Friday, October 28, 2016

The Many People Inside Us (October 23, 2016)

When you are an adult, there are very few opportunities to play dress up. If we went in to see our doctor one Tuesday in March and she was wearing a Strawberry Shortcake costume, it might raise questions in our mind. It might create a barrier to our trusting her to care for us. So instead she comes to work every day in her doctor costume. We know that, for better or for worse, the way we present ourselves to the world impacts how people respond to us. As Grownups, we have all spent many years creating and polishing the various costumes we wear every day. This is no different for ministers. There are discussions all the time online about what ministers should or shouldn’t wear- one recent discussion was about whether it was okay to lead worship in open toed shoes. In fact, there is a whole blog called “Beauty Tips for Ministers” subtitled “because you are in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.”

Consider for yourself the image you present to the world when you:

  • · go the family Thanksgiving Dinner
  • · mow your lawn
  • · go to court to contest a traffic ticket
  • · work outside the home
  • · work at home
  • · go on a first date
  • · Go to root for your favorite sports team
For most of us there is at least some small variation between how present ourselves in those scenarios. I would argue that it is not just our clothes that we change, but many other subtle things as well. For example, in our house it is perfectly fine to lick the beaters after mixing cookie dough. (And the bowl, if I’m perfectly honest about it.) But we try not to lick, well, anything if we are hosting a dinner party. And if I am out getting a drink with a friend, I might use some colorful language that I try to refrain from using in the pulpit. All these things are part of what Jung calls our “persona” – the image we present to the world that we can put on and take off like a costume.

The problem comes when we get trapped inside a persona. For example maybe you recognize a persona I will call the dependable friend [put on apron]- you know, the one who is always there when you need her, who hosts parties at her house, and never asks for anything in return. Such a persona can harden into a shell, like that suit batman wears. Maybe you would really like to cancel this week’s dinner, because you are exhausted, but because “dependable friend” wouldn’t cancel, the dinner party goes on, though there is some part inside that feels trapped and stuck.

Jungian Spiritual Director Don Bisson suggests that inside each of us is a whole committee of people. Responsible friend may be one, but she struggles all the time with a “free spirit” part of herself who wants to put her social calendar in a paper shredder, jump on her motorcycle and follow the call of the open road. Yes, inside each one of us there are whole committees of people, some of whom are on the executive team and tend to run things, and others who sit there all day with their hands up and no one ever calls on them.

I realized in middle age that I have a 4 year old princess in me that likes to wear way more ruffles and sparkles than is really seemly for my minister persona, or my responsible adult persona, or even my “adult with good taste” persona. She longs for a big bag of Grandma’s cast offs to play dress up as freely and flamboyantly as I did when I was 4.

Inside me I also have Very Efficient Worker who is constantly at war with Patient Compassionate Listener. Sometimes Very Efficient Worker just needs a quiet day alone with her to-do list or she gets pushy.

Who are the parts of you who are sitting there with their hands up waiting to be called on, whether sitting silently and patiently or jumping up and down and waving their hands in the air? Let’s take a moment silently to consider-

Now some of the people on the committee are scary, so we try to pretend they are not there. We are afraid if we give them any air time bad things will happen. They live in the part of ourselves Jungians call “the shadow”. It is not unlike the shadow your body casts in the sunshine. If the sunshine is the light of our conscious awareness, wherever we point that awareness, there will be a dark spot blocked by what we are focused on. Because it is important to me to be a “responsible friend” I can’t or don’t want to see in myself the slacker who spends all day on the sofa watching a Netflix marathon instead of going to a retirement party. I can’t or don’t want to see that part of myself who feels powerless and small. And I outright reject a part of myself that would say or do something mean to a friend.

As Connie Zweig writes in her book Romancing the Shadow:
… the shadow, is us, yet is not us. Hidden from our awareness, the shadow is not a part of our conscious self-image. So it seems to appear abruptly, out of nowhere, in a range of behaviors from off-color jokes to devastating abuses. When it emerges, it feels like an unwanted visitor, leaving us ashamed, even mortified. For instance ... When a [man] with a health-conscious lifestyle craves ice cream and feels compelled to binge in the dark of night, [his] shadow is acting out. When a normally kind mother belittles her child, her shadow is showing… 

In each of these instances, the individual’s persona, the mask show to the world, is split off from the shadow, the face hidden from the world. The deeper this rift and the more unconscious the shadow, the more we experience it as a stranger, … an alien invader. Therefore, we cannot face it in ourselves or tolerate it in others.” [P. 4]
Zweig is suggesting that the “deeper this rift” between our persona and our shadow, the more destructive and out of control the shadow may be when it emerges. According to Jung, it is much healthier to deal with the shadow than to keep it locked up. A shadow you are paying attention to and trying to understand and bring to consciousness is much healthier than a shadow we relegate to the unconscious.

Let’s take a moment silently to think of some names for our own shadows. Consider moments when you have done something so out of character that you surprised yourself. Consider things you would never do yourself, but make you really angry when you see them in other people…

Everyone has a shadow, just as each of us has a shadow in the physical world. And if we are not paying attention to and trying to learn from our shadow, it will stop raising its hand to be called on in the committee meeting of our psyche, and will try to get our attention in much less healthy ways. In this light, our weird habit of dressing up as the scariest thing we can think of seems like a smart idea. Each Halloween we get to take a little peak at the shadow and we have society’s permission to do it!

This holiday offers us a great tool to call forth our shadow in a playful and low-risk way. Educational experts agree that playing is one of the best ways to learn new things- “Play is nature's great tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties. When we play, dilemmas and challenges naturally filter through the unconscious mind and work themselves out.”[ii]

Imagine how you would dress up as your shadow.- whether that’s Dracula or the woman who takes too long writing checks in front of you at the super market.

As a lifelong UU I believe that every human life has value. I don’t like competition that pits people against one another; I think we should all work together to find a consensus solution in a non-violent way that serves everyone. Perhaps this is why, many Sunday afternoons in the fall, I come home from church and put on my Eagles Jersey, and spend the afternoon exploring a unapologetically patriarchal world where people use physical force to determine who are winners and who are losers for the profit of the wealthy. While I respect the inherent worth and dignity of every player in the NFL, I’m exploring hating the Cowboys and feeling glad when they lose. It’s cheaper and more fun than Therapy.

Jungian Theory proposes that integrating all these different aspects of ourselves into a cohesive whole is the path to maturity and wisdom- a harmonious and effective inner committee. Consider the groups we’ve been part of real life. When we meet in our church committees here at UUCAS, I’m amazed how kind we are to one another. How we listen to each other’s ideas, even when they seem to come from way out in left field. We talk and think together until we find a solution that everyone in the committee can agree to. We are rarely so kind to all the characters inside our psyches. But I believe that even the most disruptive person on your inner committee has something important to say if we will listen.

Now here’s where the sermon takes a surprising twist – after encouraging you to listen to all those characters, and to try on all those costumes, the next step in our spiritual journey is to take them off. Because no persona, no matter how polished, no matter how fully integrated into your psyche, is really you. The real goal of this journey is not to find a better, more complete costume to wear for the world, but to figure out who is inside all those layers. When we begin to pay attention to and become conscious of the personas we put on to face the world, It reminds us that we are not our costumes. We are not our personas. Underneath all those layers is what Jung and the Spiritual teachers of the east call the Self - the deepest core of who you are. Underneath all those costumes is the true you- the one who is there when you are naked.

If we mistake our persona for our own skin, any threat to that persona would be terrifying. But when we realize it is just a useful costume we wear, we can wear it loosely; we can take them off and put them on as we need them.

At Satsang many years ago, Kenny Johnson[iii] said that what we think of as our self is more like a coat we wear that “we must take it off and burn it in the fire. And take it off and burn it in the fire.” This is the spiritual journey, the journey to the true Self.

But just as we can’t go to work without any clothing at all, we do need some persona to interact with the world. Not a thick impenetrable veneer, but a thin breathable cloth. A useful tool that helps us communicate our roles to one another, but lets the Self shine through.

So I encourage you, today and throughout this holiday season, to play a little with your personas, your hidden selves, your shadow. We have a few tubs of costumes in the social hall, and I encourage you to try on anything that catches your eye. Try on something familiar, something that excites you, something that scares you. Try them all on at once if you like. Always with the goal of discovering the true self that lives within.





Friday, October 14, 2016

The Power of Thinking (October 9, 2016)

I hated Long division when I was a kid. It gave me a stomach ache and a head ache. I remember going to my mom one night in a fit of despair over my math homework. When she offered to help, I handed over a sheet so muddy with partially erased pencil marks that she responded “ah, I see your problem- let’s start with a clean sheet of paper.” She pulled a fresh sheet, and a nice sharp pencil. She re-wrote the first problem on the clean page, and began to write each step down as we worked on it together. Teachers had always told us “show your work so we know how you solved it” but all of a sudden I realized that really, if I could show my work in a way that was legible and understandable to me, then I could understand what I had done, and when I struggled, where I’d gone wrong, so I could check my work and be sure that I was right. All of a sudden I loved math. I loved that you could take a clean sheet of paper and a sharp pencil and follow the numbers to their logical conclusion.

This is the power of our thinking minds. It takes fear and confusion and overwhelming emotions and slows everything down to where we can see clearly what our solutions might be. In our political environment right now strong emotions cloud the issues. Our public discourse is more about “who is the enemy” than “what is the most effective path forward for all of us.” And we need real solutions right now, not just emotional rhetoric.

This image found on LaughingSquid pretty much sums it up.
We live at a time where it is very hard to tell truth from lie, fact from guess. Have you ever seem something posted on Facebook- so outrageous that you immediately post it to all your friends, only to have someone point out that it was actually just a joke or a fabrication? How can we know what is true? This is especially important when it comes to public policy. We know that the effectiveness of any new laws passed by our elected officials is secondary to whether the idea increases their popularity, or will be popular with big donors. Things are not any better in private industry, where the ultimate measurement of success is quarterly returns to shareholders rather than the impact on 7 generations of life on our planet. Scientists who advise both government and industry are routinely silenced because what the scientists are telling us isn’t popular. [i] For the future of our country, I’d like to suggest that it is the power of thinking that can cut through the politics and the partisan passions and help us steer our way forward.

For an example today, let’s use something that should be pretty safe for both liberals and conservatives. Imagine we were buying a new couch for the congregation. Have you ever fallen in love with a piece of furniture – “wow- this is just the perfect thing!” and not until you got it home did you realize it doesn’t actually fit? Maybe later you get the bill in the mail for the couch and realized you can’t really afford it? The best way to prevent both these couch-fails is to check your numbers. Before you head to the showroom, measure the space where you want to put the couch. Then bring a tape measure to the store with you, and measure the couches. And because humans are imperfect, you might even want to measure twice; as my grandfather the cabinet maker used to say “measure twice cut once.” If it’s really important to you, have a friend measure it too. In the great hierarchy of information, this is the most trustworthy-- something you measure or count firsthand, and preferably having someone check your work. In the world of science, the secret code for “had my colleagues check my work” is “peer reviewed.” Look for that phrase – it’s a good sign that the data is pretty solid.

Hang on, you may be saying to yourself, can we afford a couch? Good question. So often we buy something because we need it, or we want it, or it seems like something we should be able to afford. This is why we always like to have a copy of our budget and our year-to-date expenditures at board meetings. Not only can I look at the budget and do the math, but the whole board has a copy, and we can check each other’s math. Now budget numbers are a little softer than how many inches a couch is. Just because we usually make $200 in fundraisers, doesn’t mean we will this year. Just because we usually spend $1000 on heat, doesn’t take into account a record cold winter. Just because it is a number on an impressive spreadsheet doesn’t make it true. So part of checking each other’s work is asking questions about the numbers “where did you get these estimates for how much our utilities will be this year” and “what are our plans for this fundraiser?”

What do you do if you can’t get to the store to measure the couch yourself? If you are going to order the couch on line, you are probably going to have to trust someone else to measure it for you. Most of the data we get comes to us in a secondary way like this. Exactly how many children graduated from high school last year? How many inches did it rain during the hurricane? No one has time to go count all these things for themselves. At some point you’re going to have to trust a pharmacist to measure your drugs, or an engineer to design your bridge. Choose your expert carefully. Choose them not because they share your political affiliations, but because they check their work and use a good method. We make this mistake a lot- we might trust our Facebook friends before we trust a careful peer-reviewed study by a researcher who voted differently in the last election. For example, I hope most of you trust me and agree with some of my values. But if you really want to know how a couch is made, I hope you’ll ask [our Buildings and Grounds Team] instead. And if you want to know if we can afford a couch, start with your treasurer.

But don’t give all your trust unquestioningly to the experts, even our beloved church treasurers. Ask questions about who did the counting and how they did the counting. One of the most universally accepted standards for gathering information is the scientific method, which Aurelio described before. Part of that process is explaining exactly what method you used to get your measurements. You can use the word “methodology” if you want to be fancy about it. “I took this tape measure and I measured the back, from one end to the other” and then the scientist has to show their math. Now someone else (maybe far across the country, maybe in another decade) can take the same kind of tape measure, and the same kind of couch, and check your math. An online poll does not use the scientific method. Your Uncle Bob eyeballing the couch from a photo is not the scientific method.

Learning about the method for getting the numbers, helps you know better what those numbers mean. As Susan Etlinger, who analyzes data for a living, said “if I don’t know what questions you asked, I don’t know what questions you didn’t ask.”[ii] Last week 14 of us were standing in the creek bed over by Litchfield Elementary School with Mike Lovegreen, while he explained that sometimes folks who design stream-crossings would calculate the volume of water that had to travel under a bridge, without asking “what happens to all the rocks and stuff in the creek-bed when we build this?” and “How is this bridge going to change the way the creek moves?” And that those un-asked questions often resulted in roads and bridges and parking lots washing out in big storms

Just because someone uses numbers in their Facebook post, doesn’t mean it’s a fact. I read somewhere that 70% of all statistics quoted in conversation are made up on the spot. But you might want to check that for yourself. So another important question you can ask is- who is the source of your data? If the Facebook post doesn’t tell you where the data came from, probably best to disregard it: if no one’s name is on it that means no one has to be accountable for errors or false information. If you are really curious ask for the source. Once you know the source, you know a lot about the data. The Onion is a satirical magazine – but I see my Facebook friends re-posting it like it’s real news. If you have data from a researcher at Stanford on one hand and from Buzzfeed on the other hand, I would suggest that probably the Stanford data is more rigorous. If I’ve found a couch that is the right measurements and the right price, and the review says “most comfortable couch in the world.” It makes a big difference who is the source of that quote- is it from a couch salesman, or from consumer reports? Ask yourself who benefits, whose pockets will be lined. If the only research about couch safety is done by the couch industry, that’s important to keep in mind. Not to say that the couch industry is not honest, just that they might be motivated to ask questions and collect the data that is more likely to help them sell couches.

You may find that the more questions you answer, the more you drill down into the data, the more questions you have. That means now you are really thinking! Some of you have told me that you are here in a UU church because you came from a religious tradition where asking too many questions was frowned upon. Well, you came to the right place. Asking questions is practically a sacrament for UUs.

UUs are encouraged to “to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, [which] warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;” UUs understand that no information is perfect. Very fallible human beings bring their biases and blind spots to the work they do. If I really want a certain couch for the church, research has shown that I’m likely to pick and choose data that supports my arguments for buying it.[iii] No measurement is perfect. Every answer is incomplete. So the use of reason and the scientific method helps us challenge the data we have and the conclusions we draw, and the more we challenge those theories the stronger they become.

The Galileo story I read during the Lesson for All Ages is one of how gathering new data and questioning our assumptions can change how we see the world. I can see clearly, that every morning the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. It’s just common sense that the sun goes around the earth. So in the 16th century when Nicolaus Copernicus, came up with a mathematical model which suggested that actually we went around the sun, people were slow to believe it. no matter how good his math was he could not convince people to question their old idea. When Galileo Galilei found new data using a telescope he designed- society pushed back hard, the church asked him to cease and desist, making his life very difficult. Today the idea of the earth orbiting the sun is very uncontroversial- even ordinary people can see for ourselves images from space. Centuries of science confirms the basic idea, and in 1992 the Catholic Church finally changed the official stance to agree that Galileo was right.

But that’s not the end of the story. Astronomers like William Herschel and Friedrich Bessel realized that the sun is only the center of the solar system, not the whole universe. In fact, the latest theory is that the universe has no center, or rather that everywhere is the center of the universe. At its best, the use of science and reason helps us understand that our knowledge is always incomplete, always growing. It helps us be open to new ideas and new data, because even when an idea seems weird, seems to contradict what we know, we can cool down our gut reaction, and start asking helpful questions.

Reason and the scientific method can tell us many things, about the measurements of the couch, the affordability of the couch, maybe the durability of the couch if we know something about materials and engineering, but couch that is the right measurement on the right part price is not a necessarily the right couch for you. As a short person I can tell you that just because something is comfortable for 98% of people doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be comfortable for me. Thinking alone will not give you all the answers. Do you like the couch? Is it beautiful? Is it comfortable? Those are important questions too. We should use all our faculties - heart mind and spirit in making any important decision.

We are living in is an important time in the history not only of our country, but for all the living beings on this planet. As a people who strive to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, we have an important role to play. Let us be on the side of all those who, regardless of their political affiliation, are gathering data carefully, who show their math and their methodology so others can join in the search for solutions. Let us remember to ask good questions as part of our free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and let us use the power of our thinking minds always in service of our compassionate hearts, and a better life for all.