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.


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