Wandering through Christianity, Buddhism, and Unity to my current interest of studying the Tao, I long ago exchanged organized religion for a more profoundspirituality. Structured religion gave me a moral and ethical compass for living life. Eastern philosophies expanded my understanding. But, my spirituality deepened after a life altering illness, decades of consciously working in the garden, and a burgeoning sense of gratitude.
“Religion…shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude…in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”
“…In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain “over-beliefs” in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.” — William James
Discovering this naturally created pulpit and pews on my visit to Scotland this summer was a curious surprise.
Scotland Outdoor Pulpit and Pews
View from an outdoor church in Scotland with natural made pulpit and pews
View of sky, mountains and water from natural outdoor church in Scotland grass in Scotland
I imagined listening to a sermon among these bluest of skies, lush green mountains and clear waters. The pastor wouldn’t have to speak a word.
Blessed with three good weather seasons, I’m most often in the garden — seeding, nurturing, harvesting — plants, but also my thoughts and spirit.
For me, attending church is gliding over morning dew glistened grass to the vegetable patch or flower garden…feeling the warming sun on my skin and a serene sky’s embrace. Hearing “the quiet.” At first. And then the hum of bees, chirping birds, and steady rhythm of high-pitched crickets uniting in choir. Sweet nature gloriously sings a sermon to my soul.
The color red symbolizes steadfast faith. Some Christians believe it represents Christ’s blood. But the cardinal inspiration I’m talking about isn’t from the Catholic church — it’s from those eye-catching red birds that perk up winter’s indeterminate grey, like a spark of hope in darkness.
When faced with challenges like enduring the winter cold, the cardinal bird chooses to sing a lovely song. It stays strong and positive, exhibiting persistence and grace.
I am increasingly convinced that Mother Nature guides us by offering her own Divine space to us as a spiritual well. We simply need to open our eyes to see, accept, and contemplate her generosity.
Such is the case with the red cardinal.
Some believe the cardinal encourages us to “find our life song,” to create new ways to love our life and show our gratitude for it.”
Others say the cardinal warns us to be mindful of our thoughts and what we are creating. Are we continually replaying past hurts, thereby deepening the groove of misery (and setting the stage for more to come), or are we choosing to be at peace in the present moment? It may be helpful to visualize that red stop sign when these negative thoughts occur.
Many cultures believe cardinals are messengers from someone who has passed.
Five years ago on the morning of New Year’s Eve, my dear friend Mary died from breast cancer. A lover of nature and all animals, Mary encircled her home in the woods with numerous bird feeders. On the day of her memorial a red cardinal held vigil at the window to the room where Mary passed in her home. We believed it was telling us that Mary’s spirit lives on.
Others have had similar experiences. How ’bout you? Do you have your own story of a symbolic message a cardinal carried into your life?
We knew the storm was coming and wondered how their fragile bodies would survive. Were there any still alive in these frigid 3 degree temps? Topping off the bird feeders, we later fell asleep to the hush of heavy snowfall then awoke the next morning to more of the same — nearly a foot of snow and more still falling.
A flurry of birds lined up on the tarmac of tree branches, each waiting their turn for food — the mysterious cardinal whose been pecking at the windows for a year, the usual tiny chickadees, a tufted titmouse or two, and a pudgy new family thought to be dark-eyed juncos (although they may have been plump simply to stay warm).
Have you noticed how many smiles you see? Or don’t, in this overly busy time of year when buzzing around making returns, shopping, doing errands, or whatever tasks need to be done. I counted only one smile today. And it was a wide one as another customer and I passed each other at the store.
One priceless gift to return is take one second and smile — at whomever you encounter. It’s a gift to yourself as well. You don’t have to say anything, although a pleasant word is a bonus. As is a smile returned.
When you smile, your face muscles trigger a release of endorphins. Helping to reduce stress levels, they are responsible for making you — and others — feel happy.
So the next time you see someone, offer up a smile. Like a breadth of fresh air in a weary day, notice how much lighter you feel too and it didn’t cost you a penny. Just one…second…of conscious…thought. A gift you can be happy to return.
It’s true. Smile and the whole world smiles with you.
“Ping!” my car doors locked as I headed toward the grocery store, dodging rush hour cars veering into tight parking spots then carts barreling into the entrance. No one was smiling. Including me.
For years I’ve dreaded the Christmas holidays and for nearly as many years, I’ve sought to understand why. Dysfunctional Christmases of my youth reveal anticipated Norman Rockwell (virtual) holidays severed by the reality of family arguments and chaos. Young adulthood in a city several hours away still felt the angst of coming home for the holidays. By midlife when stores began pushing Christmas before Halloween and then Labor Day, I felt so weary of Christmas that I too jumped ahead, seeking spring’s relief (post Easter Bunny).
Wise counsel lessened the Christmas Madness. “Make the holidays what you want them to be,” my friend said, “Not what others think you should do, or just because it’s always been done a particular way. Create your own tradition or celebration. You decide how much and what you want to do.” Wow! What a life changing concept.
Several decades and layers of understanding later, I realize I can be free of holiday chaos and not be a scrooge. Each year, I reassess my participation and focus on what is most important, what stirs my soul. Baking cookies went by the way side. Too many calories, too tempting, and too time consuming. Besides, by January my regret would weigh as much as the extra pounds. I reduced one hundred Christmas cards with personal messages to only contacting those farthest away or the elderly. This year, those Christmas cards evolved to “giving thanks” cards in November — a more relaxed time to express heartfelt sentiments. Once I consciously chose to ignore marketing’s mantra to buy-buy-buy, and the stigma that Christmas should look like XYZ, I felt more free.
Back at the grocery store, a woman’s cart blocks the bread aisle. Politely offering, “Excuse me,” I attempt to push past, discovering she is mid conversation on her phone. Others wheel through the aisles, their eyes downcast to the left or right. I wonder if they’re taking time to reflect what Christmas is supposed to be about or if they are consumed with get-get-get, then how to pay-pay-pay for all of the (mostly unnecessary) stuff. Flashing Christmas lights and blinding glittery ornaments compete with well-worn carols and shopper specials blaring through the loudspeaker. Rows of cash register dings punctuate long lines of overwhelming chatter and ring tones ranging from sirens to barking dogs. No one smiles.
Do you have a hard time with the Christmas holidays? Are you one of those persons who hear the shotgun start at Thanksgiving, rush breathlessly to Christmas, then drop across the finish line of New Years? How do you cope with this season? Do you wish you could blink your eyes and the holidays would be over? (Not to rush your life, but…)
You have more control over this than you think you do. And once you let go of the shoulds and obligatory traditions, engagements and gifts, you set yourself (and often pocketbook) free. Consciously choosing to make the holiday manageable equates to a more enjoyable time for you and everyone around you. Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised.
I am better off, my days are better off when I begin in the flow of Qigong. Years ago I practiced Svaroopa Yoga. Its deep relaxation served me well. But, then I tried Qigongand my life really started to change. I love the cyclical flow of energy — be it in my environment or person. This morning practice is my wake-up — of energy and to life. Naturally progressing to readings from the Tao, my life transformed into a new philosophy of living, thinking and breathing. Being a gardener, the Tao deepens my connection to nature which has deepened my understanding of life.
“Tao is the process of nature by which all things change and which is to be followed for a life of harmony” so Merriam-Webster says.
If you are unfamiliar with Qigong I encourage you to sign up for the free monthly QiTalksfrom the National Qigong Association. Their site is full of useful information like detailing what Qigong is, determining your energy composition, finding a practitioner who can teach you the movements, etc. And if there is no one in your locale, you can always try a DVD or visit YouTube. My favorite DVDs are Daisy Lee-Garripoli ‘s Radiant Lotus Qigong She also has videos on YouTube.
Like Yin and Yang, I find these practices produce a more gentle yet exuberant way of living life. Do you practice Qigong or the Tao? I’d love to hear your experience and how it’s influenced your life.
These guys (or gals) don’t look alike but they respectfully share from the same feeder, while happily chirping away. People could learn a lot from them.
I learned a lot from Jamaicans when visiting their homeland. Most Americans warned me ahead of time to “not go off the resort premises,” but strolling down the beach while mesmerized by the turquoise sea drew my curiosity beyond the boundary line. Haphazard tin-roofed shacks from whatever washed ashore leaned every which way — a yin-yang contrast to the well-manicured all-inclusive that was my home for 7 days.
The Jamaican Patois (pronounced Patwa) beckoned me into the makeshift beach mall. My ear took some getting used to their creole language but I appreciated the creative twist on english. In and out, I scanned the line of booths sand to ceiling but most of the wares were tchotchkes made in China that I could purchase in my hometown dollar store. Still, each proprietor smiled widely while proclaiming, “Tank yuh. Tank you fi looking. Tank you fi di respect.”
Most Jamaicans live in poverty. Tourism, music or selling drugs sadly seem to be the major opportunities to increase their standard of living. I’ve had panhandlers in other countries follow me into the water ruining an afternoon swim, or camp out just beyond the garden patio, calling for me to buy their goods. (One couple from Manhattan quit their Grenada vacation early, stating, “The panhandling isn’t this bad at home. We came here to relax…”) But, Jamaica was different. The people spoke to my heart and I quickly understood a universal desire for respect.
“I love your food. The Jamaican Jerk is delicious…nothing like back home,” I shared with the merchants. “I’ve been listening to a lot of your music on MTV in my room. I never knew there are so many types of Reggae. Do you have Tanya Stephensor Beris Hammond? I’d love to take some CDs home,” I explained to the last few shopkeepers. (Yes, I’m of the generation that still listens to an armoire full of CDs. Just another segment of my staving off technology.)
Walking back to the resort, a young Jamaican boy ran down the hill toward me, waving his arms. “Yuh di lady looking fi music?” he asked, showing me a handful of CDs.
“Well, yes I am. What do you have there?” The jewel cases sported homemade labels depicting the very artists I inquired about. We exchanged smiles as I paid him then crossed the boundary line to the resort.
That night, I watched a Jamaican grandmother teach her granddaughter the art of basket weaving while a Rastafari man let me listen through his headphones to other Jamaican musicians I might like. The next day, the little boy made me nearly a dozen more CDs which I carefully wrapped in the intricately hand-woven two-toned basket for my travels home.
For me, the best souvenir is a meaningful piece of culture. The best vacation is connecting with natives of the homeland. I travel to experience diversity. Maybe that’s what the cardinals and chickadees do too.
It’s all a matter of respect.
Some less respectful tidbits about Jamaica…
Don’t refer to a Rastafari as a “rastafarian” as they connect “ians” and “isms” to oppression. Likewise, referring to their philosophy as a “religion” or “ism” is against their beliefs.
Dudus (Christopher Michael) Coke led the violent Shower Posse drug gang that exported marijuana and cocaine to the United States. In 1992 he took over his deceased father’s position as leader of the Tivoli Gardens community in West Kingston. Providing programs to help the poor community garnered him so much local support that Jamaican police could not enter this neighborhood without community consent.