Posted in Sermons

Sermon: Sacred Rest

My cat Otto, right now. Cats KNOW how to rest.

This sermon was given at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville on December 15, 2019.

Last year, for our Yule sermon, I talked about rest. Several people have mentioned to me that they really took that message to heart and have started to rethink how they spend their energy in the winter. But that’s not always easy. Our Christmas Carols talk about hustle and bustle, and that’s often what this time of year is like.

There’s a list of demands placed on us. I can’t not send Christmas cards, grandma gets upset when she doesn’t get an update about the kids. I can’t not wrap all of my presents, everyone loves tearing into the paper on Christmas morning. I can’t not bake, I always bake. I can’t not participate in the office gift exchange, what would people think? I can’t not put up a tree, what’s Christmas without a tree? And, unfortunately, it’s pretty common that a significant portion of the mental, emotional, and literal work of the holidays falls on the women in the family.

So, let’s back up and reevaluate. Instead of having Christmas photos taken for cards, maybe pick a few that are on your phone to email all at once instead of addressing dozens of cards. Maybe put your presents in pretty boxes that don’t need wrapping, or gift bags. Maybe let someone else bake this year. Maybe don’t worry about what you coworkers think. Maybe let the kids put up the tree. The point is to figure out what parts of the holidays bring you and your loved ones joy, focus on those, and let the other things go. And, instead of telling this story: “I just don’t have the energy this year,” which sounds like you failed somehow, tell this story: “I thought about what was important and what brings us joy, and I’m giving my energy to those activities.” Because why are you spending your energy on expectations of others that don’t enrich your life?

We talked last year about how we are, ultimately, human animals, and animals’ instinct drives them to reduce their activities and conserve their energy at this time of year. Yet, because of the fact that we have artificial light, we extend our working time way past what nature would dictate for us. Sometimes we feel guilty doing things that aren’t productive. If you go to sleep at 10, then there are five hours of darkness between sunset and when you allow yourself to rest. Think about that. Nature says, “go to sleep early,” and we decide to put in almost a full workday after that.

So let’s do a quick visualization. Feet on the floor, eyes closed or relaxed gaze. Take a nice slow breath. Another. Think of yourself as a human animal, and think of the coziest place in your den. The sun has gone down, it’s barely 5:00. What does rest look like? It doesn’t have to mean sleep, though it might. It might mean curling up with a novel, or snuggling on the couch with your pets, spouse, and/or kids to watch some TV, or sharing a homey meal with some special people, or spending some time alone, crafting, or making art, or journaling, or whatever activity fills your well. Imagine the coziest, homiest hibernation time you can think of indulging in, and picture yourself doing it ……… Also pay attention to how you are feeling when you think about this. Are you feeling guilty for not checking things off your to do list, or getting more stuff done? Are you enjoying yourself? Where in your body are you feeling what you’re feeling? …… And, gently come back to the room and open your eyes.

So, what does rest look like for you? What about “self care”? That’s a word that gets throw around a lot, often to promote some kind of product. The concept has been around a lot longer than the term, as a part of commercialism. Remember McDonald’s jingle, “You deserve a break today.” “Calgon, take me away?” Maybe I’m dating myself, I bet some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. The point is, companies know we’re tired, and use it for marketing.

But self-care isn’t really something you can’t buy. It’s the old advice from your stewardess about putting on your own respirator mask before trying to help someone else put on theirs. If your well is empty, you won’t have reserves to serve others. And a bubble bath or a special chocolate or a bottle of wine might be part of self care, but it’s not all of it. Let’s take a look at something most of you are really familiar with: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

So these are our needs, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow, and they’re structured in a pyramid like this because the ones toward the bottom are foundational. So we can’t meet our need for safety until our basic physiological needs are met, and we can’t meet our need for love and belonging until we feel safe, and we can’t build esteem until we feel we belong, and we can’t meet needs for self-actualization or personal growth until we’ve built our confidence, so each one builds on all the ones below it.

So how’s the bottom of your pyramid? I’m guessing your need for air is being met or you’d look a lot less calm. If you currently have a need for food or water you’re definitely Invited to partake of ours. But most of us have municipal water, and we’re not starving. Since you’re all currently clothed, I’ll assume that you have clothing, and probably also shelter. If you don’t, that’s a crisis, please ask for help. We’ll do whatever it takes to help you find resources.

That leaves sleep. Rest can be taking a break from activity, but friends, if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re harming yourself on all these levels above the base of this pyramid, and you don’t have enough to give anyone else, and you’re probably a lot less fun to be around than you are when you’re well rested. Whatever other stress you have in your life is compounded in exponents. How’s your sleep?

If you’re anything like a typical American, frankly, it sucks. We are bombarded with this message that we have to be constantly more productive, that if we’re not pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps 24/7, we deserve what we get. We have popular phrases like “You snooze, you lose,” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” When we feel like there aren’t enough hours In a day, and who of us doesn’t, the first place we cut is those precious rejuvenating hours of sleep that fuel our days. The Protestant Work Ethic, which I intend to give an entire sermon on at some point in the future, is alive and kicking. And it’s not serving us.

If you type “Why am I” into a Google search bar, the top result is “so tired” and the second one is “always tired,” which means that’s the most common thing typed into that bar after those three words. If you type Sleep into a search bar on your iPhone App Store or Google play, you’ll come up with FIVE THOUSAND apps that are meant to help you sleep. If we were to type a relationship status with sleep Into our Facebook profiles, most of us would say, “It’s Complicated.” We have a love-hate relationship with sleep. It feels so good sometimes, and at other times, like SUCH a waste of time, when time is so precious. Hardworking students study until late hours. Struggling working parents squeeze in a few precious moments of alone time after their little ones have gone to bed. Housewives remember one more thing they have to do before they finally sleep. We get home late, and find that it’s really hard to wind down enough to sleep after a day full of activity pushes almost up to bedtime. Then when we finally collapse into bed, exhausted, some of us find we’re staring at the ceiling unable to silence the whir of our thoughts or the to do list for tomorrow already tapping on our shoulders. Sometimes the problem with sleep isn’t that we are forsaking it for the sake of some work or much-needed me-time, but that we literally cannot fall asleep. It’s not something you can force, and a large percentage of us struggle with it.

So, I want to spend some time talking about healthy sleep habits and what we can do to improve the quality of the sleep we get. Most of us need around seven hours, and few of us are getting that much. So, a couple of tips to help us get more and better zz’s, some of which you probably already know, but some others maybe not:

1. Reserve your bed for sleep and snuggles. Don’t read in bed, don’t look at your phone in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, especially If you struggle at all with insomnia. If you can’t sleep, get up, do something that is relaxing, and try again. I know this Is really difficult advice because I don’t listen to it myself.

2. Turn the temp down in your room to around 65 degrees. This is another Instance of imitating nature… the temperature drops at night, our bodies think it’s time to sleep.

3. A couple of hours before bed, turn off your overhead lights and turn on bedside lamps and table lamps, preferably with warm hued bulbs, not cool white or daylight bulbs. Excessive light suppresses melatonin secretion and can make it hard to get to sleep. And, when you’re ready to actually go to sleep, have It as dark as you can comfortably stand it in your bedroom. Related,

4. Also limit blue light a few hours before bed. This, I’m afraid, includes almost anything with a screen. TV, computer screens, phone and tablet screens. If you’re having trouble sleeping, this is ground zero in the battle for sleep. If you must use your phone or tablet before bed, most of them have a nighttime mode that limits the harmful blue light, so check your settings or Google how to set that up on your particular device. A 2015 survey showed that 71 percent of Americans sleep with or next to their smartphones. Blue light Is a stimulant. Best case scenario: buy a regular old-fashioned alarm clock and ban your phone from the bedroom entirely. Definitely put it on Do Not Disturb if you choose to keep it in the bedroom.

5. Exercise. There’s a direct relationship between exercise and the ability to sleep.

6. Skip caffeine and limit sugar. We’re often dragging ourselves through the day caffeinated and sugared, but studies link both to inability to sleep. It disrupts our circadian rhythms. On the other hand, some kinds of herbal tea can be a great part of a bedtime routine.

6. Speaking of routine, it’s good to have one. Turn off the phone, read for half an hour, meditate, take a hot bath, sleep. Or whatever works for you. But having a routine where you do the same series of things before bed each night can signal your brain that It’s time to wind down.

7. Avoid sleeping pills, drugs like Benadryl that are meant for other things but have side effects of drowsiness, and alcohol to help you sleep. All three can actually help you fall asleep, but they affect the quality of your sleep and some of them have other serious side effects. One thing that my doctor recommends for difficulty sleeping is supplemental melatonin, but I suggest you talk to yours about what’s good to take and what’s not, if you struggle with insomnia.

8. You knew I was going to say this… meditation is great for sleep. Since I talked pretty extensively last week about how meditation is good brain training for when you’re overthinking at night, I’ll leave it at that. If you use an app for meditation, all of them have tons of sleep tracks, both guided meditations and just music, meant to help you drift off. But, of course, that means keeping your phone in your room, so use with discretion.

9. This Is something that helps me but might not help everyone, and that’s a planner. If I know I have everything written down that needs to be done, I don’t have to mentally rehearse everything on my list when I’m ready to drift off to sleep. And, I’ve added “7 hours of sleep” to my habit tracker in my planner so I can pretty readily see where I’m short-changing myself.

But as Americans, we are getting this mixed message: science shows that we desperately need rest, and our bodies are telling us the same thing. Even religion gives us mixed messages. That Protestant Work Ethic again. And, as Unitarian Universalists, the roots of our theology are Calvinist. We rejected strict Calvinist theology a long time ago, but its message lingers. Our first principle — the inherent worth and dignity of every person — that principle tells you more than just ‘welcome every person and treat them as worthy.’ It tells you than you, I, and everyone else, are inherently worthy. That means, by implication, that we don’t need to EARN that worthiness by doing anything at all. Some of us are still struggling to earn that worthiness through right works and through working. Are we doing enough for social justice? Are we working at self improvement often enough? What “shoulds” are you flogging yourself with in this regard? What guilt are you Inflicting on yourself because you are not doing enough in one respect or another? We have this narrative about our heroes, “He worked tirelessly for the cause,” but no one works tirelessly. My friends, do what you can, and then rest.

We don’t observe a Sabbath as UUs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider rest as sacred. We are built for rest, and honoring the way we are made is sacred attention. For me as a Pagan, honoring this portion of the wheel of the year as a time of rest is sacred time. Honor the call of your physiology. Working counter to it, forcing yourself to work past your capacity, actually decreases your productivity.

Author Saundra Dalton-Smith wrote a book called Sacred Rest. In It, she focuses on 7 areas of rest: spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, sensory, and social. Rest isn’t one-sided, It doesn’t mean only sleep, and it doesn’t mean just stopping. It’s many faceted. Her book is Christian-focused, but I thought I’d adapt those seven kinds of rest a bit so that we can figure out exactly what kind of rest we need.

1. Spiritual rest. This includes practices like prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and worship.

2. Physical rest. This means sleep, eating what your body needs and stopping when your body doesn’t need any more, and keeping our bodies active so that when the time comes for rest, we’re ready for it.

3. Mental rest. The practice of unloading my to-do list on paper is mental rest. Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to stop striving for self-improvement, and Indulge in activities that we call “mindless.” There’s nothing wrong with watching or reading or listening to things purely for entertainment. Give yourself a break, but don’t get stuck there. Mindless activities can be addicting when we’re not fulfilling our other rest needs.

4. Emotional rest. A gratitude practice is a good way to give ourselves some emotional rest. Journaling, or therapy, or confiding In a friend, are good ways to find some emotional rest. Knowing what activities fill your well, and making time for those things, can be emotionally restful.

5. Sensory rest. We’re so bombarded with sensory overload. I remember when my local Wal-Mart started putting little screens all over the store with ads talking at me from nearly every aisle. I felt deeply resentful. The practices I mentioned earlier about turning off devices before bedtime can give us some sensory rest. Some experts recommend doing regular device-fasts In which we turn off and tune out for a day or a weekend. Another way to get some sensory rest is to try to do more monotasking. We’re a multitasking addicted society. We eat while we watch TV or read, we text while we drive, we juggle three things at once. Pay attention to how often you are doing more than one thing at a time, and try dialing it back. Try just listening to the birds when you go for your morning run instead of listening to a productivity podcast, try tasting your food, try listening completely to the person you’re having a conversation with. Try ONLY watching TV. You don’t always have to fold laundry at the same time. And finally, my favorite mode of sensory rest, go outside. Nature is the 100% antidote to sensory overload. Go for a walk, watch a sunset, hug a tree. You’ll feel better.

6. Social rest. This one is tricky because typically, extroverts thrive on social interaction and introverts recharge their batteries best alone. So, know yourself. I know when my fuse is short, it’s time for Introvert Hibernation Time. I need alone, and I need quiet. If that’s you, that’s a basic need, and learning to honor it is the way to sanity. If you’re an extrovert, know the kind of social that energizes you, maybe coffee with a close friend or a movie night at church, or family time. Maybe combine another kind of rest — like your nature time, or your spiritual fellowship — with time other people who get you.

My blessing for you today is a poem by my favorite blessor, John O’Donohue, titled, maybe al title ironically, For Work:

May the light of your soul bless your work
with love and warmth of heart.

May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.

May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal
To those who work with you
And to those who see and receive your work.

May your work never exhaust you.

May it release wellsprings of refreshment,
Inspiration, and excitement.

May you never become lost in bland absences.

May the day never burden.

May dawn find hope in your heart,
Approaching your new day with dreams,
Possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into night blessed,
sheltered, and protected.

May your soul calm, console, and renew you.

Sources/Further Reading:

To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue

Sacred Rest by Saundra Dalton-Smith

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Video)

Posted in Sermons

Sermon: Bodhi Day

This sermon was given on December 8, 2019, at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville.

Sermon #5

Bodhi Day

December 8, 2019

Happy Bodhi Day! This day, Rōhatsu in Japanese, is the Mahayana and Zen Buddhist celebration of the anniversary of Buddha’s day of enlightenment, but not all Buddhists celebrate it on December 8. The year of Buddha’s enlightenment is not something agreed upon, but if the date I saw is correct, it is the 2547th anniversary of that day. It’s a low-key holiday, celebrated mostly by meditation. Some Buddhists spend the entire night of Bodhi day in meditation. Some Buddhists decorate a ficus or fig tree with colored lights and strings of beads and three ornaments to represent the three jewels of buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma or teachings, and the Sangha, or community.

I know that I told you that I was going to change the practice of reading stories to you, but as I reflected on how to present this information to you about what Bodhi Day is, I couldn’t think of a better way to tell you the origin of this holiday than to read you the story out of this little book, Sacred Stories. So, you get a story today. But don’t worry, you’re going to get a brief meditative moment, as well, a little bit later.

Summary of story: The prince Siddhartha Gatauma lived in a palace. His parents protected him from witnessing any kind of suffering, to ensure that he led a happy life. They didn’t let him out of the palace. But he got curious about what was outside the walls, and one day, when he was an adult, he snuck out of the palace and saw the suffering in the world, and was shocked. How could anyone be happy? He decided to leave his family behind and seek the answer. He tried various religious and ascetics paths for several years, but one day, starving, he decided that asceticism was not the way. He came to a huge Bodhi (fig) tree, and sat beneath it, determined that he would not rise until he attained enlightenment. The Master of Illusion, Mara, and his hideous minions, grew concerned that Siddhartha would find the answer to suffering, so they attacked him, coming at him one after another. But Siddhartha’s light was his shield, and they could not harm him, and eventually they ran away. Siddhartha continued to sit, and eventually attained enlightenment and became The Buddha.

This reads as a fable, doesn’t it, with the monsters and sort of Demonic/Satanic Mara coming at the Buddha as he sat trying to attain enlightenment. And of course, it is that, it surely has undergone some mythification in the 2500 years since Siddhartha Gautama was alive. But many Buddhists believe that Mara is not a literal demon in the way a Hindu or those of us who come from a Christian background understand a demon, but that he exists in the mind. He is the mental torments that plague us.

And doesn’t that one fact, that Mara is in the mind, change the meaning of the story entirely? Now, suddenly, we can relate to what the Buddha endured. Because I don’t know about you, but I have mental demons. Buddhism, which loves lists, calls these plagues 5 hindrances: 1) craving or clinging 2) anger or ill will 3) sloth and torpor 4) restlessness, worry, anxiety, and 5) doubt and inner critic. I know you know these demons as well as I do. In fact, a 2014 study at the University of Virginia administered to hundreds of subjects showed something fascinating: We don’t like being alone with our thoughts. Participants were put in a sparsely furnished room with blank walls and no devices or things to fidget with. There was only one thing in the room besides table and chairs: a button that would administer a harmless electric shock to them, if they chose to press it. Rather than sit and think quietly for 15 minutes, the duration of the experiment, the majority of participants chose to shock themselves, even though they’d said before the study that they’d p pay money not to be shocked. The way it’s divided by gender is interesting, as well: 65% of men self-administered shock, compared with 25% of women. So I’m not surprised that for the last several years, 100% of the participants in our Tuesday meditation sessions have been female or nonbinary. That’s an interesting little phenomenon I’ll leave for another day’s study.

But now we imagine the Buddha sitting, swearing that he will stay there until he attains enlightenment. And if you’ve ever spent more than two minutes sitting in meditation, you’ll relate completely to the thoughts coming at him like swarming hordes of multi-headed beasts, because the minute you try to get quiet, your mind tends to go crazy, and you end up saying to yourself, Dude, seriously? We’re thinking that right now? The Buddha’s answer: keep sitting. Stay with it. His light was his shield. His sitting was his battle plan. If you’ve sat and had a cramp in your leg or anxiety that you thought was going to drive you mad, you’ll completely understand the fear that Mara — our thought-demons — is going to KILL YOU.

But the Buddha sat, and he prevailed, and he attained enlightenment. And he gifted the world with this religion/teaching/dharma/philosophy/psychology/practice that can have really positive effects on our lives if we learn how to apply it skillfully, even 2500 years later.

So what is this teaching? I have about 10 minutes to give you the highlights, which, obviously, is not enough, but I’ll be drawing on Buddhism in sermons again and again, so this will give us a good foundation.

As I said earlier, the Buddha loved lists, and there are two that are foundational for the practice. You can’t talk about Buddhism without discussing the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention of learning the answer to this fundamental question: Why is there suffering? It could even be said to be the central question of most of our world religions. And he came away with this list to answer that question, which is called the Four Noble Truths.

1. To be human is to suffer. The Sanskrit word for this is Dukkha, and it is commonly translated suffering. But some think it should be, instead, “dissatisfaction.” This seems obvious to us, maybe, but the Buddha’s situation was unique, having been protected from any knowledge of the existence of suffering for most of his life and then going out into the world and being struck by the universal ness of it.

2. The second Noble Truth is that the cause of our suffering is not the event that we’re reacting to, but our reaction to it, our desire. I’ll put that in a practical context in a minute.

3. The third NT is that it is possible to overcome that desire, to change our thoughts about the thing.

4. The fourth NT is the way to do that: the Buddha gave us an eightfold path to show us the way to change our thoughts. Again, more on that in a minute.

So let’s put this in practical, everyday terms. Let’s say you are driving down the road and someone cuts you off. You’re already in a hurry, and a bit anxious because you have to give a presentation when you get where you’re going. So he cuts you off, and you have to slam on your brakes and narrowly avoid an accident. You start telling yourself a story about what an idiot that other driver is, and that people like him are responsible for people dying every day, and that you’re going to be even later now because of him, and it’s going to be hard to focus because you’re all worked up about this near miss. So you go ten miles down the road muttering and swearing to yourself, and then you think, This is NOT helping. It’s having zero effect on the other driver, and I’m just getting myself all worked up about what happened, and I could use my energy more skillfully by thinking about my presentation or even just being in the moment driving so that I can pay better attention, be a better driver, and have better reaction time. You then take a deep breath, settle your hands on the wheel, and try to get present.

The driver in our example had an inciting incident that caused suffering. The suffering could have been momentary, but because they chose to ruminate on it and tell themselves a story about things that they had no actual knowledge about, they suffered for ten miles instead of one moment. Then, they saw that all of this rumination was unhelpful, and instead chose right mindfulness and to be in the present moment, or perhaps right effort and to be thinking about their upcoming presentation.

For our meditative moment, we’re going to find in our recent history an incident that we had a strong reaction to. Get yourself grounded with feet on the floor. You don’t have to close your eyes, but kind of unfocus them in the middle distance, or close if you’d rather. Think about something that upset you in some way in the past week or so, and how you dealt with it in real time. Rather than judging how you dealt with it, think about how your reaction contributed to or eased your suffering in connection with the incident. Is there some way you could have reacted more skillfully?

You’ll notice that I keep using the word Skillful. Buddhism’s dichotomy isn’t sinner versus saint, but usually it’s a foolish person versus a sage or wise person. We don’t look at it as right or wrong, but what would have been the more skillful or useful way to react. You’ll maybe have noticed that Buddhism’s tree of knowledge is a blessing, whereas Christianity’s Tree of Knowledge was forbidden.

If we look back at Buddhism’s Noble Truths, they’re almost a scientific process. Some even speculate that the Buddha built this concept on ancient Indian medicine. The first is the illness, the symptom: suffering. The second is the diagnosis: suffering is caused by desire. The third is the prognosis: it can be healed. And the fourth is the healing.

So let’s meet the eightfold path. The fourth step on the path of noble truth is the Eightfold Path itself. Maybe you’ve seen the eight-spoked Wheel that is one of the few symbols of Buddhism, and the spokes represent this path. Once again, we have some issues with translation. These are often translated: right understanding, right intention or resolve, right speech, right action or conduct, right livelihood, right effort or diligence, right attentiveness or mindfulness, and right samadhi, translated concentration or meditation. And the word “right” might be a bit misleading in this context. We’re not talking about right as in, versus wrong, a moralizing. Few Buddhist sects make rules about what lay practitioners can and cannot do. We could put the word “skillful” here, as well, and say skillful understanding, skillful intention. I could give a sermon on each one of these and expound on them at length, and in fact, the Buddha spent forty years of his teaching discussing these concepts.

But instead of expounding on them, I want to recommend the practice. Whether you do meditation in the context of Buddhism or not, the time you spend on the cushion or doing whatever other form of meditation seems best to you — it can be walking meditation, mantra meditation that has its roots in Hinduism, coloring, dancing, or whatever else places you in the moment and works for you as a focus — it is training. We call it practice because spending those moments teaching our mind to walk away from those demons forms neural pathways that stand us in good stead when that driver cuts us off, or when we run into other forms of frustration, or the bigger catastrophes in life that we don’t have the first clue how we’re going to deal with. This realization hit me one day while I was listening to a Dharma talk about how sitting in meditation is great training for those sleepless nights when your mind is spinning constantly on everything and nothing. A light bulb went on. OH, that’s what meditation is for! It’s brain training! And when we’re suffering we can sit with those four Noble Truths and and name, diagnose, prognose, and cure — or sometimes, maybe just ease — the suffering.

In each sermon, I try to offer a blessing at the end of it. This week, as a way to celebrate Bodhi Day, I’d like us to offer the blessing together in the form of a Buddhist Metta meditation. I know I’ve talked about Metta practice before, and you’re probably familiar with it in one of our hymns, but I thought we would walk through one together as both blessing and mindful moment this morning. So here’s how this works: you don’t need to close your eyes, but try to feel the resonance of each sentiment as you say it. You can look at the screen as you follow along, but do ground yourself with both feet on the ground as normal for our meditative moment.

Generally in Metta practice, we think of three to five sentiments of good will, and then we offer them, first to ourselves, then to a dear one, then to an acquaintance, then to someone it might be challenging to offer loving-kindness to, then finally, to “all beings.” Normally in meditation this is done silently, but we’re going to speak these sentiments aloud this morning.

May I be gentle with myself.
May I forgive quickly.
May my suffering be eased.

May you be gentle with yourself.
May you forgive quickly.
May your suffering be eased.

May all beings be gentle with themselves
May all beings forgive quickly.
May the suffering of all beings be eased.

My friends, may you go joyfully into your week and the season.

Sources/Further Reading:

U of V Study
Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions

Gil Fronsdal Zencast Dharma Talk about the Four Noble Truths

Posted in Big Questions

This is My Buddha

I’d like to tell you the story of my Buddha. This Sunday, I’m giving a sermon on Bodhi Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment. So I’ve been sitting with my Buddha a bit this week, thinking about my journey as a Buddhist and meditator (among, of course, other things).

First of all, he was a gift from my friend Cole, who happens to be Pagan, not Buddhist. I thought initially I would repaint him, but I haven’t done that. Yet? I may still. But I like him as he is, too.

The important thing to note here is the rock he is holding. I found this rock on the shores of Lake Erie when I went to see my parents after my brother committed suicide in 2017.

After Anthony died and I rushed to get a plane ticket and get home for whatever funeral arrangements had to be made, as the plane circled to land and I saw the lake, tears suddenly flowed. I don’t like crying in public places. Disembarking a plane wasn’t a comfortable place to cry. But the lake holds a lot of memories, and my brother at the heart of a lot of them. Dad had a boat out near the islands (Kelley’s, Put-in-Bay, etc.) and on the weekends he had us, when the weather was good, we would go out to the boat and spend the entire weekend on it, fishing, swimming, visiting islands, sometimes just tooling around. So many memories.

I live now in land-locked Tennessee, and there are lakes, but nothing like Erie. When I landed and my dad picked me up, the first thing I said was, I want to go to the lake. So mom, dad, my aunt, and I went the next day.

When we got there, I wandered away from the others and sat by myself on the rocks with the wind whipping through my hair, crying. Erie doesn’t have an enchanting salt air smell like the ocean does. It smells like fish. But it’s a smell I love. Eventually, I returned to mom and dad, and pulled out my phone and put on “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, which was sort of our on the boat anthem. Dad cried. I cried. It’s good to cry together sometimes, even if it is public.

Finally, I strolled along the sandy part of the beach and picked up a couple of rocks. This one was the smallest, the smoothest. It was perfect, really. And then, in my carry-on bag on the way home, it cracked in half.

I kept it anyway. In fact, somehow it seemed more significant, cracked, than the other stones that stayed perfect in my bag.

I didn’t find comfort in the story that my brother is in heaven, and my Jehovah’s Witness parents couldn’t even say with certainty that he would be resurrected to live with them in their New System/Paradise. Instead, I found my comfort in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book No Death, No Fear. This is among the many passages in it that comforted me and still comfort me:

“When I make a pot of oolong tea, I put tea leaves into the pot and pour boiling water on them. Five minutes later there is tea to drink. When I drink it, oolong tea is going into me. If I put in more hot water, making a second pot of tea, he tea from those leaves continues to go into me. After I have poured out all the tea, what will be left in the pot is just spent tea leaves. The leaves that remain are only a very small part of the tea. The tea that goes into me is a much bigger part of the tea. It is the richest part.

“We are the same; our essence has gone into our children, our friends, and the entire universe. WE have to find ourselves in those directions and not in the spent tea leaves. I invite you to see yourself reborn in forms that say you are not yourself. […]

“You do not have to wait until the flame has gone out to be reborn. I am reborn many times every day. Every moment is a moment of rebirth. My practice is to be reborn in such a way that my new forms of manifestation will bring light, freedom, and happiness into the world.”

One day I was rearranging the altar where I meditate each morning, and I set my Buddha at the center. I realized that he was holding his hands as if he was holding something. I looked down on the shelf and there was my broken rock, the broken pieces of me. I gently placed them into the Buddha’s hands and trusted that if I sit there and practice looking deeply, I will see that the broken rock is both the same as it has always been and that it will never be the same again.