There is No Try

Three weeks ago, I preached, “What’s Your Great Vow?” Last week, I preached, “Transforming Your Inner Critic.” Today, I want to bring those two sermons together.

In “What is Your Great Vow?” I asked, What is the mission of your life? I talked about noticing what your sources of vow were. You have inherited vows – a sense of purpose you got from parents or other particularly influential people as you were growing up. You have reactive vows – some experience of hurt or injustice that made an impression on you as worth working to stop or mitigate. You have inspired vows – heros, or people you look up to, who inspired you to be like them in some way. I asked you to reflect on those sources of vow, and out of that reflection discern your Great Vow, and email it to me for inclusion in a Shrine of Vows.

Our CUUC Shrine of Vows is currently electronic [HERE], but eventually we will have a physical display. Let me update you on the vows that CUUC members have sent in so far:
  • I vow to live with compassion and integrity.
  • I vow to make the time to care for myself, to be kind to all others, and to protect the planet.
  • I vow to push forward in love.
  • I vow to live soulfully, and to give back.
  • I vow to give of myself through caring, nonjudgmental listening, my empathy and sympathy, my friendship to all those who are struggling in life with things like sickness, death, relationships, or daily life for an immigrant.
  • I vow to give everyone the care I give to my family, to hold my beliefs lightly and change them as circumstances change.
  • I vow to be present in loving awareness.
  • I vow to be mindful of both self care and care for others.
  • I vow to arrive fresh, to arrive in love, to endear; to companion, to befriend, to love, to notice, to bear witness, to live until I die -- and die, and die, and die until I live.
  • I vow to love and to learn.
  • I vow to accept all beings as my teachers
  • I vow to recognize, cultivate and nurture community.
  • I vow to see the magic in everything.
  • I vow to care.
  • I vow to age gracefully, with compassion, frugality, and joy.
  • I vow to pursue education, not let others squelch my talents, be free of emotional instability, and support fairness and equality.
  • I vow to be selflessly loyal to my family, be open minded, no matter how challenging, and learn to be happy with less.
  • I vow to be in the light.
  • I vow to bring love with me wherever I go.
  • I vow to create peace wherever I can.
  • I vow to fight for justice, never give up, be strong, help the weak, be honest and respectful, be supportive of and nice to people and respect each and every one of them, work hard, live with integrity, and see and enjoy the beauty of the world.
Those are some GREAT vows! I’m inspired just reading those vows, and just knowing that we are a community of people who have pointed themselves in those directions. To those of you who sent in those vows, thank you so much – both for orienting your life that way, and for sharing your vow. And if you haven’t sent me your Great Vow yet, please do. Email it to me and I’ll add it to our CUUC Shrine of Vows.

Then last week, I talked about the Inner Critic. I said that a person consists of many internal voices, and that a healthy psyche is like a healthy democracy: every voice gets heard, and no voice dominates. Louis XIV of France supposedly said “L’etat c’est moi” – I am France. For France, becoming democratic meant no single person, or any group smaller than all French citizens, could claim to BE France. Likewise, for you to be a healthy democracy of internal voices, no single voice, or cabal of voices, can claim to BE you. But the Inner Critic can be so dominant that people may think the Inner Critic is just them, rather than one of their many voices. I talked about some ways to differentiate from the Inner Critic so you can hear what it says, and tend to its needs even as you know that what it’s saying is not the whole truth.

Now to bring the two sermons together. The Great Vow can be a tool for managing your Inner Critic, and managing your Inner Critic can help you be oriented toward your vow. Without a Vow, the Inner Critic can pull you this way and that with whatever way it happens to notice at the moment that you aren’t all things to all people.

With my vow before me, I can, for instance, say to my Critic,
“Sam (it’s helpful to give your inner critic a name), thank you for reminding me that I dropped out of piano lessons in high school, but no, I am not going to make up for that now, because realistically, that’s not the best way to move along the path of my vow. Making the world more beautiful with really skillful music is something I can, fortunately leave to Adam – and other musicians. Making a few moments maybe a little more fun with some slapdash guitar strumming – that I will do. Much more than that just doesn’t need to be in the cards."
So a clear vow can help narrow down the Critic’s range of things to carp about.

On the other hand, if you don’t also directly transform your relationship with your Critic, it will latch on to that vow and give you hell for all your failures to live up to it. Consider, for example, how the Inner Critic loves self-help books. Start reading up on spirituality and personal growth, and before long, your Critic will be telling you:
  • You’re not authentic.
  • You didn’t say that from your essential being.
  • You need to be more open.
  • You’re not real enough.
  • Your auric field is not clear.
  • Your energies are off.
  • You’re not in touch with your feelings, your sexuality, your body, your spirituality, your higher mind, or your core.
A vow is a wonderful thing – but we need to make sure we’re not just giving your Inner Critic one more crow bar with which to bludgeon you.

If you vowed to be a bearer of love wherever you go, that’s beautiful! The last thing you need is a voice inside that’s telling you several times a day, “Well, that wasn’t very loving.”

The way to have a Great Vow, while also not being harangued by your Inner Critic for failing to live up to is: Don’t try. Really. No more trying. Just like Yoda says: “Do. Or Do not. There is no try.” Don’t try. Simply do.

All our lives we’ve been taught to try. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” we heard over and over. “You only fail if you stop trying,” we were told. Michael Jordan is widely quoted for saying, “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

I’m not saying there aren’t some things that are worth energy, time, and effort. I’m saying there’s a difference between effort and trying.
It might be subtle. From the outside, it may not be discernible. But there’s a difference.

Suppose you are pushing on an enormous boulder. If you say, “I am trying to move this boulder,” and it doesn’t move, you failed. If you say, “I am putting in effort toward the moving of this boulder,” you’ve succeeded at doing that whether the boulder moves or not.

That’s an important difference. It’s the difference between seeing life as entirely about outcomes and seeing that it’s the doing that matters regardless of the outcome.

Your vow is not about outcomes. It’s about orientation. It’s about pointing your life in a certain direction – and then just seeing where that takes you. With a Great Vow, there’s never a point at which you say, well, that’s done. Mission accomplished. You’ve pointed yourself in a direction: whether it’s “I vow to speak my truth,” or “I vow to embody true compassion,” or whatever your vow is. And then you just see where that takes you. Maybe some days it didn’t seem like you were very compassionate, but you just keep yourself pointed in that direction.

It’s like flying an airplane through thick clouds, very limited visibility, and you have no instruments except a compass. Your vow is your compass. It keeps you pointed: East, say. There’s no question of ever arriving at East. Your Critic might want to say you should be getting there faster, but there’s nowhere to get to. There’s just being headed that way. Moreover, you have no speedometer (on the path of vow, there's no such thing as a speedometer), so there’s no way to know how fast you’re going East.

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

* * *

Happy Mother’s Day to all our Moms. When it comes to trying and not trying, I know that so many mothers have tried so hard to be good mothers. British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott advocates for the good enough mother. He urges being neither neglectful nor smothering. He noticed that babies and children benefit when, as he put it, their mothers fail them in manageable ways. So, Moms, you don’t need to try. Good enough is actually best.

Trying backfires. Hal and Sidra Stone, in their book, “Embracing Your Inner Critic” observe:
“It is like saying to someone, ‘Stand in the corner and do not think of an elephant!’ Try as you may, you will think of an elephant, and the harder you try, the harder it will be to get the elephant out of your head. Try to be loving all the time, and you will be engorged with negativity. Try always to keep your mind clear while meditating, and you will be invaded by thoughts and fantasies. Try always to be loving to your children, and you will be invaded periodically by negative feelings that will assault you” (53).
So let your vow be gentle with you. It’s a gentle pointing of you in a particular direction. If you push yourself in that direction, it just backfires. Just keep bumbling happily along, being exactly who you are, not one bit more or less, with your vow – which you identified by discerning who you are – simply orienting you, a soft reminder of your purpose. Your vow is not the taskmaster’s shove – against which you would only push back. Your vow is the vague echo in the direction of your own joy. Writing it down was like giving a great shout, so as to hear the guidance of that echo – in the direction of your own joy.

Poet Charles Bukowski has something to say to us here. Bukowski died in 1994 at the age of 74. A prolific writer of thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, his work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women, and the drudgery of work. He once told Life Magazine:
"We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us."
I mention Bukowski because his motto was “Don’t try.” In fact, it’s carved on his tombstone: “Don’t try.” It’s his philosophy of art and life – a prolific career of millions of words boiled down to just two: Don’t try.

In a letter Bukowski wrote to a friend in 1963, Bukowski relates that someone once asked him, "What do you do? How do you write, create?" Bukowski replied
"You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”
You wait, Bukowski is saying. And there’s also a sense of watching, of attention. In other words, you orient yourself toward something – like orienting yourself toward your vow – and then you pay attention and watch what happens.

You can’t make it happen – don’t try. Just point yourself in a particular direction and watch and wait. Life is not for muscling our way through.

Some years after Bukowski’s death, Linda Bukowski, the poet's wife, explained:
“Yeah, I get so many different ideas from people that don't understand what that means. Well, "Don't Try? Just be a slacker? lay back?" And I'm no! Don't try, do. Because if you're spending your time trying something, you're not doing it..."DON'T TRY."
Toward the end of my graduate student career, I was no longer trying to make myself into something, no longer muscling my way through Kant or John Dewey or Donald Davidson. Reading certain books and writing papers became just something I did – rather than an outcome I was trying for. Right about that time, the University said, “OK, you’re done. Here’s your terminal degree. Move along now.”

Then I was out in the world of trying – the world that people puzzlingly call “the real world,” though it always felt a lot less real to me. Then I TRIED being a professor for a while. Then I TRIED being a minister – until, finally, it became something I do rather than something I was trying. It was a gradual shift. It’s not like one day, boom, all the trying just fell away. Even now, under enough stress, I think the trying would come back – and the Inner Critic would come with it.

In fact, trying and being under the influence of the Inner Critic are the same thing. Trying is the name for what one does when attempting to appease the Critic.

If vacations aren’t just a pleasant thing to do, but an absolute necessity because if you don’t get a break from your day-to-day the you’ll crack, you could be trying too hard.

If the stress and anxiety of everyday life is driving you to medication – including the self-medication of alcohol or overeating – you could be trying too hard. If you’re only doing what you think you should do, and not what you want to do, you could be trying too hard.

If you’re having a difficult time distinguishing your Inner Critic from yourself, you are trying too hard. Ultimately, trying at all – instead of simply doing – is trying too hard.

In the story Tracy shared with us [Ashley Spires, The Most Magnificent Thing], the girl sure was trying to make a most magnificent thing. How do we know she was trying rather than just doing? It isn’t because she is unsatisfied with the first product and tosses it aside – or because she tosses aside the first several products. The doing of any creative work almost always includes abandoning the early products, scratching through much of the first draft – if not most of it – if not all of it. No, that’s not how we know she’s trying rather than doing.

We know she’s trying rather than just doing because she gets mad. She’s muscling it – smashing pieces into shape, jamming parts together, pummeling the little bits in. And her Inner Critic completely takes over as she explodes, “I’m no good at this.”

There’s no anger in just doing. No fear, no anxiety. No heavy sighing.

When Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is getting his Jedi training from Yoda, he learns to use the force to levitate a rock. Then Luke’s X-Wing starfighter sinks into a bog.

Luke: “Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.”
Yoda: “Do you hear nothing that I say?”
Luke: “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.”
Yoda: “No! No different.”
Luke sighs, “All right, I’ll give it a try.”
And that’s when Yoda says, “No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

There’s no sighing in just doing. There is a wholehearted commitment – but it isn’t commitment to any particular result. Just a commitment to the doing – and a waiting and watching to see what the result might turn out to be.

The other film that I referenced in the description for today’s service is The Karate Kid (1984). Mr. Miyagi is about to start Daniel’s karate instruction.

He says, “So. Ready?”
Daniel says, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Mr. Miyagi draws a breath and says, “Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later – sqwk – get squish, just like grape. Here karate same thing. Either you karate do ‘yes,’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so.’ Sqwk. Just like grape. Understand?”

Just doing does involve whole-hearted commitment to the just doing. But it isn’t commitment to, say, winning the tournament. Spoiler-alert – if it’s possible to spoil a movie that came out 36 years ago – Daniel does win the tournament, but that’s just Hollywood. “The victory is the doing,” as Mohandas Gandhi said -- regardless of what happens at the tournament.

The problem is, trying not to try is just one more form of trying. Just like not being free of your Inner Critic is one more thing your Inner Critic will criticize you for. Just let your vow point you in your intended direction, and cultivate the spirit of waiting and watching – attending. Make what room you can for grace, and let grace take over from there -- understanding that you can’t rush it. Grace, as they say, keeps to no schedule – but it’s always right on time.

Be it so. Amen.


When I was thinking about today's message, "don't try," and remembered the two movie clips referenced above, I misremembered them both. In The Empire Strikes Back, I thought I remembered that Luke had been really trying hard -- muscling it, so to speak. When Yoda repeated the instructions -- like, "use the force, Luke" -- Luke exclaimed (in my mis-memory) in exasperation, "I'm TRYING to do that!" In this context, when Yoda says, "Do. Or do not. There is no try," he'd be suggesting that Luke relax a bit and not try so hard.

In the same way, I also misremembered the context of Mr. Miyagi's line -- "Karate do 'yes,' or karate do 'no'." I thought Daniel had been trying too hard and gotten frustrated. In such a context, Mr. Miyagi would be meaning, "Just do your karate -- or don't. Don't get frustrated over results. Just do, and never mind the results."

In both cases, however, when I located and watched the clips, I discovered that the context was the opposite of what I had thought I remembered. Luke and Daniel weren't trying too hard. Rather, they were insufficiently committed to the practice they had supposedly come to learn. When Luke sighs, "All right, I'll give it a try," he's not whole-heartedly giving himself to the enterprise at hand. Nor is Daniel when he says, "Yeah, I guess so."

Both points -- the point I had misremembered the clips as making, and the point the clips actually make -- are true. "Don't try" prescribes a middle path: neither, on the one hand, trying too hard, nor, on the other hand, "trying" as an excuse for half-hearted doing. "Don't try" steers between attachment to results (which is what is happening when we are trying too hard) and lackadaisical practice.

Some of us are more likely to err on the side of trying too hard. This is where the work of recognizing and differentiating from the Inner Critic is especially important. The Critic has teamed up with the Pusher to make us into over-earnest, stressed strivers. "Try! Try!" is the Critic's cry, and the more you heed your Critic, the stronger your Critic becomes. The Critic is never satisfied.

Some of us are more likely to err on the side of low commitment. This is where the work of articulating and committing to your vow comes in.

And very often we err in both directions at once: as when we strive after results instead of simply committing our lives to our vow -- our promise to keep up a certain kind of practice whether the expected results materialize on the expected schedule or not.


Transforming Your Inner Critic

Invocation: HERE
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Those words of Rabindranath Tagore, and today’s topic of the Inner Critic – the voice inside you that is always telling you what’s wrong with you – and this month’s theme of Joy – somehow combine in thoughts about: Democracy.

Democracy is, as John Dewey said:
“more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”
When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I adopted Dewey as a special research interest. John Dewey, born 100 years before I was, helped me see democracy as not “simply and solely a form of government”, but a social and personal ideal – a spiritual value, for through democracy, he wrote,
“the incarnation of God in man . . . becomes a living, present thing.”
Thus I have come to see this as the great value of congregational life.

Yes, certainly a congregation facilitates and encourages your spiritual growth, but if you’re determined to pursue spirituality on your own, there are options for doing that. You can read books about spirituality, you can meditate and get a guru or spiritual teacher. You don’t HAVE to have a congregation to develop your spirituality. Congregational life is a particular container – we might say, chalice – for nurturing your spiritual flame, and congregations provide unique features you won’t find on any noncongregational spiritual path.

In particular, congregations are self-governing. Congregations have committees, and rules of procedure, and bylaws. Congregations give you a role in running the place. Meditation classes or sessions with a spiritual therapist don't. I know that the prospect of being on a committee is not a huge selling point these days. Nevertheless, spiritual community that is run by the seekers themselves offers a unique level of richness, meaning, and connection.

For those of us who choose this path, the activities of self-governance form an integral part of our growth and deepening. Through those activities we practice and hone the arts of democracy, and democracy is a really important spiritual practice.

And the skills of democracy – the habits of hearing diverse viewpoints, of weighing other people’s interests and perspectives with our own, of running a meeting and of participating in one so that your voice, and all voices, are sympathetically heard without your voice or any voice dominating – these are the skills of love. This is how equality of concern and respect is realized, how inherent worth and dignity of every person is affirmed and promoted. God becomes incarnate, as Dewey said, in and as democratic bodies -- whether those running a voluntary association or a town.

If spirituality is the meaning our lives have through being part of something bigger than ourselves, then democratic practice is quintessential spiritual practice. Our collective health and wholeness, our communal well-being, is a function of every voice being cared for enough to be heard, all needs and interests taken into consideration – and no voice dominating, overbearing, or becoming dictatorial. In other words: democracy.

In the ideal democracy, which actual democracies sometimes approach, everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone at the table is there to serve the greater good to the best of their capacity to discern it. And that service, as Tagore said, is joy.

I’m talking about democracy because I am one, and you are one – each of us is. Your psyche is an unruly and raucous parliament of voices, each looking out for one of your many and competing interests. Your decisions are products of constantly shifting coalitions of inner voices that are able to, for a time, have the votes to get motions passed.

No single voice is in charge in there. In the 2015 Pixar movie, “Inside Out” – which a number of you watched this week – we see inside 11-year-old Riley’s head as she negotiates life. Joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness are the emotional voices that, together, make Riley Riley. There’s no Riley inside of Riley – rather, Riley just IS the product of her inner voices interacting, sometimes one of them rising to prominence and sometimes another. In the same way, there’s no United States IN the United States – rather, the United States just IS the combined product of what all its people do.

Sometimes we may tempted to imagine that there is a little person inside our head taking in all the sensory inputs as if sitting in a theatre watching the movie of our life. This homunculus pulls the levers and pushes the buttons to give motor commands that make us move. When my son John was about seven or eight years old, I happened to mention to him this homunculus theory of mind, and he immediately put his finger on the problem. He asked, “And does this little person in my head have another little person inside his head?”

There isn’t one person in charge in there. You aren’t a monarchy. You’re a democracy. But democracies can get distorted. Certain interests can manage to hold disproportionate power and ignore and suppress certain other voices. The same thing happens to us individually.

At its healthiest, a democratic state or a person, hears all voices and allows none to gain too much power. And that brings me at last to the Inner Critic. One of the voices in the unruly parliament called “you” is the Inner Critic, and yours probably has too much power. It’s a bit of a bully.

Another voice is the Judge – who passes judgment on other people – and that voice can also often contribute to our misery – but even people that have become less judgmental of others may still be taking heat from the Inner Critic’s judgments of themselves.
“In America your Critic is likely to criticize you if you are not special enough or if you are not superior to others. Your Critic does not want you to disappear into the crowd, to be ordinary. Australian Critics take the opposite view...You are not supposed to stand out, to be special, or to do anything that will draw special attention to you.” Inner Critics there “are quite judgmental toward people who stand out too much or who try to be special.” (Hal and Sidra Stone 5)
"You're ugly," says the Inner Critic. "You're stupid." "You're fat." “You’re lazy.” "There's something wrong with you." "You're so weird."

“The Critic can become our ally once we learn to recognize it and to handle it. However, as long as we are unconscious of it, we must constantly appease it” (5).

And you can never satisfy it. The Inner Critic is never satisfied. “No matter how much you listen to it and try to change yourself in the way that it wants it follows you and grows stronger....The harder you try to change yourself, the stronger it gets. Try to please it, and it will grow” (6).

“Like a well-trained CIA agent, the Inner Critic has learned how to infiltrate every portion of your life, checking you out in minute detail for weakness and imperfections. Since its main job is to protect you from being too vulnerable in the world, it must know everything about you that might be open to attack.”

But just as the CIA in a democracy was formed to protect the democracy, it can grow too powerful and adopt an agenda that undermines democracy. The Inner Critic, as your Internal CIA, starts to pursue its own agenda, undermining the democracy of your internal parliament. “The information, which was originally supposed to be for your overall defense and to promote your general well-being, is now being used against you...With the Critic’s original aims and purposes forgotten, it operates secretly and independently of any outside control” (12).

The inner critic kills creativity. Criticism, inner or outer, kills creativity. Adam’s music today features the work of Beethoven, who was a creative genius, but not, Adam reminds us, during the year that Beethoven was studying with Haydn. Haydn’s critical voice brought on a dry spell for Beethoven. Quite possibly, Haydn’s voice internalized into an Inner Critic voice for Beethoven, but fortunately for us, Beethoven was able to differentiate from it. The inner critic is also apt to be a source of low self-esteem, of shame, and can make you depressed.

Maybe it starts with The Pleaser. An infant soon learns that life is better when ze smiles. So the Pleaser is born, making the child smile more frequently than spontaneous uprisings of delight would dictate. This way, the parent will be happy, which makes the infant safe, and the world feels nicer. The Pleaser’s job is to make others happy so that they, in turn, make you happy, and your vulnerability is protected. As the Pleaser expands, it takes on staff, who then function quasi-independently.
The Rule Maker makes up the rules about what kind of person you should be and what kinds of characteristics are acceptable.
The Rule Maker’s job is to notice what is rewarded and what is punished and draw inferences from that about what rules we should live by. Then the Pusher emerges. This is the voice urging us to achieve, to meet goals, get ahead in the world.

Where the Pleaser wants to please particular other people, the Pusher has abstracted particular people into the world in general, and abstracted concrete pleasing into gaining success and recognition from that world. “With a strongly developed Pusher, we are like racing dogs running after an artificial rabbit that we an never catch” (17). The Pusher has specific goals and objectives, and this may spin-off a counter-voice that says, "What about other things? It’s great to master the oboe, but what about being a great athlete? What about the Nobel Prize in physics?" Thus the Perfectionist is born. The Perfectionist quickly learns that you can’t master everything, so it doesn’t want you to do at all what you can’t do well. The Perfectionist cannot abide happily dabbling. For the Perfectionist, “nothing is less important than anything else. It is just as important to play perfectly during a friendly tennis volley as in the final match of a tournament. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing perfectly.”

The Inner Critic teams up with each of these voices to criticize you for not making others happy, for not working harder on your goals, for not being excellent at everything you do. To a large extent the Inner Critic grows from other people’s judge.
The more strongly we hear judgmental voices around us when we’re growing up, the more we internalize those voices and thus the stronger our Inner Critic is. The Inner Critic cannot be suppressed.

If you try to be rid of the Inner Critic, it just transforms into criticizing for not being very good at not being self-critical. “I shouldn’t be so self-critical” is just more self-criticism.

To become a more ideal democracy, none of the voices may be exiled. All the voices have a seat at the table. But none of them are you. France’s Louis XIV in the 17th century supposedly declared L’etat, c’est moi – the state, it is I – I am France. That, of course, is the opposite of democracy. Your inner democracy requires recognizing that none of the inner voices are you.

The problem isn’t that you have an Inner Critic. The problem is that you become identified with it. You mistake one representative in the parliament for being the voice of the nation itself. This is very common. Counselors who work with clients in recognizing their Inner Critic report that over and over they hear clients say, “I’ve heard that voice all my life. I just thought it was me.”

We see the world through the Inner Critic’s lens, or mirror – just as in Tracy’s story. And we think that’s just how the world is. Developing the Aware Self is like having a Board Chair who has no agenda of zir own, but oversees a process of letting the agenda emerge from the voices at the table, letting decisions be made only when all voices are taken into account.

Developing awareness of your voices – as voices – takes some work and some practice. But TRYING to live life from an Aware Self “gives the Inner Critic the best food of all! Inner Critics simply love to accuse us of not having an Aware Self...If you try too hard to live your life from an Aware Self, it is a sure sign that your Pusher, your Perfectionist, or both have taken over again. This will allow your Inner Critic to grow even fatter as it tries to help you to reach this new, unattainable, goal.”

There are some exercises you can do. But don’t TRY to do them. Just do them.

The crucial move is to not be identified with the Inner Critic – to differentiate from it – to see it not as you but as a voice talking to you. So do this: in your journal, or any piece of paper, write down some of your most common self-criticisms. Writing stuff down is really powerful for self-awareness, and it probably works better to use real pen and paper – typing on a computer screen just doesn’t feel as real.

So write down your most common self-criticisms, only, write them down in the second person – that is, as “you” statements. So don’t write: "I can't get anything right. I'll never be successful."

Instead write: "You can't get anything right. You'll never be successful."

This will help you see these thoughts as an alien point of view – something that an inner voice is saying to you, and not the absolute truth.

Notice how hostile this internal enemy can be. If another person said those things to you, you’d think they were being terribly hostile. Well, it actually is another person – only it’s an internalized one.

So the next step is to envision this other person. What does your Inner Critic look like? For some people, the first image that comes to them is their mother. If you had a critical mother, that wouldn’t be surprising. So, to help take away some of the Inner Critic’s power, imagine the inner critic as a cartoon character.

Imagine that it’s Daffy Duck saying these critical things to you. Or Goofy, or Popeye, or Homer Simpson, or Eric Cartman from South Park, or Tweety Bird, or Snagglepuss.

My inner critic is Yosemite Sam. Yosemite Sam’s insult vocabulary is heavy on “varmint” and “galoot.” I find I don’t take criticism so personally when its coming from someone who calls me a varmint or a galoot.

Next step: Respond to your inner critic by writing down a more realistic and compassionate evaluation of yourself. Write these responses in the first person – that is, as "I" statements. So if your Inner Critic says "You're such an idiot," you could write, "I don’t always understand as quickly as I might wish to, but I am smart and competent in many ways."

This is different from writing down affirmations, which I don’t particularly recommend. It’s a response to a specific criticism that doesn’t say you’re the greatest ever, but just brings a kinder, more honest attitude toward yourself. You’re not trying to give yourself an ego boost or make yourself feel better – your focus is just to be realistic.

You don’t have to do what your Inner Critic says. That ridiculous cartoon character is not you. Thank it for its input, and then take actions that represent your own point of view, who you want to be.

Your Inner Critic may respond by yelling at you louder and louder. Over time, it will grow weaker. And it does take time. Trying to rush it just gives the Pusher and the Critic more power.

Democracy doesn’t always deliver just what you wanted as quickly as you wanted it, but we remind ourselves nonetheless to trust the process. It's the same with our internal democracy. Trying to rush it would be, well, anti-democratic because some voices would get lost in the rush, and the best judgment of "the people" doesn't have time to emerge. Trust the process and give it time.

Spend a few minutes every day – or every week – doing the exercise: write down self-critical thoughts in the second person.

Imagine them coming from a cartoon character – because they are – the Inner Critic is cartoonish, a caricature of you. Write a more well-rounded response in the first person. Gradually, differentiation from the Inner Critic occurs. The Aware Self comes more often to the fore. Over time people learned to see the looking glass as only one lens or reflection of a much deeper experience.

May it be so.


Attending to the Indigenous Voice

Invocation Poem
by Larry Robinson, HERE

Part 1
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
If we would know where we are going, we need to know what we are. If we would know what we are, we need to know where we came from.

We come from the universe that began 14 billion years ago, and the planet earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, and the life that began there more than 3 billion years ago.

We come from the vertebrates that first appeared over 500 million years ago, and from the rise of mammals that was paved by the 5th great extinction 65 million years ago when, probably, an asteroid struck the Earth leading to the extinction of 75% of all species of that time.

We come from the order primates that first appeared 55 million years ago, the family hominid that first appeared 15 million years ago, the genus homo that first appeared 2 million years ago, and the species sapiens that’s been around about 250,000 years, that wandered out of Africa about 50,000 years ago, that transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and settlement starting about 12,000 years ago, and began what is called "civilization" (settlements large enough to be called cities, labor specialization, imposing buildings, trained armies, and at least a rudimentary civil service) about 5,000 years ago.

And then, this thing called Western Civilization. This is where it gets personal. People from Europe dominated the globe – conquered, colonized, oppressed, stole, usurped. Why? How did it happen that Europeans were able to do this?

It won’t do to say that Europeans were superior human beings: they were smart enough to develop writing with a small-set alphabet that made a more widespread literacy possible, and later they made the printing press. All this facilitated the development of learning and technological advantages like guns and steel swords and ocean-going vessels. If there was a technological superiority, there was also what we might call a moral inferiority. The European invaders had a level of greed beyond what the native peoples could imagine, and a casual willingness for mass slaughter, theft, deceit, and promise-breaking in service of their greed.

On the one hand, the Europeans might also be said to have had an organizational advantage. The rise of the nation-state in Europe saw the emergence of institutional and governmental structures by the time of Columbus that were equipped to organize and carry out an invasion of a land area more than 4 times the size of all of Europe. On the other hand, that they would be so keen to do so may suggest a further level of moral infirmity.

What accounts for these differences – technological, organizational, or moral? It’s not genetic. There’s no genetic difference among peoples in their capacity for any of these things. It’s not that God favored Europeans -- nor did God curse them.

Animals -- other than humans, that is -- are part of the story. The fertile crescent that happened to have the wild grasses barley and wheat, also happened to be where the wild ancestors of cows, pigs, sheep, and goats are native. After the harvest, the animals could eat the stubble and turn that into meat, as well as milk, wool, and leather. Domesticable animals made farming much more wealth-producing, which meant larger populations could be supported, all staying in one place. Hence, urbanization and specialization of labor -- which facilitated further technology development to support still larger populations. Those methods became Greek, then Roman, and then European.

Relatively few animals, it turns out, are practical to farm. Elephants take too long to mature. Zebras are too flighty and nervous and have a vicious streak. In the Americas, only the llama and the related alpaca could be domesticated. So geographic fluke is part of the story. Whatever part of the world happened to have both wild grasses like barley and wheat and domesticable animals like cows, pigs, sheep, and goats would eventually initiate a feedback loop that created increasing surplus wealth, technology, and social organization. The technology would inevitably come to include guns and steel for swords and other uses. Moreover, the close proximity to our domesticated animals bred diseases, to which Europeans gradually developed increased immunity. And here we have the "guns, germs, and steel" story that Jared Diamond's 1997 book of that title details.

One of the effects of wealth is that it orients people toward creating still more. In part, this is because wealth creates inequality. Hunter-gatherers or subsistence farming cultures are comparatively egalitarian. With inequality, you have the lower classes oriented toward climbing, and the upper class oriented to staying on top. It’s a giant petri dish for growing greed.

Such a dish of greed was, arguably, a consequence of the geographic fluke of having just the right sorts of domesticable grains and livestock around. But that geographic fluke doesn't account for the unique way the separation of powers between secular and church authority developed in Europe. Europe's church-state dynamic was also a fluke, but it was a fluke that was not determined by the conditions that allowed for highly wealth-producing farming.

In 494, Pope Gelasius articulated the "two swords doctrine" -- foreshadowed in Saint Augustine's City of God almost a century before. The Two Swords doctrine expressed the understanding that Europe largely shared for the next thousand years: that royal power and priestly power were two separate but cooperating authorities divinely established to govern human lives in this world. In theory, the State was to deal with human, temporal concerns while the Church was charged with responsibility for people's eternal salvation and for the worship of God. In practice, the church's interest in addressing all the material obstacles it perceived stood in the way of human salvation lead it to exert influence in ways that overlapped with the secular authorities, creating a constant tension between the two "swords." Kings were fighting against each other, but both sides were answerable, at least a little, to the Pope and Bishops. The Catholic Church, as the Western Roman Empire was falling, was growing into a quasi-independent, transnational power structure that was unique on the planet. A kind of federalism prevailed in medieval Europe, with the centralized power of the church over all of Christendom balanced by the decentralized secular authority of the nobles within their respective realms. A variety of conditions produced this "two swords" arrangement -- and certainly the upward spirals of population centers, technology, and organization initiated by the luck of domesticable grasses and farm animals was among them. The fluke of domesticability, however, while it may have been necessary, was not sufficient for the emergence of Europe's church-state dynamic. A continent that hit upon similarly profitable farming methods might have gone down a very different path.

Yet without Europe's unique church-state dynamic, the Crusades would not have happened. The Crusades, a product of a church that wanted to spread its religion and secular authorities eager to plunder, especially with the church’s blessing, resulted in “unprecedented wealth in the hands of a few.” The Crusades thus further exacerbated the importance of wealth in the minds of Europeans. As Dunbar-Ortiz notes,
“the crusading armies were mercenary outfits that promised the soldiers the right to sack and loot Muslim towns and cities, feats that would gain them wealth and prestige back home.” (33)
And the Crusades proved to be a warm-up for the conquest of the Americas. The culture into which Christopher Columbus was born in the mid-15th century had become highly sophisticated and organized, and oriented toward amassing superfluous displays of wealth – hence the mania for a useless metal, gold. The mixture of religious rationale and drive for wealth fostered by the Crusades against the darker-skinned Muslims was then deployed against the darker-skinned nonChristians of the Americas.

Where do we come from? We who live in North America, whether we are of European descent or of African or Asian descent – live in and are shaped by – we come from -- a culture founded in European invasion, conquest, and genocidal intent – and we all carry those wounds.

What are we? We are people, like all people, prone to fears, greed, and delusions. We are products of our culture, which developed as a particular unique set of strategies for addressing universal human needs. We recognize that strands of the culture that is still with us produced the evils of Conquistadors and settler-colonialism – and that the conditions of our lives were created by those evils.

Where are we going? We are replacing exclusion with inclusion. We aren’t always sure how to do that, so we are learning to attend better to the voices of the excluded. We are replacing dehumanization with respect. We aren’t always sure how to do that, but know it must include attending to the voices of those who have been dehumanized – as well as doing our own work. We are replacing the certainty of our own rightness with awareness that we need to learn, and an openness to understanding in new ways.


Part 2

This year’s Common Read, selected by our denominational body, the Unitarian Universalist Association, is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. If we are going to know who we are, what we are, we have to know this history.

I remember when I was about seven or eight years old, around 1967, I looked forward very much to Thursdays, because Thursday night my two favorite TV shows were on back to back. "Batman" – the campy one with Adam West – was followed by "Daniel Boone," played by Fess Parker. I loved that show. The idyllic relationship between the townsfolk of Boonesborough, Kentucky and the native peoples in the area made sense to me. It was echoed by the sort of story of the nation’s founding that I was getting in school – and was reinforced at home in such celebrations as the annual Thanksgiving Day feast, with romantic images of Pilgrims and Indians breaking bread – and Turkeys – together.

I now know that the colonists that landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 did not call any event in their first years a “Thanksgiving.” The first “Day of Thanksgiving” – as proclaimed by Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony – came 17 years after the Plymouth landing. The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children. The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of the massacre of hundreds of Native people – which grew into a general celebration of genocide. For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby.

We know about the history of slaughter and deportation, and the trail of tears, the forced relocation of some 60,000 Native people to areas West of the Mississippi.

We’ve heard about the deliberate planting of small pox in blankets given to indigenous people – an early use of biological warfare, disguised as cooperative trade.

We’ve learned about the trail of broken treaties: that 374 treaties between the US and Native nations were ratified, and numerous others – treated as binding on the Natives – were never ratified – and that the US promptly ignored many of them as soon as they found it convenient to do so.

You might not know about the more recent history. You might not know about the Indian termination policy the US pursued for 20 years after World War II. It was a campaign from the mid-40s to mid-60s to try to assimilate Native Americans – get them off the reservation, abandon traditional lives and “begin to live as Americans.” The idea gained support from a 1943 report finding that living conditions on reservations were very poor and that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was grossly mismanaged. So getting rid of reservations was seen as a way to improve the lives of people mired in reservation poverty. Federal tribal recognition was withdrawn from over 100 native nations – most of which have since been reinstated. When we recall that the 50s were a time when Jim Crow was in full swing, schools and lunch counters were segregated, and inter-racial marriage was outlawed in 30 states, then we see that what was at issue wasn’t really assimilation into all the privileges of whiteness.

You might not know the ways that rationalizations used for past atrocities against indigenous people may still be invoked – by our government – today – as in the government’s justification of holding prisoners at Guantanamo.
“In early 2011, a Yemeni citizen, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, was serving a life sentence at Guantanamo as an ‘enemy combatant.’. . . In arguing that Bahlul’s conviction be upheld, a Pentagon lawyer, navy captain Edward S. White relied on a precedent from an 1818 tribunal.” (201)
His brief argues,
“Not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern-day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violate the customs and usages of war.”
You might not know that our history with Indigenous people echoes in the government’s recent defenses of torture. Law professor John Yoo, serving in the Justice Department, wrote an influential memo in 2003. He invoked the category, “unlawful combatants” to say that what would otherwise be a war crime did not apply to acts against people deemed enemies of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. His precedent for the concept of “unlawful combatant” was the US Supreme Court’s 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners decision, in which the court said that “
the laws and customs of civilized warfare may not be applicable to an armed conflict with the Indian tribes upon our western frontier.”
We need this book, and I’m grateful to our Unitarian publishing house, Beacon press, for commissioning it and to Indigenous scholar Dunbar-Ortiz for writing it. The call of compassion is a call to understand.

Every time anybody says anything, there’s a lot that is left unsaid. And that’s not a problem – unless what you’re saying turns out to be part of a strategy for obscuring something else. For example: it’s true that the Europeans’ average immunity to certain diseases had gradually increased after a thousand years of sharing living quarters with their livestock and enduring resulting pandemics – and Native populations’ immunities to those diseases tended to be lower. It’s true that the diseases Europeans unleashed were a factor. But it’s important to know that that fact has been politicized as a strategy for downplaying the role of the colonists’ unrelenting wars in causing the across-the-board reduction of Indigenous populations by 90 percent following the onset of colonizing projects.

If we attend to indigenous voices, they can tell us what words are being used against them, and we can better avoid unwittingly adding to the harm.

If we attend to indigenous voices, we will see come to see ourselves more completely.

If we attend to indigenous voices, recognizing a common humanity while respecting and honoring important differences, we help build our world’s appreciation of cultural diversity.

If we attend to indigenous voices, we can more fully come to terms with our country’s past. Living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did – as Native historian Jack Forbes stresses. They are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. When we today assume responsibility for what is ours to be responsible for – the society we now live in – our lives become forces for survival and liberation of others and ourselves.

Everyone and everything in the world is affected, for the most part negatively, by US dominance and intervention, often violently through direct military means or through proxies – as we continue today to play out the enduring legacy of colonialist thought patterns. It is an urgent concern. So let’s read this book, and let’s talk about it. On four Sundays -- May 3, 10, 17, and 24 -- at 16:00 (4pm), please join our online class to process together the the book.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes:
"Indigenous people offer possibilities for life after empire, possibilities that neither erase the crimes of colonialism nor require the disappearance of the original peoples colonized under the guise of including them as individuals. That process rightfully starts by honoring the treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, by restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations. In the process, the continent will be radically reconfigured, physically and psychologically. For the future to be realized, it will require extensive educational programs and full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations." (235-36)
In the words of Acoma poet Simon Ortiz:
"The future will not be mad with loss and waste though the memory will be there.
Eyes will become kind and deep, and the bones of this nation will mend after the revolution.”
May it be so. Amen.


Taking Care, Giving Care

From the spiritual point of view, everything is a lesson – every object, person, or experience I encounter – every cup or pen or rock -- is trying to teach me something. The spiritual task is to listen to each moment. Its meaning is always uncertain – indeterminate. Nonetheless, the spiritual call is to discern – or construct – what meaning we can – to ignore nothing. The poet Kristin Flyntz has been listening for what our current pandemic might be trying to teach.

An Imagined Letter from Covid-19 to Humans
Kristin Flyntz
Stop. Just stop.
It is no longer a request. It is a mandate.
We will help you.
We will bring the supersonic, high speed merry-go-round to a halt
We will stop the planes, the trains, the schools, the malls, the meetings, the frenetic, furied rush of illusions and “obligations” that keep you from hearing our single and shared beating heart,
the way we breathe together, in unison.
Our obligation is to each other -- as it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten.
We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions,
to bring you this long-breaking news:
We are not well.
None of us; all of us are suffering.
Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth did not give you pause.
Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan.
Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India.
You have not been listening.
It is hard to listen when you are so busy all the time, hustling to uphold the comforts and conveniences that scaffold your lives.
But the foundation is giving way, buckling under the weight of your needs and desires.
We will help you.
We will bring the firestorms to your body
We will bring the fever to your body
We will bring the burning, searing, and flooding to your lungs
that you might hear:
We are not well.
Despite what you might think or feel, we are not the enemy.
We are Messenger. We are Ally. We are a balancing force.
We are asking you:
To stop, to be still, to listen;
To move beyond your individual concerns and consider the concerns of all;
To be with your ignorance, to find your humility, to relinquish your thinking minds and travel deep into the mind of the heart;
To look up into the sky, streaked with fewer planes, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, smoky, smoggy, rainy?
How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy?
To look at a tree, and see it, to notice its condition: how does its health contribute to the health of the sky, to the air you need to be healthy?
To visit a river, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, clean, murky, polluted?
How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy?
How does its health contribute to the health of the tree, who contributes to the health of the sky, so that you may also be healthy?
Many are afraid now.
Do not demonize your fear, and also, do not let it rule you.
Instead, let it speak to you—in your stillness, listen for its wisdom.
What might it be telling you about what is at work, at issue, at risk, beyond the threats of personal inconvenience and illness?
As the health of a tree, a river, the sky tells you about quality of your own health, what might the quality of your health tell you about the health of the rivers, the trees, the sky, and all of us who share this planet with you?
Stop. Notice if you are resisting.
Notice what you are resisting.
Ask why. Stop. Just stop.
Be still. Listen.
Ask us what we might teach you about illness and healing, about what might be required so that all may be well.
We will help you, if you listen.

Two Kinds of Care

“Some kind of care is the kind of care that caring’s all about. And some kind of care is the kind of care we all could do without.” Some of you will perhaps recognize the line that I am modifying. When my children were little, there was a popular children’s record – made of vinyl – that was called “Free to be you and me” – by Marlo Thomas and friends. We played that record hundreds of times. One of the tracks was a song, with lyrics by Shel Silverstein.
Agatha Fry, she made a pie
And Christopher John helped bake it
Christopher John, he mowed the lawn
And Agatha Fry helped rake it

Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it
And some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping's all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without

So: if someone helps you do something that you didn’t want to have done – that’s the kind of help we could do without. It’s the same way with caring. Some kind is the kind that caring is all about. Like when you care about fairness, so you give support to people treated unfairly. Or you care about the people you love, so you take care of them – you make sure they are provided with what they need – whether that’s concrete things or just a friend to hang-out with. Or you care about people learning stuff, so you become a teacher. Or you care about creating beauty and become an artist. We all need something big to care about. Here are some headlines from a few years ago: “Woman with one leg out to conquer Everest” “Six-year-old boy’s dream brings water to half a million people.” Or more recently: “16-year-old to urge United Nations to address climate change.” Wow. Those were people that really cared about something – getting to the top of Mt. Everest with one leg, bringing water to people who needed it, or preserving the earth from the harms of climate change.

If you have enough food to eat, it’s because someone – a whole lot of someones -- cared enough to plant it and harvest it and package it and ship it to a grocery store, so other someones could buy it and prepare it. George Bernard Shaw said, “This is the true joy in life – being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” The thing we choose to care about so much that our whole life is oriented toward it – that’s the kind of caring that caring is all about.

But then there are the kind of cares that turn into worries. Someone who looks careworn looks tired and unhappy because of prolonged worry. They have anxiety. Cares, troubles, and worries can be a big burden. They can feel like a heavy weight on your shoulders. When worrying isn’t doing any good – when worrying only makes you sad and stressed – then that’s the kind of cares we all could do without.

What do you care about? What caring or cares are with you?

Taking Care, Giving Care

It’s good to be back. I would really have enjoyed being with everyone altogether in our sanctuary again, sharing hugs and handshakes. And I look forward to us being together in person again someday – even if the hugs and handshakes have to be replaced by elbow bumps. I was away for a six-month sabbatical at a Zen monastery in northern Oregon, which sits on 25 largely-wooded sloping acres overlooking the Columbia River separating Washington from Oregon. There were the two co-abbots, a married couple; five zen priests – three men and two women – whose ordination entailed a five-year commitment to stay at the monastery, and some have been there much longer. Four postulants – two men and two women -- taking a year or two prepare for – and be sure they want – ordination. In the middle of my time there, two of the postulants completed their postulancy and ordained, so the second half of my stay there were seven priests and two postulants in addition to the co-abbots. There were also at any given time 10 to 15 other residents – some there for a month or two or, in my case, six, with three or four planning to be there for a year or more. In all, there were usually about 25 priests, postulants, and other residents around the place.

Our schedule was variable. Some weeks we’d be sitting meditation three or four hours a day, and doing work practice for six hours a day. My work assignments sometimes had me out in the garden pulling weeds, or in the kitchen chopping and cooking, or in the monastery’s store sewing the mats and cushions they sell, or vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning bathrooms, or working on a building renovation project installing drywall, staining boards, and painting. One day my work practice assignment was: “there’s a clog in such-and-such a sink. Unclog it.” It took 12 feet of plumber’s snake, but I finally got it cleared.

Other weeks we’d be on sesshin schedule. Every month included one week-long and one or two week-end sesshin, when our schedule had a lot less work practice and a lot more sitting meditation. Many guests came in to the monastery for the sesshin and our numbers from double or triple or quadruple to between 50 and 100 people there for that week or week-end. And still other weeks the schedule would be in-between: a middle number of sitting meditation hours and work practice hours. I’m so grateful to this congregation for affording me that opportunity. I was really glad to go, though I knew I would miss you. A six-month time of intensive practice and being monastic was something I’ve been wanting to do for at least the last 15 years.

I was really glad to be there – it was a beautiful experience, a wonder-filled continual practice of opening myself to beauty. And I’m really glad to be back – back to this community of taking care and giving care.

When I was a child, a caretaker was a person who took care of someone else. Then someone noticed that these people weren’t TAKING care, they were GIVING care.
So since about the 1970s, we’ve been calling them caregivers. And it’s true that they do give care. They also take care. They take care OF someone, and they take care in the sense of being careful – mindful of tending to what is needed. They take care in the sense of taking on the responsibilities of caring. Isn’t it funny that caretaking and caregiving are the same thing?

This is not merely an oddity of the English language, but reflects the dual nature of care itself. You see, the difference between giving and taking depends on there being a difference between you and me. Caring – true caring that isn’t just going through the motions – recognizes the truth that there is no difference.

Caring that has no sense of keeping score or being paid back comes from understanding that you and I are not separate. It comes from what the Sufi poet Hafiz illustrated when he wrote:
“Even after all this time, the sun never says
to the earth: ‘You owe me.’
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights up the whole sky.”
Of course it’s useful and necessary to be able to distinguish one person from another, Bob from Betty, you from me – and to have good boundaries – including, these days, six feet of separation. From the spiritual point of view, this is a necessary and useful fiction – but a fiction nonetheless.

Your heart and your lungs, for some purposes, need to viewed as separate. But they are ultimately just you. The right atrium pumps deoxygenated blood to the right ventricle which pumps it down to the lungs where it pick up oxygen and drops off some carbon dioxide. The newly oxygenated blood is then drawn into the left atrium, which sends it to the left ventricle, which sends it throughout the body – taking your body the oxygen it needs. The heart never says, “hey, what happened to the oxygen I sent you one heartbeat ago – and the heartbeat before that and the heartbeat before that?” It just keeps sending the oxygen.

It happens that our understanding of vertebrate biology provides an answer to that question that the heart never asks. The body’s diverse functions involve taking oxygen, bonding it with carbon to create carbon dioxide, which goes into the bloodstream, and the heart pumps it back around to the lungs that breathe it out.
Where did the carbon come from? The carbon comes from the stomach and intestines, digesting and breaking down food. It’s all one system. The parts can be viewed separately, but they overlap and blur into one another.

The ultimate truth is that there is no separation of bodily organs – there’s just the one you. And no separation of you from anyone else – or any thing else. There’s just the universe unfolding itself to itself – an unfolding that includes localized pockets adopting the fiction of separation.

The opposite of caring is taking the fiction of separation as if it were ultimate truth. It isn’t. The things we care about, the people we care about and care for, pull us out of ourselves – which is to say, they flow from the recognition that we are not separate, even if we stay six-feet apart, even if we have a screen between us.

We are not separate. Those could be just words – “we are not separate” – just something to say. In our caring, however, we embody and manifest that nonseparation. We live nonseparation in our love for each other, and in our life projects. Whether you succeed or fail at a life project is not the point – but that you were oriented toward compassion is the point. Whether your life project is being an architect that designs spaces of beauty to enrich inhabitants, or being a teacher to help people understand, or being janitor to facilitate others’ productivity by keeping their workspaces clean, or being an epidemiologist working to prevent the next pandemic, what matters more than outcomes is that your vocation orients you toward compassion, that you care about something besides maintaining the illusion of a separate self, and that there are loved ones and life projects with whom and with which you are so bonded that the question of whether you are taking care or giving care makes no sense because care is flowing in all directions at once.

May it be so.


What's Your Great Vow?

LoraKim's Story

When I was a little girl, I went often to the woods to play, and to be with my bird friends. They were so Wow and such good company. They sang to me and I sang to them.

Birds also came to me in my dreams, and were in my prayers. I grew up in a religious tradition where children were encouraged to pray to God every night before bedtime. So I got on my knees by my bedside, and then, after bowing my head for a bit, looked out the window and said, “God, I don’t want to go to heaven if you don’t take the birds, and if only some get to go to heaven, take the birds. That’s the earliest form of a promise I was making considering birds, though I was trying to get God to do the promising, not me. When I was a little older, I begged my parents to let me have a parakeet for my 6 th birthday, then a little parrot for my 10th birthday, and then pigeons for my 12 th birthday. I just had to be around birds and I had to take care of them. During this time, I saw a cartoon of the Eskimo curlew who was going extinct. I was so moved on behalf of my bird friends that I promised right then and then that I would be a bird veterinarian taking care of birds.

And so that is what I did, I became a doctor of birds. And not just any birds, but wild birds. For I was learning that there was no way birds could flourish in cages. Taking care of birds meant letting them fly free. Because the most endangered group of birds is parrots, I became a wild parrot veterinarian. And now I get to go all over the Americas taking care of birds. My veterinary clinic fits in a variety of suitcases and backpacks.

Sound fun? Like a wonderful job, and an easy promise to keep to take care of birds? Well, it hasn’t been an easy road. For one, I really, really, don’t like going to school. College was miserable, I just wanted to be outside. But I had to attend University, because I had made a vow to take care of birds. Also, taking care of wild birds doesn’t pay well, so I’ve had years when I couldn’t go to the doctor or dentist because I had no money, and couldn’t go to movies or go out to a restaurant. Taking care of birds in trouble, means traveling and living in places that many people would consider dangerous. I lived in Guatemala during the Civil War there and I was scared all the time. I couldn’t go out at night, and spent a lot of time in my home or yard – much like now. I’ve had all kinds of diseases and all kinds of things bite me.

But you know what the hardest part of my promise to birds is? I can’t save them. Parrots are in real trouble and we are losing them. All my work often feels like it is for nothing. But I do get to save the lives of some individual birds, and it matters a lot to them, and to be in solidarity with people, which matters a lot to them. And taking care of others means a lot to me, because it means I am honoring the lives of so many who have given much to me. I just want to give back to all those birds I kept in cages as a child, and do my best, no matter the outcome.

I owe it to them. I owe it to myself. I have some sadness about not being able to save them. At the same time, I have great joy for giving them all I can.

Birds give me wows and I give them vows.

Meredith's Sermon: What's Your Great Vow?
Part 1

The Stoic philosophers emphasize not worrying about what isn’t in your control. And that is such an important wisdom – to let go of concern for what isn’t in your control. But what IS in your control?There is a further wisdom that recognizes that any control is ultimately an illusion. Your thoughts? Nope. Your thoughts are not in your control.

Try sitting very still and very quiet, lowering your eyelids so they are almost but not quite shut, gazing downward at a 45-degree angle and bringing all your awareness to something in the present – noticing the minute details of the sensations of breathing in and breathing out, say. You will soon notice that a thought will intrude. The mind will wander off from the assignment you have given it.
"I need to do my laundry soon. . . . So-and-so was curt with me; what was that about? . . . Perhaps I’ll start a garden. . . . I wonder if the movie theatres will be re-opening soon. . . . What’s for lunch?"

You didn’t ask for those thoughts, you didn’t choose them. They just popped up. And if your thoughts aren’t in your control, then can the actions that flow from thoughts be? They certainly seem to be in our control, and it's important that they seem to be. The illusion is a necessary one – but it is an illusion nonetheless.

Spiritual deepening involves gradually seeing through the illusion of control. Sages in many times and places have recognized that we are not in control. Recently, scientific methods have confirmed it. Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the mid-1980s showed that the motor signal is headed to the muscle several hundred milliseconds before we become conscious of it. We have already begun the action before the apparatus of conscious decision-making comes on line.

For most of day-to-day life, consciousness isn’t deciding what to do. Consciousness’s job is to come along after the fact, notice what we’re doing, and make up a story about how what we’re doing is what we meant to do. All day long, it’s going: "I meant to do that. Oh, yeah, I meant to do that, too." But the meaning-to-do-it trails the beginning of doing it. Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior.

In Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments, he flashed the word "walk" in a part of the visual field that would be seen by only the right hemisphere. It’s the left hemisphere that processes language consciously, so subjects were not conscious of seeing the word. Yet many of them would stand and walk away.When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get something to drink," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes.

This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know. And people of great spiritual awareness have recognized long before Libet or Gazzaniga came along that this story of the self was a fabrication.

With spiritual development and seeing through the illusion of control comes an increased appreciation of grace (the wonder, beauty, and abundance that cannot be earned or deserved), decreased worry and anxiety from trying to control outcomes, decreased attachment to the ego's story about either "accomplishments" or "failures," a decreased interest in blaming self or others.

Why would our brains be built to generate this illusion of control? One plausible suggestion is that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action. . . . This marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened (Janet Kwasniak). The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened” – if it was apparently not a result of some particular behavior of mine -- the effects on my wiring are different.

What we call “volition” is not a generator of behavior but only a perception that a behavior is ours. The illusion that intentions precede and determine action, then, is a by-product of the way the brain learns from experience.

We are not in control. And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. Intentions matter. It matters that we set an intention for what we’re going to do today, or this week, or with this one precious life.

There’s a distinction to be made between the after-the-fact rationalizations of our impulses of the moment, versus the large over-arching story of the purpose of lives. Both, it would seem, are fabricated stories, but the over-arching story has the power to feed-back down into those subconscious places that generate particular behaviors.

Conscious brain has no idea what’s going on in the subconscious, so conscious brain just makes up a story. Yet, the subconscious is listening to that story – and starts taking it into account. It listens with a skeptical ear at first, but if the story is referenced repeatedly, the subconscious wiring adjusts. Say one time you did a favor for someone. Maybe you did it for purely self-interested reasons. But you happen to have been asked why you did it, and you fabricated a story – not from any intent to deceive, but because it’s the job of conscious brain to invent rationalizations – and say your story was that you care about the well-being of others. Sub-conscious brain was listening to that story. It was not entirely sure whether to believe what it heard, but it made a note – a sort of little, “huh!”

But if it so happens that you have other occasions to tell that story about yourself, then the story gets reinforced a little more. What began, as all our explanations of our behavior do, as an after-the-fact rationalization, can eventually become an actual driving force.

Having spent half a year at a place called "Great Vow Zen Monastery," I’ve had the chance to reflect about the vows in our lives – the over-arching stories of our commitments and values that come to be our guiding forces.

We can have a vow of the moment – like vowing to get dinner on the table – but the underlying vow is what you get to if you keep asking, “why?”

Suppose (to adapt an example from Jan Chozen Bays, The Vow-Powered Life) a youth vows to become the highest scoring player on her basketball team. If she happens to be asked, or ask herself, a series of why questions, there are various directions she might go. She might want to impress a certain prospective mate she has her eye on.

Why? There are again various possible answers. Perhaps, "Because I eventually want to have a long, happy marriage like my grandparents had."

Why? "Because I want a deep and lasting connection to another human being."

Why? "To learn to love other people genuinely, and also myself." And this is where the why questions stop. We recognize implicitly that we have reached an ultimate.

The series of why questions might have taken us down a very different path to a different ultimate. She might instead have said that she wanted to become her team’s top scorer in order to get a scholarship to college, that would otherwise be unaffordable. Why does she want to go to college? She might say “to get a good job,” or she might say “to learn about international politics” and those would each lead to a different ultimate.

Whatever it might be, when you get to that ultimate that puts a stop to further why questions, that’s your great vow. When our young basketball player first formed her determination to be her team’s top scorer, there were almost certainly a variety of different urges at work. As my father used to say to me: “Son, nobody every did anything for only one reason.”

If subjected to the pressure of why questions, she’ll select rationales that sound good at the time. Yet the subconscious is listening to what the conscious brain makes up, and if the story is one that she sticks to, it will gradually become a true guide.

The great vow is your personal mission. Most of us are used to mission statements for institutions -- companies, congregations, and nonprofit organizations, etc. But do you have a mission statement for your life? If you do, you have articulated your Great Vow.

If we are never pressed for ultimate purpose, then we can spend our lives pulled this way and that by forces of the moment. So it’s important to pursue that series of why questions, get down to an ultimate that feels right, and stick to it. Keep repeating it – especially as an explanation for something you are doing, to strengthen the link between your words and your action.

Each time you sincerely say it, you reinforce your orientation toward realizing that world that you dream.

Part 2

Great Vow Zen Monastery has been encouraging people to articulate their Great Vow since the place was founded in 2002. A few years ago, they built on the property a Shrine of Vows for displaying painted declarations of people’s vows.

Herewith, a sampling.
1. One person quoted from Henry Miller: “I know what the cure is, it is to give up, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.”
2. “I vow to recognize frustration and impatience.”
3. “Awake” and “I vow to do the work tirelessly”
4. “I vow to believe in myself,” and “Remember who you are.” (unclear whether “you” refers to others or to self)
5. “I vow to help myself and others wake up to the inexhaustible tenderness of the present moment.”
6. “Awake open-hearted wonder”
7. “Embrace the Flaws” (I wonder if the “a” in "flaws" looks a little funny on purpose to exemplify a flaw)
8. “I vow to become a zen priest. I vow to devote my life to practice. I vow to free everyone.” (It’s signed "(Shinei) Sara" and dated 2013, and I can tell you that Shinei is indeed now a priest, and seems well on her way toward realizing the other two.)
9. “I vow to awaken fully so that I can help others learn to end their own suffering” – and this one continues on its other side
10. “So we can all be enLIGHT(ened) together!”
11. “I vow to serve the truth.”
12. “I vow to cultivate wholesomeness in myself and to nurture it in others.”
13. “I vow to live fearlessly” and “I vow to see all beings as my teachers.”
13. “I vow to make amends.”
14. “I vow to do more than I think I can. And then more than that.”
15. “I vow to illuminate curiosity and beauty.”
17. “I vow to be a gentle dragon.”
18. “I vow to become a mirror to reflect the true nature of all beings.”
19. Love and death. A vow to die – referring, perhaps, to the dying away of what clings to attachments and keeps us separate -- rests adjacent to a vow to love.
20. A vow engraved in wood quotes from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhissatva: “For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, so then may I too abide, to dispel the misery of the world.”
21. “I vow to expand the container until nothing is excluded.”
22. “See all as Buddha”
23. “I vow to devote my life to practice.”
24. “Shine” – a simple, one-word vow.
25. “I vow to live as if each day is my last.”
26. “Not two” – a reminder that nothing is separate.
27. “Complete combustion” – perhaps this person wants to burn away all delusions, or maybe burns with the fire of commitment.
28. “I vow to be of service to the Great Mystery and to help others lead lives of fulfillment and growth.”
29. “I vow to listen with heart and sing with guts.”
30. “I will move on.” With a depiction of baggage being left behind.
31. “I vow to find my true home in everyday life.”
32. “Simple mind. Pure heart”
33. “I vow to serve children in need.”
34. “To abide and move in love.”
35. “I vow to drop the tragic story line and tell interesting stories.”
36. “I vow to let it go.”
37. “I vow to always give full attention to my passion.”
38. “I vow to love fearlessly,” and “I vow to live this truth.”
39. “I vow to plant a garden on earth of lovingkindness for all beings.”
40. “To cherish all life”
41. This one has no words – perhaps some vows are wordless.
42. This one seems to be a marriage vow: “In your eyes the three treasures – this marriage, a dharma gate – and you: companion, beloved guide, and friend. I carry your heart. I carry it in my heart.”
43. “I vow to embody pure love.”
44. “Become prayer”
45. “I vow to love myself so I may love others.”
46. “I vow to embody love and justice.”
47. “I vow to guard and keep the precepts.”
48. “To feel peaceful and give peace to others.”
49. “Understand the human condition.”
50. “I vow to know the true mind of the Lotus Sutra.”
51. “I vow to cultivate lovingkindness for myself and all other beings.”
52. “Seeing, in all circumstances, that my practice can be of help to others.”
53. “I vow to be warm, inclusive, and creative in how I share the dharma life.”
54. “To cherish the Earth and all its beings.”
55. “I vow to embody true compassion.”
56. “Green every place”
57. “I vow to see through birth and death.”
58. “Awaken!”
59. “I vow to be cautious with my steps and words and thoughts.”
60. “To settle into basic goodness.”
61. “I vow to never, ever, ever, give up my spiritual quest.”
62. “Unperfect” – or perhaps the verb, “UnperFECT”
63. “I vow to be gentle with every being.”
64. “I vow to be of service.”
65. “Awaken the world.”
66. “I vow to always return to practice.”
67. “I vow to live and seek the truth.”
68. “I vow to teach wisdom.”
69. “I vow to sustain life and nourish paths to enlightenment.”
70. “Peace. Whole. Connection.”
71. “I vow to heal and help myself and others.”
72. “I vow to speak my truth.”
73. “Manifesting life as channeling, offering, and dancing the cosmic dance to the music of the spheres AS the music of the spheres.”
74. “be nowhere”

As you think about how you would articulate your Great Vow, it’ll be helpful to reflect on your sources of vow. There are three sources: inherited, reactive, and inspired.

What is your inherited vow? As you were growing up, what were you given to understand by your parents or primary caretakers was the primary function of a life? They may never have articulated it to you, but if you had to now articulate what your parents’ great vows were, what were they?

My parents were both professors – Mom’s field was chemistry and Dad’s was English. In the early years of my life, they were grad students, then they settled into tenure-track teaching positions. So my inherited vow from both of them was: One, learn stuff. Two, teach it to others.

These vows made sense to me, and they guided me through young adulthood as I became a professor myself.

You might, however, have reached age 18 feeling that your parents showed you more about how you wanted NOT to be than how to be. So that leads to the second possibly important source for your vow: reactive vows.
“Reactive vows can ricochet through many generations. For example, a child raised by a military father who is precise, strict, authoritarian, and conservative may become a hippie. The hippie’s child, tired of dirty clothes, living out of a van, and not having predictable meals, may decide to become an accountant who lives in the same house for forty years and hoards food, toilet paper, and paperclips. The accountant’s child becomes a rock musician perpetually on tour; the musician’s child, a buttoned-up stockbroker; and so on.” (Bays 36)
Or reactive vows can be a response to situation faced while growing up.
“People who become physicians often have had an experience with illness or death in their early years, either in themselves or their family. Their choice of profession may be due to an unconscious desire to gain control over the helplessness and vulnerability they felt as they faced sickness and death at an age when they had no defenses or coping skills. Incidentally, many lawyers seem to be impelled into law after an early experience of injustice” (Bays 12).
A reactive source of vows is not a bad thing. It COULD be over-reactive, but reaction itself is often not overreactive. What makes it reactive is that’s it’s driven by a desire to avoid something – avoid being like your parents, or avoid a kind of experience, such as sickness or injustice.

A third, and the last vow source I’ll mention, is inspired vows. We pick up inspired vows – often in adolescence or early adulthood – when we learn about someone we admire. We aspire to be like them. Martin Luther King Jr’s vow of nonviolence came from an inspired vow – inspired by the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. Athletes often draw inspiration from a particular athlete they admire. Who are your heroes?
“You cannot discover your vows by thinking. Your vow lies within you” (Bays 5)
To bring it out, to consciously articulate and thereby strengthen it as the orientation of your life, it helps to explore those three questions:

  • What did you learn from parents or primary caretakers about what life is for? What are your inherited vows?
  • Second, what negative lessons did you learn – lessons about what you wanted to avoid if at all possible? What are your reactive vows?
  • Third, who are your heroes? What are your inspired vows?

Take a piece of paper and write down your answers about your inherited vows, reactive vows, and inspired vows.

Please do that this afternoon, before you forget.

Then sleep on it. Some time tomorrow, please look again at your paper – what you put down about your three sources – inherited, reactive, and inspired.

And then, in that light, draft your Great Vow.

I’m asking that you email it to me. Send it to minister at cucwp dot org. I will print out your vow. And when we finally return to our congregational building, you will find there our own CUUC Shrine of Vows.

If you’d like your name to appear with your Vow, then include your name at the end of the vow in the same paragraph (i.e., without a line break before your name). Otherwise, vows I receive will be displayed anonymously.

Please make it so. I am so looking forward to seeing what your Great Vows are!

Blessed be and Amen.