation for being part of a greater whole, a rekindled spark for activism, and the determination to work for T-shirt equality.  No more men's sizes for all people!  I know UUs eschew the materialistic, consumer-oriented culture and have little use for vanity or fashion, but c'mon, let's show a little consideration for body type diversity!

At least, that's the view from here...©

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

REACH AROUND

The Belly Button Challenge???   Are you kidding me?!?  What fresh hell are we now visiting upon our already ridiculous measures of health and beauty?  I'm glad there is a disclaimer in this story, but still...

I recall at some tender teen age standing in front of the mirror trying to discern if I had the coveted "thigh gap" -- daylight between the thighs when feet are together in a standing position.  I think there was supposed to also be a gap between knees and calves as well as calves and ankles.  I generally felt good about myself on this one.  I have slender legs.  That's because every calorie I eat rushes directly to my waistline and builds a permanent home there;  A McMansion, so to speak.

So when I saw this story online today, I knew I was in trouble.  There are certain Yoga poses where one reaches around to grab some other part of the body and I never quite make it.  I've blamed it on assuming I have extraordinarily short arms, but if this story is correct and a woman's average arm length is 24 inches, well, that turns out to be my precise inner arm length from pit to longest middle fingertip.  Still I was 9-1/2 inches short of successfully tickling my navel on this Belly Button Challenge.  http://www.kirotv.com/news/lifestyles/health/people-are-taking-belly-button-challenge-see-if-th/nmdLs/

Isn't it crazy that this "test" is touted as indicating "good health" when it likely means anorexia, hyper-flexibility, or maybe a slender body with decent range of motion -- a body that just happens to be slim and bendy, but not necessarily healthy.

I'm glad I don't use these measures to determine my self-worth.  I'm troubled that I even felt moved to try it.  (NOTE:  That naval piercing would likely go unnoticed on me....lost in the culdesac.)

At least, that's the view from here...©

Monday, June 8, 2015

MY DAY WITH AMMA, PART 2



For seven hours we'd been in the arena where Amma, the "hugging saint", was appearing when our group was called to line up for seating in the "Dharma Line".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharma  A volunteer checked our ticket (Group X) to ensure we weren't cutting in ahead of others.  She asked if we wanted to be hugged separately or together -- we did notice some couples and even families all got one big hug.  We debated this, thinking it could be a nice shared experience, but in the end I wanted my own hug -- both arms around just me.  I need all the help I can get!

We then were asked to sit in a line of two adjacent folding chairs along a center aisle, moving up to the next set of chairs in front of us for about 15 rows, as they were vacated by the folks ahead. Eventually we reached a little "holding area" with chairs in a circle just at the edge of the stage.  We were asked to remove our shoes and stow our backpack in a big blue plastic tub.  I could feel my heart start to pound with nervous excitement.  We were so close now and I wondered if indeed, I'd get the "bliss blast", if I'd collapse from the Amma energy field surrounding me, if somehow all would be revealed in just one hug from this amazing woman.

Everything seemed to speed up at this point.  We moved rapidly around the circle and soon it was my turn to ascend the stairs to the stage.  There were still about 4 more chairs to advance from there to Amma's arms.  The stage was jammed with people.  There were rows of folding chairs arranged on either side of Amma's perch, facing her.  People who'd already had their hug were invited to sit here for a time, soaking in the proximity to her, until they had to move off the stage to make room for the next people ascending.   The stage was also crowded with volunteers and attendants to Amma, all directing traffic and crowding around her, helping move people through the hug moment.

I got to the first chair, then was asked to kneel about three people back from my turn.  I got down on my knees (thank you yoga practice!) and felt hands on my back inching me forward as those in front of me got their hug and moved on.  It was very crowded and I felt like I was being pushed into the back of the person in front of me -- similar to getting into a rock concert where there is only general seating.


Then I was being pushed forward with a hand on the back of my head directing me firmly into Amma's bosom.  But not before I caught a glimpse of her white robes, stained at the shoulder with what I took to be smeared makeup, sweat, and general human facial debris left behind by those in groups A-W.  The thought that I should hold my breath flitted through my mind.

I felt Amma's arms enfold me around my shoulders and mine wrap around her at the waist.  She feels
like a mother should -- all soft and round, with a hug that is simultaneously firm and gentle.  And she smelled amazing -- a mixture of sweet and savory -- flowers and spice.

I tried to tune everything else out -- Hub behind me, the crowd of attendants, the other devotees, and
knowing my image was now projected on the big screens for the crowd to see.  I just wanted to be in  the moment.  She bent her head to my ear and whispered a Sanskrit phrase over and over, maybe ten times.  I wish I could remember it.  I know a bit of Sanskrit and I know one of the words or syllables
was "ma" or "mama", but there was another shorter consonant-vowel sound in between the repetition of "ma" that I just didn't get.  So, likely I missed the spoken wisdom, at least in a form I could understand.

And just like that, it was over.  The hug was maybe 30 seconds long.  At the end Amma handed me the traditional "sweet" and a flower petal.  Attendants sort of yanked me to my feet and turned me toward the stage seating area where I could sit and bask in the glory of the moment until it was time for me to depart from close proximity to Amma and return to the masses.

Once off the stage, Hub and I left the arena right away.  We both agreed that she is a good hugger.  We also both agreed that we didn't feel the "bliss blast", nor were we anywhere near collapsing from an overwhelming energy force.  We popped our "sweet" (a Hershey's Kiss) into our mouths and identified the tiny flower petal as having come from red geraniums.  We also agreed we were glad we came; glad we were among the millions who have flocked to Amma, as part of the spiritual phenomenon that has sprung up around her.

What sticks with me?

1.  I am deficient in the "guru worship" gene.  I think some people truly believe they find a guru who speaks to them and inspires them in a way that I have yet to experience with anyone.  So, maybe I'm missing out.  Or maybe I have a heightened degree of discernment.  I have held many people in high esteem, as teachers and role models, and most have disappointed me in some way if I put them on too high a pedestal.  I have then had to get over my disillusionment and realize that human foibles affect us all.  I gratefully take their teachings, often with humility, awe, and great respect, but I leave the over-all "guru worship" that is sure to disappoint.

2.  I realize I may not have gotten the full Amma experience.  Other friends of mine went to her Devi Bhava evening sessions.  At these there is a ritual for world peace and Amma provides mantras -- Sanskrit prayers for meditation.  She hugs all night long -- starting around 9:00 p.m. and going until the wee hours of 3-4 a.m.  I think the very nature of being up all night might heighten the altered-reality experience a bit.

3.  I most remember "the hug" as the one gave Amma.  Yes, her arms were around me, but what is most prominently grooved into my mind is the feeling of my arms around her.  I can still conjure up how good it felt to hug her, to smell her, to hear the soft and strong sound of her voice in my ear.  I felt we were exchanging energy.  It was not a one-way hug for me.  I was not only "receiving"; I was "giving".  I've not heard anyone talk about this.  It's always "Getting a hug from Amma"-- an uneven exchange of energy.

4.  I came away thinking, "Well, that was nice, but not life-changing".   And yet...coincidence or the result of the energy field, I don't know, but for a few weeks (beginning before the hug and continuing since), I have felt a shift in my perspective.  Generally quick to judge, easily frustrated by people who "bug" me, I've become more accepting, less critical.  Whenever I see someone being weird, or jerky, I just say, "Well, I don't know their story."  If I am interacting with someone who is difficult, I maintain my own equilibrium and just keep breathing through it, detached and interested in the dynamic more than the outcome.  Whenever I feel my anxieties try to take over with "what if" thinking, I stop myself more quickly and just notice this is happening.  My fear seems to subside faster, my mindfulness practice seems easier, my mantra has become "Just Live!"  I appreciate the moments, the emotions, the sensual nature of life with more presence.

I don't completely credit my Amma hug with these shifts in awareness.  I have been on a spiritual and personal growth journey for most of my adult life.  The Amma hug was one among many profound experiences along the way.  I think self-awareness, growth toward spiritual attunement, and finding and enfolding ourselves in loving community to the benefit of all are why humans are here, what we are meant to be doing to further Creation.  Amma was a step on the path.

Still, I admire Amma.  I think she is truly a saint of humanitarian dedication, building an empire of good works in the world and all gratitude goes to her for the many lives she has touched with her vision and example.

But I think the bliss blast at Amma events is generated by a few hundred people gathered under one roof, in a loving state of mind -- projecting all of their own love energy onto a woman named Amma, perhaps not realizing this same bounty of love is within each of us all the time.  We are all hugging saints.

At least, that's the view from here... ©





Wednesday, June 3, 2015

MY DAY WITH AMMA, PART 1

Amma.  The "Hugging Saint".  Maybe you've heard of her or saw her featured on a segment of TV's 60 Minutes a few years ago.  She is an Indian woman in her 60's who has risen to be one of the most important and revered spiritual teachers of our time.  She is also a humanitarian marvel, creating systems for helping people all over the world, often in places where red-tape, corruption, and policy mean many in poverty go without the most basic of needs.  Somehow she makes happen what needs to happen to serve the underserved.  Her story is quite remarkable.

More info here on her website: http://amma.org.  I also thought this NYT article was a good one:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/business/ammas-multifaceted-empire-built-on-hugs.html?_r=0

Amma tours the world, making appearances in large venues where people line up to wait for hours for a hug from her, to take part in the "vibe" of her religion, which is by all outward appearances a Hindu-inspired practice, but which she defines simply as "Love".

Last Saturday I went for the first time to get my Amma hug.  But here's the thing:  Hub and I were rather ambivalent about going.  She comes to Seattle every year and we always say we will go but then we don't.  But this year we were more motivated because her appearance was not in Seattle, but in the city where we live, at a sports arena about a mile from our house.  How could we pass this up?  This world-renowned saint was practically on our doorstep!  So we headed downtown, found parking, and thought we'd see how long the line was...still giving ourselves the option of cutting out if it looked daunting, as it might since we got there a bit late.

Outside the arena we were met by greeters wearing red scarves, who smiled broadly and welcomed us.  One young woman asked if we'd seen Amma before.  We said no, we're newbies.  She replied, "You will love this experience!  The first time I saw her I was blown away.  When she entered the hall I actually collapsed!  Her energy is amazing...overwhelming...."  Maybe she would have gushed on and on, but we sidled away from her, eager to get in the ticket line and a bit bemused by the adoration, skeptics that we are sometimes.

Once inside there was quite the throng, but it seemed well-organzied and we thought, "well, we're here; might as well do this" and we stood in a serpentine line of patient, soft-spoken, rather jolly souls all eager for their "hug ticket" stamped with a number that would tell us where we'd fall in the day-long hug line.

After 30-40 minutes we made our way to the usher who gave us our tickets, stamped X-2, which seemed pretty far down the alphabet.  Again, we almost bailed.  But Hub asked if we could leave and come back closer to hug time.  The usher hesitated, then allowed that we could leave, but she highly recommended that we stay and be in the energy of the experience.  There would be food, beverage, shopping, meditation workshops, music....  Fine, but we still figured we'd just leave for awhile.  I mean, it was a beautiful Saturday and I didn't want to be stuck inside all day.  We had a number of  chores to do at home -- choosing paint color for our exterior house painting project, deciding on our new DISH-TV package,  getting our in-ground sprinkler system going for the summer....Could be we weren't quite on board with the spiritual aspects of the Amma adventure in that moment...Ha!

Once through the line, we were seated in an area in front of the stage, where rows of chairs on either side of Amma's dais were being set up.  Her perch was surrounded by colorful curtains, robes, drapes and flowers.  Dozens of volunteers rushed about seating people, guiding people, working the food services, serving in the dining area, selling merchandise of all kinds -- clothing, oils, candles, cards with photos of Amma, T-shirts, books, CDs, DVDs, Hindu deity statues.  It was a veritable marketplace.  I've read that Amma travels with nearly 200 devotees who staff her appearances and at each stop there are scores of local devotees who join the staff for the length of her appearances -- here it was 3 days.

We settled in surprisingly quickly, taking in the scene and sort of soaking in the vibe.  We saw some people we knew who were local volunteers who told us we were in for a life-changing experience; that we'd get a "bliss blast".  We were still not so sure of that, but we decided we were in for the duration by that time.  We were curious, and hey, who knows?  If a hug can be life-changing I'm all for that.

About an hour after we got into the arena, Amma came out onto the stage.  I did not collapse.  I just sat and watched her attendants seat her and make sure she was comfortable.  An announcer introduced local dignitaries who seemed bewildered at times, but did not embarrass themselves.   A swami led us all in a meditation that was surprisingly long and deep.  There is something to be said about meditating with hundreds of people in one space.  Amma said a few words translated and I don't remember them.  Nothing that moved me.  Then she started hugging.

And we started people-watching.  This was the biggest continuously polite, smiling, mellow crowd I'd ever been part of.  It was truly intergenerational too.  Older folks mingled with surprisingly well-behaved children, hipsters and women who looked like stereotypical "church ladies" who'd maybe wandered in from Bible Study sat side-by-side.  I saw people in Indian dress and those in bermuda shorts, some in Seahawk shirts and most everyone wearing malas -- more than could be counted.  It was a predominantly Caucasian crowd with Indian folks likely second in number.  Those of Asian, African American, and Native descent were in the mix too.   We milled about and bought T-shirts and had some great Indian food and Chai tea.  We observed, chatted, read, and waited as the volunteer flipped the sign numbers indicating which group was currently invited to get in the hug queue.  We chanted with the live Kirtan band and listened to a long multi-versed Sanskrit chant that started to give me a headache and could have used a bit of editing in my judgement.

Large projection screens on the stage showed a continuous live feed of Amma hugging the constant stream of people who  approached her where she sat.  I noted that each person's head was shoved into Amma's bosom by an attendant and Amma's arms went around the person.  Sometimes she bent her own head to theirs, but often she just hugged and talked to her attendants quite animatedly, nodding, smiling, pointing, like there were just hanging out having a conversation, unperturbed by this line of people kneeling at Amma's feet with their heads chucked into her torso.  On a couple of occasions Amma took phone calls during hugs -- an attendant held a cell phone in front of her as she spoke via speaker it seemed.  But even if she seemed distracted, at some point she did bend toward the supplicant and seemed to tune in to that person if only for a few seconds.  Then that person was finished.  I could tell as they parted that they were handed something from Amma, and it was on to the next...for hours and hours and hours.

Yes, we also watched the clock. The time seemed both to creep and move swiftly.  Maybe there was some crazy magic in the air.  We had been inside the arena for seven hours, when finally our grouping was called to the stage....

STAY TUNED FOR MY DAY WITH AMMA, PART 2  and my view from here.... ©