This reflection was originally delivered at The Sanctuary Boston worship service on April 18, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings.
Take a moment and just feel whatever is holding you, whether that’s the ground, the chair…
The aim of spiritual practice is not to protect us from heartbreak—our own or another’s. It’s to provide the grounding and the renewal so that we can deliberately put ourselves in the place of heartbreak. One of the most sacred things that we are called to do as human beings is to bear witness to another’s suffering. When they cannot hold hope it’s for us to quietly hold it for them. When we can live at the edges of heartbreak and still hold on to hope then that means that our spiritual practice has purpose and passion.
For me spiritual practice has three main components. They’re not separate for me but it’s easier to talk about them that way, and they feed on each other. There’s the practice that calls me home to my body—and I can tell you, as someone who has an immense amount of physical trauma, whose body wasn’t quite the way I would have chosen, and who has been living with AIDS for eighteen years, coming home physically is not an easy task. So for me spiritual practice has to start there. And how I did that is actually through yoga and also martial arts because I needed to find where my gentleness and my strength were. And that’s where I started. Basically I have had a long-distance dating relationship with my body, and slowly we’re working on living on the same coast.
The second part of my spiritual practice is the practice of devotion. It’s a practice that allows me to touch my forehead to the floor and fall in love with what’s sacred and divine. It’s the only place in this world that I’ve ever felt truly seen and truly loved for everything that I am. It’s something very quiet. But the act of submission, of putting my heart above my head, of privileging my heart over my head, is how the divine finds me and I can find the divine.
The third part of my spiritual practice is the act of actually bringing my whole self forward. And for me that’s the practice of walking kindness. For me, compassion is caring for the world through kindness giving compassion feet. The act of a spiritual practice allows me to walk in the world open. It allows me to keep showing up, over and over again, and allow my heart to be broken, wide open, stripped raw, to bear witness. And that’s a spiritual practice that shows up in the grocery store primarily, on a Saturday, when the person behind me has now knocked their cart into my Achilles tendon five times, and I can still greet the clerk and allow her to be seen.
That’s a spiritual practice. As much as ending prison injustice, prison reform, all of that. For me, spiritual practice is not about going to the mountain and finding spiritual enlightenment. It’s about living the life I have, that I’ve been given, from a spiritual place.
There are some people in the room who have plumbing because of that spiritual practice. I show up with the gifts I’ve been given and I use them with every fiber of my being. And if that means that I’m the person who’s going to fix your plumbing then that’s what I’m going to do. And if it means that I teach children and they can see a gentle man, they can see that strength and love and gentleness can show up in this form, then that’s what they see. That’s a spiritual practice.
But every time I go out in the world and I take that on I have to come back. I have to come back to my body, I have to come back to a place of devotion. I have to be willing to be stripped raw in front of the divine before I can go out in the world and have my heart broken again.
I wasn’t taught that. I didn’t grow up with that. I came to it literally one choice at a time, one moment of actively putting what I’m called to into action. I’m not a saint, anyone who’s ever lived with me can tell you that’s true, but what I do is in a spirit of mindfulness. I breathe before I speak, nine times out of ten (sometimes oops!). And before my mouth opens the questions I ask myself are: is it necessary, is it true, and is it kind. The fourth question I have is: will it be of service.
A lot of people notice the ink on my forearms. This here is the Sanskrit for devotion and for service. And this one is the Sanskrit for compassion and for courage. Those are the four guiding principles for me. So when I put my forehead to the floor, I am asking the divine to not leave me alone, to help me walk in the world embodying those four principles, and to take the love that comes from my relationship with the divine forward from a place of absolute heartbreak and still hold my truth and joy. It’s not about self-righteousness or being “right”—that’s not what I’m speaking of, I’m speaking of divinity and I’m speaking pointedly of where sorrow and joy can live in my veins even at the same time. Spiritual practice does not mean bliss. Bliss can often be an addiction. But when I can live in a place where sorrow and joy can coexist and out of that hope with some skinned knees can show up over and over again, then my practice has been worth it.
So if you can just again feel the ground… Take a deep breath in, and out.
All I want from you is for you to ask yourself, are you willing to have your heart broken. And what practices are you willing to put in place to sustain you so you can continue to show up in the world wide open.
Take a deep breath in, and out. Namaste.