Monday, June 30, 2014

The Inward Journey (June 8, 2014)

Over my sabbatical I spent some time almost every day reading the collected works of the great 13th century Sufi Mystic Rumi who wrote these words:
Which is worth more, a crowd of thousands,
or your own genuine solitude?
Freedom, or power over an entire nation?
A little while alone in your room
will prove more valuable than anything else
that could ever be given you. (p. 260)
Rumi is proposing the very ancient, but still radical idea that the inward journey is more valuablethan anything else.

Certainly it was this instinct that lead Prince Siddhartha to give up his comfortable life, his wealth, literally his “power over an entire nation”. We told the story of Siddhartha on the day we bridged our High School seniors.. The story of how he was raised in luxury, heir to the throne, and protected from human suffering his whole life, until finally he demanded to be taken out of the palace and face the realities of life. When confronted with the sources of suffering—greed, illness, poverty and death, he renouncing everything, and went to learn meditation. Really, it’s the classic mid-life crisis, a man established in life, with wife and family, a career set out for him. All his physical needs met. But the luxuries of life were no longer enough. All the power he could want was no longer enough. And so a growing sense of dissatisfaction draws him to ask “what else is there?” All his privilege could not make him feel whole, feel satisfied. His luck was that he could understand with certainty that wealth does not ease this inner dissatisfaction. Many of us go our whole lives thinking “If only I had more money I would feel satisfied. If only I could get that promotion I would feel satisfied. If only I had a partner and a family I would feel satisfied.” 

So leaving behind everything except the simple robes he wore as he left the palace, he wanders for a while until he finds a teacher who introduces him to meditation. This is the first step in the inward journey, learning to quiet the mind --to stop doing for a little bit of time, to slow down the racing thoughts and be still. For most of us, this is hard. At the end of a long busy day, the body finally comes to rest and the mind spins and spins. We try to sleep and the mind is so active that we can’t sleep despite how tired we are.

One of the requirements of the spiritual direction training program I have been part of this year is to pray or meditate 20 minutes a day. I will be honest with you, until the start of my sabbatical, I was kind of pretending I hadn’t seen that requirement. I am not good at sitting still. If I sit down to watch “Cosmos” with my family I need a pile of laundry to fold, or at least some knitting to keep me there for the duration of the program. Besides, I do yoga almost every day, that’s the same thing right? And where was I going to find 20 more minutes a day to do anything? But once the sabbatical started I had no excuse. I found a seated posture that didn’t make my back hurt and turned my attention to my breath. I started paying attention to, well, my attention in yoga as well. Constantly bringing my mind back from its wanderings. At first I used to be hard on myself for the uncontrolled antics of my mind, but a yoga teacher had said “think of the mind as a little puppy, and gently lead it back.”

 I was amazed at the variation from day to day how long it would take for the mind to “release its contents” and finally settle into something like stillness. After a couple of months it became easier to really be present during yoga; I was amazed that for so many years I had let my mind wander wherever it wanted during my practice. Then just one day back to work after sabbatical I noticed during yoga that I was more present at a meeting I had just scheduled for July than I was in that moment. I took a deep breath and gently lead my mind back like a beloved puppy. Some days it’s harder than others, but there is a value to whatever stillness can be found that tends to reduce anxiety, to reduce our attachment to doing and thinking so we can just be. But this is not the end of the journey.

Siddhartha left his meditation teacher once he had learned the basics of meditation, because he had not yet found the cause and cure for suffering. He had not yet found the enlightenment he was looking for. The quieting of the chatter of the mind is just the doorway to the inward journey, because now we are alone with our Self. We are free now to look at the material from our life that begins to emerge and ask for our attention. Loneliness. Anger. Fear. All the old wounds that were never fully healed, that we never have time to look at in the busy stream of doing and planning. If you took up meditation to find peace, this layer of material is going to make you wonder what went wrong. When these inward electrical storms arise, meditation is not peaceful, prayer is not peaceful. Many people feel some kind of taboo about bringing their anger, fear, loneliness to prayer or meditation. But in fact our spiritual practice is the BEST place to be present with these things. Otherwise our spiritual life stays shallow. The Jungians call this “shadow material” and believe that the goal of human development is to become more and more conscious of our self so that, for example, that hurtful thing that bully said on the playground all those years ago doesn’t unconsciously cloud my interactions with my community today. When this material arises is a great time to talk to your spiritual director. The job of spiritual directors is not to fix this discomfort as it arises, but simply tobe present with the directee and whatever is emerging. The teachers in my training program mentioned many have found comfort “praying the psalms” at such times because the Psalms are filled with all the emotions that real people bring to prayer. Like the words of Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

About this time in my own process, surrounded by Catholic religious brothers and sisters, and protestant clergy I thought “I am completely out of my depth here. I was born and raised UU, I don’t really know what it means to “Pray with the psalms” and moreover, I have a complicated relationship to the Judeo Christian scriptures.” A helpful classmate asked what helpful answers I might find in my own religious tradition. I muttered something about thinking that over and went off to be alone.

Beloved community, I think this is one of the critical questions facing our religious movement today; how does our tradition support us on the inward journey.  And we are not alone in facing it. I asked my husband the other day who went to 12 years of catholic school and 4 years of Jesuit college if he ever received any instruction in prayer, and he said he had only been taught the words of the spoken prayers of his childhood tradition. All these protestant clergy are taking part in this spiritual direction training program because they are not finding the teachings they and their congregations need in their own tradition. In point of fact teaching about the inward journey has been “underground” for centuries. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian Abbot, writes that around the end of the 16th century there was a clamping down on “affective prayer” [p. 23] that is, prayer that explores these emotions as they arise. He says that for centuries “Contemplation was an extraordinary grace reserved to the few” [p. 21] In the twentieth century things began to change. Says Keating, “The idea of laypeople pursuing the spiritual path is not something new. It just hasn’t been popular in the past thousand years. In the spiritual traditions of the world religions, both East and West, there has been a tendency to isolate seekers…” [p. 28] from laypeople raising families, holding down jobs. In not only Christianity but also in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, teachings about the inward journey were reserved for a few initiates, and not made available to people like us. Both the traditions of Spiritual Direction and Contemplative prayer returned to public view in the Catholic tradition after Vatican 2 [ p. 33] with the realization that laypeople were hungry for teachings to support them on the spiritual journey, and that if their own tradition would not help them, people would turn elsewhere. Keating believes “We need to refresh ourselves at this deep level everyday. Just as we need exercise, food, rest, and sleep, so also we need moments of interior silence because they bring the deepest kind of refreshment.” [P. 35]

 Back to Siddhartha. Our story tells us that he began practicing with a group of ascetics- folks who “practiced hardships to conquer their desires, sensations and fears.” With them he denied himself food, sleep, and exposed himself to the harsh elements meditating for days on end. He became so frail from these hardships that he was near death, yet still he did not find what he was seeking. Sometimes when we are too hard on ourselves, too focused on our own “goodness” the discipline, the goodness itself becomes the object of our focus, becomes a detour from the true end of our journey. Gautama thought about the luxuries of his early life, and the hardships of this ascetic practice. He realized that there was a middle way. 

When Gautama left behind this harsh practice and hobbled to a river to bathe, a village girl, Sujata, brought him a bowl of sweetened rice and he was renewed by her kindness, reminding us of the importance of compassion on the inward journey. Both Buddhism and Hinduism have the virtue of “Ahimsa” or “non-harming.” We hold ahimsa not only for others but also for the self both on the inward and outward journeys. As the 8th century Buddhist teacher Saraha puts it “He who clings to the void and neglects compassion does not reach the highest stage. But he who practices only compassion does not gain release from the toils of existence.” [cited in Ram Das “Be here now” p. 95]

Finally Gautama takes his seat under the Bodhi tree and determines not to rise until he has found enlightenment. He focuses on the space between his thoughts to experience for himself the ultimate nature of reality. There Gautama faced Mara, the shadow material all of us face deep in ourselves. He faced his desire to return to his wife and child, the temptation to become king, his self-doubt until finally he found the place deep in his own interior that was free from suffering-- because there is something more permanent, more enduring, more valuable than any of those things. In different traditions people call this different things, the ground of being, the river of pure awareness, Christians say there lies union with God. In general the religious traditions agree that the closer you get to this ultimate reality, the less useful words are. Silence is the best way to reach this place, and perhaps the best way to express it as words begin to fail. That day Gautama found this state he called enlightenment and became Buddha.

Then the Buddha realized that others would need a path out of suffering. He understood that he must become a teacher and spend the rest of his life helping others on their journey. As Buddha’s story illustrates, the inward path leads back out into the world. Compassion leads one who has found a place without suffering to alleviate the suffering of others.

I know that Unitarian Universalists are traveling this inward journey. The drive to know for ourselves what is at the heart of this life is part of our mission. The question is – are we prepared to support one another, as our UU principles call us, to “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”? What tools, what skills, what attention do we offer one another in support? I believe there are maps for this journey so that we do not have to enter this way blindly and alone, maps like the one the Buddha taught to all who asked. And I believe more and more in the value of having companions on the journey, the value of someone like a spiritual director who listens and offers guidance, and the value of a community to hold one another in covenant. But some part of this journey we can only take in the quiet of our own hearts. As Rumi says:
A little while alone in your room
will prove more valuable than anything else
that could ever be given you.