Monday, October 05, 2015

What's So Great About Letting Go?

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This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on October 4th, 2015.  

Given the theme of the morning, and the fact that it was the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi,  the reading consisted of an excerpt from Richard Rohr's daily meditation from June 7, 2015.  (It was the 2nd paragraph, but the whole thing's great.)

So this month, as it is every month this year, our theme is a question:  What does it mean to be a person of <blank>?   Each month we’ll be filling in that blank with another characteristic of the kind of person our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to be.  It's often said that Unitarian Universalism is a low-demand religion, but I think that does us a disservice.  I know that it’s one of the things that particularly appeals to a lot of us, yet I don’t think that a religious, or spiritual, faith that doesn’t make some demands on us is ultimately worth all that much.  (Kind of like an exercise regimen that lets you just sit on the couch eating potato chips and doesn’t push you at all.)  So every month this year we’ll be looking at different aspects of the kind of person our faith calls us to be.  This month we’re asking what it means to be a person of “letting go.”

You hear it all the time, don’t you?  12 Step folks say. “Let go and let God.”  “Hand it over.”  From all sorts of traditions we hear about the importance of not being “attached” to things, and how the key to eternal happiness and contentment is to be found in “detachment” (which is, of course, another way of saying “letting go”).  We've heard it and hear it so often that we may no longer ask ourselves why we’re hearing it.  Why is it a good think to learn how to “let go?”

After all, this "letting go" goes against what seems like human nature, doesn’t it?  We want to hold on to things; we don’t want to let them go.  When my kids were little they’d even want to hold on to the boxes their favorite toys had come in.  And today, when we talk about giving away the wooden play kitchen they had so much fun with as toddlers, my now teenagers say that they’d rather keep it around, thanks.  All through our lives we’re asked to – forced to – let go of so many things, and in virtually every case it’s been really hard to do so because when you get right down to it we didn’t really want to.  Even people with an addiction can find it hard to let go of, no matter how much they know how bad it is for them.

When Arthur and I were brainstorming for this service he told me about an Empowerment Workshop he’s offered.  It begins, he says, with a deceptively simple question:  “If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  If you could have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?  If your life could be the life you can now only imagine, what would it be like?

Some of us undoubtedly had some trouble coming up with an answer; others no doubt had no trouble at all.  Yet for either one I’d wager that the attempt at coming up with an answer also raised all sorts of reasons why you can’t have your life exactly as you want it to be.  We do that.  We dream dreams of what we could be doing with our lives and then almost simultaneously begin to tell ourselves all of the reasons why they’re just dreams and can never be anything but dreams.

Of course, if my answer to Arthur’s question is that my life "exactly the way I want it" is the life of a rock star, astronaut, superspy … well … that’s a dream that’ll probably always remain a dream.  (Of course, stranger things have happened.  Actually, no they haven't.)  You may have – or, at least have had –  dreams like that, too.  Dreams that really are unattainable.  Yet if I really sit with Arthur's question, live with it a bit, chew on it and digest it over time, I’ll probably find that rock star/astronaut/superspy isn’t really the life I want to live.  A life with some adventure in it, maybe.  A life that takes some courage to live.  A life that has some mystery in it … something intriguing about it.  Rock star/astronaut/superspy is just the metaphor that comes to mind to describe the kind of life I want to live; it's not really the description itself.   See?  If we sit with that question, and really open ourselves up to its invitation, we will come to an answer that's not just a fantasy/dream answer, but an answer that is real.

And that, Arthur says in his workshop, is a seed – that “something real.”  And the vision we have of the plant in full bloom gives us a goal, something to strive for, lets us know where we want to go and where we have to go if we want to live the life we most truly want to be living.  Yet before we can do anything else, we need to prepare the soil for planting that seed, we have to create a space for whatever it is that we're planting to grow.  This will certainly include pulling out some weeds and picking out what will no doubt be more than a few rocks that we’ll have to toss to the side.  We may even have to clear out some of the surrounding plants to make sure that we get the right amount of sun for our new plant's needs.  And all of this, of course, is ... letting go.  In order to plant the seed of the life we most deeply want to live, the life that will be for us most fully alive, we have to get rid of, let go of, those things that will make attaining our goal that much harder – the hurts we’re holding on to; the limiting labels we’ve been given or have taken on for ourselves; the pain that paralyzes; that voice that whispers in our ear about how “not enough” we are.  These things must be cleared from the soil before we can plant.  We have to let them go.

One of the things I love about juggling as a practice and a metaphor is that it directly, viscerally, addresses the question of how to let go.  After all, juggling is about nothing if not “letting go.”  As I said when demonstrating it earlier in the service, what you need to learn when you’re learning to juggle is how to throw the ball … how to release it … how to let it go.  Catching isn’t something we need to learn.  No matter how clumsy we’ve convinced ourselves we are, catching is a natural thing.  Because catching is just a form of “holding on,” and we humans are already awfully good at that.

What we need to learn, then, as juggling padawans, is how to throw, how to get rid of the ball in our hands, how to let things go.  And the way to do that, the learning of juggling teaches us, is step by excruciatingly incremental step.  Here's how I've been taught to teach it:  One ball ... dominant hand ... up and down.  One ball ... non-dominant hand ... up and down.  One ball … hand to hand.  Step by excruciatingly incremental step.  Each new step gives us practice in letting go.  Each step gives us another opportunity to experience in our bodies this letting go. Each new step making the next one possible -- not easy, necessarily, but possible.  And things generally go along smoothly until we get to that step I was talking with the kids about, that step where we’ve got two balls in the air and one that’s stuck – absolutely and completely stuck – in our hand.

I didn’t tell the kids this, but it took me a year to learn to juggle.  Because of my time on the program staff of a summer camp I think that over the years I’ve taught at least a couple thousand people and I can say with near certainty that if you give me one hour of your attention, and commit to practicing for even five minutes a day for a week, at the end of that time you will be able to juggle.  And it took me a year.

It took me a year because – as a teenager who was already a magician and already had the persona of a circus-y guy – I was stuck on the idea that I should be able to juggle, that I should be able to juggle already, and that if after all I did need to learn that it should come easy.  It took me a year because I wasn’t able to let go of my sense of self, my preconceived image of who I was and who I thought others thought me to be.  I guess it was my ego that I wasn’t able to let go of.  And I was stuck.  
Where are you stuck in your life?  Your job?  A relationship with someone that you want to start, or need to end?  An addiction you’re wrestling with?  A decision you have to, but just can't seem to, make?  Getting your finances in order?  Not being able to give yourself permission to do whatever-the-thing-is-that-you-most-want-to-do-but-can’t-seem-to-do? 

Most often, I think, the glue that holds us tight is fear.  When I was learning (or, I guess, not learning) to juggle I was afraid that people would think less of me and that my rep as a "seasoned pro" would suffer, if I couldn't get it "just right" right away.  Others have been afraid that people will laugh at them if they fumble, or that here, on the brink of actually "getting it," they'll prove to themselves that they really don't -- and never did -- have a chance; that they were destined for failure from the start.  Whatever the reason, we all found ourselves with that ball glued into our hands with thick and sticky fear.

So what's the fear, or fears, that's got you glued in place?  A fear of failure?  Of being alone?  People laughing at you?  Or walking away?  Letting yourself or someone else down?  Fear that the new unknown might not actually end up being any better than the old and known?  Fr. Richard Rohr, in that reading we heard a moment ago, gave all these fears an unambiguous name:  "our fear of loss and death."   And those "three primary energy centers" that he refers to -- our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem -- seem to be where all the action is.  When those things are threatened, which at least one of them is every single time we try to let go of one thing to make room for something new, the glue is thick and fast-setting.

One of the reasons it can be so difficult to face those fears and let go of the things that are holding us here when we really want to be going there is that we get it in our minds that if we only could get past this thing it'll be smooth sailing to our goal, downhill, on a greased track all the way.  Yet we know that that's not how things work.  So even though we may more or less consciously tell ourselves that this is where we're stuck, we're afraid that there's just more stuck-ness on the other side of it.  From the vantage point of this place and this mindset we are completely convinced that the goal is utterly unattainable.   So even if we do manage to find a way to let go of what's holding us here ...  What's the point?

And that's exactly why at this point in juggling training you don’t even try to throw it into a pattern … you just throw it!  Throw it hard; throw it wild.  Without worrying about doing it "right," you do whatever it takes to get the ball out of your hand.  To break through the stuck-ness.  To let it go.  And that, it turns out, just about everybody is able to do.  And when you get rid of that ball you open up a space -- see how this all hangs together? -- in which to catch the ball that's in the air.  And once you can do that, the three-ball cascade, as it's called, is just some practice away.

Arthur also used to tell participants in his workshop that the seed doesn’t just become the fruit.  It takes time.  Preparing the soil is one step.  Planting the seed is one step.  Watering is a step.  Making sure that the growing plant gets enough sun, but not too much; feeding, and mulching, and weeding – these are all steps.  Excruciatingly incremental steps.  Yet each one is absolutely essential.  The seed doesn’t just become the fruit.

And just because I’ve managed to hurl that ball out of my hand doesn’t mean I’m a juggler.  I then have to work it into the pattern.  And then, in the way I teach it anyway, I throw the three balls once each and try to catch them.  I do this several times.  I do this over and over again, starting with the two balls in my dominant hand.  And then I do it – again, over and over – starting with the two balls in my non-dominant hand.  Then I try four throws.  Five.  Six.  The teacher of my teacher’s teacher wrote a book in which he describes the penultimate exercise in this method of teaching and learning.  You throw three throws three times.  Without dropping.  Do that, and you throw four throws four times.  You then move on to five throws five times, six throws six times, all the way up to ten throws ten times.  Without dropping.  If you drop you go back to three throws three times and start all over again.  But when you manage to complete this exercise – which I worked on for a couple of months – you’re ready for the final step in becoming a juggler:  continuing to practice for the rest of your life.

And that's why we need to be people of letting go.  That's what it means to be a person of letting go, because this stuck-ness won't just happen to us once.  All through our lives we'll be asked to – forced to – let go of so many things, and if we don’t we’ll be, and will remain, stuck.  And folks, we weren’t meant to live lives of stuck-ness.   Stuck-ness is what one of our religious predecessors, Henry David Thoreau, was thinking of when he wrote, “The mass of [humanity] lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. … But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”  It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.  We are not meant to live our lives stuck.

“If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  Sit with that question during the Offertory.  Talk about it with someone, maybe, in the Social Hall after the service.  Ask it of yourself this afternoon, this evening, throughout the week:  “If you can have your life exactly the way you want, what would it look like?”  Then look for the place where you're most intransigently stuck, and I invite you to take a step.  It may not be pretty.  You may not do it "right."  But do it.  Whatever it is -- whatever that step is -- do it.  The steps that follow may be excruciatingly incremental, yet each new step we take gives us practice in letting go.  Each step gives us another opportunity to experience in our lives this letting go. And before we know it, even without our knowing it, we'll find that this letting go becomes second nature ... and then the fun begins!

Pax tecum,


Update:  I received a question on FaceBook about the book "my teacher's teacher's teacher wrote."  It's The Juggling Book by Carlo which I'm happy to say seems once again to be available.  I've put a link into the body of this post, too.

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