Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Symbols of Hope (December 20, 2015)

I want to begin with the words of Poet Wendell Berry
It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,
for hope must not depend on feeling good
and there is the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight.
You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality
of the future, which surely will surprise us,
and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction
any more than by wishing. But stop dithering.
The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them?
Tell them at least what you say to yourself. [This Day p. 305]

Sometimes it feels like there is no reason for hope…especially if you’ve watched the news recently. There are many reasons, large and small, why we lose hope. In this darkest time of year, even in a mild winter like this one is starting off to be, many of us are affected psychologically and physically by the loss of light. For each person who looks forward with eager anticipation to the delights of winter, I bet there is one more whose mood is as dim as a grey winter sky.

For folks like us who live in a climate of dark cold winters and sunny summer days, winter itself is a powerful symbol. Driving through the hills of the twin tiers, through the brown grass and the bare grey branches, there is not a sign of new life to be seen. But you and I know, at least intellectually, that this is only temporary. We know that those bare grey trees are not dead, just dormant, just conserving energy through the cold months until they are ready to grow and fruit again.

That’s why marking the solstice is such an important observance in this part of the world. We witness around us dead leaves decaying on the ground. Autumn’s bounty is gone, and there is no hint that it will ever come again. But come it does- every year. We can check the progress of the sun’s return against our watches, and see that slowly, too slowly to notice, the day light grows, and with it will come the reliable parade of new green growth.

This return of light and growth is so reliable, that it too is a symbol. When we find ourselves in a dark season of our lives, through loss or illness or conflict, we can call to mind the winter- how dark and lifeless it seems, and how inevitably it is followed by the sun’s return. Whether or not it is winter in Pennsylvania when those feelings come, we know what it is like to experience a winter in our hearts and souls.

A good symbol is powerful because it manifests reality in a way that words can only gesture at. I can say “things will get better- this too shall pass.” but even to my ears those words sound empty. Poet Jeffrey Burten Russell writes “as the sign of a deeper truth, metaphor was close to sacrament. Because the vastness and richness of reality cannot be expressed by the overt sense of a statement alone.”  As I look out my window at that bare lifeless tree against the grey sky, I can’t help but see the green summer leaves, I can’t help but watch for the buds to emerge as the ice melts and the days lengthen. So any time I feel bleak and hopeless, I can remember the bare grey branches of a tree in winter, and perhaps I will find hope in the idea that maybe I too am not lifeless but dormant. Perhaps someday I too will bud and grow and fruit. A symbol teaches us through the “vastness and richness of reality” – a tree teaches us something about ourselves and about life each time we meet one in the world.

Symbols are complex and deeply personal, though they don’t always seem that way when we first encounter them. Maybe your preschool teacher had a poster like my son’s classroom had- a symbol for each season, and the symbol for winter was snow. I always thought this was strange because his classroom was in a climate where snow was a virtual impossibility. Winter in Santa Clara California was the season of drenching rains and green grass. Even we who live in the North East where a snowy winter is a distinct possibility, know after years of experience that Some years this darkest season can be filled with treacherous blizzards or ice storms, or these odd balmy days with small green leaves poking up from the muddy ground.

So a symbol is both the cultural expectation- that winter is a cold and snowy wonderland, and the reality we meet each day. We adults know that winter is never the same twice. We remember hard winters like last year, that seemed to last forever, and from which some of our trees lost branches or never recovered at all. And there are mild winters when you never do get enough snow to build a decent snow man. When we celebrate the winter solstice each year, as we will this week, we mark the darkest night, we look hopefully toward the returning light. The Solstice itself becomes a symbol of welcoming back the light in our own spirits, and each year we celebrate it becomes more complex and more personal.

When we are young we are taught symbols like equations- a heart = love, a dove = peace. But no symbol means just one thing, it means all those layers and layers of things, each memory, each song, each story. A good symbol holds them all. A good symbol provides a new way of looking at our experience.

Let’s take a moment now to think about what winter means to you. When you hear the word “winter” what images come to your mind? … Allow your mind fill with the sounds and smells of winter, the unique quality of light. .. Does that image you just conjured, does it match your inner state, or does it contrast to that state?... Who are you in this picture? Are you like the evergreen, stable and sturdy through the darkness? are you like the creatures who hibernate, drawing into their nest and themselves as winter begins? Are you the hungry squirrel, still gathering food against hard times ahead? … Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

The Christian tradition offers us another symbol of hope this time of year- birth. Unlike the symbol of the evergreen, which reminds us that it is possible to survive and be green even during a harsh winter, the birth of a child reminds us that life continues even when we ourselves may not. Remember that phrase in the poem I opened with, “It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old,” as Berry wrote “you … have withdrawn belief in the present reality of the future” The birth of a new child assures us of the reality of the future. It reminds us of the possibility of new generations, that life itself will continue even though eventually we will not.

But a new born baby is not one single static thing like a picture on a greeting card. One thing new parents quickly learn is that no matter what advice your friends and relatives and authoritative books have given you, what your child needs and wants is absolutely unique. A sleeping baby looks at once like any other sleeping baby, but even before he or she is born, the unique self that is that child is already emerging. An infant is a mystery, full of potential. To me this is the miracle in the Christian Nativity story- with or without angels and Magi- the miracle of new life entering the world. How it is that a complete and unique person emerges from the splitting of cells, how it comes to be full of the spirit of life is still pondered in the halls of science.

As we grow and live this symbol too becomes more complex and personal. When I was young, the nativity scene was simply a well-known story, but now that I am a mother, an aunt, a minister who has heard the great variety of experiences lived by people I care about, all of that hovers around that simple sentence as we hear in the gospel of Luke: “the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” That sentence is laden with meaning. Memories crowd around of new born babies we have known and loved and celebrated, each one totally unique. We understand the tremendous relief and gratitude that accompanies the birth of a healthy child. If you have known a woman who has given birth, you think of the travail of labor, of the inherent risks to both mother and child. Of the helplessness of the father or partner or helper. The birth of a new child becomes somewhat bittersweet when we remember all those who struggled to conceive and couldn’t, who meant to have children but whose path took them in another direction. The miracle of birth becomes all the more miraculous the more you know, the more you experience.

Let’s take a moment to paint that picture in our minds this morning. The newborn child, laying in a manger. His mother and father keeping watch, along with the whole community of shepherds, and angels, of donkeys and domesticated animals... What would it feel like to be inside that moment? …Where do you see yourself in this story?.. How does it make you feel today? … Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

I want to offer you one more symbol. A candle in the dark is similar in its symbolism to the returning sun, but it is, literally something you can get your hands around. We can only wait patiently wait for the sun’s return, we can feel it on our skin, or wrap a coat around our shoulders in its absence, but we can never touch it or hold it. A candle is a more intimate thing, an ordinary thing that we can probably call to mind the feeling of wax on our fingers, the weight and texture of it. Generations of people in our culture have had that same experience. Its meaning has changed over time, of course. In some ages, a candle was the only way of providing light in the darkness. I’ve noticed in old stories that candles are rationed and saved in hard times, not used lightly but preserved for future need. Consider the Hanukkah story. Their holy temple was seized by foreign soldiers, and used in ways considered sacrilegious. When it was rededicated to the Jewish Faith, the ritual included burning oil in the menorah for eight days, but there was only enough oil for one. But out of scarcity – abundance. The flame burned for all 8 nights exceeding their hope. There are many beautiful stories of Jewish people in times of hardship drawing strength from the act of lighting a menorah, sometimes a makeshift menorah made from a potato, or a cork, or whatever poor scraps were at hand. When candles are hard to come by, when light is hard to come by, a single flame becomes a precious and hopeful thing. 

For most of us in this room, we can light the darkness with just the flick of a switch. Candles are special to us not because they are a rare and critical resource, but because they are no longer ordinary. Lighting a candle shows we are leaving ordinary time and entering ritual time. A candle brings light to the darkness as surely as the stars, or the moon, but it is only a candle that we have the agency to light and to share. Think of the powerful symbol of neighbors standing shoulder to shoulder on a dark night, each holding candles during a peace vigil. The candle symbolizes, to me, something of the individual spark inside each one of us. It reminds me how when we let our light shine, not only can we light the way for others, but sometimes we can help them rekindle their own light. Perhaps this is why we love our annual candle light ritual as we do- it gives us hope in our ability to spread and share warmth, the light of truth, the spark of hope. 

Take a moment now to consider the light of the candle. Imagine holding a candle in your hand, and gaze at the flame. How is your own light right now? … The light of your mind, body, heart and spirit? … How is it with the light of this community?.... Where is your light needed?... Remember that image and come back to it later if you choose.

The tree in winter, the newborn child, the candle. There are many more symbols of hope, but this is a start. If there was a particular symbol that spoke to you today, or caused you to feel something unexpected, you might revisit it as the winter unfolds. Pay particular attention to any image that gave you hope; I encourage you to notice when this symbol appears during this winter’s holiday celebrations, and in your daily life as well. Maybe you happen to have an evergreen tree in your living room right now. What a special opportunity to observe it, and to listen to your own inner response to that symbol as you pass it during the day. Observe the evergreen trees on these endless mountains as you drive by them. Each time someone lights a candle, this can be a moment to reconnect with yourself- how is your own light? And if your own light needs brightening, feel free to dust off those candlesticks someone gave you as a gift years ago that you were saving for a special occasion. Let the light you kindle be an object of your meditation, let it feed you and reflect back to you something deep in yourself. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Intuition and Proof (December 6, 2015)

Has anyone here seen the Star Wars Movie- the first one, from 1977? Remember when our heroes escape the Storm troopers by diving into the trash shoot, and Han Solo says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” just before the walls begin to move together and we realize our heroes are trapped in a trash compactor? I wonder if everyone hasn’t felt that at one time or another- the sense that even though you have no specific evidence that things are about to go wrong, there is some kind of visceral feeling that trouble is coming. For most of my life I had dismissed these feelings – I would talk myself down from such feelings of dread saying “that’s just silly- you have no reason to feel that way.” Then one day I had this feeling of intense dread about a meeting I was scheduled to attend. As usual I dismissed the feelings, but they kept coming back. I was totally blindsided to find that some members of the committee who were upset had been getting together in secret developing a plan to present their grievances at this meeting, along with an ultimatum that ended up splitting the program into factions. It was the turning point in a conflict that took many months to heal. And it was a turning point in how I treat those funny feelings I can’t explain.

Unitarian Universalism claims as one of its sources: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit”. So having been born and raised UU, I was always very careful to discount things that didn’t pass through the filters of reason and science. Then I went to Seminary in Berkeley California, where people were constantly telling me to “trust my intuition.” I wasn’t even sure what they meant. I think I had so completely stopped paying attention to my “bad feeling about this” or even to “Ooo, That’s what I want!” that such information barely bubbled up to the surface of my consciousness. I tend to agonize about decisions, tallying up an inner list of pros and cons. which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The trouble is that “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” wasn’t even making it to the list of cons to be considered among other input. and “this thing is really calling to me” was not making it to the list of “pros.” To be truly reasonable, I thought, I must not be swayed by my gut feeling about a thing. Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever chosen the thing that made the most sense, the logical thing, perhaps the thing a loved one or authority figure advocated for, setting your gut feeling of what you really wanted aside, only to find yourself walking down a path that never did feel quite right?

I like to know where my information comes from. I like at least a Wikipedia article, but I prefer to trace any data back to its source- the book where the quote first appeared, the study where the data was tested and peer reviewed. So allowing a feeling or an intuition into my decision making process was a big leap for me. Fortunately scientists have started looking at this too. Malcom Gladwell, a science reporter, wrote a whole book called “Blink” about this phenomena of how sometimes we know something really important in only a moment, as with our statue story this morning. Scientists have come up with a number of names for this. Gerd Gigerenzer calls it “fast and frugal” [ p. 11] Scientist John Gottman calls it “Thin-Slicing” [p. 23] Both these terms imply a way of quickly noticing the data that is most important to the outcome and acting accordingly, rather than sorting and processing ALL the millions of inputs we are each getting every moment. The more official name for this field of psychology is “Adaptive Unconscious” [p. 11] – that faculty we all have that turns “a bad feeling about this” into action before you are eaten by the lion, before you head down that dark ally. It’s a really important survival mechanism that we are all hard-wired for, but that we barely understand.

A group of scientists in Iowa did an experiment where participants were given 2 decks of cards. The Blue deck was rigged to pay out regularly. The Red deck was rigged for a few big payouts but more big losses. The scientists found that after about 50 cards, participants had a “hunch” about which deck was better, and after 80 cards most participants could explain what was going on. But the scientists were also measuring response form the sweat glands under the skin of the hands, and found that after only 10 cards they started to have a stress response to the red deck. Probably all of us have noticed that sometimes we have a hunch that something is happening before we can explain it. But what was new information to me, was that sometimes our body is having a measurable response long before- 40 cards before- we even get that hunch. The scientists also found that the behavior of those participants started to change not when they got that hunch, but at the same time their palms began to sweat. The adaptive unconscious is steering us away from that “bad feeling” even before the conscious mind has an inkling this is happening. [Gladwell p. 8-11]

Well, I have to tell you-- knowing about this and other scientific studies made me feel a lot better about listening to my intuition even though I don’t really understand how it works.

According to Author and contemporary Mystic Carolyn Myss, following this kind of wisdom is key to choosing an intentionally spiritual life. She, and other spiritual writers use the word “guidance” for this. In her book Entering the Castle she proposes that one of the most important steps on the spiritual journey is listening to the guidance we are receiving all the time. To be honest, I am agnostic about whether this guidance comes from the Spirit, from our intuition, or from our adaptive unconscious. Whether we are talking about “direct revelation” as Ingerman calls it in today’s reading, or a stress response in the body, may be something we never know for sure. But I hate to see us shut off these kinds of information just because we don’t know the mechanics of how it works.

The spiritual journey is one that includes the whole self- the mind, heart, body and spirit. Part of being “open minded” is that we take in information even if we don’t understand it. We don’t have to act on that information, but it is important not to shut it out just because we don’t fully understand it yet.

Let me give an example from my own life at this church. We moved to this area from Silicon Valley California, in part because the pace of life was unsustainably busy there. Everyone complained about how busy they were, and no one knew how to fix it. Even at church we were too busy to stop and just be. So my first year at UUCAS, I was at a board meeting where we were trying to choose our holiday outreach to the community. Tioga Outreach had given us the names of 2 families who were struggling and a list of their Christmas wishes. Someone suggested we make one of those wish trees I’d seen before- a Christmas tree decorated with paper ornaments, and on each ornament was written a wish, and the name and age of the child the present was for. Then people take home the ornament and bring it back with the matching gift. I loved the idea- I’d participated in those programs before, but my stomach started to hurt as I thought about pulling it together between our November board meeting and Christmas. I just felt tired all over. I took the risk of saying out loud to our board: “when I think about someone cutting out all those ornaments and writing names on it I just feel tired” The board chair asked if there was anyone who felt excited by the idea of making those ornaments, and the room was silent. Helpfully one of the members suggested “why don’t we just put out a clipboard in the social hall for folks to sign up?” It was quickly done and we had a hugely successful gift drive that year. I use this as a reliable indicator more and more in church life; if an idea makes people feel tired, it is not quite right for us. If we feel energetic, we are getting close to something which is a better fit for us.

I believe that sometimes what Myss is calling “guidance” can feel as simple as that- the ebb or flow of enthusiasm or energy in your own body. Our intuition speaks to us in many ways- a word like “fresh” a picture in our minds of how things are or might be, an emotional response like excitement or dread, or a very visceral feeling in the pit of our stomach. Everyone receives the language of has a certain natural and inevitable energy to it. That if you are really being called by the spirit, or by some deep inner know if your true self, or just getting the okay from your adaptive unconscious, there is a feeling of rightness. And that this is the touchstone against which we measure – if it feels wrong, it is not for us to do. If it is impossible for us, it was not for us to do.

But this thin-slicing, this intuitive response requires discernment. There are very real mechanisms that can thwart or even coopt our thin-slicing. An example that is in the news right now a lot is unconscious racism. Perhaps you heard the ProPublica study[i] which showed that “young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police is drawn from reports filed for the years 2010 to 2012”. Or I’m sure you’ve heard similar statistics on the news in the past few months. These numbers reveal the unconscious bias that has led to the recent death of innocent unarmed citizens in America today. And they are a harsh reminder that sometimes our split second response does not come from inner wisdom, but from a kind of social conditioning that leads us tragically astray.[ii]

The size of the advertising industry in our culture is more evidence that our thin-slicing can not only be mistaken, but can be lead astray by design. There is a whole industry devoted to helping us go astray of our inner wisdom-- because apparently when left to our own devices, we don’t buy enough. Study after study shows that consumers can be redirected with certain colors or sounds or associations. A 2008 study out of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Shows us that simply showing us the product over and over increases the likelihood we will buy it.[iii]

But the most difficult misinformation to detect comes from inside ourselves. Each and every one of us has things we can’t bring ourselves to look at. Whether that’s because it clashes with something we were taught as a child, or with the expectations of our boss and co-workers. I suspect each one of us can think of a time in our life when a sudden flash of insight like “I need to leave this job” was rapidly stuff back into the dark recesses of our unconscious because it seems like following that intuition would rend the fabric of our lives. A friend told me the story of standing on the steps of the church on her wedding day and having a strong intuition “I should not marry this guy- I should run right now.” and wondering after 20 years of a difficult marriage and a painful divorce- “Why didn’t I listen to that intuition?” But we all understand why; how can even the strongest intuition stand up against the deposit already paid to the caterer, and the expectations all our friends and family seated in the pews in their Sunday best? Sometimes our intuition asks us to do difficult things we’d rather not do, or to look at difficult things that are painful to look at.

So how do we discern the difference between regular old dread for something hard that is ultimately going to be good for us- like getting up before the sun is up on a winter’s morning to go for a run, and the dread of something that is really not good for us- like going out to lunch with that friend that always talks us into things we ultimately regret.

This is why listening to intuition is only one part of our discernment process. Usually intuition and reason are great partners- like in the story of the statue that didn’t seem right- the funny feeling all those art experts had wasn’t enough to kybosh a multi-million dollar sale that had taken months to put together, but it lead the researchers in the right direction and could then be backed up with hard data. That voice of doubt also lead them to get a 2nd opinion, and a 3rd. Which reminds us how helpful it can be to invite others into the discernment process with us. The people in our life whose judgement we trust and who know us well can say “Darcey, remember that you are always nervous when you preach in a new place- could that be what you are feeling?” or the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement imploring us to look at the data which shows that our cultural fear of African American men is not rooted in reality, but in an unconscious bias.

I believe that with practice and discernment we can get better at telling which of our those inner voices are useful guidance, and which are rooted in bias, ignorance or fear. Most of us are out of practice with this. So the first step is just to notice that guidance, and how it is generally communicated to you. Sweaty palms? An increase or drop in how energetic you feel? Or maybe you, like all those characters on Star Wars, sometimes just have “a bad feeling about this.” The practice of listening to guidance is not only practical, it is a spiritual as well. An important part of the spiritual journey is listening to that still small voice which is so often drowned out by cultural expectations and norms.

As you go back out into the world this coming week, my suggestion is that we listen respectfully and with an open mind to our intuition when it speaks. Even when we can’t heed it right away, we can allow that voice to be part of our discernment process. As UUs we are encouraged to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science” but not so that the guidance of reason drowns out the guidance of the adaptive unconscious, the guidance of the spirit which sometimes leads us in the right direction before the conscious mind can catch up. The voices of reason and intuition in harmony may just lead us to wisdom.

[i] http://www.rawstory.com/2014/10/analysis-shows-young-black-men-are-21-times-more-likely-to-be-killed-by-police/
[iii] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081209125828.htm