Radical Relationship I: The Science of Covenant

If Unitarian Universalism’s crux were reduced to a few points in space and time, they would be those potent moments just before and just after we keep promises, or break them. The power of those moments is simple, shocking, and science-based. Explore that power—its science, theology and practice.


DOUG ZELINSKI: Welcome to this afternoon's workshop. This is number 2034, entitled Radical Relationship I, The Science Of Covenant, and I'm sure you've heard already, we're recording this. And so some of the things we say, we're saying on behalf of the folks, our colleagues who will listen later, and your words will be living in perpetuity.

And we'll be asking you if you have comments or questions, to please come up to the microphone so that they can live forever. So, welcome. My name is Doug Zelinski, I'm the Leadership Development Director for the New England region of the UUA, and I'd like to introduce my colleagues, who are partners in this presentation, and also partners in part two of Radical Relationship, which is the theology of covenant, which is tomorrow.

Same time, same place. This is Renee Ruchotzke. She is the Leadership Development Consultant for the Central Eastern Regional Group, otherwise known as CERG, and that's Jeanelyse Doran Adams, who is the Director of Leadership Development for the Pacific Western region. I don't think that translates to PWR. Sorry. How y'all doing? You just had lunch?


DOUG ZELINSKI: Yippee! So halfway through, or even earlier, we might stand up and go, yeah! So, the Science of Covenant. Was it the science word that got you here, or the covenant word that got you here?

AUDIENCE: Science.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Yeah, that's it. All right. Hopefully you'll get some of both. The word shocking. Yeah, I know. I put shocking in there, because that's a pretty big thing to deliver on, isn't it?


DOUG ZELINSKI: Well, if I don't do something shocking, I may ask you to do something shocking. So, let's start out with this question. Have you heard yet already what covenant is? Well, here are a few of the things that we sometimes understand covenant to mean. It's a worship statement that many of us say every Sunday, or when we show up on Sunday at the beginning of the service. This is what we covenant.

It sometimes is referred to as behavioral guidelines in a congregation, like, let's put together some rules about how we're not going to hit each other too hard. That's sometimes referred to as a covenant, although sometimes the board behavioral is stock in front of it. Oh, like here. And then there is the covenant of our personal commitment to the mission of the congregation.

So we say that the Cartesian has a mission, right? So, that kind of makes you answerable to that mission if you're a member of that congregation. So in a sense, you're making promises to spend your time and energy in the direction of the mission of the congregation.

And then we can go a little bit more personal, which is that I may be covenanting with this idea of becoming ever clearer on what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, and how to live that in the real world. And so that's kind of an internal personal call around covenant. And then we go beyond, and just I may covenant around how to act in the world, evangelize, to do social witness.

And my congregation. I may encourage my congregation. I may join my congregation to do the same thing. All these things are covenant, and no one thing, at least at this stage in our 51 year history of being combined faiths, have we settled on what just the word covenant means.

But you know already that it has something to do with moving from promise to commitment. So we'll be talking a lot about promises today, and have you heard covenant mean anything else?

AUDIENCE: Minister's relationship with the congregation.

DOUG ZELINSKI: The minister's relationship with the congregation is often referred to as covenant, as opposed to a contract.

AUDIENCE: If we were to call it a set of promises we make to each other in the context of the holy.

DOUG ZELINSKI: A set of promises. Here we introduce the context of the holy as the holding vessel the witness, the motivation for this set of promises we make to one another.

AUDIENCE: We actually have some people who are atheists and humanists who object to the use of the word.

DOUG ZELINSKI: And so we also have, what is covenant meaning something abhorrent, right? Or is that too strong?

AUDIENCE: Not much.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Not too much. OK. So we're here to understand each other. So, interestingly enough, we're not going to deal a whole lot about what convenant is. This is more about when covenant is. So when you're in your congregation, or when you're not in your congregation, when is covenant operating?

We could say all the time, but this workshop from the science basis is geared toward the notion that there are critical moments in our journey through life with a congregation, and in our faith, where what it means to be in covenant, the decision about am I going to keep my promise, or am I going to break my promise comes down to a very small, shrinking moment where in our gut, we kind of know when we break it and when we keep it.

So that's what we're going to look at first. So here are the goals for today. Our hope is that when you leave, you will be willing to declare, or may be willing to whisper incredulously, we can know the precise moments when covenant is operating presently in our midst. Science tells us the choices that we make in these moments actually change our brain structure.

Not just the way we think, but literally the arrangement, the neural paths, things are moving and changing, and being created and dying in our brain. As a result, these tend to be the most potent moments of living as Unitarian Universalists, because there's the pivotal moments when our faith is most actively asking, what are you going to do?

You going to keep your promise, or are you going to not keep your promise? And, OK, what does not keeping a promise mean? It means that you don't do what you aspire to do, and you figure out how to get back into covenant. So we're not talking about remove your idea of our original sin and of needing to go to confession.

Breaking covenant, breaking promises is just another faith opportunity. That's all it is. And when we sit in these moments, and when we make this change, and when we recognize that science is on our side for this, these become the moments that can change the world. Because of course, they change us. We could go into quantum mechanics.

Well, actually, not very far could we go into quantum mechanics, but around group consciousness and all of that, but it comes down to if you've changed your way of thinking, you'll be influencing the people around you, and you will be co-creating something different than was going to happen before. OK, that's a miracle to me.

If you go out this door and decide to do something, you're deciding something that will cause something different than if you had decided something else. OK, is that just too obvious to be, like, duh, or do you feel like, holy cow? Given what I decide, everything else after that flows out of it. Don't want to make you paranoid about every moment, but-- so let's look at some of these moments, and I think many of you have some of these moments.

And what I want you to do as we look at these is see if you can crystallize, if you can sort of draw down that time when you made a pinky swear, what else did you call them? Crossing your heart. So when you do that, and it was with someone who you cared about, there was a moment, there was this moment when you realized this matters, right?

See if you can collect get close to that moment, otherwise we wouldn't have done it. The pinkie swear. OK at some point as a child, we discover that there's a contract around rules. And if we're going to cooperate in a game, we have to promise to follow them. But there's probably a moment when we decide, oh, I don't want to follow the rule here.

So for some of us, there may be this moment where we recognize, I broke the rule and I got away with it, or I broke the rule and I didn't get away with it. But when we socialize, we're entering into a kind of social contract where there are certain promises. OK.

For those of you who have had I do moments, or significant I don't moments, what I want you to notice is how the world sets itself up to help make that moment more than it would have been. So everything that goes around a wedding makes it so that when those two people look at each other and say I do, like even people in the audience, some folks are like, chills go up and down their spine, and the knees starts shaking.

And they recognize, all right, something happened here. Something obviously pivotal. And that's why signing on the dotted line actually also makes us nervous a little bit, because, oh. So we maybe dress up. We have to go into this room that's got wood polished tables, and they have this metal pen, and all that stuff. And so this is important.

And then you file that paper someplace, like, I think I could find it. And then there's that moment. So, you know, having a baby is having a baby, and I think maybe I'm-- so correct me, women, if I'm wrong, maybe the pregnancy test is where it hits you. I mean, it's not like there's only one about this, but that's clearly one. For the guy--

AUDIENCE: The first kick.

DOUG ZELINSKI: The first kick. Oh. Oh, wow. I'm jealous. Actually, OK, guys, would that not be amazing? Through that first kick, you actually know something inside is yours that's living. Oh, my god. And then this is for keeps moment, which is different, sometimes, from the I do moment, right? I mean, if you do long enough, you get to a place where it's like, you know, I think I'm going to keep doing this. And something shifts around that keeping.

There's another moment I toyed with putting in here, which is the death does us part moment. Where at some point we recognize, and it doesn't have to be in marriage, that the people we care about will not be with us, and something shifts at that point. And we probably make promises around how and what we behave, we remember, we plan to do.

So, we have these moments, right? And I hope you've been able to say, all right, there is this place where, OK, I could decide yes or no, because like in the dressing room, your mother could come up to you and say, you know we can cancel this wedding? Like that was really a possibility? So, let's scale that back, although it's not really scaling back. We just think it's scaling back, to congregational moments.

See if you can find that kind of moment in these things, when you sense the pivot point of keeping or breaking a promise. And remember, breaking a promise doesn't mean you get in trouble, it just means that part of you realizes, I didn't keep my word. We're going to have to do something about that. May turn out even better if you do the right thing after that.

I'm not asking you to look for when you've broken promises, but you can. But also when you recognize you're keeping them. So for example, I'm an introvert. I remember the day when I was on the board, I got newly elected to the board. There was a stranger in the fellowship hall, and I'm looking, going, all right, I'm on the board now. I have to go talk to that person.

So for an introvert, I did that because of a promise. I was also young in my faith, and so there wasn't necessarily the motivation of, oh my god, there is so much to share that it doesn't matter whether you want to talk to me or not. We're going to talk. So is there a welcoming moment when you did or didn't welcome? Is there a showing up moment, where you thought, I don't really have to go to that committee meeting?

Or I am so tired, but I'm going to go to the committee meeting. And in terms of your own practice, do you promise yourself that you'll do spiritual practice of some sort? And then we probably, many of us are very good at it, but the one time we miss, we know it. I mean, we know the moment when we're saying, I'm not doing this, or the moment when we realize, I didn't do this.

So, other moments are when we choose to gossip or not. Last night I had to make a choice about whether I was going to gossip or not. I have to tell you, I hate not gossiping. There's a part of me that thinks we're losing some cultural art form, or something. I don't know, but I miss it. So, pledging. Pledging has two phases, at least. OK, I can keep my pledge if I pledge really low.

And so there's that moment when you decide, all right, what really is my pledge? Or the decision might be, this is something I'm not going to think about. I'll just put on what I had last year. Also a moment where we recognize, I could've engaged this a little differently. Faith deepening. You hear something in a sermon, and you go, I should work on that. And so that's kind of like the anticipation of a promise.

You've made a half promise, because you're still in dialogue with the minister in your head, or whoever's doing the sermon when you go, I should do something with that. And then when you leave, you forgot. So that's not really breaking a promise. And then the good news. Do we do we share it or not? Wow. That's a tough one for us, but you know what? We know when we're not doing it, don't we?

For those of us for whom that's difficult to do. So, if you found a moment where you did or didn't keep a promise in church, or in other another of your life, if you would turn to your partner. I'm going to give you each two minutes. See if you can talk about what that moment was, and how you felt, how you knew that's the moment.

How did you identify this as, you know, I remember feeling like, OK, I'm going to stop thinking about this as fast as I can, because I know I didn't do what I was supposed to. Or, you know, how do you translate that feeling in your gut that says, I pivoted one way or the other. Does anyone need more direction or instruction about that? You need more? So, you guys start, and I'll talk to you.

So, can someone testify, come on up to the microphone and say, this is my secret, or, oh my gosh, you should have heard his secret. I'm going to tell you all about it.

AUDIENCE: Did you promise?


DOUG ZELINSKI: Come on, somebody. What promise did you talk about? We got a couple-- so we'll do these three people, thank you.

AUDIENCE: I was asked to do a task, and I found that I really couldn't do it, and I had to admit to myself that I was not going to be able to do it, and then I had to go to the person who asked me to do the task and say, I need to tell you now, I can't do this, and I should tell you now before it gets really bad.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Oh, so you're actually doing the whole workshop. She restructured her brain by going through that process. It's going to be easier next time, by the way.


DOUG ZELINSKI: Unless the task is harder. I don't know how that equation works.

AUDIENCE: I was in the middle of talking about someone, and I stopped myself and I realized that I was triangulating. My issue that I was talking about, I really should have been talking to the person themselves, so I sort of started backtracking, and sort of ended that conversation quickly, so I could just deal with it direct. So, that was it.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Great. We've got these three, and that's all we'll have time for. I wish we had time for more.

AUDIENCE: I realized that I back myself into decisions, and I was asked to be a worship associate at my church, and the job was described to me as reading some stuff in front of the congregation. We were just moving to worship associates. We had not had them. I was like, oh, yeah, I can read in front of a bunch of people.

So I said yes, and then the tasks kept piling on, and since making that decision, I have watched myself make a couple of other decisions that way under talking myself in by saying it's a small task.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Thank you. Well, did anyone notice something she said? She said, I watched myself make some other decisions. That's exactly what we're talking about. Watching ourselves moment by moment, become Unitarian Universalists.

Because it's those moments where we're challenged in our gut and in our head that our faith is asking something of us. Are you our fourth, third person? Come on up.

AUDIENCE: My friends here that were in our little discussion just a couple minutes ago said I really should get up and tell you folks what I told them. I'm with what was once a fellowship, and had been lay led for many, many years, and we bought a church building and decided to rename ourselves as a church.

And we went to the covenanting process, but at one point we decided that we would look into both getting another building that would serve [INAUDIBLE] better than the building we had, and getting a minister. And we researched it for several years, and just delayed making the decision. But at one annual meeting, somebody who is no longer with our particular congregation because she moved, said something like, well, why don't we move on this?

Why don't we do something? Well, we took a vote on two questions that in our minds were interlinked. And because they were interlinked, they both seemed fairly substantial. We had postponed actually reaching the decision. But we decided to go ahead and get a minister, who was our first.

DOUG ZELINSKI: OK, I need to--

AUDIENCE: And the second one--

DOUG ZELINSKI: Get to your promise that you'd kept, or didn't.

AUDIENCE: Oh, well, we voted.


AUDIENCE: At the same time to do both. Build a new building.

DOUG ZELINSKI: Oh, that's cool.

AUDIENCE: And to hire our very first minister. And that was a really big decision, and if you participated--

DOUG ZELINSKI: I hadn't thought about that. Had you guys thought about that? When you vote, you're making your commitment, you're promising that you're supporting that thing that you're voting on. Thank you so much. Wow, that's cool. So that's a moment, right? We know we have moments during annual meetings, right? So, voting matters. And I mean, what is this about? General assembly about?

Where voting is where we express our Unitarian Universalism. So, moment by moment we become Unitarian Universalists. Moment by moment we become-- through the miracle of science, actually, the miracle of self-directed neuroplasticity. Isn't that cool? I had to practice that word. So, what is neuroplasticity?

A good place, if you're interested in this, to start, is the website www.whatisneuroplasticity.com. There it is. It's not a big, huge site, but it points you to some good books. The beginning books, they're selling them, of course. That's why it's a dot com. There are podcasts, like a hundred podcasts that talk about a lot of different aspects of neuroplasticity. So, that's where you would go.

So this is it. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. So the big deal about this is that until 1940, when scientists-- before 1940, when scientists thought about the brain, for the most part as we approached 1940, it was in a mechanistic kind of way, which was once we were adults, our brains were set.

Did you hear that if you had a drink, you would lose brain cells? And they would be gone for good. And you'd be having a net loss. So what we've discovered since 1940, we, they have discovered since 1940 is that in fact, adults rearrange their brain, change their brain, grow new neurons. It's slower than kids, of course, but it happens.

They noticed it through finally paying attention to people who had brain damage in one side of their brain, and discovered that the faculties that should've been unable to perform, they could later do. And literally, they had rewired portions of the brain which were not originally for that to do those tasks.

Even as much as, there is some literature on someone who becomes blind reallocating their vision portion of their brain to develop a kind of echolocation, a kind of sensory ability for where they are in the room, and in the space. So they actually re-purpose a visual based portion of the brain to do a different task we don't even actually normally consider a sense.

So, it used to be that our brains were immutable, unchangeable, and that once they were set, they produced what we felt, and they produced what we thought. They pretty much eliminated free will. Did you know you didn't have free will until 1970-something? Which means you can't be blamed for anything, actually. So, what's been new since the development?

Like in the '80s, of-- what is that? Positron emission tomography, hey, and MRIs, is that they can actually see now in the brain what's activated when things happen, and when they first started this, their interpretation was when this part of the brain fires, this person says something. When that part of the brain fires, it reflected-- there was like, this sort of deterministic view at that stage.

And it has loosened up to some degree. OK, so first off, we're not scientists. We're not neurosurgeons or neuroscientists. This is still all controversial. An information stage. And so is Unitarian Universalism, right? There are just some things about this that, no matter how the science turns out, and some of it's very promising, the way in which it helps us to talk about covenant is kind of amazing.

So, they learned a lot about this concept of watching yourself make a decision. This observer self, we'll call it, by working with obsessive compulsive disorder. Obsessive compulsive disorder is when a person has intrusive thoughts which generate either extreme fear or anxiety, and then is followed by the compulsion to remedy that somehow, with only modest relief and the return of the insistence that this is of urgency.

So for example, these are the habits of washing the hands over and over again, checking the stove 14 times before you're allowed to go home, or leave home for work. Magical thinking around numbers. For example, there's a story of a woman who, if she saw a license plate that ended in an odd number, she had to park her car until one with an even number went by, or else something would happen to her kid.

Now, the way this helped out the situation was that for the most part, generally speaking, folks who have obsessive compulsive disorder know they have it. They know they don't want to check the oven 14 times. They know they shouldn't need to check the oven 14 times. They're aware of this condition, but they still can't do anything about it.

So, scientists started to explore this whole idea that there's this presence that at least witnesses what's happening, even though at the moment it has less, or little power over what's happening. So, the way in which neuroplasticity, the fact that the brain can rearrange, given the kinds of-- so we reversed it. The structure of the brain determines the mind, determines what we think, determines what we feel.

Now we're introducing idea that given what we think and given what we feel, we have the opportunity to rearrange the brain, physically rearrange the brain. If we choose to do that in concert with someone else, or by ourselves, in a programmed way, way we are doing self-directed neuroplasticity.

So for example, for OCD, for obsessive compulsive disorder, the scientists who are working with the folks asked them to, instead of focus on the behavior, which they knew was wrong, or undesirable, to focus on the observer self. And not to focus on the observer self in the sense that we're going to focus on the observer self watching how bad this behavior is, but focusing on the observer self, about how it is, who it is, what it is.

What's it feeling? What's it noticing? So in essence, we're sort of bolstering and strengthening, and giving more time for the observer self to develop a kind of alternative-- well, not alternative, because it was there already, and we already had them. A stronger sense of self that can watch us make decisions.

What happened eventually was once that observer self became comfortable enough and was easily recalled, easily engaged, and it takes a skilled neuroscientist to do this for a condition like obsessive compulsive disorder, they introduced the notion that there may be alternatives to what the behavior is that they might want to consider.

And so they'll think about, if I did gardening, I could get those flowers I wanted, instead of going to wash my hands. So they think about that for a while. Eventually they choose to. They make that choice. And when they do, they have rewired their brain. Now, it may even be harder, but at some point when they continue to make those decisions, that neuropathway gets embedded stronger and stronger.

And our neurons do die. The ones that were associated with OCD become weaker and weaker. Does it go away? The verdict is still out. OCD is a tough one, but it certainly is reduced dramatically, and at least as much, apparently, at least as much as the alternative behavior, which was to force the person who was, for example, so fearful of germs that they had to wash their hands repeatedly to actually go into a bathroom and soil their hands.

And then prevent them from washing it. So we see that that behavior is kind of a, OK, we're going to make you feel the worst you do, and then keep you from doing the thing you're trying to make yourself feel better for. It was very rough on the folks, on the OCD folks. The results were no better than this one, where basically, you're encouraging the observer self to take control.

So, who doesn't know what a synaptic gap is? You know, there are so many things that went through my head when I thought, I could put synaptic gap up there, and most people would know that at a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. But in any event, that's where covenant operates, all right?

I mean, if we want to find a location for covenant in a scientific kind of way, in a stretched scientific kind of way, it operates in that time span that we try to increase longer and longer as we consider our decision. So if I'm going to not pledge, if I actually decide, I see myself not pledging, about to say I'm not going to pledge, I saw myself gossiping.

And there's this interruption, there's a pause, there's a stop. And when that happens, the chemicals around the synapses stop flowing, and they don't fire during that pause. And they wait for the potential to build up in either that path, and they continue, or a different associated one. Nearby, but different. And that fires.

And in that way you've learned something about gossiping, and I suspect it will be easier for you to not do it. And thereby reducing an enormous amount of fun, but-- so, our covenant moments, moment by moment, we rewire our brain around how we want to be as Unitarian Universalists.

What it means to live as a Unitarian Universalist, our values out in the world, whether we're going to consider a decision that we make personally in conjunction with the mission of the congregation. So that becomes automatic thinking, and you are automatic, more automatic, and your brain actually changes to support it. So, OK, on a scale-- OK, if that's shocking, raise your hand up this high.

And if you knew that already, just put it like here. OK. So, I don't know. We tickled you a little bit, maybe. What I do think is shocking is if we collect those instantaneous moments, we're looking at the most significant things we do about Unitarian Universalism. Those moments that fly by are the ones where we choose to be more of a Unitarian Universalist, or less of a Unitarian Universalist.

Or maybe a different Unitarian Universalist. So, Jeanelyse is going to come up and help you with-- offer you the opportunity to potentially experience a little more about the observer self.

JEANELYSE ADAMS: Thank you, Doug. One of the things that happens between, or in that pause is that moment between a promise that might hang on the wall, and the commitment. So we want to learn to expand that gap, so that we have more choice, and that we can actually step into an embodied, engaged faith, so that we are actually changing ourselves, our congregations, and the world around us.

So we have this wonderfully amazing, interconnected web of existence. And then there is us. Now, we are a little less significant, maybe, in this picture than that, but I wanted you to be able to find yourselves. And then we have all of these ways of experiencing ourselves, the universe, that holy, infinite, unknown, beautiful, amazing thing that we're connected to, and each other.

And we have all of these different channels of experience, or ways of experiencing the world and ourselves. And we'll talk about each of them just a little bit, and then we'll actually have an experience of them. So the first place Doug's calling at the observer, it is that witness place. And if you've done mindfulness meditation, you will know that place of neutral witness. We are just simply noticing.

Noticing that thought that went by. Again. But it's non judgmental. Now when we first start this practice, we will normally end up having the critic come up the most. The critic will be the one that will put you down and tell you should or should not have done that, or you should have done it a different way. The witness just simply goes in curiosity. Huh. I'm procrastinating once again.

And these are some of the ways that are available to experience this. And the first one is through sensation. And this is the way that it includes all the organs of the body, so it's that gut feeling. Ugh. It's that sensation that you have on your skin, so that you know where you are in space. That means that we can actually stand on one foot and be like this, because we actually know where we are in space.

It's all of the jaw tensing moments, all of those things. And then we have emotion. We all know what that is, all those different feelings, those core affects. Anger, sadness, joy, love, fear, disgust, and then a variety of those complex, mixed up, all of them together. Then there's the energetic. The energetic sometimes is connected with the mystical.

It's that hair on the back of your neck, stand up, intuitive kind of feeling that you get. It can be the chills that run up your spine when something really happens. Used to have a friend who called it the God bump moment, when you would get the chills and you would actually know that something was in the process of changing.

And then there's movement. And it's not just movement as in I'm walking and I'm moving, but it's noticing your breath. It's noticing your chest rise and fall. It's noticing the difference in when I'm in a panicked moment, that it's going [GASPING] or just, ah. So it's the different-- it's also the rhythm of our heartbeat, our blood pulse flowing through our body.

And then, of course, we understand the auditory. That's all of the ways in which we hear. All of the ways in which we interpret when someone else is speaking to us. When the voice gets like this, or when the voice gets really-- or goes inside. And we interpret and intone and attune to understanding their emotions and where they're coming from through that auditory sense.

Visual, and that's easy to imagine in terms of all of the things that we see, and it is also that internal site. That sort of internal, knowing the way in which we see the world. And then there's the imaginal. So this is the soul's language actually comes in pictures. So sometimes in meditation you will see something, or sometimes you're trying to grasp an idea that you don't quite have the way to articulate, and you'll get a picture of it.

That's the soul's first language. So rather than talk about these things the way we talk about God or some of these other things sometimes, let's actually have an experience of it. So I'm going to invite you just into any comfortable position, and the only thing that you're going to do is engage your noticer. Welcome your witness. Welcome that part of yourself that each and every one of us has, that has that capacity to actually watch ourselves experience ourselves.

And we'll just go through these channels of experience, and you may notice that some of them are more prominent, some of them are easier, some of them you're going, huh? Where is that? So I'm going to invite you first if you're comfortable to just lower your gaze to the floor, or close your eyes. This is one of our-- for sighted people, this is one of our primary ways.

And just simply lowering our gaze can help us engage some of these other channels of experience. So without trying to change it or make it different, just do a scan. What are the sensations in your body? Notice where your muscles are. Your jaw. The place behind your left ear, or your right shoulder. That tension, or softness in your belly.

And just see if you can hold onto that as well as you explore what are the emotions going on? What do you notice? Something might be in the foreground. And if you get really quiet, there might be something behind that. And just imagine that energetic part of your body. Sometimes this is called the chi that runs through the body, or the chakra systems that run through the body. It's the energy system of the body.

Again, sometimes experienced as chills, or just normal sensations. Could be a dullness, a lightness, a heaviness. And sense the movement that is you. The pulse running through, often at the elbow of your arm. The pulse of your heart. The way that you know where you are located in space, sitting on the chair. The temperature on your skin.

And expand your hearing to yourself. What do you hear inside? Can you hear the person next to you breathing?

Expand beyond the walls of the room to the people talking next door. And just notice how far you can extend that hearing. And just notice if any images come to your mind, your inner eye. And holding each and every one of those as lightly as you can, imagine once again that place that you shared and talked about earlier, about that moment of choice.

Where you activated your will, and you changed your brain, and quite possibly the future of our faith, and of this world. And hold all of those channels of experience, and see if you can actually feel yourself in that moment. Can you sense it? Can you smell it? Taste it? Touch it? Bring it back?

And hold yourself in that moment with all of these new ways of experiencing yourself and the world. Imagine a different outcome than the outcome you had. Or what do you know differently if you engage all of these experiences?

And imagine what might be different in your life, in your relationships, in your congregation about moving from promise to commitment if you can practice this art of knowing yourself and moving from that place of deeper wisdom and connection with yourself, with the others, and with the planet. And bring yourself back to the sound of laughter.

Wiggle your toes and fingers, and find yourself back in this room, and just take a moment to see if you have a promise you want to make to yourself about this practice. And I just invite you to find a partner near you, raise your hand if you need a partner, and just notice what you noticed. Don't try and interpret it, or wonder about it. Just what did you notice in that experience? And just share it with your partner.

I love the energy in the room. My channels of experience get joyous when I hear you speaking. Does anyone, just a couple of people, what did you notice? And yes, please use the microphone.

AUDIENCE: I just have a question?


AUDIENCE: I'm not clear on how what we just did fits in with what he was saying. I need a little--

JEANELYSE ADAMS: You need some connection?


JEANELYSE ADAMS: So the question is how does this fit, and how does this practice connect with what Doug was sharing with you? And what this practice actually enables us to do is sit in that gap moment of choice. So when we are noticing that we're not living into our covenant, we're not doing what we said we would want to do, we get to just sit in that witnessing observer place and go, well, what's in the way of that? What's happening?

Or that place of I'm uncomfortable, I've engaged a newcomer in my congregation, and I'm stepping back and away. If I can stand there in that witnessing place and just notice, oh, yeah, they remind me of Aunt Sally. They're not Aunt Sally. Good morning.

But it is that gap space, that being able to observe ourself, which actually liberates us to make new choices, and to actually commit to a promise and step into it, even though the risk sometimes to do so might put us in a "eewh."

But if we can stay with ourselves long enough to just notice what's happening, notice the stories, if we sit in this long enough, which is why I don't like sitting meditation, because the first few things that will come up will be all those voices of judgment and fear, and the oh my gosh, and, you know, those kinds of things.

So it gives us more choice. Is that helpful? Any other questions or noticings about the exercise? And if you will, use the mic. That'd be great.

AUDIENCE: Just to get us started. So I really appreciate this model, because I have been practicing some mindfulness meditation for about three years, and my training really started with narrowing all of this down to maybe one or two channels of experience, and it has slowly been adding them in, and I didn't know that's what they were doing. But now I know what that was.

So as I was listening and practicing just here, I, yeah, felt the flood of just all of the noticings that you were suggesting, but then also at least three times being completely somewhere else totally, or completely caught up in my own internal narrative, and having to just remind myself, oh, there I go again. Let it go, and just coming back. And boy, could I say more, but I'll stop there.

JEANELYSE ADAMS: Yeah. This is why we call it an art and a practice. We don't master it, I don't think. Well, some have, I suppose. And then they're enlightened, and that's the way it is. Anything else?


JEANELYSE ADAMS: There we go. There we go. Anywhere else?

AUDIENCE: Hello. I have chronic pain, and my pain group, we do this cognitive therapy, and we have been practicing the observer self. And with me in a group like this, because we do it in a small group, and we really get deep, but I noticed my pain and my everything that hurt so bad, and watching it, having it, observing it, and that I can experience it differently doesn't cause an anxiety anymore.

That I can keep living my life, and living it with intention, and I've been able to make more commitments because of that. So I just wanted to share.

JEANELYSE ADAMS: Beautiful. Thank you. Thank you. And that is the thing that we notice with this experience, is why I said something about check behind your left ear, because if I am so focused on either my right shoulder, which is in pain, or if I am focused on the conflict that I'm having, or the story I've created about Aunt Sally.

So I'm not talking with someone, if I focus on that, it becomes the only thing that's happening in my experience at this moment. And if I can just go, huh, what's happening in my big toe, all of a sudden there's this huh, and there's this curiosity that opens this place of hospitality and curiosity to what is actually happening right now in the full sense, not just in my focuser. Renee?

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: So this workshop and the one that we're offering tomorrow, Radical Relationship 2, The Theology Of Covenant comes out of a series of conversations that Jeanelyse and Doug and I have been having over the past two years. I should mention that Jeanelyse lives in California, Doug lives in Massachusetts, and I live in Ohio.

So these conversations have been happening mostly on Google Hangout, for those of you who went to the Congregations and Beyond workshop, it's possible to have deep conversations over the internet with video. But what I wanted to do is share-- this is a little bit about what we've been talking about with one another, and part of us as UUA staff members who serve you, we also have a covenantal relationship in how we serve you.

So we wanted to get a sense of just how this material resonated with you, and so just from a show of hands, just to give us a sense of were we close, were we way off, do I need to stay up all night to retool tomorrow's workshop? So for how many of you did the science that Doug was describing resonate with you? Did you find helpful? Excellent. And how about the experiential piece that Jeanelyse shared? Was that helpful?

A little bit? Little bit? So how about the connection between the two. I know there was a question about trying to connect the dots. We did OK for some of you? For others, would you like if we had more information about how to connect those two, that would be helpful?

Tomorrow, the theological piece, it's sort of a philosophy theology so for those of you who are maybe more intuitive thinkers, that might be helpful to have a different kind of framework to put the idea of covenant, and this idea of the pause and creating space, so that we can make different choices, or make intentional choices. I think one of the things that's very much a part of our Unitarian Universalist DNA is that we have this humanism.

So we understand ourselves to have the capacity to make a difference in the world. We have agency, we have power to control ourselves, to change ourselves, and to change the world around us. So in some ways I think this is a really key piece. It's the covenantal piece, but it's also very much a part of our humanism, of understanding ourselves in different ways that enable us to be change agents for ourselves and for the world.

And I think that's all I had. Do we have a couple minutes left? We have a few minutes for some questions, so if anybody has questions or comments, please step up to the mic. We are both videotaping and audio taping this, so this will enable those who listen later to hear.

AUDIENCE: This is more of a comment in that when you started talking about this, I kind of flashed back to Viktor Frankl and man's search for meaning, where sometimes the only choice you have is to take that step back and examine how you feel.


AUDIENCE: Hi, Andrew Mertz. I'm from the Bull Run UU's, and also on district staff and Joseph Priestley District. I'm wondering how this can practically live in our lives. I would use the language to develop a spiritual discipline about being the witness in your own life.

And I'm thinking of things like Reverend Eric's small book about spiritual leadership, and within a meeting to say every 10, 15 minutes, stop and do something that, this is a different language for what he talks about, but I think it can be the same thing. Can you just talk about any ideas you have about how you see this that's already done in practical ways, or things that we could do in our congregations that give us access to this?

DOUG ZELINSKI: How many people here know, or have gotten emotional systems training, if you're in the Joseph Priestley District, or CERG, you would've gotten emotional system stuff. Healthy Congregations. That's Healthy Congregations. Healthy Congregations.

So in that they talk about self differentiation, and the connection, the way I would talk about the connection between this and what I was talking about is that when we notice those moments, we are probably honing in on one or two of these things. Like, I got the gut. The gut's telling me I probably should have made a different decision.

And so what practicing this in a spiritual discipline sort of way is it opens me up so that the next time that happens, I may have three of these things that tune into and make me more likely to say, oh, let me wait here for a little while, and be more intentional about the decision I make. So if you have small group ministry, this is a great place to work out both this kind of mindfulness meditation.

This is very consistent with Buddhism, if you've got meditation going on in your congregation. It would be great if this came up when we talked about covenant in our congregations, but like, we don't really talk about covenant in our congregations. And so the challenge would be when you go back and you notice these moments, name it as a covenant moment to someone who is in your congregation.

So that you can actually say, oh, I'm at a moment where I decide whether I'm going to be more Unitarian Universalist or less Unitarian Universalist. Less Unitarian Universalist. I should probably learn a different way to say that, huh? Comment.


DOUG ZELINSKI: Andrew, I didn't offer a lot of choices on that, so if other people have ideas.

AUDIENCE: I'm Jennica Davis, I'm the Youth Ministry Specialist for the Pacific Western Region, and I read a lot of youth ministry books that are mostly Christian based, and they talk a lot about prayer being such an integral part of youth ministry, and asking adults to pray for their youth, and asking youth to pray to God, and really listen to what God has to say.

And I keep trying to put the UU lens on that, because the traditional pray to God doesn't come into many youth groups. And so as I was sitting back there feeling the sensation on my skin, and actually going back into that covenantal moment that I shared with my neighbor, I thought, oh, oh, this is praying to God.

Oh, this is being able to be witness to my own higher self, instead of being so focused on the image of myself that I'm trying to project. And so giving youth, but everyone a chance to take that moment to go back to their higher selves, I turned to my neighbor and said, oh my god, what if the first five minutes of every board meeting, they did this? How would that change the board meeting? So I don't really have a question, but I just wanted to share that aha moment.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: And we'll talk about that a little bit more tomorrow, because we're doing theology. We get to have some sort of vertical component, you know, fill in the blank, God, Holy Spirit universe. So thank you for that.

AUDIENCE: I'm Amy Watson, I'm at the first UU Church in Columbus, Ohio. And I just wanted to tell a quick story that I think actually ties together the mindfulness practice with the neuroscience and covenant. In my church I was working on a project with someone, and there was a disagreement about how to proceed with something, and a big fight.

After that, I spent weeks sort of obsessing about how I did not want to work with this person ever again. And most of my obsessing was about how do I tell this person that we're never going to work together again? Coming up with all the scenarios until finally, my witness, my inner witness said, what if you cut off all contact? What if you come up with the perfect thing to say, and you never feel less anxious?

What if the very next person you work with causes you to feel all this, what if it's all in you, and it's not in this relationship? And I kind of came up with this thought experiment that may sound despairing, but I actually found a lot of hope in it.

And then the thought was, what if I can never do anything to make myself feel less anxious and yucky? What if nothing ever makes it go away? And as soon as I decided to just pretend that that was true, that I could never make myself feel better, I felt better.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: Thank you. Sounds like a Martin Luther moment to me, actually. Wonderful. Well, OK, last comment. Thank you.

AUDIENCE: Hi. I'm Jeb Macintosh from northern Iowa. I'm just new to it, Iowa. And you raised a little ripple early on when you mentioned quantum mechanics. Aha! And in quantum mechanics, we know that everything exists in fields, and fields of energy, and those slight ripples occasionally will convert to particles.

But those fields represent the framework, represent the structure by which things happen. So the connection here is that these things, if you can get to the point where you exist with those lurking just behind, and you can call them into play to be the field in which the decisions take place, then you have melded those two together.

RENEE RUCHOTZKE: Thank you. And thank you, everyone.

About the Authors

Douglas Zelinski

Douglas Zelinski worked with congregations for nine years as the Director of Leadership Development, first in the Metro New York District and then in the New England Region of the UUA, until November 2016....

Jeanelyse Doran Adams

Jeanelyse served the Unitarian Universalists Association (UUA) as Congregational Life staff for the Pacific Western Region. She has served the UUA since 2009 and is based in Northern California.

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) is a Congregational Life Consultant and program manager for Leadership Development.

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