The following is a sermon I gave yesterday for Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville‘s Burning Bowl ceremony. This is a ceremony in which each person writes on a piece of paper something that they would like to let go of, that is no longer serving them. Then we light a candle in a big ceramic bowl and ceremonially burn the papers. I really wanted to use flash paper this year, or flying wish paper, but I didn’t get the Amazon order in time. Maybe next year.
Burning Bowl Ceremony
The only constant is change, said Heraclitus of Ephesus.
Question: how do we bring more of what we want into our lives, and let go of the things we don’t want in our lives? In other words, how do we direct the change?
In Pagan and New Age and other spiritual circles, this concept is discussed using the term “manifesting.” This language entered the mainstream about 15years ago with the popularity of The Secret and Abraham-Hicks’ message about the Law of Attraction. The concept is this: If you ask for something, and you focus on it without fear about it not happening, without framing it in a negative — “I don’t want to get sick” — then it will happen. Because of your focus, you are attracting what you wish to you. By doing this you can heal your sickness, you can be rich, you can have whatever you want.
Needless to say, this concept is wildly popular. It got celebrity endorsement, and its proponents made millions explaining to people, sometimes claiming to channel otherworldly entities, how to ask for things so that you get them. The problem is that when the wishes fail to come true, people who prayed for God to make something happen or expected the Universe to provide wonder whether the fault might be in them. So, Is it true? Can we wish our futures into existence?
Like most things, it has a grain of truth in it. What you focus on, you will draw to you, but maybe it’s not because of some universal magic. Or, maybe it is. But most often, you don’t get what you want because you wished for it. That’s much more likely to work for someone who was rich, white and privileged in the first place. But when we give something our attention, it does make us more likely to look for connections, relationships, and opportunities that will draw those things to us. It makes us more likely to put our efforts into making it happen. And if there’s some universal law at work, so much the better, but the need for the work doesn’t go away. You still have to show up every day to make the thing happen.
But sometimes we get blocked. We get in our own way with negative self-talk, or fear of taking the next step or of failing, or lack of faith in ourselves, or lack of support from those close to us, or any other number of reasons. So the first question I want to ask you is this: what do you want to manifest? What do you want to be the focus of your year, what do you want to draw to you or accomplish in 2019? Put another way, I’m reading a book called First Things First and it asks the question: What is the one activity that you know if you did superbly well and consistently, would have significant positive results in your life? And the obvious follow up question is: why aren’t you doing it? Put more poetically, by Mary Oliver, what are you doing with your one wild and precious life?
So ask yourself, what is holding you back? What pain are you holding in your heart that it would better serve you to let go? As you ponder this, bear in mind that not all pain should be let go, just yet. Sometimes we need to hold it, and love it until it is ready to depart on its own.
The Buddha liked lists. One of the lists he gave us was Five Hindrances. He identified them as five mental states that hinder us in meditation and in our daily lives. For some of these things, we don’t have direct translations in English, so I thought I’d give each of them some attention.
The first hindrance is sometimes translated as greed, sometimes sensual desire. I like to think of it as Grasping or Clinging. We humans don’t like change, and yet all things change. Sometimes we cling to things out of habit or fear of sacrificing comfort, but those very things might be what is holding us back. They may even be relationships sometimes. Or they may be attachment to things. Maybe we can’t clear space in our mental lives because we have too much literal clutter in our houses, but we cling to those physical possessions for one reason or another.
The Second Hindrace is Aversion, and it is the flip side of the first. We cling to good experiences, pleasant sensations, and the other side of that coin is, we often push away what we have judged as bad or negative, or things that are unpleasant. In doing this we often lose a valuable lesson. One I like to share is, when I began meditating, every time I took a breath one of the vertebrae in my neck would click. Every inhale. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. It drove me insane. I could not focus on my breath or being present because of that damned click. So I went online, because I figured, I can’t be the first person to have dealt with this, how do I get rid of it? And somewhere in the middle of all of my online searching, I suddenly realized… sitting with this thing is no different than sitting with leg pain, or sitting with grief. You allow the experience, thank it for what it has to teach you, and let it be. The crazy thing was, it seems likely that I was causing the click because of some tension somewhere, because when I took this advice, it quite often stopped happening. And that’s true of aversion in a lot of cases… when we push something away, when we are saying to ourselves I HATE THIS, I CAN’T STAND IT, we are giving it attention and still holding it, just in a different way.
The third hindrance is Sloth and Torpor. These are translated pretty accurately, and I think you get the idea. Another Steven Covey phrase is “mind over mattress.” Often we have so much resistance to something, say for example, exercising, or getting started on a cleaning project. And then we get started and realize that getting started was 90% of the battle.
The fourth hindrance is Restlessness, Anxiety, and Worry. I don’t have to explain to you what these are, and if you’ve ever had an anxiety attack or worried about something you know what I mean when I call it a hindrance. For a Buddhist the answer to these things is the same as the answer to all of the others: sit with it. Let it be. In our modern day we often identify too much with things. We say I AM depressed, or I AM anxious. I want to ask you to watch your language and stop BEING things that are hindering you. Say instead, I am feeling anxious, and then, if you can make space for it, sit and ask why you might be depressed or anxious. This is not to say that you should not get help for these things if you need it. If this is a chronic problem for you, professional help might be needed.
The fifth hindrance is Doubt. Hindering doubt is not the same as questioning doubt. Questioning doubt leads us to greater understanding. Hindering doubt is occasionally failing to trust those who have our backs, but most often hindering doubt is self-doubt. Fear of failure, failing to trust ourselves, wondering if we’re strong enough to deal with something. So I want to tell you, not only are you strong enough, but you are Enough in every way.
Returning to our theme of how to manifest something that we want in our lives, and letting go of something else to make room for it, I want to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about Impermanence.
Impermanence Makes Everytghing Possible
We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter were not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woma. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.
Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.
When we think about manifesting things in our lives, it’s important to spend some time thinking less about I want this NOT that, and more about How can this become that? Our lives are not a series of switches to be flipped, I no longer want this, I want more of that, but instead, we are all living on a continuum of inter-being and inter-becoming. Going back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching:
Looking deeply into a box of matches, you can see the flame. The flame has not manifested, but as a meditator you can see the flame. All the conditions are sufficient for the flame to manifest. There is wood, sulfur, a rough surface and my hands. So when I strike the match ad the flame appears I would not call that the birth of a flame. I would call it manifestation of a flame.
The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient you manifest yourself. When conditions are no longer sufficient, you stop manifesting in order to manifest in other forms, with other conditions.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear
I encourage you to sit in silence and meditate on these things, especially the concept that what you want to manifest is not a thing that doesn’t yet exist, but something that the conditions have not until now been right for. What would it take to make the conditions right? Perhaps, light a candle to gaze at, as you think on these things for at least a few minutes, or however long it is comfortable for you to meditate.
Following the meditation, if you want to do the ritual portion of this exercise, take two pieces of paper, perhaps different colors . On one, write whatever you think you need to let go of, in order to make room for more of what you want in your life. On the other, write whatever you want to call to you. Light a candle and have nearby a large ceramic bowl or perhaps a large clay flower pot. I find this ceremony most powerful to do near dusk. You can fold the paper in some way that seems significant to you. Carefully light the paper with the candle, and drop the paper into the bowl. You might spend a moment watching the edges curl, blacken, and become something else: ash, embers, a chemical reaction, carbon dioxide, and then dissipate to become part of something else. After our congregation’s Burning Bowl ceremony, I took the ashes and put them in my compost pile, so that they literally could become part of something else, so if that feels right to you, you can do that too. Some people empty the ashes into a running stream of water to be carried away symbolically, again.
What you do with the other sheet of paper is up to you. You can put it somewhere you’ll see it in your house, or on your altar at home if you have one, or you can bury it in the earth or fold it into a paper boat (please use environmentally friendly, degradable paper) and release it into that stream of water with the ashes of the other paper. Or, do some other symbolic act of releasing your desire into the universe.
My friends, may your goodbyes be gentle.