Friday, January 19, 2018

Doing and Worth (January 14, 2018)


I love to get things done. I love that feeling of satisfaction I get when I complete a task- anything from folding a load of laundry to sending my column off to the editor of the Daily Review. Every year before the annual meeting I make this big long list of things we did together during the past year, and I feel proud of how much we do together.

Early in my ministry the size of that list felt important to me; I could prove my worth to my congregation with the many things I had done. The San Francisco Bay Area is a very busy place, and I felt swept up in a tide of busyness. Sometimes I swam on it purposefully, sometimes I barely kept up and sometimes it swept me under. Everyone felt this tide, and I think we all believed that this was the natural state of things. “I know you’re very busy reverend, but could I set up a meeting with you?” It made me feel relevant, part of the forward motion of progress.

It’s taken me 20 years of ministry to realize that non-doing together is just as important to a spiritual community as doing. Just because one meeting ends at 2:00 doesn’t mean you ought to schedule a second meeting at 2. If our goal as a congregation were to hold the maximum number of meetings, that would be very efficient. But it turns out some important things happen after a meeting ends. Questions get asked, the meeting gets digested, we stretch and move our long-sitting bodies, people catch up about one another’s lives. If I’m really being intentional about non-doing, I’ll go spend some time meditating, or just staring blankly into space. Like a weaver finishing a garment, ends need to get tied in, tools put away, the finished work celebrated and enjoyed before resetting the loom for a new piece. So it is with our less tangible work- our bodies, minds and spirits need that spaciousness. There are benefits to creating a little emptiness before filling up again with the next task, the next meeting. I always knew in theory that how we did things mattered at least as much as how many things we did, especially in religious community. What I’m finally learning, after 20 years, is how much non-doing it takes to give the “doing” the right quality of attention.

Our spiritual Direction group is a great example of this. We start with an optional half hour of silence, and people come into the circle and sit as they are ready. Each person gets a change to speak, and between each person we leave a period of silence. Some of us love the silence, some of find the silence difficult, but all of us seem to agree that the quality of the sharing and the quality of the listening is really special. Like a margin around a page of words, the empty white space helps us notice and focus on what is special, what is important.

Last summer, after I attended the last meeting, preached the last sermon and turned on the vacation reply on my e-mail, I didn’t know quite what to do with myself. Instead of trying to fill up my schedule with the long list of household chores that had been neglected in the rush to the end of the church year, I took the weekend really off. I decided that aside from the daily chores, I was only going to do things I really wanted to do so I sat and listened for that inner voice- what do I want to do? “I don’t want to do anything” came the petulant reply. So I sat on the front porch and read and started at a tree. I tried again later “what do I really want to do?” “nothing- Just want to go to bed” At the time I was worried- had I lost my joy in life? Was I sinking into a great depression? But I went and took a nap. By day 3 I was sitting in mediation when it hit me- I really did need to do nothing. I really did just need to catch up on my sleep. How lovely it was to have time to read a page of my book, and then let it rest on my lap as I watched the squirrels scamper through my tree. By day 4 what I really wanted was to mop my long neglected kitchen floor.

Clearly a balance is needed between doing and non-doing. We have to somehow feed and shelter ourselves every day, diapers changed, bridges built. But our American culture is out of balance. “Productivity” and “growth (numeric growth that is) are seen always positive things. But look at our landfills- we live in a society that is producing more than we can digest. It might be better for quarterly profit reports to produce more, but I think our bodies, our hearts, our eco-system could really benefit from a little more non-doing.

A few years back, a delegation of workers from the garment industry in Haiti came to speak in Ithaca, and the workers explained that even though there was a new minimum wage, few workers got it. For example our speaker was in charge of 2 seams on t-shirts. His quota was 300 dozen per day, which broke down to 900 seams per hour . So you could make minimum wage ONLY if you met that standard. Otherwise you had to stay late and finish up your minimum when you were off the clock. Folks who had never personally worked at piecing garments, had determined “production targets”[i]. When the labor activists questioned the garment industry executives they would say only “that number is an industry standard of production.” The human body, the human being actually producing those t-shirts is not relevant. If you can’t keep up you can’t feed your family.

As Gillian Giles said in today’s reading, our productivity and our worth are tied tightly together in our culture. Time spent not being productive is called “wasted time.” Giles talks poignantly about the pain of living inside a body that can’t “do” at the same breakneck pace. Whether you are worker making t-shirts, a student doing arithmetic problems, or a doctor whose insurance company has decided they need to see a new patient every 7 minutes[ii] we are rewarded and punished based on “how many” and “how quickly.” Even the folks at the top of their field, meeting and exceeding quotas experience the toll of this way of valuing life. And for folks whose bodies and minds can’t, our society seems to say they have no worth.


The first of our UU principles is “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, (some would say every being). This is one of the most radical assertions of UU, and when we really sink down into it, is one of the most challenging for us to understand and reconcile with the world we see around us. It’s one thing to accept the statement intellectually, but sometimes every person wonders- even me?

In this room on any given Sunday we have a great variety of human capacities. We have folks who are able to enjoy a long vigorous hike, and folks for whom walking from their car into the sanctuary is a challenge. Not with us today are folks who were not able to get out of their beds, folks who need sign language interpretation, and we usually don’t have folks who can’t drive, because this area is designed for people with ready access to a car.

In this room with us today are folks who are right in the heart of their working years- who work for a paycheck most days. We are also people who are having trouble finding work, folks who have retired but stay busy, folks who are frustrated that they can’t do what they used to do, what they want to do, and we have youngsters who have not yet grown into the capacities that will someday be theirs.

And though we all generally covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all those kinds of people in all their capacities, sometimes there is a place inside us where we don’t believe it. A place inside where we feel like we have to earn our worth by striving and doing. But the word “inherent” means that it is woven right into us. It is part of our essential nature, part of who we are. [iii] Saying that each and every one of us has inherent worth is a theological statement- it’s not a science statement we can prove from data (as far as I know) It is an idea that comes from our Universalist heritage- that as Hosea Ballou wrote:
Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82)
Or for folks who are not so sure about this “god” business, there is something special about life itself. Every bit of it. The more we learn about the web of life, the more we see the subtle ways life supports and nurtures itself. An older tree in a grove gifts its very life substance to the younger trees around it, even as it is dying. When foresters tidy up the seemly unnecessary tree, a tree nearby, used to its support, fall over in the next storm. Every time we animals inhale and exhale we help maintain the careful balance of gasses in the air necessary for life. We don’t always know our impact or our use, but our first principle encourages us to have faith that our worth is something we are born with, it can’t be separated from us.

Try to call to mind a time when doing nothing was exactly the right thing to do….
  • Do you remember just doing nothing with your friends when you were a kid? Wasn’t that awesome? Aren’t you glad you did that?
  • Consider the joy a smiling baby gives, doing nothing at all but radiating life.
  • Even at work doing nothing is sometimes best; often when we are in meetings together I feel I must come up with the information, an answer for the question at hand. And if I can just wait, just refrain from speaking for a moment or two, someone else has a much better idea than the one I had on the tip of my tongue.
  • And when you are angry is a great time for non-doing, it can be very compassionate to the folks around you.
  • How often have I been glad I put down whatever I was doing and gave my full attention to my son, or a sound of a bird chirping, or the way the light filtered through a tree.
Doing is important, but for a healthy self and a healthy world it must be balanced by non-doing. Your life is valuable both when you are checking things off your do list, and when you are watching the snow fall. Your life has worth whether or not you are contributing to the Gross National Product. As the river of busyness sweeps you along, I challenge you to remember that doing is not the only worthy way to use our time, that sometimes just being is the perfect thing to do. More importantly- I challenge you to remember that from the moment a life is born until and even after it is gone, it is precious. As we grow into and out of our diverse capacities, know that we are all worthy.


End notes:
[i] Sweat Free Worker Tour of Ithaca 2013. For more about quotas read:
https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/03/11/work-faster-or-get-out/labor-rights-abuses-cambodias-garment-industry

[ii] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/04/20/doctor-visits-time-crunch-health-care/7822161/
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/22/opinion/the-doctor-will-see-you-for-exactly-seven-minutes.html
https://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2014/05/10-minutes-doctor.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/what-ive-learned-from-my-tally-of-757-doctor-suicides/2018/01/12/b0ea9126-eb50-11e7-9f92-10a2203f6c8d_story.html?utm_term=.db8e9edcb974

[iii] “involved in the constitution or essential character of something : belonging by nature or habit : intrinsic”https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/inherent

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What Mary Knew (December 3, 2017)


Readings
This particular Sunday, the minister asked us to join hands and to slowly start chanting “Om.” The resonance of the chant and the joy of belonging once again to a spiritual community made me feel, just for a second or two, as if my body had disappeared and I was lifted from the earth. In that momentary state of utter nothingness, I had a very clear and complete realization. I totally understood one thing: that we are all one. In that instant I knew that the whole universe is a seamless tapestry of people, animals, vegetables, rocks, and more—all sustained and nurtured by the Great Mystery. In the midst of this knowing, a voice said clearly, “For a moment like this, it was worth having been born.” The power of that essential awareness ended my feelings of isolation. I knew I was one with the universe and with all that is and that I must use my gifts to contribute to the welfare of all.
—Rev. Lilia Cuervo, Cambridge, MA

It happened unexpectedly, unsought . . . on an ordinary “ho-hum” day. On that crisp Spring morning I sat, alone, pondering the immense power and timelessness of the sea. After a while, the roar of the crashing waves, the kiss of the salty breeze on my face, the coolness of the sand beneath me, and all else in my conscious awareness just floated away. An overwhelming peacefulness embraced my whole being. In that moment, an intense experience of Self merging profoundly with what I have come to name The Spirit of Life was the entirety of all I sensed.
Our Transcendentalist forefathers and foremothers, process theologians, and others affirm such experiences as genuine. I have never doubted the authenticity of this deeply intimate spiritual experience. I carry with me the truth that we are interwoven in one intricate fabric of existence. We are all good. We are One.
— Rev. Christine Riley,

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary[a] said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
-- Luke 1:39-55 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Sermon

Mary is a controversial figure in the Unitarian tradition For some rationalists, the idea of the virgin birth is an example of everything that is wrong with religion. Many sermons have been preached and essays written about whether you can have a religious faith without miracles. I grew up in a UU church, and this was literally the only thing we ever discussed about Mary.

As I became interested in feminist theology, Mary took on new importance because here are so few important women in the Christian Tradition, and she came to embody the divine feminine in many cultures. We can’t afford to silence any of the rare female voices in our Judeo-Christian Tradition. Fortunately, as we consider the Mary we meet in the Gospel of Luke, we do so in our UU tradition, which views scripture not as a literal accounting historical events, but as poetry, as story, so I invite you to enter into the text today with me with that spirit. Almost by definition religious experience defies description. So we resort to poetry to gesture evoke a numinous experience. The story of Mary, as told in the Gospel of Luke, is one such story.

When we imagine the journey toward the divine, there are many conflicting ideas about what we might find if we came close enough. Many conflicting ideas about where the spiritual path ultimately leads. We may think of the hermit on his mountain top, away from worldly things, who meditates for 40 days with only his acolytes to come wet his lips with water every so often. We think of our own peak moments, like those experiences described in this morning’s readings, and we imagine that folks who are close to the divine must feel that blissful content feeling all the time.

Consider the religious imagery we see in the great religious artists, the glow of the saints, surrounded by angels, draped in beauty. At this time of year are surrounded by such images.
Luke 2 “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven”
Because most of us have never seen or heard an angel such as the artists portray them in beautiful paintings, we think religious experiences are things that happen to other people. We probably don’t think of comparing a moment of wholeness and peace staring at the ocean, or the profound bliss and connection to the cycle of life we might experience staring into the eyes of a newborn. but as Rev. Christine Riley Says: “Our Transcendentalist forefathers and foremothers, process theologians, and others affirm such experiences as genuine.” a “deeply intimate spiritual experience”

Anyone in the catholic tradition would affirm that Mary comes as close to God as just about any person could be. An angel visits Mary and says to her “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her relative Elizabeth greets her cousin with the words, “Blessed are you among women” And when I listened to the words of this story while on a recent retreat, after a weekend of silence, worship, meditation, contemplation, prayer, I was struck by how Mary responds in what must be surely a peak religious experience of her life. It begins as one might imagine:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
In our UU community, we have many names for the divine (and Lord is not often a favorite, because it’s so patriarchal) but whatever name we would choose to speak in gratitude at one of those peak moments, I think our first thought might be the same- thank you for this beautiful gift of a moment, thank you Spirit of life, thank you random chance in the universe, I feel so blessed to have this moment. Gratitude is a common response to mystical experience

But then, as I listened to this poem, I heard something I’d never paid attention to before:
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

In her song of praise, a full ¼ is praising God as one who brings down the powerful and lifts the lowly, who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. We could easily understand if Mary got a little full of herself- she is called “blessed among women” after all. An angel appeared to her and spoke to her- and now, at least in metaphor, she is full of the spirit of God, she is gestating the divine. One interpretation of this passage is a reminder of the importance of humility in the Contemplative tradition. Just as UU minister Christine Riley “sat, alone, pondering the immense power and timelessness of the sea.” When we open ourselves to the vastness of all that is, we decentralize our own small self- the self-image that seems so important to us in our daily dramas loosens a bit and we are able to see a bigger picture. When put down our own self importance, we are more open to “that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Some weeks after Mary’s mystical experience, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. I imagine that if you had been visited by angels, it would be easy to become overwhelmed with your own self-importance, to see yourself as better, wiser, more important than other people after an experience of this kind, but humility reminds us of our place in the whole of things. Mary’s song illustrates that she is not only able to stay grounded but she remembers those who are hungry, and she remembers the imbalance of power. When we are called to bring forth the spirit of life into the world, justice is part of what we are called to bring forth. As Lillia Cuervo wrote: “The power of that essential awareness ended my feelings of isolation. I knew I was one with the universe and with all that is and that I must use my gifts to contribute to the welfare of all. “[i]

Sometimes the spiritual journey, the inward journey are criticized as being self-centered naval gazing, and indeed it can be. It’s easy to use it as an escape from the world. We walk in the woods to let go of the bad news both local and global. We sit on the meditation cushion as a sanctuary form the difficult part s of life. There’s a danger to this- it’s called “spiritual bypass”- this is a term I just learned recently the "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks".[1] It was first used by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. This term usually refers to personal, psychological issues, but I think we can see examples of using spirituality to bypass dealing with unresolved issues, tasks and wounds in the larger world.

But ours is one of many traditions, many teachers who believe that the spiritual path, if it is true, leads us inward, leads us to the spirit, only to lead us outward again to the healing of the world. In this song, Mary has identified 2 things, as praiseworthy manifestations of divine power. One is an equalizing asymmetrical systems: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” [You expect to see this kind of line in the books of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures- it is a major theme for them. So maybe the writer of Luke’s gospel is linking her back to the prophets, to say that Mary, and the child she is carrying, stand in that prophetic tradition. ] By attributing to the divine the quality of raising the lowly and bringing down the powerful, Mary is saying a pretty revolutionary thing. Christianity is used by so many of the ruling class to bolster their claim to power, to validate and enforce the status quo, that’s why it was so moving to me -- to hear the widely venerated Mary praise the revolutionary aspect of divine power made me stop and look again.

Some of you will remember that one of our current UU Study Action Issues is about escalating inequality. It says in part: “Our Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition places its faith in people to create a more loving community for all, guided by ‘justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.’ Challenging extreme inequality has now become a moral imperative…”[ii] In our UU tradition we believe that if something is sacred, as Mary here is implying that rebalancing power is sacred, then our role as humans is to be co-creators with the spirit of life, to magnify the spirit of life. In this case, we are encouraged participate in raising up the “lowly” which each of us may feel called to do in many ways. You could say that in a culture based on white supremacy that working to dismantle white privilege is a way of bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Working for racial justice is a way of co-creating with the spirit of life. Or take this tax bill just passed by the senate- Every analyst agrees that this will mostly reduce taxes for the top 1%[iii] The only argument is about whether cutting taxes for the rich will lead to ballooning growth, or a ballooning deficit. So while most of our cultural images suggest that the best way to honor the nativity is to shop and decorate our homes, one way to interpret this passage of the bible is to celebrate the season is by calling your congress person to let them know how you feel about the tax bill, or by going out into the social hall after service and writing a postcard to your US Senators and telling them what it means to you to co-create a just world. [iv] And when your friends ask you want you’re doing for the holidays, you can say you are raising up the lowly and bringing down the powerful.

The other thing Mary lifts up is the needs of the hungry: “53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In her poem of praise, she acknowledges our hunger. Many bible commentators flip immediately to spiritual hunger. Certainly all humans have experienced a yearning, a hunger in their hearts … for wholeness, for connection. As Augustine wrote “restless is the heart until it rests in thee.” This is a reasonable point for religion to make. Consider the tv commercials we see this time of year, the one suggesting that this electronic gadget, this toy, and definitely a luxury car can finally fill that emptiness, sooth that restlessness. The spiritual point of view, however, sees that no material status, no material gain will satisfy that deep soul hunger. A good message for all of us in the “holiday shopping season.”

At the same time, to talk about feeding spiritual hunger without acknowledging the true fact that there are millions of people hungry in the world right now shows a kind of willful blindness. That’s why this is such a natural time of year to give to foodbanks and charities that support folks who are struggling. I’m so grateful to Judy for setting up our congregational service tomorrow with Food For Thought - at Lynch Bustin Elementary to pack up “ nutritional meals to students in need of food over weekends and school vacations throughout the school year”. For those of us who don’t experience hunger on a regular basis, it’s easy to loose site of the fact that according to the United nations “Globally, one in nine people in the world today (795 million) are undernourished” [v]

This advent season is traditionally one where Christians are invited into a time of inward contemplation, In the Catholic tradition Advent is a time of emptiness, a time of waiting. For observant Catholics, this means waiting to welcome spiritual light of the Christ Child into the world. But whether or not we identify as Christian, whether we are theists, atheists or agnostics, this time of darkness invites us to turn inward, to let go of the constraints of our individual dramas and striving, opening ourselves to that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; opening ourselves to the larger oneness of all that is, with gratitude, with humility. Not so that we can escape our troubles, but so that when we are drawn back out into the world we find our part in the divine work of lifting up the lowly; and filling the hungry with good things.

Endnotes
[i] http://www.uuabookstore.org/Assets/PDFs/3117.pdf
http://www.uuabookstore.org/UU-Mystical-Experiences-P18005.aspx
[ii] https://www.uua.org/economic/escalatinginequality/csai
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfHjzp0PxMI
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/26/senate-gop-tax-bill-hurts-the-poor-more-than-originally-thought-cbo-finds/?utm_term=.a08faf2de249
[iv] http://bit.ly/2jels7S UUs for Social Justice “Say no to fake tax reform”
[v] http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Expectation and Reality (November 19, 2017)


I imagine that many of us have plans for Thanksgiving. We probably have some picture in our minds of where we are going, and who will be there, and maybe even what food we will eat. And if you don’t yet know how you will be spending this coming Thursday, I would not be surprised if that caused a little anxiety. This is the way of holiday traditions; the stories and images, memories and expectations of “what Thanksgiving looks like” layer and harden like that magic shell ice cream topping.

So I would suggest that actually, most of us don’t really know “what we’re doing” for Thanksgiving this Thursday. Like the family in our children’s story, we may have expectations of turkey, salad, mashed potatoes and pie, but the reality may be something else. The family in the story made an amazing about-face from a thanksgiving dinner which could easily be called disappointing, and might be called “ruined” to embracing the reality of the situation and being present with one another in that radically unexpected reality.

I think we’ve all had our expectations dashed at one holiday or another. I don’t have a lot of extended family, so even if Gramma and Grampa and Uncle Don and our friend Mr. Hockenberry were all there for Thanksgiving dinner when I was growing up, it wasn’t a big crowd. But even on years when it was Mom and Dad and Me and my sister, mom would still get out all the good china and the heirloom serving dishes and work for 2 days to make all the traditional dishes from scratch, and then we would sit down to… well, just us, but tired and grumpy from having cooked for 2 days. I can still remember the feeling of emptiness after one such dinner- not even home-made pumpkin pie with whipped cream from scratch served on the fancy china could fill the hole left by Gramma and Grampa, could fill the hole between my expectation- that Thanksgiving is a holiday for extended family, and lively conversation and visitors – and my reality, that it was just us 4, and we were all a little sad and grumpy.

One of Homo sapiens’ special gifts is our capacity to imagine a future we can’t see. It helps us store up food for the winter, it helped us invent the smart phone, and it helps us plan a Thanksgiving dinner. Our expectations help us function as a culture. The grocery store or local farmer’s market expects that I will give them money in exchange for my thanksgiving groceries. I expect that I will open up my home to family and friends for dinner, and I expect when I go to dinner as a guest I will bring a bottle of wine or a sweet potato casserole. This happens hundreds of times every day that we don’t notice- Sun rose in the morning- check. Car still out front where I parked it- check. Other drivers stopped at the red light- check. So we are actually pretty good at knowing what to expect, but when our expectations are confounded, when our expectations are different from the reality of the present moment, we have choices to make.

Imagine 2 meandering paths running alongside one another, sometimes side by side, sometimes crossing, and sometimes diverging widely. One is the story we are telling ourselves about how our day is going to go, about how our life should go, about what we are doing for thanksgiving. The other line is our actual lived reality. I often don’t even notice how much I have my eyes glued to the path that represents my expectations. I am so invested in that path that when reality diverges, I will cling with all my might to the path of expectation, waiting for reality to meet our expectations, striving to bend reality back into union with our expectation, instead of joining reality where it is. We choose which path to take in every moment.

For example, this summer I went to see one of my favorite bands, the Decembrists. It was a sold out show, and I looked forward to it for weeks. As we walked to the theater I was so full of excitement I said to my husband “I can’t believe this is actually happening!” The band started with some new songs I didn’t know, and the lead singer was having some trouble with his gear. (Never use a wireless pick up- said my husband from the seat next to me- they always fail when you need them) The crowd was restless, and during the quiet moments in the music would whistle or hoot or yell out requests. Everyone could kind of tell that things were not going according to plan. I, ever the optimist, was determined to hang on to the vision I had in my head. This was going to be great- it would be great any moment. Finally as they played one of my favorite songs and I still didn’t feel that ebullient joy I had expected to feel, the light dawned. We had all had a certain expectation about what this show would be- what this very expensive, much anticipated, sold out show would be, would feel like, and the reality was something different.

Suddenly it occurred to me- if I wasn’t enjoying the show, I might as well practice mindfulness- the practice of constantly returning my attention to the reality of this moment we are actually living in right now. Right then and there, I began trying to bring my attention into the present moment. It resisted. I tried again. “But,” said the part of me so attached to my expectation, “if really let go of my vision and embrace reality I’d have to admit I am disappointed.” Okay. I thought. Let’s do it. I believe in reality, I believe there is a benefit to being in the present moment, let’s give it a try. A wave of sadness rose up in the space between me and the present moment -- almost like a wall dividing my expectations from reality. I was going to have to pass through that wall of sadness; I was going to have to grieve or somehow release my expectations. Okay, that’s another practice I’ve been working on- to let myself feel whatever I’m actually feeling. So I entered that feeling of disappointment. As I did, I thought- why do we go to live shows? They will never be as perfect as the tracks meticulously layed down and recorded on the album. We go to live shows because we want to witness the reality of these musicians, these human beings in the flesh, making music for and with us. The reality is that making music is hard. Sometimes your gear doesn’t work, sometimes the crowd hoots in the quiet parts, and doesn’t like your new songs. Sometimes it’s the first night of your tour, and things don’t go as you planned. The reason to go to a live show is to share a totally unique moment that has never happened before and will never happen again. And finally I dropped into the reality of that present moment. It was actually a pretty good moment.

Let’s take a pause now, together, to arrive in this moment. One way to do this is just to start with something small, like your hands. If you put your hands on your legs, you can feel the air across the back of your hands. You can feel the warmth of your legs under your hands. You can feel the reality of your hands, right now in this unique moment. Notice whatever arises with a non-judgmental compassionate awareness… When your mind wanders off, just notice and gently bring it back… back here to this moment…Back here to the lived reality of the moment we are sharing together.

Notice if you have any expectations of yourself or of the moment, and notice how those differ from your actual experience…

Here are a few things I’ve noticed from my own experience of this practice:

First of all, I spend very little time in the present moment. Apparently I focus most of my attention planning for and anticipating the future.

Second, trying harder doesn’t seem to help. If I’m “trying” I’ve created a story about what “should” happen, a goal to strive for. The goal is on that “expectation” path, dividing my attention from what is really happening. All I can do is notice what I’m thinking, notice what I’m feeling, and gently allow my attention to come back to this present moment whenever that is available to me. The present moment can seem like a shy kitten who will go hide if it feels pursued, but might come sit near you if you just wait quietly and patiently.

Third, it helps if I start with the premise that I can’t do it wrong. If I notice I have expectations that I SHOULD be able to be in the present moment, and I begin evaluating and judging and analyzing myself, now I’m even further from the present moment than when I started, that kitten is hiding in the attic by now. But if I notice my expectations and feelings and thoughts non-judgmentally, without expectation, without trying to decide if they are right or wrong, if I just notice them with compassion and curiosity, I increase my availability to reality. Because even the thought “this is lame and difficult, this shouldn’t be so hard” is a real thought, if that is indeed what is arising, so noticing it non-judgmentally allows us to stay on the path of reality.

Fourth, just because it doesn’t feel good doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. If you are trying to be present with the reality that you are lying in bed with the flu, you are still going to feel whatever symptoms your body is feeling. But if you notice and then let go your expectation that you SHOULD be at work, or whatever you were expecting to be doing right now instead of this, you may notice something shift in how you feel. It might feel freer, lighter, not as overwhelming, but don’t take my word for it, I don’t want to create expectations about how things might change- it will be different every time.

Fourth- reality is pretty interesting. I like to practice paying attention to reality when I’m bored, because I’m always saying I don’t have enough time for my spiritual practice, so why not use some scrap of time I’ve already labeled as boring? Moreover, I’ve found that I sometimes I feel bored because I EXPECT to be bored. I assume waiting in line at the grocery store is boring, that being stuck in traffic will be boring, but if I get curious about this moment, there’s often a lot going on in my body, my mind, my feelings, or in the world around me. That boredom might be a barrier between me and a really interesting moment I might have missed. Or it might be a barrier I put up because underneath I was starting to feel something challenging, a restlessness, a sadness, a frustration. I will leap out of my own experience of lived reality onto that other path- the path of expectation and imagination, as an escape from feeling that thing that might be difficult.

Why stay present with a difficult moment? Because reality always wins. We can escape momentarily into our imaginings of what Thanksgiving dinner should be, but if this is the year when everyone is a bit sad because Pop Pop’s not there, I believe there is a value to letting that sadness be part of our time together. In my experience, when I’m able to feel the reality of a moment that is difficult, instead of flying away from it in my mind to an alternate timeline where this moment is not sad, I free up a lot of energy I was using to keep my expectations alive. Now I can invest that energy in this real moment we are living. And if it’s a difficult moment, maybe that energy could be useful for healing, for connecting, for choosing navigating the moment with integrity and wisdom. If I decide to open myself up to the reality of the present moment, I no longer have to manufacture a wall to hide from the parts of reality that contradict my expectations.

Please don’t confuse reality with what I used to call “realism.” After being disappointed so many times, I cynically decided that I would always expect the worst, and then I could be presently surprised. This is the other side of the same coin however. If we always expect the worst, we may be more available for unpleasant experiences, but we may close ourselves off to what our heart really wants. Something beautiful and unexpected might happen, but our magic shell of expectations keeps us from being open to the experience. What are you doing this Thanksgiving? Allow whatever pictures and feelings come to mind to come, and just notice those expectations, give them a smile. Probably you are right about a lot of that, but inevitably reality will also contain something unexpected. As we move into the holiday season, I invite you to notice, with a non-judgmental compassionate awareness, when expectations and reality diverge. Let us hold our expectations loosely where we are able, and look for opportunities to be present with reality as it is unfolding, because that is where life is.