Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Emotions as Big as the World (May 21, 2017)


Many Sundays someone comes up to the front of our sanctuary during Joys and Concerns, takes a rock and tells us about some joy or concern for the world. The birds are returning in the spring. The effects of global climate change, the oppression of people far away in a place we have never been. As one of your worship leaders I often feel torn about this. On the one hand, it’s my duty to make sure that worship takes about an hour, on the other hand, as your worship leaders it’s our job to encourage us to have a global consciousness. It’s important that we notice when the birds return in the spring. It’s important that we notice the strange weather we have been having. It’s a good thing when the plight of someone half way around the world touches our hearts. It reminds us that we are part of an interconnected web of life.

Every day we hear about truly horrific things around the world, and to be honest with you often when I hear about such things I don’t feel anything at all. Or sometimes they make my stomach clench up and I suddenly think of a chore I have to do in a different room. That’s why I was so surprised when a picture of a logging road through an old growth forest disturbed me as deeply as if it were an open wound on a human body. It made me sad and angry. I felt hopeless, and lonely and I felt like I was the only person in the world be upset by a logging road.

Our culture teaches us that this is not normal. First of all, we are not culturally comfortable with the difficult emotions. Perhaps you have experienced a loss or heartbreak and people around you tried to cheer you up with platitudes which imply that they would really like you to hurry up and finish grieving as quickly as possible? Psychologists agree that grief is an important process for healing loss. If we refuse to feel our feelings they don’t disappear, they creep into our bodies and into our relationships. The real need of our emotions and spirits to process our experience slams up against our cultural fear of having strong emotions. Even if we are determined to feel our feelings it’s hard to change cultural habits that are reinforced on a daily basis. For the past year this has been one of my most important growing edges; my whole life I have prided myself on being cheerful and positive. But eventually I realized that I was shutting myself off from parts of my own experience so that I could stay cheerful.

We have an additional cultural taboo to overcome as we grieve the “destruction of the world” – the taboo that only human losses should be grieved. Since I’ve been the minister here a number of us have lost companions who are dogs or cats, and so often when we tell each other this news we are apologetic- knowing that in our culture it’s not really proper to grieve too deeply the loss of any friend who is not human. All the more so, there’s a general rolling of eyes if you express deep emotion about the felling of a tree, or the loss of the coral reefs in the ocean. This comes from our cultures insistence that we are different, that we humans are separate from everything which is not human, anything that is outside our own tribe. And the reverse is also true; by severing our emotions from the living world we are able to do the things that separate us form the web of life. If it were sad to cut a logging road through an old growth forest, it would be harder to do.

Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher and activist, was one of the first Western thinkers I was aware of to suggest that, in fact, we are all feeling this great grief for the world all the time. We all feel sad about the loss of forests and woodlands. We all feel sad about the extinction of species. We all hurt when people around the world die from curable diseases because they didn’t have access to treatment. Macy suggests that because it is culturally taboo to feel these things, we learn to numb ourselves. We all have to be able to drive past a quarry and see not an open wound in the earth, but a useful and productive industry. Our numbness helps sustain the status quo.

Macy, and now a growing number of psychologists are suggesting that before we will be able to turn and face these crises we are going to have to feel some of those difficult feelings. As individuals and as a culture we need to let our numbness soften, and let our hearts open to the rips and tears in the web of life before we can do want needs to be done to mend them.

Recently I learned a form of meditation that I have started practicing whenever the opportunity arises to change those old patterns. When I notice an emotion I take a moment to just feel it- not to judge it or analyze it or think about it but to just feel the sensations of that emotion. Then I make a conscious choice to welcome it- even if it’s despair. Even if it’s anger. I just say inside myself “welcome.” I greet it with compassion and curiosity. And after I have gone back and forth between those first two steps for as long as I need, I let the feeling go.

A few years ago I was sitting at a wonderful environmental conference called Bioneers, the founder of a group called Forrest Ethics about the cutting down of the last old growth forests on the continent- the Boreal forests in Canada. Her slides of the beautiful living eco system, and the ravages of logging opened my heart like a key in a lock. She explained that it’s hard to find out exactly what happens to the wood that is harvested when a forest is cut, but they had managed to follow some of those old trees through the paper pulp mill to the catalogues they eventually became. That’s right, catalogues. We were cutting down the last of our old growth forest to make junk mail. Notice how you feel when I say that. Do you feel numb? That’s okay. DO you feel angry? DO you feel sad? DO you feel despair? All those feelings are okay. Just notice. Where do you feel that in your body? Just breathe and notice. Well I felt so mad and sad that day that I went home and wrote up a cover letter explaining where the paper for those catalogues came from and that I did not want to receive any further catalogues. Then I ripped the back cover off all my catalogues and mailed them back to the companies. Later that year my RE program did a teach in on where paper comes form and wrote letters to Weyerhaeuser, a company that was logging the rainforest to make paper. Without that anger, without that hurt, I never would have had the energy to do the little things I could do.

So I would like to suggest that we can apply this same welcome meditation to our environmental despair just as we would to our grief about a lost job or ended relationship. If we are watching the news and notice strong feelings, we can drop down and just feel those feelings. And then welcome them. Here’s an important point- we are not welcoming clear-cutting old growth forests, we are not welcoming the death of the coral reef, we are just welcoming our feelings about those things. After we get clear and centered in ourselves and in those feelings, it may come to us that there is something we want to do to change the circumstance that unleashed those feelings. Usually this is where I focus my sermons- on analyzing the problems and encouraging us to do something to help them change. I promise there will be many more of those sermons to come. But today I want to just focus on this very important and often overlooked part of the work, which is to allow ourselves to feel the interconnected web, in all its joy and sadness.

As Per Espen Stoknes writes “My point here is that there must also be room and space where the genuine despair may be expressed and heard. Maybe my anger needs to cry without being impatiently and prematurely pushed and bullied into positive thinking, quick fixes and social movements. Yes, we must make haste. And yes, we must make haste slowly… with the kind of deep questioning that allows the heart and the soul time to follow.” [p. 179]

This is how I’d like to use the rest of our service today. I’d like us to have another time of Joys and Concerns, this time for any part of the web of life we feel connected to. And I’d encourage us to start our sharing by saying “I feel” – to help ground ourselves in our feeling. For example, “I feel angry and sad and hopeless when I see the way the living soil is treated in my neighborhood.” and I would encourage everyone else to just see how you feel as I say that. Even if you feel numb, that’s good to notice. Just be present with that.

I want to say a special word about anger. There’s a lot of anger in our political discourse right now- and that seems about right to me. But sometimes what we do when our feelings are too painful to feel is that we focus them “at” someone. I would challenge you to sit with that feeling of anger- focusing on your own experience instead of on blame. For example. I feel angry and afraid when I hear the EPA is being cut back. So I’m suggesting that we just feel whatever feelings arise in our own bodies.

And of course there is always room for our feelings of joy and connection; it is the joy we feel as the trees fill with leaves, that gives us the desire to stay connected with the web of life.

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