A Litany of Confusion

I gave the following talk in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Rockport, Massachusetts on March 10th, 2013.

This is in part a birthday present for Mother Karin, so she won’t have to write a sermon this week, but it’s also an opportunity to share some recent experiences, that I think would be of interest to anyone concerned with the spiritual life.

Three years ago I did a meditative retreat at the Kripalu Center in the Berkshires.  I expected I’d probably have some amazing experience and that I’d be thinking, “Wow.  This is it!  The answer to all my problems.” This expectation was fulfilled far beyond my wildest imagination.  But I also anticipated that back in my day-to-day life, those revelations would fade, and I’d be saying, “Well, I guess that wasn’t the answer after all.” In that I was also quite correct, for shortly after that retreat, I fell into the deepest depression I’d ever experienced.  Six months later I was baffled trying to figure out how I had come out of that hopeless despair into a life filled with joy and happiness far greater than I could ever have dreamed. But I had one important clue.  Through meditation I had learned to pay attention to every experience without judgment, and during that period of the most hopeless depression I had been able to watch my-self creating the depression.  When you see that the reason your hand hurts is because you’ve been mindlessly stabbing yourself with a fork, it just stops—there’s nothing you have to do.

I believe that Jesus taught this.  Yes, he advised us to be kind and compassionate but how do you do that?  Mathew quotes from the Sermon on the Mount:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

And we are left to discover for ourselves the confusions that prevent us from living this way.  So I’ll read you a litany of my confusions.

Confusion Number One.  There’s a myth that is central to the stories we tell—the classic Battle of Good versus Evil–and I’ve bought into this myth as much as anyone.    But I really don’t think there is such a thing.  The real battle is Me against Myself.  If we look deeply into the heart of the most evil characters, whether it’s Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector or Voldemort, we find a soul who is quite simply very confused, who misunderstands who they really are, but who deep down is searching for the same fulfillment we all seek.

St. Matthew reports that,

Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

I have to wonder who Jesus was really doing battle with.  When we see that the devils are of our own creation, the battle takes on a whole new meaning.

Confusion Number Two.  Another misconception I’ve bought into is the idea that we are fundamentally flawed, that somehow we need to be fixed.  Yet it has become more and more obvious to me that this is wrong.  What if, In fact, it is our fundamental nature to be caring, compassionate and happy?  What would that mean?  It would mean that each one of us has at our disposal everything we need to solve our most fundamental problems.  And—not to say that we don’t depend upon each other for help—but it would mean that we would not have to be forever searching for some formula, some wonder drug, some expert or genius who can fix us.

Number Three.  Who am I—really?  I feel myself to be an individual, isolated and separate from everything around me.   There are very good reasons for feeling this way.  If a grandfather of mine hundreds of generations ago had not felt himself separate from the tiger he was stalking, he would soon have become one with tiger and I wouldn’t be here at all.  But what if this sense of separateness is an illusion?  Here’s what Thomas Merton has to say:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.  It was like waking from a dream of separateness…  This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.

I’m reminded of an EMT in Hawaii.  A man intending to commit suicide had gotten down to a narrow shelf just below the rim of a volcanic crater, and one of the EMT’s who was trained in handling these situations had gotten down near him, trying to convince him to abandon this desperate act.  Suddenly the man jumped.  The EMT dove after him, grabbed him and only by luck managed to keep them both from falling to their deaths.  Later a reporter asked the EMT why he had risked his life, in near certainty of being dragged to his death, to save a man who was bent on ending his life.  “It wasn’t like that at all,” he replied.  “When he jumped, I didn’t see another person.  I saw myself.  I wasn’t saving him, I was saving myself.”

Confusion Number Four—Compassion.  I often encounter people who wish they could be more compassionate.  But I’ve come to realize that compassion isn’t something you get, or learn, or get better at, but that it is fundamental to our nature.  And I have proof.  I call this the Soap Opera Proof of Inherent Compassion.  In all drama, from Shakespeare to B movies and Soap Operas, the playwright, author or filmmaker absolutely depends upon our innate capacity for compassion in order to move us with their story.  We know that the guy and the girl must ultimately fall in love and be with each other and not with the nasty fiancé or the domineering boy friend, and our hearts are torn at every dip and rise in the roller coaster ride toward that end.  We are angered when a character is the victim of cruelty, and if the author doesn’t set things right in the end we are outraged.

The problem is not that we need more compassion; the problem is that we need to learn how to stop interfering with the compassion that is at the root of who we are.  If we get that we are not the isolated and separate individuals we feel ourselves to be; if we get that we don’t need to be fixed and that it is our fundamental nature to be happy and to desire the same for all beings; if we get that those we think of as bad people are deeply confused and in need of our help, then compassion takes on a whole new meaning.  It is, in a sense automatic.  Roshi Enkyo Pat O’Hara—abbot and founder of a Zen center in New York City—says, “Once we become aware who we really are,…compassion just bubbles up.”

Number Five—Love—probably the most abused word in the language.  We divide it up into love of this, love of that, but maybe we miss the point.  Meditation teacher John Tarrant says, “Bare attention”—that is to say, being completely awake to whatever is happening, without judgment, with no desire to change it—”and love are exactly the same thing.”  “Bare attention and love are exactly the same thing.”  At choir practice the other night a line in next week’s anthem jumped out at me. “Love will do the thing that’s right.”  So the next time you can’t figure out what to do, don’t do anything, don’t think about it, just bring your full, bare attention to the situation and see what happens.

What does all this have to do with meditation?  Meditation, in my book, is training in attention.  It is to see our Sense of Self—the Ego if you will—for the fiction that it is and the real source of most of our troubles.  When we get rid of the troublemaker—not by force of will but by giving him or her permission to leave, to get out of the way—then a whole new universe opens up.

I was delighted last week when Mother Karin said a lot about anger that I don’t have time to go into today.  But I’m almost never angry these days.  Why?  Because if anger does arise, if someone blindsides me with some nasty remark, and if I’m fully awake, I see that in that split second I have a choice.  I can either follow the habit of reaction as I’ve done so often in the past, or I can stop—pay close attention to what is actually happening.  What does it feel like in my body?  Where are the tensions building up—the muscles tightening, ready to hurt someone?  I watch the vivid images that arise in my mind.  I listen to the stories I’m creating—“Why do they always pick on ME?  How can I get revenge?  What clever hurtful thing can I shout right now?”  As I watch the illusion I’m creating, it begins to fade and in a short time the anger has completely evaporated.  It may take fifteen or twenty minutes, but it won’t rule my life for days, years, or a lifetime.

I’ve always heard the advice to leave everything to God.  But we so often say this and then fall asleep.  Later we find that nothing has changed and God is still waiting for us to wake up.  I could talk for hours about the number of times I’ve been able to tell the Troublemaker to take a vacation, and soon some insight or the solution to some problem pops up as if by magic.  And as much as I’d love to take the credit, it wasn’t ME who did this.

So why did it take me so long to learn this?  It didn’t. But we live in a culture of people way more neurotic than you or I, and we don’t get much support for insights that go against the status quo.  When my daughter was about three, I was trying to get her to pick up her toys so we could go out.  She was screaming; I was getting more and more angry.  I realized that I wanted to hurt her, and suddenly I realized that I wanted to kill her, to do away with her altogether.  It was a shock to see clearly this horrible capability in myself, yet in seeing my dark side for the illusion it really was, I suddenly completely relaxed, aware that my sole responsibilty was in being able to respond…to any situation with wisdom, compassion and without judgement.  But when she suddenly relaxed, and began happily picking up her toys, there was no-one at hand to say, “Yes!  That’s it! That’s all you need to know about how to live.”

Pope John the 23rd once remarked, “It often happens that I wake at night and begin to think about a serious problem, and decide I must tell the Pope about it.  Then I wake up completely, and I remember—I am the Pope.”

“And then I wake up completely.”  I think that this is what we as Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Agnostics, Atheists—we as Human Beings—are called upon to do.  And I can testify that you don’t have to spend twenty years in a monastery to embark on this path.  We only need to dedicate ourselves to looking up from our busy lives once or twice or a hundred times a day, and entertain the possibility that what we all seek, just might be…right here [the heart]…right now.

Post Script: It is ironic that a week before our Rector—the Reverend Karin Wade—asked if I wanted to do this, I had announced to my therapist that “I’ve given up on trying to save the world”—a decision that seemed to delight her.  Perhaps our best intentions never take flight until we let them go.
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