Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Elusive Search for the Nonanxious Presence (January 22, 2017)

Reading- "Thich Nhat 'Hanh: Seeing with the `Eyes of Compassion" by James Forest

Reading: from Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke
“Recessed in the most primitive part of the brain lies the amygdala, a cluster of cells the size of a grape. The amygdala serves as an early warning signal for danger, constantly scanning the environment for information about what might bring us harm, pain or injury. Linked to the sensory system, it is ready to blast off an alarm to the brain stem that will set off the automatic reactions of the fight, flight or freeze.

In studies of people whose amygdalae are active, researchers have found that the subjects’ memory systems have been affected in two ways: (1) less information about their immediate environment and what is happening is available to them; (2) the pool of objects that resemble the original stimulus is much larger. Threat assessment deteriorates with the triggering of the amygdala. A minor comment is perceived as a major insult. Benign details suddenly take on an emotional urgency. Things are out of proportion. ...

When we are flooded with anxiety, we can neither hear what is said without distortion nor responds with clarity. Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist, comments that stress limits our repertoire of responses. Fixated on what is endangering us, we forfeit our imaginative capacities. … With fewer alternatives, we act foolishly. When the amygdala is in control, our perception warps measurably. Our mind is set in imaginative gridlock, we obsess about the threat, and our chances of changing our thinking are almost nonexistent. Reactive forces rule.

The left prefrontal cortex houses our humanity. It is the brain region just behind the eyes that integrates information and inhibits emotional impulses that rise from the amygdala. ... It is crucial for all higher-order, purposeful behavior. Neuroscientist Anexandr Luria has called this region of the brain “the organ of civilization” … if it is impaired, we lose hindsight, insight and foresight.

Notice that when Jesus taught people, he directed his energy to their left prefrontal cortex, not the amygdala. He sought to reach people thoughtfully, not reactively. He told stories; he asked questions. He spoke about the future. He respected and noticed those who came to him. Jesus clearly stated his position and defined himself. Both Jesus’ invitation to trust God’s unconditional love and the instruction on loving action are designed to free us from our survival brain with its defensive instincts, self-serving protective behaviors, and reflexive reliance on aggression.


In 1997 when Star wars “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” came out, I was almost done seminary. I had been told, over and over, that one of the most important things a minister can bring to a congregation is what we called a “non-anxious presence.” I was in my first congregation as an intern, and thinking about ministry pretty much all the time, even as we headed out to see the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Towards the end of the movie, the Jedi master, Qui-Gon Jinn is battling the villain “Darth Maul”, when a Force field comes between them. While he waits for a force field to go down Qui-Gon drops to his knees in meditation. It made quite an impression on me. Was this what a “non-anxious presence” looked like? Could I ever have that kind of self-control and presence of mind to drop into meditation in the middle of battle?

Fortunately, as a UU minister, my job has yet to require a light saber battle. That doesn’t mean I don’t face difficult situations. I know what it’s like to try to minister with my heart pounding, my palms sweating. I chose that story about Thich Nhat Hanh today for 2 reasons. First it so clearly shows the power of how one angry person can change how a whole group of people feel, and then the influence of one nonanxious person. Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk in today’s reading writes:

“Imagine a boat full of people crossing the ocean. The boat is caught in a storm. If anyone panics and acts rashly they will endanger the boat. But if there’s even one person who is calm, this person can inspire calm in others. Such a person can save the whole boat. That’s the power of non-action. Our quality of being is the ground of all appropriate action. When we look closely at our actions and the actions of those around us, we can see the quality of being behind these actions. “ [How to sit p. 15]

We have the power to effect the people around us. We can make choices about what actions and “quality of being” we contribute to a situation.

The second reason I chose this story, is that it shows us that you don’t have to be perfectly enlightened and calm to be a nonanxious presence in community. Knowing that even a Zen Master like Thich Nhat Hanh was sometimes angry made me feel better about my own roiling sea of inner emotions. Peter Steinke, who after serving as a church pastor because a consultant over 150 congregations, writes:
“Regulating anxiety to the point of having no anxiety is humanly impossible. Anxiety is always present; it is a fundamental human expression, even a healthy response to life...”

That was a relief to me – to realize that no matter how skillful or conscious we are, we are still going to be anxious sometimes. So if being a nonanxious presence does not mean not being anxious, what does it mean? Steinke continues:
The nonanxious presence is a description of how a person works to keep the center of control within oneself and as a way to affect relationships in a positive manner. To be a nonanxious presence, you focus on your own behavior and its modification rather than being preoccupied with how others function. In a hospital, a rule for caretakers reads: “In case of cardiac arrest, take your own pulse first.” [-p. 31]
When Nhat Hanh was confronted by that angry man, instead of treating the man like an enemy to be defeated, Nhat Hanh focused on himself, on his own breathing, on his own words. He stayed centered in his own values.

As we heard in our opening reading, the amygdala is what helps us respond to an immediate life or death threat, like a charging rhinoceros, but unfortunately the amygdala sees charging rhinos everywhere. Often big changes that endanger our identity or threaten our world view trigger an amygdala response: when we or someone in our family comes out of the closet. When we fear we may lose a job. Perhaps you’ve noticed the anxiety about the change of leadership of our country. Almost everywhere I go I feel a layer of anxiety thrumming. I feel it among liberals and conservative alike- hoping this peaceful transfer of power really will be peaceful. Fear that our voices will not be heard. Our Amygdalae are being activated, as if we were facing a charging rhino – as if we were in a life and death situation requiring action so fast that careful thinking would waste valuable time.

I imagine that hospital waiting rooms are full of frightened amygdalae. Waiting for a relative in surgery is not too dissimilar to a Rhino charging – issues of life and death are real and present. But Peter Steinke and other Systems Theory folks remind us that freaking out at the nurses will not improve outcomes. Because when the amygdala is activated, it actually reduces our capacity to think, it shrinks the amount of information we can take in, and our capacity to imagine outcomes. Someone has to listen carefully to what the doctor says to be ready to advise and support the patient as they recover.

That is why one of the main jobs of a minister is, as much as is humanly possible, to provide that nonanxious presence. To remind us that a budget deficit is not actually a charging rhino, so instead of flight or fight responses, we want to use our left prefrontal cortex to come up with creative solutions that embody our UU values. According to Steinke, this is not just the most important job of ministers, but of all church leaders, including volunteers. He admits this is not easy, advising: “I know you will need courage to maintain the course… The courage will be well spent because anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation, important learnings, and changes that will strengthen the congregation.” [p. xiii].

Our congregation's discussion about the “Black Lives Matter” banner, for example, has brought some anxiety into our congregation. We do so many things by consensus, carefully making sure we are all on the same page before moving forward, that wading into an issue where we have many different, and passionate, opinions makes us anxious. I bet just about everyone who has waded into the troubled waters of the Black Lives Matter conversation, no matter their point of view, has felt the powerful anxiety of a whole nation in turmoil around this deep and old issue in our country. And we, who meet in beloved community in this conservative valley, know that sometimes standing up for our beliefs, that even “coming out” to the public with dissenting views has real risks-- the risk of ostracization, of nasty Facebook comments, of a rock through the window.

Part of the anxiety we feel is connected the anxiety flooding the whole country right now. The minority communities are anxious. Police are anxious. Whenever we are feeling a fight or flight response, we need to make a conscious effort to engage the left pre-frontal cortex. As we heard in today’s reading by Peter Steinke:
“The nonanxious presence involves engagement, being there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain, and yet not fighting fire with fire. The nonanxious presence means we are aware of our own anxiety and the anxiety of others, but we will not let either determine our actions.”
So let’s be clear, being a nonanxious presence doesn’t mean backing down. We need people to say the true things that will help the moral arc of the universe bend towards justice. And often that will make people anxious. The challenge is, can we get really clear on our UU values, and hold fast to those values even in the middle of a storm? Even in the middle of a discussion about divisive issues?

When I heard the story of John Murray and the rock through the church window decades ago, I imagined that inside he was as calm as he was outside. But when [our church members] were at ground zero preparing Thanksgiving dinner when the rock came through the window of the Towanda Fellowship, and have told me that when they the surge of chaotic, violent energy that came crashing with the rock through that window it was powerful. So now when I imagine that story in my head, I imagine John Murray a different way- probably when the rock came through the window, his muscles tensed, his heart lept and pounded in his chest. I imagine it took every bit of self-control he could muster to come up with a witty comeback. Maybe when he left the church that day he, like Thich Nhat Hanh, was struggling to breathe. History doesn’t record what he says when he got home to his wife, or how he slept that night. Back when I was a new minister, I hoped that I too could handle a disruption to a Sunday service with that kind of circumspection and wit. Now I feel like even just taking a deep breath and waiting to freak out until I got home would still be an important ministry.

As with any important skill, the best way we can increase the odds that it will be available to us when we need it most is to practice. Just as the imaginary Jedi and the very real monks practice daily, we too can practice our non-anxious presence in the small battles of the everyday. The next time our neighbor insults our political point of view, or the customer service rep says he can’t help us and we feel that fight or flight response, is a great opportunity to practice. First, just noticing consciously that your amygdala is activated is an important practice. Notice how it feels. Notice your responses. Next, consider focusing on your breath. Without changing anything just notice your inhales and your exhales. Then you can create the intention to smooth out the breaths and slow them down in a way that feels comfortable. Now notice your thoughts. Notice any sense of urgency- a desire to solve the problem once and for all in this moment, or a desire to run and never look back. Are these fight/flight/freeze solutions, or are they the kind of creative thoughtful solutions that will serve you in the long term?

When I worked at the farm, one of my jobs was to bring the deposit to the bank. One day when it was my turn to come to the counter, I noticed I had a brand new teller. Now the farm deposit was a thick one, full of small bills and a stack of checks for small amounts. Even with an experienced teller, the process always tried my patience, and those of the folks behind me in line. On this particular day, I decided I was going to follow the example of Qui-Gon Jinn, and use this as an opportunity to meditate. I focused on my breathing, smooth and even, and repeated a mantra about compassion and patience. The practice was so effective that not only did my sense of impatience move to the background, but I began to feel a genuine fondness for this rookie teller, and a compassion for everyone stuck in the line. When finally the teller handed me my deposit slip, she met my eyes and smiled warmly, and thanked me for my patience with genuine gratitude. I didn’t save the world that day, or vanquish evil, but instead of sending our ripples of anger and impatience, I used the situation as an easy, beginner’s way to practice a non-anxious presence.

We live in anxious times. It’s not really a light saber battle, but to our amygdala it feels like one, and may be as important. “Anxious times hold not only the potential for destruction but also for creation” so I suggest that it is not just ministers, not even just leaders who are called to be a non-anxious presence, but all Unitarian Universalists. Can we be the ones who stay engaged, “being there and taking the heat if need be, witnessing the pain, and yet not fighting fire with fire”? Can we be the ones who “are aware of our own anxiety and the anxiety of others, but we will not let either determine our actions?” Can we be the ones who continue to embody our UU values even when we feel like a herd of rhinos are charging towards us? Because that is what I believe the world needs us to be right now.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Power of Desire, the Danger of Wanting (January 8, 2017)

The thing I bought made absolutely no difference at all, and I have spent my whole life looking over hill, over dale for one thing and another, the one thing that would make the difference between who I was and who I wanted to be. An Italian suit or a cashmere sweater, bought from a saleswoman at Bergdorf's who knows me by name. She even called me after 9/11 to see if I was intact. A fancy car. A lovely house with an orchard on the beach in a country where I did not speak the language. Having my underwear ironed by a woman from Granada. Christmas. A touch on the cheek from some loving hand, some kiss on the mouth, some tangled embrace in the dark, however awkward; one obsession after another, knowing everything would fail, like the sneakers or the flannel shirt, knowing nothing would last, but something, something that would tell me that, finally, I was not helpless, I was not small, I was not weak or ugly or poor, ...

Some something that would mitigate the terrible beauty and unassuageable sadness of life.
I have never found it. I will look forever.

[From from THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT by Robert Goolrick p. 143]

IMG_4003Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions, "Restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee." That's a lot of restlessness. It is very deep and constitutes the pulse of life itself. His reference to "thee" suggests that desire can only be fulfilled beyond the normal limits of our planetary life. ... Yet Augustine's remark does suggest the great depth and expanse of human yearning, want and desire. These are driving words -- want, yearning, desire -- and there are others which suggest this itchy elemental core of a human being -- e.g., passion or even frenzy. Each of these words goes in a different direction of meaning or connotation. They all have some inadequacy. But if you have touched an elemental core in yourself you may use some of these words, as Augustine did in using restless, to express an inner force which sometimes surfaces in consciousness, dreams, touchings.

People want. They may want another person. They may want some thing. The people and things vary. But more basically people want. I've never met anyone who didn't. Having what one wants does not end the wanting. Denying

that one wants does not end the yearning. Sometimes folks turn their back to what they desire just when what had seemed impossible was possible for them. This desiring can be strange and powerful stuff.
[ RESTLESS IS THE HEART by Robert Kimball p. 2]


What do you want? If I had a magic wand and could give you your heart’s desire, right now, what would it be? This is actually a hard question for most of us. Even if you are healthy enough to come to church today, if you have food to eat and a warm safe place to sleep at night, there is still a sense of wanting, of a desire for something more that haunts us human beings. There is a hunger in our hearts asking us for…what?

When I began my training as a Spiritual Director some years back, I thought of Spiritual practice as something I SHOULD do. If it seemed dry and boring, that was only as I expected it should be. Imagine my surprise when our teachers suggested we set aside those “shoulds” and instead follow our desire. Now as a UU I was raised to believe that each of us has inner wisdom that we should follow. But as human beings living in community, we all get the message, probably many times a day, that we should set aside our desires in order to fulfill our obligations to one another. Remember when you were little and wanted to be a ballerina, a pilot, a professional baseball player, a fireman? (What did you want when you were a child?) We are taught from a young age that to be a responsible adult we must set those desires and dreams aside and do something practical.

It’s not just our big desires we are taught to ignore, but he little ones too- your body wants to run outside on a beautiful spring day? Ignore that- you are at a business meeting. You want to doodle during the long boring sermon? Ignore that – someone might see and think you were rude. You want to paint your house pink? What would people think! After a while, we learn to ignore the voice of desire, and it learns to be quiet so well that when someone asks “what do you want?” that part of us that used to know so clearly that you want to be a singer and live in a treehouse with your best friend, doesn’t even answer sometimes.

When folks come to me for spiritual direction they often confess, perhaps with some guilt or defensiveness, that they don’t have a regular spiritual practice. Why not? Because it would be boring and dry and they don’t have time for it anyway. But most people do have something that makes them come alive, that restores them when they are drained: an afternoon sailing, or walking through the woods. An evening by the fire with family or just pausing to wonder at a beautiful bird.

How would you feel if I suggested that following your desire in these ways is a spiritual practice?  What if we believed, with says UU minister Arvid Straube that: “Prayer is simply being in touch with the most honest, deepest, desires of the heart.”

To do that we might have to re-examine our assumptions about who God is and what spiritual practice is. I think maybe our puritan ancestors left us with the assumption that anything that feels good is probably bad for us. We suspect that God likes for us to be uncomfortable and bored- after all, church is often boring, so that probably means God prefers us that way. Our desires are temptations that keep us from stoically doing what we are supposed to do.

On the other hand, in some religious traditions that feeling of desire is an invitation … an invitation to move into deeper relationship with oneself and with the oneness of all that is. What if our deepest desires come from the divine, lead us back to the divine? Is this some new Unitarian Blasphemy? Actually, St. Augustine, early church theologian, bishop and church father, described this kind of desire: “restless is the heart until it rest in thee.” He believes that we long for a closer relationship with the divine, that we all have a kind of spiritual hunger built in, and we feel restless all our lives as we try to move into closer and closer relationship with the Spirit of Life. This holy desire is found in the words of Mystics of many faiths. For example the Sufi poet Rum writes: “I once had a thousand desires. But in my one desire to know you all else melted away.”

But, says Bob Kimball, who was my theology professor in seminary and who wrote our opening reading:
“ for many the desire becomes lost, or at least hidden or covered over, or perhaps so frightening it is as if lost. However it happens, many people lose touch with a request which is their own. They give up a want which is their right. They may even become comfortable living without this depth of themselves. But this inner realm of request does not disappear and the restlessness can only be covered at a cost” [p. 7]
The Jungians would agree - suggesting that our addictions and neuroses are in fact cost of ignoring or trying to drown out the restless desire for our truest deepest self, the self that is connected intimately to the web of life, to the divine.

When we ask that question “what do you want?” what we usually mean is- what do you want to consume? What do you want to eat, smoke, drink or buy? I’ve noticed that Car commercials are particularly clever at this -- articulating our deepest hungers and then implying that a cool new car will finally fill that hunger in our heart. Anyone who has struggled with addiction knows that that next drink will not cure the restlessness of our hearts, the best it can do is numb the pain for a short time, and then we crave another drink.

As the amazing Theresa Andersson sings:
we buy things that we never need
And then throw them all away
We're just tryin' to feed our empty heart
Our whole consumer culture is designed to prey on our hungry hearts. I know that when I go shopping, even if I am only window shopping, or maybe I just need a pair of socks, as I walk through the store looking at all the cool things, craving arises, I realize there are MANY things I suddenly want and by the time I leave the store – even if I found the perfect socks- I am an dissatisfied by all I don’t have.

I want to differentiate between the feeling of “craving” for those things which don’t feed us deeply, but only give us momentary relief and then leave us just as hungry and empty as we were before we had that first drink, or that first cookie.

I like to use the word desire for those deep hungers that come from our inner wisdom, that come from the spirit of life, and call us toward the journey into ourselves, call us toward connection with others and with something larger than ourselves. If what we carve is a cookie, then what we desire might be sitting down to a home cooked dinner – with real proteins and fiber and vitamins and minerals. While we may crave a cup of coffee when we are tired, what we really desire is a good night’s rest.

Our cravings and desires are easily confused. We have this restlessness in our hearts and we try all kinds of things to pacify that restlessness. Even healthy things like work can lead our restless hearts in the wrong direction. People work 60 hour weeks so they don’t have time to listen to their empty hearts. Sometimes doing good and noble things can help us feed our souls, but the same actions can also leave us just as empty and restless as before. How can you tell the difference? Only paying attention and listening to our inner wisdom can help us discern. When you put down your work, how does your heart feel? Do you feel like a ship without an anchor, or grounded like an old oak tree? Do you feel closer to your deepest self or do you feel scared to peek into your heart because you are afraid of what you’ll find there?

The Sufi poet Rumi writes about this very dilemma- how do we differentiate our desire for union with something larger than ourselves from our cravings and bad habits?
There are thousands of wines
that can take over our minds.
Don’t think all ecstasies
are the same!
Jesus was lost in his love for God.
His donkey was drunk with barley…
Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.”
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
and is just ambling about[i]
This discerning is one of the most important parts of the spiritual journey -- discerning which desires are leading us towards health, towards something larger than ourselves, and which desires trap us. Rumi gives us some hints here suggesting we “choose the [desires] unadulterated with fear or some urgency about “what’s needed.’” Truly this advice is so hard for us responsible adults; there is so much that needs to be done to feed our family, to save the world. It can be challenging to hear our own desires over the urgent din of “what’s needed.”

Then Rumi goes on: “drink the wine that moves you as a camel moves when it’s been untied and is just ambling about.” That’s almost shocking to hear- a religious mystic comparing following our desire for the ineffable with the way “a camel moves when it’s been untied, and is just ambling about.” Because in this culture we value our worth by how productive we are. How could “ambling” be a sacred act?” When a camel is first untethered, I imagine- not having known camels personally- that after being tethered so long by those they work for, at first they are not quite sure what to do. I imagine the camel kind of wandering this way and that, following a smell here, eating a tuft of grass there; exploring his freedom. And I believe freedom is a critical part of the spiritual journey. As my teacher Janet Corso wrote: “our own heart's deepest desires (and desires of the deepest Self were God resides) which are always around greater fullness and freedom.” You are here in a UU church today because on some level you know that freedom is important. I want to affirm for you that being free to follow your heart’s deepest desires is a holy thing- is a path toward the divine.

Likewise, we know there are cravings which lead us away from freedom. We moderns call these addictions. By definition they tether us and limit us as we shape our lives around their fulfillment. So one way to approach spiritual practice is simply to untether ourselves for a while- to amble in the woods, to let the mind wander and just notice where it goes, to pick up a pen and see what comes out.

That can be a lot harder than it sounds. Sometimes when we do take a moment to try some spiritual practice, our heart might wail like a baby crying out for milk. We are so hungry for real nourishment that the cries of our spirit can be as disturbing as the bawling of a hungry infant. We would do almost anything to make it stop- and maybe a new car or a pint of ice cream would mute it for a while. But if we care about the health of the soul, it’s not enough to simply turn off the baby monitor so we don’t have to hear the cry; we need to figure out how to feed that deep need.

“What do you really want?” sometimes when we ask, the question echoes in an empty room. The child has learned not to cry out, because no one ever answers, and now there is only silence. At one time in my life, when I found myself in such a state, I came across these words from the poem “Unlearning to Not Speak” by Marge Piercy:
She must learn again to speak
starting with I
starting with We
starting as the infant does
with her own true hunger
and pleasure
and rage.
To reacquaint ourselves with our own deepest desires, we have to first acknowledge that we are hungry. We have to feel some unpleasant emotions. Sometimes admitting what we really desire is hard because getting it seems impossible. I want inner peace. I want justice for all people. I want to create something beautiful. I want to be part of something larger than myself. And most brazen of all- I want to experience my oneness with everything. When the world assures us that getting drunk is a far more reasonable and realistic response to our hunger, one of the most important jobs of religious community is to “simply being in touch with the most honest, deepest, desires of the heart.”

What do you want? What do you REALLY want. And what would it feel like to honor and follow the part of you that knows?

[i] from “The May Wines” p. 6 The Essential Rumi by Jalaluddin Rumi, Coleman Barks