Sunday, November 13, 2011

But What If Life's Hard?

If it were up to me, I might just leave our TV on the Discovery Channel.  After all, that’s where you can find MythBusters, and Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe; Cash Cab and Dual Survival.  It’s the home of Shark Week, and that annual extravaganza of mechanization and mayhem, Punkin’ Chunkin’.

Of course, if we left the TV on Discovery then we’d miss out on some other family favorites – Good Luck Charley, iCarly, Phinneas and Ferb, Spongebob, and the kitty half-time show during the Puppy Bowl.  (Not to mention SyFy’s Eureka  and, okay I’ll cop to it, FOX’s American Idol.)
Why am I telling you all of this?  I’ve been referring a lot lately to the teachings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.  I’m going to do so here again.  As anyone who knows his teachings can tell you, Thich Nhat Hanh puts a great deal of emphasis on smiling as a spiritual practice.  He has said, as do most Zen teachers, that it’s essential to put in two daily practice sessions of at least twenty minutes each.  He has also said, however, that if one can’t manage to do that that one session is better than nothing.  And if you can’t manage one twenty minute session each day, then you should aim for ten.  If even that’s impossible, then try and take five real breaths at some point during the day.  And if you can’t do even that, then try to smile one fully authentic and aware smile before getting out of bed.
Smiling as a spiritual practice.  He once famously wrote that it is true that the world is full of suffering.  This, after all, is the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths – “life is suffering.”  But Nhat Hanh doesn’t stop there.  The world is full of suffering, he says, but it is also full of the blue sky and the eyes of a baby.  “It would be a shame,” he wrote, “if we were only aware of the suffering.”  Breathing in, I relax body and mind.  Breathing out, I smile.
But one day one of his students approached her teacher and said, “But what if my heart is full of sadness?  How can I smile?”  What if I’m going through a difficult period?  What if I’m angry?  Or grieving?  Or scared?  What if I’m trying to figure out how to keep everything from falling apart?  What if I can’t imagine how I’m going to make it through another day?  How can I smile?
I know this question.  I’ve known heart ache.  I’ve known pain – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual agony, not to put too fine a point on it.  I’ve known loss, and I’ve known rage, and I’ve known fear.  You have too, so we know this question – what if our hearts are full of sadness?  How can we smile?
Some of you know that I’ve been sick off and on for the past several weeks.  Some of you have been in classes or meetings that I’ve had to cancel or postpone; some of you have been wondering why I didn’t respond to that e-mail or phone message you’d left.  Some of you’ve seen me and just had the feeling that something wasn’t right. 
Most of you, I hope, haven’t noticed anything.  I’ve been here in the pulpit or in the office; in a class or in a meeting; and you haven’t had an inkling that there was anything wrong.  As I said, I hope that this has been most of you.  But some of you have seen something, and what you’ve seen have been the physical and mental manifestations of the Depression I’ve been wrestling with off and on for some time now.
No doubt the stresses of the move here – both the challenges and just the newness of it all – exacerbated something that’s normally quite well controlled.  As most people who deal with depression will tell you – those who have it and those who work with us – it can often be as innocuous as well-monitored blood pressure or well-medicated allergies.  But every once in a while it’ll flare up.  Mine has been flaring lately.
So I know the question of how can I smile when my heart is full of sadness, because I’ve been asking myself that question a lot lately.  How do I deliver a sermon on gratitude when I’m feeling like this?  How do I offer inspiration or encouragement when I feel such a lack of both?  The answer is the answer Thich Nhat Hanh gave to his student, and it ties us back to my bit of personal revelation about my viewing habits with which I began this sermon.
Each of us, Nhat Hanh said, is like a television set.  We each have many channels at our disposal – perhaps as many as hundreds of channels we could have playing on the screen of our life.  Yet often we get stuck on just one channel – sadness, anger, fear, playing it safe.  Often we get stuck on just one channel – out of all of the channels available to us – and then we begin to think of ourselves as being that channel.
This, of course, would be like my television set becoming convinced that it is the Discovery Channel.  This is like me becoming convinced that I am my depression, or that I am my victimization, or that I am my hoplessness.  I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.
But the truth is far more complex.  (Isn’t it almost always?)  Like a television set I actually have hundreds of channels to choose from.  I may, for any number of reasons, be spending an inordinate amount of time on the Depression Channel, but somewhere on my dial the Joy Channel is just waiting its turn.  Somewhere there is the Enlightened Buddha Channel.  Somewhere there is the Christ Channel, and it’s just as much a part of my basic package as is the channel on which I’ve gotten stuck.
Because life is full of suffering AND it is full of the shinning eyes and impossible little fingers of babies; it is full of cries of suffering AND quiet calm, both.  And when my heart is full of sorrow, when my life has gotten hard, when the suffering overwhelms the miracles, then it is essential that I know where to find the Gratitude Channel and switch out my viewing habits so as to remind myself that life is more than the malaise.
This isn’t easy to do.  Sometimes it isn’t even possible to do, not right now, at least.  Like during Shark Week you really can’t change that dial right then.  Okay, that’s not my best analogy but I know you get my point.  Sometimes it’s too much to even pick up the remote and aim it at the TV; sometimes you just gotta lie there and watch what’s on.
But the time will come – often before you’re expecting it – that you can change the channels, and that’s where the practice of gratitude comes in.  Practice something long enough, often enough, and it begins to become a habit.  Practice noticing the things in our lives that we can be grateful for, and it begins to become a habit.  A habit we can draw on, an autonomic reflex we can stimulate, when we can’t do anything else.
One of my favorite Tich Nhat Hanh-isms has to do with just how important it is to make a practice of mindfulness, a practice of awareness, a practice of smiling, a practice of gratitude; how important it is to make this practice a part of our lives during the good times, the easy times.  Practice, he says, is like sewing a parachute, and you don’t want to begin sewing your parachute as you are jumping out of the plane.  You don’t want to begin sewing your parachute as you’re jumping out of the plane.  It’s important to develop the practice of gratitude when it’s easy to do, so that you will have the practice to help you when it’s not.
Last week, in the depths of despair, I was forced to consider the practice of gratitude because I’d promised to encourage you to consider it.  It’s hard to immerse yourself in the “attitude of gratitude” without at least a little of it rubbing off.  And then there were Wendy’s reflections, and Leia’s story, and Thomas’ ruminations (which he’d intended for this week but which I needed – both professionally and personally – then instead), and there was Scott’s music . . .  and there was the spirit of this community, a wildly healing balm of breathtaking beauty.   (And as those of you on FaceBook know, on the way home I blasted some Cream as loud as I could crank it.)
And the channel changed.  My mood changed.  The world I was living in – or, more precisely, my perspective on that world – changed.
You can smile when your heart is full of sorrow . . . because you can.  Because, at some point, you have to.  Because even if all you can manage is one fully authentic and aware smile at some point during your day, it is another stitch in your parachute.  And if you can keep up that stitching then when the time comes that you jump – or fall, or are pushed – out of that plane, you’ll discover that you’re not really falling as you’d feared you would be.  You’re flying.
I want to leave you with a story.  The story of Samuel Hearne, who in the early 1770s was leading an expedition to explore to the mouth of the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories of Canada. At one point in the journey his party was attacked by a party of Native Americans who made off with most of their supplies. I don’t know whether this incident occurred before or after a group of his party attacked and massacred a group of Cooper Inuit at Bloody Falls.  But you can imagine the feelings after they were attacked and their provisions taken –in a foreign and unknown land, a dangerous journey still ahead, most of your provisions gone, the possibility of further incidents, the guilt, the fear . . .
Now I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne.  I haven’t been able to learn whether he had sisters or brothers; whether he’d had a family of his own.  He seems to have been a good man who was truly horrified by the massacre carried out by his own people.  Still, I don’t know much about Samuel Hearne, but I do know one thing.  I do know is that he was well practiced in the art of gratitude.  I know this not because of any commentary that survives about the man but because of the comment he made in his own journal the day after the raid.  With all of the uncertainty, the tension, the anxiety that must have surrounded him at that time, Samuel Hearne wrote these words:  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."
That’s someone who knew how to find the Gratitude Channel.  "The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day’s journey was more swift and pleasant."
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Candace said...

An amazing piece of writing, and insight.
Thank you for being so honest about something so many struggle with. We all struggle with something - be it depression, anxiety, addiction... To know you're not alone is a gift.
And for this gift I am grateful, Erik.

Julianne said...

I like the parachute analogy and will pick up my sewing! Maybe you will tell more of this in the simply pray evening?

Marc Silling said...

When I first came to the UU church it was mostly to meet people like me. That worked. However, lately the sermons are so powerful and meaningful that Sunday is my favorite day. This sermon was particularly profound in it's impact on me and others. I feel as though you touched my soul; I have never had such an experience in church. As I think about it I still become emotional.

The analogy of TV channels being like states of being in life,and sometimes we can change the channel, sometimes we can't, was brilliant. I will use this and other analogies from the sermon as I go through life. I felt as though the sermon healed something inside of me. Thank you Erik.

RevWik said...

I'm glad we both found our way here, Marc. And thanks, Julianne, for that idea for the upcoming class. Finally, Candy, thanks for your long standing support and friendship! Peace, all.