Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Body & Spirit (January 17, 2016)

It’s finally cold out there. Like really cold. All I want to do most days is curl up under a big pile of blankets and nap. Humans don’t hibernate, but for those of us who live this far north, winter is a time of hunkering down. We just accept that some days we are not going to get as much done, because the weather will keep us from it, and there are fewer daylight hours to get things done. We moderns, of the electric light and the gas furnace can keep working after dark, and the cold is rarely a life threatening emergency, But the body knows what it wants in the winter. And lately my dog has taken to finding me in my study where I sit answering e-mail and shepherding me downstairs to the sofa. He is very particular that I should sit right next to my husband, and he on my lap, where I cover us all with a blanket, as is proper for mammals on a cold wintry evening.

For some reason centuries ago, humans began to say to “This body, this most concrete, tangible, visible being is not the most important part of who you are.” “In fact” we decided “you are not your body.” That must have been a really important liberating idea. Because bodies are limiting. They get sick. They break. They die. Perhaps this idea that “I am not my body” allowed us to find a spiritual wholeness when our bodies were broken, to feel a part of the future even when we knew our bodies would die. Perhaps it allowed us to think big thoughts and dream big dreams our individual, limited bodies could never realize. I dare say if we had spent our winters hibernating, we might never have invented the electric light, or climate control, or opera.

But it wasn’t enough to notice the difference between body and spirit, body and mind- we had to set one over the other. Something in us loves to rank things, to create dualities of black and white, good and evil, and so way back in the high-thinking days of the Hellenistic period, we decided that spirit was good, and the body was bad. Scholar Elizabeth Johnson sums it up this way:
“On the one hand, spirit is a transcendent principle expressed in act, autonomy, reason, the soul, whatever is light, permanent, infinite. Matter, on the other hand, is an inferior principle manifested in passivity, dependence, emotions, the body, whatever is dark, transitory, finite.” [p. 125]

Some of you close readers may have noticed a pattern in some of my recent sermons: “intention and grace, intuition & proof, body & spirit” . These are all polarities – diads that live in tension with one another. Buddhism teaches us that such dualisms are co-arising. There is no day without night, there is no life without death. Like 2 sides of a coin, the 2 cannot be separated. Right now in western culture, the approach to such dualism we are most likely to hear on the news is that in any pair of opposits one must be better and the other worse. In this way of thinking we talk not of life and death co-arising, but of life “overcoming death” or “defeating death” . We talk about conservative vs. liberal, and know that my side is better, and the other side is worse. The anti-Islamic sentiment we hear in the news is also part of this way of looking at dualisms, - we know we are good, so they must be evil. “The spirituality typically associated with this thought pattern was propelled by the metaphor of ascent: To be happy a person must flee the material world and rise to the spiritual sphere where the light of divinity dwells. One must turn away from nature in order to have communion with God.” [Johnson p. 125]

Let’s think about the relationship of body and mind. When the two are joined together there is a rightness to experience. When we are doing work that is good there is a sense of wholeness that emerges. Gardening, for example, feels this way to many people. Hiking, walking or running is a spiritual practice for many people because when body and spirit are joined, there can be a sense of one-ness, of presence that emerges. This is the primary goal of hatha yoga- to align body, mind and spirit. When the body and mind are joined in a task that the spirit freely enters, there is a quality of rightness.

But many hours a day most people are trained from a young age to ignore their body’s impulses. Think of a school day for a kindergartner. Part of the challenge for the teacher is to help kids learn to sit when the activity is sitting, and be quiet when quiet is called for. The school schedule tells kids when they get to be wiggly, when they get to eat. This may or may not have anything to do with the needs of the body. At one point in his school career my son’s school day was from 8-2:30, and his class ate lunch at 10:30 am. Not because that was half way through the school day, or because the kids needed food then, but because that was when the cafeteria was free for his class. We train kids “eat when it is time to eat” not “eat when your body needs food.” I believe the tremendous upswing in eating disorders in this country emerged in part because we have been so good at training people to ignore their body’s requests about what to eat and when to eat. But these are things we must learn to succeed in this culture, because most of us sit at a computer all day, and so the body must be trained to sit in one position without complaint for long hours. On the one hand, we are able to accomplish things we never could if we listened to our every body complaint. On the other hand perhaps fewer of us would end up in the doctor’s office complaining of carpel tunnel syndrome if our culture valued body wisdom. Perhaps in this sleep deprived culture, instead of drinking another cup of coffee when we are tired, we would sleep the true amount our bodies need.

On a beautiful spring day walking the endless mountains it is easy to bring body and mind to one purpose. This is much harder when the body is suffering. When our body is not free, say because our job requires our body to do things that harm the body, our mind drifts off and we day dream. When the reality of our physical life is discouraging, we imagine something else. When we are truly in physical pain, it is a great gift that the spirit can escape the body. Today we do that through anesthetic drugs, but there are also techniques of meditation which have been proven in scientific study to reduce the experience of pain. [i] The mind and spirit can provide comfort to a trapped or hurting body.

Moreover, in the same way that the mind and spirit can comfort and sustain us when the body is hurting, the body can ground and heal a wounded spirit. This is why many UUs have a spiritual practice rooted in the body- because there is something about a brisk walk, or an afternoon with hands in the soil of our garden, that brings us back to ourselves.

Our bodies like to be challenged, like to learn new things just as the mind and spirit do. As any marathon runner will tell you, the challenge of pushing past the body’s limits to run 26 miles can be a life-defining experience. But there is a consequence when the mind subjugates the body. Running a marathon causes damage to the muscles, to the cells and compromises the immune system. [ii] We can only ignore the body’s wisdom for so long.

The Humanist Manifesto 1 (written in 1933) puts forward as its third tenant: “Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.” Perhaps you are not surprised that this document rooted in the findings of science would value the physical world. You would probably not be surprised that EcoFeminist theologians link this hierarchy of mind over body, to our notion that we humans are more important than the body of earth, They suggest that this world view that allowed us to get into this climate change mess. If we are willing to ask our own bodies to do things that are at odds with their body wisdom, it only follows that we would ask of the earth things like mountain top removal mining that are bad for the health of the earth. We have lots of ideas and dreams about what we need from the earth, but these must be grounded in the reality of the body of the earth. There is no getting around feeling depletion and ache after a long run, but it is too easy to avoid those deep gashes in the earth where the mountains of West Virginia used to be.[iii] [iv] How different might we feel if we put on our hiking boots and hiked the 10,000 acres of barren land that used to be the lush mountains that inspired singers and poets and is now the Hobet Mine. How much more powerful an idea becomes when it is grounded in the body.

And now Pope Francis is also calling for a healing of this rift between mind and body.  In his Encyclical on the Environment, Pope Frances writes:
98. Jesus lived in full harmony with creation, and others were amazed: “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt 8:27). His appearance was not that of an ascetic set apart from the world, nor of an enemy to the pleasant things of life. Of himself he said: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard!’” (Mt 11:19). He was far removed from philosophies which despised the body, matter and the things of the world. Such unhealthy dualisms, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel.
To Pope Francis, the dualism of body and mind is “unhealthy” and is had “disfigured the gospel.” Here the Encyclical and the Humanist Manifesto agree.

Even more amazing, the Pope’s words agree, at least on this one point, with the eco-feminists, proposing that there is a link between our relationship to our own bodies and our relationship to the natural world we share with all living beings:
155 … It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology.
Therefore I propose that finding ways to bring body, mind and spirit back into harmony are valuable not only for the health of our own body and spirit, but also for the health of the interdependent web of life, our green earth home. Not only by laying under a tree on a beautiful summer day and feeling the warmth on your skin, not only by snowshoeing on a crisp winter afternoon, but also listening when the body complains. Lately I have been struggling in my yoga practice. I have some physical pain in certain poses. In my thirties I would have pushed through this pain, “mind over matter” but through hard experience I have learned this usually makes injuries worse, and makes recovery longer. Last week I went back to yoga for the first time after an injury, and committed to refrain from any pose that caused the body pain. So the yoga teacher would lead us into a pose, and if I felt even the beginning of pain where my injury was I would come out. Nope. Not that one. Nope, not that one. Not that either. Not any of those. Sigh. In frustration I dropped to my mat and rested in child’s pose. I felt frustrated and sad, but my body felt just right. And as I let myself rest into that pose, my mind and body felt better too.

Mary Oliver has an evocative line in one of her poems: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” This is so different than the message we get from our culture; we are taught to push through discomfort towards our goals. We begin to imagine that if we listened to body wisdom we would live in a constant state of debauchery and sloth. Instead I believe the body and spirit not only co-arise, but that when the two dance together in a balanced dance, both body and spirit flourish and grow. Sometimes I resist my dog when he herds me towards the sofa- there are so many things marked with red flags in my inbox! But once I am sitting among my family in the quiet of a winter’s evening, the rightness of it is understood in body, mind and spirit.

For Unitarian Universalists a spiritual life is not about escaping or even transcending the body but, as the song suggests “body and spirit, united once more.” And so as UUs we are called to heal this old rift, what Pope Francis called an “unhealthy dualism” in our own lives. And we are called to join with all the other living beings- body and spirit, for the healing of our world. May it be so.


Monday, January 11, 2016

Intention & Grace (January 10, 2016)

It’s New Year’s resolution time again. Over the past several decades I’ve made many resolutions- some of which have resulted in a real change in my life, most of which were forgotten by the second week of January. Clearly not all New Year’s Resolutions are equal.

When we make a New Year resolution, we are clarifying our intention. This can be a powerful act. We spend much of our responding to things that are outside our control. Our boss asks us to do something and we do it. Our family expects certain things from us and we try to fulfill those expectations. The driveway needs to be shoveled, the rent needs to be paid, dinner needs to be made and eaten. We can go through days or even years without asking ourselves “what do I really want?” Not that there’s anything wrong with shoveling the snow or making dinner- this is the stuff of life. But when you step back from all those hours spent sitting at the computer or doing the dishes we see that viewed all together they form a picture of the life we’ve lived and shape of the roads we’ve traveled. And some small choices we make along the way provide a certain shape and direction to the larger picture.

A few months back son and I were on a car trip together. We were just heading into Harrisburg and navigated our way through a complicated interchange. I thought we were almost to his grandmother’s house, but instead of getting more urban, the road got more and more rural. We were having a great conversation so I was not too worried that the next turn, which was supposed to happen in a few miles, kept not appearing. In fact there were no signs or turns at all. Finally we saw a sign with the name of a place on it, and I pulled over to look at a map. I realized to my horror that we had spent the last half hour headed in exactly the wrong direction. We had missed one turn and had added a full hour to our trip. It was already late at night, and our host had been waiting dinner for us. I was very discouraged.

This was not the first time something like this had happened, and I asked myself once again, why I waited so long to pull over and look at the map. I always think I don’t have time to double check the turn I’ve taken, but if you are headed in the wrong direction, each mile you drive before you look at the map adds 2 miles to your journey. In the same way, it can be worth metaphorically pulling over from time to time and asking “Where is my life headed- and is that where I want to go?”

There are many different strategies and resources for clarifying your intentions, but despite my love of lists and post-it notes I’m going to resist the temptation to get too technical in our time this morning. ( A favorite resource of mine is First Things First by Steven Covey.) The basics are the same whether you are talking about your plan for the day, or your vision for the rest of your life. The first thing is to take some time to reflect. If you are just trying to remember what you intended to do when you came into the kitchen, the reflecting process can just take a moment. But if you are really trying to determine what you want for the coming years, you might set aside anywhere from several hours to several days to discern what is truly important. Because if you believe that creating an intention has the power to guide your life, you want to use that power thoughtfully. The meditation form we used today can be helpful for this kind of reflection. It is a way of looking at your metaphorical map, and determining whether you are headed where you really want to go. Was there anything in your meditation today that suggested what you wanted to move toward, or away from?

Once you have clarified your intention, there are many ways to stay true to that intention. The visioning group Marcia has been leading writes down their visions of the future and then repeats them every day. Alternately, a friend of mine writes his intention in a book and then leaves it alone like a souffle in the oven so it can cook without the disturbance of the conscious mind always checking in on it. I have kind of a spotty memory and am easily distracted, so I like to have something concrete to remind me. My new year’s resolution this year is to meet with someone about my 401K to make sure that is headed in the right direction. So I’ve got a bright green folder full of all the notices they keep sending explaining how to schedule that.

But more important to me is the intention I created before my sabbatical to have a deeper spiritual life, and to become a spiritual director. Sure I have some new books on my shelf that remind me of that intention, and the journal for Spiritual Directors that arrives in my mail, but more important are the things I have in my calendar. I affirm that intention with a daily spiritual practice, and by seeing my own spiritual director each month. I clarify my intention with my actions, and by setting aside time in my calendar. I’m guessing most of you have shiny new calendars that still have some empty space in them. How might that calendar serve as a reminder of what you intend for the coming year?

Even with shiny new calendars filled with shiny new resolutions, there is still no guarantee that things will turn out as we plan. I’m sure some of you can remember a time when you sat down with some committee or other and filled easel pads with goals that were never met. Why does that happen? It happens sometimes because there are too many goals, or because the goals were not clear, but mostly it happens because our heart is not really in them. The reason that my 401K is my only new year’s resolution this year is because, truth be told, it’s been on a post it note for several years, and that green folder has been collecting those letters for longer than I care to mention. If it gets done it will be an act of will, not an act of passion and purpose. My real intention, though-- to deepen my spiritual life-- this one has plenty of passion behind it, and that is probably why it grows in momentum instead of petering out. Sometimes the intentions that are never fulfilled show us something about where our passion and desire really lie.

Sometimes it’s good that our intentions are never manifested. Some intentions are in line with our highest self, and others are going to take us off our true path. This is the “be careful what you wish for” warning we get so often from folk tales. Our libraries are full of stories about people wishing for wealth or power or beauty or immortality and when they finally have their wish, realizing they are no happier.

But the most difficult reason we are not always to achieve our intentions is because we are not as in control as we think we are. We tend to think that everything will go according to our plan, and any deviation from that plan is a personal failure. And we are in fact in control of many things in our lives; by then time I finish my morning chores and have fed myself and my son and gotten him off to school and myself to work I feel pretty in control. I wield such power to accomplish things in my home. But some mornings the construction crew down the block is working on the water line suddenly all the water is running red. I can’t wash dishes or shower or even make coffee! That’s when I realize all that control I have is temporary and local. One has only to imagine the morning of Syrian Refugees trying to find sanctuary in Europe to understand that even our limited power to start the day with a warm pot of coffee is not something we can take for granted, it is a privilege and a gift.

Some of the best moments in our lives together as a congregation come not as part of a carefully crafted 5 year plan, but from a shared intention that emerges as life is unfolding.

 A few years back after the Valley was flooded and most of our neighbors had standing water in their homes. Mud was everywhere, and members of our congregation had a clear vision of this building being a clean, dry, mud free place where our neighbors could come to rest and share some lunch. This intention was so clear and compelling that within 24 hours we were making lunch for hundreds of neighbors and did so for weeks until things started to return to normal.

The word “Grace” as theological term means “God’s unmerited favor, love or help.”[i] “Grace” is a theological construct that we UUs don’t talk too much about. Perhaps because our humanist roots emphasize the importance of our human agency to make the world a better place. The word “Grace” can be used very narrowly to refer to salvation- when used this way it means that we can be saved even though we are not perfect. That’s certainly something that Universalists have always believed. Back when this congregation organized (150 or 200) years ago, this was the most important idea bringing us together- that every single person is loved by God, even if they make mistakes. “Grace” can also be used in a larger way, to refer any “favor, love or help” that comes to us as a gift. It is the acknowledgement that I am not more deserving of a fresh pot of coffee in my warm dry kitchen than a Syrian shop-keeper bombed out of his home. A the Buddhist teacher and Activist Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us “Every morning we have 24 brand new hours to live. What a precious gift!” The most mundane and ordinary parts of our lives we usually take for granted but Grace reminds us that some parts of our life our un-earned gifts. As the hymn says:
“For all life is a gift, that we are called to use to build the common good and make our own days glad”
The Steven Covey book First Things First helps us break down our intentions into goals and action items so that we can create a step by step map of how to get where we want to go. When we set an intention we must be careful not to become attached to it. So much frustration and suffering comes to people when we get expect a certain outcome. Perhaps we push and push in a way that makes us tired, or ruptures relationships around us. Perhaps we judge ourselves harshly when we are unable to achieve this intention we have set. When my friend writes his intention in a book and then leaves it alone, he acknowledges that this world is a complex place, an interconnected web of life where our wishes and desires are not always achieved with even the most detailed plan.

This is good news and bad news. The bad news is that no matter how carefully we eat, and exercise and take care of ourselves, there is no guarantee we will live a long and healthy life. The good news is that we are not alone. In this complex interconnected web of which we are a part, there are things that may come into our lives that we never imagined were possible. That’s why Marcia advise her visioning group not even to consider how one might reach one’s vision, because sometimes a way opens, or things change in ways we can’t possibly imagine. Because we never really do anything by ourselves, we are not alone in anything we do. When we set an intention we are not simply dedicating ourselves to an act of personal will, but inviting a collaboration with the whole web of life.

I believe that all of us, right now, have what we need to do whatever it is God or our truest self is calling us to do. Consider the biology of creatures. How the teeth of carnivores are different form the teeth of herbivores. Consider how the breathing mechanism of fish are different from those of us land dwellers -- how a tree can turn sunlight into food for its body, and for us, in a way you and I never will.

Consider this little congregation. We already have everything we need to do what we are called to do. Just as we would not expect a cow to go hunting or a fish to run a marathon, there is a purpose for which we are uniquely suited. We need not wait until we are bigger or the new sounds system comes or the roof is repaired. What if we set an intention together to share the universal love of God in this community? What if we set an intention together to serve the Spirit of Life right now, and in the months to come? While I’ve heard people tell stories of frustration at not being able to meet a goal, no one has ever told me that they set an intention to serve the Spirit of Life, and no opportunity arose. I believe that part of being a Universalist is having faith that every single being serves the web of life. I have known people that bring comfort and wisdom to those around them even while lying in a hospital bed

Whether it comes at the start of the new year, around the coffee pot at social hour, or spontaneously some summer afternoon as you stare up into the branches of a tree, creating an intention is a way of listening to the wisdom of our deepest self and committing to following that wisdom. Then we must find a way to balance keeping that intention before us and letting go of the outcome. Because we recognize that we are not fully in control of even the simplest of intentions- as simple as making a pot of coffee. So we set our intentions and then we are open to and grateful for grace.