Welcome to the Yoga Church Sunday Sermons.
December 2nd, 2018
I’ve experienced a heavy dose of personal transformation in my life (maybe that’s why I ended up teaching transformation for a living?) And it turns out (why am I surprised?) that this practice of writing sermons for you every week has its own transforming power. Remember the Thanksgiving Sermon a couple weeks ago? The one about gratitude as a quality of being? Well in that sermon I said I didn’t like holidays. But I’m not sure that’s true… Because this past week I’ve been plotting out an entire month of holiday reflections for you and I gotta say, I’m feeling a bit festive! (so bring on the sugar cookies!)
Today we start our holiday series with a sermon about stories. Because that’s what holidays are right? They’re stories we tell together.
And I’ve got some really interesting reflection questions for you at the bottom of this post. So give the sermon a watch and then share your wisdom! I want to hear all about the stories you tell and celebrate this time of year.
And if you feel tempted to share your favorite holiday cookie recipe, well, I won’t try and stop you. Just saying. 😉
What’s the Story I’m Telling? (Welcome to the Holidays!)
December is a full month. Today is the beginning of Advent, which will lead us to Christmas. Hanukkah begins this evening. The winter solstice is approaching. And, of course, we’ll soon be greeting a New Year. As we move into the fullness of this time I would like to pause and explore the ideas of story, ritual, and tradition. This month is full of them and I’d like to invite us all—you and me—to approach the season with some fresh awareness.
Because let’s be real. This month can be busy and exhausting. And we can easily fall into survival mode. Or is that just me? I don’t know if this happens to you, but I experience a lot of mixed emotions this time of year. I’m excited about certain things—like making wreaths, hanging white twinkly lights, drinking soy nog. But I dread other things—I dread the pressure, the consumerism, and the over scheduling. Plus this month is so hard for so many people and I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to fake happiness or merriment. It’s a complicated time and I’d like to invite our community to approach it with intention.
For the next four weeks I’ll bring you sermons themed around four of the important events this month: Advent, Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year. I’ll dig into each of them more deeply, but today I’d like to draw our attention to the fact that each of these events is a story—a story that tells us something about who we are as a people.
We human beings are seekers. The impulse to seek is written in the code of our DNA. We search. We strive. We follow our curiosity. We wonder: Why am I alive? And at a certain point in our search, we realize that we’re meaning making creatures. In order to understand ourselves, in order to understand our existence and our world, we have to make something. We have to create, tell, and remember stories. This is what holidays are—a collective remembering of our stories.
The teachings of yoga offer us the concept of Svadhyaya, a sansrkit word most often translated as self-study. But it’s not simply a generic form of self-study—technically it’s studying yourself through the scriptures of your people. The teaching of Svadhyaya comes from a time before writing, and traditionally referred to the memorization and recitation of mantras, stories, and songs, which provided a way to build identity among families and communities. You knew who you were through the stories and songs you’d been taught. I think it’s an important concept to consider this month as we all participate in some of our most commonly practiced collective stories.
I’m bringing the practice of Svadhyaya into a sermon about holiday tradition in order to get you to ask yourself: “Who am I because of the stories my family and culture chooses to tell and remember?” In other words, “Who are you based on the holidays you celebrate?” Holidays can be just another habit. Or they can be a powerful tool for self awareness and discovery. Why do you celebrate the holidays you do? Who taught you to celebrate them? What do they mean to you? And do the traditions you enact around them speak to your highest values?
Have you ever taken the time to identify the stories you were given? The stories your family gave you? Your culture gave you? Your religion and school gave you? What stories have been laid in your lap and have shaped who you are? What are the stories behind the holidays you celebrate? And how do you enact them?
This question of enacting our stories brings us to the practice of ritual—the practice of embodying the stories that shape and inform us. Some of you were taught ritual through the religious traditions of your family: For example, if you grew up Christian, you witnessed bread and wine becoming body and blood, if you grew up Jewish you witnessed bitter herbs becoming the harshness of slavery, if you grew up Muslim you witnessed prayer becoming the act of plunging into cleansing water 5 times a day. But, if like me, you didn’t grow up religious, formal rituals like these may be something you didn’t witness or experience until adulthood, if ever.
But we’ve all experienced ritual of some kind. I mean the act of making a wish and blowing out candles after being sung to is an example of an annual ritual many of us have participated in. And on a more daily basis, there’s the ritual act of sitting down around a table, eating a meal, and sharing the experiences of the day with people you love.
Ritual is the systematic coming together of a people around something. Around a birthday, a meal, a story, a holiday. One of the most important aspects of ritual is bringing consciousness into action. The act of ritual takes something ordinary—bread, wine, bitter herbs, a bowing body—and transforms it into something sacred. Rituals aren’t something you just mechanically move through. Or at least they’re not supposed to be. But it happens right? I mean how often do we hear—or say—“I’ve just got to get through the holidays.” For many of us the ritual of remembering and enacting meaningful stories has been overshadowed by stress.
So I’d like to interrupt our habits of simply surviving the holidays or just going through the motions of the holidays and call us into the practice of svadhyaya. I invite you to use the holidays you celebrate as a mirror that leads to deeper self-understanding. I invite you to contemplate the story behind the holidays you celebrate, which of course will be multi-layered. What’s the traditional story and history of the holiday? And what’s the story of the holiday in your family? Do these two stories have anything to do with each other? What rituals do you currently enact to mark the holiday? Be honest with yourself here. What are the traditions you keep? And how do they speak to your highest values?
As you embark on the many traditions of this month I invite you to pause and ask yourself: “How does the story of this holiday—and the rituals I enact to mark it (whatever they are)—shape who I am as a person?”
I’ll be right here with you. Asking myself the same question. And over the coming weeks we’ll explore some of these collective stories in more depth.
Until then, I wish you peace.