Friday, March 30, 2012

That Direct Experience of Transcending Mystery and Wonder (March 25, 2012)

Because I am a Universalist, I believe that everyone has the capacity for a spiritual life, that everyone is on a spiritual journey. In fact, because I am a Universalist, I believe there is no part of our lives that happens outside of our spiritual journey -- it is the nature of life. So I preach about washing the dishes, because this is part of our spiritual journey. I preach about social justice, because this is one of the main spiritual practices of Unitarian Universalism. But sometimes there comes a longing to know spirit in its distilled form. The name our tradition gives to this is: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life”

This Unitarian Universalist faith tradition holds, as the very first source of our living tradition, our own direct experience. We believe a person does not need a religious authority to mediate their relationship with the divine. We believe, with the humanist Curtis Reese “that every age must achieve its own faith.” The Muslim tradition holds that Mohamad was the last of the prophets and in Judaism it is said to be Malachai. Both traditions hold that with these prophets there is a seal on revelation. But traditionally Unitarian Universalists don’t believe this. We believe that revelation is ongoing, we, like the younger siblings in a large family, don’t want to settle for a “hand-me-down” revelation. We want to be pioneers and explorers ourselves. We, with the Psalmist, want to “Taste and see” (Psalm 34:8)

But part of the reason we talk about washing the dishes and working for justice as a way of seeking the spiritual life instead of climbing to the proverbial mountain top is that not everyone feels called to climb that mountain. Some folks pursue wisdom and insight from the stories and writings of the great prophets and teachers, others by doing good work in the world. Right at this moment, that’s all I want. A quiet moment of reflection now and again, a thought provoking story, and good work to do. But when I was in seminary I wanted to taste for myself. I felt a deep seated desire to know more. Last week I talked about how those early humanists did not deny the existence of God, but “were in a distinctly anti-metaphysical mood” Well, this is the exact opposite impulse. For me the hunger that drove me to seek direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder was a hunger to know God.

I had spent already a couple of years in graduate school trying to know God through the intellectual search, reading and studying theology and all the other things folks need to know for the ministry. I had spent some time trying (and mostly seemed like failing) to learn to meditate. But at some point I wanted more than to write and think about the divine, I wanted to know for myself. When I was studying in Berkeley, there was then as there are now a group of teachers who lead “Satsang” which means “being in the presence of truth.” One of those teachers talked about this hunger, this craving to experience spiritual truth, and she said that this hunger is the prerequisite for this kind of seeking. Without this hunger, one cannot experience the truth.

I went to see one of my professors- Prof. Yielbanzie Charles Johnson, one of the only professors who talked explicitly about the life of the spirit. He had said often enough in class “If you want to have spirit in your life, you need to invite spirit into your life.” Even so, I felt a little crazy asking him my questions- both about how to invite spirit into my life, and how to grounds that search to keep from drifting away into the ether. Most of the esoteric spiritual practices come from outside our UU tradition, but Yielbanzie reminded me that being deeply present with the natural world is one path that has been part of our UU tradition for generations. Immersing oneself in nature, listening and emptying and being filled in a forest or in a desert like the girl in this morning’s story. Yielbanzie advised “ask earnestly, pay attention.”

All of the major religions traditions have these seekers of direct experience, they are called mystics. (Our UU mystics are the transcendentalists.) If you read some of the poetry or writings of mystics from very different traditions you will notice tremendous similarities in what they describe. Many traditions suggest that one needs a teacher of some kind, a guide. Many recommend a community of learners. Because if you go on this journey you are specifically seeking something beyond your understanding, you are seeking something powerful. It is good to have people to talk with and keep you company on the way, to keep you on the right path.

Most traditions suggest that the first step is living an ethical life. For example in the 8 limbed path of yoga, the first limb is “Yama” which means ethical living. If you are going on a journey up the spiritual mountain, you don’t want to be carrying a lot of baggage. If you are stealing from your boss and cheating on your wife, this is the very first thing that is going to jump out at you on your journey – the demons of not being right with yourself and your community.

It is also recommended that one have some kind of spiritual practice, or discipline. When I was at the University of Creation Spirituality on my sabbatical, we would have a seminar each morning, then for 3 hours each afternoon we would have “art as meditation.” During one of our intensives I studied chanting and meditation with Russill Paul who called this practice the “technology of ecstasy.” Because this is not a new search, folks have been on this path for as long as there have been people. There are helpful guideposts and teachings passed down to us for generations. One could spend one’s whole life following these different practices and noticing different energetic sensations and trance states not usually found in the ordinary experience. But as the Buddha and so many spiritual teachers have pointed out, there are a number of traps and detours on the way to pure experience. For example, I practice Hatha yoga. This is only one part of the 8-limbed path. It would be easy to get trapped in trying to do poses perfectly, or in accomplishing that cool pose on the cover of Yoga Journal, but the actual goal of yoga is “Samadhi” or union with the divine. Any path you take has the risk of sidetracking you from your real journey. I heard a student of meditation explain how after practicing for years he finally reached a state of pure bliss. He rushed to his teacher to share the good news and the teacher gives them a good whack on the head, because bliss is not the goal- pure awareness is the goal.

For myself, I spent a number of years devoted to this search. I didn’t have children to care for, and my work was preparing for and then beginning to serve the UU ministry, so such a search fit very well with the other factors in my life. I am so blessed to have had that time, a time I think of as my climb up that proverbial mountain. Yielbanzie had suggested that I “look for that thing that may not appear to be obvious… your help may come from where you least expect it.” I took his advice seriously. Instead of looking for confirmation of what I already thought I knew, I changed my focus to those things which surprised me, and realized I was thrilled to know there was still something in the nature of our experience that could surprise me. One fellow traveler said “whenever things get really weird or confusing or difficult, you know that you are really in it- you are right there in the mystery.”

I began a habit of listening to everything as if it was that help coming from some place I wouldn’t expect it. And I kept up my practices- I was at this time keeping a journal of my journey, I was keeping a dream journal and participating in a regular dream group, and I was studying Kundalini yoga, which included some very interesting and exciting things and also sometimes just the mind-numbing process of focusing your attention on a single point until you wanted to climb out of your skin. I never did get to the top of the mountain, but just high enough up to get above the tree line where the air is clear, and where you have a clear view of everything around you. I came away with a feeling that we were all part of something so much bigger than ourselves, that we were held in love. I finally had answers to some of the questions I had been asking my whole life, and also just became comfortable just being in the presence of mystery.

Theology, which had seemed so complicated in my systematc theology text books, started to seem simpler and simpler, and eventually it occurred to me that there is no you and I, there is no other to search for because all are one. How far I had to travel to come home to this very Universalist truth. But, as Gangaji says “to hear it, even to understand it, to memorize it, to hope it’s true is not enough. It has to be discovered Directly.”

When Yielbanzie preached at my ordination, he preached about getting lost, because I had taken so fully to heart this idea that if I wanted to find truth I had to follow the spirit even if it lead to strange places. And in particular because when the seminary class went to do our final ritual at a nature preserve, and the whole class followed the sign that said “I took the path less traveled by” I assumed that meant I should take the other path, and went tromping deep into the brush by myself. On that very real journey, as on my spiritual journey I eventually realized that if I was ever going to rejoin the community of persons, I was at some point just going to have to turn around and head back-- that eventually I had to go back down the mountain. Some folks are called to be holy men or women living on the side of the mountain, making camp in the desert, but it became clear to me that I had to ground my spiritual life in the daily fabric of living. The 15th century Sufi poet Kabir writes “Be strong then, and enter into your own body; there you have a solid place for your feet. Think about it carefully! Don’t go off somewhere else!”

Ultimately our knowing, our search for the divine must be grounded in our body- in our very particular time and space. So my husband and I bought a house, we had a son, and I got a full time job, and I committed myself to building a just world. For me such mundane acts as working in the garden, helping my son with homework, cooking – these are right at the heart of spiritual living. Even though I am no longer blinded with the brightness of the spirit within them, I know from my time on an explicitly spiritual journey, from the insights I gained during that part of my life, I know that these things are infused with spirit. I would go so far as to say they are brimming with God. Whereas before I started an intentionally spiritual journey these things may have seemed boring or beside the point, today they seem infused with meaning and purpose. Even on those days where I feel stressed out or uninspired, that knowing lingers. The simplicity of the vision that grew for me on my journey supports me on my path even in the ordinary time when I can’t even see the mountain from under the grove of trees I call my life.

While I was at Satsang one evening, back in Berkeley so long ago, a middle aged man mentioned that when he was young he had had experiences of being overwhelmed with the presence of God, with the spirit in his life. He had lived in that feeling for a while, but then it had receded and he, all these years later, missed it very much. The teacher said that this was not uncommon to have an intensity of experience as we first come to know God, but that later in a mature part of the journey, we don’t need to be hit over the head, we can listen for the divine in more quiet everyday places.

This brings me to the two main points I want to leave you with this morning. First, because I am a universalist and I believe that everyone has access to that transcending mystery and wonder, I believe that one does not have to follow complicated or esoteric teachings to reach truth. The simple breathing meditation is both appropriate for beginners and a practice that leads to enlightenment. One of the central teachings of Gangaji is that we can, in any moment, cut through our normal way of thinking and get to the truth of things. It is fine to follow the esoteric teachings, the scenic route through the realms of spirit, but there is always a direct path, a simple path, because there are no elect, no chosen who have the special skills to achieve union with the divine. WE are all on the path, but not all of us choose to climb this particular part of the mountain. I believe that those who hunger can find the spirit, as Lalla (a 14th century North Indian Mystic) says:
No ritual,
No religion,
Is needed.

Just cry out one
Unobstructed cry.”

Second, the heart is the best door to this journey. When I was studying Kundalini yoga, we spent time each class meditating on our heart center --literally on this area in our chest, which is also the location of the heart chakra. We would practice centering our attention there and cultivating a certain kind of feeling, or energy. I’m making both a metaphysical and a humanist point here; the heart is the node of the energetic system where the spiritual and the physical meet. But more importantly, it is the seat of compassion. No matter what kind of journey you are no, no matter where you are your journey, always start with your heart, always ground yourself in compassion. Compassion for yourself, and compassion for all living beings. This is why in a beginning meditation class, one will practice observing the breath, and loving-kindness meditation. Truly this is all one needs for the journey. Paying attention, and compassion. Says the great Christian Mystic Teresa of Avila, “if you are not certain about your relationship with God, stop worrying about it, focus on loving your neighbor, and the God-question will take care of itself.”

Everyone is on a spiritual journey all the time. We cannot escape it. The monk on his meditation cushion, the mystic in her cell, the householder at the sink filled with soapy water. Because God, the spirit, the meaning of life, are fully present in the faces of our neighbors, in the quiet of the forest. They are as close as our own breath moving in and out. But if a hunger comes for more, for knowing more closely, for a direct experience of that transcendent mystery and wonder, treasure that hunger, nurture that hunger, and see what new place it might lead.

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