Contemplation and Action

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To talk about contemplation and action means inevitably to talk about an inner world and an outer world and the relationship between the two. The population of the world as of March, 2016, was estimated to be about 7,400,000,000: seven billion, four hundred million. As far as we know, there is only one outer world if we are referring to this planet called Earth and the biosphere it inhabits. That’s seven billion, four hundred million inner worlds that have to, in some manner, develop a well-enough developed shared view of the outer world to get along well enough to keep the human race alive if it is to survive. Sometimes, it seems that our odds are pretty good. Other times, well, not so much.

We need to come to enough of a common understanding of how the world works and what our place is in it that we provide for ourselves and future generations, a fighting chance for survival and achieving lives that are meaningful. We need a good understanding of what makes us tick– our goals, our dreams, our aspirations, the ways in which we view the world and the ways we understand our place in the world. And how we act. As Margaret Wheatley reminds us in the quotation heading our order of service today, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

At our early Sunday service, we’ve been considering Buddhist teachings as presented to us by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield in their book called Seeking the Heart of Wisdom. Both are Americans who are trained in the traditions of Theravada Buddhism. They teach meditation and mindfulness and train us to be aware of the movement of thoughts and feelings. These are very helpful teachings when put into practice. As teachings, they are just teachings. Some people like to study Buddhism in the same way that they like to study chess or baseball or Christianity or cultural practices, as objects of interest in themselves. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But, study is one thing and practice is another.

My interest in Buddhist teachings, I find, is to learn more about the workings of my mind and heart so that my actions are more in line with my values and my values have been carefully scrutinized. And to study and discuss in a group allows me to probe more deeply and to learn from the insights of others. Until I began this practice some years ago, I had little idea how fast my thoughts flew and how they led to certain emotions, like a train on a track to a predetermined destination. And the emotions could carry me away in ways that I recognized were detrimental to myself and sometimes others around me. I just thought that that was how life was. It’s a blessing to know that there are alternatives.

Each morning, I spend some time in contemplative reading. I find that it centers me, allows me to experience the interactions I have throughout the day in a way that feels genuine. I’m aware of the impact my words will have on others, aware of the impact that their words will have on me. Being aware does not mean that I always respond in the best, most helpful and most rational way, but it certainly increases the odds that I will.

Have you noticed that the words you use sometimes lead to confrontation rather than cooperation, that you sometimes invite conflict when you just want to claim your legitimate point of view? Have you noticed that the words of others will sometimes “set you off”? Do you know that you can stop and examine your emotional responses before you act, before you say something in response that will inflame the situation?

Yes, there is generally the opportunity to apologize if you’ve been reactive, if you say something “without thinking;” but, sometimes that opportunity doesn’t come. Sometimes, too, you find yourself justifying your reaction, solidifying your position, building a wall instead of a bridge. The Buddhist teaching allows you to recognize in this, attachment– attachment to your own point of view which you cherish very often because it is yours. And aversion– aversion to another point of view. We will have differences, certainly, but it’s important to express them in ways that are respectful, that don’t encourage an escalation of the conflict.

If it’s true that I’ve sometimes experienced such reactions in my interaction with others even here in this church, it’s also true that I’ve experienced many occasions where our friends and members deescalate conflict by stepping back and not investing themselves too heavily in the outcome. The psychologist Carl Jung says, “Where wisdom reigns, there is no conflict between thinking and feeling,” but the challenge is to know how to coordinate the two, how to grow in wisdom.

I’ve been reading the words of Abraham Lincoln lately and have been struck with the deep sense of composure that he was able to tap into even under provocative and challenging situations, a composure that was derived from a clear sense of self, of knowing that the wisdom he had achieved came from learning to have a dispassionate perspective.

After a debate with Stephen Douglas in 1859, Lincoln said, “I have found that it is not entirely safe, when one is misrepresented under his very nose, to allow the misrepresentation to go uncontradicted.”

And later, “When a man hears himself somewhat misrepresented, it provokes him– at least, I find it so with myself; but when the misrepresentation becomes very gross and palpable, it is more apt to amuse him.”

Once he was elected President, as a Republican, some of his Cabinet members protested the appointment of a Democrat as one of their number. Lincoln’s reply: “Oh, I can’t afford to punish every person who has seen fit to oppose my election. We want a competent man in this office.” In his use of understatement and humor and in his self-confidence, Lincoln proved his wisdom, his ability to govern his emotions by being aware of them and not mastered by them.

My morning reading over the past two weeks has been from a book by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, called Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Her focus is on the reality of change in our lives and our desire for the kind of stability and certainty that denies the reality of change, that counts on our world to be unchanging. We bind ourselves to a kind of unreality when our desires grow in this way. Sometimes, we insist that this unreality be accepted as what’s real. This causes all kinds of trouble.

Her thesis is that there is a “fundamental ambiguity” in being human and she quotes Shunryu Suzuki Roshi who said, “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” Quite a dramatic statement, but can you see the truth in it? The boat of life that carries us over so many rough spots and uncertainties, is bound, in the end, to sink. “No one here gets out alive,” to quote to rock and roll mystic Jim Morrison. And yet, we are compelled to live lives of significance knowing that at the end of all our work and cares lies the grave. So, how do we make sense of that?

There are three things that we must do to live a meaningful life, says Pema Chodron, and all are held within the Buddhist teachings. We must make three commitments and they are these: First commitment, to not cause harm. Second Commitment, to take care of one another. Third commitment, to embrace the world just as it is. All are taken seriously and yet held lightly.

How can we do no harm? Every day we step on insects without seeing them and destroy microorganisms without even being aware that they exist. Yes, there is no living without suffering, there is no living without causing harm. We can just do our best to not willfully inflict pain on others. This is the first step towards taking care of one another, the second commitment.

Have you ever found yourself in an argument with someone when you say something that is hurtful while your emotions are in disorder? I think we all have. A practice of mindfulness will allow you to be aware of the temptation to strike out just as it is forming. This will allow you to make a decision– to go ahead and unleash the unkind remark anyway or to, as they say, hold your tongue. You can be aware that you are caught up in emotional turmoil. You can catch yourself in mid-remark and stop.

Or you can be aware that your intent is to cause pain and go ahead and say your piece anyway because you feel like you are entitled to because after all, you’ve been hurt and it’s not fair that you have to take a licking while the other person is spared such pain. You can do that. Perhaps you have. Most of us have. This is where the Buddhist teaching of the insubstantiability of the ego comes in.

The “reality” of your self is not a real and concrete thing, but something that is constantly in motion, is fluid, is insubstantial, is ultimately unreal, a product of your own conceptualizing. If you treat it as such, taunts and criticisms can float by in a way, as Lincoln says, that encourages you to laugh if you know yourself well enough and deeply enough. Which is not to say that it is easy, but then spiritual growth is rarely easy.

I find political discourse these days to be often nasty and meant to hurt. I’ve been surprised at the risibility of some of my own friends on Facebook as my posts or those of others advocate for the views of one candidate or another. Comments that feel cutting or dismissive. A quote from Pema Chodron I found helpful in this regard, “All the wars, all the hatred, all the ignorance in the world come out of being so invested in our opinions. And at bottom, those opinions are merely our efforts to escape the uneasiness of being human, the uneasiness of feeling like we can’t get ground under our feet. So we hold on to fixed ideas of this is how it is and disparage any opposing views. But imagine what the world would be like if we could come to see our likes and dislikes as merely likes and dislikes, and what we take to be intrinsically true as just our personal viewpoint?” Yes, imagine.

As Jung has said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” And, “Your visions will become clear only when you look into your own heart.” This looking into one’s own heart is an aspect of contemplation, perhaps the most important aspect. But contemplation can be of other things, words or images that have touched us in ways that are not always clear.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff– they comfort me.

 

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

I expect all of us recognize these words or some approximation of them, the words of the 23rd psalm in the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible. Do they provide comfort for you? Have they provided comfort for you in the past? The words seem to be in contradiction to Buddhist teachings which encourage us to be our own lamps, to rely only on ourselves for exploring life and finding in that exploration our meaning, our purpose.

But, what if we put aside our assumptions or presumptions and spend sometime in contemplation? Such psalms as this provided me with rich food for contemplation for many years. There is a peace that can restore your soul, whether you attribute it to God or not. In any case, it only comes when you quiet down all the noise of your own thoughts, dreams, aspirations, fears, dreads, anxieties and hatreds and just allow the peace within to be yours in the present series of moments.

The valley may be dark and the outcome unknown, but if you trust that you will be cared for, either by a loving God or the peace that you cultivate in your own breast, you will be put at ease. The house of the LORD is a house of peace, of centeredness, someplace you can feel safe and something you can put your trust in. No one guarantees that your enemies will not be victorious, only that peace will be yours if you put your trust in the place that sustains your faith.

Christianity and Buddhism are not identical, and they should not be conflated in order to construct an artificial similarity. They are different traditions with different understandings of some fundamental things. But, they agree that the ordinary everyday idea that we have of ourselves is so limited that it gets in the way of living a life that is courageous and healthy. If you spend sometime contemplating teachings in traditions other than your own, you might find out that there are deeper truths available than are first apparent and riches that can sustain us beyond the safety of our comfort zone, our unchanging view of what constitutes truth.

Contemplation does not always lead to action, but it is essential to thoughtful, self-directed action. If we use religion as an escape, we’re running away from ourselves. If we seek to find meaning in it, it can provide the deep-rootedness that we can count on in times of need.

Buddhism teaches that there is a “fundamental dynamic quality” in being alive. It can create a feeling of uneasiness that seems to underlie everything. Allowing yourself to get in touch with that uneasiness feeds an openness to change that fosters courage, the courage of the “spiritual warrior” as Pema Chodron says. “Awakening is not a process of building ourselves up but a process of letting go.” In that way, it is like the child in us who reads the 23rd Psalm– in the letting go comes the sense of reassurance. Uncertainty is at the core of our existence. Dropping into its lap provides the only real reassurance we will ever know.

Sometimes, I visit prisoners at the Warren County Jail. I dropped off a book last week to an inmate who asked for it. In my conversations with these prisoners, they usually understand that they find themselves where they are because of thoughtlessness, not thinking through what the outcome of their choices would be. They are able to realize that some easy path to get what they needed or convinced themselves they needed was just too enticing and they let desire overwhelm judgment.

Other inmates fail to see; they blame others for the predicament they find themselves in. Many have had difficult lives, born into family situations that disadvantaged them from the start. But, if they point to failures in “the system” for their problems, whatever the truth of their claims, they continue to avoid the reality that it is now their responsibility to make meaning out of a new reality, to find a way to begin again. Jung says, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” And, yet, the one essential thing. The one place where we must all begin.

“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

Today, this second Sunday in June, is my last day in the pulpit until after our ingathering in August, though I expect to help out at next week’s flower sharing service. In the fall, I plan to offer a class in writing your spiritual autobiography. I hope that you will consider taking it over the course of eight or ten Sunday afternoons. The experience will provide you with opportunities for reflection as well as for action based on reflection and I do believe it’s something we all can profit from. The book is called The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography by the Unitarian Universalist author Dan Wakefield.

And now, we have a few minutes for reflection and response about contemplation and action.

Sources:

  • Wikipedia: “Jack Kornfield;” “Joseph Goldstein;” “C.G. Jung.”
  • www. Goodreads.com/author/quotes: C.G. Jung
  • Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron. Shambhala Publications. Boston. 2012.
  • The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln compiled by Bill Adler. Citadel Press, Carol Publishing Group. NY, NY. 1993.
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, editors. Oxford University Press. NY, NY. 1994.

 

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on June 12, 2016

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