This is the (lightly edited) text of a sermon that I delivered yesterday at my UU church, inspired in part by Cat Chapin-Bishop‘s recent guest post on Wild Hunt. Not my absolute best work, but I think it served the purpose… apparently it made a few people think, which is about all I could ask for.
What is a “sanctuary”?
For today, in religious terms, we can think of it as a place where we gather with the intention to do “spiritual work”, whatever that may be. I think most of us think of our sanctuary as in here, and (hopefully) in our homes as well… yes? good… but are those the only places we go for spiritual exercise? Yoga class might be a sanctuary for some, or wherever you go to do volunteer work. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but I would like to challenge you this morning to look beyond the obvious, to think about your own life, and where your sanctuaries really are… or could be.
I think there are several criteria that need to be met in order for a place or activity to serve as a sanctuary, at least as I am defining it today.
* It must require commitment – of time, effort, energy, emotion.
* It should serve something outside yourself – I could commit hours of time and tons of energy to perfecting my backhand, but that alone wouldn’t qualify the tennis court as a sanctuary.
* And, I am coming to believe, it must involve other people. There is a lot to be said for quiet time – lord knows, I don’t get enough of it myself – but in the end, whatever insights or gains I might get during meditation, or out in the woods, have to be tested and proven true against other people. We are in and of the world, and whether there’s a reason for it or not, the fact remains that this is the hand we’ve been dealt.
There’s a Zen story I like about a young monk who asks his master to describe the ideal environment for the perfection of the self; the master responds, “I know of just such a thing. I call it ‘living’.” In that spirit, I have tried to consider my whole life as my sanctuary, as best I can… which sounds good, of course, but what does it really look like in practice? I don’t know yet. But the trying takes a number of different forms in my life, and I want to talk today about three in particular: music, blogging and aikido.
Music is probably the most obvious, and certainly the most clichéd, sanctuary in my life. I’m not talking about just listening to music (although I do that a lot) – while listening to music can be uplifting, it doesn’t require any effort, and any emotional change that results is strictly temporary. For me, the spiritual aspect of music is in performance – and even more specifically, in group performance.
Choirs – here and at the synagogue, even the opera chorus when I was doing that – all were sanctuaries. A large group of people with diverse backgrounds, training and natural ability, all learning to work together to turn ourselves into that singular entity called a choir – when it truly works (which isn’t often) there’s nothing like it. The sound, even the air in the room, changes; individual voices disappear, and for a few moments your individual self, or at least your awareness of it, dies away and nothing exists but the music. And when the music itself is intended to serve something greater – helping people connect with the Divine or with our cultural heritage – then it truly becomes a sanctuary.
This also ties in to some rather esoteric ideas I have about sound, vibration and the nature of the physical universe, ideas I have come across in Hindu mantra practice, Classical and Renaissance musical theory, Sufi mysticism, and even in certain Shinto and aikido teachings. Basically, I feel that when I sing the right music with the right intention, I am actually tuning myself to the Universe’s wavelength, if you will.
This work has also led to some deep personal realizations… [NB: this is the example I gave in the sermon, followed by a segue into the next section].
I started blogging a little over a year ago, about the same time I started aikido. It’s primarily a religious blog, which means I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about spiritual questions. This has led me to reflect on my spiritual journey in a very deep and intentional way; it has also led me into a wonderful online community of other religious bloggers of different faiths, deeply serious people who also think and write about these things as much as I do (but usually far better).
The value of this community is hard to measure – as I reflect and write about my journey, I get insights from readers that change, reinforce or illuminate my thinking; and sometimes – occasionally… rarely – I get the chance to offer an insight on someone else’s journey that does the same for them. And sometimes those insights also turn back around and change my own thinking again!
Even the act of writing itself can create changes – when I blogged about my experience with “Kore Evohe”, for instance, I only intended to write a quick couple of paragraphs about the process of reconstructing the music, but then all these realizations just started “popping”. I understand now why people keep spiritual journals; I wasn’t consciously aware of half of what was going on in my head until I started to write it down. And a couple of my regular correspondents offered additional insights that helped me process the experience even further.
Something of the same process goes on in aikido, albeit on a much more physical level.
In one sense, our dojo is the most obvious of the three sanctuaries – it’s outdoors in the woods, a large hall built as much as possible in the traditional Japanese manner, with screened windows all round that let in the surrounding nature. We bow to the room on entering and leaving, acknowledging that this is a place set apart from the everyday world, and we bow to our partners as well, acknowledging and affirming that we are truly present there to train and learn together.
To those who have never studied them it may sound strange to hear the martial arts spoken of as a spiritual practice, particularly here where for many pacifism is so integral a part of spirituality that the two must seem synonymous. For many of us who practice, however, it is (or can be) the most spiritual part of our lives.
Aikido is indeed a martial discipline, but it was founded on some very spiritual ideas. Founder Ueshiba Morihei (usually called O-Sensei, which mean, roughly, “great teacher”) referred to it as the Art of Peace, and sometimes even as the Art of Love. He wrote quite a bit about the spiritual foundations of aikido, things like this:
“The penetrating brilliance of true techniques applied by those of the Path strikes at the evil one lurking within their own bodies and minds”; and
“Heaven, earth and humankind brought together and protected by Aikido – throughout the vast sea of existence, a sound of great joy”; and even
“Protecting the Way of gods and buddhas in this world of ours; the techniques of Aiki are the laws of deep Truth.” (1)
Clearly, he was a man on a mission.
But what makes it a spiritual practice for me? First, I believe the physical world is a part of the Divine, and this intentional and intense practice unites physical and spiritual development in a way that nothing else in my life does. Part of aikido training is the development of ki, which means basically “personal energy”. In practice this means both learning to develop firm intention to perform the techniques correctly and transmit that intention through my body to my partner. Even more importantly, I must learn to develop my awareness of my partner’s ki, their actual presence and readiness to perform the techniques with me; this is critical to ensuring that we both make it through the techniques safely. To do aikido properly in the moment, I have to stop thinking, and just do.
For someone who has spent as long as I have living mainly in my head, this forced grounding back into my body is really life-altering. I mean that quite literally – the longer I practice, the less patience I find I have with pure theory of any kind, particularly religious theory. This is slowly turning around almost 180 degrees the way I approach my own spiritual life, and indeed my life in general.
In a more formally religious sense, I appreciate the Art’s foundations in Shinto spirituality – I have been studying Shinto off and on for a few years, and increasingly find it to be one of the sanest religions I’ve come across – and I also view my practice as a devotional act, an offering of my self, my time and my energy in honor of Athena.
Finally, through aikido, again, I have acquired a community, and one that I regard as spiritual – not only do we work together for the mutual encouragement and development of all when we’re on the mat, we also spend time together off the mat just enjoying each other’s company and keeping up with the happening in each other’s lives.
At the beginning, I listed several aspects that I see as central to the development of a sanctuary; all of these common threads draw together in the sanctuaries I have discussed. Each practice touches something important to me and my spiritual development; each requires that I work with others, none works as well in isolation (or at all, in the case of aikido); and in each I give benefit as well as receiving, both to my fellow participants and to the larger community. Each expands my sanctuary outside these walls, outside the walls of my home, into the world at large.
Where are your sanctuaries… and how can you expand them?
(1) O-Sensei quotes adapted from The Essence of Aikido: Spiritual Teachings of Morihei Ueshiba, compiled by John Stevens.