Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Emptying (December 15, 2013)

I was at a committee meeting here at the church just this week, and each person, during the check-in, mentioned how busy they were; they felt scattered, overwhelmed by all that was on their plates. It’s not an unusual thing to hear at check-in, especially not during this time of year. Many of us have holiday traditions that require preparation, on top of the usual business of repairing the furnace, putting snow tires on the car, doctor’s visits, meeting deadlines at work, or volunteer projects we give our time to. If you are in school there are probably some kind of end-of-semester projects or tests.

On top of these very real demands on our time, there are the ones that come at us through the media. The whole world seems to have a lot of things I need to do right away, most of them at the mall. Economists and reporters call this “The holiday shopping season” because it accounts for between 20 percent and 40 percent of typical retailers' total annual sales.[i] This time of year I get a staggering number of e-mails from retailers insisting that I “Shop now and save” alerting me to “One day only special offers” to “get them now before they are gone. My inbox is also full of e-mail from non-profits who are needing end-of-year donations or end of congressional season action, whose subject lines all end with exclamation points.

Let’s interrupt that. This season, this “dark of winter” is a time of emptying and letting go. The trees have dropped their leaves, and now we have a wide open view of the sky. In the Christian tradition Advent is a time of emptiness, a time of waiting. A time of “emptying ourselves of ourselves” [ii] A time to remember that there is a value not only in the many things we choose to do each day, and the many things we never get around to and possibly feel guilt or regret that we just couldn’t cram them into our already full lives, but there is also value in empty spaces and places. As the Buddhist saying goes “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

 Some of you were part of our fall adult RE offering “Spirit of Life” in which we provided a period of time for each person to share, and if they didn’t to use all their time, we would just sit in silence until the bell rang. The first session it was really weird. We kind of looked at each other, or at the floor, not sure what to do-- not sure how to be in those empty gaps. But over the 5 weeks we met together, we grew comfortable with those silences. We noticed how special it was to share silent times with one another, and then to share from that deep place of contemplation.

When I attended the first intensive retreat at the Linwood Center [this is part of the training to become a spiritual director in which I am enrolled for this next year] they told us that our training was to be contemplative in focus- that contemplation “is rediscovering your true self, your real identity, which has been buried and forgotten in the depths of our unconscious. Contemplation “ moves us out of a personal point of view, away from ego through the True Self.” But a Contemplative way of being in the world is different than the usual way of things in our culture. As a culture we believe very strongly that work, productivity, profit are the measures of our worth as persons. So contemplation is, therefor, countercultural. In our very first session our teacher Don talked about the barriers that come between us and contemplation. I want to lift four of those up for us today:

1) “Doing over being- This is want we were talking about before. Our culture is centered around “productivity, achievement, honor and success. Being for itself has diminished in value. Busyness leaves no gaps.”

2) “Noise- There is a constant background of noise so silence is more and more foreign, strange and disturbing”

3) “Technological imperialism- Technology has quickened our expectations creating an inability to wait” we have come to “seek immediate gratification.”

4) “Excessive restlessness-“ it is like there is a “hungry wolf inside who” consumes “whatever space exists.” We are uncomfortable with gaps and in-between spaces, so the restless wolf gobbles them up.

I recognized myself in this list. 

So the whole retreat was set up with these principles in mind. We ate breakfast in silence each morning. There was a kind of quiet that permeated the place. The schedule, though our seminar times overflowed with useful information and discussion about the practicalities of spiritual direction, had surprisingly large gaps in it. Breaks between sessions or activities would often be an hour or two long. Gaps were left in worship, in lecture, just moments of silence where we would just… wait, for whatever might come.

By the second day, what had seemed to be awkwardly long pauses now seemed very full to me, very important and precious. By the fifth day I felt a clarity about what I wanted and needed for my life, but also an open-ness to whatever might come. I felt both full and empty, still and peaceful, and with a renewed energy for life. All that business, all that chatter of the mind, tends to keep us from reaching the depth of things. When we are too full of doing it ruffles the surface of the water, and it makes it hard to see down into the depths. It keeps us from noticing our true nature, it keeps us from what we really need. This kind of emptying the mind and heart that we practiced at Linwood allowed the wisdom of that “still small voice” to emerge, a voice too quiet to be heard above the daily bustle. 

By emptying we also make space for the “other,” the unexpected. I remember one afternoon many years ago I was headed down to the marina to enjoy an afternoon off. I had intentionally kept this time unscheduled- leaving space for whatever might arise. As I neared the marina, I saw a car stopped in the middle of the street. The driver had jumped out to help a small dog who had wandered into the middle of this busy 4 lane road. I pulled over to see if my help was needed. In fact, this fellow was late for whatever was next in his day, and was very grateful when I offered to take the dog in my own car, my afternoon suddenly given an unexpected purpose. 

Emptying also allows us to learn and change and grow. Like the scholar in our story this morning, if our cup is too full, there is no room for any new ideas about the universe to enter in. Each of us has learned many things on our journey thus far, whether from academic journals or in the laboratory of life. Paradoxically, the more experience and knowledge we have amassed, the easier it is to forget that there are infinitely complex variables at work in the world. That each person is radically different, that each moment is fresh and new. In reaching for what we expect, we often forget to make room for all that is unexpected, all that is undiscovered. Sometimes someone dear to me will say “You’re not listening to me!” and I will realize that I am making assumptions about that they are saying, where they are coming from. (Has this ever happened to you? That you feel like no matter what you say, the person you are talking to has already heard what they want to hear, and you are talking to a brick wall?) If I can remember to empty my cup, to stop and say – “okay, try again. I’m really listening this time” I empty my cup of some of my preconceptions and try to hear something new, a deeper communication, a deeper relationship is possible. To truly be in conversation, we have to empty ourselves first, so there is room to hear something new.

A few years back I had the great gift of hearing author Thomas Moore speak at a minister’s convocation. He spoke about the “emptiness parables” in the Gospel of Thomas like [97] in which:

“Jesus says: "The Kingdom of the Father is like a woman who takes a vessel of flour and sets out on a long road. The handle of the vessel broke: the flour spilled out on the road behind her without her knowing it and stopping it. When she arrived at the house she put the vessel down and found it was empty." [iii]
He said the Gospel of Thomas is full of such parables about emptiness, and how at this time in his life, emptying was his core practice because “what you don’t know leads you to God.” What did he mean by that? Well, partly what we’ve been saying, that we can’t hear the deepest wisest parts of ourselves when our lives and minds are too cluttered. He also meant that we can’t really listen for something other than our own selves if we don’t make room first. And in his view, God is by definition “other” than us. When we are seeking for God, we are seeking for something that satisfies, that soothes, that endures beyond our experience of daily-ness, otherwise we would not be seeking. Whether we believe in a Transcendent God, or are instead seeking our truest deepest Self, he and many other wise religious scholars and practitioners advise us to begin our search at the edge of what we don’t know. Once we have decided we Know the Truth, we have constructed a false idol, because God, the Self, the universe is an ever changing, living, growing process. Once we pin it down, we have lost something crucial. Moore said that Zen, the emptying process of Zen Buddhism , is about not making an idol of anything. 

Then he said “life will empty you out all the time” through losing a job, through divorce and that “that emptiness really creates soul.”

Wow. That was not what I was thinking of as emptying. But he is saying that when we get into our familiar grooves, our habits of mind, we begin to feel comfortable that our teacup full. We think we know all we need to know to make sense of the universe. We see what we expect to see. It is sometimes through loss, through these often painful losses, when our cup spills, cracks, that we realize how much we don’t know. Now there is room for something new to enter in. Sometimes even a painful loss opens our eyes to some important new truth.

As we wait in this darkest time of year, let us allow something deeper, something more important than “the holiday shopping season.” Let us be grateful for the gaps and in-between times instead of rushing to fill them up. Let this be a time of emptying our hearts and minds -- a time of listening. May we find here a return to our deepest, truest self. And always the possibility that something new may enter in.


[i] 10 Surprising Stats About the 2013 Holiday Shopping Season by Selena Maranjian Dec 13th 2013 5:00AM

[ii] “Prepare the Way for the Lord: Why We Celebrate Advent” By Deacon Keith Fournier 12/2/2013