blunt essays with sharp points
May 18, 2014 10:00 AM–That moment when we reflect upon our joys and concerns: it may be more important and profound than anything Edward has to say today. But out of beloved Quaker, Mormon, Magical, Humanist, and Buddhist traditions, a “still, small voice” has called him to speak to us about the life- and world-changing potential of silence.
A talk given in essentially this form at Westside Unitarian Universalist Church, May 18, 2014.
Number 666, “The Legacy of Caring”
Despair is my private pain Born from what I have failed to say failed to do, failed to overcome. Be still my inner self let me rise to you, let me reach down into your pain and soothe you. I turn to you to renew my life I turn to the world, the streets of the city, the worn tapestries of brokerage firms, drug dealers, private estates personal things in the bag lady’s cart rage and pain in the faces that turn from me afraid of their own inner worlds. This common world I love anew, as the life blood of generations who refused to surrender their humanity in an inhumane world, courses through my veins. From within this world my despair is transformed to hope and I begin anew the legacy of caring. —Thandeka
Why we do religion
There are certain things in my life which I call sacred. These are people, places, and events which uplift me by causing me to experience, for a time, what I wish life would be like for everyone all of the time. My spouse is sacred to me. I like being with her, and I like what I become when I am with her. Westside also uplifts me like that, and that is probably why you have to put up with me here more often than not, and my spouse could probably tell you she puts up with me, too, more often than not.
A few years ago, when Dr Elleven, our beloved minister emeritus, was preparing to go on sabbatical, I was called to join the worship team (the people who prepare these worship services). Because I have this duty, I think a lot about why we do what we do on Sunday. I recall to mind what our purpose is here, at this meeting every Sunday, so that I can help the worship service be what we Westsiders need it to be.
Westsiders say religion is a peaceful gathering of people who believe the world can be more compassionate. We learn together, help one another, and collectively pursue an ideal peaceful world, full of compassion. And of course we practice this ideal in our community. Don’t we, for example, make decisions using a democratic process that respects the rights and opinions of everyone, because that is the most compassionate way we know? So Westside not only offers me a place to belong and a sense of serenity, but also models an ideal world for me. It demonstrates for me how I might belong anywhere and be at peace everywhere.
And thinking about the meaning of Westside generally gets me thinking about the whole purpose of religion. What do any of us do any of this for?
The last time I gave a reflection, I said we are of two natures. Our aggressive nature causes suffering; our compassionate nature alleviates suffering. From the time we are very young we take some pleasure in both. The Buddhists put it that loving everyone is not natural, but it is the best thing we can do and we should learn to do it anyway. Because it’s not natural, it takes practice, and I think that is where religion comes in.
By and large, the religious practices with which I am familiar seem to have a therapeutic purpose. They diagnose the problem largely the way we do: there is a lot of unnecessary suffering in the world, which they aim to heal. And they describe the solution largely the way we do: right thinking leads to right action. They aim to clear our minds and hearts so we remember what is most important and are ready to work toward it.
We all have different names for the ideal world we imagine: Nirvāna, Paradise, Kether, Utopia. It may be a place, a time, or a state of mind, but ultimately to me each one is a metaphor for perfect peace arrived at by perfect compassion.
Many of our beloved religious traditions teach that the most sacred thing of all is silent – or at least very quiet. And many traditions say that great wisdom can come to us in a listening silence. These are the traditions which say that inspiration and prophecy are not dead, or the prerogative of priests, but are essentially democratic. Anybody can receive new wisdom, and we can all learn from it. And what I am reflecting on today is what my own religious history has to say about the value of silence.
Deism and humanism
Henry David Thoreau was reportedly asked by his aunt on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God. He asked, “were we fighting?”
The deist and humanist traditions developed some new ideas. These traditions arose out of a greater reliance on human reason over teachings of the church authorities. Deists and humanists pay attention to the world to find out what is true and what is not, instead of depending on what they are told. Henry David Thoreau is, of course, one of the beloved teachers in our Unitarian Universalist tradition. When Henry retreated to Walden Pond for a couple of years, meditation was a big part of his spiritual practice. He sat for most of every morning and paid attention to what was right around him. And he wrote: “No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history or philosophy, or poetry, no matter how well selected, or the best society, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer? Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.“
To find the Buddha, look within. Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten thousand petals. (You might want to see a specialist.)
Recently I was fortunate to accompany the youth to a service at Kadampa Buddhist Temple in Arlington. I guess 30 minutes of this service was spent in meditation, either silent or else guided by a teacher, though my guess is probably inaccurate, because I was doing it.
I experience meditation as being deliberately and exceptionally awake: mindful of everything because the right attitude in meditation is that everything is sacred and worth attending to. In other words it is a very unselfish practice.
My favorite Buddhist author is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh. He likens mindful meditation to the attention a mother pays to her child. The child does not need to do anything to deserve love. Love comes from paying attention. As soon as you pay attention, you see. As soon as you see, you sympathize. As soon as you sympathize, you love. As soon as you love, you help.
Buddhism teaches that a person can become so attentive during meditation that compassion eclipses all selfish desires, illusions, and regrets. This is a moment of nirvāṇa, complete absence. Then unsatisfied desires reassert themselves and the person is reincarnated. Not at all like what we mean by “born again” in the Judeo-Christian tradition!
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. —I Kings 19
My grandmother was Lutheran, and, I think largely to please her, the church of my early childhood was Lutheran. A lot of dark wood, robed acolytes with big versions of this candle lighter, lighting three candles at the altar to symbolize the trinity, or to memorialize Jesus and the two thieves as I thought at the time, and so on.
Later on, I read about Martin Luther. There is as much to like as there is to dislike about Martin, but I always come back to one thing. At a time when Martin was hiding out from the authorities with his friend Veit Dietrich at Coburg Castle, Veit wrote of him:
I cannot sufficiently admire the singular steadfastness, the happy attitude, the faith and hope of this man in serious times. … There is not a day on which he does not devote at least three hours, the very ones most suitable for studying, to prayer.
As an older child, I attended some Quaker silent meetings with my mother. These meetings generally lasted one hour, and a considerable part of that time was silent sitting, without a lot of fidgeting.
A visitor to a Quaker meeting, seeing everyone sitting in silence with no minister, once asked, “When does the service begin?” The response was, “the service begins at the end of meeting.”
George Fox, a chief founder of the Quaker tradition, was one of those who taught that “people had no need of any teacher but the Light that was in all men and women”, and that if people would just sit still and listen, the Light would reveal them to themselves, and show them how to live rightly. Quaker meetings are held with an attitude of eager expectation, waiting silently for God to speak. When a person believes they have heard God’s “still, small voice” inspire them with something for the meeting, that person stands to share a message, lead a hymn, or read a passage of scripture, and then takes a seat again. The meeting meditates silently on what was shared for several more minutes, while they wait for the next revelation.
Also as an older child, I attended Mormon church meetings with my father, who was and still is very active in his church. (My parents did not see eye to eye on religion.)
Like Unitarian Universalists, Mormons value their history, so they carefully teach their history with all its unusual features to their children. I occasionally attended Mormon religious education classes as a child, and possessed a thick stack of booklets from my father containing Mormon teachings and the history of the church, but as a child I found Mormonism a bit confusing, so I do not altogether disbelieve the story I heard about a young Mormon boy who presented a class report in Sunday School. He said, “The early Mormons believed in having more than one wife. This is called polygamy. But now we believe in having only one wife. This is called monotony.”
But it is clear to me that Mormons share a great idea with Quakers (and here, mother is turning over in her grave). They, too, teach personal revelation. They believe their church is led by a prophet, and from time to time still add prophetic chapters to their scriptural canon. My father taught me that prayers and blessings begin in silence, waiting for words to be inspired by God’s “still, small voice”. I remember him telling me that when his second wife, who he dearly loved, was gravely injured by a drunk driver, he anointed her with oil as she lay dying in her hospital bed, and prepared with other Mormon priests to bless her with health and a complete recovery. Mormon blessings of health are in other words a form of faith healing that my father believed could really save his wife. But when he laid his hands on her head, and waited for the words to come, they were not the blessing he planned. Instead he spoke words of love and farewell, and of his faith that they would eventually be reunited. He said afterward that this was God speaking through him. Certainly I think he was only able to speak those words of release to his beloved because his faith tradition helped him develop the ability to wait for great wisdom in a listening silence.
There is a real difficulty with personal revelation as practiced by the Mormons. New truths should be tested, and a test used commonly by the Mormons is inadequate. Their scripture says “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong.”
This may explain why the founder of the Mormon church, Joseph Smith Jr., was said by a contemporary, Oliver B. Huntington, to believe “the moon was inhabited by men and women the same as this earth, and that they live generally to near the age of a 1,000 years. He described the men as averaging nearly six feet in height, and dressing quite uniformly in something near the Quaker style.” And so my mother wins.
So now I am finally getting around to talking about our own religious practice here at Westside. Our practice is to set a time and place apart with sacred fire, and in the center we place one minute of silence. We are invited to contemplate, meditate, or give a prayer, and to take into this silence all the joys, concerns, and sorrows among all who have gathered here, including those too personal to share, or unknown to us.
For someone who has practiced Quaker silent meeting, one minute goes by pretty quickly. I am just getting started by the time some of us are already starting to shuffle their feet. But you can go pretty far toward nirvāṇa in just one minute.
Just as Westside is an example for me of what the world could become, the germ of a world, so to speak, so this one minute of silence is, it seems to me, the germ of Westside, our place of beginning.
To express the meaning of that minute to me, I want to repeat something I said last week. Each of us is a deep well of mother’s love. And each of us is a precious child who needs love. And again I invite you to take a moment, right now, to see or touch the people sitting all around you, and embrace all their joys and sorrows, especially those unknown to you.
– I love how people are sitting closer together now. In the moment that we are attentive to another person, we love, and suddenly we are ready act on that love and provide what is needed. We are all of us precious, and all of us ready to love.
Invitation to share
George Carlin said, “Religion is nothing but mind control.” He said, “Religion is just trying to control your mind, control your thoughts, so they’re gonna tell you some things you shouldn’t say because they’re … sins. And besides telling you things you shouldn’t say, religion is gonna suggest some things that you ought to be saying. ‘Here’s something you ought to say first thing when you wake up in the morning; here’s something you ought to say just before you go to sleep at night; here’s something we always say on the third Wednesday in April after the first full moon in spring at 4 o’clock when the bells ring.’ Religion is always suggesting things you ought to be saying.”
George is both right and wrong about this. He’s right that some religions try to control your mind. But he’s wrong to criticize mind control. How we think of something changes how we feel, and that changes what we do. When we direct our own minds to think of everything as sacred, this releases our compassion, and our compassion enables us to create justice. The difference is that at Westside and in many other faith traditions, we decide for ourselves how and what to think, and we share what we learn with one another.
So now I wish to share with you one of my meditation practices. After service, or whenever you feel moved to do so, I invite whoever is willing and able to share with me one of your meditation practices, and to share it with others in our community also.
When I am driving alone, I often practice mindfulness meditation. I do not have music playing, or think ahead to what I should be doing at my destination when I get there, or think back on what I should have done at the place I just left – which is what I am usually thinking about. I sit up straight and focus my awareness on everything around me: my driving and the other cars on the road (of course!), and also my own breathing and heartbeat and the feeling of my hands on the wheel. Everything within my sphere of awareness is sacred and worthy of my full attention.
I find that as soon as I conceive of everything as sacred and worthy, I feel and act differently. The driver who is trying to cut me off to get to the fast lane is not a jerk anymore. He’s suffering. Or his wife is dying and he’s trying to get to the hospital. And so, instead of resenting and fearing his intrusion, I invite him to go before me. This is an example of how I control my thinking, which changes how I feel, which changes what I do.
… As we rise (in body or spirit) and sing our closing hymn, number 88, “Calm Soul of All Things”.
Calm soul of all things, make it mine to feel, amid the city’s jar, that there abides a peace of thine I did not make, and cannot mar. The will to neither strive nor cry, the power to feel with others, give. Calm, calm me more; nor let me die before I have begun to live. —Matthew Arnold (tune: Thomas Tallis)
Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Sometimes they fool you by walking upright.
What part of “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” don’t you understand?
Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life. —Terry Pratchett
Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig. —Robert Heinlein
Do not ask why the past was better than the present, for this is not a question prompted by wisdom. —Ecclesiastes 7:10
Power lines abruptly stopped causing cancer in 1997 after the U.S. National Cancer Institute conducted a better study. —Robert Parks
Встретимся под столом! (Vstretimsja pod stolom: To meeting you under the table!)
The more you cry, the less you’ll pee.
Relish the love of a good woman.
It’ll never get better if you keep picking at it. —advice from Judge “Maximum” Bob Gibbs