What does the thrill of a zip line adventure in Costa Rica have to do with meditation poses from the world’s spiritual traditions? They both highlight the embodiment of life. Join us as we explore embodied spiritual practices that help us become more present and grounded in experiencing the sacred in everyday living.
Rev. Jennifer DeBusk Alviar is an ordained, Unitarian Universalist minister who received her M.Div degree at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. She draws upon her studies of world religions to connect interfaith meditation practices for people healing from illness and trauma. Rev. Alviar speaks to diverse organizations including hospitals, churches, schools, retirement communities and nonprofits interested in integrating health and wellness from an embodied, interfaith perspective. She is a tennis and bicycling enthusiast who lives with her husband and daughter in Seattle.
MEDITATION POSES FROM THE WORLD’S SPIRITUAL TRADITIONS
Rev. Jennifer DeBusk Alviar
East Shore Unitarian Church
August 11, 2019
Costa Rica Zip Line
Let me set the scene for you. It is a hot day in the tropics of Costa Rica’s rainforest. We are high up in the tree tops surrounded by lush greenery. Sounds of monkeys and exotic birds are heard all around us. At this moment, our team of five is experiencing sensations of excitement, fear and anticipation as we gear up for a crazy family adventure.
My 80 year old father and my 78 year old mother are adjusting their helmets and body harnesses. My husband and I are busy helping our 9 year old daughter get set up with her gear. Whether due to a moment of inspiration, or a lapse in judgment, our family decided that it would be great fun to go zip lining together. Here is a family photo of us posed right before take off.
This is the general height of our assent from the stable platform into the free-form sensation of air and movement.
For safety reasons, of course, our guide offered us specific instructions before embarking on an adventure such as this. He told us to hold on to the zip line cord, lean back and bend our knees. When we near the end of the line, he instructed us to pull on the cord to slow down the pace. His final words were these: “Smile the whole time. We will be taking photos.”
Now I don’t know about you, but when I find myself about to throw my body into a novel situation that defies the laws of gravity, it’s hard for me to concentrate on the instructions at hand. So, I devised a plan. I focused on the guide’s first and last points: hold on and smile. I figured the rest would sort itself out.
On my first try, I held on a bit too tight and lost my momentum. One of the guides had to come rescue me in mid-flight. I looked like this.
I made a mental note to myself. Next time, relax and loosen my grip. Which I did. But this time, I forgot to pull down on the cord when I neared the end. I smiled with my body moving full-steam ahead. I was feeling pretty good about myself.
However, I noticed that the guides were not smiling back. No affirming signals of a “thumbs up,” “good job,” or “you got this.” Instead, I saw their faces cringe. They covered their eyes to avert the look of impending disaster. When I realized that I might very well smash my face into the approaching tree, my expression turned from a smile to horror! I looked like this.
I eventually got the hang of it near the end of my zip line adventure.
I looked something like this.
Theological Reflection on Body and Faith
Sometimes our bodies offer us insights that our minds don’t always register. For example, I noticed how refreshing the breeze felt on my face as the zip line transported my body from one platform to the next. My eyes delighted in the magical, sun-dappled movement of light dancing among the leaves from my tree-top vantage point.
I wondered—when was the last time that I felt truly embodied? Fully present to the moment? Experiencing the sacred in everyday living? It occurred to me, in a bittersweet way, that zip lining is the perfect metaphor for our American culture. So often we are busy transporting our bodies to future destinations rather than inhabiting our bodies. We want to zip line our way through life with speed, adrenaline and excitement. Social media provides an online platform to further promote and reinforce lives filled with exhilaration.
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone deserves some fun. And it is fine to share our photos with family and friends. However, given our opioid epidemic and other body-numbing practices, it seems that our culture is more comfortable in checking out, rather than checking in, with our bodies. What if we were to switch this around and be a bit counter-culture? What might an embodied life look and feel like? In particular, how might we connect our bodies with spiritual practices that keep us grounded and present? Mindful to the moment? Experiencing the sacred in everyday living?
Embodied Prayer through Imagery
I decided to engage these theological questions about embodiment from a visual perspective. I came across a captivating, inspiring book by Jon M. Sweeney entitled Praying with Our Hands: 21 Practices of Embodied Prayer from the World’s Spiritual Traditions.
Photographer, Jennifer J. Wilson, beautifully captured these embodied spiritual practices through her stunning black and white images. These images evoked, in me, the values I longed for: trust, surrender and letting go. I would now like to highlight some of these spiritual practices from this book.
1. Welcoming the Sabbath
Jews celebrate the coming of the Sabbath at home on Friday evening, marking it as the beginning of a holy day. A remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt and a reminder of the work of creation, the Sabbath is welcomed by lighting Sabbath candles.
God’s first act of creation was when God said, “Let there be light.” Shabbat reminds us of our role in the ongoing work of creation, as we release the light of God infused in all things through our own efforts to “repair the world.” This Jewish expression of service is also known as tikkun olam.
2. Welcoming the Deity
Namaste is a Hindu greeting often used in yoga practice. This particular hand posture is known as anjali-mudra meaning “welcome the deity.” It represents the spark of the divine within each of us. The divine in me honors the divine in you. Yogis teach that when we direct our gaze inward, we commune with this sacred presence. Practicing yoga is all about surrender and letting go, allowing the body to find its center.
3. Praying with Icons
Worship spaces usually have special spiritual significance because of the symbols of the Divine presence there. In Taoist and Hindu temples, incense symbolizes Divine manifestations. In Roman Catholic Churches, the presence of the Holy Eucharist is the presence of God. In synagogues, the Torah scroll instills special reverence. Venerating them by praying with icons brings the body into the act of prayer.
4. Dancing with God
The mystical movements of Hinduism, Hasidism, and Sufism teach us that union with God is not only possible, but also natural to our human condition. In Sufi dance, or “turning,” the dervish becomes a doorway through which the Divine and human meet. Receiving energy from God with the right hand turned toward heaven, she returns energy to the earth through her left hand.
5. Breaking Bread
All things contain a shard of God’s goodness, which is why sustenance for the body can also be nourishment for the soul. The stages for making bread are often metaphors for steps on the spiritual path: planting, sowing, harvesting, kneading, rising, sharing.
Common to all religious traditions is the idea of hospitality in welcoming a stranger at our table. By preparing our hearts we will be able to respond with our hands to the needs we see around us, sharing God’s goodness in simple ways.
6. Daily Honor
Many religious traditions practice a daily regimen of repeated prayer—but none combine the spiritual with the physical like Salat, Muslim daily prayer. According to tradition, “The Prayer” was first taught to the prophet Muhammed by angels, and it mirrors their constant adoration of God.
Salat is practiced all over the globe—five times daily the Islamic world faces Mecca and praises: “In the name of Allah, boundlessly merciful and compassionate!” The Prayer has several stages and universes of meaning: standing, bowing, prostrating, and kneeling all use the hands to recognize and praise Allah (“God” in Arabic) in humility and devotion.
7. Showing Compassion
Central to Buddhist spiritual practices is service to others. Bodhisattvas (Sanskrit for “awakening being”) are people who put aside their own striving toward enlightenment in order to help other people reach their enlightenment. You don’t have to be schooled in the dharma (Buddha’s teachings) to be a bodhisattva—Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Rachel Carson, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are a few modern examples often cited.
All of these paths show how we gain wisdom and compassion through selflessness, when our hands act in the perfect understanding that you are me and that we are One.
8. Holy Water
Most religious traditions use washing in water as a personal means of preparing ceremonially for prayer, meditation or spiritual service…One of these beautiful practices is the Hindu’s devotion to Ganga, the goddess of the Ganges, India’s most sacred river.
In Catholic tradition, water is sanctified by a priest and used for personal and community worship, sometimes sprinkled on the worshippers, or simply touched upon entering a sacred place. Sometimes a touch can help to restore our spiritual focus.
Embodied Principles of Trust, Surrender & Letting Go
When I undertook this visual exploration of world religions in response to my Costa Rica zip line experience, I wasn’t sure what I might find. At first glance, it seemed as though my zip line adventure simply represented an isolated incident of a vacation getaway. “What happens in Costa Rica, stays in Costa Rica.”
However, this initial perception did not hold true at all. Funny how that works. Something happens in our lives that highlights a moment in time. In my case, a tight grip. A startled look on my face. Upon further reflection, I discover that this “moment” reveals a deeper pattern, habit and way of being that had been there all along. I just didn’t have the eyes to see it, nor an embodied awareness to realize it—until now.
Why now? For me, it comes down to the practice of embodied meditation and prayer. Each of these diverse meditation poses share a common theme. They all embody the three principles of trust, surrender and letting go.
Let me personalize these principles for greater clarity. At age 6, I survived a traumatic, life-threatening brain hemorrhage. This, followed by two more relapses at ages 16 and 25. The more health setbacks I experienced, the more I feared my mortality. I no longer trusted my body as a safe, reliable place to inhabit.
My fear and lack of trust caused me to cultivate a tight grip on life. This tight grip, in turn, prevented me from surrendering and letting go. I zip lined my way through life trying to chase, outrace these uncomfortable human emotions through constant striving.
I bicycled 5,200 miles across the United States from Bellingham, Washington to Portland, Maine with a touring organization called Cycle America. I taught English to immigrants and refugees at the International Institute of Boston as part of CityYear/AmeriCorps. I backpacked for a month in the remote backcountry of Alaska with National Outdoor Leadership School—a wilderness survival program.
My action-oriented, achievement-driven path had taken me far in life. But it had not offered me peace. I wondered—could there be another, more sustainable way to approach life that offered greater peace and soul-nourishment? If so, what might that look and feel like? Is there a way to embrace my mortality without associating it with fear? Is it possible to view my body with greater compassion as a living, breathing, changing organism rather than feeling betrayed and distrustful of my body for letting me down time and again? If I could learn to cultivate qualities of trust, surrender and letting go, imagine how freeing that might feel.
At age 32, I decided to attend seminary at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California to explore these theological questions in greater depth. Through a combination of academic study of world religions, and a healthy dose of life experience, I came to this realization. A life based on fear never leads to freedom and peace. Let me repeat that. A life based on fear never leads to freedom and peace.
This is the beauty of embodied meditation and prayer. It invites us to slow down, pause and inhabit our bodies with deeper grounding and presence. It creates a safe space to trust, surrender and let go. After a lifetime of struggling to inhabit my body due to trauma and illness, I am now beginning to experience a more holistic, integrated approach toward peace through embodied meditation and prayer.
Dr. Taitetsu Unno, a Japanese scholar on the subject of Pure Land Buddhism, expressed it best in these words. He said, “The cartesian split of body and mind has no place in embodied prayer, for it involves mind, body and spirit, as well as intellect, emotion and will. The hands in prayer…overcomes the duality inherent in human thinking and language…When the two hands exist separately and work independently of each other, we have the duality of good and evil, right and wrong, pure and impure…But when the two come together and work in harmonious unison, the wholeness of the spirit becomes manifest.”
Call to Action
So, tell me. When was the last time that you felt truly embodied? Mindful to the moment? Experiencing the sacred in everyday living? How might some of these embodied spiritual practices highlighted above help keep you grounded and present? How might they enable you to trust, surrender and let go?
Compassion for Trauma & Illness
For anyone who has experienced trauma to the body of any kind, I can truly appreciate and respect how tremendously challenging and scary it can feel to inhabit one’s body. After all, the body is the very source of that pain. Who would want to touch such a tender wound?
However, the body can also serve as the source of healing and wisdom if we can find the courage and tools to access it with compassion. Seen from this perspective, perhaps religion is less about a system of belief, and more about an embodied posture of faith and trust. My hope is that these humble prayer poses and meditation postures from the world’s spiritual traditions can teach us to lead a more embodied way of life. May they be of service for individuals and our society longing for greater healing, wholeness and peace.
I would like to end with a closing prayer by David Adam.
God of Peace
God of Peace
Relax the tensions
Of my body…
Still the anxieties
Of my mind…
Calm the storm
Of my heart…
Give me courage
Let peace flow in me,
Through me, from me.
The deep, deep peace of
~ David Adam
Amen, Shalom, Salaam, Namaste.