We are reflecting, this month, on the theme: transformation. Last week, I talked about having a vow to guide your life – discerning what is your calling, and pursuing it. Now, a vow is not a goal. The goal question is: where do you want to end up? The vow question is: what direction do you want to be headed – who knows where you’ll end up. A goal is either achieved, or it isn’t, at least not yet. A vow is how you want to live. It’s about the journey, while a goal is about a particular destination.

Living by vow is about being oriented in a certain way every day, whether you actually accomplish anything or not. It is about what you’ve decided to dedicate yourself to trying to accomplish, not about whether or not accomplishment happens. You put yourself out there, give to the world what you got, and it’s up to the world to decide what to make of it. That part isn’t in your control. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said,
“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”
Vow is about what direction you’re going to point your efforts. We don’t know how our intentions will transform us – just that a great vow does indeed tend to transform.

Today, though, we’re going to look at the other side. If vow is about looking within to discern who you are and what you are on this Earth to be, receptivity is about listening without – hearing and seeing what the world happens to be offering. If vow is about intention, receptivity is about dropping our intentions and simply receiving what is given.

There’s the part of life where you decide what game you’re going to play, and then there’s the part where you play the game decided upon by others, or the world, or fate, or God, or history, or something beyond your control or even influence. There’s the task of discerning your unique calling, rather than living aimlessly, without purpose, unclear on who you are, and then there’s the task of playing the hand you’re dealt, rather than fuming about your bad luck. Last week we looked at the first task. Today we look at the second.

Here, we might take a lesson from the principles of improv – improvisational theatre. In improvisational acting, you always say ‘yes’ to whatever reality the other actors present. If your fellow actor says, “There are alien flying saucers landing over there,” you don’t say, “Oh, no, that’s just a trick of sunlight off the clouds.” Never deny the reality that the other actor is bringing to the scene. Go with it.

You might go for humor and say, “Oh, my god. They’re going to want me to take them to my leader, and my leader is at the cleaners.” Or you might build the tension by saying, “I’ll get my pistol.” Or, alternatively, going in a very different direction, you might say, “Yes. I summoned them.” Or something else that accepts the reality presented and builds on it – in one direction or another.

Whatever weirdness presents, go with it. Rule number 1 of improv is: say yes – figuratively and sometimes maybe literally. Receptivity is saying yes to our reality and your reality. As psychologist Rick Hanson points out:
“Real life is like improv: the script's always changing and saying yes keeps you in the flow, pulls for creativity, and makes it more fun.”
He offers this little exercise:
"Try saying no out loud or in your mind. How's that feel? Then say yes. Which one feels better, opens your heart more, and draws you more into the world?"
Saying yes signals – and triggers – your receptivity to what is.

Sure, there are times when you need to say no – when you need to be clear about who you are, affirm your boundaries, decline to go along with something with which you aren’t comfortable, and refrain from promising what you won’t be able to deliver, or don’t want to. You definitely need those no’s.

Even so. Be on the look-out for ways that you can say yes to what life offers.

At the most basic level, receptivity means just recognizing reality as reality. Don’t be in denial. Being in denial is one of those things that we see so readily in other people, but find it very hard to spot in ourselves. I think my brother-in-law is in denial about climate change. He thinks I’m in denial about the Deep State.

It helps to have a diverse circle of trusted friends who can tell you if you’re being in denial. It also helps to cultivate the habit of being skeptical of the truth of anything that you want to be true. If you want it to be true, double-check the evidence with a critical eye before you believe that it is true.

One form of being in denial is to push unpleasant facts out of your mind. We say, “I don’t want to think about that – that’s depressing.” Reality is never depressing. In fact, depression – the sort of depression that’s at issue – comes from the efforts of denial. The energies spent on turning away from reality is what leaves us drained and sad – which we notice when those energies fail and reality breaks through.


The project of growing spiritually is a project of receptivity to inconvenient truths – a project of cultivating the habit of mindful awareness of suffering: your own and other people’s. This was so important that Siddhartha Gotama – the Buddha – declared it to be the first noble truth: life is dukkha – meaning painful disappointment.

He delineated Four Noble Truths in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – a sutta which is traditionally held to be the Buddha’s first talk after his enlightenment. That sutta says that dukkha is birth, old age, sickness, and death, not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want. Notice that fact, Buddha is saying. Open yourself to receive this important truth: painful disappointment happens.

Just being present to this fact, strangely, makes it less painful. As Joan Tollifson said in our opening invocation:
“Awareness is its own action. We don’t need to analyze it or impose changes based on our ideas of what should be happening. Just being awake to the present moment, as it is, and seeing clearly what is happening: this is transformative.”
Just being receptive to reality is transformative.

Buddhism’s four noble truths, on the standard interpretation, are:
  1. Dukkha, painful disappointment, happens.
  2. There is a cause of dukkha, which is clinging.
  3. There is a solution.
  4. That solution is the eightfold path.
I am among those who think that standard interpretation is a misinterpretation of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. The crux of the matter is on that second noble truth. I think the Buddha was not saying there is a CAUSE of dukkha. He was saying there is an EFFECT of dukkha.

The key phrase in the original is dukkha samudaya. Samudaya means “arising.” So we have this ambiguity. This text says “dukkha arising.” Does that mean arising OF dukkha -- or what arises FROM dukkha? It is ambiguous, which opens the door for the standard interpretation, but I am persuaded by those writers (David Brazier, The Feeling Buddha, and Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism) who argue that this term, dukkha samudaya, refers to what arises when we experience life’s disappointments. What arises is reactivity: resistance, denial. “This shouldn’t be happening to me.”

There is no spiritual path or practice or discipline that will put an end to dukkha. Old age, sickness, and death are unavoidable, no matter how devotedly you adhere to Buddha's eightfold path, or to any spiritual path. Not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want: also unavoidable. There’s no escape from these. What there IS the possibility of escape from is the reactivity to those disappointments: the resistance, the denial, the tendency of the mind to fixate on “it should not be” rather than on simply, “it is.”

This means that when we get to Noble Truths 3 and 4 -- "there is a solution" and "that solution is the eightfold path" -- the solution Buddha is talking about isn't the solution to dukkha. Again: there is no cure for old age, sickness, and death. Rather, he's talking about the solution to the extra suffering caused by our reactivity, resistance, and denial. The eightfold path doesn't free us from dukkha, but it is a guide for accepting and making peace with those facts of life that we don't like.

So I particularly appreciate the scholar Stephen Batchelor’s re-casting of the so-called “four noble truths” as the four tasks:
  1. Comprehend suffering. Really wrap your mind around that reality.
  2. Let go of arising – that is, let go of the reactivity that arises from the painful disappointments.
  3. Behold the ceasing – that is, notice what it feels like during those times when you aren’t reactive.
  4. Cultivate the path.

So, saying yes to some part of life you don’t like doesn’t mean making yourself like it. Saying yes to sickness, old age, and death doesn’t mean you’ll like those things.
“You can say yes to pain, to sorrow, to the things that aren't going well for you or others. Your yes means that you accept the facts as they are, that you are not resisting them emotionally even if you are trying with all your might to change them. This will usually bring some peace -- and will help any actions you take be more effective.” (Rick Hanson, Just One Thing)
Here’s how Rick Hanson suggests cultivating the spirit of saying yes to all of life, even the hard parts. Start off by saying yes to something you like. That should be easy. From there, next say yes to something neutral. Something like a wall painted a color that you neither like nor dislike. Think of a food that you neither like nor dislike. Say yes to that. Also not too hard.
“Then say yes to something you don't like. Can you do that, too? As you do this, try to feel a sense that you are okay, fundamentally, even though what you dislike exists. Also try to feel some acceptance in your yes, some surrender to the facts as they are, whether you like them or not.

Try saying yes to more things that are not your preference. You're not saying yes that you approve of them, but – for example – yes it's raining at my picnic, yes people are poor and hungry across the planet, yes my career has stalled, yes I miscarried, yes my dear friend has cancer. Yes that's the way it is. Yes to being in traffic. Yes to the job you have. Yes to the body you have.

Yes to the twists and turns in your life so far: large and small; good, bad, and indifferent; past, present, and future. Yes to the younger sibling whose birth toppled you from your throne. Yes to your parents' work and your family circumstances. Yes to your choices after leaving home. Yes to what you had for breakfast. Yes to moving someplace new. Yes to the person you are sleeping with -- or yes to not sleeping with anyone. Yes to having children -- or to not having them.

Say yes to what arises in the mind. Yes to feelings, sensations, thoughts, images, memories, desires. Yes even to things that need to be restrained -- such as an angry impulse to hit something, undeserved self-criticism, or an addiction."
You still restrain those things, but you say yes to the fact that the urge has arisen.
"Say yes to all the parts of the people in your life. Yes to the love in your parents and also yes to the parts that bothered you. Yes to a friend's flakiness amidst her good humor and patience, yes to another friend's sincerity amidst her irritability and criticalness. Yes to every bit of a child, a relative, a distant acquaintance, an adversary."
Yes to my brother-in-law being in denial about climate change. Yes to his insistence that I’m in denial about the Deep State.
"And yes to different parts of yourself -- whatever they are. Not picking and choosing right now, but saying yes -- YES -- to whatever is inside you.

Play with different tones of yes (out loud or in your mind) related to different things -- including the ones you don't like -- and see how this feels. Try a cautious yes, as well as a yes that is confident, soft, rueful, or enthusiastic.

Feel your yes in your body. To adapt a method from Thich Nhat Hanh: Breathing in, feel something positive; breathing out, say yes. Breathe in energy, breathe out yes. Breathe in calm, breathe out yes.

Say yes to your needs. Yes to the need for more time to yourself, more exercise, more love, fewer sweets, and less anger. Try saying no to these needs in your mind or out loud, and see how that feels. And then say yes to them again.

Say yes to actions. To this kiss, this lovemaking, this reaching for the salt, this brushing of teeth, this last good-bye to someone you love.

Notice your nos. And then see what happens if you say yes to some of the things you've previously said no to.

Say yes to being alive. Yes to life. Yes to your own life. Yes to each year, each day. Yes to each minute.

Imagine that life is whispering yes. Yes to all beings, and yes to you. Everything you've said yes to is saying yes to you. Even the things you've said no to are saying yes to you!

Each breath, each heartbeat, each surge across a synapse: each one says yes. Yes, all yes, all saying yes.


Here’s my story about saying yes.

It was the summer of 2004 – coming up on 20 years ago. LoraKim and I were in living in El Paso, Texas. LoraKim was finishing her second year as minister to our El Paso congregation. I had finished my ministerial internship up the road in Albuquerque, and had just been admitted to Unitarian Universalist ministerial fellowship. We had asked the El Paso congregation to make us their half-time-each co-ministers, and they had agreed.

LoraKim received a communication from Southwest Key – which calls itself an immigrant children’s shelter, but which functionally, is a detention facility for undocumented minors. In 2004, in El Paso, there on the Mexican border, undocumented minors from Mexico were sent back over the bridge, but minors from countries further south required more details to be arranged to work out where and to whom to send them back. As that is all being worked out, the children have to be interned somewhere, and that is why Southwest Key exists. Southwest Key was looking for a minister willing to volunteer to lead very general, ecumenical religious services, in Spanish, for the minors there.

Unitarians are particularly good at ecumenical and interfaith, and LoraKim was fluent in Spanish, so she said yes to Southwest Key. She wanted someone to play a little guitar for part of the service she planned, so she asked me to come along to do that. And I said yes. This was not any part of our plan, our intention. The offer came completely out of the blue, and we said yes.

So we went, we put on the service. For two or three Wednesday afternoons in July 2004, we were out at the El Paso Southwest Key facility giving what spiritual encouragement we could there to the young inmates. At one of those, a skinny 17-year-old came up to us after the service. He said his name was Yency Contreras. He was from Honduras. He asked if we would sponsor him.

We didn’t know what that would mean. But we went home and we started making some phone calls to look into it. We hadn’t made very many calls before Southwest Key called us and said, “you’ve been making inquiries into sponsoring one of our youths, so you can’t come back here any more.”

Still, the wheels were turning. A nonprofit called Las Americas connected with us, guiding us through the processes and procedures, and what forms to file with whom. We would need to go to court – family court rather than immigration court because Yency was a minor. Las Americas hooked us up with a pro bono lawyer for that.

It took a couple months. Then, in early October 2004 we drove to Southwest Key with papers in hand, this time to receive rather than to give. Yency was released into our custody. The court said we were his "managing conservators," which meant we were his functional parents as long as he was in the US and his biological parents were not. And as long as he was a minor – which, in less than 5 months, he would no longer be.

We kinda figured that, released from Southwest Key, Yency would bolt. We’d wake up the next morning and he would be gone. Instead, the next morning came and there he was: calling us mom and dad and asking about breakfast – in Spanish.

We enrolled him in the local high school. His 18th birthday came and went, and there he still was – slowly getting better at English, cracking jokes, and arguing with us about religion. The El Paso Times sent a reporter out to do a story about two Anglo Unitarian ministers and their evangelical Hispanic teenager – who wanted to be a police officer.
The picture that ran with El Paso Times article, 2005 May 9

In 2006, LoraKim and I accepted the call of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida to serve as their co-ministers. Yency came to Florida with us. It took him six tries at the GED exam before he could get past the math section, but he kept at it, and he finally did. Thereupon he enrolled in the local community college.

In fall of 2011, the three of us drove to Jacksonville for his naturalization service as he became a proud US citizen. He finished the two-year degree at the community college, and, in 2012, moved to Orlando to attend the University of Central Florida, returning home on occasional weekends and the holidays.
Boys in the Hood. Me and Yency in 2012.

In 2013, LoraKim and I moved to New York. In December 2014, we flew down to Orlando for Yency’s graduation, with a degree in criminal justice. He moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. He had cousins there and he’d heard encouraging things from the Charlotte police department.

He met a young woman. In January 2016, LoraKim and I co-officiated their wedding. Yency and Evelin now have two daughters – they are our granddaughters.
Officer Contreras, 2017

Yency’s now in his 8th year as a Charlotte police officer. We get out to see them sometimes – and they came up to New York to visit us there sometimes. He calls us every couple weeks to chat – or we call him. His place in our lives has been transformative.

When LoraKim and I married, we’d decided we weren’t going to have kids, and hadn’t given it a thought. Back in 2004, adopting a teenager was no part of our plan – no part of our intention, no part of our great vow for how we were out to serve the world.

But then this kid at Southwest Key asked. And we said yes.



What's Your Great Vow?


Transformation is our theme for December. Change, of course, is inevitable. We can’t help but change.

The first task is to accept this – don’t try to fight change, and when it comes, as it is continually coming, let go of that impulse to pine for the good old days. Embrace change – that’s the first spiritual task in the category "transformation."

But transformation suggests something a little more than the random – or seemingly-random – vicissitudes of change. Transformation – in the sense of a spiritual orientation – suggests a certain intentionality. There’s changing by accident – and then there’s changing on purpose, and transformation should have some purpose driving it. That's the second task: to have a purpose and to transform yourself in accordance with that purpose. Immediately, there's a caveat. You do want some purpose, but not too much. There needs to be some intentionality, but not too much intentionality. Remember that your purpose comes out of who you are now. As you re-make yourself, leave room for new purposes to emerge. Don’t try to control the process beyond a very gentle guidance.

It’s like parenting yourself. A good parent knows, as Kahlil Gibran said:
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”
Take the same approach to yourself – for you, too, are a child of life’s longing for itself. What you transform into comes through you but not from you.

Parenting a child or parenting yourself, either way, you offer gentle guidance, not control – you protect safety – make a safe space in which your child or yourself can become what life means for them, or you, to be.

This idea of control is worth looking into in some detail. 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 perception of 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.... What’s playing at the theatres?...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 ze’s doing is a reasonable part of zir 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, offered by Janet Kwasniak, 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.

In other words, 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.

And that leads us to the question for today: What is your great vow?


What is the promise your life makes to life itself? It’s just a story, sure, but it’s a story that can be potent.

I had a six month sabbatical back at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 – the six months immediately prior to the beginning of the pandemic, as it turned out. I spent the sabbatical in residence at a Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. It was called "Great Vow Zen Monastery." When we weren’t meditating, or doing the work to maintain the place, there were occasional group classes and workshops. As its name implies, Great Vow Zen Monastery facilitates reflection 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?” To adapt an example from the book, The Vow-Powered Life, by Jan Chozen Bays, who is the abbott of Great Vow Zen Monestery – suppose 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 once said 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. 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.

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, as I’ve mentioned. 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 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. As Jan Chozen Bays explains:
“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)
Alternatively, reactive vows can be a response to a 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 it might be just-right reactive.

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? So these are three sources of vow to reflect upon: the inherited, the reactive, and the inspired. Ultimately, though,
“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:
  1. What did you learn from parents or primary caretakers about what life is for? What are your inherited vows?
  2. What negative lessons did you learn – lessons about what you wanted to avoid if at all possible? What are your reactive vows?
  3. Who are your heroes? What are your inspired vows?
So here’s what I’m asking you to do – do this today – when you get home this afternoon, before you forget. Write down your answers about your inherited vows, reactive vows, and inspired vows.

Then sleep on it.

Some time tomorrow, please look again at what you wrote – what you put down about your three sources – inherited, reactive, and inspired. And then, in that light, draft your Great Vow.

You can share your Great Vow with others – I would love to hear what you discern – or you may prefer to keep it to yourself. But let it transform you into who you are.



The Thanksgiving Story, As Amended


From Isabell Call, “Thanksgrieving"
Although both Native American and Europeans had feasts expressing gratitude during harvest time, the Europeans who arrived on this continent were incredibly destructive to Native American communities. The Wampanoag man often celebrated as a friend of the pilgrims, Tisquantum, spoke English because traders had enslaved him and forcibly taken him to England. When he finally escaped and made his way back home, his community had all died from smallpox his captors had left behind. He was friendly to the pilgrims who moved into the land of his people because none of his own people were left. He was able to find work with the pilgrims as a translator and helped them negotiate treaties. But as we know, treaties between European settlers and the indigenous residents of America have not been honored by the new arrivals.

And although there's some evidence of a shared meal between Europeans and Wampanoag people in 1621, the holiday may actually have started a few decades later, in May 1637, when English and Dutch mercenaries attacked the Pequot Tribe. They killed over 700 people, and the next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared a day of Thanksgiving in celebration.

Since then, various governors and presidents called for days of Thanksgiving to commemorate various events, but it didn't get formalized into an annual holiday until Abraham Lincoln chose a Thursday in November in 1863 to celebrate Civil War victories.

The 400-year-old story we've heard about harmony between people of different backgrounds just isn't true. The United American Indians of New England have commemorated a National Day of Mourning every fourth Thursday in November since 1970. They write:
"Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.”
We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.

Religion is stories, and music, enacted in ritual. Our ancestors gathered around campfires. There would be drumming and dancing, chanting or singing. And there would be story-telling. The stories helped them make sense of themselves. The stories told the people’s history. They would tell of how the world came to be, and how the plants and animals came to be, and how they themselves, the people, came to be. They didn’t know how the world, and life, came to be so they guessed, using imagination to fashion a tale that seemed to them credible.

We do the same thing today. Long ago, people attended to the stories of the wise ones in long cloaks called shamans. Today we attend to the stories of the wise ones in white coats called astrophysicists. Our story today is that there was a singularity 14 billion years ago that expanded into the universe as we know it. Our story today is continually revised by the results of experiments that we designed for the purpose of learning things that would compel us to revise our story.

The astrophysicists’ story has a lot more math in it than the shamans’ story of old. But our story, like the ones our first story-telling ancestors told, has, at its heart, mystery. We don’t know what made the singularity happen, and our early ancestors didn’t know what force had brought forth the soil, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, stars, plants, animals – and themselves. It all began in mystery. The old stories and the new story alike begin in mystery.

And then it unfolded. When the unfolding involved something that didn’t seem to fit what people could do, what animals or plants could do, what earth or sky or wind or fire or water could do, the story-teller brought another character into the story – with an agency that could do what otherwise seemed un-do-able. We might translate the name of that character as spirit, or Great Spirit. It was something mysterious, and there were a lot of very different stories about it, but what the stories had in common was: the great and mysterious agent knew things and wanted things. It had knowledge and desires and intentions. How else could mountains, or people, come to be, except through the intention of some creative force? (It turns out, there is an answer to that question. But it’s an answer with a lot of math in it.)

The stories and the music and the dance were done in a ritualized way – or were done together with ritual. These were ways, maybe, our ancestors sought to influence the mystery that had powers, knowledge, and desires. They were ways to help them feel connected to this mystery with powers and intentions. It helped them be at peace with the mystery they could not control or influence.

We continue today to gather – have music, a little ritual, and tell stories about where we come from, to help us know who we are. Different religions have different stories, different rituals, different moral codes, and play different music. They aren’t so much different paths all headed up the same mountain as different paths headed up different mountains. But they are all religions – which means they have stories, music, and ritual to convey a sense of who we are, what is our place in the family of things, what is ours to do, what we are here to try to be.

Who are we? Where do we come from? And why do we share in practices of Thanksgiving? Therefore, we will today retell the ritual story of Thanksgiving. It is that time of year, so let that story be today re-told. But we Unitarians are not only a story-telling people, as all people are. We are also a story-revising people, continually updating our story in light of new evidence, new understandings, and new sensibilities. Our openness to new evidence and readiness to revise is a distinguishing characteristic of our liberal faith.

So when we re-tell again the Thanksgiving story, we will be considering amendments as we go. You will have the chance to vote on those amendments by raising your voting card like we do at General Assembly – your voting card is your Order of Service.


BIRCH: [gavels] I call this story telling session to order. Story teller, you may proceed.

MEREDITH: Our story. The Pilgrims were not the first people to land on the shores of New England. The area was first discovered in 1524 by Giovanni de Verrazzano, who explored the Atlantic Coast from Florida to New Brunswick.

[Delegate 1 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Norwalk.

DELEGATE 1: Mx. Chair, I move to amend. Giovanni de Verrazzano did not discover New England. There were people already here. Say instead, “Verrazzano was the first European to explore the Atantic Coast of what is now called North America.”

BIRCH: Those in favor of incorporating the amendment, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

[Delegate 1 sits]

MEREDITH: Let’s back up further, then, and say who did discover this land. This region we call North America was discovered by peoples who came over the Bering land bridge about 16 thousand years ago. They split into branches and spread across the continent. These were the discoverers of our land. [Delegate 2 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from the south side.

DELEGATE 2: Mx. Chair, move to amend. These people did not discover this region either. There were animals already here. I might mention in particular the Carolina Parakeet, extinct since 1918. I’d nominate them for discoverers of our region.

BIRCH: Perhaps we should remove the word “discover” altogether?

DELEGATE 2: Yes, that’s the amendment I propose.

BIRCH: All in favor of striking the word discover, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

[Delegate 2 sits]

MEREDITH: As they split into branches and spread across the continent, one of the branches, about 14 or 15 thousand years ago, became the first humans to inhabit the area we call Massachusetts. Then in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazzano explored this area. John Cabot and Jacques Cartier also charted in the vicinity. In 1609, Henry Hudson made his way up what we call the Hudson River. These explorers sometimes captured and enslaved natives – and they brought diseases. Europeans had developed immunity to these diseases, but the natives had not. The Wampanoag, for instance, in 1600 numbered 50,000 to 100,000, occupying 69 villages scattered throughout the region that is now southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. The plague from Europe killed up to two-thirds of them. Many also were captured and sold as slaves.

In 1614, a Wampanoag boy named Tisquantum was abducted from his village, Patuxet. Tisquantum was sold as a slave in Spain, then escaped to England. After several years, Tisquantum was able to get back to Turtle Island (what we call North America). When he returned to his village, he discovered there were no other surviving Patuxet -- the rest were either killed in battle or died of disease brought from Europe.

In 1620, the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock bringing 102 Pilgrims.

[Delegate 3 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Clive.

DELEGATE 3: Mx. Chair, point of factual clarification. Did these people call themselves “Pilgrims”?

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: They did not. Not until the 20th-century did “Pilgrim” come to refer to the people who came over on the Mayflower. They called themselves “Saints”.

DELEGATE 3: It’s disrespectful to them to call them something they didn’t call themselves. I move we call them Saints.

[Delegate 4 raises hand, comes to microphone and nudges aside delegate 3]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Beaverdale.

DELEGATE 4: Mx. Chair, I oppose this amendment. It may be disrespectful to them to call them Pilgrims, but it’s disrespectful to us to call them “saints” – because we’re pretty sure they weren’t.

BIRCH: Fact checker, was there some other name?

ELLIOTT: They were Puritans.

BIRCH: Will the delegate accept an amendment to the amendment, to call them Puritans.

DELEGATE 3: I will.

[Delegates 3 and 4 sit]

BIRCH: The amendment is to call the people on the Mayflower “Puritans.” All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... The amendment is incorporated.

MEREDITH: These . . . Puritans settled in an area that was once Patuxet, the Wampanoag village abandoned because of the plague. The English did not see any Wampanoag that first winter at all. They only caught a rare glimpse of a fleeting shadow of the land's inhabitants until March 1621 when Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, came to the village. The next day, Samoset returned with Tisquantum.

Tisquantum had learned English during his abduction, so he could talk to the settlers and serve as a translator. Tisquantum showed them how to plant corn, fish and gather berries and nuts. The crop seeds the colonists had brought with them failed, so without the help of Tisquantum – also called Squanto -- there probably wouldn’t have been a harvest to celebrate that fall.

[Delegate 5 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Polk City.

DELEGATE 5: Mx. Chair, I move to include what the Puritans wore.

BIRCH: Which was?

DELEGATE 5: Beats me. I was wanting to find out!

BIRCH: Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: The Puritan colonists did not wear black, large hats with buckles on them, nor buckled shoes. The 19th-century artists who painted them that way did so because they associated black clothing and buckles with being old-fashioned. Actually, their attire was bright and cheerful.

DELEGATE 5: I move to include that information in the record.

BIRCH: All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... The information is incorporated. Pick up from there.

[Delegate 5 sits]

MEREDITH: The harvest celebration of 1621 was not a solemn religious observance. It was a three-day festival that included drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even shooting practice with English muskets -- a not-so-subtle way to warn the indigenous peoples that these colonists could shoot them. The Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, and 90 warriors made their way to the settlement in response to the sounds of the gunfire. They thought the colonists were under attack, so they came prepared for battle to help defend the colonists. The Wampanoag were probably not invited, and the settlers were probably rather nervous having them around.

[Delegate 6 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from West Des Moines.

DELEGATE 6: We’ve heard what the Puritans wore. What did the Wampanoag wear?

MEREDITH: They were not wearing what is often pictured: woven blankets on their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses. They wore breechcloth with leggings -- and perhaps one or two feathers in their hair in the back.

DELEGATE 6: How long did the Wampanoag stay?

MEREDITH: The Wampanoag stayed for three days, during the course of which they contributed a large portion – perhaps most – of the food.

DELEGATE 6: Was the 1621 harvest celebration in November?

MEREDITH: November would have been much too late. It was some time between late September and the middle of October.

DELEGATE 6: So the first Thanksgiving, then, was in September or October?

MEREDITH: The colonists celebrating in 1621 did not call their event "Thanksgiving." For them, “thanksgiving” was a day of fasting – and this was a feast -- the opposite of a Puritan thanksgiving observance. Calling any event involving white settlers in North America "the first Thanksgiving" overlooks the fact that, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived, Indigenous people throughout Turtle Island (North America) celebrated seasons of Thanksgiving. "Thanksgiving" is a very ancient concept to the first nations of this continent. The 1621 celebration was a one-off that was not repeated -- and, in any case, wasn't thought of as a "Thanksgiving."

DELEGATE 6: Last question: What is the source of the misinformation we have about the 1621 harvest celebration?

[Delebate 6 sits]

MEREDITH: Uh . . . Fact checker?

ELLIOTT: Everything we know about that 1621 feast came from a description in one letter by colonist Edward Winslow. That letter was lost for 200 years. After it was rediscovered, a Boston publisher, Alexander Young, in 1841 printed up the brief account of the feast. Young dubbed the episode “The First Thanksgiving.” White Americans, craving a romanticized story of their past, latched on to it. And that’s the story of how we got the story.

BIRCH: Thank you. Story-teller, please resume.

MEREDITH: The first European-recognized Thanksgiving came in 1637, when Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed a Day of Thanksgiving. 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 join in battle. The thanks that was foremost in Winthrop’s proclamation was thanks for their “great victory”. The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of a massacre of hundreds of Native people.

It 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. Thanksgiving proclamations a century later continue to be connected with war. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued Thanksgiving Proclamations each year from 1777 to 1784. Thus was the way paved for Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, to make Thanksgiving a US National Holiday. Lincoln set the US National Holiday of Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November.

[Delegate 7 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The chair recognizes the delegate from Johnston.

DELEGATE 7: Mx. Chair, I move to include how the holiday moved from the last Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of November.

BIRCH: Would the Assembly like to hear how the holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday? All in favor, raise your Order of Service.... Opposed?... The motion carries, so tell us.

[Delegate 7 sits]

MEREDITH: Five times out of seven, the fourth Thursday in November IS the last Thursday. The other two times – like this year – November has five Thursdays, and then the fourth one is not the last one. The holiday moved from the last Thursday to the fourth Thursday in 1941. Franklin Roosevelt made the change because November 1941 had five Thursdays, and by moving the holiday up a week he gave merchants a longer Christmas shopping season every year with five Thursdays in November.

[Delegate 8 raises hand, comes to microphone]

BIRCH: The Chair recognizes the delegate from Waterbury.

DELEGATE 8: Mx. Chair, I move the following resolution. Resolved: That those present at this worship service of First Unitarian Church of Des Moines give thanks for all the good in our lives and all the blessings we enjoy; that we remember also the pain and loss of the Indigenous people; and that our list of gratitudes include thanks that we have the capacity to face the truths of the past, to learn from them to love others better, and love the rich diversity of humanity and of life.

[Delegate 8 hands the motion up to Birch, then sits]

BIRCH: The motion is: [Birch repeats the motion.]

Resolutions require a second. Is there a second? [Waits for a second] All in favor of the motion raise your Order of Service.... Opposed?... The motion carries. Seeing no one else at the microphone -- and there being no further business -- this story-telling session stands adjourned until it’s time to review our Christmas Story. [Gavels]


Sometimes you feel happy. Sometimes you feel sad. Those are opposite feelings, and life brings them both, though usually not at the same time. Usually being happy means not beings sad, and being sad means not being happy.

How about these two: being grateful and remembering suffering? These are not even opposites at all. They are the natural extensions of each other.

There is much to be grateful for. Air! Take a breath, and be thankful for air! Thank you air. And we have trees and sunshine to be grateful for – the beauty of this world. We have cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks. Thank you, trees! Thank you, sunshine! Thank you, cardinals and nuthatches and chipmunks!

Gratitude chases out loneliness. You can’t be lonely when you’re feeling thankful – because as soon as you say, “thank you,” you have company, companions, friends. The air, trees, sunshine, birdies and wee beasties: your company.

Compassion also chases out loneliness. Caring about other people, caring about whether they suffer are treated unfairly, also chases out loneliness. Compassion brings other people into our lives, even if only in our imagination. We have company. Thankfulness recognizes the companionship that is all around us.

Compassion reaches out to extend our companionship outward. For as the world is our good company, it makes us want to be good company for the world. So gratitude and compassion – thankfulness and remembering suffering and unfairness – are not opposites. They naturally go together, for they are both about: having company in our life.

We are not alone. We have the companionship of everything that we are grateful for and everything we have compassion for.

When I was a kid, the extended family and always a few unrelated guests gatherered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner each year. My Mom found a recipe for oyster stew one year early on, and liked it so much she made it every year thereafter, so, I know it’s weird, but in my mind, Thanksgiving is associated with oyster stew. Thank you, Oysters. Thank you, Mom.

And we’d go around the table and talk about what we were thankful for. I don’t remember if it ever came up at the Thanksgiving tables where I was, but it seemed a common thing around Thanksgiving to talk about being grateful for how well we’re doing when others are doing so much worse. That seems weird to me. I suppose the point is to remind us not to take our blessings for granted, and that’s a good point, but the even better point is to be reminded that none of us are free until all of us are free. As long as there are others doing worse, then we’re doing worse. As long as any being isn’t treated fairly, none of us has the blessing of living in a world where everyone is treated fairly.

We have the great good fortune to be able to care. The greatest blessing is to have the capacity for compassion. As Isabell Call said in the opening reading:
“We celebrate Thanksgiving because gratitude is essential to human life. But grief is essential for healing our history of violence. It's really hard to be thankful and sorrowful at the same time. But this is life: sometimes, joy and sorrow come together.”
Actually, I would say, if you’re paying attention, joy and sorrow always come together. When we seem to be having only joy, or only sorrow, it’s because we’re not paying attention to the other. Noticed or not, grounds for each is always right where we are standing.

Joy and sorrow manifest as gratitude and compassion. Gratitude and compassion are dishes best served together. May you find them both amply supplied at your Thanksgiving table.



Interdependence is our theme for November, and trust is what allows our interdependence to best function and flourish.

Trust. Sissela Bok says:
“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Whatever matters, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives. How is that atmosphere in your life? How is it in our congregation? Maybe it could be better.

In the 1992 Disney cartoon movie, Aladdin, there are two moments when Aladdin holds out his hand to Jasmine and asks her, “Do you trust me?” The first time, Aladdin is a street urchin, and Jasmine’s in disguise as a commoner. The second time, he’s in disguise as a prince and she’s in her element as a princess in the palace. Would you trust him?

Neither time does she have any reason to trust him. But both times she says yes – and takes his hand. It’s a risk. She might get let down, hurt – maybe killed if she falls off that magic carpet when it takes a swerve. She takes the risk. Why? We don’t know. I don’t think she knows.

Jasmine’s world has been trustworthy enough that she feels she can trust a stranger – take that leap. And because she can trust, what opens up for her and Aladdin is, well: “a whole new world . . .”

It’s important to note that Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue she has. If we said it were, then we’d have to say that if she’d said “no,” she’d be lacking some virtue. But no: if she’d said, “No, I don’t trust you, I am not taking your hand,” there’d be no basis for finding any fault. Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue of Jasmine, but it is a virtue of the conditions in which she grew up that those conditions have taught her that trusting strangers is a risk she can sometimes take. The conditions of her upbringing also taught her that she can trust herself in new situations. As the saying goes: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.” Because of that combination of trust in herself and just-high-enough willingness to trust strangers, she answers yes. She takes his hand; takes the leap.

Trust is a virtue of social systems, not of individuals. So we need to think about trust in a different way than we think about trustworthiness. Trustworthiness IS a virtue of individuals. It’s your responsibility to be trustworthy, but it’s not your responsibility to trust. Trust may come to you as a grace, but don’t force it. If you don’t trust some situation, then trust your mistrust and back away.

At the same time, I want to urge today, that, after you have backed away, and you’re in a space that feels safe, interrogate that experience. Was that a situation where maybe daring the risk of trust would have been worth it? Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. It's good to reflect on the question.

Trust, in any case, is a collective rather than an individual virtue. Trust is built – if it is built -- collectively. Our individual task is to discern how we can contribute our part to collectively building it – not take foolish outsize risks in clearly untrustworthy situations. David Brooks gives this example:
“In a restaurant I trust you to serve untainted fish and you trust me not to skip out on the bill. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community” (Brooks, "America is Having a Moral Convulsion," Atlantic, 2020 Oct 5)
It’s trusting that most people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Not everybody. Maybe not anybody all the time. But most people, most of the time. Some level of shared norms – general agreement on what counts as “what one ought to do” – is necessary.
“If two lanes of traffic are merging into one, the drivers in each lane are supposed to take turns. If [one] butts in line, [others] honk indignantly. [They] want to enforce the small fairness rules that make our society function smoothly" (Brooks)
Francis Fukayama’s 1995 book, Trust, coined the phrase "spontaneous sociability." He said that where social trust is high, spontaneous sociability increases. We can spend less time and energy checking each other out, looking for signs of untrustworthiness – less time and energy guarding and protecting ourselves from being swindled – and can much more efficiently move into cooperating and helping each other out. Spontaneous sociability means that people are “able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good.”

Increased trustworthiness, the individual virtue, helps. When more people have the virtue of being worthy of trust, that facilitates trusting. But that’s not enough. Social trust has been falling precipitously in this country, and it’s not clear that the institutions that are less trusted are any less trustworthy than ever.

Scammers prey on the elderly. Why is that? We tend to suppose, well, the elderly don’t think as clearly and can’t follow how they’re being scammed. That’s sometimes a factor. Another factor, though, is that those who are now our older citizens come from a generation that was much more trusting – a generation whose trust allowed them to accomplish together such things that they are called the greatest generation.
“In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time.”
Then came Vietnam, and Watergate, which certainly undermined trust in government. And Reaganomics -- not just economic policies that said government isn’t here for you unless you’re rich, but a stream of rhetoric that said government is the problem. You may remember Reagan had that line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." That one line may have done more harm than his policies. Many people trusted that their government actually could do a lot of very helpful things – which is to say, they trusted their neighbors to be able to work together collectively through elected officials for the common good (which is what trust in government is). Reagan turned that trust into the butt of a joke.
“By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing.”
In 30 years, then -- from 1964 to 1994 -- trust in the government to do the right thing fell from 77 percent to 20 percent.

Even so, when phrased as a question of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens, most people still affirmed that -- for a while. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens. “Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump.” Today only a third of Americans say they trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens.

The distrust turned explosive.
“Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate” (Brooks)
It’s not that way everywhere. In Denmark and the Netherlands, trust has been growing. In Denmark, “about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy.” In the Netherlands, “two-thirds say so.”

In the US, on the other hand, in 2014, only 30 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” That’s the lowest number since the survey started asking the question in 1972. It becomes a vicious downward spiral: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t form or sustain networks that we can trust, and then trust falls further. When people believe they can’t trust others, that others aren’t trustworthy, they become less trustworthy themselves.

So our younger people, growing up under conditions of mistrust, have more mistrust.
  • Percent of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) who agree "most people can be trusted": 40
  • Percent of Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) who agree "most people can be trusted": 31
  • Percent of Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) who agree "most people can be trusted": 19
We need to acknowledge that sometimes, in some ways, American social trust has been intermixed with delusion.
“Only 35 percent of young people, versus 67 percent of old people, believe that Americans respect the rights of people who are not like them. Fewer than a third of Millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 64 percent of members of the Silent Generation.” (Brooks)
Believing the US to be the greatest country in the world has always required highly selective measures of greatness – and on many measures we’ve been falling further and further behind. And the gap between how highly Americans thought of themselves for respecting the rights of people not like them, and how much they actually did respect those rights is only recently beginning to narrow. So, good for the younger generations for increasingly disavowing those delusions of grandeur.

Yes, it seems to be the case that those delusions did foster social trust. But delusions inevitably collapse. Sustainable, nondelusive social trust is possible, and maybe we’ll get there. In the meantime, it’s helpful to name the condition we’re currently in – name the water that, like a fish, we might not notice because we’re immersed in it.

What we’re in the middle of right now doesn’t have to stay that way. Our country was once a place of trust – and might be again. But as I was saying, it’s not up to you to try to make yourself a more trusting person. That might not be a good idea. If you get an email from a Prince of Nigeria asking for your help transferring some funds – or an email purporting to be from me asking for Apple Gift cards – don’t trust it. Making ourselves more trusting in a world that is often untrustworthy is not the issue.

What we can do is be on the lookout for opportunities to relate to others in ways that grow trust, and to do that, we have to know how that happens. What grows trust between two people? What grows trust among members of a group, or within a congregation?

I turn here to Brene Brown, who wonderfully combines a scientist’s respect and quest for data with a heart-centered gift for understanding it. She says Trust is built in very small moments. When people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom's chemotherapy was going.” Or, “I trust my neighbor because if something's going on with my kid, it doesn't matter what she's doing, she'll come over and help me figure it out.”

One of the top things Brown found as a small thing that engenders trust: attending funerals. Someone shows up at your sister’s memorial service, it really adds to your sense of trust in them, that they care for you.

Another big factor: asking for help when you need it. Trust emerges between and among people through the accumulation of little things done for each other. Looking over the data, Brene Brown discerned seven factors that develop trust. Don’t try to make yourself trust people or situations that are untrustworthy -- but do be on the look-out for these factors. Be attentive to the emergence of where a higher level of trust might be warranted.

Brown arranged the seven into an acronym that spells: BRAVING. When we trust, we are braving connection with someone.

B, boundaries. Healthy boundaries define who we are in relation to others. They also help us to know what the extents and limits are with others. Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships. Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.” Be explicitly pro-active about what you’re not comfortable with, and what your needs and commitments are. If you’re not clear about who you are, I can’t trust you. I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

R, reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you're going to do -- over and over and over again. In our working lives, reliability means that we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don't take on so much that we come up short and don't deliver on our commitments. In our personal life, it means the same thing. The key part to keeping commitments is not committing more than we can keep.

A, accountability. I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologize, and make amends.

Next is keeping confidences – but since she needs a word that starts with V, she calls it the vault.

V, the vault. What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. It goes in the vault, and it’s sealed from public view. And it’s not just whether you hold my confidences. If you gossip with me about someone else -- share with me a story that isn’t yours to tell – then my trust in you is diminished. The Vault means you respect my story, and a key way that I come to believe you will respect my story is that I see you respecting other people’s stories.

I, integrity. I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity -- and encourage me to do the same. Integrity has three pieces: choosing courage over comfort; choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.

N, nonjudgment. I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me.

Under some conditions, helping people can actually lower trust. That can happen if we feel that the help is coming from someone who’s judging us for not being able to work it out ourselves, judging us for needing their help. If you’re the helper, you can offer reassurances: “Oh, this happens to me all the time.” “There’s no way you could’ve known how to do that.” “Wow, it’s great that you got this far on your own.” “I’m impressed.” But there’s still that little edge of suspicion that your assessment of the person’s competence might have slid just a hair. The only way to really remove that hint of judgment from helping someone is for you to take turns asking them for their help. Only then are the vestiges wiped away of the thought that competence is a ground where we’re competing with each other to see who has more of it – which is not a ground of trust. Whether I’m conscious of it or not, if I think less of myself for needing help, then when I offer help to someone, I think less of them too. You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. Real trust doesn't exist unless help is reciprocal because only when it’s reciprocal is it free of judgment.

G, generosity. Here we’re talking about interpretive charity – charitably interpreting what the other person says. Trust requires that we evince a generosity of spirit in how we understand and interpret each other. Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors, and then check in with me.

Arriving at the most charitable possible interpretation of someone else’s words and actions often takes practice and imagination. "Assume best intentions" is a wonderful slogan. I’ve noticed, though, that its usefulness is limited if our imagination is limited. If the only two interpretations you can imagine are “they are evil” or “they’re stupid” – you may have a hard time deciding which one is the more generous explanation.

When you’re hurt and betrayed, your imaginative capacity shrinks. At those times all you can do is just say you don’t know why they did that. You just don’t know. As you heal a bit, get a little distance from the wound, your creative empathetic imagination can start to do a better job of imagining a more generous interpretation.

This BRAVING acronym works with self-trust, too. If braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. We can't ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we're worthy of receiving. An African proverb says, Beware the naked man offering you his shirt. And you will know you're worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.

These are Brene Brown’s tools for interpersonal trust. To do our part in rebuilding social trust, we take those tools and join organizations, using those tools of trustbuilding in the development of clubs, associations – and congregations. That you are a member of a congregation – in these times when increasing numbers of people aren’t – already puts you at the forefront of builders and nurturers of social trust.

As David Brooks writes:
“Whether we emerge from this transition stronger depends on our ability, from the bottom up and the top down, to build organizations targeted at our many problems. If history is any guide, this will be the work not of months, but of one or two decades.”



It’s November – the month of elections, and of Thanksgiving – and Veterans Day, which used to be called Armistice Day. Leaves fill up the yards. Sweater weather segues into parka weather. And our theme of the month this November is Interdependence.

You might be thinking: What kind of theme is that? It’s like saying our theme was bipedalism. Yes, we humans walk on two legs – as do birds – so what? How is that a spiritual value to explore, to cultivate, to unpeel layers of meaning of? In the same way you might say yes, we are interdependent. If you use money, you can’t make it yourself – that would be counterfeiting. So we are necessarily dependent on customers or clients or an employer. And if you went off into the woods to live by yourself surviving on nuts and berries, you’re still dependent on Earth and sky and plants to provide nuts and berries. Besides, that’s a miserable way to live. So, yes, we are interdependent. But how is that relevant to the spiritual path?

Let’s look into how this interdependence works and let’s just see what we discover about spirituality, shall we? We are made to need each other, to rely on each other. We are a social species. We aren’t the only social species. The list of species that are highly interactive with their own kind to the point of having a recognizable society and whose psychological well-being is associated with social interactions is a long list. According to the Animalia web site, 2,826 species have so far been identified as social species. These include: wolves, lions, raccoons, rodents, sheep, horses -- chickens, ravens, pigeons, and many other bird species – whales and dolphins – otters and beavers. Even a number of reptiles are counted as social species.

Some social species, however, take their sociality to a much higher level. These are called eusocial. The eusocial species have cooperative brood care (including care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Eusocial species include ants, bees, termites, wasps, some shrimp species, the naked mole-rat – and -- some biologists argue -- humans.

Perhaps the better term for characterizing homo sapiens would be hypersocial. Not only are we fantastically cooperative – which ants, bees, and naked mole-rats also are – but our ability to imagine ourselves into each other’s heads is amazing. Your brain is not only looking out for you, but it is also simultaneously running a sub-routine mimicking how the brains of people around you are looking out for themselves – including, mimicking the part of their brain that’s running an analogous sub-routine to mimic your brain. You see me – and you see me seeing you – and you see me seeing you seeing me.

And yes, we often make mistakes when we imagine how the world looks through another person’s eyes, and we do need to be humble about claims to know what someone else is going through – but the amazing fact is, we kinda do know what others are going through. We inevitably miss some of the details that may be quite important to the other person, but it’s actually astonishing that human brains can get the basic gist of what it’s like for other people in completely different circumstances.Sometimes someone else might know me even better than I know myself.

How did evolution produce brains that can read other brains so well? Our brains – like all vertebrate brains – are built to do three things: find food, avoid becoming food, and find a mate. That’s their purpose. Keep us alive long enough to reproduce – and maybe also stick around to help our offspring do likewise. Each species has its own unique set of abilities that dictate its strategy for reproducing itself and there are a gazillion different workable strategies – and, of course, a gazillion squared strategies that don’t work.

It’s a very challenging problem for genes to make an animal that can stay alive long enough to reproduce, and most of its experiments end up failing. Still, there are over 2 million known animal species currently extant, and about 380,000 known plant species, not to mention the fungi, protista, and monera – and, while some of them are endangered, many of them are doing fine – and they’re doing fine without the ability to imagine what’s going on in each other’s heads with anywhere near the level of detail that humans can. It’s kind of amazing that a species that can do what we do could ever have emerged.

The earth has had five mass extinctions:
  • 440 million years ago,
  • 365 million years ago,
  • 250 million years ago,
  • 210 million years ago, and, most recently,
  • 65 million years ago.
Six times life has covered the globe with ecosystems full of species, and five times mass extinctions wiped out between 70 and 95% of all Earth’s extant species. In the wake of each mass extinction, very different new species popped up, and all those millions of species, over the 2 billion years life has been on earth, emerged and lived out the arc of their extancy being reasonably good for their time at keeping themselves alive to reproduce – and every one of those millions of species except a handful in the genus homo, of which just one species survives today, did so without needing more than a rudimentary ability to imagine themselves in each other’s heads.

Through this super-power, at some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down a tree branch so that another person can pluck the fruit, and then both of them can share the meal. That’s a simple example of shared intentionality. Chimps don’t do this. Chimps are highly intelligent and highly social: they have hierarchical leadership structures, they monitor their status within the group, they bargain, they do favors for one another, expecting and usually receiving reciprocation later – yet even a simple case of shared intentionality seems to be beyond them.

We humans are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft.

Our species success comes not from our individual smarts but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups – to make bigger brains by interlinking our individual brains. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

So even if you could be independent – by yourself in the woods surviving on nuts and berries – that would be a miserable way for a homo sapiens to live and no sane human manages it for very long. We aren’t made to be that way. We are made to be dependent – not just on the earth and its provision of food and air – but on each other. Now that we understand that about each other, what shall we do with that understanding?

The first thing to notice is that interdependence feels good and is good for us. It feels great to be on a team working together, contributing our part to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

We have this amazing capacity for interlinking our brains, for cooperating and collaborating, for shared intentionality, but we don’t always have it fully activated, and we don’t always notice the ways that it is engaged. The fact about what sort of species we are becomes a path of our spiritual growth when we commit ourselves to cultivating mindful awareness of connection, interrelationship, and mutual reliance. We can more consciously notice our interdependence with each other in our hypersociality, and also more consciously notice the interdependence of all life on our planet.

As Unitarian Universalists, this is our faith path. Our denomination’s current statement of purpose, adopted 40 years ago, describes our covenant in seven principles, the seventh of which is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The proposed new statement of purpose includes interdependence as one of seven values of which love is the central one. It says:
“We honor the interdependent web of all existence. We covenant to cherish Earth and all beings by creating and nurturing relationships of care and respect. With humility and reverence, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life, and we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.”
To understand who we are is the central mission of the spiritual quest, and who we are is each other. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that the self, what I am, is the whole Earth, the whole universe – that’s the spiritual path. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that anyone’s suffering is mine – and also that anyone’s act of violence, anyone’s cruelty, anyone’s evil is also my very own – that’s the spiritual path.

The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it this way in his poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names.”
“Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.”
This awareness is ultimately what spirituality is. It’s why I, materialist that I am, use the word spiritual: because this awareness of interbeing is not intellectual, not cognitive, though it includes and draws upon intellection and cognition. Nor is this awareness emotional, though it includes and draws upon emotions. There is something not reducible to head or heart and that is, in short, awareness of interbeing – or, even shorter, spirituality.


We haven’t always seen, and don’t always see, awareness of interbeing as the primary spiritual task. Sometimes the world feels more like a battlefield, or a proving ground than like our very selves. Joanna Macy describes the “world as battlefield” paradigm that some people explicitly embrace and that sometimes sneaks into the thought patterns of all of us. In this paradigm, good and evil are pitted against each other, and we are on this earth to fight on the good side against the evil side. The world is our battlefield.

This is the worldview of George Lucas’ Star Wars movies -- the forces of light battle the forces of darkness. It’s not clear, in the universe of those movies, what’s so bad about the Empire, or why life for beings throughout the galaxy would be any better if Luke Skywalker and the rebels were to prevail, but we’re told Luke is the good guy, that Darth Vader has turned to the dark side of the force, so we cheer for Luke.

People for whom some “world as battlefield” story is the context for making meaning of their lives, will be oriented toward “courage, summoning up the blood, using the fiery energies of anger, aversion, and militancy.” The “world as battlefield” paradigm is good for building confidence. It’s a story that reassures you that you are on the right side, and your side will eventually win. Even if you don’t really believe this paradigm, it’s fun to indulge it sometimes, which is why so many people, including me, have flocked to Star Wars movies.

A variation on the “world as battlefield” paradigm is the “world as proving ground” paradigm. The “world as proving ground” paradigm views the world as a kind of moral gymnasium for showing your strength and virtue at the snares and temptations of the world. We are here on this Earth so that the mettle of our immortal soul may be tested prior to admittance to some other realm. That’s only a slight variation on the “world as battlefield.”


The second paradigm is the “World as Trap.” As Joanna Macy describes this one, our spiritual objective “is not to engage in struggle and vanquish a foe, but to disentangle ourselves and escape from this messy world . . . to extricate ourselves and ascend to a higher, supra-phenomenal plane.” Not in some future life, but in this life, the objective is to escape the trap, to live with contempt for the material plane, prizing only the rarefied life of mind and spirit, aloof from the world of strife and desire.

This “world as trap” paradigm engenders a love-hate relationship with matter – for aversion inflames craving, and the craving inflames aversion. Wherever we see people vigorously denouncing something and then being caught at doing that very thing – whether it’s extramarital relationships, or eating fatty foods – we are seeing the playing out of a love-hate relationship that comes from seeing the world as a trap.

I have seen people be attracted to Buddhism out of a feeling that the world is a trap, and a hope meditation will take them to a place removed from worldly entanglements. I tell them that the Buddha taught detachment from ego, not detachment from the world. And that even with ego, he taught being present to it, seeing it clearly for what it is, not suppressing it or ignoring it.

For people who see the world as a trap, social justice may still be a concern, but their approach is to get themselves detached and then help others detach -- escape the trap of the material world.


A third paradigm Macy describes is “The World as Lover.” This view beholds the world as an intimate and gratifying partner. With training, one can see in every experience something of the beauty and sweetness of primal erotic play. Since lovers are impelled toward union and oneness, this view can then segue into the final paradigm: “world as self.”


In the Western tradition there is more talk of merging self with God rather than with the world, but the import is about the same. When Hildegard of Bingen experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience words like Thich Nhat Hanh’s. She wrote:
“I am the breeze that nurtures all things green....I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don’t want it to and can’t control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by). Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind.

These paradigms – world as battlefield, proving ground, trap, lover, or self – are ways to answer the crucial question: “In the face of what is happening, how do we avoid feeling overwhelmed and just giving up?” How do we not give up our responsibility, not simply succumb to the many diversions and distractions of our disjointed, frenetic, consumer society? Each paradigm provides an answer. I think most of us are attracted to numbers 3 and 4 – world as lover and world as self. But most of us probably waffle a bit. Sometimes the world does seem like a battle-ground or proving ground: everything is a test, and I am constantly being judged – sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

The simple act of identifying “world as lover” as a world-view helps me feel the joy of that view, helps me live into it more consistently. Identifying “world as self” as a world-view helps me stay in it. As Joanna Macy says,
“We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before in our infancy.”
May it be so.



What Is Growing Spiritually?

This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That.

O, it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
| and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are --
So: This is It
--James Broughton

We return, today, to the first prong of our congregation’s mission: Grow ethically and spiritually.

Five weeks ago, on Sep 24, I addressed growing ethically. I said then that there is teachable cognitive knowledge that is a big part of ethics. Learning propositional knowledge is an important chunk of growing ethically. You can take a class or read a book. That’s not all there is to it. Ethical growth also requires habit formation – the forming of the habits to behave at a higher and higher ethical level – and having the cognitive propositional knowledge doesn’t mean you’ll have the habit of reminding yourself of that knowledge at the moments when you need it. Still, cognitive learning of propositional knowledge is a crucial part of ethical growth. To treat people well we have to know about their situation, what harms them and what benefits them, and they can’t always simply tell you. So: some study is called for if we are to grow ethically.

To grow spiritually, on the other hand, well, it’s a rather different kind of study. To illustrate, let me back up and use this opportunity to tell you some of my journey. I’m the first-born child of rationalist humanist academic parents. I grew up and went into the family business: being a rationalist humanist academic. Mom was a physics professor, and later in her career a chemistry professor. Dad was an English professor – who specialized in 18th century British Literature – the Age of Reason. Thus I grew through childhood imbued with the implicit sense that the reason for being alive and on this planet was to do two things: Learn stuff, and teach it to others.

I was in fourth grade in a small town in Georgia when I first heard the word “atheist” – and asked what it meant. Shortly afterward, I decided I was one. This was a scandal to my classmates. The scandal rather settled down after a week or so, but from then on through high school I was “the class atheist.” Even so, apart from a few kids who were hostile, and a few others who undertook to try to save me, my classmates by and large politely ignored our differences of theological opinion. If there was a disconnect between us because of religion, looking back, I’d say the distance-making, the wall-building, came more from me than from them. As a child and teenager, my sad heart hardened and chose contempt as its protective strategy.

I was not the sort of atheist that went for “spirituality” – did not use that word for my experiences. Nor did I think in terms of sacred, divine, transcendent. Wasn’t so keen on awe, mystery, or wonder either.

But then life happened -- as it tends to do. And even though I was learning more and more cognitive knowledge, and was working as a teacher to tell others about it, life and I didn’t always seem to fit together very well. I sensed that somehow more joy was possible – more peace – a greater belonging.

Life has such tragedy in it. Loved ones die. Wars kill thousands. Millions, sometimes. People behave cruelly to each other – whether it’s petty street thugs or corporate CEO thugs.

And life also has such beauty in it. The birth of a child, a flower in springtime, an act of kindness, my beloved’s kiss. The tragedy and the beauty were more than my academic fields of study could comprehend.

The development of spiritual virtues – loving all of life, even the hard parts; equanimity, compassion – may be entirely a matter of getting our neurons wired a certain way, but the circuitry of spirituality draws on but is different from purely cognitive intelligence – draws on but is different from the emotional circuitry.

Native disposition – genetics – accounts for some of a person’s spiritual virtue. Can you cultivate the spiritual virtues beyond your native disposition? Maybe. Sort of.

The term spirituality encompasses transcendent love, inner peace, “all-right-ness,” acceptance, awe, beauty, wonder, humility, gratitude, a freshness of experience; a feeling of plenitude, abundance, and deep simplicity of all things; “the oceanic feeling,” Sigmund Freud spoke of, calling it “a sense of indissoluble union with the great All, and of belonging to the universal.” In moments of heightened spiritual experience, the gap between self and world vanishes. The normal experience of time leaves us, and each moment has a quality of the eternal in it.

Symptoms of developing spirituality include: increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen; more frequent attacks of smiling from the heart; more frequent feelings of being connected with others and nature; more frequent episodes of overwhelming appreciation; decisions flow more from intention or spontaneity and less from fears based on past experience; greater ability to enjoy each moment; decreased worrying; decreased interest in conflict, in interpreting the actions of others, in judging others, and in judging self; increased nonjudgmental curiosity; increased capacity to love without expecting anything in return; increased receptivity to kindness offered and increased interest in extending kindness to others.

By orienting toward the elevated – whether in compassion, ethics, art, or experience of divine presence – we transcend the ego defense mechanisms by which most of us spend our lives governed. Psychologist Robert Cloninger and his team at the Center for Well-Being of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis sought a way to define spirituality more definitely, empirically, and measurably. Their 240-item questionnaire called the "Temperament and Character Inventory,” includes spirituality (they call it self-transcendence), as one of the dimensions of character. As Cloninger measures it, spirituality is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness; transpersonal identification; and acceptance.

First, self-forgetfulness. This is the proclivity for becoming so immersed in an activity that the boundary between self and other seems to fall away. Whether the activity is sports, painting, playing a musical instrument, we might sometimes lose ourselves in it, and the sense of being a separate independent self takes a vacation.

Second, transpersonal identification. This is recognizing oneself in others -- and others in oneself. If you have ever found yourself looking at another person -- or another being -- with a feeling that you are that other, their body embodies you -- or if you have looked at yourself with a sense that your being embodies others -- then you have experienced transpersonal identification. Spirituality involves connecting with the world's suffering and apprehending that suffering as our very own. Transpersonal identification goes beyond "there but for the grace of God go I.” It's not that grace saves you from the unfortunate circumstances others endure. Nothing saves you because, in fact, you are not saved from those circumstances. If anyone is hungry, then you are hungry, for the hungry are you. That's transpersonal identification.

Third, acceptance. This is the ability to accept and affirm reality just as it is, even the hard parts, even the painful and tragic parts. Spiritually mature people are in touch with the suffering of the world, yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection. "Acceptance" does not mean complacency about oppression, injustice and harm. Indeed, the spiritually mature are also often the most active and the most effective in working for peace and social justice. They are energized to sustain that work because they can accept reality just as it is, even as they also work to change it. Because they are not attached to results of their work, they avoid debilitating disappointment and burn-out and are able to maintain the work for justice cheerfully. Because they find joy in each present moment, they avoid recrimination and blame. They see that blame merely recapitulates the very reactivity that is at the root of oppression.

Add together your scores for self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. The sum is your spirituality score. Here's the thing, though. It's not a matter of will – not a matter of volition. Spirituality is not volitional. It's not a matter of weighing the pros and cons and making a decision. You can't decide to be more spiritual or more spiritually mature. If you are low in spirituality -- that is, as Cloninger finds, you are practical, self-conscious, materialistic, controlling, characterized by rational objectivity and material success -- you can't wake up one morning and decide you are no longer going to be that way. It's who you are, and your own rational objectivity will very sensibly point out to you that you don't even know what it would mean to not be that way.

What you can decide, what is a matter of will and volition, is whether to take up a certain kind of discipline called a spiritual practice -- and just see where it takes you. Spirituality is not volitional, but taking up a spiritual practice is. What, you may ask, is a spiritual practice?

I know that these days all kinds of things get called a spiritual practice. But let's differentiate spiritual practice from just something you do. Quilting, piano-playing, or hiking might or might not qualify as spiritual practice – that is, might or might not tend to produce the symptoms of developing spirituality. An activity is more likely to work as spiritual practice if you seriously treat it as one.

First, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means engaging the activity with mindfulness -- focusing on the activity as you do it, with sharp awareness of each present moment.

Second, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means engaging the activity with intention of thereby cultivating spiritual development – reflecting as you do the activity (or just before and just after) on your intention to manifest those symptoms of spiritual development in your life.

Third, treating a practice as a spiritual practice means sometimes engaging the activity with a group that gathers expressly to do the activity in a way that cultivates spirituality – sharing each others’ spiritual reflections before, during, or after doing the activity together.

Fourth -- and most of all -- it requires establishing a foundation of spiritual openness. There are three basic daily practices for everyone that over time develop a foundation upon which some other practice can grow into a real spiritual practice.
(a) Silence. 15 minutes a day being still and quiet, just bringing attention to your own amazing breathing.
(b) Journaling. 15 minutes a day writing about your gratitudes, your highest hopes and your experiences of awe.
(c) Study. 15 minutes a day reading “wisdom literature” – the essays of Pema Chodron or Thomas Merton, the poems of Rumi or Mary Oliver, the Dao de Jing, the Bible’s book of Psalms – just to mention a very few examples of wisdom literature.

With these three daily practices building your foundation of spiritual awareness, then gardening, yoga, or throwing pottery are much better positioned to truly be spiritual practices for you.

Suppose you got serious about maintaining a spiritual discipline. You engage your practice daily; you do it mindfully, you do it with intention to cultivate compassion, connection, nonjudgmental curiosity -- self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance; you get together regularly with a group that helps you maintain and explore the spiritual focus of your practice, and you develop your base with daily silence, journaling, and study. What then? What will happen? If you do everything to ensure that your practice is a true, bona fide spiritual practice, and you do that spiritual practice long enough – every day for a year, or 10 years, or 30 years – will you then exude equanimity and compassion while unperturbable calm inner peace and beauty continuously manifests as you gracefully, lovingly flow through your life?

Maybe. I offer no guarantees. Spirituality, as I mentioned, is not a matter of will. Strong muscles aren’t either. That is, you can’t just decide to bench press 500 pounds, and then go do it. But at least with muscles, there’s a fairly predictable timeline by which exercise increases strength. If you have a normal and healthy physiology, and you adopt a regimen of exercise, and stick to it, then you will get stronger. There’s a smooth curve by which you’ll progress toward the limit to which that regimen can take you.

Spiritual strengthening doesn’t go like that. It’s not a reliable product of putting in the time doing the exercise. The spirit has its own schedule. Committed serious spiritual practitioners can go for years when their practice just seems void and useless. Then they can hit a patch where they actually seem to be regressing. They’re acting as cranky, unkind, disconnected -- as withdrawn, on the one hand, or as controlling, on the other – as they ever had before they started any spiritual practice. There is no smooth curve of progress.

I started my primary spiritual practice for the worst reason: because an authority told me to. Twenty-two years ago I was in Chicago trying to pass muster to become a minister, trying to prove I was good enough. I had just finished my first year of divinity school, and I was meeting with the Midwest regional subcommittee on candidacy.

"Do you have a spiritual practice?" the committee asked me.

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church. But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a university professor of philosophy for four years. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was there. But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't. “Get a spiritual practice,” the committee told me.

It is contradictory to take up a path of self-acceptance and trusting in my own inner wisdom because an outside authority told me to. Yet that’s what I did. It is contradictory to judge myself for judging myself too much. Yet that’s what I did, and still do, albeit somewhat more gently. Usually.

I’ve now had a chance to talk with a number of people on a path of serious spiritual practice. All of us, or so it seems, began, as I did, in some form of contradiction. We felt broken, wrong, inadequate, and we thought spiritual practice would fix us.

But spiritual practice isn’t about fixing anything – which is why there’s no smooth curve toward becoming fixed. Spiritual awakening is about realizing that we aren’t broke and don’t need fixing. We aren’t broken and from the beginning never have been. (Earlier, I listed some symptoms of developing spirituality -- increased this and decreased that -- and I mentioned Cloninger's measures of spirituality: self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. Do not, however, imagine that these are the goals of spiritual practice. Any practice that has a goal is not a spiritual practice. Yes, there is a role to play for intending to cultivate those qualities -- but it is a rather small role, and attempting to measure progress toward such qualities is delusion. A spiritual practice will tend -- naturally, on its own, but irregularly and unpredictably -- to bring fuller recognition that we are not broken, that we are whole and perfect just as we are and always have been; and fuller recognition of our intrinsic wholeness will tend -- naturally, on its own, but irregularly and unpredictably -- to bring the symptoms of developing spirituality.)

It’s hard to really believe that we are not broken and don't need fixing. Our culture constantly tells us we aren’t good enough, get better, buy this product, this treatment, this school, this exercise, this method. Spirituality is about remembering the fact of abundance in the midst of the daily barrage of messages of scarcity. Will recognition of abundance happen if you do the practice? I can tell you there will be more ups and downs than the stock market. But over the long haul? Probably, yes.

If you love just doing the practice, and you do it just because it is who you are, and not with any idea that you’re gaining something from it – if judgment about gain and loss, progress and regress, falls away and there’s just you, loving who you are and loving the way you, and the whole universe, manifest in and through your practice, then, yes. The fact of abundance will be clearer to you.

We are doomed, and our time here is short, but we can make it a celebration. You may recognize the picture above. It’s from the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove.” At the end of that film, a bomber plane is set to release its nuclear payload, which will set off a nuclear conflagration to end civilization. But the release mechanism jams. Slim Pickens climbs down into the bomb-bay to fix the jam. He succeeds, and the bomb is released -- while he’s still sitting on it. In the film’s most memorable shot, Slim Pickens is waving his cowboy hat and whooping as he rides the bomb down to his – and what will ultimately be the planet’s – destruction.


Maybe that’s what spirituality looks like. He does seem to be living in the moment.

That was such a striking shot when I first saw it because I knew if I were falling out of the sky riding on a nuclear bomb, I’d be freaked out in fear and despair: “My god, my god, my god, I’ve only got maybe one minute to live.”

But look at what Slim Pickens’ character is doing with his minute! Woooo-hooooo.

All of us are riding that bomb. Our time is so short before life blows up on us. There’s something very pure about this – just one chance at every minute. At every moment: This is it.