Spiritual Practice and Social Justice

“Justice is the ongoing, never-ending journey to remake community by strengthening relationships.” Marvin Ellison

As Unitarian Universalists, the core values of our faith call us to help create a world of justice, in which all people are accorded their basic human rights and our communities transcend divisions of class, race, nationality, and the many “-isms” that can separate us. Living up to this vision is a difficult challenge.

Our experience of injustice is of course different, depending on our social identities and daily experiences. For those of us with target identities, our work is to find the way to sustain ourselves in the face of oppression and injustice. For those of us who navigate the world with privilege, the challenge is to stay awake and aware of how that privilege operates in our daily lives and in our institutions. Most of us have a combination of target and dominant identities, and we are called to make sense of that in a way that helps us feel empowered and able to contribute to the world of justice we envision.

The UU College of Social Justice is designed to help people become more effective in working for social justice in our fractured world — and to sustain our courage, commitment, and energy through the long arc of this work. Our programs offer direct hands-on experience, along with study, reflection, and discussion. But spiritual practices are also central to what we do, including group worship and individual contemplative practices like prayer and meditation.

We believe that genuine social transformation is brought about when individuals and groups are willing to be changed, even as they strive to change the world. Our programs are structured to help you integrate the models of inner, personal transformation and outer social transformation, in order to build holistic and sustainable ways of doing and living the work of social justice.

Participating in our UUCSJ programs, and doing the justice work that follows, will often lead us out of our comfort zones. We have to struggle with our own biases when dealing with different social issues and cultures. We have to be willing to see where we may have internalized oppressive beliefs ourselves. To be effective agents of change and transformation in the long run, we must develop the ability to stay connected, even when uncomfortable, without jumping into our automatic modes of defense. This kind of personal work requires a high level of self-awareness, patience, and compassion, which are qualities developed by spiritual practices.

The Emphasis on Spiritual Practice

“Mental energy is finite, and our mind is diminished in direct proportion to how much its attention is fractured . . . Awareness itself is the primary currency of the human condition, and as such it deserves to be spent carefully.” —from “Busy Signal” by Andrew Olendzki, Tricycle, Winter 2009

The modern world trains us well in the habits of multitasking. Though this can feel efficient, it comes with a price. The ability to stay with a question and deeply probe our being for its answer; the practices of pondering, of thoughtful consideration and waiting for insight; and the skill to drift through the layers of awareness in our bodies and minds to discover what we really feel about something. These often fall by the wayside, sacrificed to busyness.

The learning offered through a UUCSJ journey is best absorbed through deep attention, so we ask our participants to choose a simple practice that will help develop this kind of attention. We learn how to practice distraction, preoccupation, and busyness all the time, just because of the habits of modern life. Training in things like attention, awareness, gratitude, and patience takes some deliberate effort.

What is a spiritual practice?

Spiritual practices are the habits in our lives that center us, open our attention more fully, and nurture our connections to something larger than ourselves — whether we understand it as God or Spirit, nature, or the interconnected web of existence.

Spiritual practices can be traditional or modern, familiar or quirky, solitary or communal. Examples of spiritual practice include silent meditation, prayer, yoga, and scripture study. But there are lots of everyday things that can become a practice for you: a regular walk in the woods or around the block, attentive journal-writing, memorizing favorite poems, or playing a musical instrument. Or perhaps you gain a sense of deep connection from time with family, remembering your ancestors, ecstatic dancing, or participating in a drum circle. What helps you connect to your sense of the Divine, the infinite, or even just your wonder?

It isn’t so much about what you do, but how you do it. And the common elements in any spiritual practice are attention, intention, and repetition.

Attention means we pay attention to the present moment: we experience what is happening with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is.

Intention is the deliberate engagement of our will, in a practice that nurtures a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves.

Repetition makes our centering activity into a habit: one that cultivates qualities like awareness, patience, and compassion. Like learning a new language or a musical instrument, repetition is how we practice awareness, curiosity, and openness to everything we do — including our daily struggles for social justice.

As an example, walking on the beach can be very healthy and relaxing; it can even give you a deep spiritual experience of connection.  But it will become a spiritual practice only when it is done with awareness and intention, and is repeated consistently over a period of time.

We encourage you to choose for your practice something that warmly beckons you, something you love, that helps you quiet the noise in your mind so you can pay attention on a deeper level. Choose something that helps you to be in just one place for a little while, doing just one thing with your whole awareness. Whatever that is, if you do it with attention, intention, and repetition, it can be your spiritual practice. Engaging in it will help you bring your best awareness to your UUCSJ program.

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