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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Sermon on Uncertainty

Jana Svoboda/ Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis/ Aug 21, 2005

Opening words: Poem
If There is the Seed of Something in You

if there is a seed of something in you, and
all you can think is house on a hill,
house on a hill; built by the river and
thank god for the hill-- maybe you
live too close to both safety and danger
to either enlarge or relax. if the
seed needs water, do you resent your choices,
the well you never bothered drilling,
the bucket you let rust? you
look down at the swollen river;
even the river's pregnant, you think,
bursting its confines-- and you, more
like the seed, dry and hard and contained,
but within you some untapped largesse,
something wanting to be wet, and to break open.
from the hill, the river looks dangerous.
you forget that water is just what you need.
                 JLS, May, 2005

In Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, spiritual writer and professional neurotic Anne Lamotte begins: “These are desert days… I feel we began witnessing the end of the world in super-slow-mo...and some days it takes everything I can muster not to lose my hope, my faith, and myself.” I relate closely to her fear, and the paralysis that wants to follow it. She takes her fear to a theologian friend and asks, what can I do? He tells her—“left foot, right foot, breathe”. Because sometimes that is all we can do—sit with our uncertainty, and connect—through our breath—with something deeper and more divine. In the desert, Anne writes, we “know” what we should do. Stay out of the sun. Seek shelter, and safety. The desire to go back, to retreat into nostalgia—the pain for home-- is a natural reaction to dangerous and uncertain times. But courage, as the saying goes, is not being without fear—it is doing what needs to be done despite the fear. 

At a workshop with Jungian psychoanalyst and writer James Hollis, he asked us to rank our values.  What did we see as the most important tasks of our lives? I've done this many times.  But then he asked something else: to estimate how much conscious intent we put towards the items at the top of our list. A middle-aged man remarked: “The top of my list is love and growth. But I realize I spend most of my days just trying to avoid discomfort.”

I believe this is true for many of us. And for some, religion becomes a way of doing that. A hope for easy answers, for formulas: if I do this, that will happen. It is both a hope for the illusion of control and predictability, and a retreat from facing in ourselves and the world that which we cannot know. Rabbi Kushner referred to it as “God as Santa Claus”—we follow the rules, we get the goodies. 

James Hollis talks about these competing agendas living with in us: the drive for growth and actualization, and that for regression-- the wish for “the confident hubris of youth”, and for the familiar and the comfortable. When the desire to go home, to go unconscious prevails, “we will choose not to choose, to rest easy in the saddle, remain amid the familiar and the comfortable, even when it is stultifying and soul-denying… Each morning the twin gremlins of fear and lethargy sit at the foot of our bed and smirk. Fear of the unknown, the challenge of largeness intimidates us back into our convenient rituals.” But he admonishes us: “To be recurrently intimidated by the task of life is a form of spiritual annihilation.”

Hollis continues: “The recovery of personal authority is a daily task imposed upon all of us by the soul. It means to find what is true for oneself and live it in the world. If it is not lived... we abide in what Sartre calls “bad faith, the theologian calls sin the therapist calls neurosis. Respectful of the rights and perspectives of others, personal authority is neither narcissistic nor imperialistic. It is a humble acknowledgment of what wishes to come through us.”  It is also the maturity of realizing we don’t have all the answers. We don’t even have all the questions. “...from this encounter with our limitations the wisdom of humility comes: to know that we do not even know what we do not know.”

And yes—dealing with this will make you anxious. Coming forward always does. Kierkegaard said: move away from what makes you depressed, and toward what makes you anxious. The former is to regress. The latter—scary as it is to leap into unfamiliar territory—is growth.

In Plan B, Lamotte says: “In my experience, there is a lot to be said for desperation. Not exactly a bright side, but something expressed in the word formed by one of the the acronyms for the names of God—gifts of desperation. The main gifts is give up the conviction that you are right, and that God thinks so too, and hates the people who are driving you crazy. And this forces you to listen deeper, with your heart.” This is where we come up with wisdom, instead of information. 

If we are students, and we really want to learn something, it’s best not to steal and memorize the answers-- BBACACC. That’s not knowledge. It’s certainty—but it’s not wisdom. Unitarians have accepted that task as a foundation of our principals: the individual search for truth and meaning. But it’s not unique to us.

Buddhists teach it:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found in written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But when after observation and analysis, you find anything that agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” (from the Kalama Sutra)

And Daoists:
“A tree that is unbending is easily broken. The hard and strong will fall. The soft and yielding will overcome.” -- Tao te ching, 76.

And Confucians:
“To learn and never think—that’s delusion”. Analects 2.15 

The Koran states:
"Do not accept any information unless you verify it for yourself.  I have given you hearing, the eyesight, and the brain, and you are responsible for using them."  Koran 17.36.

Christians, at least in the early church, agreed:
"Test everything. Hold fast to what is good".  I Thessalonians 5.21

But when times get scary, we regress. Like children, we look for external authority. Benedictine Sister Joan Chissiter writes: “We suckle ourselves on clear or comfortable answers because we fear to ask the questions that make the real difference to the quality and content of our souls. The spiritual life begins when we discover that we can only become spiritual adults when we go beyond the answers, beyond the fear of uncertainty, to that great encompassing mystery of life that is God.” Uncertain times are nearly always accompanied by a rise in fundamentalism, and I see it happening now. We divide into us and them, good and bad. This tendency to split, present since birth, becomes urgent. 

Writer and Buddhist Nun Pema Chodrin quotes one of her spiritual teachers, who said, “"The essence of bravery is being without self-deception.” Pema’s favorite mantra is “"Om, grow up!" It takes great courage to meet life on life's terms and accept responsibility for our actions. "To stay with that shakiness -- to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge-- that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic-- that is the spiritual path." It’s also about the very Adult goal of accepting reality and letting go of attempts to control it. Anne Lamotte puts that into her spiritual practice with her morning prayer of “Whatever”, and her evening prayer of “Oh Well.”

Thomas Moore said: “You cannot do good by thinking of yourself as good. You have to sink into the complexities and go down far enough into life that you realize that it is not even good to be good. To do what others may judge as bad may be the best you can do.” (Here I am thinking Rosa Parks). “Certainly you have to admit to your moral ignorance in many matters. Can any one be certain in every design they are doing the right thing?...
Religion often avoids the dark by hiding behind platitudes and false assurances. Avoidance and defense are not the true purpose of religion. It shouldn’t whisk you away from daily challenges but offer an intelligent way of dealing with all the complexity involved.” 

Another Jungian thinker uses the story Jekyll and Hyde to illustrate. Jack Sanford writes: “Striving for a pure goodness results in a pose or self-deception about goodness, a persona. Dr Jekyll had a very big persona and believed in it completely, but wasn’t really good and became compulsive about expressing Hyde. He went to religion, not to find God, but as protection against his own Hyde. Religion often attracts persons struggling to exorcise the shadow rather than understand and make peace with it but what we cannot see in ourselves, we cannot forgive in others.” When otherness takes over, evil takes root.

Jung said “I would rather be whole than good.” Before we ate the apple, we were a thoughtless people. We were a GOOD people, but not by choice. We were thoughtless.

Christianity has seen evil as something that destroys the soul-- but originally the tradition recognized we carried both, and the Bible said —“For the good that I would, I do not; but the evil which I would not do, that I do.” Knowing we are capable of evil and no different helps us to choose. It also helps us to understand that “Ain’t No Man Righteous”, as Bob Dylan says. And if that’s true, we are all in this together. Being without self-deception, and seeing our own capacity for evil, we then can responsibly manage it rather than act it our or project it into the world. When we don't accept our contradictions, we act them out. When we turn away from our true natures-- even those we are uncomfortable with-- we are asking others to act them out for us.

Part of the work is in learning to sit with our discomfort without reaction. To just be with it. if we are lonely, to be lonely. If we are angry, to see our anger. Not to feel we have to manage it, do something with it, or even change it. When we are sad and someone starts to tell us all we have to be happy about, we feel compelled to defend our sadness, and explain why they are wrong. The shadow must have that same instinct of self-preservation. Perhaps the battle is in befriending it. Not feeding it, but not turning away from it either. Just sitting with it. Like Jesus sitting with the sinners. 

Given the burden and gift of thinking and choice, we may want to regress to certainty. We are pattern-seekers. We want to know. But often knowing, or thinking we know, prevents us from seeing what is truly there. There is a Buddhist sutra that says: Protect me from the disaster of my own thinking. Realizing we don’t have all the answers may prevent us from uninformed decisions, or worse yet, stuckness in our thinking. We need to allow ourselves the bravery of loosening our grip on what we believe to be true to find even deeper questions. Maybe, in sitting with the mystery we’ll find what for us is true. 

Closing Words: Rilke, from letters to a young poet.
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your
heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like
locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.
Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given
to you because you could not live them. It is a question
of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.
Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it,
find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

1 comment:

Shelly said...

I read this at least once a week. Thank you for this.