A spiritual practice my wife and I cobbled together, the Unitarian Universalist way.
Whatever it is, it has a name and thousands, maybe millions, of fellow practitioners around the world. There's a shelf for it at Barnes and Noble and cool terminology like chi or karma or agape. Probably there's a saint or prophet or some other towering figure who exemplifies it, and maybe even some celebrity followers who get the whole thing written up in People.
I don't have any of that.
It's not that I don't have a discipline. I do, but it's like so much of what Unitarian Universalists do—my wife Deb and I have cobbled it together for ourselves over a couple of decades. I'd be amazed if we aren't the only people who practice it.
So whenever somebody tells me that he's into TM or NLP, and then asks what I'm into, part of me wishes I could respond with my own string of letters and the title of a book. Instead, I face a choice: I can start a rambling explanation that is bound to outlast the other person's patience, or I can stare at the floor and change the subject.
I almost always change the subject.
I suppose there is a third choice. I could drop my do-it-yourself practice and take up one of the brand-name disciplines. And I would, except for one thing: What we do really, really works for us.
I realize that making a statement like that lands me in the middle of an old argument. I can already hear one group of readers demanding a definition of what it means for a spiritual practice to "work," while doubting that it means anything at all. But if I start definition-smithing, another group tunes out. To them, that's just the verbal mind chasing its own tail—the world's least spiritual activity.
This argument continues down the decades because both sides have a piece of the truth. Definitions aid clarity of thought—up to a point. Ultimately, though, words mean something because they are rooted in the experience of life, not in their connections to other words. Somewhere down the road, you have to stop defining and instead evoke a meaning with stories or metaphors or just simple pointing.
So I'll spend a few lines pointing, and if it evokes nothing for you, I apologize.
There's one way of living in which you react to events with depth, appreciation, and creativity. All the wisdom you've gathered in life is available to you, and you may even add to it by noticing something new. There's another way of living in which you react to events through knee-jerk patterns. Life gets away from you, and when you look back you say, "Why did I do that? I know better."
A spiritual practice is working if, after you do it for a while, you notice that you're doing the former more often and the latter less. You're spending more time in the deeper end of life's pool—swimming, not drowning.
Somebody in that doubting group of readers is bound to point out that my not-quite-definition makes it a spiritual practice to eat wisely and regularly get a good night's sleep. So be it. Take notice, all you sleepless and malnourished seekers!
So what is this do-it-yourself discipline my wife and I have been practicing for 21 years? The heart of it is very mundane: We talk to each other.
More specifically, we set aside some time about once a week (more often when life is getting hairy) to tell our common story backwards. We start with what is happening right now (“We're talking to each other.”) and move backwards through our days until we get to our previous backwards-narrating conversation. ("Before that, we were microwaving leftovers. Before that, you were answering email and I was in the shower.") We pay special attention to anything we thought hard or felt strongly about. Then we make some simple notes ("weekend in Vermont; Tory's birthday dinner") on a scrap of paper and spend a few minutes looking at the challenges of the week ahead.
In a typical week, the whole thing takes about 90 minutes: a little more than a typical marriage-counseling session, a little less than doing zazen every morning. But it combines easily with a meal or a walk or even a series of mindless errands. Lots of these meetings have happened in cars or airplanes.
That's the low-level process. There's also a monthly meeting that is a little more formal and ritualized. It includes candles, and we'd never do it in a car. We go over that month's weekly notes (backwards, starting with the most recent), burn them, write something about the past month in a journal, and envision what we can about the month to come.
Our big festival—with even more candles and several once-a-year snacks that have become traditional—is winter solstice. Starting at sunset, we pull out the journal and go backwards through the whole year until we get to the comments we wrote at the last winter solstice. Then we talk about where life is going and express some hopes and intentions for the upcoming year. We used to end the solstice celebration by greeting the sunrise, but we've had to compromise on that as we get older and have less stamina.
How did we come up with all that? It started simple and evolved.
The summer of 1988 got away from us. We had stuffed our calendar with all kinds of great plans—trips, visitors, concerts, and so on. It was fabulous on paper, but in reality we spent those months explaining to our friends and each other why we were too exhausted to appreciate whatever cool thing we were in the middle of. All summer I asked myself why we hadn't seen this coming, and the answer was obvious: We hadn't looked.
So we did what any yuppie couple of that era would do: We scheduled a business meeting to fix the problem. Every month, we decided, we'd sit down with our calendars and make sure we hadn't booked ourselves into a nightmare. Almost as an afterthought, we made a space on the agenda to review the previous month.
And then evolution started to work its magic. We liked the perspective of a monthly meeting, but the reviews were getting longer and longer. So we made a two-tier system with weekly meetings we could do anywhere and more formal monthlies with ritual trappings. Having made that step, an annual wrap-up seemed obvious.
That first winter solstice was like standing on a mountaintop. The view was stupendous, and we were hooked.
By now most of our friends know about this process, and all of them ask the same question: Why backwards?
That started with a coincidence. One of the activities we scheduled into the summer of 1988 was a class from a pagan instructor. As a step towards lucid dreaming, he suggested a backwards review of the day as a nightly meditation. (A few years later, a similar practice showed up in Carlos Castaneda's The Eagle's Gift, where it was called "recapitulation.”)
The lucid dreaming never worked for either of us, but rolling a day back started making a lot of sense. In everyday life, I'm constantly telling myself self-justifying stories. (This started in childhood, when my first stories all revolved around the classic themes: she started it, it was an accident, and they cheated.) If I recount a day by starting at breakfast and moving forwards, I inevitably fall into my prepared justifications. But if I roll the day backwards, those ego-defending stories often fall apart. I get past the beginning of the she-started-it story, and have to admit that it was already happening.
Recapitulation also has a much stronger cleansing effect than I have been able to explain. (Try it and see.) Narrating events backwards is almost like undoing them. The emotional baggage gets released. More than anything else, this effect is probably what motivated us to stick with our practice. After a while, rolling back our weeks became like brushing our teeth; we could save time by skipping it, but we'd feel grungy.
The innovation we added to the rollback process was to do it together. And that leads to everybody's second question: "Don't you just rehash all your arguments?"
Some of them. The stupid arguments—at least 90% of marital arguments are stupid—fall apart the same way self-justifications do. The rest are like land mines; somebody is going to trip them sooner or later. Having one come up in a rollback is like the bomb squad blowing up a mine in an open field. Time has been set aside, and everybody is calm and safe. That gives us a much better chance to resolve things than if we waited for one of us to get angry again.
What we can't resolve, we note and kick upstairs to the next higher level of the process, where we expect to have more perspective.
Like any practice, ours has run into challenges. When Deb's mother was dying, we set out to roll back a month and had to stop three hours later; we'd only made it through one day. (It took a series of tries over the next few weeks, but eventually we got that month covered.) The last 21 years have also seen other deaths, some major illnesses, two career changes, and a few periods of extreme doubt and discouragement.
We've rolled back through all of it.
We're in our fifties now, and our contemporaries are telling us that life is speeding up. The years just zip by now, they report. We haven't noticed that yet. Maybe it's a coincidence, but I suspect not. Rolling back our weeks and months and years takes just as long as it ever did. Releasing our baggage every week gives us room for new things. It helps keep life interesting.
A few of our friends have tried to imitate our practice, but no one has reported making it through more than two meetings. So I'm not inclined to start a workshop or write a book to promote this to the general public. Maybe it relies on something unique about us that I haven't identified.
If you're tempted to try, though, I'll make this suggestion: Ignore what we're doing now and imitate what we did in 1988. Find some practical problem to solve, and set up a simple process—something that makes sense to you—to deal with it. Add enough ritual—again, stuff that is meaningful to you—to convince your unconscious that you're doing something important, but not so much that the ritual becomes rote and starts driving out the content. Then watch what works and let evolution do its thing. In a few years you might have a completely unique practice that is geared to your particular talents and foibles.
And then, when you run into the guy who's into TM or NLP, I suppose you could say you do DIY and give him the URL of this column.
Or you could change the subject. That works too.
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.
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