This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington talking about how we often live our lives from the script in our head and not what’s going on right here and now.
We recently adopted a 3 month old puppy. She’s a boxer/bull terrier mix. Super cute. Super sweet. We brought her home the day she was spayed from the vet’s office. She was so nervous she was shivering in her bed. When it was finally time for her to go outside, she would have none of it. We’d get her to the door, try putting on a leash, and she would pull and pull. We had to pick her up to bring her out for the first week or so. Maybe it was the snow. Maybe it was the cone of shame around her neck. Maybe it was the snow being scooped up by her cone of shame that fell into her face. But all of that would come later. When she got to the door, she didn’t know what she was looking at and she was afraid to go out.
You see, Lola (that’s our puppy’s name), Lola was a city girl. She was born in a NYC apartment and was fostered away immediately to friends of friends of ours in another apartment. Lola had never seen the great outdoors. And whatever she had seen was total asphalt, concrete and metal. This wide open space, that allowed her to see beyond 10 feet, was a scary thing.
I can kind of relate. When I had been living in NYC for just about five years, I got used to seeing the world only so far away. I had taken a vacation trip to see friends in Minnesota and we stopped by a Walmart for something on the way to somewhere else. I went inside – and – froze. I began to have a panic attack. They apparently make Walmarts bigger in the midwest than here. While inside I could see further away than most spots in Manhattan. I had to have a friend walk me out.
We can get used to living in a world whose borders lend us comfort, security, stability. And when we cross into a new space it can be really scary. My puppy had a script. Her script said this world looks a certain way. Outside is a scary, strange, noisy, cold and busy place. Her script told her it wasn’t a place she wanted to go.
So we began coaxing her out with treats, and play time with her squeaky ball. We’d leave her alone for 2 minutes at a time and come back inside. At first she would come back to the kitchen glass door and look back in and whine to come inside. But over time, her time alone would get longer and longer (up to 15 minutes now.) We can still see her through the window, and we’re fenced in, so she’s safe. And now, once she’s past her initial lonely wobblies, it’s hard to get her back inside. She’s finding all these new scents; hearing the range of birds calling; and our next door neighbor’s dog who howls like a fire engine. Lola has a new script. “Outside” now means a place of fun, exploration, running around like a silly ball of energy, and cool new things to smell.
How do we all do that in our own lives? When do we react negatively to something because our script tells us that’s how we should respond? I don’t only mean trying the new stuff, or the dangerous stuff. We all have to know our limits. No matter how hard Brian will try to convince me, I will not go parachuting. I appreciate that some part of my Id will go crazy wild over the new sensation. While the rest of it is panicking because I chose to put “down” so very far away. I’m talking about the day to day stuff that we respond to as rote.
When you get on the phone with your parents, or your kids, do you know how the arguments will go before they begin? When you perceive that someone wrongs you in some way – will you hold onto that grudge till your dying day, or till they offer abject abasement before your stalwart ego? If a problem comes up – do you just know how it will play out and how everyone will react to it?
In what ways does your script trap you? I find that when we live from the scripts, we’re not really able to respond to the world before us as it is – as it’s actually happening. We’re reading our lines to a scenario that’s not necessarily happening right now. It can make us unable to deal appropriately with new circumstances. It can also force us to relive painful encounters over and over because we can’t see the newness that’s before us.
Sometimes our scripts are a team sport. I lost a long time friend some years ago to a script. We had gone through a lot of personal and professional challenges together over a ten year span of time. We were close with each other’s families, shared a house together – we became family of a sort. All close friendships have their stressors; we always have ways we drive one another nuts. All that aside, I used to be a lot more uptight in my twenties. When I left my home state and moved to NYC for graduate school and later seminary, I mellowed out. My detail orientated perfectionism began to dissolve; my taking the smallest things so seriously mostly disappeared; and I got out of the habit of arguing with people (marital realities not-withstanding.) Seminary doesn’t always help people become more spiritually mature, but my time there really changed who I was for the better. But when I would go back to visit my dear friend (and other long time friends), I realized that she was interacting with me as if I hadn’t changed at all. We would start having fights about whether we were having a fight. (Ever been there?!) Every sentence was heard through the filter of the script of how I used to act. I’d go back to the City and talk to my local friends about how frustrating the trip home had been. That folks back home only saw me as controlling and argumentative – even though I wasn’t acting that way. My local friends would laugh – they didn’t see me that way at all. My old, dear friend’s script, ended our friendship. It was one of the most frustrating losses in my life. It was frustrating because it wasn’t necessary. My legitimately negative behavior had changed for the better, but it didn’t matter to the friendship if the other couldn’t see it for what it was – a new line, a new direction to the story.
Our theme this month is presence. Presence saves us from these losses. Being present to the person or the situation before us allows us to deal with reality as it is and not bring the ghosts of past pains into this moment. We know we’re not being present when our minds our racing through past hurts. Or when we’re perpetually fixated on what will or what might happen in the future. It’s not to say that we don’t learn from the past or plan for the future. But living most of our lives in the past or the future is not learning from or planning for – it’s missing out on this moment. We cease to live in the world that is, and pretend to live in the world that was or will be. But there is only ever the moment that is – right now. We can’t ever live in the past. We can’t ever live in the future. We can only live in the present, and the more we allow our minds to run wild, to live from the scripts of our fantasies, we cease to fully live.
…I’m about to utter a genuine UU heresy…. I make it a habit to preach something heretical every year, and this is the week for it – (so the folks that made it on time despite Daylight Savings will be well rewarded). Take a deep breadth… Our intellect, our thoughts, our minds – they are not us. We are not our heads. Our scripts, our thinking, our fretting, our worry, our dreams, our plans, our arguments – they are not us. Our intellect is a tool, like our vision, or our hearing. It shapes how we interact, understand, and experience the world. Of course, we’d interact differently if our mental faculties were to change. Mental health aside, we as a people have a tendency to over-identify with our intellect and thinking. We confuse the tool with our identity. And that can be a very painful thing. The worlds we create spin fantasies that we confuse for fact. Our congregational covenant talks about assuming good intentions. This goes beyond giving someone the benefit of the doubt – it’s more about not creating a false person we then inappropriately interact with. Leaping to conclusions, without evidence, is our script showing. Sometimes it tells more about ourselves than others.
When our thinking minds go wild, when they run the show, and create the opinions that will shape how we interact regardless of evidence – we lose who we are at our core. It’s as if we’ve become possessed by our thoughts. Our essence, our soul, takes a back seat and something else is driving the car. I find this to be a helpful metaphor because it describes what we experience. Think of a time when you reacted poorly, or strongly, to some set of events. We all have. When the whole thing was over, did your original thoughts match exactly what was really going on? Were you 100% correct and the others 100% wrong? We’re rarely entirely right. There’s usually another side. If the time you’re thinking of you were totally in the right, think of another time. If you can’t think of another time where you were in the wrong, you have an entirely different challenge to deal with that’s out of the scope of this sermon. Since we’re all usually off-base by some amount in almost all things, what possesses us to defend and live into the fabrications of our mind so readily? It doesn’t practically help us to read from an outdated script, yet we do.
James Baldwin has a related quote, …“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.”… Baldwin’s quote is in reference to hate, though I think it applies to many more aspects of human behavior. We cling stubbornly to any of our habits, because those habits hide something more difficult below the surface. I spoke last week about how hard it was to get back into an exercise routine after a bad car accident – that the most difficult part was facing the fact that I was much weaker – and exercising – though it would help me – was painful because it made me face a new truth that I didn’t want to see. Our thinking minds are one of these habits. If we quiet our chatter – who are we? What’s our core when the mental volume is muted?
Often we over-identify with our thinking patterns. We’ve identified with a tool, not our essence. It’s comforting to stick to what is known. Experiencing the moment for what it is – is not what most people’s habits are. Our thoughts become identified with our ego, and then all things become slings, or darts, or succor for our ego. In some ways our scripts – especially the negative ones – are preferred because they allow our ego to become more solid. Struggle, anger, hate, indignation all contribute to a vibrant ego. Our thinking patterns create those realities. Without the mental script – anger, hate and self-righteousness lose their solidity. There’s no there there. Self-righteousness is not an instinctual or biological response to evolutionary advantage. Self-righteousness is not hormones, it’s not nature. Self-righteousness is a psychological tool used to prop up the ego. If we silence the chatter, if we toss the script, we see that self-righteousness or anger or hate – are not real.
This is not to say those feelings are bad. I’m not suggesting that we feel guilty over them. We shouldn’t judge them. The trick to tossing the script is attending to those feelings when they occur without judgement. If you’re prone to anger, allow yourself to be angry when it arises. Acknowledge it. Look at it inwardly. Don’t react to it, don’t judge it. And don’t live your life from that feeling of anger. Just pause and watch it until the anger goes away. There’s a classic Buddhist teaching in meditation practice – I had a Korean Zen Nun teach this to me when we were sitting together for a four month, 4 day a week practice – the teaching says thoughts or feelings are like a train coming into a station you’re sitting at. When the train arrives, watch it. You can see it without getting on it. So too, with feelings of despair or frustration – we can greet them without going for a ride with them.
German-born American abstract expressionist painter Hans Hoffman once noted, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” When our mental chatter clutters our head space, our world becomes more complicated than it needs to be. It becomes more complicated than it actually is in reality. As we eliminate the unnecessary what remains behind? What can then begin to speak? For this week, I invite you silence your internal chatter for a couple of minutes a day. If that feels too long, try it for a couple of moments a day. Simplify your mind. Put away your scripts. Exorcise your egos. Be present to the feelings and thoughts without riding their train to where they will take you. Listen for what now has room to speak, for what now has room to live.