Thursday, May 24, 2018

Stop, Drop and Feel (May 20, 2018)

Barbara died unexpectedly. Our longtime church administrator complained of feeling a bit foggy headed all week, but we were completely shocked when her husband told us she had died in the night of a brain aneurysm. Over the next days it fell to me, as minister of the church, to break the news to many people as we notified the staff and the congregation and began to plan the memorial service. I remember the people who took the news like a physical blow, tears running down their faces. I, myself, and had not yet cried for Barbara, and I started to question myself. What kind of cold uncaring person was I that I couldn’t cry for the loss of someone I had worked side by side on a daily basis for 5 years? Maybe at the memorial service, I thought, but I soon realized that I had fallen into the role of “the one who has it together” and especially at the memorial service, which was a huge outpouring of emotion for this beloved church administrator and activist in the peace community, I felt numb. I knew who was supposed to be where when but not the contents of my own heart.

It was finally about a week later when I sat down to work on the church annual report, now well past its deadline, and found that the draft I had worked on had somehow become corrupted so it was just gibberish when I opened the file, that I finally lost it. I was no longer the one who could hold it together, I couldn’t even complete this report, and I had promised our church secretary, who had been very close to Barbara and was herself in grief, that it would be done today. Something inside me cracked but instead of the expected tears of grief, what spilled out that in my home office was a very indecorous temper tantrum. Emotions like frustration and anger surfaced like toxic sludge.

That moment was a turning point for me. It made me wonder if keeping my professional cool, if being the rock when others were troubled was really the only way I could be. And so for the past 15 years, I’ve been paying attention to what I feel, and especially to what I don’t feel, and why.

One of the first things I noticed on this exploration, was how not feeling emotions is a useful adaptation. I could lead folks in a memorial service, I could comfort my son if he was feeling overwhelmed. I met deadlines and got my work done. I was productive and positive. But I also noticed that if emotions surfaced and I told them “not now” it might be a long time before they came back. And they might come back in weird forms. I decided to treat any opportunity to grieve as a gift. Greif, I realized, doesn’t always come during the time you set aside for it- at the memorial service, or during the day you took off for self-care. From observing my own process, I realized a few things about grieving:

One- your grief feels however it feels. Numbness, Anger, tears, hysterical laughter, regret, peace, are all legitimate expressions of processing that loss. Whatever you feel, honor that, feel that.

Second- Grief has its own time table. If you are at work, at the dinner table, at the mall when it comes, treat it with the same respect you would give any other bodily need. Run for the nearest restroom if you need to, tell your boss you are taking a long lunch, or call in sick. Because having a good cry right as the emotion emerges is almost always better than snapping at your family later, or having ulcers in a month. The same exact principle applies to more pleasant emotions, like joy, or gratitude, or the satisfaction of a job well done. If you catch yourself enjoying life, give that a moment too.

The third took me longer to learn- You can’t get around it. Yes, we can defer our emotions, you can choose not to feel them, you can push them away, but there is a cost. One of the costs for me was that when I wanted to feel something, my whole emotional system was set to “hibernate’ and so often feelings weren’t available when I wanted them.

The other cost is that it becomes painful to be in your own mind. Emotions like fear often grow and become more terrifying when we run from them. As the saying goes “don’t run from a bear”. But this is true of even subtle daily emotions, if we run from them, if we avoid them, our own mind and hearts become a minefield of places not to step. This often becomes apparent when we have some time alone, when we are quiet, when we sit in meditation. (I know when I dread meditating, there is some deferred emotion that needs my attention)

When there are things that we are pushing away, it becomes a lot of work to manage them. I think of the Star Wars crew stuck in that trash compactor as the walls pressed in on them. Fortunately, thoughts and feelings aren’t solid like the walls of a trash compactor, they pass right through us. I know sometimes being hit with a wall of emotion, or a painful memory can feel as intense as being hit by a wall, but all emotions rise and pass away. Even the big ones pass. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor found that the actual chemical reaction of emotions that flood our brains lasts for only 90 seconds. If our emotional response lasts longer than that, she theorized, it’s because we got hooked. The feeling, let’s say anger at our friend who is late, starts as a sensation, but our mind quickly hooks it into stories and analysis. “This friend is always late, this is just like that other time she left me sitting at the restaurant for 45 minutes. If she really understood or cared she’d be on time…” and we’re off down a rabbit hole of resentment that could last for weeks if we let it. Or how about this one “I should be more forgiving and compassionate. It’s not right that I’m so quick to get mad at her. She has a lot on her plate. I must not be a very good person if I am so impatient”

The alternative, says Taylor is “that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.” The alternative to being hooked is simply to feel the feeling itself, the texture of it, the color of it, where in the body it emerges, without analysis, without pushing it away or hanging on to it.

This is similar to what I learned at a contemplative formation retreat in a workshop about ‘welcoming prayer”. This practice has been transformative for me, so I’d like to invite you to join me in it now, noticing however you are feeling right now: [this version is by Phil Fox Rose]
"1. Focus and sink in - Feel the feeling. Don't run away from it or fight it. Stay with this until you really experience a connection to the feeling or emotion on not just an emotional but also a physical level.

2. Welcome - Affirm the rightness of where you are and acknowledge [the sacredness of] the moment by saying: "Welcome, [fear/anger/etc.]."

Don't just say this and move on Repeat it and sit with the feeling until you experience a genuine sense that you welcome it, that you are not fighting against it.

3. Let go - Say "God, I give you my [fear/anger/etc.]," At this point, you can turn the feeling or emotion over to God and let it go. Or [if you are atheist or agnostic, just imagine your emotion drifting away in the breeze].

If you haven't truly felt it and welcomed it in, you may still experience resistance here. Stay in the letting go, or turn back to the focus or welcome stages as appropriate. "

Martin Laird, who teaches the Christian Contemplative tradition, advises: “Our normal response to an afflictive thought-feeling is to pounce on it with a commentary. In fact much of what pop psychology calls “feeling your feelings” is precisely this. When we “feel our feelings” what we feel is actually not our feelings but our commentary on the thought-feelings” He suggests we “heal this by taking it to a deeper level: meet this thought-feeling before it has a chance to grow into a dramatic story, an inner video… Instead, simply observe the thought as it arises. Watch it come and watch it go. It’s a subtle art.” [Into the Silent Land p. 83]

As we welcome our feelings, memories may emerge. Insights and patterns may emerge, so let them come, don’t push them away or grasp on to them. Notice them, but don’t follow them. Stay present in the feeling itself.

As my classmates and I got up from the first period of welcoming prayer, I gathered my things to leave. I bent over to get my purse, and a wave of emotion hit me. I was determined to follow my own advice and try to feel tings in real time and not save them for later, but feelings can be slippery kind of things, so I just held perfectly still as I tried to stay present with it. It passed and I picked up my bag and stood up. Another set of emotions. I stood stock still and tried to stay open to them. Wow, this was going to be a lot of work.

Not long after I was listening to a favorite podcast on this very topic- staying present to our feelings. Brooke and Vanessa coined the phrase “stop, drop and feel’ and promised to put it on a T-shirt. Yes, I thought. That’s it. To truly experience my emotions in real time, I was going to have to stop what I was doing, drop down into my inner experience, and feel whatever I was feeling. After 15 years of trying to catch grief out the corner of my eye as it snuck past, feelings came closer and closer to happening in “real time” A number of you who are in the Spiritual direction Group or Committee on Ministry have witnessed my journey. For me it’s been a whole new way of being in the world.

This way of being with emotions has the effect over time of not only allowing us a greater degree of authenticity, honesty and presence, but it also shows us something about the nature of who we are. I am not my emotions, I am the one who is aware of the emotions. I keep coming back to the advice given to artist Laurie Anderson by her meditation teacher “’You should try to learn how to feel sad, without being sad.’ Which is actually really hard to do. To feel sad, without actually being sad”.[i] This is the practice. When we can feel the emotions without clinging to them, without pushing them away, we start to see more clearly the relationship between the emotions and our Self. Like clouds passing in the sky, even the worst emotions are temporary, transitory. We start to see that the clouds in the sky are not the sky, are not the ones observing the sky. We are not our emotions. We are something larger, more spacious.

The final, and arguably most important part of this process is compassion. When I was growing up my mom always said “it’s not the feelings, it’s the feelings about the feelings.” It’s very human for us to sit in judgement of our inner processes. “I should have forgiven my friend by now, I should be happy on this special occasion, I should be done grieving by now.” How different, and how challenging, to feel our feelings without judging them. To just notice whatever is arising, to meet ourselves wherever we are. Even if what we notice is “wow, I am really pushing away those feelings today.” Just notice. When we meet our feelings with judgment, they tend to either run and hide, or wind themselves up to justify their continued existence. When we meet our feelings with compassion, we allow space for them to move and change.

This past week I was in Seattle visiting my dad and all the family who had come to celebrate the wedding of my brother and my new sister . My heart responded by opening up to the warmth and affection of all the loving people around me. I was able to be helpful and supportive and open-hearted at the same time. As my brother and my new sister expressed their feelings for one another at the celebration of their marriage tears rushed down my face as I felt many feelings at once. I had moments of gratitude for those who hosted and entertained me, moments of compassion for folks who were struggling. My last day, I got this gross, unpleasant feeling that I rejected like a piece of rotten fruit. But sure enough it came back when I stopped my busy-ness for a moment. I remembered my intention to be present to whatever emotions arose, and turned towards it. Part homesickness, part sadness that I would soon be leaving my west coast family, and part anxiety about the long journey home. Yup. There it was. I sat with it just as it was. “Feelings, no matter how “nasty” they may seem to us, lead us inexorably to our hearts” Said Bill Schulz, former president of both Amnesty International and the UUSC. How lucky I felt to have spent pretty much that whole week, a week of tender moments, sad moments, joyful moments, even frustrating moments, to have spent that week in my heart.


It’s not always easy to be present to our feelings, especially when they are difficult emotions like anger, fear or sadness. But staying open to our emotions can be one of the most rewarding spiritual paths.


Closing Words
l had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father's kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest Me-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."

[A Man Without a Country p. 132]


[i] https://genius.com/Laurie-anderson-how-to-feel-sad-without-being-sad-lyrics

Monday, May 7, 2018

You Can't Make Me Choose! (May 6, 2018)

Solving for Pattern by Wendell Berry

Perhaps most of us who know local histories of agriculture know of fields that in hard times have been sacrificed to save a farm, and we know that though such a thing is possible it is dangerous. The danger is worse when topsoil is sacrificed for the sake of a crop. And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve 7 the health of people. In a biological pattern – as in the pattern of a community – the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal.

It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa. [i]

Sermon
When my son was little, a popular parenting technique in the “positive parenting” movement was to give kids a choice. Instead of saying “no, you can’t stay up and play” you would say “Which pajamas would you like to wear to bed tonight?” Nick caught on to this pretty quickly. He couldn’t express what was wrong with my question, but he knew that I was limiting his choices even while asking him to choose.

For far too long, we have let false choices limit our work for social justice. All the way back in the 19th century, activists who had worked side by side on abolition and women’s suffrage were told that as a nation we had to choose between allowing African American men to vote or allowing women to vote. And we fell for it. Longtime allies fought bitterly[ii]. There is a rift between folks working for women’s rights and folks working for racial justice that persists to this day. The way we have done justice work, even in our UU communities, is to divide into committees and subgroups, each working for their own agenda.

Here at UUCAS, we finally became accredited as a Green Sanctuary Congregation just as we were beginning a congregation-wide initiative in Racial Justice. The environmental movement and the Racial Justice movements have also had a long history of tension. The early environmental movement was all about protecting swaths of pristine land for the hunting and vacationing of privileged white folks like President Teddy Roosevelt[iii], who was instrumental in establishing the National Parks. While in theory these parks are for everyone, they are disproportionately used by older white folks.[iv] While mostly-white environmental activists focused on preserving pristine places, “Toxic waste facilities are located primarily in communities of color” a 1987 report by the United Church of Christ's Committee on Racial Justice showed. But the mainstream environmental groups were not interested in cleaning up those polluted neighborhoods. And didn't consider such work to be part of the environmental movement. According to an article in High Country Times when activist Richard Moore “approached Earth Day organizers to become a part of the event. They told him that the issues he was working on -- groundwater contamination caused by feedlots and other petrochemical facilities, uranium mining, sewage plant odors, sheep and cattle grazing -- just weren't relevant.” [v]

So as a congregation, we could see this moment as a choice we have to make between our environmental work, and our totally separate racial justice work, or we could try to understand the way the two movements intersect.

This video offers a quick and cogent explanation of how we can do this:



The video offers 3 suggestions for how to move forward in an intersectional way:

1) Examine our own privileges. We, living here in the valley, have the privilege of not living near a toxic waste dump. We have the privilege of living near two beautiful rivers, with plenty of open lands to walk, to fish, to hunt, to grow gardens.

2) Listen to others. We call it environmentalism because it refers to the environment where we live. For those of us who live and work here the valley, we want to preserve our pristine waters, our maple trees, the beautiful view as we look out over the rolling green endless mountains and the places where we hike or boat or fish. But what if you lived in downtown Elmira, or New York City. There’s environment there too, right? Or what if you were part of a community of color that was barred from certain beaches and parks during the Jim Crow era?[vii]

3) Do our environmental justice work through a broader, more inclusive perspective. Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Professor at the University of Michigan, notes that “our lived experiences with environment are different. White people bring their experience to the discussion — that’s why they focus on the birds, trees, plants, and animals, because they don’t have the experience of being barred from parks and beaches. It’s just a different frame. But overall, we want the same thing: safe places to live, work and play, clean spaces and sustainable, long-lasting communities.”[viii]

"Through the 1960s and 1970s the environment is framed as the forests, the trees, the beautiful birds, the perfect oceans and lakes. It didn’t include the issues that related to urban areas or to poor people. Certainly not to persons of color,” said Dr. Taylor. “Part of the pushback of communities of color was a sense that, we’re not going to come out and march to save the bald eagle when we don’t have food in the house to feed our children. We have to take care of that first."

You can see how that would be an impossible choice to make- choosing between feeding hungry children, cleaning up poisoned neighborhoods or preventing the extinction of entire species. But in today’s reading, Wendell Berry proposes that a good solution does not sacrifice one for the other. A good solution creates a pattern that is good for all.

Let’s take a look at a very specific issue that affects all of us- water. Last week Judy approached me to talk about alternatives to bottled water at fundraisers. She had been doing some research about alternatives to plastics, and was hoping we could find one that would work for us here at the church. I’m sure we’ve all see the disturbing images and statistics about the millions of tons of plastics in the oceans[ix], or the heartbreaking photos of birds or fish who died from ingesting our trash[x]. (You might check out Chris Eng’s letter to the editor on this topic- there’s a copy our bulletin board in the social hall). So thinking carefully about our use of plastics is something that would fit right into our values and ethics here at the church. Sure, we do have a plastic recycling bin in the church kitchen, but it turns out that recycling does not really solve this problem, because “most plastics can only be recycled once or twice[xi]” which means that all plastics end up in landfill, or in the ocean gyre eventually. And as plastic breaks down, it releases toxic chemicals. So Judy was curious about alternatives like glass, which “can be recycled endlessly without any degradation of quality. This means in addition to their ability to be recycled … again and again, you can personally reuse glass without worrying about it degrading and leaching chemicals into your liquids.”[xii]

I was thrilled when Judy brought this up, because back when I lived in California, I had become very passionate about water privatization, Perhaps you remember that during the drought there residents had to stop watering their lawns, had to limit their water consumption. Some farmers had to let crops die, but the Nestle Corporation’s rights to draw water from those same water sources did not waver. Companies like Nestle and Coke a Cola are buying public water rights (that’s my water and your water) and then are within their rights as private property owners to overdraw the ground water, emptying local wells which provide drinking water to local residents, and then selling our water back to us at seriously inflated prices, in plastic bottles that make us sick if we re-use them.

What a perfect intersection- the desire to reduce the toxic side effects of plastics on birds, on fish, on eco-systems, intersects with the desire to make sure everyone has access to water, a fundamental human right. I had been considering the idea of selling reusable plastic sports bottles as a fundraiser so we could boycott privatized water, but that does nothing for the ocean gyre, that does nothing to reduce chemicals that are toxic to humans and other living beings. Studies show that reusable products have the lightest environmental footprint, as long as they are reused many times, so when we use the mugs and glasses in our kitchen which were here long before I arrived, we are already doing the best thing we can do. [xiii] So Judy and I have been brainstorming about maybe a glass water dispenser. And for those occasions where there is no practical way to wash dishes, paper cups with high recycled content seems to be the next best option. [xiv] If we want to do a fundraiser selling reusable GLASS mugs at events like Trivia Night, maybe finding a way to incentivize people to bring them back, so that they really would be reused.

But wait, you’re saying, we’ve just made this commitment to racial justice. Are we going to leave behind our work on racial justice to think about water bottles? Nope, instead, let’s ask ourselves, how can we look at those plastic water bottles from a racial justice perspective, or an economic justice perspective? If you are not a land owner with a private well, the ability to boycott private water depends on the presence of a safe, clean municipal water supply. So one of the best ways to both reduce our use of plastic and boycott privatized water is to support our own municipal water systems. If you don’t trust your local water enough to drink it, let’s do some research to find out what’s wrong, and lobby to protect our drinking water. Those of us here who are involved in citizen science water testing are already part of this solution.

Consider Flint Michigan; Food and Water Watch reports that, “In 1992, the Genesee Power Station first applied for a permit to build and operate a wood-burning incinerator in a predominantly low-income and African-American community in Flint. Residents promptly filed an environmental civil rights complaint with the EPA, citing concerns over the local release of toxic pollutants as well as racial discrimination and the use of intimidation tactics during Michigan’s public hearings on the proposed power plant.”

“The Reverend Philip Schmitter, who was part of the Genesee complaint from the beginning, said it was clear that Michigan was discriminating against black residents and believes that if the EPA had taken action earlier, the city's ongoing lead drinking water crisis may have been avoided. The EPA’s finding of environmental racism in the Genesee complaint references Michigan’s admitted failure to provide Flint’s African-American residents the ‘same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities’ in the water crisis... After 25 years, the EPA finally unequivocally stated that there is a “preponderance of evidence” in the Genesee case showing that Michigan engaged in discrimination “that resulted in African Americans being treated differently and less favorably than Whites.”[xv]

Now if we look at the bottled water problem form a “broader, more inclusive perspective” it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure the EPA is really carrying out its mission “protect human health and the environment” including working to ensure that “Americans have clean air, land and water”[xvi] Activist LeeAnne Walters, who helped expose the Flint water crisis and recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize, encourages us to lobby the EPA about the Lead and Copper rule which requires testing for lead in water. According to Walters “instead of doing that, they're actually cheating and using loopholes to hide and minimize the lead. I want to change the rule so that the loopholes that are in the system that are not illegal are eliminated so that this way, we are testing in accordance to the way the law was written so that we don't have any more future Flints.”

The old way of looking at all these justice problems would make us choose. Choose whether to keep plastic out of the bellies of ocean birds, or whether to keep Companies like Nestle from taking local water and selling it back to us. We would have to choose between fighting racial injustice, and plugging loopholes in the lead and copper rule. We still see this kind of thinking even among our allies on Facebook- bickering about why my priorities are more important than your priorities, caught up in the lie that we have to choose. It presumes that Justice is zero sum game which must by necessity have winners and losers.

Universalism has always looked at the world a little differently. As Hosea Ballou wrote “Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82) The Universalist God’s love includes every inch of the web of life, includes even the smallest creature. Justice without women, without people of color, without the birds or the trees is not true justice.

So it would make sense that Universalists would be drawn towards a more holistic view of justice making. Intersectionality is a new way of looking at justice work that encourages people to bring all of who they are to the table. Just as KimberlĂ© Crenshaw (who conceived the idea of intersectionality) fought a legal battle so that her clients could be simultaneously recognized as women and as people of color[xvii], we are re-imagining justice work that weaves connections across categories and divisions. Such justice work requires us to examine our own privilege, to listen to each other, and to practice justice through a broader and more inclusive lens. I believe with Wendell Berry that “What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air.” The interdependent web of all existence is by its very nature intersectional, interconnected and interdependent. Let us open our minds and hearts to intersectional solutions that hold and nourish and heal us all.
 


[i] http://www.seedbed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Berry_Solving_for_Pattern.pdf
[ii] https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/antislavery-connection.htm this is discussed in The Woman's Hour By Elaine Weiss, a summary of some of the issues can be found here:
 https://www.bustle.com/p/the-womans-hour-by-elaine-weiss-details-how-the-womens-suffrage-movement-laid-the-groundwork-for-modern-politics-protests-8469779
[iii] https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/07/white-black-environmentalism-racism/
[iv] https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-04-26/us-national-parks-are-used-mostly-older-white-people-here-s-why-needs-change
[v] https://www.hcn.org/issues/42.2/the-shot-heard-round-the-west
[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-nmxnmt_XU&t=1s
[vii] https://environmentlawhistory.blogspot.com/2017/04/parks-and-jim-crow.html
more about Dr. Taylor’s work is here: https://corpsnetwork.org/moving-forward-initiative-guest-series-interview-dr-dorceta-taylor-diversity-and-equity-initiatives
[ix] https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/21/health/ocean-plastic-intl/index.html
[x] http://chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/#CF000313%2018x24
[xi] https://recyclenation.com/2017/08/plastic-vs-aluminum-vs-glass-which-packaging-should-you-choose/
[xii] https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/because-you-asked-should-i-choose-plastic-aluminum-or-glass-bottles
[xiii] http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/166022
[xiv] https://www.portlandoregon.gov/sustainabilityatwork/article/507465
[xv] https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/epa-makes-rare-finding-environmental-discrimination
[xvi] https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/our-mission-and-what-we-do
[xvii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/?utm_term=.b55877d69fed

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Freedom of Spirit (April 8, 2017)

How much freedom do we really have? Sometimes our lives can feel very constricted- We don’t have enough time to do the things we want. We don’t have enough money to buy the things we want. Cultural norms limit our freedom in what we do and say. We have responsibilities to our families and our employers. Sometimes we can feel boxed in by the external realities of our lives.

And because we are called to live an ethical life, an authentic life, a compassionate life, we can feel like the choices shrink even further. I often get feel a sense of constriction trying to make the right choice, the perfect choice, I agonize about whether I am “going the right way.” I happened to be listening to an interview with Kiran Trace[i] who claims that our true nature is freedom, that in fact we have “oceans of freedom.” I really liked the sound of that. “Oceans of freedom.” I felt better just hearing her say it. But what did she mean? I think she was pointing us toward a spaciousness that is available in us and all around us if we open ourselves to it.

Years ago my yoga teacher Kent Bond used to talk about making spaciousness in our yoga poses. “Our real job is to be space-makers” he said. Even though we may be holding a difficult pose, or a boring pose, he challenged us to create a felt sense of spaciousness in whatever position we were in. For those of you who don’t do yoga, imagine an ice cube tray coming fresh out of the freezer. At first the ice is adhered to the plastic tray, but if you wiggle it a little bit the cubes fit more loosely in their cubbyholes. Sometimes we see our limits like walls around our lives, and we spend so much energy, so much attention pushing against the walls, but we can also turn our attention to the freedom we have within those constraints, even if it’s just as much as an ice cube has in its tray.

Let’s take our hero Inventor McGregor. Anyone would agree that being the parent of 5 young children provides significant limits to personal freedom, especially on a handyman’s salary. And yet within those limits, McGregor has created a life for himself where between gluing and oiling had hammering he takes time to walk the winding lane in back of his house, to paint, to fiddle, and to enjoy his family.

This is one way of looking for freedom in our lives. When we are feeling cramped by our job, our financial situation or our families we can wiggle around a bit in our lives and see where space can be found. I discovered recently that when I get up earlier (once I recover from the alarm going off) I enjoy the wiggle room of having an extra half hour to make and eat my breakfast at my own pace in a quiet house. Or I can get up even earlier and hit the yoga studio while it’s still dark out. I feel like I found a hidden cache of time all for myself. If we look for it, we may find ways to make space for ourselves, we may find freedom to choose a path that feels right to us. It may be hard to believe in oceans of freedom, but no matter how tightly we squeeze our fingers together water will always find a way to wiggle out of our cupped hands. Could we believe at least in a trickle of freedom? Could we see the gaps and spaces where freedom flows all around us?

We might start by noticing all the choices we make every day. A friend felt stuck in a job where after years of her loyal service the corporate culture around her had turned toxic. “I’m choosing to stay” she told me “I’m not stuck, I’m this is my choice.” Our choices don’t always feel good, but they are still choices. And this affirmation that she had the freedom to stay or go helped her stay sane while she put aside a financial safety net week after week until that day when she told me with both trepidation and joy, “I gave my notice today.”

Whatever the external limits to our freedom, there is always the possibility of cultivating inner freedom. This kind of freedom is much harder to define, is much slipperier, because it is so highly personal; only you know for sure when you a sense of freedom in heart mind and spirit. Many spiritual traditions encourage us to cultivate inner freedom, and in our UU principles, we talk specifically about a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” This value on freedom is not something hippies came up with in the 60s, it has been an explicit part of our faith since the Act Of Religious Tolerance And Freedom Of Conscience in 1568 when King John Sigismund declared: “no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied.” Or as the Universalists wrote in their Winchester Profession of 1803 “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Freedom of thought, freedom of belief is a cornerstone of our faith tradition. We believe that a sense of inner freedom, a sense of inner spaciousness, is a sign that we are headed in the right direction on our journey of spiritual growth.

When I was training to be a spiritual director we talked a lot about freedom. We talked about how avoid limiting the freedom for those who came to us for direction. It’s funny how subtle those limits can be. A casual comment like “you must feel very sad” can put your directee in a bind- you’re the authority, if you say they must feel sad, they might look at their inner experience through that lens. But what if that’s not quite what they are feeling? What if they are really feeling angry, or ashamed? Then they have to choose between disagreeing with you, or putting aside their own experience to follow your suggestion. So we learned to mostly ask questions- “how do you feel” or “do you feel sad?”

It turns out I am particularly susceptible to such things. I really want to give the right answer, I really want to be agreeable, to be easy to work with. But when they sent out our monthly reflection form I felt a sense of inner constriction. I dreaded it. I put it off. Finally I chose honesty as a starting place, and wrote this:
“I feel a surprising amount of resistance to this form. ... It just felt physically bad to have to take all the extremely personal, beautiful, deep parts of my life and put them on a form like a high school assignment or job application. I felt some inner door closing as I looked at the form. .. It puts me in a tight spot where I must answer these questions or fail to keep my commitments to the program.“


As you might expect, the facilitators replied with “sorry you don’t like the form, would you like to talk?” and “the form is for you, use it however you want.” I had seen that form as a narrow box and had tried to shove myself into it. But that was my projection, my assumption. I had assumed there were external limits to my freedom, but when I tested those limits, I learned there was plenty of freedom there for me to be who I am and express my truth.

So the next retreat I went to we were given the assignment to write in our journals. Ugh. I thought, “I literally write about my spiritual reflections for a living. I love my work, but I’m on retreat.” I was filled with a rebellious spirit, determined to claim my freedom. I noticed there was a craft room right off our meeting space. I boldly went right in a signed out a box of colored pencils, and did much of my journaling for the remainder of the retreat in doodle form. And, in point of fact, some of the images I doodled turned out to be powerful and useful in my process -- transformative even. I think some of that freedom to express what needed to be expressed came from the fact that I never draw. I have no confidence or expectations of my drawing. Whereas I’ve come to expect my words to be measured and thoughtful and grammatically correct; with my colored pencils I had escaped expectations of form or technique. Such a small rebellion led to a huge opening of inner gates and locks. There was freedom available to me when I went looking for it.

I think of my little dog when he makes a bed for himself. He is so ingenious the way he pokes and shoves whatever blankets or pillows he has to work with. He hollows out a little space for himself that is just right and then rests into it. As in our human lives, some structures do not give no matter how many times we turn in a circle or dig at them. Sometimes his custom-made bed involves a bookcase, or a pile of shoes, or a laundry basket or suitcase that really doesn’t give very much at all, but he takes the materials he has and makes the space he needs, and then, satisfied with his work, flops down into it. We spend many Sundays here talking about how to move some of those big external obstacles to freedom -- economic inequality, systemic racism, mass incarceration, rigid gender roles -- but to be truly useful, our tradition must help us when the external realities of our lives are unyielding. While we fight for freedom in the outer world, we must also claim the inner freedom that is also a type of resistance,

A stream takes its form from the bed it runs in, if it weren’t for soil and rocks and roots that shape and limit its flow, it would be a wetland or a pond. Freedom may be our true nature, but limits give our lives their own unique shape. When Hector McGregor finally got the time he needed to invent- no distractions, no demands, just a clean empty page in a clean empty room, he froze. He had no inspiration. It reminded me of the 20th century composer Stravinsky’s notion of the “abys of freedom.” When all the external limits disappear, we still have to make choices or we can’t move and be in the world. Complete freedom leaves us, like Inventor McGregor, staring into emptiness. So we must ask…. freedom for what?

In his wonderful book Everything Belongs Richard Rohr puts it this way [p. 93] “We have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences. That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even tertiary freedom. The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances.” That primal freedom is not contingent on anything external. That is a way of being in the world, a way of being in our own hearts and minds.

I don’t want to understate the very real limits to freedom, like having to choose between the electric bill and the rent, like the brutal schedule of chemotherapy. Like mass incarceration and white supremacy culture. But Rohr suggests “the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances. That’s what great religion offers us. …. That’s why the saints could be imprisoned and not lose their souls. They could be put down and persecuted like Jesus and still not lose their joy, their heart, or their perspective. Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.“

Increasing our inner freedom does not always mean having more options . In Buddhist teaching the ethical limits we put on ourselves actually increase our inner freedom- if we refrain from harming others, we are free from the pain and guilt of having harmed ourselves or others. By living ethical lives we limit our options, but we feel free in heart and mind.

Our freedom and our limitations are like two sides of the same coin. We are both free and not free in every moment. Both our freedoms and our constraints allow us to be not “anything” but to be specifically who we are. For Hector McGregor, the fact of living in community, the particular problems of real people formed his creativity into useful things. The very first mark you put on a blank page limits all that comes after, but you cannot have a painting, or a novel, or an invention without it.

Every living being is limited by our biology, our eco-system, by the times we live in. And yet filling every gap like a river flowing in its bed, surrounding us, permeating us, like the air we breathe, freedom is there too. All around us are oceans of freedom, the freedom to think what we think, the freedom to love what we love, the freedom “to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances”