Posts Tagged Zen
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/19/17 and looks at the unsatisfying quest for perfection.
Some years ago, I maintained a regular practice of Zen Meditation, led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. The 6am practice reminded me, in crystal clear detail, that I still wasn’t a morning person. We often think of meditation as a quiet discipline, a solitary discipline or at least a slow-moving spiritual practice. As true as that is most of the time, it wasn’t true on Thursday mornings. The elderly Buddhist sister would lead us, in what she called “bowing meditation,” in English. It’s sort of the spiritual equivalent of doing lunges at the Gym with your trainer.
108 full body prostrations – You go from standing up straight to having your forehead touch the ground in front of you, and back again to standing up and straight, in under maybe about 6 seconds. The spiritually enlightened 30 year-old I was at the time, I wanted to do it “right.” I’m not entirely sure why, but for me at the time, “right” meant not using my hands to get down or to get back up. I kept them in the prayer pose and relied on my legs and core to get down and get back up again. (I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring wrist weights and make it a full-on gym routine….)
Needless to say, by noon on bowing-meditation day, not only was I my least-chipper self for forcing myself to pretend I was a morning person, but I also couldn’t safely manage stairs without grimacing from the pain in my upper legs. But at least I did the meditation…right. Another side effect was that as people passed me throughout the day, conversations invariably gravitated toward talking about why I was in so much pain. I’d just have to go into all the details of what happened, and why, and how it was still affecting me hours (and sometimes days) later… spirituality done “right.”
How often do we get so worked up about being perfect, that we miss the point of what we’re doing? Maybe it takes us so far afield from our purpose that it actually has the opposite effect we intended. Meditation is not about bringing attention to our selves, or our egos; meditation is not about making the story about me. The quest for the perfect is full of many disappointments, and in some ways, it makes things so much harder – it can break our hearts.
I’m reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.” Can we allow our spirits to honor the beauty that shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them? Can we strive a little less for perfect, and be a little more present to our dearest companions in this frayed and living world?
I’ve begun to say more and more often that ministry is a team sport. A few weeks ago in response to the refugee and immigrant crisis, a whole team of Fellowshippers helped to organize our response to the executive order that turned out to be illegal, while other leaders moved forward in learning more about the Sanctuary movement that is expanding in our nation, and I’m having conversations with our Interfaith clergy group over what collaborations we can persue . Meanwhile, we continue to be the cold weather shelter for migrant men who have limited housing options on Long Island. The current tension between striving for a more equitable respect for immigrants and refugees with the very real-world concern about the flurry of ICE raids on immigrant communities – across the country but also right here in Brooklyn, Queens and our own Long Island, makes us sometimes move at what might feel to some like a glacial pace, as we hold in our hearts the risks associated with our shelter guests. How do we act while making sure we honor the well-being of the people we are already helping? Our shelter partners with 14 other houses of worship, and a non-political social service agency – we have to carefully think through all our steps to hold all this in tension. ….AND we just heard on Saturday of 8 Sudanese refugees who fled the US seeking refuge in Canada across our northern border. We are now a nation where innocent people flee from the US, seeking refuge amongst our allies. All of our responses, our management, our logistics, takes dozens of Fellowshippers to make happen in our corner of the world. Not always seen by all, nonetheless the broader ministry of our congregation continues on.
At the same time, some members of our pastoral care team, and our social justice team, and myself are taking turns attending workshops and meetings of LI-CAN, a Long Island congregationally-based community organizing group that’s looking at our local opioid epidemic, gun safety issues, as well as how immigrants are perceived here on Long Island. And in my last sermon I also mentioned the on-going collaborations several of our leaders are supporting with local farm workers, with the pressing needs for Transgender folk, and even the leadership some of our members give toward the broader work of the Family Resources League which helps people in crisis in our community.
Nothing is all encompassing, nothing is perfect, but our congregation is connected and doing excellent ministry. I could stand here for ten more minutes just listing the ways that our community is involved in direct service, social justice, charity or solidarity work – locally, state-wide and yes, even globally. As one non-UU friend of mine recently said to me, UU’s punch above our weight (to use a sports metaphor.) But I could also spend the next ten minutes sharing the ways in which we are falling short; there are times where that’s helpful, and there’s times when that’s just spiritually exhausting. If we take a step back – we see a world where a million things are falling apart at once. Of course, we’re not doing enough. No one institution could ever do enough to fix all this. We just need to strive to do the things we do, well. What we choose to focus in on – always and only the good, or always and only the negative – is telling, and sometimes self-fulfilling – and too often self-defeating. Who we choose to say we are, impacts our sense of identity, and ultimately what we can accomplish and who we become.
If ministry is a team sport, there’s a way in which spirituality is a communal endeavor. Our seventh principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We often talk about that principle in terms of the environment, but it also reflects the religious truth that we are all connected. Our humanity is found in the sum of all of us. That practice of bowing meditation I spoke of earlier, was a communal practice. Over time, there’s a palpable sense that we feel in meditation that occurs in communal presence that’s different than solo practice. Much like how when we gather for justice work, our shared voices magnify the impact, when we gather in silent meditation, the silence takes on a deeper aspect.
And as frustrating as it may be to individually seek perfection, communal expectations can only be magnified. As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. When we project onto our congregation the need to be perfect in all ways – for things to be just right – we make it harder to do the things we are here to do. We strain, and ache, and demoralize. Then like the bowing meditation enthusiast who seeks to turn it into a gym routine, we walk through our days and years focusing on how our communal shortcomings only point toward how “me, myself and I” have been wronged or disappointed. The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our egos, despite our best intentions. Religion calls us back from that unsatisfying habit.
We learned about this as kids. Remember the story of Goldilocks? She goes out into the forest and breaks into some stranger’s home. She then eats their food, criticizing that some of the porridge is too hot, some is too cold, and then after finding the porridge that suits her tastes, she eats it. Goldilocks repeats this with the furniture; finally breaking someone’s chair in the process. Then she goes onto judge the beds too firm, too soft, and finally “just right.” When her neighbors finally get home, they walk through their own home, the scene of the break-in, until they find the culprit still sleeping in their kid’s bed. (Why do we tell this story to children?!) It ends with, “Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed, “Help!” And she jumped up and ran out of the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest. And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”
The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our individual egos, despite our best intentions – even in community. When we perpetually strive for “just right”, when we chase “perfect” into the woods, we sometimes break things, and break into places, along the way. In congregational life, it’s the sort of “stay in your lane” push and pull of committee work. We all have issues and concerns we feel deeply, and may also be worthy and valuable and needed, and we can’t prioritize everything to be #1. Sometimes in community, we can get into disagreements or even arguments over, equally worthy matters. Doing something well, but not “just right,” becomes cause for a sense of failure. Sometimes, we’re trying to determine if someone else’s porridge is too hot or too cold for me, and sometimes we break their furniture in the process. When we get lost in judging the people around us, far too often it ends with one of us running away into the woods screaming “Help!” for what might be something that was caused by our own bad behavior. We miss the point of the spiritual communal dream – not to judge each individual action, but to see the broader picture and build the beloved community piece-by-piece, mistake-by-mistake, hope-by-hope. It’s like the Buddhist Sand Mandalas we heard about in our Wondering this morning. The goal isn’t to hold onto a perfect bit of art, but to come together to create something that wasn’t there before, knowing full well that all things change.
I say all this, because I don’t want to see our committed leaders – all also volunteers – burn out. And if you help in any of the thousand things our Fellowship does to help our corner of the world, then I’m speaking to you right now about burn-out. And if you’re about to start helping in the thousand things, remember this as you begin your life-saving work. There is so much the world needs of us, and we can not do it all. We have to pick and choose. But even if we could do it all – if we had super-human powers for social justice – we would still not all agree on the right way to do every one of the thousand things – even the things we each 100% agree needed to be done. Some would find their porridge to be too hot, or too cold; some would ask why did we go through those particular woods to access the porridge, while others would wonder why we’re eating someone else’s porridge in the first place. We’re a community of roughly 250 adults and roughly 75 children and youth. When was the last time everyone agreed on something at your own dinner table, let alone the last family reunion? But we can project onto our much larger community unrealistic expectations of walking lock step with one another, and that only leads to disappointment – and heartbreak.
As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. As we come to the close of our service, let us recall the words that we began with this morning from the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.” He was speaking of love, but the message is as true when we seek perfection. Spiritual community asks us to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built. When we’re more focused on the barriers others have built, or when we find ourselves judging those around us without owning our own parts, religious community calls us back. As Annie Dillard said, “I am frayed and nibbled… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits… but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…”.
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.