Finding a Spiritual Practice (Or The Zen of Golf) – Carol Hamilton

I have to come out to you. I am a jock. I was one of the kids on the playground, who got picked for kickball. And for dodgeball. I’m blessed with rhythm, and I’m blessed with eye hand coordination. And I’m blessed that I grew up at a moment in history when girls fought and won the right to play sports.

I’m indebted to Maria Pepe. Maria pitched for her local Little League team in 1972. Little League’s national powers-that-be moved quickly to remove her from competition. Maria sued Little League in 1972 fighting against the rule that girls were not eligible to play.   The National Organization for Women brought a suit in 1973 on behalf of Pepe’s right to play and Judge Silvia Pressler ruled in her favor. Little League appealed the ruling and by the time it was overturned and girls were allowed to play, Maria was too old to play.

In 1974, the Little League Baseball league that I could be a part of opened its membership to girls. So in fourth grade, I was able to play on a team. I was one of two girls assigned to a team. I again I was blessed that I ended up on a team with wonderful coaches and we actually ended up being the championship team of the league. I kept playing sports through middle school and high school and continue to this day. I swam but never on a team. I played softball, volleyball, basketball, badminton, tennis and yes – golf.

My parents discovered Unitarianism in the 50s, and went to All souls in DC, when A Powell Davies, was the minister. We moved overseas when I was 5 and we didn’t go to church. We did try once. There was a Christian nondenominational American church, and I went to  Sunday school. I didn’t know any of the stories and didn’t know anything about the Bible so felt very out of place so I didn’t want to go again. When I had to fill out a form or somebody asked me what my religion was, I would say Unitarian Universalist but it really didn’t have much meaning,. It wasn’t until after college that I started attending church. As I became involved in church life. I realized that I needed to go further and find a spiritual practice. And this was something that I struggled with for many years. I read lots of books about prayer, about meditation, about spirituality. I tried meditation. I tried Morning pages. I journaled sporadically. I tried lots of different things but nothing seemed to stick.

It wasn’t until I took an adult RE class with our then Reverend Ellen Jennings on finding a spiritual practice that I finally figured out what worked for me. Each session of the program we would try a different spiritual practice. As we meditated, I would sit there wondering why I couldn’t clear my head of thoughts, thinking that I wasn’t doing it right, twitching wondering why my hand suddenly  started to itch. On the back of my arm. Or why I suddenly had a pain in my toe. And why was the air conditioner whirring, while we were trying to be meditative. All the distractions that you start to notice once you start to try to get quiet. But one time before we sat. We did some movement. Some stretching. And I was able to kind of get my wiggles out and get my antsi-ness out of my body, and was able to sit a little calmer and a little more focused.

Another thing that helped me in that class was when Reverend Ellen Jennings said, “you can’t do it wrong.”

You can’t do it wrong, how’s that possible? Isn’t there only a right way and a wrong way to do things? Aren’t I doing it wrong if I’m thinking? Aren’t I doing wrong if I’m thinking about my thinking? Aren’t I doing it wrong if I get distracted by all the things around me? And the itchiness and the twitchiness?

I can’t do it wrong. I had to let that sink in.

From that class on developing a spiritual practice I took away two things. First, that I need to move before I try to sit or lay and listen to a meditation. And to remember that I can’t do it wrong. So by remembering that I can keep coming back and trying again.

Even then, five years later, having regular almost daily practice. I probably can manage to empty out my mind for at least 45 seconds to a minute at a time. Before thoughts start popping up. I think of my wandering mind as a puppy that gets up and wanders away, or the small child that needs to get up and toddle off. So when I notice my mind wandering I now call it back and say okay come on, come sit down again. Come lay down with me. Come be in the here and now. As I have meditated more and listened to more meditations  I noticed there was a lot about the breath. Listen to your breath. Count your breath. Try to breathe out, 123, or 1234. I realized that some things that I already do have a kind of meditative quality.

My mother in law once asked, “what do you think about when you swim laps?” It was hard to answer because I don’t really think about anything. Mostly I pay attention to my breath and count my strokes until I turn to take a breath. Being caught up in counting 1 2 3 4 breathe 1234 breathe I let go of other thoughts. And I do this for 20-30 minutes and it is so much easier than sitting and meditating.

While swimming laps take some effort, swimming in the ocean for me just takes attention. I started swimming in the ocean when I was very little and so I’ve known how to read the waves for a long time.  It is the place where I feel most at one with the universe. When I’m bodysurfing but in the opposite direction Wave comes towards me and I jump into them and up  and the energy from the water lifts me up and then lays me down on the ocean like a hand gently lays me down as the water goes around me. If you just catch it just right you catch the energy moving upward and then lay back down like you’re asleep. It’s a wonderful feeling. But those same waves, if you’re not paying attention, will knock you down and scrape you along the beach, so it’s an exercise in being in the here and now.

I grew up being taught to work hard. Buckle down and get your nose to the grindstone.  That your worth is definitely caught up in your productivity.

Yet the harder I try when I play golf the worse I do. While you may be keeping and comparing score with those you are playing with, Golf is really a game you play against yourself. When I am very focused on the outcome and how well I am going to hit the ball I screw it up. I tense up and that screws up my swing. I hit it wildly to the left or wildly to the right. The more I can empty my head and focus on the task at hand, be in the here and now and focus on breathing in 123 as I swing up  and breathing out 123 as I swing towards the ball then I get into flow. if I focus on the ball and just the ball not the destination I may actually hit it towards the destination.  It is only when I relax and I’m truly in the moment having a meditative soft focus on that little white ball in front of me breathing up 123 breathing down 123 then I’m able to hit the ball square on and have it go straight. Thinking of it as a meditation helps me slow down, center, focus and enter the flow.

While I do have a regular mediation practice now, finding the meditative quality in other pursuits such as swimming and golf helps me find those quiet moments in ordinary life. from slowly stirring the sugar into my coffee to the repetitive action of folding clothes to doodling during a boring conference call all these provide opportunities to slow down and be in the moment.

Dawn Skjei Cooley writes…

“Let us celebrate those who worship best through music, for whom the holy speaks through rhythm and harmony, pitch and meter.

Let us celebrate the inter-personal worshipper, who finds the sacred in relationships and in community.

Let us celebrate those who worship best through the visual world, for whom the divine speaks through the aesthetics of a space.

Let us celebrate the verbal & linguistic worshipper, for whom words and languages, stories and poetry are sacred sources of joy and revelation.

Let us celebrate those to whom the divine might be found in logical reasoning, in mathematics, and through critical thinking.

Let us celebrate the intra-personal worshipper, those who experience the holy as they listen to the still, small voice within themselves.

Let us celebrate those who worship best through their bodies—those to whom the divine speaks through movement and physical action.

And let us celebrate the naturalistic worshipper, for whom the sacred is found in plants and animals, mountains and valleys, deserts and forests, oceans and streams.

Today, may we find a way to connect with the ultimate, each according to our own ways of understanding and experiencing the world.”

I was glad to learn The tree of contemplative practices designed by Maia Duerr from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society includes a branch for movement practices. Those listed include walking the labyrinth, qi gang, yoga.

And I would add playing golf, swimming laps, and riding the waves in the ocean.

So be it. Blessed be. Amen

Reflection questions:

  • What helps you connect with the ultimate? 
  • What brings you to feel at one with the universe?
  • What spiritual practice has worked for you? What if you couldn’t do it wrong?