In the middle of the night
a switch flips in the brain
and the mind wakes up.
Nothing’s to be done—
the body still prone
when the inevitable
I wander vast distances
in helpless search of
an object of obligation—
some forgotten bone
in dire need
of further consideration.
It’s a lonely life
the long spaces
of these dark matters.
Morning always comes
by surprise, the digits
of the clock having jumped
ahead while I swear I
haven’t slept a wink.
Yet a faint dream lingers
as I stumble through the
half-light toward daily life.
Yesterday morning, as I was driving to the Harvard Unitarian Universalist church to offer the Sunday worship sermon, I listened to NPR on the radio. They were giving a summary of Trump’s first week as President. They reported on his executive orders to begin building the wall, to place an immediate stay on entry to the US from a number of countries, and to elevate the power of Steve Bannon’s position. None of these actions surprised me, but all of them disheartened me.
Arriving at the church, where I have often preached before, people were happy to see me and several said they really needed to hear what I had to say in these disturbing times. I had spent several hours preparing my remarks, but felt totally inadequate to the task at hand. How could I comfort and reassure people when I myself was feeling disturbed and overwhelmed?
Having few good options, I began speaking about what was actually going on for me. ‘This is how it is for me this morning.’ I acknowledged that others might be feeling this way too. And that others were certainly feeling other ways as well. I guess this is where we always have to begin. How is it for me right in this moment? What is the state of my inner world? Am I fearful and discouraged? Hopeful and energized? Empty and dull? What is actually so in this moment?
When we take the time to acknowledge the weather conditions of our inner world, several things happen. First, we don’t have to fight it anymore. Most of us would like to feel good all the time, so when we feel something else, we tend to ignore it, fight it or try to fix it. All this takes energy. When we are able to admit where we are, it can often be a relief – it’s just where we are. We don’t have to like it, but we don’t have to waste energy pretending or fighting or fixing.
The other possibility that comes with being present to the state of our self is the opportunity to see that what we feel (and think) is never just one thing. In taking the time to appreciate what is here, we begin to see that even in discouragement, there may be other kinds of energies as well. There may be anger or sadness. Or some faint glimmers of possibilities and hope. Or some energies that we have never quite noticed before.
When we pay this kind of attention, we can also begin to see for ourselves that our world of feeling, thought and experience is constantly changing. We are part of the vast perpetual motion of life. Just like the weather on our blue-green planet of life, our inner weather is always moving and changing. The clouds cover the sky and drop piles of snow, then the sun shines bright. The strong wind comes in the morning, then dies down to a breathless evening.
So I began my sermon from where I was and somehow found my way. I was touched to find myself together in community and to speak the truth as best I could. Others said it was useful.
I am always surprised and grateful.
Tonight, January 2nd, we begin our annual three-week retreat, the Coming and Going Sesshin, here at Boundless Way Temple. The tradition of setting a particular part of the year for intensive study and practice honors the spirit of the Buddha’s three-month rainy season practice with his disciples.
Here at the Temple, we will be keeping a ‘sesshin’ schedule. (Sesshin is a Zen meditation training retreat.) We alternate periods of sitting and walking throughout the day. There are dharma talks, individual meetings, work practice periods and chanting. Like all sesshin, we will hold silence throughout most of the retreat. We won’t be writing or reading or facebooking or texting. These practices are a way of simplifying our lives to allow us to be more present to ourselves and to our experience of each moment.
Going to sesshin is always a wondrous and challenging opportunity. In the silence and stillness, we work together to support a profound turning toward the source of life—toward the aliveness of each moment. This form of practice is both deeply personal and, at the same time, essentially communal. We support and rely on each other in the silence. We are alone together.
One of the things that distinguishes our Coming and Going Sesshin is that we allow participants to join in for any part of it that is possible for them. Some people are coming for the whole three-weeks, others just for several days. Others will come for just a few periods of practice in the afternoon or before or after work. You are welcome to come by the Temple for any practice period whenever you can. If you would like to stay overnight and join the retreat for a day or more simply, register here.
I would also invite everyone reading this to join with our retreat right where you are by finding some way to deepen your spiritual practice over the next three weeks. What is it that reminds you of what is most holy and sacred in your life? What is the practice that brings you back to your heart? Your practice might be meditation or prayer. It might be reading or walking in the woods—attending church, knitting sox or writing in your journal. Whatever you do that moves you closer to God, I encourage you to do just a little more than usual these next three weeks. And as you do your practice, know that you are joining with us. You are not alone.
For myself, I won’t be reading my beloved New York Times or doing this morning writing practice of exploring and sharing. I will be giving myself over to the daily rhythms of Zen meditation practice—doing my best to meet and appreciate each moment as it arises. No need to keep track of the journey nor to pursue purity and holiness. Just this. The teaching of Zen is that what we are longing for, the peace that passes understanding, is already here—in each moment. I vow to trust more deeply this constant arising life in all its manifestations and to meet what appears as the way itself.
May our practice together be of service to the world in this difficult time.
I went to a New Year’s Eve gathering for peace last night. Sponsored by the Center for Non-violent Solutions, the First Unitarian Church of Worcester and the Islamic Center of Worcester, it featured short remarks by a number of local clergy (including Rev. Melissa Myozen Blacker) and professors of non-violence on the topic of how to practice peace in our everyday lives.
I was touched by two themes. The first is the possibility and perhaps the necessity of taking to the streets in the coming year. This year may require many of us to stand up and show up in new ways. We may be asked to join with each other to forcefully speak out against injustice and to stand with those who are being targeted by the government or other forces. There is power in joining together. There is power in action.
The second theme is the importance of reaching out across the lines that divide us. It’s so easy to slip into a bifurcated world of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ One speaker suggested the practice of looking around at the next gathering we attend. ‘If everyone you see looks like you, you’re living in a bubble,’ she said. Of course, we all live in a bubble, but perhaps, this year, we can intentionally reach beyond the invisible walls of our seclusion and build bridges to the other people in the world.
If we’re just nice to people who are like us, we inadvertently but decisively contribute to deepening sectarian divides. Another speaker mentioned that God’s instruction in the torah is not about loving our parents or children or neighbors, but about loving ‘the stranger.’ We don’t get credit for being nice to the people who are nice to us. Everyone does that. But to reach out to the stranger, the one without power and status, the one who has no voice; this is the work of peace.
Without intention, we just drift along and, more than ever, the status quo is not neutral.. As the great activist and historian Howard Zinn suggested in the title of his inspiring book on resistance and social action: You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train.
So on this first day of the year, while the morning light is just beginning to grace the eastern sky, I once again vow to take up the way of Saint Francis. May I be an instrument of peace. I feel so inadequate to the task, but pray that my thoughts, my words, and my actions may ever so slightly incline the world away from the perpetuation of violence and greed and move us all toward the glimmering possibility justice and awakening.