So, what are you doing this year for Lent? I never considered this question until a few years ago when I started attending an episcopal church. I thought it was just another stuffy religious act that meant little to those who practice it. And it is. Until maybe it isn’t.
My life experience with religion and spirituality is an interesting one. I keep thinking one day I will write some kind of memoir about it. Each year as the story unfolds, I find that what once angered me slowly becomes just a part of the narrative. It is who I am.
Now I see how various threads are weaving together to form the fabric of my spirituality.
Ten years ago my spirit was in a bad place. I made a decision to leave an oppressive form of patriarchal Christianity that was based in fear, though it talked a lot about “love.” I was angry because I thought that the only way for me to express spirituality had to be within this system. It insisted this was the only way and that all others were “satanic lies.” I was burned out from trying so hard to be perfect in order to be worthy of this precious love…
Fast-forward to 2017 and you find me in a much different place. Not only have I found a church that is filled with actual love and compassion, I found ways to express a spirituality that were previously cut off from me.
I said to my husband, “By rejecting a spiritual life – because I had such a limited understanding of it – I was rejecting a deep part of myself.”
A week before Thanksgiving I decided to challenge myself to practice yoga every day until the New Year. My sweet son was growing, schedules were shifting for my parents who were amazing caregivers during my gym sessions, and it was becoming much more difficult to actually get to the doors of the YMCA. Daily exercise is a way I maintain clarity and I was starting to feel the strain. So, my desire for movement had an easy solution: daily yoga in my home while Arlo naps. Through the holidays I maintained this commitment, but soon it shifted to something else. I realized that my spirit was nourished while I was increasing in skill, flexibility, and strength. After nearly sixteen years of yoga practice, I fell in love with it – head over heels!
I decided to continue a daily home practice and started reading books about yoga philosophy. I absorbed Paramahansa Yogananda’s The Yoga of Jesus and Autobiography of a Yogi, the Bhagavad Gita, books on ayuerveda, Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, and learned that…
Yoga IS meditation!
The entire purpose for the existence of yoga is not physical fitness, but to prepare the mind for meditation.
After weeks of daily practice, my mind and spirit were open to this revelation. At this point I jumped headfirst into literature about meditation, a practice I always toyed with, but never made a commitment to any sort of regularity. If I am so devoted to a yoga practice, why am I not also committed to a meditation practice? I immediately downloaded a meditation app (because that is what people do in the twenty-first century!)
In America, we often think of yoga as simply the physical practice – what we do on a mat. Rather, full, real-deal yoga brings together eight principles, a.k.a. the Eight Limbs.
- Yama: moral code/moral actions
- Niyama: purity of behavior
- Asana: physical postures
- Pranayama: breathing techniques designed to control the life force
- Pratyahara: withdrawl of the senses
- Dharana: concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: oneness with the divine love
It takes years for a student to learn the ways of the eight limbs, but each one of these is considered a yoga. In other words, if you just practice yoga on a mat or at a gym, then you are really limiting yoga’s transformative potential.
Much has been written about this, of course, but here I will bring it back to the progression of my spiritual life and where I am going with this blog post.
After recognizing the need for regular meditation along with my yoga practice, I began inserting it into my life as it is intended: after physical yoga, when the mind is quieted by the breath and focus on physical asanas. I found this to be extremely rewarding. I was less distracted. My body and mind felt ready to dive into the stillness.
I am now convinced that the fullness of prayer and a connection with divine love is found in settling the senses through meditation.
This brings me to Lent. Traditionally, people give up something during this season in an effort to understand and identify with the sacrifice that Jesus made when he died on the cross and rose again, eradicating the barrier that was placed between humanity and God. Often folks will give up a food item. Some will go through their accumulated “stuff” and give away a bag of unused or forgotten things every day during Lent. These can be noble actions when the heart is in the right place. However, I prefer to add something to my days, instead of participating in the negative. This year I plan to add a Loving-kindness meditation throughout Lent in order to observe the loving-kindness Jesus embodied on earth.
Loving-kindness meditation develops greater compassion in a person through regular contemplation, concentrating love on people we know and do not know. You can even direct loving-kindness to yourself. It is not based in selfishness, but can be of great benefit if one is suffering from anxiety, depression, anger, or fear. Loving-kindness meditation will actually change your mind to become more aware of yourself and the people around you.
And I think we can all agree that the world needs more love in it right now.
More information on Loving-kindness meditation:
Loving-Kindness Meditation and Change, by Kripalu through The Huffington Post
Loving-Kindness Meditation, The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Loving-Kindness Meditation Practice, by The Greater Good in Action: Science Based Practices for a Meaningful Life